Category Archives: Tone Tips and Tricks

String Theory

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by Michael James Adams

You know what I love about my job? Well, maybe I should clarify that question a bit, for there are many upsides to this line of work. For example, I love having the privilege of seeing gorgeous guitars of all makes, models and condition. I also love being able to refine instruments for the individual player that’s using them. I like that I can watch Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Star Trek: TNG and COSMOS while I’m working. I like that we get super geeky about things like Star Wars, Doctor Who and Weezer. I like working with my friends.

The thing I love most is helping my friends and customers become more self-sufficient. Sure, this is a move widely regarded to be bad for business, but I don’t see the point in hoarding trade secrets especially when it comes to musical instruments. No matter my level of involvement, there is absolutely no reason that every guitar shouldn’t play and sound its best. In that spirit, I’d like to address the most important, most simple fix for guitars that won’t stay in tune once and for all: how to properly string your damn guitar.

Post Secrets

When a customer tells me their guitar won’t stay in tune,  the problem could be caused by a number of things: the string could be binding up in nut slots that aren’t appropriately cut, strings might need to be stretched or are worn out, or maybe the tuners just aren’t up to the task. All valid!

However, the first thing I’ll check is how the strings are spun around the tuning post, and believe it or not, I’d estimate that with 60% of the guitars I see, the solution for unstable tuning is a proper restring. Seriously.

IMG_3267-impWhat do I mean by ‘proper’? Well, I’m referring to a few general rules when it comes to standard, non-locking tuners:

-it’s best to have 2-5 wraps around the post for stability, though at least three is preferred
-those wraps should not overlap, but wind down the post cleanly
-strings should be wrapped with their placement in mind (i.e. obtaining enough downward force on the nut with respect to their position on the headstock so more wraps may be necessary)
-‘locking winds’ are preferred but not always necessary (or possible)

Let’s dig in!

I’m wrapping to the beat and I wrap it up tight

My first point may seem obvious to some, but I’ve been surprised as of late just how often this one seems to elude some players: too few or too many wraps will have negative consequences on tuning stability. Too few, and the string won’t grab onto the tuning post, continually loosening. Too many, and the string will overlap itself, causing it to shift around on the shaft. This is bad for stability when you’re playing, but even the act of turning the post will make for inconsistent tuning between notes.

Take, for instance, this before-and-after photo of a guitar I recently worked on. This Jazzmaster came in for help because it wasn’t staying in tune, and the problem was the way it was strung. You’ll see that the wraps around the post are sloppy, so when the tuner is turned, the string doesn’t just get tighter, it moves around its bed of windings, jumping from place to place. Not gonna work.

On the bottom is my more meticulous stringing job, cleanly wound and tuning smoothly. Having good number of wraps ensures the string won’t pull itself free from the tuner as well as enhancing the range of available with each turn. As I mentioned before, 3-5 wraps around the post is ideal, but of course, some tuners won’t allow for that many, especially on the low strings. On my ’64 Gibson J-50, two is the most I can get on the low E and A strings, but plain strings should always have at least three.

IMG_4578-impAnd how do I make certain I have 3-5 wraps? On Fender guitars, I’ll pull the string so that it’s semi-taut, then measure three tuners farther than the one I’m stringing. If I’m stringing the low E, I’ll cut the string at the G tuner. For the plain strings, simply pull the string to its respective tuner, then pull it back three tuners; if you’re stringing the G, pull it back to the low E and cut at the G tuner. Simple? I think so.

The above tip also works for basses with all of the tuners on one side, but depending on the diameter of the tuning post you’ll only need to measure out 2 or 2 1/2 tuner lengths away from the one you’re stringing!

For Gibson guitars, or those with the tuners spaced out on both sides of the headstock, I’ll measure in this way: I’ll thread the string through its tuner, then grasp it with my right hand. Extending my middle finger, I’ll touch the 12th fret and pull up just slightly, giving me exactly as much string as I need. Try it!

IMG_4577-impWinding the string in this manner also allows you to vary the number of winds to increase downward pressure on the nut. For instance, if you have strings that jump out of their slots, try a few more wraps first. This won’t work for every instance, but many times it does the trick. Additionally, some ringing out behind the nut can be solved with an extra turn or two, specifically with the G string on a Fender guitar. That string has the longest length of string behind the nut without a string tree, so it’s important to have enough break angle on the nut.

Note: Fender guitars with vintage or Kluson-style tuners, you’ll want to place the end of the string in the hole, then start cranking. That way, the string locks in more positively with the tuner. You wouldn’t believe the number of Fenders I’ve had in the shop lately with the strings just fed through the split shaft, then loosely wrapped around it. Just stick it in there just about as far as it’ll go, bend the string to one side, then go for it.

Pop-and-Lock

Locking winds are good for those of us who require some extra assurance that our strings won’t slip. This works best on any tuner that has a solid shaft, unlike those usually found on Fenders. All of my Gibson guitars get this kind of wrap, which is essentially just wrapping the string around itself on the post.

There are a few ways to do this, with one popular method being threading the string through the post, then the first wrap goes over the and all others go under. This isn’t difficult to master, but if my words elude you, I’ve made a handy gif to go along with them:

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It the above gif, you’ll note that I’ve used the aforementioned middle finger trick, except that I’m not pulling up. The tuners on this guitar made by our friend Stephen only allow for two wraps at the most, so pulling up would have surely given me more wraps than I needed.

The second method (and my preferred) is a little bit more tricky, but it goes like this: thread the string through the post, bend it in toward the inside of the headstock, then back under itself and up and over toward the headstock again. If a picture’s worth 1,000 words, then this gif should be considered my first published short story:

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See? Easy. This is the way I string guitars, and they don’t go out of tune when I’m done with them. Simply reverse the procedure for the plain strings, and for 6-on-a-side headstocks, all of them will be done as pictured.

It is my sincere hope that this helps those of you with nebulous tuning problems. As I said before, check the nut, lubricate properly and make sure your tuners are up to task, but start here first; your problem could simply be a few turns away!

We’ll be doing a separate post on locking tuners. It’ll probably be a short one.

MJA

 

 

 

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Mike & Mike’s Pot[entiometer] Dispensary

IMG_6151-impby Michael James Adams

I… I really struggled to make a good joke there. I’m sorry for how lame that was.

So, we have this wonderful little Tumblr site where I keep a log of just about everything that I work on. Tumblr is easily one of the most fun blogging sites out there, and the community we’ve found there is so much fun. I’m constantly surprised to not only see our number of followers consistently rising, but also the amount of interaction we’re receiving. Day-in, day-out, we’re getting messages from all over the world asking for advice about pickups, setup techniques, which colors we like and why we’re so damn fond of Jazzmasters.

At times it’s daunting to answer all of the messages, but I LOVE it anyway; it is simply amazing to me that we can connect with other musicians across the globe, all of us united by our mutual enjoyment of gear. And to you reading on this website (mmguitarbar.com), it’s good to have you as well! I can’t believe anyone reads this drivel. You’re like secret Santas, every last one of you.

Among the topics raised, one of the most frequently asked questions goes something like this: “Why does my guitar not sound good? I replaced the pickups with [insert quality brand] and it still sounds like [insert expletive].”

Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I’ve been there before myself, swapping pickups for new units that cost a decent percentage of my take-home pay, only to find my tone slightly improved; that’s a frustrating, seemingly hopeless place to be in.

IMG_3949-impSo what gives? You buy the pickups of your dreams, unsolder as few connections and you’re suddenly underwhelmed with your purchase. I mean, sometimes that’s because what you bought wasn’t that great to begin with, but in today’s age of Youtube demos and Rig Rundowns, guitar players are far more educated–tonally speaking–than ever. More and more, it seems highly unlikely that most of us would spend money without knowing what to expect. We’re extremely blessed to have the Lollars, Novaks, Creameries, Bareknuckles, Rio Grandes, Fralins and Duncans of the world toiling away so that we can all sound better!

What seems far more likely to me is that while we’ve all been focusing on pickup problems, we have perhaps carelessly overlooked something perhaps even more detrimental to our sound: the wiring harness.

Yes, it’s true: you could have the world’s greatest pickups ever made–some would argue a set of ’59 Gibson PAFs–and your guitar could still sound muffled and altogether dull if the electronics suck. Allow me to explain, and if you don’t mind I’m going to pick on Gibson a little bit just because I hear about this issue most commonly with regard to humbucker-equipped guitars. I find that, with the exception of P90s, most players don’t complain as often about dark single coils. Sry.

Conventional tonal wisdom states that most single coils sound best with 250K pots because these pickups have a wider tonal spectrum than ‘buckers, meaning they generally put out a wider range of treble and bass frequencies than most humbuckers, which cancel hum but also some of the common frequencies picked up by each coil. That pot value effectively sets a cap or dam, if you will, as to the amount and frequency range of the treble available, so you end up with a clear and balanced pickup that won’t hurt your ears, dig?

If you use 250K pots with a humbucker, what you end up with is a pickup that lacks clarity and detail, and is devoid of snappy highs and tight lows. This muddier signal is EXACTLY the reason so many of us prefer 500K pots with humbuckers*, which allow more treble through and produces a drastically clearer and fuller sounding, erm, sound. So that’s why Gibson guitars generally come stock with 500K pots.

Except they generally don’t; Gibson, like any other company, has to save money any way they can so they can offer a product with enough profit margin to blah blah blah business stuff. Everyone does this, and if Gibson’s buying bulk potentiometers, they can save a bit of money on each part by loosening the tolerance. Most standard pots have a +- 20% tolerance, but for a little more money you can easily find pots ~ 5-10%.IMG_3339-imp

So Gibson-branded pots that claim to be 500Ks? Yeah, it’s highly likely that they aren’t. Whenever a customer of mine tells me their guitar sounds muddy or isn’t sounding the way they imagined, one of my first fixes is to replace the pots, and so I measure their actual, real-life rating with a multimeter and the results are surprising.

You remember our buddy, Nick? He’s the one that brought me his newish Explorer back in 2012, a lovely guitar in that alluring naturalburst finish. He’d swapped pickups 3 times with similarly disappointing results, so I measured his Gibson-branded, stock 500K pots and guess what? They measured at almost exactly 300K ohms. That’s (I am so bad at math but I think this is right) a 40% deviation from the rating on the side of the damn pot! Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened; sometimes I’ll find a pot hovering between 450 and 420 [insert drug humor] and sometimes as low as 370, but 300K? Damn, son!

As mentioned in this older article, I measured out a set of pots that were within reasonable tolerance from their rating (most were within 5-7%) and built a new harness. Upon installation, the difference was dramatic, to say the least; the previously muddy, ill-defined signal was replaced by an articulate tone, replete with note separation and clarity. Trebles were snappy, the midrange was airy and open, and the bass was just as thumpy as our hopes and experience led us to believe. To this day, Nick frequently tells me that his guitar is now what he always wanted it to be.

So, if your guitar sounds as if its wearing the roughest of Irish sweaters and could use some tonal refinement, before you swap pickups please consider having your electronics replaced as well. Because really, if you’re spending the money on killer pickups but leaving stock, out-of-spec electronics inside your guitar, you won’t be hearing those expensive pickups properly.

wiring50sAnd while you’re on the hunt for a good set of pots (we like CTS, Bourns and sometimes Alpha) please follow this wiring diagram**, which is the proper 1950’s style wiring that Gibson used on their holy grail instruments. I attribute the coveted ‘59 Burst sound not only to the wood and pickups, but also this scheme, which differs from modern wiring in the way the tone caps hook up and the way in which the tone pot is grounded. This makes a HUGE difference, and unless a customer specifies otherwise, this is the diagram I recommend using for most jobs. Seymour Duncan has a great blog explaining the differences in layman’s terms, and I’d also recommend using a treble bleed/volume mod network across the 1 and 2 lugs of the volume pot. Link goes to my favorite, but you can easily build them with your own parts.

In conclusion, the way in which your guitar is wired can have a huge effect on the way your guitar sounds. The things discussed in this article are somewhat simplified, but I can say with complete honesty that this trick as worked literally every time I’ve tried it, on both my personal guitars and those of my customers. Give it a shot! Don’t trust me? Look how cool Nick felt after I swapped out his wiring harness. He felt so good he didn’t give a crap about traffic.

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Nick is a traffic-hating badass. He’s crazy. He’ll point his guitar at you and everything. He doesn’t give a crap.

* Your mileage may vary, but most of us do prefer 500ks.
** The diagram omits ground connections for the bridge/tailpiece stud and to each pot.
*** Things come better in threes.
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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 4: Pickup Lines

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Of all of the things that cause confusion about these guitars, perhaps the most common misconceptions about Jazzmasters (and to a lesser extent, the Jaguar) surround the pickups. Because they’re so odd-looking and unfamiliar, people have all kinds of crazy ideas about what exactly is going on under the cover. I mean, it’s not often that most players have occasion to dismantle a vintage Jazzmaster guitar for the sake of exploration, so the befuddlement is understandable.

You know what’s not helping, though? Fender. God bless ‘em for introducing more and more models these days with non-standard pickup complements – a qualified win for modders and players seeking variety. Their current offerings are rife with sounds not normally associated with offset guitars, and for all of the faults a few of them have, Fender’s really woken up to the notion that offset guitars are cool. This is good.

Because Fender’s introducing so many new models with different pickups, the result is that there’s more confusion than ever about what you’re actually getting when you buy a Jazzmaster. Single-coils? P-90s? Wide Range Humbuckers? High-output ‘buckers? Yeah, they’re all there now, and some are hidden under Jazzmaster pickup covers. Go to Fender.com and type ‘Jazzmaster’ into the search bar, and you’ll get an army of models that have little in common with one another save for the body shape. Holy hell! How’s a girl or guy to keep all of that straight?!

In this article, we’ll try to do away with some of the misinformation and show you exactly what’s under the hood in both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar as well as some of the variations you’ll find out there in the marketplace. We’ll also dive in to some definitions and specifics so that you can make an informed choice when you go to buy your next offset guitar.

A shot of Mojotone's Jazzmaster bobbin

Compare this shot of Mojotone’s Jazzmaster pickup with that of the Strat pickup below.

Open Coils

The Jazzmaster pickup is a true single-coil pickup. From start to finish, these units are made of one coil of wire turned around the pole pieces, and in principle works just like those found on Fender’s more popular models, the Stratocaster and Telecaster. The construction of Jazzmaster pickups does have some notable differences when compared to other more common single-coil pickups: whereas a Stratocaster pickup is about 7/16” tall and wound tightly to the rod magnets, true Jazzmaster pickups are 1/8” tall and the windings extend nearly to the edge of the 1 1/2” bobbin.mojotone-classic-stratocaster-electric-guitar-pickup-single-strat-

This wider surface area translates to a wider frequency response (since the coil itself covers a far greater area of the string’s vibrational length) and, because the wire travels father with each turn, a hotter pickup. (Jason Lollar does a brilliant job of explaining this on his website) The Jazzmaster unit also uses rod magnets just like a Strat or Tele, differentiating it from a P-90, which it most certainly is not.

Don’t Drop the Soap[bar]

DV019_Jpg_Regular_306915.715_cremeOften, you’ll hear people refer to Jazzmaster pickups as ‘soapbar’ pickups, and they should be forgiven for doing so; that big, white cover certainly has a soapy quality, especially on older models where the covers have a more satin finish than shiny new parts. This really is erroneous as pickup nomenclature goes, as the term began its existence as a way to help distinguish between two varieties of Gibson’s P-90 pickup design of the mid-1940s, the other being the “dog ear” mounting style which is commonly found on Les Paul Jr. and 330/Casino guitar models.

The P-90 “Soapbar” is a P-90 pickup which has a rectangular shape with rounded edges and with both the pickup and mounting screws contained within the coil bobbin. Wikipedia mentions that the nickname probably came about with the introduction of the Les Paul model in ’52, on which the pickup covers were white. These, of course, looked like bars of soap to consumers, and thus the name stuck. (Funnily enough, the Jazzmaster pickup looks more like a bar of soap to me than P-90s, but I digress.)

If we’re just talking about the covers, the Jazzmaster pickup’s very mounting scheme differs from the definition of the term ‘soapbar’, but again, that’s such a slight difference that there’s no shame in having used it. I mean, what matters is what’s inside, not where the screws mount, right?

To be clear, standard Jazzmaster pickups are NOT P-90s in both design and intention: the P-90 uses bar magnets beneath the coil, which magnetizes the pole piece screws and imparts a louder, midrange-focused personality. P-90s are also wound tightly around the bobbin and usually have hotter output, with most vintage examples in the 8-9.3Kohms output range. Jazzmaster pickups use rod magnets, generally live in the 7.4-8.4 range. Not a big difference, but notable.

The louder, dirtier sound of a good P-90 contrasts with the Jazzmaster persona, which has ample yet softened top end and a fatter overall signal with a more thumpy bass response, remaining clear and separated with even the most outrageous fuzz pedal. If adjusted closer to the strings, the Jazzmaster pickup has no problem pushing an amp into overdrive. When it comes to the tone of JM pickups, think more twang than bite, more boom than woof, more punch than kick.

Here’s a  visual reminder to help you tell the difference between these pickups:

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Offset Obfuscation

Adding to the din of confusing specifications are Fender themselves, with more varied offset models than ever. For instance, the Fender Classic Player Jazzmaster might look stock, but it actually does have P-90 pickups hidden beneath Jazzmaster covers. Same goes for the Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster, a fantastic guitar in its own right. Oh! I almost forgot to mention another offender, the Fender Pawn Shop Bass VI, which looks as though it has a Jazzmaster pickup in the bridge position but it’s actually a humbucker!

As for obvious pickup changes, the Blacktop line of Jazzmasters has a Jazzmaster pickup in the neck paired with a humbucker in the bridge position. Then there’s the Kurt Cobain Jaguar, the Modern Player HH and the Jaguar HH with – you guessed it – dual humbuckers. Additionally, Fender’s Lee Ranaldo signature model comes equipped with re-voiced Wide Range humbuckers. Did I forget anything?

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Oh yeah.

Builders other than Fender are also muddying up the definitions, some offering classic designs with fully-custom options and different pickup layouts that bring more familiar sounds to the offset table. For instance, Fano’s JM-6 model has a stoptail and a TOM style bridge with P90 pickups, much like what you’d expect from a Les Paul. Now, that’s a GREAT guitar, let there be no mistake. I bring this particular guitar up because it’s been handed to me with the attached claim that it’s ‘just like the real thing!’ which isn’t Fano’s intention at all! Man, they make nice stuff…

And, while we highly recommend Japanese-made Fender Jazzmasters as a more cost-effective alternative to their AVRI counterparts, we always recommend swapping out the pickups. Why? Because they’re essentially Strat pickups in an oversized bobbin – just a thin, tall coil the same height as a Strat pickup masquerading as something much, much cooler. These don’t even SOUND like Jazzmaster pickups, and they usually feedback like crazy! Bum deal.

The Creamery shows us the difference!

The Creamery shows us the difference! (the reissue is Japanese)

Sound Decisions

By now it’s become clear to you that there are plenty of “stock” variations between the various models offered from the factory. Luckily, we live in a time where there are more choices than ever when it comes to aftermarket pickups, and more than just brand name. For instance, Jason Lollar offers some of my favorite pickups for the Jazzmaster, and almost every guitar I own has his lovely upgrades installed. Did you know he also has a model of P-90 that’s housed in a Jazzmaster bobbin? It’s loud, authoritative like a good P-90, and has plenty of bite and growl, just like you’d expect from a Les Paul or SG Jr.

Then there’s offset hero Curtis Novak, a man that’s my first stop when I’m on the hunt for something that’s way off the beaten path while retaining a more stock appearance. Sure, he does the tried-and-true Jazzmaster pickup (also a great pickup), but he also creates stranger hybrids that absolutely beg to be played, like the JM-180.

Say you love that hallowed P.A.F. tone? Using dark magick, Novak has stuffed one into that familiar cover, and the result sounds exactly the way you want a vintage Gibson pickup to sound, and the only way you’d know it is that the pole pieces are shifted toward the neck. Maybe you love P-90s, maybe you’re a big fan of Telecaster bridge pickup? Guess what, he does that too! Or, perhaps you’ve been bitten by the DeArmond/Rowe Industries Gold Foil bug, in which case the only prescription is Novak’s Gold Foil-in-JM-housing design. It not only sounds like the best, loudest Gold Foil ever made, but having the gold color poking out of the holes in the pickup cover is like the best little secret you just can’t wait to tell.

If you’re like Other Mike and myself, you have a huge soft spot in your heart for the look and sound of vintage Mosrite guitars, especially the Ventures model. From the way they hang on a strap to that full-yet-springy sound they have when plugged in, to play one is to know the pinnacle of surf-rock coolness. Well, Novak does that, too!

Still confused? If you’ve read this far and are still wondering what the hell a Jazzmaster’s supposed to sound like, check out some sound clips of Lollar, Novak and Seymour Duncan’s amazing Antiquity I and II pickups, as well as those of actual vintage guitars.

For more great options, here are some other manufacturers you should look into: The Creamery, Lindy Fralin, Porter Pickups, and Mojotone.

Jaguar: a Kitteh of a Whole Different Breed

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A rather quick note about Jaguar pickups: they’re far less confusing. Jaguar pickups are a lot like Stratocaster pickups in terms of construction and sound. The main difference is that Jaguar pickups utilize a notched metal surround known as the ‘claw’, which helps eliminate some of the hum associated with single coil pickups. Jaguar pickups are mounted directly to the body, whereas Strat pickups screw to the pickguard.

Jaguars can be much brighter overall than Jazzmasters, which is due in part to the reduced scale length; the Jaguar’s 24” makes for a springier, more twangy sound than the 25.5” standard scale. As aftermarket pickups go, there aren’t as many options for Jaguar users, with most manufacturers making a standard unit and not much else. Novak is one of the few exceptions, offering top-notch Jag replacements, Danelectro-style Lipsticks that drop right in, and even a top-mount version of a Jazzmaster pickup for those looking for a bit more oomph for their chromed-out shortscale.

“Is that a single coil in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

Honestly, I wasn’t sure it was even worth getting into all of this; people have been calling JM pickups ‘soapbars’ for ages, and although it’s not really so it may be part of the guitar players’ lexicon, so who am I to try to change it! Still, I believe precise language is important especially when discussing guitar electronics and sounds, and if we’re all on the same page communication will be much easier and we’ll all get a lot more done!

-Michael James Adams

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Part 3: Free your mind and your [tailpiece] will follow.

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By Michael James Adams

We’ve been talking about some of the more widely misunderstood features of our favorite Fender Offsets, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. Seemingly innocuous but often blamed for tuning problems, the humble offset vibrato lies in wait at the butt-end of your guitar just hoping that one day it will be taken seriously. 

Thing is, that day has likely come; with players ranging from Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Thurston and Lee from Sonic Youth, and Wilco’s Nels Cline – amongst others – wringing every lush, wiggly note they can out of the ‘wang bar’, it’s as if a fog has lifted and the guitar-playing populace is more willing to accept this brilliant, but somewhat confusing, design.

Design


Leo Fender couldn’t have designed a simpler mechanism for his new, top-of-the-line instruments: the strings anchor on a plate which has both the trem arm and spring attached to it, with a screw threading through the middle of the spring to adjust tension. When you’re pressing down or lifting up on the bar, you are directly moving that plate, which the spring counteracts with just the right amount of resistance, lowering or raising the pitch of the strings. Voila.

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Image taken from The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars

Easy, right? One would think, but like I mentioned, this design carries with it the undeserved stigma of ruining everyone’s good time. But why?


I think one part of the general problem with this system is that it needs to work in tandem with the bridge to achieve any kind of stability. The stock bridge is meant to rock back and forth with the actuation of the arm, and in a perfect world it returns to its zero point, no problem. However, we don’t live in a perfect world, and because of the great confusion surrounding these guitars they often aren’t properly maintained. The tremelo (ha, Leo) gets blamed for tuning maladies aplenty but it’s really the bridge that’s at fault.*



The other big problem with this seemingly easy-to-understand system is the fact that it’s not visible in the way that a Stratocaster bridge or a Bigsby might be – those systems are easy to work on, and if problematic, even easier to diagnose. Guitar players tend to be an uneasy bunch when it comes to guitar maintenance, and many of my customers come in to the shop telling me, “I didn’t want to mess it up!” In many cases, their fears are justified, but to be honest there’s usually nothing to worry about when removing a screw or tweaking the truss rod lightly. I’ve gotten an ear full more than a few times about the near-hallowed nature of the bolt-on neck joint, that the sacred bond of neck, screw and body should never be broken. (I think that’s bollocks, personally)

The point I’m trying to make is, guitars aren’t so fragile as some might think! Yet, because of the secretive nature of this body-mount system, many players are hesitant to take the strings off just to access the vibrato, worried that something about their guitars will change the moment the final screw is loosened. This is simply not the case, so no need to be hesitant!

Staying in Tune

I’ve previously touched on the most common offset objection is that they just don’t stay in tune, but this really isn’t the case once these guitars are properly set up and understood. What’s more is that, since it seems like everyone and their brother is using a Jazzmaster or Jaguar these days, it’s hard to make sense of all of this popularity for a guitar that isn’t pitch-stable. So, what gives?

In our last Demystifying article, we gave you some history and pertinent information about the offset bridge, and even a few tips and tricks to keep it in perfect working order. Much of the tuning instability folks complain about comes from the bridge, but the vibrato certainly can contribute.

The first, best advice I would give to those that have caught the Jazzmaster/Jaguar bug is to use a heavier gauge of string. 10s will work fine, but these guitars are made with 11s and 12s in mind, which is why we so often have problems with strings jumping out of their slots. The key with the offset bridge is downward pressure. With the vibrato, it’s all about finding the right amount of tension for the gauge of string in use, so that when the vibrato is actuated there’s an appropriate amount of resistance. I usually use the Trem-Lock as a guide, especially if the player intends to use it. 

There’s an amazingly in-depth article on setting up the JM/Jag trem over at The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars, an amazing resource for all things Offset.

String Breakage

Though I’m very much an offset activist, I’ll concede to this complaint! Strings sometimes just flat-out break on these guitars, and it sometimes seems a futile effort to continually string the thing up when your high E is just going to snap in ten minutes. If fact, this happens so often that when I stroll into Guitar Center and see used Jazzmasters on the wall, they’re almost always missing the high e string, which leads me to believe that this problem was just that frustrating for its former owner. I’m jumping to conclusions, I know, but it’s really not that far-fetched.

IMG_2063-impOne of the main reasons that strings break on these guitars – especially new ones – is that the strings aren’t given the proper amount of clearance over the two outer screws near the anchor on the plate. These Phillips screws were lower and flatter on older units, and the anchor itself was negligibly higher, so strings were afforded more room to freely pass over them. 

On current models, the screws are more rounded and a little taller, providing a sharp edge for your strings to rub against when you’re playing even if you don’t use the arm all that much. If you bend a string, use alternate tunings or retune your guitar, you’re basically sawing through the string. Add to it, the place the stings rub is exactly the worst spot for this kind of contact: the closing wrap at the ball end. That’s why I’m never surprised when one of these guitars come in without an e string; this is almost always the culprit.

To solve this problem, I’ll recall one of my favorite axioms: “Flip ‘em over!” I’ll elaborate:

If you remove the six bolts affixing the trem to the body, you can see that the offending screws poke through the little pivot plate that keeps the anchor in line. Remove the screws under both E strings and thread them upside-down with the Phillips head facing the inside of the cavity instead of toward the string. Don’t worry, if you tighten them down they shouldn’t move, and the threaded end of the screw is just short enough to avoid the strings entirely.

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The second source of frustration would be the anchor plate itself. After months or even years of heavy arm usage, those little holes that hold the ball end of the string are likely to develop burrs, little sharp bits of metal that love to eat through string ends. Some light filing will almost always do the trick here, either with a small round file, or my favorite, Mitchell’s Abrasive Cord, which is like the Soap on a Rope of sand paper. It can be found in many woodworking shops or at Stew Mac, and boy, is it a lifesaver! Just thread it through the eyelet as you would a string, then floss away!

Those afflicted with chronic breakage would even do well to keep a roll of the larger diameter cord in the accessories pocket of the guitar case for emergencies; on the road or at a show, that stuff can make all the difference.

One more trick to prevent premature string death: solder the string’s ball ends through the wrap! I do this religiously to my e, b and g strings, and since I’ve started I have yet to break any of them. BONUS TIP: Don’t do this with the strings at tension; they’ll simply unravel, and then you’ll turn blue phrases the likes of which haven’t been heard since George Carlin’s untimely passing.

Bar-ectile Dysfunction
Wow. That one was a bit of a stretch.

If you’re like me, having the vibrato arm stay in place is a huge plus; when I’m on stage absolutely losing my musical mind, it’s nice to have the arm stay in a dependable spot. For some, this spot is against their output jack, especially if the arm is loose in its socket. This does not fly with me. I like it to be mobile but stiff, so that with my eyes closed there’s no question of its whereabouts. I can’t stand playing a brand-new guitar with the arm swinging wildly about like the tail of an excitable puppy.

This problem isn’t usually as persistent with vintage guitars, but on newer models the collet and arm aren’t exactly the same size or shape as the old ones, so more often than not there will be extreme amounts of play on the arm. Some people wrap tape around the end of the arm (which can be messy and sticky) and others will try to ‘gunk them up’, squirting some glue or something in there to cause more friction. I say nay to the above solutions, and instead point to a trick I first learned about on Offset Guitar Forum, a haven for the offset-obsessed.

Forum member theworkoffire suggests clamping the arm in a vice, with the collet-end exposed. Tapping that end gently with a hammer, it’s quite easy to put a nearly imperceptible bend in the tip at the end of the bar, causing it to rub up against the walls of the socket, and thus, stay in place. This is the method I’ve used time and time again, and I couldn’t be happier. Lasts forever, too!

There are also replacement arms and collets offered by a company called StayTrem, and their work is stunning! Completely solves this problem.

What the Hell is that Little Button?
IMG_4062-imp

That’s called the “Trem Lock”, and it’s awesome. That little bit of machined metal is your ticket to easy street, my friend, especially in the event of string breakage.

Because this system is what’s known as a ‘floating’ vibrato –  which refers to the trem’s ability to vary pitch up and down because it isn’t resting against the body – the string tension is balanced against that of the spring in the vibrato unit. The downside is that when a string breaks, this offsets the balance between spring and string, causing your guitar to go out of tune, pulling sharp. That’s where that tiny, unassuming button on the front of the Fender plate comes in handy.

Also taken from The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars

Also taken from The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars

If the unit is properly setup, that little button simply slides between the anchor plate and the Fender plate, stopping the anchor plate from raising, which in turn puts everything back in tune when engaged. Effectively, it ‘remembers’ how your guitar was tuned before you lost a string. When the proper tension on the spring is reached, you’ll be able to slide that little button back with no resistance.

Said button is also VERY useful when using alternate tunings. Unless you’re Thurston Moore, you may not be able to afford a fleet of Jazzmasters to handle every tuning you’re likely to use, but with the Trem Lock you may not need them. Slide that button in and tune at your leisure. Use drop-D, open G or C-minor? Pushing that button back turns the trem into a kind of hard-tail! You can still use the trem, but only to lower pitch.

On Vintage Units

My personal preference is mainly for the units found on vintage guitars. Reason being, the springs used on the old ones were more heavy-duty than those found on reissue instruments, especially imports. This makes for a tighter feel and greater touch-sensitivity.

Vintage Jazzmasters and Jaguars also had different springs! When the Jaguar came out, Fender quickly realized that because the shortened scale length of a Jaguar meant lower string tension, the vibrato felt far too stiff. Consequently, they started cutting one coil off the spring, resulting in better tension.

On my ’07 Sonic Blue Thin Skin Fender Jazzmaster, I’ve installed a Jaguar vibrato from 1963. When I compared the feel with that of my 1960 Jazzmaster, the difference was really pronounced, with the older unit feeling much more stiff, requiring more work to gliss notes. I love that, don’t get me wrong, but the trem on that blue Jazzmaster is heavenly!

So there you have it! I know I’m long-winded and probably providing too much info at once, but I really do hope this little series helped! Feel free to contact us if you have any questions!

And hey, if you need your Jazzmaster or Jaguar expertly set up, look no further!

*If you want proof, drop a Mastery Bridge in your Jazzmaster or Jaguar and see for yourself how stable that thing is! Because that bridge doesn’t rock in its thimbles, it provides a far better tuning experience.

-MJA

Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar, Pt. 2: Bridge Over Troubled Vibrato

IMG_2101By Michael James Adams

A few weeks back, we took some time to fully explain the electronic innerworkings of Fender’s paradoxically well-loved and oft-maligned models, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. For many players, the tonal options available on these guitars is a breath of fresh air; for others, the switching becomes an exercise in futility, leaving them to wonder how to just turn on the bridge pickup. Hopefully we helped!

In today’s column, we’re going to dive into what be the most misunderstood and subsequently damning design element on these amazing guitars: the bridge.

It’s a common occurrence for players who are used to Strats and Teles or Les Pauls to get the Offset itch and pick up a Jazzmaster or Jaguar and find that it doesn’t play quite the way they expected: strings will slip out of their grooves with moderate pick attack, the bridge sways back and forth with vibrato action, and sympathetic ‘ghost’ notes will ring out from behind the bridge, prompting many stymied players to install a Buzzstop. Please, don’t do that just yet – I’m begging you to get to know your seemingly unwieldy friend before you do something rash.

Shim Shenanigans

Conventional guitar wisdom tells us that shims are bad. They’re tone-sucking, sustain-killing, useless pieces of paper that shouldn’t come anywhere near a neck pocket, right? Well, about that…

That's A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

That’s A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

Most of the vintage Fender guitars we love came from the factory with at least one shim installed, and I’ve seen vintage guitars with four or more original shims! Telecasters, for example, might have a shim in the front edge of the neck pocket so that when the guitar is strung, the strings sit closer to the top of the ashtray bridge instead of down in the middle, which isn’t exactly the most comfortable place for picking. Also, the height adjustment screws on the brass bridge saddles could be longer than necessary, which means sharp pieces of metal digging into your picking hand. Not fun.

Many players operate under the belief that a shim will kill their tone, and to an extent they have a point. Obviously, for maximum sustain and tonal transfer, it makes sense to have a tight neck pocket with full wood-on-wood contact. Here’s the thing: tone is subjective, and the vast majority of us won’t be able to hear the difference between a shimmed and un-shimmed guitar. Add to that the fact that many of the old-school tones we’re all chasing were created with shimmed guitars, and the argument gets even more murky. And, unlike Strats and Teles, Jazzmasters and Jaguars were actually designed with shims in mind!

Break Angle Benefits

You see, Leo Fender knew that his floating bridge design needed a certain amount of downward force to work properly, so he used shims in the leading edge of the neck pocket to adjust the angle of the neck, causing the strings to pass over the bridge at a sharper angle. This is called the break angle.

The further back he tilted the neck, the bridge would have to be set higher to achieve playable action, and thus, more downward force on the bridge. More downward force on the bridge also means greater tonal transfer via the contact between the bridge and its thimbles, which in turn transfer that vibration to the body, and then who the hell really knows how much sustain and resonance you’re losing or gaining?! It boggles the mind.

When players complain about their strings slipping out of the tiny grooves on their saddles, more often than not the problem isn’t the saddle, it’s the aforementioned break angle.  A sharper break angle means more downward force on the bridge, which in turn helps to keep the strings seated! One other solution is to deepen the grooves with a file, which is a fine solution that I’ve had to use a few times. It’s not my first choice fix, but with some guitars with worn or import bridges, there’s not much else you can do, short of replacing the bridge. More on that later.

Players will also cite excessive mechanical buzz from their bridges as a source of frustration, but again, I point to neck/break angle as the first solution. Most of the time, the bridge buzzes because of a weak break angle and thus, less pressure, which means the saddles themselves aren’t tightly seated on the bridge plate. Tilt that neck back and voila, the buzz disappears. At least, it usually does; new bridges that haven’t been played-in will often make noise because they don’t have years of oxidation helping to tighten things up. In that case, either sweat a lot or dab some blue Loc-Tite* on the saddle screws, which will not only diminish rattle but also ensure that screws don’t turn when you don’t want them to.

The other solution to this problem is the Buzz-Stop, an add-on unit that screws into the trem plate and forces the strings down toward the body. While this solution certainly works, it also kills the vibe of having a Jazzmaster or Jaguar; the strings behind the bridge are deadened – a huge part of what makes these guitars  so fun! – and the vibrato has another point of friction to contend with, making it work less efficiently. It also makes the guitar feel different in terms of playability, but feel is subjective.IMG_4061

Rock. YEAH. Ing. YEAH. Bridge. YEAH. YEAH. YEAH!

For the Jazzmaster, Leo Fender designed a new “floating” vibrato system which revolved around a bridge that rocks back and forth as the whammy bar is actuated and promised unparalleled control and flutter as well as better tuning stability. But if this system was supposed to be so great, why does it seem like everyone complains about it?

A lot of people don’t understand that the bridge is supposed to rock, which understandably freaks them out. I’ll admit that this feature isn’t my favorite element of the design, but it really does work, but not perfectly. The bridge doesn’t always return to its zero position, but this is a problem just about every trem system on the market has, and if we lived in a perfect world it would be enough.

If the rocking bridge bothers you and makes your intonation spotty, a lot of us will wrap the bridge with foil tape, which locks it into place in its thimbles. The vibrato still works well like this, but again, it’s not a total solution. This is yet another issue addressed by the Mastery Bridge, with its larger diameter posts that fit snugly into the bridge thimbles.

A Word About String Gauge

When Leo was rolled out the Jazzmaster, he intended to market the guitar to Jazz players, hence the addition of the darker preset rhythm circuit. Because of this, the guitar was also designed with heavy-gauge flat-wound strings in mind. Back in the day, light guitar strings weren’t readily available, especially when it came to flats. That’s why you so often hear older guitarists talking about using a banjo string on the high E and moving the rest of the set over one string! Jazz players were often using sets as heavy as .014”, and .011” sets were considered pretty measly by comparison.

When the Jazzmaster rolled out, the idea was that these jazzers would be using at least .012” flat sets on the guitar, which have much more tension than today’s slinkier round-wound strings. Heavier strings equals greater tension, get it? If you ever try to put flat-wound 12s on a Jazzmaster, they usually won’t go anywhere.

When you want to use light strings on a Jazzmaster or Jaguar, you’re going to have to compensate somehow. You’ll need to increase the break angle and adjust the bridge, but if you’re going lighter than .011” sets you might also consider swapping out the bridge for those found on Fender Mustang guitars, which have a single, deep groove for each string. Or, you could go for the ultimate upgrade, the Mastery Bridge, but I’d make that recommendation to anyone regardless of string gauge. The Mastery Bridge is hands-down the best upgrade you can make to your Fender Offset guitar in my opinion. With it, you may still need a bit of a neck angle adjustment, but your strings will definitely stay on their saddles.

Next time, we’ll take a brief look behind the bridge and how to work with the vibrato unit for greater tuning stability and control. Wanna go wild and return to pitch? We’ve got you covered!

Mastery on a '58. Yessir.

Mastery on a ’58. Yessir.

*CAUTION: Never, ever use the red Loc-Tite on guitar parts unless you want them permanently frozen in place. The blue variety is meant for a non-permanent bond, allowing the user to make adjustments down the line. I think they’ve just come out with a green formula as well that’s not as strong, but I haven’t used it. Also, that stuff dries clear, so don’t freak out when you put blue goop all over your shiny new guitar. It’s cool. Simmer down.

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 1

IMG_3071-impBy Michael James Adams

It’s no secret that we here at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar are BIG fans of Fender’s oft-maligned Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars. Top of the line in their day, these guitars are perhaps the most misunderstood instruments that Leo Fender ever created, a sad truth that to this day follows these wonderful guitars like a scarlet letter.

Why are these guitars so misjudged? For starters, Fender’s line of “Offset” guitars – so called because of the adjusted waistline body design – shared little in common with their more straightforward brethren, the Telecaster and Stratocaster. Those guitars were plain-as-day in terms of fit and functionality; when one looks at a Tele or a Strat, there’s little question as to the purpose of their respective three- and five-way switches, where the strings anchor, or what kind of music one can play on them.

When first released in 1958, the Jazzmaster was a bit more nebulous than its forebears, intended for Jazz players who largely dismissed the guitar. The first Fender guitar with a rosewood fretboard, the Jazzmaster also included Leo’s latest innovations including the floating bridge/vibrato unit and wide, flat pickups designed to pick up more of the string’s vibrational length, resulting in less sustain and a warmer overall tone than the Telecaster or Stratocaster. Luckily, instrumental rock and surf players (and even a few country players!) soon embraced the guitar, giving the Jazzmaster a new direction.

IMG_3779-impBy the time the Jaguar was released in 1962, the surf craze was in full swing and it would appear that Leo tailor-made the guitar to appeal to instrumental rockers. Chrome for days, a slightly modified, faster body, a shorter 24″ scale and a newly-designed Fender Mute all contributed to the wild looks and distinctively percussive sound of the model.

Hard to pin down as they may have been, these two models were wildly popular in the early to mid sixties, with sales numbers overtaking those of the Strat and Tele, which were at that time experiencing stagnated sales and a general view in the guitar world as being old-fashioned. The new, sleeker Offset Fender guitars certainly sold well, but soon enough public opinion began to sour. What went wrong?

As I mentioned before, these guitars shared little of the design elements of their predecessors, which is something many of us appreciate today. Unique controls and string length behind the bridge appeal to those of us looking for something different, from shoegazers to alt. country troubadours. With that recent spate of popularity have come numerous upgraded parts that promise to improve the feel and playability of Offset guitars, including the mind-blowing Mastery Bridge and the Staytrem. Sadly, this lack of familiarity may have proved to be these models’ undoing in the long run, with players frequently complaining that the guitars were confusing, poorly made or impossible to keep in tune.

In this series, I’ll attempt to address a few of these complaints, and explain why the very designs that confound so many are, in reality, brilliant.

“IT HAS TOO MANY SWITCHES!”
It’s not uncommon to hear the above phrase uttered ad nauseum at guitar stores and internet forums alike. It’s frequently followed by, “What the hell do they do?!” and “My brain hurts.” In reality, the switches aren’t all that hard to figure out, and with just a few minutes of patient open-mindedness most players can easily adapt to the layout.

IMG_3699Jazzmasters have the decidedly more familiar control layout, with a Gibsonesque three-way toggle switch on the treble-side bout. Obviously, this one changes the active pickup selection from Bridge, to Bridge and Neck, and Neck alone. The thing that tends to get murky for folks is the switch located on the upper bass-side bout: the Rhythm Circuit.

The Rhythm Circuit was designed with the intention of giving the player a darker preset sound for rhythm play. A different array of pots (50K tone, 1M volume) lends to the darker sound, contrasting nicely with the Lead Circuit’s brighter personality. (1m for both) Roller knobs poke through slots on the guard that allow the player to easily change settings without much chance of settings being changed by vigorous play. Flip that switch to its ‘up’ position and you’ve got a rounder, bassier tone at the ready, one which I frequently utilize for a clean, somber tone or to mimic synth craziness with a big fuzz and an octave pedal. Even so, most players will choose to ignore this optional circuit as a nuisance or a design flaw, but do yourself a favor and play around with it! It’s great!

IMG_2687

L-R: ‘Strangle’ switch, Bridge Pickup, Neck Pickup. Simple.

The Jaguar, however, seems to be the guitar with the most problematic layout for some players, and while I can understand why it’s so intimidating, again I implore those stymied masses to have patience. Don’t let those little chrome plates get the best of you!

Thankfully for most, the upper bout switching is exactly the same as the Jazzmaster Rhythm Circuit. The three switches on the treble-side bout of the guitar control on/off for both pickups and what’s known as a “strangle switch”, a capacitor that can be engaged to bleed away bass frequencies, resulting in a thinned-out tone that’s perfect for biting leads or cutting rhythm work. Thanks to this, the Jaguar can easily be the most versatile guitar in a player’s arsenal.

If you’re still feeling vexed, check out the Interactive Jaguar instruction manual over at The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars.

We’ll continue shedding light on these amazing guitars in part 2, where we discuss the floating Bridge, from its intended design to tips on keeping it functioning properly even with heavy trem use. Stay tuned!

We also believe that we perform the best Offset setups in the Pacific Northwest. If your Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Electric XII, Mustang or Bass VI needs some help to sound and play its best, stop by Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar for a free consultation!

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Fret Reflections (Double Meanings = Double points!)

Pre-polish

See that? That’s gross. It looks bad and it can rob your tone. Think about it: frets are the only thing other than your hands that strings touch during play. Of course you don’t want your shiny new strings grinding up on corrosion and rust! That’s nasty!

This isn’t the worst build-up I’ve ever seen, but I should be embarrassed; this was the condition of the frets on my 1973 Fender Precision Bass earlier today. which I set about cleaning up. How could I–a handsome, witty and gainfully-employed guitar technician–let it get that far? Well, Dear Reader, I’ll tell you.

Over the last year, I found myself playing more bass than ever: I was holding down the low end in a female-fronted dance rock outfit, tracking bass for my then-main gig, picking up the occasional bass part in an Alt-Country band when the bass player would switch to Dobro, and I was starting to sit in with a few friends that were performing live and tracking an album. I was pretty busy for a guy that doesn’t call himself a bassist!

During that time, it became clear to me that my bass was due for a fret dressing. Buzzing on my most-used frets became a constant problem, and fretting my low E on the 8th fret nearly choked off the note. I’d used the bass quite a lot, so I wasn’t all that surprised. Trouble was, my friends doing the album tracking needed me in the studio over the weekend, but they didn’t let me know until Tuesday. I wasn’t about to go to a studio with an instrument that frets out, so later in the week I found time to squeeze in a quick fret job.

And I mean quick; if this were a customer’s instrument, I would have taken the time to perfectly crown and polish each fret to a mirror shine, but because I was in a rush I decided I could live with just kissing the tops of the frets and leaving them rough with just a spit-shine for looks. (Not literally) I planned on getting around to finishing, but as life sometimes goes I never found the time. At this point it’s been months since I picked up my bass, so when I opened its case this morning and found the frets in this condition my OCD kicked in immediately. Today was the day.

Much better.

That’s what it should look like: smoothed-out and round with a mirror shine. Wonderful, right? After I re-rounded few frets, I used Micro-Mesh Soft Touch Finishing Pads, available at Stew-Mac.com. Easier to use than the usual sandpaper steps and cleaner than steel wool, these pads have become a daily staple in my guitar repair diet. I use them on everything from finishes to frets, and they’re great for polishing a freshly-cut bone nut or blending drop fills on finishes. Hate the way your hand sticks to a nitro-finished neck? They’re great for that, too!

I strung the bass back up with the old set (I like ’em worn-in) after I cleaned the strings with some denatured alcohol. Immediately my bass felt better, and notes sounded cleaner with reduced string noise. This made for a more lively playing experience, and I didn’t feel like I had to wash my hands after playing. There’s nothing like smooth, shiny frets. My bass is happy.

This makes an even bigger difference on guitar, where whole note bends and plain strings are the norm. Next time you change strings, take a moment to polish your frets. You’ll be able to bend and gliss to your heart’s content without getting caught up on corrosion and you may even find that your strings last longer.

Caution: If you’re going to use steel wool, make sure to mask off your pickups. Steel wool fibers can easily work their way into your pickups, shorting them out and completely ruining your day.

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Chords and Conviction

A few months back, my good friend Chae was foaming at the mouth about the White Stripes’ recent “One Note Concert” where the band played (literally) one chord in every Province of Canada. I’ll admit that at first hearing of this, I scoffed; I wondered at the silliness of having an entire sound system set up, mics in place and sound check dialed in. The drums, the amps, the pedal board and backup instruments all ready to go. I was astonished. “For one note? Wow.”

The more I thought about it, the more I was confronted by increasingly compelling questions such as: “If I could only play one chord what would it be?” and “What combination of notes would convey what I feel, what I’m trying to say?” Even more damning was the last question to come to mind: “Could I play that chord with conviction?”

I paced back and forth, my internal landscape awash with musical existentialism. I was confronted by pages of guitarists that are instantly recognizable. Musicians that have a tone, a flair, a particular way they use the tool that causes our ears to perk up and our lips to curl.

Imagine a lineup of your favorite guitarists, all playing the same chord. Imagine walking down the line with your eyes closed. Can you tell who you’re hearing?  No matter who’s in that lineup–EVH, Dimebag Darrell, John Mayer, Brad Paisley, Brian Setzer, Eric Clapton, Brendon Small, The Edge, Robert Cray, Nels Cline, Buddy Holly–the answer is always yes. But why? Is it simply by virtue of using different equipment, or is it something less easily quantifiable? I thought of some of my favorites, about their tone and note choices, but more importantly their style:

Muddy Waters: Open-tuned and down-home dirty, Muddy wasn’t afraid to let his instinct lead him in new directions. Listening to old solo recordings, you can hear that his slide technique wasn’t always precise nor was his guitar always in tune, but he was always emotional and cut right to the quick of the listener. That man said a lot even when he wasn’t singing.

Bruce Springsteen: When he hits an E major, you know it’s him. He picks right next to the bridge saddles on his battered old Esquire and you can hear it. His tone is paradoxically warm and articulate for such a style, but it’s his sound; we know it when we hear it.

Malcolm Young: The rhythmic foundation of AC/DC, Malcom has a thick and percussive sound, with copious amounts of mids and highs that keeps the music driving. With his single-pickup Gretsch into walls of amps and extra-heavy strings, you could almost swear you’re hearing his guitar’s wood alone. Precise, on-beat and greasy, even Angus confesses that he can’t do what Malcolm does.

Nels Cline: Unbridled but showing an immense amount of chess-like forethought, Nels alternately whispers and shouts, with smooth, dark legato passages followed by an explosive wall of noise that not only enhances the already great songs of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, but makes his solo work so damned impressive. When Nels takes a solo, it’s obvious; from fleet-fingered runs to caffeine-fueled glissando, when Nels goes off, it’s both transcendent and cathartic.

I even thought of David Gilmour, whose lead tone is an oft-discussed mystery. Still, his work with Pink Floyd refined his lead and rhythm work, and when you hear one note you know exactly who’s playing behind that Leslie swirl and delay. There are few guitarists that can entrance me the way DG can.

Any time I hear one of my favorite players, I know who it is. I’m a huge SRV fan, and even if you don’t like his music you can’t deny that there are hallmarks of his playing that make him instantly recognizable. Is it the ’59 Stratocaster, the Tube Screamer, his choice of amps or tuning to Eb? Maybe it’s his huge string gauges or the fact that he often held his pick backwards. Or maybe–just maybe–it has WAY more to do with how he played rather than what he played. There are photos of Stevie playing a Les Paul, and I’ll bet he still sounded like SRV. And it works in the opposite way, too; when we hear someone copping that Stevie tone, we still know it isn’t Stevie!

I went on and on like this, and after a short time I was reminded of something I read from an interview with Randall Smith of Mesa Engineering. “[His QC guy] only knows one chord and one note, but he plays them with more conviction than anyone I know.” That stuck with me, and made me think even harder about the relationship between chords and conviction.

 

When I was just learning guitar, I had a really tough time with chord changes. I’m fortunate now that I’m able to play well enough to receive compliments on my tone and style after shows and it means a lot to me. What always strikes me as funny is when someone tells me I’m “gifted.” I’m flattered and I accept it wholeheartedly, never invalidating that most humbling of compliments with a negative, “Oh, I suck” kind of response. The truth of the matter is that while music is indeed a gift, I had to work incredibly hard for it.

A confession: It took me three whole years to be able to change chords adequately. No kidding. My hands just would not do it. My teachers we patient, but always thought that I wasn’t doing my homework. Sometimes they were right, but in all seriousness, I just couldn’t maneuver around the ‘board. So, while I was learning all of those difficult chord changes, I’d take breaks and just play one chord at a time.

When it comes to exercising or having to do more mundane or even creative tasks, I like a certain level of distraction to be built-in. That has more to do with my “wiring” and myriad neuroses than it does with preferences, but all things being equal I like noise. It keeps me focused while allowing another part of my mind to wander and entertain its flights of fancy. As a young guitarist, I’d watch TV while performing my scales. So, there I’d be, watching Knight Rider or Star Trek: The Next Generation while strumming one note or chord throughout the entire episode.

After a short time, I noticed that, depending on how I strummed, I could get different sounds out of my acoustic guitar. Notes seemed more mellow towards the neck. If I picked right next to the bridge, the tone was thinner and more biting. I tried picking at the 12th fret and was greeted by harp-like bell overtones! I was shocked!

After that, experimenting with picking positions became a standard exercise in my practice routine. Whether I’m practicing alone or with a band one thing I’ll always do is pick a few chords in our progressions and really work on them. It could mean picking intensely near the bridge or right next to the fretting hand; other times I’ll bring in my favorite trick, holding a chord and letting one string open just to see what sounds great. Others, especially when using my ES-355 or Jazzmaster, I’ll hold the chord and pick behind the bridge for extra flavor. Because of this, there are days when, if you ask me how I’m doing, I can’t tell you but I can play it for you.

The point I’m trying to make is that the possibilities are endless, which is one of my favorite things about the electric guitar. I feel that even though you can master scales and modes and memorize every chord inversion there is, you can never truly master the instrument. There’s so much one can do with that instrument, either on its own or by augmenting your tone with a pedal or unorthodox amping technique, and there’s no measure by which we know we’re finished. It’s beautiful and endlessly enthralling. One of my many mottos: “Mistakes are never mistakes.” Failure is the great teacher, is she not?

Next time you practice, take some time to hear your playing for what it is. When’s the last time you really listened to yourself anyway? How about making a basic recording of yourself playing one chord over and over. Try playing it different each time and see if you can hear the difference. Think about phrasing, timing and all of that of course, but really listen to one chord.

Discover how changing the pick position- how you hold it or where you strum- can have myriad tonal consequences. Play that chord hard, then strum softly. Really think about your individual tone and how you’d like to sound. Do they match? Try just playing an E major root-position chord with as much gusto and conviction as you can muster, then make sure it translates to G, A, Bmi… any of ‘em! I promise you won’t be sorry!

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Raise Your Action: A Plea

Finding the balance: low action = easy playability, higher action = great tone.

I know this is going to sound counter-cultural to those in tune with the guitar world at large, but here goes: raise your action.

*Deep breath*

I’m as much a fan of low, slinky action as the next guy, so far be it from me to make judgements and decrees like I’m the de facto leader of the free musical world. It’s just a friendly suggestion, one that I’ll detail below before anyone can throw wah pedals at my head.

Depending on your playing style, low action could be the order of the day. For example, playing fast licks in a metal band is usually well-served by having the lowest action possible on your axe. Most of us like our guitars to play like ‘butter’, as easy as it possibly can be so nothing gets in the way of our fingers. I’m that way, too.

Many of us look for low action as the sign of a good set up, but we so easily forget that strings need room to vibrate in order to make sound. The strings on our guitars vibrate much more wildly than we can see with the naked eye. Because of this, raising your action even slightly will allow notes to ring out with more body and fullness, and you might also find that sustain has increased. The benefits don’t stop there!

In the case of acoustic instruments, the bigger payoff might also be the increase in volume that comes from higher action. If you follow this blog (and I hope that you do) you’ll know that I was recently cast in a theatrical production of a show called This Land, a play not so much about the great Woody Guthrie as much as it is about what he saw and wrote about. In my humble and slightly biased opinion, it’s a beautiful show, and one in which I’m extremely proud to play a part.

The show is performed entirely acoustically, meaning there are no mics around to reinforce the sound we’re making on stage. This was initially vexing for me as my poor Gibson J-45, once crushed during an overseas flight, was having trouble keeping up. Since the accident, the guitar didn’t sound as good as it used to, with spongy response and terrible intonation. And, because the guitar suffered cracks and loose braces, the top had bowled up, making it nearly impossible to play comfortably unless the saddle was bottomed-out. Without that downward pressure on the saddle, the guitar sounded anemic and quiet.

During the first week of rehearsals, Music Director Edd Key asked me to take a solo in the song “This Land”. I played my heart out, but no one heard it over the banjo and other guitars playing along. This bummed me out to no end, and so I finally found the reason I’d been looking for to perform a neck reset on the guitar. I had been putting off the procedure for some time, but this was the only way to achieve playable action whilst retaining a tall saddle, which is key for projection and good tone.

Even though I’ve done this many times, there was still an “Oh, shit!” moment waiting for me once I had the neck off of my guitar.

Weeks later, when the neck reset was complete, I cut a new bone saddle for the guitar but made certain to keep it as high as I could without making the guitar unplayable. Even before I had chosen a final saddle height, strumming an open E chord yielded a huge increase in projection and dynamics, with all of the midrange fullness I had been missing.

I experimented for days looking for the perfect string height, taking the guitar home between performances to shave down the saddle, and once grafting on a tiny sliver of bone to the bottom of the saddle when I accidentally went a little too far. Now, where my guitar once was splashy and lacking detail, it’s loud and authoritative, with note definition and that low-mids thump I associate with great Gibson acoustic guitars. My guitar sounds livelier, more present, and now I’m happy to report that I have the opposite problem of perhaps having too much volume. I’m only using the guitar on three songs in the show now because I’m afraid of overpowering vocals or other instruments!

I’ve settled on an action that’s higher, but not too high. My low E is around .110″ above the 12th fret, and the high E is just a bit lower at .090″. This is just a bit higher than recommended by Gibson’s factory specs, and a huge difference from the .065″/.050″ E-e split I had going on before. When I was plugging in most of the time, I didn’t really notice the acoustic tone I was getting, so that worked out fine for me. I don’t mind a touch of buzz and I’m hard on the guitar, so I thought nothing of it.

The increase in action did give me some trouble initially with regards to playability. It took some time for my hands to get used to this stiffer action, but after a week of rehearsals (this is a 4-5 hour affair each night) I thought nothing of it. I’m getting around just as easily as before, but now I’m actually being heard! And it’s had a wonderful impact on my electric skills as well, enabling me to be a bit quicker and more precise. That’s a tune we can all dance to!

I told you this story to illustrate some of the benefits of higher action on acoustic guitars, but the same truths apply to electrics as well. The action on my electric guitars is considerably lower than on my acoustics, but even a half-turn of the thumb wheel on a TOM bridge can have a huge impact on tone, feel and sustain. Ever feel like your guitar doesn’t have enough punch in the lower register? Try raising your action by .010″ and see if it doesn’t help. Also, dialing in a bit of relief in the neck can help there as well.

Of course, string height also alters your setup, and if you stick with it you may want to adjust intonation and pickup height to taste. For now, give it a shot as-is, and see what you think. For me, this little change makes a huge difference. Once the show’s over I’ll likely take the action back down a tad, but for now the balance of playability and projection is top-notch for my needs, and I’m having a lot more fun with the guitar than I used to.

Maybe raising your action isn’t for you, but try to think outside of the low action=good guitar bias we all live with. You may find that tone you’ve always heard in your head waiting for you on the other side!

-Michael James Adams

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