Tag Archives: electronics

Agents of Shield…ing: A Guide to Guitar Shielding

Single coil pickups are the source of some of my favorite sounds on the planet. As a player who cut his teeth on humbucker-equipped instruments, I thought I had it all figured out until I stumbled upon my first good Telecaster. And when I found the Jazzmaster––rather, when it found me––I finally knew how to get that sound that I’ve had in my head since I started playing.

As good as they sound, the problem of 60 cycle hum has been and will always be persistent, though many of us who swear by single coil pickups have either simply gotten used to it. Some have even developed tricks to mitigating unwanted noise, like finding that magically noiseless spot on stage and staying put, using a volume pedal to kill your signal when you’re not playing, or adding a hum eliminator of some kind to your signal chain.

Those are all fine ideas, but in the war against noise, the best, first line of defense is shielding.

The Front Lines

Shielding the guitar entails lining the control and pickup cavities with a layer of electrically conductive material in order to reject as much outside RF (Radio Frequency) interference as possible. I say “as much… as possible” because shielding alone won’t kill 100% of the interference, but the difference between ‘with’ and ‘without’ it is staggering.

This is a must-have modification for all of my personal guitars and one that I recommend wholeheartedly to customers and friends alike.

Which Material?

I prefer to use foil tape over shielding paint for a few reasons, the main ones being that paint requires more than a few coats to work properly, as well as being much more difficult to test for continuity using conventional methods. After all, paint is paint; graphite particles suspended in paint have much greater resistance than one layer of foil. Plus, I just like working with foil; as Data might say, “I have become accustomed to its sensory input patterns.”

Copper tape is generally considered to be superior to aluminum, but I’ve had good results with both. While there’s no contest that copper is indeed the better conductor, I haven’t found it to be so much better that it’s worth the additional price. I plan on revisiting this in the future, but for the purposes of this blog we’ll be using aluminum.

Doing the Deed

Now, I’ve removed enough balled-up foil over the years to know that just because I find something easy to work with, that doesn’t make it so. The truth is, shielding a guitar yourself for the first time––even the first few times––isn’t an easy thing to do. Trying to cleanly line a cavity while simultaneously ensuring that all of your pieces have continuity with each other can be a maddening exercise. Here’s how I do the job cleanly and efficiently:

What You Need

-Foil tape

-A razor blade of some description

-A multimeter to test continuity

I prefer to use a roll of adhesive-backed foil for this job, easily obtained from the hardware store of your choosing. You can also order aluminum or copper tape from most guitar parts suppliers but they normally sell it in lesser quantities and at a premium. Be sure that the foil tape you use has conductive adhesive, as many brands use a non-conductive backing that makes this job much trickier and more labor-intensive. It’s incredibly frustrating to do a nice, clean job only to discover that none of it works.

And honestly, don’t bother with spray adhesive and plain foil. It’s messy and easy to ruin.

I use the same box cutter blades I always have, but any good blade will do the trick. An X-Acto knife would be an asset here, its long handle allowing for more fine control and a better view of what you’re cutting.

Tracing

I begin by unspooling an appropriate length of tape for the rout in question. I trace the shape of the rout onto the foil by firmly pressing my index finger along its edges. At this stage it’s crucial to remember that you’re tracing a two-dimensional version of a three-dimensional cavity. Take care to anticipate the way depths might change and how wires are routed through the body. Each rout will need its own tracing, and it’s important to know how they’ll all fit together.

Cutting

After I’ve traced the shape onto the tape, I use my razor blade to cut it out, making sure to press hard enough to cut through the backing paper. Once satisfied with the cutout, I’ll peel off the backing and line the bottom of the cavity with it. Because the top of a rout is generally the same shape as the bottom, it’s usually a good fit.

Lining the Cavity

When it comes to lining the sides of the cavity, I prefer to use a single piece of tape if I can help it; one continuous piece of foil is always more reliable than a few pieces spliced together. I crudely measure the length of the cavity walls, then cut slightly more foil from the roll than I need. Backing removed, it’s a simple job to line the sides of the rout. I’ll then trim down the excess material for a clean look.

Leave an Overhang

Be sure to leave a bit of an overhang, preferably in the vicinity of a screw hole. Doing so ensures contact between the foil on the body and the foil that we’ll be installing on the pickguard, something which many folks seem to forget.

Don’t Forget the Pickguard

Shielding works best when it’s comprehensive, so to really get the job done, you absolutely must line the pickguard as well. Shielding the guard is a much simpler, almost thoughtless enterprise, requiring only a few strips of foil to completely cover the cavities hidden by the scratch plate. I like to completely cover the surface of the guard and then cut out the control and pickup routs.

Checking continuity

Before you button up the guitar, it’s a good idea to double-check continuity between all of those bits of foil using a multimeter. Most have a function for conductivity, such as the unit shown here. When the probes are electrically connected to each other, the unit emits a beep, removing the guesswork and ensuring that you’ve adequately lined your guitar cavities.

Here I am, checking continuity on a single strip of foil for some reason

Troubleshooting 

If you find that two pieces of foil tape aren’t properly connected, or if you used foil with non-conductive adhesive, you can fix that by making a little bridge from one piece to the other. Cut a small strip of foil and mate it face-down to the back of a much wider piece of tape, then simply stick it across the seam between the non-conductive areas. Bam! Connection.

Once you’re satisfied with your work, reinstall the electronic components and screw the guard back into place. When you plug in again, you will be greeted with a much quieter instrument.

UPDATED: 9/27/17

Speak of the devil, check this out: loose foil stapled into the control cavity. That’s a new one for me. Don’t do this either.

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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.

IMG_3368-imp

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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“I’m Feeling Supersonic”, a Squier Super-Sonic Upgrade/Mod Guide

IMG_6309By Michael James Adams
Recently, a long-held dream of mine came true: finally owning a Vista Series Squier Super-Sonic.

When Squier released the Super-Sonic in the late 1990s, I was immediately smitten with its reverse-offset body and headstock, fast looks and the sparkly blue finished model in particular. I had to have one. Unfortunately, it took until May of 2013 – 17 years after it was released – to make that dream a reality. Why wait so long?

For one, I had never seen one in person as none of the guitar shops in my area were willing to take a gamble on a flashy Squier guitar. I think the look of the thing scared them off, and soon I became caught up in other instruments. I consider myself lucky to have owned quite a few cool pieces in my day, but once a month or so my mind would return to the Super-Sonic, which has become a bit of a collector’s item due to its rarity, and players are seeking them out for their short scale and more familiar control layout as compared to the model’s close relative, the Fender Jaguar.

I finally found one for sale via Craigslist, and this one happened to be in Ohio. The guy was open to shipping and payment via PayPal, and was totally up-front about the broken pickup selector switch, a few scratches and lack of a case. I’ve never been scared off by a guitar having been ‘played in’, as they say, and because I was able to negotiate a better price I had no hesitation in pulling the trigger.

Once the guitar arrived, it was clearly in great shape. Because of the sparkly finish it was really difficult to detect the scars the seller had mentioned, but once I found them they turned out to be mere surface abrasions that easily polished out. Win for me! There was an added strap button and the switch tip had unfortunately snapped-off and was hopelessly lost years ago.

Without hesitation, I set about bringing this treasure up to spec in the hopes I’d be able to play it loud and proud at a forthcoming gig. As Ten would say, “Allons-y!”

Electronics

Even though I’d been pining for a Super-Sonic for years, I was also well aware of their apparent shortcomings. Probably the biggest detractors from these amazing Japanese-made guitars are the pickups: Duncan-designed and produced in South Korea, these pickups are known for flabby, muddy sound and insane amounts of squeal. Once I finally had one in my hands, I knew instantly why so many disliked them. They’d have to go.

IMG_7380-impLucky for me, our good friends at Fastback Custom Guitars here in Seattle had just released their vintage-inspired ’59 Zebras, a set of pickups that aim to replicate that vintage Gibson sound with a slight modern twist. Not only do they sound great, but they also look the part, making them a beautiful addition to the already flashy nature of this guitar. A definite upgrade, and you can read my review of these impressive pickups here.

Next on the docket was replacing that broken pickup selector switch. Truth be told, I would have replaced it anyway, as I have little confidence in plastic-backed Asian market devices, having broken plenty of them in my day. Yes, my heart truly belongs to Switchcraft, and their short model was just the thing I needed for this project. Solidly built and just the right size, the switch also has a satisfying amount of resistance when flipping from pickup to pickup. AllParts also chooses randomly which color of tip to send, so I definitely lucked out with the correct black.

Since we’re being honest, I should admit that I just don’t trust the electronics found in most Japanese-made guitars. I’m not saying that the stock parts are unusable, but knowing how hard I am on guitars it’s always a good idea for me to fully upgrade the wiring harness. Pots, switches, wiring – all of it goes. I used cloth wire, CTS 500K pots and a .022 Orange Drop cap.

If you’re at all familiar with this model, you’ll note that the two controls found on its chrome plate aren’t what you’d expect; instead of the usual vol/tone combo, what we have here is two controls acting as individual volumes for each pickup. A nice thought, but I’m the kind of guy that likes having a tone control and a good capacitor on hand. I set about wiring the guitar in the more familiar 1950s Gibson tradition, for which I always use a 1950’s wiring diagram, which allows the pickups and tone cap to work together more transparently.

Hardware

I didn’t go quite this far because a) I’m quite content with the bridge as-as and b) I’m only willing to indulge my obsessive-compulsive upgrades to a certain extent. Even so, the original bridge and hardware aren’t bad at all. In fact, they’re quite good.

The original tuners work brilliantly, but if I were in the market for replacements I’d be looking to my favorite brand Tone Pros. Their Kluson-style machines are made with higher quality materials than the originals, and are super authentic in look but precision-machined for modern reliability. Wonderful stuff, there.

As for the bridge, it’s a great unit that stays in tune nicely. I could see myself going for a Callaham bridge at some point, but I’m not necessarily looking for true vintage Strat tones, you know? Man, what I’d really like to do is pull the trem, fill the cavity and route the body for a Jazzmaster/Jaguar vibrato and a Mastery. I won’t, but that would be amazing.

Cosmetics

Flashy as she was, there were a few visual detractors that I couldn’t simply gloss over; I’m a picky guy, I guess.

For one, the original knobs were a good bit smaller than standard Jaguar knobs, and of course won’t fit on the US pots I dropped in the guitar, so they had to go. I ordered some genuine Fender replacement knobs, which looked very, very new when they arrived. Given that my guitar had been played hard and had tarnished hardware, it didn’t make aesthetic sense to have bright, shiny knobs on the control plate. So, I set about the task of lightly aging them to match, using Other Mike’s ’63 Jazz Bass as my template.

IMG_6652IMG_6650

Using my coarse-grit polishing pads I was able to de-gloss the knobs sufficiently, and after that I sprayed some lightly tinted clear coat on them to soften the look of the indicator. After dirtying them up a bit, I was left with knobs that had the perfect well-worn attire that belied their age.

The other eyesore about the guitar was that the previous owner had added a strap button on the upper bout, a common mod for these guitars. If you didn’t know, the Super-Sonic has its upper strap button on the neck plate, utilizing a longer anchor screw to accommodate the button itself. Some people really don’t like this – I didn’t at first! – but having gotten used to the way attaching the strap to the neck plate button shifts the guitar forward I couldn’t see myself using the other ever again. So, I set about filling in the hole and making it as invisible as possible.

IMG_6795I doweled the hole with some scrap wood we had laying around the shop, and after the glue was dry my aim was to create a perfectly-shaped surface for whatever new finish I would lay on top. Because the addition of the new strap button had chewed out some extra wood, I had to use wood putty to fill in the missing bits. Simple enough!

After allowing the putty to cure for a few days, I was stuck wondering exactly how I was going to recreate the look of blue sparkle finish in such a small area. If it were a solid color or even a burst, that would be a far easier task; laying down sparkles in a convincing way would be tricky, especially when it comes to the way the original finish reflected light…

Then an idea struck me: “What about glitter glue?”, I wondered to myself. Soon enough, I found myself on the hunt for the right shade of glitter at Michael’s, which was appropriate. I stumbled upon the Recollections brand and found exactly what I was looking for: Peacock Blue.

That’s a nice match, innit? It’s even better out of the bottle. Michael’s only carried the two smallest flake sizes in their stores, so the next one up would have been perfect. But hey, I nailed the color, so why complain?

It took a few days to get this right, honestly; laying down layer after layer of glue and waiting for it to reduce as it dried, never quite being able to predict how the flakes would lay. Very tedious. After I achieved the right about of sparkle density, I covered it up with super glue, which polished to a high gloss after it dried. I think it came out pretty well, considering. I mean, it’s not an exact match, but it’s pretty damn close. And now I don’t have an extra strap button hanging out, nor do I have to deal with an open wound on my beloved instrument.

I forgot to upload this shot in my initial post, but better late than never. Like I said, I'm super proud of this!

I forgot to upload this shot in my initial post, but better late than never.

Like I said, I’m really proud of how this turned out. Up close, you can definitely see the scar, but from a few paces away, the mind simply glosses over the offending spot, with the sparkly finish blending together in a pleasing way. Success!

The Final Product

Totally stoked.

Actually, I just noticed that the added strap button is still installed in this picture. I’ll replace it later. Grr/argh.

IMG_6642-imp

– MJA

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