Tag Archives: guitar tech

Demystifying Part 5: The Fender Mute

After a years-long hiatus, the Demystifying series is back!

First, I need to say thanks to all of you that have checked out the blog, and in particular the many that have shared and reposted these articles. Because of their popularity, Premier Guitar recently asked me to write an offset guitar setup guide for publication, which you can find in the May 2017 issue. AVAILABLE NOW IN STORES AND ONLINE!

So thanks to all of our readers, customers, and friends––without your support, this never would have happened.
The one bit of hardware I’ve not discussed previously is often thought of as a vestigial, an hold-over from a different time fit for the bin. Ultimately, it’s up to you if you’re ever going to use the thing, and to be honest, it seems like many don’t. However, if you’ve ever been curious about it, or if you use it but find it problematic, then friend, I come bearing glad tidings. I am of course talking about the Fender Mute.

A feature shared by both the Jaguar and Bass VI – though not across all models or years of production – this curious metal plate was originally intended to be a surrogate for palm muting. Couldn’t be a simpler mechanism, really: the mute is secured to the body by two screws, and the long bolt in the middle pivots on a spring-loaded plunger sunk into the guitar body. The mute can be engaged by pressing on the plate, shifting it back and forth in place, causing the foam pad to make contact with the underside of the strings.

The Fender Mute leaves the player’s picking hand totally free for strumming or sustain-less leads. This gives the device a sound distinct from traditional palm muting techniques, one widely used on instrumental surf recordings of the 1960s. What’s it sound like? I just happen to have an example for you here:

Like the Fender offset bridge, the mute requires some extra thought to set up correctly. Really, the whole procedure comes down to balance; the mute has to be set to engage smoothly while allowing the bridge to be lowered enough for playable action. If the mute sits too high, the bridge will rest on its mounting screws. Too low, and the mute won’t engage at all.

It’s best to begin with the mute installed on its own––leave the bridge for later. Remember those two mounting screws I mentioned earlier? You’ll need to find the lowest possible setting for them where the mute still pivots. Try screwing them in all the way, then backing off until the foam side of the mute pops up and stays put. Then, install the bridge and make sure it doesn’t sit on top of the mute mounting screws.

It may take a few tries, but you’ll soon find that balance. When pressing on the plate, the foam side should rise up to meet the strings but not push them up, then stay firmly in place. Pushing down on that side should disengage the mute, again with a firm action. If the mute doesn’t stay in place, or is difficult to move, take the bridge off and keep adjusting those mounting screws.

Top: disengaged. Bottom: engaged

It’s worth noting that, In order to get the mute set up correctly, your guitar will need to be shimmed as described in part two of the Demystifying series. A sufficient amount of neck angle is crucial, otherwise there may not be enough room under the bridge for the mute to be functional.

One problem that can crop up with the mute is that it pulls the strings sharp when it’s engaged. Often, this can be due to the mute sitting too high, which effectively shortens the scale length of the instrument. If that’s the case, cranking down the mounting screws should solve this issue for most players. Too-hard foam can also be the culprit, pushing up on the strings and raising pitch. Substituting a softer piece of foam here can work wonders (more on that later). Alternatively, one can easily shave off the bit of foam that touches the strings.

If you have a vintage Jaguar or Bass VI, you’re likely familiar with a problem that arises when the original foam on vintage instruments, due to age or contact with sweat: deterioration. This happens to pickup foam as well, where it hardens and compresses, rendering pickup height adjustment difficult or even impossible.

Hardened, sticky mute foam on a refinished ’63 Jaguar. You can see the gooey residue on the low E side of the mute.

If this happens to your mute foam, I have to tell you there’s no point in trying to salvage it. Touching or removing the stuff, you’ll notice that what was once foam is now a slightly gooey, sticky mess. Even on a totally original ‘60s guitar, leaving foam in this state is at the very least off-putting and potentially problematic, what with the black residue left behind on contact with skin or strings. Seriously, that stuff is disgusting.

Do yourself a favor and replace that foam. I’ll admit, it’s often the only part we’d even thing of replacing on a perfect vintage Jaguar. Replacement Fender foam can be found on eBay, but it seems that every parts supplier is out of stock right now. In a pinch, we use this. The link will take you to some weather stripping foam that’s just slightly taller than the 3/8” by 1/4” Jaguars have from the factory, but it should work like a charm. If the extra height concerns you, the same brand has a version with a height of 3/16″ as well.

Interestingly, this Mute wasn’t Fender’s first shot at string-dampening technology. Earlier, there was foam stuffed under the bridge covers of ‘50s Precision basses. The first Jazz Basses featured stiff pads for each individual string, while the later Mustang Bass  bridge had similar devices. Muting may make a bit more sense on bass than guitar, but give this mute system a shot and see if you can’t make it work for your brand of music. To the author, it’s a fun sound that makes some rhythm parts more interesting, and with effects added, it can bloom into something totally unique. And weird. Definitely weird.

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Mike Landis’ Very Special 1966 Jaguar: A Holiday Tale Spanning Two Decades

Happy Holidays from all of us at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar. We truly would be nothing if not for the love, support, and business of our many friends and customers. Cheers to you! In celebration of this joyous time, I’d like to tell you about something extraordinary that happened to me recently, something I couldn’t talk about because it would have spoiled a surprise.

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This 1966 Jaguar belongs to the father of my good friend Mike Landis, and it happens to be the very first offset guitar I ever encountered. I haven’t seen it in 20 years.

I vividly remember Mike pulling it out of the case on some otherwise average day in 1996. I’d never seen anything like it before—like something out of a Sci-Fi dream. The cold gleam of the Jaguar’s many control plates ignited within my young mind what felt like a fumbling musical adolescence; I didn’t know what I’d do with it if I had one, I just knew I needed it.

Sunglasses case, no less!

Sunglasses case, no less!

Holding that guitar for a brief moment two decades ago felt like some guilty, illicit pleasure. Everything inside me knew I shouldn’t have been messing with it, but the rush of getting caught made it all the more thrilling. I strummed a few chords, ignorant to the function of the switches, yet marveling at its beauty and quality of the sound I was hearing. It was clear to me then that I wasn’t worthy of such a guitar.

When Mike heard that I was coming back to my hometown of York, PA for a quick visit, he asked if I’d be able to get it back into playing shape as a Christmas gift for his dad. Of course I said yes!

That night as I stood over the guitar—the guitar—I paused for a moment before I dared touch it. I thought back to that first trespass, handling his dad’s Jaguar as if it were a priceless artifact, caught up in wonder and amazement. Surely, at that time, it had been the nicest instrument I had ever seen, let alone played. I wondered, was I worthy of it yet? I breathed, spoke aloud a quick thank you to any deity that may have been listening, and got to work. For two hours, I attended to it with the same thoughtful, careful attitude I try to lend to every instrument.

fullsizerender_1Before I arrived, Mike gave me a run-down of what the guitar might need. For starters, he wasn’t getting any sound out of the thing, and my first thought was that the Rhythm Circuit switch may have a bad solder joint. When I finally got my hands on it, the solder joints didn’t look obviously inoperable, but I thought it a safe bet to simply reflow a few key joints. This certainly helped, and suddenly I was getting sound from the Lead Circuit, with intermittent functionality of the RC.

It took a few minutes of turning the Rhythm volume and tone controls, but it turned out that those pots were just so dirty from disuse that they wouldn’t pass signal. Ideally, I’d have sprayed them out with contact cleaner, but alas, this was one thing I forgot to mention when I sent Mike my laundry list of tools I’d need to do the work. They cleaned up beautifully just by being turned over and over, and I told Mike to get some cleaner before too long.

Back in 1996, I remember asking why Mike’s dad never seemed to play the thing. The complaint then was that it just didn’t play all that great, and that was still a problem today. I don’t think the guitar had ever been set up, at least, not by someone that understands the intricacies of Fender Offset Guitars. Strung with too-light strings and with the bridge too high and saddles set at the wrong radius, it was clear that this guitar hadn’t been comfortable to play for ages.

fullsizerender_2I took the strings off, removed the bridge, and gave the guitar a thorough cleaning, from finish to frets. It wasn’t filthy by any means, but the frets showed signs of disuse and the finish had a dull shine. It’s Christmas, after all; this should feel like an entirely new guitar. After a good polish of the finish and frets, and some lemon oil for the rosewood fretboard, this guitar came right back to life.

I had Mike pick up a set of 11 gauge strings, which is usually the lightest I’ll recommend for Jaguars. I lowered and pre-radiused the saddles by eye and re-installed the bridge, intending to fine-tune it later on. To my surprise, the guitar actually played pretty well with just that done, but I decided to give the truss rod another quarter-turn to really dial in the relief. With 11s and the correct amount of neck angle, those strings weren’t going anywhere.

Because the guitar just wasn’t staying in tune before I started my work, I paid special attention to every point of contact on the strings, lubricating the nut and making sure it was properly cut for the gauge being used. Ideally, I’d like to replace the nut on this one at some point, but there just wasn’t time for that on this quick trip home. Another day, then! The trem was also wildly out of adjustment, so I zeroed in on the sweet spot for both the Trem Lock to work as intended and for optimum string tension, and the whole guitar snapped right back in to perfect functionality. Bam!

fullsizerender_3When I was finished, I hovered above the thing, not quite sure how to feel. This was the guitar from my youth that elicited such passion, though my ignorance kept me from fully embracing the model. I couldn’t believe that I was able to give back, as it were, to that first Jaguar. I dreamed about this shimmering blue guitar for years, and here I was, ready to play it as it should always have been. And play, I did; the sound, the feel, the response… it was magical.

Life has come full-circle, in a way. What an honor it was to care for this instrument! Thanks, Mike!

 

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Upgrading a Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster

FullSizeRender_1As you can imagine, I get asked about mods all the time. Recently, my new friend Brent brought his Squier J. Mascis model to me to hear my impressions of it and the many potential upgrades he was looking to have done. As-is, the JMJM is such a good guitar that many players don’t see the need for new pickups or hardware, but given the cheap price he paid and his needs, it totally made sense to do the work.

As I said before, the JMJM is a pretty cool guitar for the money. The neck feels great in your hand, the stock pickups are alright, and it has all of the right electronic appointments a Jazzmaster should have. Still, there’s room for improvement. Let’s jump in, shall we?

Tuners: Actually, these are good enough that I don’t see the need for a swap. As long as know how to string a slotted post correctly (string goes in the hole, 3-5 wraps) they work just fine. Great, actually. Even on my Squier VI!

Pickups: The stock units are pretty decent, but they are indeed P90s instead of Jazzmaster pickups, with big bar magnets and adjustable poles, with a tall coil that’s wound hot. If you want a real Jazzmaster sound, you’re not going to get it from those. Plus, as far as P90s go, I just feel there are better ones out there. I recommend a swap.

Electronics: On this particular instrument, I didn’t totally rewire the guitar. Generally, the one area where the current Squier builds fall short is the dependability of the electronics, which often develop shorts due to sloppy wiring or inferior parts. Instead, I went through and checked every wire and re-flowed some particularly bad connections. I do, however, recommend gutting the electronics and starting fresh with better components.

AOM/TOM Bridge: If you’re familiar with us, you’ll know that the AOM/TOM is the bridge we least recommend for offset guitars, both for sound and setup. Adjust-O-Matic/Tune-O-Matic bridges generally aren’t the correct radius for the most common Fender necks (7.25” and 9.5”) and even with heavy re-slotting of the saddles, it’s not always possible to totally correct that. As a result, the E strings will always feel more stiff than the others.

Additionally, even these bridges don’t always address the most common complaints with the original style bridges: buzzing and stability. This bridge already had some pretty nasty buzzing going on, which was mostly cured by re-seating the saddles. A shallow slot on the low E saddle meant that string impulsively jumped out with heavy picking as well. 

I recommend a change here, but obviously, your mileage will vary.

A Mastery bridge is almost always my first pick here, which does indeed require pulling the old AOM/TOM inserts, filling the holes, then re-drilling. Staytrem also makes a drop-in thimble replacement for these, so do keep that in mind if you’re looking for something less, well, surgical. They also used to make a drop-in replacement, but I can’t seem to find it on their site. I may be interneting improperly.

The Vibrato: I won’t totally rehash my arguments from our prior blog post on the quality issues of import vibrato units, but suffice it to say, if you’re a heavy trem user––hell, even a pedestrian––you should consider an upgrade here. Tuning stability is key, and the sloppy fit of the internals on these can be a nightmare.

In this case, we went with an American Vintage Reissue trem from eBay user trickedoutguitar, which came with the correct AVRI arm with the ever-so-lovely, gentle bend. Mastery also makes a delightful trem of their own, which I recommend highly for truly intense users.

IMG_8439So, when we finished our assessment meeting, I made my list of recommendations known. With Duncan Antiquity Is, a Mastery M1 kit, and an AVRI trem, I felt we’d pretty much covered everything. Obviously, the Mastery and pickups can be a significant investment for such an affordable guitar, but Brent wanted a guitar that would meet his needs without having to think about it ever again. Good call, says I.

After doing all of that and a proper setup by Yours Truly, I really believe we made a good instrument great. The difference in tone, unplugged and amplified, was immediately apparent. Whereas the guitar sounded pretty good plugged-in but was rather dead acoustically, the superior fit of the Mastery bridge and thimbles really made the thing come alive. And the trem? Smooth and immediate, and of course, stable as hell.

When I’m asked about my favorite Jazzmaster pickups, I always recommend Lollar, Novak, and Duncan Antiquity Is, the latter of which I feel does an excellent job of approximating the sound and response a 60+ year old black-bobbin pickup. In the case of this JMJM, we ended up with a brand new guitar, the sound of which belied its youth. Really a stunning pickup set. It has so much of the warmth and midrange complexity that’s associated with the best old pickups, woody and natural as can be.

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Brent’s finished Squier J. Mascis pictured with Artoo and Pancake

We came so close to that sound that I decided to do a comparison video of the J.Mascis  Squier up against my 1961 Jazzmaster “Pancake”, which is the greatest guitar I’ve ever played. This was all rather last minute and I didn’t yet have a proper microphone, but the iPhone did a good job showing some of the more overt differences between them. I even threw in “Artoo”, my 2007 Thin Skin with Lollars for fun. Check the video below!

In the end, Brent was absolutely blown away by his guitar, and so was I.

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To Mod or Not To Mod…

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…that is the question
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous guitar tone
Or to take arms against percieved troubles
And by opposing end them.

In the opening phrase of Act III of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character weighs in on death and suicide, the unfairness of life, and whether one is any better than the other. Likely the most quoted phrase in existence, The Bard’s universally famous question has been repeated, adapted, chopped up, parodied, and revered in innumerable ways since the great tragedy was written in or around the year 1600.

And so, in a flash of utter predictability, I’ve tweaked those first six lines to fit today’s musings, and to be honest, I think it works. The despondent prince was, in essence, comparing life and death, wondering if one had merit over the other. And when we’re modding guitars, it sometimes feels so dire, does it not?

The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks That Flesh is heir to

When customers write, call, or visit me to ask what I think of their proposed modifications, it’s an exciting prospect no matter what we end up deciding. Instruments are an intensely personal thing for musicians, so the idea that we can easily take a guitar you like and turn it into one you’ll love is why this world is so fun. Like all things, mods have their place, and can be just the thing to rejuvenate your creativity.

True, guitarists are fickle, and what works on Tuesday may be the complete wrong thing come Friday. You may have a friend that tried out a new pickup over the weekend, and blazed through the honeymoon phase and went straight on into divorce. Or take my friend, who bought that expensive boutique speaker for his Princeton and later told me, “I tried to convince myself that I liked that thing.”

I actually really like the mods done to this '70s Les Paul Recording. Many players hated the low-impedance pickups, and those brass plates look particularly good, says I.

I actually really like the mods done to this ’70s Les Paul Recording. Many players hated the low-impedance pickups, and those brass plates look particularly good, says I.

Another good friend toured with a big-time act as tech and tells the story of a night when the guitarist decided that his fuzz pedal didn’t sound right, so he asked for the spare to be put in its place. He played it for sound check, decided he didn’t like it, and had the tech replace it with the third spare, only there was never a third, so the tech put the original back in line. Immediately the response was, “Oh yeah, YEAH, that’s the one!”

And that’s how we are, including myself. From my extensive and incredibly scientific studies, I know that it takes me exactly 0.00359 seconds after performing a mod to start researching other options, even if I love what I’ve come up with. Is this due to the quest for tone we often talk about, or perhaps an inner dissatisfaction that lurks within my being? Perhaps it boils down to musicians being such staunch individualists. No matter the cause, it’s not so surprising that we’re looking for the next new thing as soon as the old new thing is, well, old.

So, when it comes to mods, whether the concept is a passing phase or a long-held belief, it’s good to have a measure of sobriety when considering chopping up your main squeeze. Here are a few things I like to consider before modding:

To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub

So you have a killer idea to finally achieve that sound in your head. Great! Sleep on it, do some research, seek out demos or schematics, should they apply. Consult a friend, a tech, or the internet. Gather as much information as you possibly can so you’re making an informed decision.

Like all projects worth undertaking, it’s a good idea to slum around forums and the like to get a feel for the kind of work you’re in for. Has someone done this mod before? With billions of people on planet Earth, chances are, yes, someone has. And though it may fly in the face of individuality, checking up on the errant post to glean insight into your desired modification is encouraged if for no other reason than learning what NOT to do!

There have been a few times when I’ve taken on a project that I’ve never done before where checking out one of my favorite forums lead me to a thread simply entitled “HELP!” that gave me all of the information I needed to ensure a fool-proof installation. From wiring a four-conductor humbucker to routing a new cavity for that fancy tremolo you bought at the guitar show, there’s a lot to learn from folks that learned the hard way.

Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all

Just like your favorite poncho, it’s good to ask, “Is this reversible?” While it’s not a make-or-break kind of question in most cases, this is a great thing to mull over before you pick up your screwdriver or Dremel. There’s no sense in utterly ruining your favorite guitar just because you wanted something different, especially with the glut of aftermarket parts out there these days.

In most cases, things like pickups are totally reversible and really only mean resoldering some connections. No big deal. Swapping necks, similar parts, bridges, all of that is totally fine and you should do it. There are a few cases where I’d caution against such things, and usually that’s when we get into the pristine vintage guitar realm.

Or take this old Gibson SG-1 that I modified for a neck pickup for a customer. Neither desirable nor rare, these guitars are ripe for mods.

Or take this old Gibson SG-1 that I modified for a neck pickup for a customer. Neither desirable nor rare, these guitars are ripe for mods.

If you’re modding, say, a Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster, go for it! There are so many of those guitars out there that routing for Wide Range pickups or adding one behind the bridge isn’t going to matter or affect the value in any appreciable way. For a $200 guitar, they’re perfect for this application, and I can tell you that they’re solid testbeds, having worked on more than a few. I also have very little problem doing the above to Fender AVRI guitars, again, because they’re plentiful. Unless you’re thinking of selling your black ’62 Jaguar reissue, don’t feel too bad about omitting the rhythm circuit or slamming some lipstick pickups in there.

If, however, you have a 100% original 1958 Jazzmaster but you really think it needs humbuckers and a Floyd Rose, I’ll probably champion the cause of the unspoiled instrument in front of me rather than simply agreeing and getting out my router.

I’m reminded of a customer we had last year that owned an absolutely mint ’65 Fender Mustang in Sonic Blue. I mean, this was an absolutely untouched, beautiful instrument in every respect. The customer, however, didn’t like blue, and asked if I would refinish it in red. That was one of the few jobs I flat-out declined, and instead suggested we should sell the instrument and acquire either a red one in like condition (for about the same price, too) or buy a guitar that had been mucked with, and refinish that one to the desired color. Eventually, we did the latter, and as far as I know, he ended up being really happy with the new guitar.

In my view, there’s no reason to carve up an immaculate instrument when there are literally thousands of already modded and refinished vintage guitars out there. Sure, things like sound, feel, and playability come into play here, but those things can usually be addressed rather easily. When it comes to devaluing an aged instrument, I try to think a few decades ahead and wonder what I’d think of myself for doing so. That solves more than a few problems.

Of course, if your old friend has been refinished, routed for humbuckers, missing its original guard and decal… then it’s either a good candidate for restoration, or you should do all of those mods you’ve been thinking of! Me, I’m always on the lookout for a cheap, routed-out, refinished ’63 Jaguar that I can do my own thing with.

Also worth mentioning: sometimes you don’t have to do anything drastic to your guitar, what with pickup makers like Curtis Novak putting Mosrite pickups, PAFs, Wide Range humbuckers and Gold Foils in more familiar bobbins.

How about this poor '60s Mustang we adopted last year?

How about this poor ’60s Mustang we adopted last year?

The insolence of Office

When I hear someone say, “It works for ____ so it’s good enough for me,” I tend to worry just a little bit. Not because the proposed mod is a bad idea, but that statement has a lot more going on than the speaker may realize.

Big-name guitarists can get what they want, generally speaking. When you have connections at your favorite guitar company, a dedicated tech or two, and the money to back up your whims, a lot of mods inevitably start to happen. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with swapping pickups in favor of something that suits your needs, but I’ve seen enough modified instruments to know that not every idea is a good one.

A modded '70s Telecaster bass used by studio musician Buell Neidlinger.

A modded ’70s Telecaster bass used by studio musician Buell Neidlinger.

One of the things that often separates the average musician and the touring pro is that they have an army of techs at their disposal, paid well (I hope) to swap those pickups, change out bridges, and glue splintered wood back together on the quick so the show can go on. Some things work, and some things don’t, while others require a lot of attention to keep in check.

I know of one such touring pro that had his tech quickly install a brass nut on his instrument, searching for that brighter sound he craved. When I worked on the guitar some time later, I discovered that the nut slots weren’t cut properly, so the strings were binding up, causing tuning problems. Obviously, this wasn’t ideal. 

The thing is, the player never noticed it, because he never played solos or bent strings, only big chords. He didn’t know about the problem his guitar had because he had a tech to tune it between songs!

The Undiscovered [Flavor] Country

That kind of sounds like a Shakespearean cigarette ad, doesn’t it?

Though this article may sound cautious, please don’t take it as a strict warning against figuring out that sound in your head. At most, I’m just offering a few thoughts to help the potential guitar modder some guidance. What matters most is that you’re happy with the instrument you’re using, and if a cool mod gets you there, then it’s a good one. Some mods might be more effective and less intrusive than others, but there is merit in tweaking a design to work for you.

The old adage “You won’t know until you try” certainly applies. So I say, go for it! But maybe have a good think about it first.

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1969 Gibson SG Restoration

IMG_8037 - Version 2-impOver the summer, I picked up this 1969 Gibson SG Standard husk, totally stripped and poorly refinished in natural. The neck was cracked, some wood at the bridge area was replaced and filled, the contours were sanded away and altered, and before the finish was applied it seems like the body was sanded with nothing greater than 120 grit. Super rough, really disappointing!
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I paid about $400 for the wood, and decided that this would be a worthy candidate for total restoration. With all I’ve learned over the years (beginning in my dad’s woodshop as a kid – I was listening!) I felt as though I was finally able to tackle this kind of thing. I’ve been working on guitars for years now, and in the past few I’ve really focused on finishing techniques, but on a much smaller scale; fill-ins and color matching are more my specialty, but I thought, ‘Hey, why not dive in? What’s the worst that could happen?’ At the very least, I might end up with a vintage guitar that I’d enjoy playing.

Although I discussed this project openly, I didn’t advertise it for sale or anything because, to be perfectly frank, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d end up with. I trusted in my abilities and my aptitude for learning quickly and adjusting my process on the fly, but this was my first total refinish, so I wanted to make sure it was good before I went spouting off about how we offer full restorations as one of our many services.IMG_6017-impWith all of the work that needed to be done, I absolutely had to strip the body again. I mean, I’d have to rework the carves on the body anyway, and the finish was really thick and the wood didn’t have the proper SG look. You see, one of the things that sets 1960s SGs apart from those made in the 1970s and beyond is those deep, gorgeous body bevels that make them look so much meaner and tougher than the others.

Given my obsessive-compulsive wiring, I set to work with sandpaper and a block with the mission of restoring the depth, sharpness and allure of the carves.

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Soon, I had the body stripped and sanded from 120-320 while I reshaped absolutely everything, from the horns to the backside bevels, to the neck joint and even the slightly sharper late ’60s bottom carves behind the tailpiece. The hardest part was the interior curves of the neck, for which I studied some hi-res photos as Mike Ball’s original 1968 SG for reference.

After sanding to 400 grit, the next step was grain filler, which is really important to getting the right look to that old Gibson Cherry. See, I searched the internet like crazy for examples of good refinished SGs to pattern my work after, and I couldn’t find anything. I saw a ton of refins, but few that looked quite right. I took it as a challenge to really dig into what makes these guitars look the way they do, and ebony grain filler is a big, big part of that late ’60s look. (everyone else seemed to either skip this step entirely or use a neutral color of filler that didn’t show off the grain of the mahogany.)
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Always up for a challenge, I decided that instead of purchasing proper spray equipment or building a spray booth, I was going to do this in true D.I.Y. fashion: I would only use only amateur finishing supplies to really get the feel for the pros and cons of what’s available to the first-time restorer. This meant rattle can finishes (I used Stew-Mac products entirely) and power tool buffing pads.

IMG_7075I was a little concerned when I sprayed the first coat of cherry. I expected it to be bright as the first run was a tack coat, laying down some color so the next coat sticks. But it was RED, not cherry. When spraying, I usually spray a coat, then wait 30 minutes and spray another. Two hours later, I’ll do another and let it go overnight. After two bright red coats, I started to get really worried, but I put it out of my mind on a Saturday night and came back on Tuesday to discover that the color had darkened considerably. That made me happy.

After the red, I sprayed some amber laquer to gently age the finish. As you know, nitro finishes ‘fade’ over timeIMG_7323, so the clear coat takes on a yellowish hue, which contributes to the softened look of older colors. This step really made all of the difference! The color just got more rich from then on, and after that, clear coats!

With some elbow grease and 1000-1500 grit wet sanding, as well as buffing on my wheel with various grades of compound, I ended up with a shiny finish far beyond what I expected.

Seriously, I still can’t believe that I did this with rattle cans and elbow grease! IMG_8036-imp

I sourced vintage parts all around (save for the tuners, electronics, Lollar imperial pickups and pickguard) and I couldn’t be happier with the results. It looks right, plays beautifully, and sounds freaking amazing.

Oh! And a note on the spot of wear on the horn: that’s fully intentional. I lightly aged this guitar, but the one rally cry against relic guitars that I hear more than any other is that the wear doesn’t have a story. Well, this one does: when I had all of the parts collected, I took a long, hard look at the guitar and thought about what fictional character may have used it before I came along. So, the story with that wear is, the previous owner stashed his picks right between the guard and the body, and when you’re in the heat of a hot solo, you don’t have time to be careful. IMG_8035-imp

If you’re on Tumblr you may recognize this same guitar from the many, many happy photographs of DeeBeeUs, one of the kindest souls on the web. He owns this one now, and from what I can tell, he’s very, very happy with it. -MJA

 

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#WEEZERQUEST: A RIVERS RUNS THROUGH IT

Rivers, if you ever read this, I have to apologize. It seems like every article where you’re interviewed or discussed has an eye roll-inducing pun in the title and I just… I couldn’t resist. I promise I’m at least 30% more clever than this. [citation needed]

IMG_5783 - Version 2-impOur ragtag Weezer tribute band My Name Is Jonas Brothers played an absolutely kick-ass gig back on Black Friday, and the crowd was one of the best I’ve ever encountered. People were screaming lyrics, having a blast, and after the show I was told more than once that we sounded just like Weezer in the ‘90s, even that a few concertgoers had been “trying to see us” for some time. That felt special. Then I realized I’ve been slacking, and I know that perhaps tens of you are foaming at the mouth for more insight into our little labor of love.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

WHEN WE BEGAN talking about the idea that would later be #weezerquest (so coined by Instagram follower and frequent commenter Dan Murphy) the only stipulation we made was as follows: Unless we were willing to put in the effort to nail those tones, we may as well not even do it. Look, there are plenty of Weezer tribute acts out there, many of which are really good bands. (At the time of this publication, there are at least three other active tribute acts in Seattle alone) However, we weren’t interested in simply being good; our goal was authenticity.

This meant A LOT of research.

I’ve Got Electric Guitar

Ric's CAR Jaguar (used mainly for cleans, most notably on "Say it Ain't So") and the Les Paul Special DC. Photo source: Weezerpedia

Ric’s CAR Jaguar (used mainly for cleans, most notably on “Say it Ain’t So”) and the Les Paul Special DC. Photo source: Weezerpedia

If there’s one thing Weezer is known for, it’s their towering, nigh-impenetrable wall of guitar, but you might be surprised to learn that the band’s first record (affectionately known as “Blue” by fans) did not rely on humbuckers to get that sound. P90s, actually.

Blue’s heavy sound is almost entirely made up of Rick Ocasek’s ’59 Les Paul Special DC run through Rivers’ distorted Mesa Mark I, as well as a Marshall SL-X for some other tracks. As much as I wanted to remain authentic, I chose early on to strike a balance between Weezer’s thick studio sound and their raw live and Pinkerton-era tones. So, instead of dropping ~$5k on a vintage guitar, I focused instead on the guitar I most associated with Weezer: Rivers’ iconic “Strat with the lightning strap.

Wearing mismatched pickups and a hardtail bridge, Rivers’ famous Blue Strat from the ’94-’01 era was the thing I idolized, so the chance to recreate it was what truly excited me in the first place. The Blue Strat isn’t a stock model, but rather an instrument purpose-built from using parts from Warmoth. It can be seen on the inside gatefold of the Blue album, and in just about every performance and promo shot of the band for 6 or so years. Having thought about that guitar for 20 years, I began collecting any images or notes I could find; there were brief excerpts from mid-‘90s interviews, disposable camera scans, and about 70 blurry screenshots from the “Say It Ain’t So” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)” videos to help me nail down the parts I needed to find.

I may have gone completely overboard.

The Hundred Acre Woodshed

Over a very short period of time, I had amassed over 200 reference images. Sadly, other than the pickups, there really isn’t a lot of concrete info to go on, and working off of decades-old blurry photos isn’t an ideal way to view obscure parts. Full disclosure: I’m not bold enough to call up Weezer themselves and ask them if they would weezer BS EDITplease answer my particularly nerdy questions.

In a very short time, it became obvious that Rivers’ guitar isn’t just any Sonic Blue double fat Strat. What I had previously assumed to be a cobbling together of available parts seemed more to me like a completely intentional build, specific to Rivers’ Hair Metal-influenced technique and the perceived shortcomings of his previous instruments. Whether or not this is true is pure speculation, but in following the breadcrumb trail of his prior employs to this guitar, a methodology certainly emerged.

Thanks to the efforts of other Weezer-obsessed fans, and mainly to Weezer Historian and Tech Karl Koch, we are blessed with Weezerpedia, which has, among bios and background info on rare songs, a rather comprehensive equipment timeline for each member. Because of this, I was able to get a basic sketch of the guitar I was replicating.

X-Ray Specs

From photos, we know that The Blue Strat is a hardtail model with 22 frets, rosewood fingerboard, with a tortoise shell pickguard mounted to its blue body. Thanks to Weezerpedia, we also know that Rivers’ chosen pickup combo is a black Seymour Duncan TB59 in the bridge and a creme DiMarzio Super II in the neck, both F-spaced. Watching Rivers switch pickups during televised performances confirmed my suspicions that his electronics were as simple as they could get: a three way switch and a master volume and tone. (Actually, it’s not a tone knob, but we’ll get to that in a bit)

Other parts were more difficult to discern. For one, I could only find one really good shot of the tuners, which only shows me the shape of the buttons, which I combined with a side shot from the “Say it Ain’t So” video to determine that they are Sperzels. A lack of reflections led me to believe they were finished in satin chrome.

Another brief mystery surrounded the control knobs, which I assumed were the usual black V/T combo, but to my surprise, they’re both marked VOLUME. Although I had two volumes on my guitar for a while, I ended up with a “MASTER” knob, which turned out to be from a late ‘70s Fender Starcaster. I thought that was more badass, so I deviated from authenticity there. Booooooooo.

However, one question held up my work longer than any other: “What the hell is that bridge?”

***
Like I said, we know the guitar has a hard tail bridge, and photos of the back of the body clearly show string ferrules. Easy, right? Not at all, really. Compare this everyday hard tail bridge to a screen shot of Rivers playing The Blue Strat:

Bridge Comparison
Seriously, what the hell is that? That fat sustain block tells me it’s some kind of ‘70s/‘80s thing, but without ultra-clear shots, I really didn’t know where to start. In the end, this question stole over ten hours of my life.

I searched high and low for information about the particulars of this bridge, but found nothing. After hours leafing through photo after photo, I turned to Rivers’ metal roots for inspiration. While paging through old Charvel catalogs, I stumbled upon the Jake E. Lee model, which originally had a bridge eerily similar to the one on the Blue Strat, its visual negative twin. That led me to interviews with JEL, and finally, Charvel brass bridges.

Behold ST111: BrassParts
That’s the one there in the bottom right corner. In this shot, it’s unplated, but it has that unmistakable machined sustain block and elongated saddle design not found on any other aftermarket bridge.

Now that I knew what I was looking for, actually finding it was a fool’s errand. I searched over 10,000 eBay listings for multiple search terms like “brass Strat bridge”, “Charvel Jake E Lee” (to which it is similar) and even “hard tail guitar bridge”. Nada. Zip. Big fat goose egg.

IMG_4697I never actually found an exact duplicate of Rivers’ bridge, but thanks to Aaron Pinto from Tumblr, I was able to order a Japanese Allparts replica that was more than adequate for my needs. Though the string spacing is slimmer than on the original Charvel, not to mention that the black plating has already worn off, but it’s close enough in look and sounds unbelievably good.

Don’t worry, though, I’m still looking for that exact bridge.

Building a Mystery

When it came to things like nut width or fret size, I used my best judgment, making educated guessed and allowing personal bias to dictate spec choices.

IMG_4844-impNECK
-Stratocaster
-Maple
-Satin nitro finish
-Rosewood fingerboard
-1 11/16″ nut width
-10”-16” compound radius
-22 frets
-Pearl dot inlays
-Black Corian nut
-Sperzel locking tuners

BODY
-Stratocaster
-2 HB routing
-Sonic Blue finish
-Hardtail bridge option
-WD tort pickguard
-reissue Charvel Jake E. Lee style bridge

ELECTRONICS
-Seymour Duncan Trembucker ’59 F-Spaced (8.3kohms)
-DiMarzio Super II F-Spaced (8.7kohms)
-500k CTS Volume
-250k (275K, actually) tone
-On board distortion from two 1n34a ‘cat whisker’ diodes wired in reverse parallel and in place of a tone cap

Warmoth could not have done a better job with these parts. The body is the exact color I wanted (Sonic Blue can be hard to accurately reproduce in photos, and paint batches can vary in color as well) and the neck was beautifully finished in satin nitro. Surprisingly, they made it out of beautiful flamed maple, which was a nice surprise. The fit between body and neck was tight in the best way possible, and unlike some other companies I’ve worked with in the past, there was no need to modify the pickup routs or control cavities for the parts to be installed. I’ll say that the guard may be a bit too red, so maybe I’ll try for a darker, more brownish one in the future. All things considered, it’s otherwise dead-on!

Impressions:

Before I had even plugged in, I knew it was going to be an especially fun guitar to play. That bridge, though –– THAT was the real secret to nailing the classic Weezer sound.

That massive, heavy brass hard tail bridge makes the guitar sustain and ring out like no other Stratocaster I’ve ever played. Booming low end, snarly mids and loud, rich highs abound, while pinch harmonics just jump out of the thing. Strumming full chords feels totally metal, even when played acoustically. I’ve always preferred hard tail Strats to the trem-equipped variety, but I’ve never heard one quite like this. In Eb tuning, this guitar is beastly.

Plugged into the Fender Excelsior Pro at the shop, more elements of Rivers’ sound started to make more sense, too. Both pickups are a bit more polite than you might expect given Rivers’ wildly overdriven tone, the DiMarzio Super II measuring at 8.7k and the Duncan TB-59 at 8.3k. I was initially worried about the neck pickup being slightly hotter than the bridge, but they balance out surprisingly well in their positions.

With many modern players gravitating toward hot pickups, there is a tendency to default to louder models for thickened tones. I’d argue that there is sound logic in the choice of lower-output pickups when you’re looking to get heavy: muddying up a muddy, loud pickup results in – you guessed it – a muddier sound, but over-overdriving a really clear, not too hot pickup results in this crunchy, thick sound that takes me right back to the golden days of Weezer every time I plug in. Allowing the amp to do most of the heavy lifting really brings out the punchy nature of the guitar.

I’m already a fan of the Duncan ’59 pickup, but I was shocked by the usefulness of such a bright neck pickup. I mean, the Super II is a LOT brighter than I expected, but suddenly those big chords with the low 5th sounded bigger, and some of the solos I loved from Blue sounded more “right” than ever. When I finally plugged into my Marshall rig, this guitar positively shakes the Earth.

On Thin Ice

As mentioned on Weezerpedia, Rivers had a Black Ice module installed in his guitar, a passive overdrive that takes the place of a tone cap and creates a tweed-like drive. It was difficult for me to guess at just how important this feature was to the overall character of his sound.

The Black Ice module as it used to be is a pretty neat little device, but they’ve recently overhauled the design so that more gain is available in different wiring configurations. Originally, I had planned on buying the real thing, but because the old unit had only the one sound, I got lost in all of the wiring options. Then I found this Instructable and ordered some 1n34a “cat whisker” diodes and wired them as described. How does it sound? Unbelievably good! Listen for yourself:

That sounds great, right? I was really surprised at how much I liked it, and I’ve made good use of my secret weapon in subsequent non-Weezer gigs. When covering Weezer songs, I’m using the diode distortion in conjunction with an overdriven amp, thickening the guitar’s voice while slightly dampening the high end. If you’re curious about how it stacks with other gain sources, here’s a video of how the circuit performs when matched with my Crowther Hot Cake. And here’s how it sounds in a live setting!

Letterman Jacket

IMG_5741After our first show just a week after the Blue Album’s 20th anniversary, I decided to have some fun with the many electrical tape designs the guitar wore during Weezer’s touring cycles, thanks to Karl. I picked my favorite design –– specifically, the one seen in the “Say It Ain’t So” video and Weezer’s performance of that song on Late Night With David Letterman in 1995 –– and set about copying it as closely as possible.

I already had plenty of photos, but because of Rivers’ right arm positioning, I couldn’t quite make out what was going on with the black tape at the arm contour, so I traced the lines and their most probable paths. Thankfully, the Letterman performance had a few much-needed camera angles, allowing me to see what happens to the tape as it rounds the Stratocaster’s two horns. I couldn’t be more proud of the end result.IMG_5940

 

AMP RIG

Putting together the perfect amp rig for this was a bit easier than the guitar since not as many ambiguities exist on that side of the project. You can read about the many amp rigs of the band, but as I see it, there are two main amps of note:

As we know from Karl Koch recounting the early days, Blue and the shows and tours surrounding it relied on a Mesa Mark I amp head, one of the earlier ones with the rear-mounted presence knob. This amp is, sadly, long-lost at this point. Some months ago, we happened to take in a Mesa “Son of Boogie” amp that sounded really great, but I’ve just never been able to get on with Mesa amps personally, so I didn’t spring for it. It did sound incredibly close to that early Weezer sound, but I have a bias (amp joke) toward British amps.
imageDuring the ’95 tour and Pinkerton recording sessions, Rivers used a Marshall 30th Anniversary 6100LM head, an amp with three channels, pentode/triode switching, an effects loop and a host of other features that make it extremely versatile. Karl tells that Rivers “borrowed” one from the Cranberries for their Lettermen performance when his SL-X picked up a “horrible sounding hum” and purchased his own shortly thereafter. He gravitated toward channel two, which has three separate modes to cover the sounds of the JTM45, Superlead Plexi, and JCM800/900 era of Marshall sounds. This was his main amp both live and in-studio until 2001, when it was relegated to road use. If you look closely, you can tell that Rivers’ 6100LM is in fact the less-liked 5881/6L6 version.

Up to this point, my amp of choice is actually one that I already owned, my 1979 Marshall 2204 50 watt JMP. While not something Rivers seems to have used live, it has appeared both in-studio and in Brian’s amp rig so it’s definitely in the right wheelhouse. I’ll use it until I can track down the right 6100, but honestly, it sounds perfect for the application.

MOCK! YEAH!

If we’re talking about the Weezer sound, I might argue that Rivers’ towering “mock 8×10” Marshall cab is the real secret weapon. Rivers used a 1968 Marshall model 1990 8×10 sized cabinet that had an offset 4×12 baffle configuration, loaded with two black- and two green-back Celestion speakers. Slimmer side-to-side than the usual Marshall head, this distinctively large cab pushes a lot of air.

I installed a medium Marshall logo to match my head, but it's otherwise an exact replica. Oh, except for the stains.

I installed a medium Marshall logo to match my head, but it’s otherwise an exact replica. Minus the stains, I mean.

Unable to track down a real ’68 8×10/4×12 of my own, I ordered one custom from Florida’s Sourmash Guitar Cabs, a company that makes amazing Marshall-style cabs at insanely affordable prices. They were all too eager to do another 1990 cab, and once it arrived, I was in love. It’s hilariously tall, and with that size comes a LOT of sonic power. Wired up with the same speakers as Rivers’ cab and my 50-watt head, it’s loud and thunderous; a massive cab both in size and sound. It’s my favorite cab, ever.

It’s an intimidating setup, both for myself and the sound techs unlucky enough to catch a glimpse of me loading in before showtime. I’ve actually surprised a few sound engineers with this one, one of whom told me, “When I saw you come in here, I thought ‘Oh no, look at this asshole. He’s gonna blow me out of the room,’ but you actually sounded great!”

I guess we both got lucky that night.

PEDALS

For this project, I’m not relying on pedals the way I normally do, what with my gigantic board and all. For lead boosts, I’m currently using a modified BOSS DS-1 with one of the diodes pulled for more volume. Aside from a TU-2, the only other pedal I’m using in My Name Is Jonas Brothers is my trusty Z.Vex Fuzz Factory to nail the fuzzy, octave-up sounds from certain Pinkerton tracks, such as the breakdown in “Pink Triangle” or the slower post-solo section of “The Good Life”.

That’s it for me. Soon, I’ll take you on a tour through the rigs of Mike Ball (as Matt Sharp) and our guitar player CJ Stout, MNIJB’s Brian Bell!

Like My Name Is Jonas Brothers on Facebook for show updates and pictures of Mike’s dog. And do yourself a favor and check out Weezer’s new record, Everything Will Be Alright In The End. It’s damn good.

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String Theory

IMG_3263-imp

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:

output_9Pbqof

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:

output_4vOuRf

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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Wiring Upgrade for a Fender Reissue Starcaster

This is the second part of our ongoing “Holy Crap What a Busy Month and Also I’m Lazy” series, in which we’ll detail some of the more fun and noteworthy undertakings of a very hectic, backed-up month. So backed-up, in fact, one might even say Father time himself suffered from a sort of chronological constipation.

Today, I’d like to tell you about this fancy and fantastic Fender Starcaster Reissue. Part of the latest in the line of Modern Player instruments, today’s Starcaster reflects the design elements of a line that echoes the classic shapes we love while nodding to modern tastes – guitars with a vintage look and a tweaked, updated feel.

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While the Starcaster reissue is a fantastic guitar, I have a few personal, OCD-related gripes with the update: I dislike the slightly adjusted shape, the way the neck is inset on the body, the stoptail and the lack of a Master Volume control as found on the 1970s models. I’m also not a fan of Fender’s reissue Wide Range Humbuckers, but I’m so used to swapping out stock pickups for something a little more dependable and tuneful that I can hardly gripe about this.

All that said, this guitar is honestly a LOT of fun to play, and even more fun to behold; truly, as much as I love the old Starcasters, they are increasingly difficult to come by and nigh-unaffordable. Having the chance to play both, I can say that from the standpoint of playability, this reissue is a most enjoyable offering. And super cheap, thanks to Chinese manufacturing.

“Oh I Come from a Land, a Faraway Place”

Our good out-of-state buddy Blake IMG_1964-impcontacted us shortly after he picked up his new Starcaster, wondering about the best way to ‘open up’ his lovely guitar. Blake had already taken it to his tech, who swapped out the reissue pickups for a set of Lollar Regals – his answer to the classic WRHB, highly prized for its darker personality and huge-yet-decidedly-Fender sound. Lollar’s pickups retain the darkness of the originals, but pepper that trait with stunning midrange clarity and a low-mid shift that absolutely kills me. All of this is seasoned to taste with present, yet round highs and a slight kick in the salts to give the pickup a slight hint of tasty PAF goodness. If you can’t tell, I adore those pickups.

Thing is, Blake’s guitar didn’t sound anything like what I just described to you. When he sent the guitar to me, output was about 60% of what it should have been (the pickups are wound to 10.7Kohms but I wasn’t getting any kick out of them at all!) and had a muffled, wildly underwhelming sound that spoke of something amiss in the wiring department. Blake asked what I thought, and in my mind the best solution was to do a complete overhaul on the wiring harness.

Jason Lollar – a man that knows his stuff and makes some of my favorite pickups – recommends 500K pots with the Regals, and I’ve used them with those pickups before to stellar results. However, my preference is for the tried-and-true vintage Tele Deluxe complement of 1 meg pots all around (CTS or Bourns are my choice) which really seems to broaden the tonal spectrum of the Regal pickup. This also seemed to be the logical choice for the muddiness we were experiencing.

Upon getting inside the guitar, I discovered that the guitar came equipped with 500K Alpha pots, which are usually good parts for an offshore guitar. Sadly, the wiring left much to be desired and given the minimal body routing, it became apparent that installing full-size pots might require some extra routing. Still, given the quality of sound coming from this guitar and the rather ramshackle wiring, taking a bit more wood out of the bridge pickup cavity was totally worth the extra work, in my opinion.IMG_1970-imp-imp

I began by building a new wiring harness using CTS 1Meg pots and a ’50s Les Paul wiring diagram – my favorite scheme for getting the most out of any humbucker-equipped guitar. The difference lies mainly in the way the tone cap interacts with the hot pickup signal. With modern wiring, the signal from the pickup hits the first lug of the volume pot and is routed through the tone cap before it gets to the pot, effecting the signal no matter the position of the pot. 1950’s wiring fixes this by feeding the tone pot via the switch instead, allowing more clarity, top end presence and a touch more volume overall.

After installing the new harness with 1M pots and 223 orange drops, this guitar came instantly alive. I hadn’t even really tuned the thing when I struck the first chord, and the guitar, amp and Crowther Hot Cake I was running all greeted me like an excitable puppy. There was that zing, that tightness, that clarity boost I’d been missing. And oh! The glorious, full-figured volume!

That little upgrade took the guitar from decent to stellar, and it really wasn’t much work at all. If you’re feeling like there’s something missing from your tone, try upgrading the wiring harness before you go crazy with all manner of pickup swaps and cable tryouts. Full-size pots, quality caps and the right scheme can very well make all the difference.

Again I say CHECK IT:

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