Tag Archives: les paul

To Mod or Not To Mod…

IMG_3374-imp

…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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Note on Gibson’s Recent Price Increase and Spec Changes

Gibson-Brands_white
Earlier this week, Gibson released (or was it leaked?) statements concerning a price increase and changes to most of their models that left most of the guitar community feeling underwhelmed. Now, bear in mind that the source for this announcement was from Gibson’s Amazon.com page, the URL for which is no longer active. Could be a mistake, but our friends at Reverb.com, while unable to reveal their sources, have confirmed that the announcement is indeed genuine. (See comments)

Before we get into it, I want to say that I’m concerned by this announcement but only because I love Gibson’s instruments so much. Sure, we’re way into Jazzmasters and the like here, but I cut my teeth on Gibson guitars. Some of my earliest musical memories are deeply connected to the image and sound of Angus Young’s fleet of SGs, Jimmy Page’s EDS-1275 doubleneck, Johnny Marr’s ES-355, and I’ve always idolized the classiness of a white Les Paul Custom. My first “real” guitar was an early graduation gift from my parents, a black Gibson Les Paul Standard that they picked up for well under street price. And I got that one because high school Michael saw an old photo of Joe Perry playing almost the exact thing. Some of the best guitars I’ve owned were Gibsons, from my ’77 Walnut ES-355 to the ’68 SG Standard I sold to Other Mike for what would become my trusty Jazzmaster. I’ve owned various Les Paul Jrs, a stunning ’59 ES-330, and Gibson J-series acoustics that have blown my mind. My current acoustic is a ’64 J-50 that’s played-in and beat up, but sounds huge; the guitar I sold to fund that purchase was an ’03 J-45, which was the best acoustic I’d ever played until the ’64 came into my life.

My hope in responding to this announcement isn’t simply to complain, but to come from a place of deep respect for a company that’s meant so much to me over the years; a company that, as it seems to this casual observer, has been in decline for some time. This week’s announcement feels like an even steeper descent to me, and though I have little voice on the issue, it felt right to call out what appears to be another major misstep.

Let’s take a look at the text:

“Gibson USA continues to raise the bar of Quality, Prestige and Innovation with the new line up of 2015 guitars. All Gibson USA guitars except for the Les Paul Supreme, Firebird and Derek Trucks SG will ship with the G-Force tuning system. Among many of the added features is the new Zero Fret Nut which is a patented applied for nut that has adjustable action capabilities. The new Tune-O-Matic Bridge features a hex wrench adjustment on thumbscrews for easy action adjustments. All guitars receive a professional set up with accurate intonation, and a new PLEK program with 27% lower fret wire. All models now have Pearloid Inlays and the fingerboard is a thicker one piece rosewood which is sanded and buffed with a new oil treatment for smoother and easier playability. To take it a step further Gibson USA has increased playing comfort by widened the neck and fingerboard by .050 per side. Sparing no expense, Gibson USA even changed the internal wires from 28 awg to 26 awg, along with a new and improved jack design and together they give you an improved uninterrupted signal. For 2015 Gibson will be producing gloss lacquer finishes and no more Satin or Vintage Gloss finishes. On top of all the upgrades Gibson USA did not stop there. They are now introducing a removable Les Paul pick guard with NO SCREWS NEEDED. In honor of Les Paul’s 100th birthday all LP and SG guitars will carry the 100 logo on the headstock and a Les Paul Hologram on the back of the headstock for authenticity and tribute to the man himself. To wrap everything up, each 2015 Gibson USA guitar ships in a Gibson Hard Shell case.”

That’s a lot to take in, so let’s go through it piece by piece.

“All Gibson USA guitars except for the Les Paul Supreme, Firebird and Derek Trucks SG will ship with the G-Force tuning system.”

That’s a pretty huge statement. Note that it says “All Gibson USA guitars…” with three exceptions listed. The above leads me to the conclusion that the Les Paul Custom, SG, Flying V History, Trini Lopez, Les Paul Traditional, Grace Potter V, RD Artist, etc. will all include the G-Force tuning system. Does this also include acoustic models? I ask because the language used is “All Gibson USA” and not “All Gibson Memphis” or “All Gibson Nashville”, without mention of Gibson Montana.

aa430cc388df770d58f3c7bf2eb194a99248353cThe G-Force system (not pictured above) if you didn’t know, is just Gibson’s Min-ETune but rebranded. Part of the evolution of the Robot system, the Min-ETune promised quicker and more accurate tuning with a smaller overall footprint, taking the tuning facilities out of the signal path of the pickups completely. Never a fan of self-tuning guitars personally, I certainly can’t fault Gibson for developing a product, but to force that product onto every model –– a product that most musicians don’t seem to want –– doesn’t seem like a wise move.

As a tech, I’ve worked on plenty of the Robot and Min-ETune guitars, but would you guess that one of the most frequent requests I’ve gotten with the lower-model Robot guitars is to remove the Robot tuners and convert them to a normal guitar? At first, it was because the battery life wasn’t feasible for most touring acts. (I mean, who has time to charge their guitar between sets?) Later, either the owner felt the tuners weren’t dependable or didn’t look good, which I’ve heard quite a few times. The Robot models were fundamentally great guitars, so it wasn’t much of a problem to put them back to, um, regular guitar specs.

LP-Std-HeroOf course, some people find the Robot/Min-ETune guitars to be useful, and that’s great! I knew a guy that used his blueburst first-edition Robot Les Paul and loves it because he can go from Standard to any number of slide tunings he uses on a regular basis. It works for him, and that’s great. However, it seems to be a smaller subset of players that actually want guitars to tune themselves, and offering the Min-ETune as standard across the board doesn’t make me want to purchase a new Gibson any time soon.

“Among many of the added features is the new Zero Fret Nut which is a patented applied for nut that has adjustable action capabilities.”

One of the most common complaints players have about factory-fresh Gibson guitars is that the nut isn’t up to snuff. Either the owner isn’t happy with Corian or Tektoid™ as a nut material, or it’s improperly cut at the factory with the strings too high off the fretboard or pinging wildly with string bending. One of the most frequent jobs I take for Gibson guitars is replacing the nut with a hand-cut piece of bone.

61y2CirnMkL__SL1500__zps9c453266_uofv8cThe new Gibson “Zero Fret Nut” is a nut that has an adjustable brass insert that allows the user to fine-tune action without having to use files. (This idea isn’t exactly new; for years Warwick has offered an adjustable nut on some of their models.) The brass insert also mimics the zero fret found on old Gretsch and Teisco guitars, which governed string height at the first fret by being taller than the other frets while doing away with the need for exacting nut shaping techniques. Traditional zero frets also have the added effect of making open notes sound as if they’re being fretted, resulting in brighter tones from open strings. This was also the goal with the brass nut craze of the ’70s and ’80s, a modification that’s largely reversed on most instruments today.

I can see how this new Zero Fret Nut makes sense from a manufacturing standpoint; workers don’t have to spend more time trying to properly slot nut after nut all day long, which takes up time and money. Instead, they can simply use a small tool to raise the strings until they’re at a satisfactory height, then send it out the door. However, we know from Gibson’s adjustable acoustic bridge of the ’60s that having movable parts at such critical points in the string path isn’t necessarily a recipe for great tone. And although there are some players who prefer brass nuts on their guitars, with the market so obsessed with vintage originality and “tone” most brass nuts are tossed with preference for era-correct materials.

As a tech, I can see myself replacing a lot of these next year.

“The new Tune-O-Matic Bridge features a hex wrench adjustment on thumbscrews for easy action adjustments.”

I’m not going to poo-poo this out of hand, as we’ve all been stuck with too-low or too-high action on a guitar with a TOM bridge and have had to struggle with gripping thumbwheels as hard as we can before the next song starts. The proper way would always be to loosen the strings before adjusting action, but I won’t pretend that not everyone wants to go to that trouble. Of course, thumbwheels aren’t always hard to turn, but anything that makes adjustment easier is potentially a good thing.

The only objection I have to this change is that Allen keys aren’t usually my favorite way to make bridge adjustments, whether it be action or intonation. The Mastery Bridge is an exception to this, being designed with ease of use in mind, but adjusting intonation with hex keys on most other bridges is not fun at all. I’m also curious to how exactly this thumbscrew adjustment works, whether the key inserts at the top or from the side. Without more info, I really don’t know how this might play out.

“All guitars receive a professional set up with accurate intonation, and a new PLEK program with 27% lower fret wire.”

As a tech, I’m somewhat glad to hear this. If these factory setups are actually setups, then I’m excited to walk into a shop and play an on-the-rack Gibson and know it’s going to feel great. Factory “setups” are often disappointing, with action left high to hide bad fret jobs, lessening buzz and rattle that shouldn’t be there in the first place. I mean, sure, a percentage of my business comes from fixing factory mistakes, but if this means that a customer can buy a guitar knowing that it feels good, then that can’t be a bad thing. I’ll try to hold off judgement on this until I play one, because the track record for factory adjustments isn’t good.

blog_P1040558-300x221Although I’ve never been too happy with factory PLEK fret jobs, I’m looking forward to seeing what this new program holds for consumers. Again, taking a guitar off the guitar shop wall and knowing it’s going to have perfectly leveled frets is a boon; just this week, one of my tasks is to level and crown the frets of a brand new Gibson, which is disappointing to the owner. I’m also interested by the idea of lower fretwire, because I’m one of those guys that can’t stand jumbo frets, personally.

“All models now have Pearloid Inlays and the fingerboard is a thicker one piece rosewood which is sanded and buffed with a new oil treatment for smoother and easier playability.”

Nothing too crazy there. The new oil treatment could be cool, especially when most rosewood necks coming from Gibson right now are incredibly dried-out. I wonder just how much thicker these fretboards will be, but I wonder if they mention it only because of the minor controversy surrounding Gibson using laminated fretboards on models back in 2012. Many players were less than happy about the change (to put it mildly) but in response to questions about the laminates Juszkiewicz said “It actually doesn’t change the sound at all,” and “…actually improves the sound.” He also claimed it will “last longer,” but I guess we’ll see. Don’t be surprised if I politely disagree.

UPDATE: Holy shit, I didn’t even think about this until I scrolled through the conversation going on over at Offset Guitar Forum tonight. Again, the phrase “all models” is used here, which causes alarm when we remember that all models don’t have rosewood fretboards… Does this mean that even Les Paul Customs (which had ebony boards until the Government seizure/Henry and Fox and Friends jamboree of 2012 when Gibson switched to the option of baked maple or Richlite, a synthetic material) will now have rosewood instead? Because I hate to tell you Gibson, but we used to buy LPCs because they have ebony fretboards. Oh man, say it ain’t so.

“To take it a step further Gibson USA has increased playing comfort by widened the neck and fingerboard by .050 per side.”

Again, not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know that many people are complaining that Gibson’s necks are too thin these days, but I’ll reserve judgement until I have one in my hand –– it’s really not a huge difference. This seems to be a reaction to player feedback on Gibson’s use of binding nibs on the fret ends of most bound models, which never bothered me personally but I’ve heard more than a few players complain that their strings are getting caught between the fret and binding as of late.

“Sparing no expense, Gibson USA even changed the internal wires from 28 awg to 26 awg, along with a new and improved jack design and together they give you an improved uninterrupted signal.”

Whoa. Slow down there, Gibson. Don’t go spending all of that precious money on such thick wire! Also, I wasn’t aware that my signal was being interrupted, but there you go. #newjack2015

“For 2015 Gibson will be producing gloss lacquer finishes and no more Satin or Vintage Gloss finishes. On top of all the upgrades Gibson USA did not stop there. They are now introducing a removable Les Paul pick guard with NO SCREWS NEEDED.”

This is possibly the most distressing passage from the now-removed Amazon page. With the doing-away of satin finishes, this could mean the end of sub-$1000 Gibson guitars, which I thought were best sellers for the company. Having quality, affordable guitars in the line should be important to both Gibson and consumers, so I’m hoping they’ll be introducing some models that retain the low price tag and quality of the Faded series.

Additionally, the language isn’t specific as to what type of finish the “gloss lacquer” might be, just that it’s lacquer. Hopefully this is just Gibson saying the company will still use nitrocellulose instead of switching to something else like acrylic.

Gibson have been shipping guitars for ages without installed pickguards, so this could be cool or not. How does it work? I don’t know, but we’ll all be keeping our eyes peeled on that one.

“In honor of Les Paul’s 100th birthday all LP and SG guitars will carry the 100 logo on the headstock and a Les Paul Hologram on the back of the headstock for authenticity and tribute to the man himself.”

It’s a well-known fact that Les Paul LOVED holograms, so I think we can all safely assume that this is what he wanted. I remember reading an interview where he voiced his distaste for the SG when it came out in ’61, which had a lot to do with the body shape and how they moved the neck pickup away from the neck, but Les also revealed that the main reason he wanted his name off of the guitar was due to the lack of holograms.

“Back in the ’50s I said to Ted [McCarty, Gibson CEO 1948-66] ‘Hey, I like what you got going here. It sounds good, plays alright. But the thing is there aren’t enough goddamned holograms on the thing.’ And Ted scratched his head, because we really didn’t have the technology back then, and we didn’t come back to the idea until they made the laser back in, was it ’60? When they slapped my name on the SG without asking, and I said, ‘Hey, whaddabout them holograms!’ but it was too late. So I had them take my name off.” (Gibson Les Paul Book, Bacon, pg 148*)

I’m sure that, were Les alive today, he would be overjoyed. I’m joking, of course. LES PAUL HATED HOLOGRAMS. He called them “3D-for-Devil pictures.”**

Les+Paul+Dies+At+94+o8Y8pex-Z3Fm
Aside from the new logo looking a bit strange (see the Zero Fret Nut pic above) it is Les Paul’s handwriting and that’s a nice thing to have. This could also be one of the only truly collectable aspects of the guitar, so perhaps this change will work in its favor. Not mentioned in the above copy is that the Gibson Logo is swirly.

“To wrap everything up, each 2015 Gibson USA guitar ships in a Gibson Hard Shell case.”

Okay, this is great. No longer will customers have to argue with store staff about how their guitar actually, definitely does come with a case when they want to charge an extra $100 or give them a gig bag.

osutim2tshgqpy5pzxvw
All in all, this list of changes is pretty hard to stomach, especially when the one thing left out is just how much the price of guitars will increase. Now, prices do go up over time when manufacturing costs rise, but our friends at Reverb.com note that while a 2014 Les Paul Standard with flame top “…comes in at $2999, the 2015 equivalent will start at $3879, marking a roughly 29% increase.” That’s a HUGE MAP increase. How will it play out? We won’t know until they’re available.

Let me be clear: I love Gibson guitars, but this is crazy. Perhaps consumer feedback on this list of changes could do some good, but I believe they’ll end up doing far more harm than good. It’s never good to add features your customers don’t want when they’ve been asking for simple, well-built instruments for some time.

Like I said before, I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

…or this could all be a ploy to cause us to rush out and snatch up 2014 models. And then I think that perhaps this could all be just a 2015 model year only affair, meaning that things go back to the way they were in ’14. Who knows? Hopefully we’ll get that info soon.

*Not a real quote. I made that up.
**Also, totally not real.

UPDATE 9/24/14: I visited Guitar Center Seattle with a friend of mine tonight, and the store had just received the first shipment of 2015 Gibson guitars. Suffice it to say, all of the above is absolutely true, including the G-Force tuners on every guitar, the Zero Fret nut, and wider necks. I’ll be posting an in-hand review shortly. Until then, look on Gibson’s works, ye mighty, and despair!

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 4: Pickup Lines

IMG_8398-imp
Of all of the things that cause confusion about these guitars, perhaps the most common misconceptions about Jazzmasters (and to a lesser extent, the Jaguar) surround the pickups. Because they’re so odd-looking and unfamiliar, people have all kinds of crazy ideas about what exactly is going on under the cover. I mean, it’s not often that most players have occasion to dismantle a vintage Jazzmaster guitar for the sake of exploration, so the befuddlement is understandable.

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

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

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

A shot of Mojotone's Jazzmaster bobbin

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

Open Coils

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

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

Don’t Drop the Soap[bar]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 12.37.35 PM

Offset Obfuscation

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

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

tumblr_m8on1vx68k1qc1zzbo1_500

Oh yeah.

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

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

The Creamery shows us the difference!

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

Sound Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaguar: a Kitteh of a Whole Different Breed

IMG_8264
A rather quick note about Jaguar pickups: they’re far less confusing. Jaguar pickups are a lot like Stratocaster pickups in terms of construction and sound. The main difference is that Jaguar pickups utilize a notched metal surround known as the ‘claw’, which helps eliminate some of the hum associated with single coil pickups. Jaguar pickups are mounted directly to the body, whereas Strat pickups screw to the pickguard.

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

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

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

-Michael James Adams

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Getting to Know Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar

Our good friends at Orbilite Productions came to the shop a month or so back to interview us for what will hopefully become a series of videos detailing just what it is that makes Mike & Mike’s so darn special.

We’re really proud of our first foray into visual media, and we think it came out great! We’re hoping that it shows our personality and helps put a face on the internet presence we’ve been trying to build. Get to know us! Come one, come all!

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fastback ’59 Zebras: Show Ponies or Thoroughbreds? (Also, Horse Jokes)

IMG_7380-imp

By Michael James Adams
Seattle-based hot-rod guitar company Fastback is Fastback at it again with their newly-released pickup set: The Fastback ’59 Zebras. Manufactured by hand with care, these pickups claim to be modeled after the fabled P.A.F. pickups found on our favorite vintage bursts, but do they live up to the hype? Let’s find out!

A Horse of a Different Color

The Fastback ’59 Zebra pickups are hand-wound at Fastback’s Seattle HQ and spec’d out like the original PAFs we’re all so fond of. Visually, this set couldn’t look more right; the cream bobbins are just the right color, neither looking too yellow or too brown as aged parts so often do. Customers can expect a choice between AlNiCo 2 and 5 magnets for different tonal variations, with the 2 magnets exhibiting softer, spongier highs and lows with round mids than their ‘three more’ counterparts. The pickups come with a heavy wax bath to combat microphonics – breaking with true vintage tradition to the joy of most people – and single braid wire for easy installation.

Our set was wound slightly hotter than the measurements listed on the website (not that I’m complaining!) with the bridge measuring in at 8.4K and the neck at 7.6K. Installation was a breeze, and within no time I was slinging hot licks all over the place. Or whatever people do with guitars these days.

With these pickups loaded into my recently-acquired ’97 Squier Vista Super-Sonic, the difference in sonic fidelity was immediately identifiable. Of course the Zebras were a marked improvement over the stock Korean ‘buckers, but being a guitar tech I’m no stranger to vintage PAFs and I must say I was impressed. Fastback’s really hit the nail on the head here, folks.

Black and White and Cred All Over

The neck pickup had all of the airy, vocal midrange I expected from a pickup claiming to be a PAF, but few of them ever really get all the way there. The lows were pronounced but not overbearing, and the highs were sweet and supple, with a warmth and body all their own. Clean or dirty, this pickup retained the clarity and note definition associated with classic units. With overdrive, I was enveloped in heavenly fat tone.* Really a superb pickup in every way.

The bridge unit absolutely blew me away; creamy, chunky drive that stayed tight enough to appease my modern sensibilities, but was in no way sterile or shrill. The midrange was warm yet distinct, bringing to mind my favorite Jimmy Page sounds from How the West Was Won. Highs were stinging but round, while the lows were well-defined and present, but not as much as one might expect given current “PAF” offerings. Let me explain:

IMG_7381-imp

Our test unit was 8.4K, slightly hotter than the one pictured above.

Though not as ample as I expected, the lows have a slightly different EQ curve, which seems to sacrifice some of the really round, fat low-lows in favor of a slightly higher bass frequency center, which means it never gets woofy or muddy. The E and A strings particularly had a very pleasant midrange kick, but were resplendent with a softer, woody overtone that immediately harkened back to the golden era of single-cut solid body guitars.

Again, the Jimmy Page comparison is apt here, because while his tone in HTWWW is freaking huge, I wouldn’t even begin to describe it as being as big and spectrum-killing as so many of our modern guitar ‘heroes’ might have you believe. No, Page’s tone is focused and cutting, neither overly bright or bassy. In a word, perfect – same as these pickups. I imagine the lows would be more pronounced in a more traditional mahogany body/maple top instrument, but I really dig the sound.

When used in tandem, these little beasts really come alive! The vocal qualities I mentioned earlier are magnified, with that quintessential open ‘ah’ vowel tone cutting through any dense mix. Literally anything I played with this selection sounded good, and that’s saying a lot. From legato minor-key runs to all-out, cacophonous freak out sessions, everything was gloriously tuneful.

I didn’t mention how well these pickups respond to tone knob variations. Even with a small twist from 10 to 8, the pickups warmed up beautifully, shifting the focus from brilliance to the woodier qualities we all associate with mahogany guitars. Thing is, this guitar isn’t mahogany, it’s basswood. Sure, the Super-Sonic isn’t the traditional guitar we’re all familiar with, but all of the warmth and lively sound I’d expect from a Les Paul was at my fingertips in a decidedly Fender package. Drop these pickups in a Les Paul, and I guarantee you’ll be thrilled.

Yay or Neigh?

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with these pickups. They’re every bit as magical as some of the original units I’ve played, with just a touch of modern wizardry thrown in. Too often, major pickup manufactures seem to be following in the current business model of most amp manufacturers, where doing absolutely everything comes before simplicity and good tone. We’re often left with amps that do everything averagely, with obscene amounts of high and low end which ultimately translates into a lackluster playing experience.

So you can understand why I really appreciate that Fastback has created a pickup that isn’t super hi-fi and doesn’t try to cover the breadth of the sonic spectrum. Instead of making a pickup that has huge amounts of earth-shattering low end and enough highs to blind a bat, it seems like Fastback tailor-made a set to suit full band situations with a focused, brilliant tone that cuts as much as it grooves. Undeniably fun, and easy on the wallet too!

Equine jokes.

Fastback ’59 Zebras
$80 each/$150 per set
Available direct or via Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar

IMG_6641-imp

*Not to be confused with heavenly Fatone, which would be soooo dreamy

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

IMG_3336-impI’ve been doing some electronic work for my good buddy Nick’s Gibson Explorer in the ever-so-attractive naturalburst finish. That name makes me think of nudists doing jumping jacks, but that’s neither here nor there.

Nick recently replaced his original 500T/496R Ceramic pickups with more decidedly vintage-flavored Burstbucker Pros, which are great pickups. Nick’s a HUGE metal guy – neither physically large nor is he made of metal, what I mean is that he enjoys metal music – so punch and treble response are of great importance. Trouble is, since the pickup swap he’s been missing both of those things. Curious.

That great old Gibson tone we all love is a combination of elements working together to create a tone, we all know this. What’s not so obvious to most players is that even though Gibson guitars are thought to come equipped with 500K pots (which do indeed have a large tonal role to play) most models are coming out of the factory with wildly variant ratings. My own personal ’99 Standard had pots marked at 500K but measured in the 300K range, for example.

This Explorer was suffering from the same fate, unfortunately, so when Nick went from a super hot, super bright set of pickups like the 500T/496R set to lower output, warmer units, that difference in pot rating was really choking off his tone. I mean, it was muddy, indistinct and lacking any sort of oomph. I spent part of my afternoon building a new harness out of high-quality, properly rated 500K pots and a .022 MojoTone Dijon tone cap, and once installed it sounded as if a blanket had been lifted from the guitar’s overall tonal palette. Really a huge difference. Clear treble, a more defined bass and midrange that sparkled and snapped.

If you’ve been feeling like your guitar sounds like you’re playing through a thick wool sweater, give some thought to upgrading your potentiometers before you go dropping money on a set of pickups. It might be that extra kick you’ve been looking for!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: