Tag Archives: mustang

Guitars with Issues: Where to Draw The Line? [Spoiler: I Have No Idea]

Falling in love with a Fender Mustang is a shockingly rare occurrence for me. Not that I don’t like the model at all, I really do enjoy its smaller shape and the 24” scale that it shares with the Jaguar. The Dynamic vibrato is smooth but more immediate than that found on the Jazzmaster. Plus, the ability to run both pickups out of phase is really fun, something I’d definitely use if I had the option at the ready.

If pressed, I couldn’t tell you exactly what the missing element is that keeps me from them, only that I can think of only a handful that really stood out to me, just never in that “OMG-I-have-to-buy-this” sort of way.

Until recently, that is.

I found it weeks ago while wasting time at the Hollywood Guitar Center and have been stalking it ever since. On three separate occasions I’ve stared long but chickened out at the thought of playing it, happily transfixed by its grisled appearance. It’s finished in that galvanizing shade of Mocha, way outside of my normal preferences –– I always told myself I’d own a Competition color someday –– but preferences often turn to proclivity, and then complacency. Not content to leave mine unchallenged, I finally picked it up.

This particular guitar has been played hard, absent bits of finish and pitted chrome attesting to an owner who gave little thought to condition. The frets are deeply grooved and completely lack a crown in the higher registers; some were even popping out of their slots. The electronics were noisy, scratchy, and barely worked, while tapping my finger on its hardware revealed a missing bridge ground. Even strung with 9s, the neck was horribly out of adjustment and the nut was a goner. Among everything else, it was in dire need of a good setup.

In spite of all of these major concerns, the guitar sounded flat-out amazing, like no other ‘Stang I’d played before. Plugged into a used JCM900, it was loud, throaty, and had this vibe that complimented my playing style perfectly. I could hardly believe that I had found the ‘perfect’ Mustang, let alone that it was this one. I remember telling my wife later that night, “That guitar has songs in it.”

Am I crazy for falling in love with such a problem child of a guitar? Should I have written it off completely? Is it a bad guitar or a good one with some issues? And if I love it so much, why didn’t I buy it?

***

We musicians are a picky bunch, each of them with a different set of tastes and experiences. In gear-centric circles, players share their experiences from a wide array of perspectives, some more informed than others. As such, it’s not uncommon to hear them claim something to the effect of, “I had one of those and it played like crap. What a bad guitar!” As a tech, I’d like to gently point out that statements like this should be taken with a grain of salt.

When I hear that kind of assertion, my tech-addled brain kicks in to high gear because there are a lot of variables contained within, most of them fully addressable. Does the guitar have a design flaw? Is there some kind of problem from the factory? Is the neck warped? Were the electronics non-functional? Or did the guitar simply need a setup?

Usually, I find the truth is often somewhere close to the latter.

A bad setup can certainly make a guitar unplayable, or at the very least, not fun to play at all. It does not, however, automatically make the instrument ‘bad.’ Most of the time, how a guitar plays is easy to correct, and if you have the skill or experience, you should be able to anticipate what minor adjustments an instrument needs.

About six months ago, I discovered a Candy Apple Red late 1966 Jaguar in a shop, and one of the other customers who saw my longing gaze told me, “Don’t bother, man, it’s a piece of shit.” Always in for a challenge, I ignored the advice. When I picked it up, it was clear that the bridge and its saddles were unnecessarily jacked up to their maximum adjustment, rendering the instrument nearly unplayable with mile-high action.

Was the other customer wrong? Yes and no. From his perspective, the guitar played poorly, and thus, wasn’t a viable choice. The only real problem this guitar had was a careless setup, or total lack thereof. Far from a lost cause, all it would have taken to make that Jaguar a killer player was one Allen key, a Phillips screwdriver, and less than five minutes.

At the same time, I recognize that how a thing plays is often the only metric most guitarists have to judge whether or not a guitar is worthwhile, and hey, that’s valid. Playing as many guitars as I possibly could as a youngster was how I figured out what kind of guitar worked for me, a tradition that continues well into my very adult life. “Try Everything,” as Shakira’s Zootopia theme song goes.

Looking back, I’m sure I wrote off some instruments too quickly all because they weren’t properly adjusted. For a player, a bad setup can make a guitar unpalatable at best, and for a shop, a lost potential sale. Being able to tell the difference between a bad guitar and a bad setup requires a bit of experience with guitar repair, just enough that think most musicians can acquire it without much effort.

All you need to do is find an instrument that feels good to you, and then pay attention to the reasons why it feels that way. Compare it with other instruments you encounter, and think about things like string height or if the guitar plays in tune with itself. Does the instrument stay in tune, and if not, why is that? Ask questions if the answer isn’t immediately apparent to you, visit some forums and see if the question’s been asked before. Think critically about the guitar you’re inspecting, don’t allow the sexy gleam of a shiny thing to sway you.

***

When it comes to greater ailments than simple setup tweaks, a sober mindset is key. Let’s take that Mustang I mentioned in the introduction: riddled with issues, likely to be a huge pain in the ass to whip back into shape, and the kind of guitar you buy only if you have the skill or cash to take on a project. Every one of the detractors of this guitar is a thing I can fix, I know it. There’s nothing so wrong with the guitar that it should be consigned to the trash heap, nothing so egregious that it can’t be saved. But the cost…

One rule I have for myself in these kinds of cases is, “If you have doubts, walk.” So even as I write about not writing guitars off because of issues, I’m sitting here in my chair wondering if I really want to spend the time, money, and energy nursing another guitar back to good health. At the moment, I’m about 50/50.

I guess what I’m getting at is there’s no clear line to draw on this issue, no right and wrong, no true good and bad to be named. It feels like the line constantly moves to fit the buyer and the guitar, according to their means and the severity of the issues in play, and really, that’s the only line that matters.

Personally, I’m not bothered by a refin, a requisite refret, or minor routing under a pickguard. I’m turned off by non-original hardware, enlarged tuner holes, and in most cases, replaced pickups. And then again, all of the above goes right out the window if the price is just too good to pass up. So even for me, the line often changes position.

My best advice: let the line be wherever you need it to be, but allow some wiggle room. An instrument with a few more issues than you’d normally consider may surprise you.

I’m still thinking about it. I name guitars after Star Wars characters, so this would be Wicket.

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Skye’s Jaguar Thinline Gets a Serious Upgrade

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As you well know already, Skye Skjelset (Fleet Foxes, Japanese Guy, Tiger Beat Magazine) often hires us to customize instruments to his exceedingly quirky tastes – he’s like the Zooey Deschanel of guitars. And it’s great.

Mr. Skjelset (Pronounced: shell-set) seems to vacation in Japan frequently, and during his last round of fun under the Rising Sun he picked up this lovely black Thinline Jaguar with the intention of making it ‘his own’.

It’s a huge honor to so often be the M. Ward to his guitar-customizing She, and as such I have a lot of fun letting my mind run wild when we’re talking about specs or ideas for upcoming mods. Although Skye’s only had this Japanese Jaguar Thinline for a few months, we’ve been talking about this job for a quote some time.

Skye had already taken it upon himself to swap the original neck with a mid-sixties Mustang neck, and since the scale length is the same this ensured that worn-in feel without any negative side effects. Our plan was to swap the stock IMG_2098-impJapanese single coils – something I’d almost always recommend anyway – with a Lollar Jaguar neck pickup and a vintage DeArmond/Rowe Siver Foil in the bridge. Nothing too fancy, really.

It’s a good thing Skye wanted a new single-ply guard for this one, because mounting the Silver Foil to the original guard might have required some extra work, given the bridge pickup rout in both guard and body. We ordered the new guard sans-bridge pickup hole from Chandler Pickguards (Pickguard Heaven) and had it in no time. Even without sending a template, Chandler’s work was excellent and the guard mounted without issue.

Honestly, this thing came out so, so good; that Silver Foil is loud, clear, and has this vocal midrange you just don’t hear on most single coils. It blends beautifully with the neck unit, making for an intense, complex middle position that begs for delay and reverb.

So, to recap:

-Installed a Mastery Bridge (yes)
-Swapped in a Lollar Jaguar neck pickup
-Installed the custom-cut pickguard we picked up from Chandler, specially made with no bridge pickup
-Installed the vintage DeArmond/Rowe Silver Foil in the bridge (AMAZING)
-Full set up, and some secret sauce on top

And I know we get these questions all the time, but the Mastery Bridge is the greatest thing ever. Skye’s going to source a vintage vibrato for this one eventually, but for now it’s good as-is!

Here’s some more eye candy for you:

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Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar Featured in Premier Guitar’s “Reader’s Hot Rods”

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Woke up to some cool news this morning! Premier Guitar magazine runs an annual column dedicated to modded guitars, and it’s always an interesting read. I decided to send two of our more recent guitars their way in hopes they’d publish one. Well, guess what: they published them both.

That’s right, Skye’s Skjelstang and John’s Jazzmonster are both plastered on PG’s website! They even quoted me, which kind of sucks because I didn’t really spend much time writing those emails. Blah. Can’t win ’em all. Ah-hyuck.

Check out the article – and the other cool guitars contained within! – here!

CHRISTMAS CAME LATE, BOYS!

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Introducing the Skjelstang: Difficult to Pronounce, Impossible to Put Down

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A few months back our good friend Skye Skjelset of Fleet Foxes’ fame (also a stint in The Walkmen and his noise/free jazz band Japanese Guy) contacted us about wanting to build another custom guitar, and we couldn’t have been more delighted. See, we’ve done a lot of work for the Foxes and their various other projects, and each of those guys has amazing taste in gear, both vintage and custom. Any time we can help someone realize their vision – whether it’s world-touring acts or weekend warriors – it reminds us why we even do this job in the first place: we love music, we love guitars and we love people.

You may remember the last guitar we built for Skye some time ago: a four-pickup monstrosity of a Fender Jazzmaster lovingly dubbed ‘The Skyemaster’ complete with a vintage neck and vibrato, Mastery Bridge and two Lollar Jazzmaster pickups with a Gold Foil in the middle position and a Novak lipstick pickup behind the bridge. Let me tell you, what a guitar! The sounds one can coax from that beast are nearly endless, from your standard punchy Jazzmaster fare to amp-killing, raucous sound from the ‘foil and even ghostly, far-away eeriness from the BTB unit. It’s an unbelievable guitar and you can hear it on Japanese Guy’s latest release.

IMG_0916-impAs you can imagine, Skye was already having some big ideas for his ‘new’ guitar based on the Fender Mustang: ‘Stang body, 24” neck and three pickups, loosely inspired by the Mustang Thurston Moore was seen with back in the ‘90s. Skye had loved that guitar since high school (and who hasn’t!) and wanted something close to this ‘hero’ guitar.

We deliberated for weeks over specs – pickups, electronics, switching options, necessary tones and how to get them, and any little touches that would make this guitar truly his. Skye’s tastes, however bold they may be, are decidedly vintage in look and feel, so instead of sourcing a new body with custom routing, we were able to procure a vintage ’65 Mustang neck and a refinished body of similar vintage. (We did have to talk Skye out of buying an absolutely beautiful, original black ’65 Mustang for this project, citing our refusal to start removing wood from an otherwise perfectly-kept piece)

Here’s what we came up with:

  • vintage body, neck and hardware
  • three Lollar Blackface pickups (with deglossed pickup covers for that aged look)
  • custom switching that would allow the outer pickups to be selectable independently of the middle unit
  • 1 Meg volume and a 250K tone for the bridge and neck pickups
  • a Mustang three-way slider switch (on/off/phase) for the middle pickup and an individual roller volume for it in the other pickguard slot (1 meg)
  • Mastery Bridge (of course!)
  • a modified Jazzmaster vibrato arm
  • an aged mint green vintage-style guard from our friend fenderparts, which I later modified for the middle pickup and roller volume and toggle switch

The end result is elegant of the above list turned out to be a little mysterious and very punk rock. Honestly, nailing down the basic specs for this build was the easy part. Figuring out just how to make all of this work required some more thought. Read on for in-depth details on how we created “The Skjelstang!” (Pronounced: shyell-stang)

BODY SCULPTING

As you might expect, we had to remove quite a bit of wood to make this custom pickup scheme fit properly. Adding a middle pickup and a toggle switch to a Mustang means removing a lot of wood, but using a Jazzmaster-style roller volume bracket required not only more routing, but modifying the metal bracket for the usual rhythm circuit controls.IMG_0777

It seemed that the best place for the roller control was between the middle and neck pickups, given that the spacing between the bridge pickup and the slider switch was already so tight. I took out about 40% of the wood left between the neck and middle pickups to accommodate, and I took the wood down to just below the original routing depth to ensure that everything would fit three-dimensionally.

As for the bracket, I cut it in half and drilled new holes for proper mounting screw placement, then cut a channel in the middle of it for the roller disc to pass through. Because of the placement of the pickguard and the slot for the slider switch, I had to get creative with how we were mounting the mini Alpha pot to the bracket, flipping it around so the disc was on the inside of the bracket with the potentiometer’s casing facing the pickups.

ELECTRONICS

Certainly there are many ways to have the pickups working independently of one another, but serving Skye’s needs was the first priority. Initially we thought using a Jaguar switching plate to be the best option; the three on/off switches usually found on Jags could be repurposed to accommodate three pickups instead of the normal 2 pickups and ‘strangle’ switch combo, a modification which we’d done before with the Skyemaster. We also discussed using a ‘Wronski’ plate, so-called because of surf legend Dave Wronski’s custom blade switch plates on his guitars. Then there was the control plate found on the Kurt Cobain Jaguar, which has a toggle switch and an on/off switch for the strangle.

After discussing all of this with Skye, none of the above options were going to work; yes, Skye needs the third pickup to be independently selectable, but he was also hoping to be able to blend it in with the others regardless of pickup selection. This presented a slight challenge with respect to both wiring and space, but in the end I’m really proud of our solution.

IMG_0917-impOn the bass side of the Mustang body, you’ll usually see two three-way slider switches which govern the pickups. These switches not only turn the pickups on or off, but the third position reverses the phase of each unit, enabling more tones than a more simple layout might produce. This is one of the coolest things about Mustangs in my opinion.

Gleaning inspiration from both of the aforementioned guitars, we came up with a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario: both neck and bridge pickups are wired to the toggle first, then to the lead circuit controls just as you might find with a Jazzmaster.* The middle pickup is wired to its volume roller, then to the three-way slider so Skye can still control the middle volume independently while still opting for specific phase settings. The lead and middle circuits meet at the output jack, allowing the user to blend the middle in as needed or to cut the other pickups so the middle can be used independently. Pretty great!

*this, of course, is doing away with the rhythm circuit entirely

PLAYABILITY

IMG_0926-impThe vintage Mustang neck on this guitar has a 24″ scale, 7.25” radius fretboard, a new bone nut hand-cut by yours truly and original frets. I’ve dressed them, but in the future we may re-fret the neck altogether depending on how Skye feels about the guitar in a few months. And honestly, there’s only a little life left in those frets, so it’s better to do that sooner rather than later given the Foxes’ recording schedule. We’ll see.

As with all of Skye’s offset guitars, it was obvious that we’d be installing a Mastery Bridge. In our opinion, the Mastery Bridge is the best aftermarket upgrade you can get for your offset guitar so you can imagine that it not only sounds great but plays superbly with this bridge installed. Speaking of sound…

SOUND

Usually, a Mustang has two flat-pole Stratocaster-style pickups mated to the usual 250K pots. On the Skjelstang we used a 1 meg volume and a 250K tone coupled with a .047uf Orange Drop capacitor, which gives the guitar the ability to get VERY bright should Skye require it. His other guitars are mainly Jazzmasters and Jaguars, so this isn’t out of left field for him. We originally went with 1 meg controls for both volume and tone, but the result was so shrill that even my initial test run with the guitar was a painful exercise. Stepping down the tone to 250K really warmed it up, even at 10 on the dial. I would estimate that rolling off the tone 20-30% approximates more standard Mustang sounds.

Now that the guitar’s fully assembled and finalized, I can tell you that I enjoy immensely the addition of that middle pickup on this guitar. I would never refer to Mustangs as tonally limited, but I’m surprised at how much adding the extra pickup has opened up the sonic landscape of this instrument. Yes, having the middle paired with the neck or bridge pickup elicits quacky, nearly Stratocaster sounds, but the short scale of the Mustang combined with heavy strings makes for a more springy, unique tone. Running all three pickups together sounds HUGE, and reversing the polarity of the middle pickup makes for some entertaining rhythm sounds and haunting leads. Endless fun can be had here, folks.

At the end of the day, it’s all about serving the needs of the player, and in this case I feel as though we’ve hit the nail on the head. Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t change anything about the guitar down the line – we’ve made more than a few alterations to the Skyemaster, catering to whim after whim as Skye became more familiar with both the instrument as his personal needs. We fully expect some tweaks to happen, but in terms of taking the original concept and bringing it to life, I don’t think we could have done a better job!

Seriously, this thing is wild!

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EXTRA: eBay Seller fenderparts/portlandmusic Does the Impossible, Pleases Most Fastidious Man on Earth

CIMG5232(1)-impIf you’re anything like me – and God help you if you are – the more you get into vintage guitars, the more you start noticing all the little differences between the originals and their reissues. Some of these are slight and easily overlooked, like the narrow string spacing on a Japanese Jazzmaster vibrato or the “e” on a new Fender amp logo missing its little point. Other changes can be more glaring; for example, on the new Coronado reissue Fender’s replaced the original DeArmond-made pickups with Gretsch-style FilterTrons, likely because retooling the old ones is more hassle – and expense – than it’s worth. Plus, ‘Trons sound great, so who can complain?

IMG_7628-impFor some, these changes don’t make any difference; after all, a good guitar is a good guitar, so if an instrument sounds and plays great, all of that cosmetic stuff just doesn’t matter. Still, as the old internet axiom states, “What has been seen cannot be unseen,” and for many of us, once a design change or inconsistency is noted it’s hard to put it out of mind.

If you’re anything like me, then you might understand my dismay when I finally realized that the mint guard on my precious ’07 Fender Thin Skin Jazzmaster had a 45 degree bevel instead of the vintage-correct 60°. And if you’re anything like me, I probably just ruined your day.

Bevel, Biv, Devoe-tion

You may be wondering why this matters so much, and to be honest, it really doesn’t. I’m surprised it took me so long to notice, but out of all the changes made to guitar models over the years, this one ranks among the very least important. It bears no effect on the playability, comfort or performance of the instrument, and for most of you out there, if I didn’t write this freaking blog post about it you’d be none the wiser. It’s really a non-issue.

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But indulge me for a moment and take a look at these two sunburst Jazzmasters, a 1961 on the left and an 2011 on the right. Born 50 years apart, they’re both beautiful instruments, and each plays fantastically thank you very much. But did you notice how much more bold and eye-catching the guitar on the left is? Sure, it’s obviously vintage, the shell pattern is prettier, and that burst is perfectly worn. However, if the older guitar were completely clean, I’m willing to bet you’d notice a difference even if you couldn’t quite put your finger on what it was. I’m telling you, it’s the bevel!

Just like whitewall tires on a '50s Chevrolet, a wider pickguard bevel really sets off the look of a guitar.

Just like whitewall tires on a ’50s Chevrolet, a wider pickguard bevel really sets off the look of a guitar.

From an aesthetic perspective (read: to my eye) the deeper bevel can have a surprising impact on the looks of a given instrument; a steeper angle exposes more of the white part of the layers beneath, creating a sort of visual buffer between the burst and tort. This goes double for guitars that have genuine 1960s mint green guards, which have a much thicker middle black layer. That thicker ring around the guard makes vintage guitars ‘pop’ a little more than reissues.

Yes, this minuscule difference only bothers the most detail-obsessed folks on the planet, and I’m proud to be one of them. But if you’re the kind that gets stuck on minute details and you’re finding yourself with an itch you can’t scratch, what then? You could buy a real-deal vintage guard, but that privilege comes at a steep, steep price – may times in the $300 range! You could scour the net for repro guards, but as we all know, reissues are rarely reissues. What then?

Junkies, get your fix: eBay’s fenderparts has you covered. UPDATE: Jimi also runs eBay store portlandmusic, which has a huge selection of his Nitrate Tort guards. They’re beautiful. (Photo at the bottom of the page)

If you’re looking for a vintage-correct guard for your guitar, you can thank your lucky stars for Portland’s fabulous fenderparts. (Also portlandmusic) Owned and operated by Jimi Haskett, fenderparts is my first-call supplier of the coolest aftermarket guards on the planet, at least in my opinion. 

Not only does Jimi have his angle on the bevel (ha!) he’s also meticulous in choosing just the right materials for his guards. I’m talking spot-on mint green material, and he sources his beautifully-colored tort from Italy! Unfortunately, we don’t have any shots of them, so when we get one of his tortoise shell guards, we’ll be sure to follow up!

50 Shades of Green

CIMG5233When I first discovered Haskett’s amazing guards at the Spring Seattle/Tacoma Guitar Show, I knew I had to have one. From the few guitars I saw that had his work installed, I could tell that this admittedly nonessential upgrade was going to be the thing that took my guitar from a really great-looking reissue to a doppelganger for the real thing – not that I’m trying to fool anyone. A few weeks later, I took the plunge and waited anxiously for my guard.

Jimi shipped my order quickly, especially since my guard was made-to-order. When it arrived, I couldn’t wait to open the package even though my guitar was at home rather than at the shop. On first seeing the guard, my hopes couldn’t have been more adequately met: lightly aged, de-glossed and unbelievably close to a real early ‘60s mint guard, Jimi really impressed me with his attention to detail and deft execution. And the aging? Tastefully done and not too overblown.

CIMG5225Honestly, simply holding my Jazzmaster’s new garments made my eyes grow wide with an almost lustful anticipation, my mind racing as I imagined the ecstasy of stripping down my instrument to its most bare state. Oh, I marveled in the act of turning screw into wood, my hands on Blue’s waist, reveling in the unparalleled joy of playing dress-up with my favorite muse. Oh, the sweet music we’ll make together, my muse and I! Oh, how I can hardly wait to caress –

Whoa. I… I’m sorry. I guess I got carried away there. Do you mind if I – you don’t? Whew, okay. I’ll be right back.

*takes cold shower* Where was I? Ah, yes: the guard.

Installation was a breeze, save for some very minimal filing I had to do around the bridge thimbles holes. I don’t believe this is a shortcoming on Jimi’s part; having worked on nearly every conceivable year and model of the Fender Jazzmaster over the years, I can testify that the thimbles can indeed be in slightly different places, especially on some of the reissues. My guitar is an ’07 Thin-Skin, and even before ordering my guard from fenderparts I was aware that my thimbles were closer to the neck than usual but it intones perfectly, so I never gave it much thought. When I held Jimi’s guard up to my old reissue guard, sure enough his holes were a touch closer to the vibrato plate which perfectly echoed the vintage guard we had around the shop.

The Tease and the Reveal

IMG_7637-impWhen I finally had my guitar put back together, the visual difference was immediately apparent. Suddenly, I found myself in a heretofore unknown state of reissued bliss, my eyes affixed to my guitar as if it were brand new all over again. I really can’t describe how impressed I was with this guard, from the dead-on coloring and believable aging to the fit. Just look at it!

I now find myself recommending these guards to anyone that asks, and for a handmade product you’re not paying outrageous sums above what a normal one would cost. Most of his guards are in the range of $79 – $89, which could be off-putting for some. Still, with replacements already costing up to $70, an extra ten or twenty isn’t that out of the question. Like I always say, “Support the little guy!”

In short, Jimi Haskett really gets it. You see, there’s more to making a genuine replacement part than simply following the lines; there’s a character to old things, especially when they’ve come into such constant contact with human beings as guitars have, and this piece of plastic paraphernalia beautifully captures the look and feel of a truly old pickguard. I mean, we’ve all seen really tacky, completely obvious aging, right? Jimi’s work is nothing of the sort.

If you’re even considering a new guard for your old – or new – guitar, do yourself a favor and check out fenderparts on eBay.

And again, portlandmusic is his other eBay handle for tort guards and guitars!

 

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Before and after

That's damn good tort. Taken from an auction from portlandmusic on eBay.

That’s damn good tort. Taken from an auction from portlandmusic on eBay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electronics

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

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

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

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

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

Hardware

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

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

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

Cosmetics

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

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

IMG_6652IMG_6650

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Product

Totally stoked.

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

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– MJA

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

IMG_2101By Michael James Adams

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

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

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

Shim Shenanigans

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

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

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

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

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

Break Angle Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Word About String Gauge

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

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

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

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

Mastery on a '58. Yessir.

Mastery on a ’58. Yessir.

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

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 1

IMG_3071-impBy Michael James Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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