Tag Archives: tone

The Taming of the Shrill: How to Rein in the Extra Brightness of an Offset Guitar

Whether it’s fawning over custom colored Jags or addressing some playability problem on a Jazzmaster, it’s safe to say we talk a lot about offset Fender guitars. It’s been an honor to help guitarists understand the quirks associated with them, yet one such quirk we’ve not addressed previously is the tonal range of these guitars.

While it’s true that both the Jaguar and Jazzmaster are capable of some truly bright trebles, they’re also capable of some deep, complex low end. Newcomers to the sound often home in on that brightness and fear that they’ve bought a guitar they can’t use. If that’s you then I’m here to help.

In no particular order, here’s a short list of ideas to help you tame the shrill from your offset Fender guitar. But before we dig in, I’d like to note that guitars being the sum of their parts, the suggestions I’m about to make likely won’t offer a night-and-day change in the sound of your guitar. To put a numerical value to it, you may find that they only amount to a 5% difference, but that could be the 5% you need.

This list may be offset-centric, but these suggestions can apply to just about any guitar.


Examine Your Amp Settings

We guitar players can be rather superstitious. Once we find that sound in our heads, once we settle on those ‘magic’ numbers, it seems like sacrilege to deviate. If this is you, take a deep breath and get centered because the very first suggestion I have for those afflicted by harsh treble frequencies is to simply dial them out.

For symptoms of excessive brightness my prescription is to start with the Presence, assuming your amp has this control. Presence knobs govern the very top of the top end (around 3-7khz-7khz) and as such turning down this knob can have a dramatic effect on undesirable ice-pick frequencies.

Treble controls most often govern the more tuneful highs in of a guitar signal (typically 1.5khz-4khz) so you may find that pruning too much here kills some pleasantness. Still, with the ample treble produced by Jazzmasters and Jaguars, you may find that you won’t need as much to keep things defined.

Now, your instinct may be to roll up the Bass knob and that may certainly help a thinned-out guitar, but be careful not to use this as a catch-all solution. Guitars generally live in the upper EQ bands of a mix, and while punishing low end sounds (and feels) great on its own, you also run the risk of muddying up a full band sound by boosting bass too much. Remember to leave space for other instruments.

You can also try utilizing the tone controls of drive pedals in the same way, cutting highs before you hit the amp. Using a darker pedal or settings before a bright amp can yield some lovely tones, or if you’re the kind that likes bright cleans and dense overdrive, this may be the way to go.


Roll Off that Tone

 Knob

I think a lot of folks have been emotionally scarred by the cheap electronics of affordable instruments, but there’s really no reason to fear the humble variable low-pass filter. Sure, a bad tone control can do sickening things to the sound of a beloved instrument; a good one can be an effective secret weapon.

I’ve long maintained that the stock Jazzmaster tone control is one of the most usable ones around. The combination of the 1meg linear potentiometer and a 333 capacitor just seems to dial out the exact high end frequencies that my ears find so unpalatable without sacrificing clarity.

It may help if you think of your tone control as a taste control instead; depending on your musical situation, you can really change the flavor of your guitar’s response to fit the moment. On my personal Jazzmasters, I leave the Tone knob at 6 or 7 as my basic sound and if I need a thicker sound, backing off to 4 or 5 does the trick. If I need twang, rolling up to 10 is almost like picking up a really good Telecaster. I’ve even gone so far as to install Gibson-style pointers on my Thin Skin Jazzmaster so that I can take note of exact settings.

When used in tandem with some smart amp-based EQ whittling, these first two suggestions may be all the only bits of the list you’ll ever need.

Try New Strings

Most people can throw down $5-$7 on a set of strings once in a while, and if you’re feeling blue about your tone, changing up your string brand or gauge is one of the most effective tweaks you can make.

Every brand has their own feel and sound, so it’s worth experimenting a bit. Say you’re a devotee of nickel plated strings but you’re getting a little too much zing. Try a set of pure nickel strings next time around, which tend to be warmer. If 10s lack some low end thump, try stepping up a gauge. Flats, ground-round, coated and uncoated, different metals… There’s a whole world of options out there. Go nuts.

Swap Pots

A common mod you’ll hear about from Jazzmaster owners in particular is tossing the stock 1meg volume and tone pots out for a lower value. Doing so warms up your guitar’s sound by shaving off a bit of the volume and high end response.

When I’m explaining the basics of how pots work to a customer, I liken them to the flood gate of a dam. If the gate’s wide open, it lets all of the water through, while closing the gate permits only a trickle. The value of potentiometers does something similar.

A pickup wired straight to the output jack is what I’d call ‘wide open’ – the full signal coming from your pickup is going to the amp without restriction. When you introduce a volume pot you’re limiting how ‘open’ that gate can be. A 1meg pot is pretty close to wide open, letting a lot more signal pass than 500k, and 500k passes more than 250k. It’s because of this that we often pair certain pot values with different types of pickups (i.e. 250k for singles and 500k for humbuckers).

The stock value for your Jazzmaster or Jaguar is 1meg, which has much to do with the bright tone of these guitars. When you swap out for a lower pot value, you’re shifting the resonant peak frequency lower, invoking a warmer sound. Stepping down to 500K is enough of a change for many players, but going all the way to 250 shaves off an even greater amount of high end.

For an example of what lower pot values can do for you, Nels Cline’s famous “Watt” Jazzmaster has 250k pots, which works perfectly for a man known for hating treble.

My signature Redbeard cable from our pals at Sinasoid, available through Mike & Mike’s!

Ditch the Lossless Cables

While the arguments surrounding the effect of cables on tone are never-ending, it makes perfect sense that anything between your guitar and amp could alter your tone. And while many cable companies boast ultra-low capacitance, conductors made from rare materials, or instrument-specific lines, many of the most influential musicians of the last 50 years used whatever they could find to make that all-important connection.

Hendrix’ use of long, coiled cables is one of the examples many point to when citing how a cable can have a huge impact on the sound of a guitar. Coiled cables by nature are actually much, much longer than similar standard cables––there’s almost three times the material between the plugs! As a result, the signal from the guitar has to travel a much longer distance to reach its destination, and thus, increased capacitance. The greater the capacitance, the less high end that is transmitted through the cable.

Capacitance is no joke and is something worth considering when you buy a cable. That said, ultra-low capacitance may not be the best choice for everyone. When our pals at Sinasoid offered to design signature cables for the shop, I specifically asked for a longer, higher capacitance cable than what I was used to, and I couldn’t be happier. So ditch the buffer and short leads and see what happens.


Swap Pickups

A lot of players ask me for recommendations on darker Jazzmaster pickups, and usually the first four names out of my mouth are Lollar, Novak, Antiquity, and At-The-Creamery. Each of these manufacturers offer superior sound to most stock units and have tons of options even for Jaguars.

For those looking for vintage-correct tones, Duncan’s Antiquity Is beautifully capture the sound of a 60-year-old black-bobbin pickup, louder and darker than the IIs which emulate the brighter grey-bobbin pickups of the late 1960s. Comparing the Antiquity Is to the pickups in my ’61 Jazzmaster, they’re damn close. Of course, Duncan has many different Jazzmaster pickups.

Lollar’s standard Jazzmaster set is a lot like a 60-year-old pickup when it was brand new: healthy output with a bit more top end, as well as the signature Lollar midrange bump. I have these installed in my 2007 Thin Skin Jazzmaster and couldn’t be happier. Lollar also offer one hell of a Jazzmaster-sized P90.

If you need something weird, my friend Curtis Novak is my first choice. Curtis has a knack for stuffing non-standard pickup designs under a stock Jazzmaster cover, from Mosrite and Gold Foils to dummy-pole humbuckers. He’s a miracle worker.

Jaime from At-The-Creamery in the UK is a fantastic option for those who like to get into the nitty gritty details of pickup making, allowing the player to choose things like magnet type and output. He does brilliant work to boot.

Of course, each of these makers offer a wide range of pickups for all guitars.

Have you tried plugging into the Bass channel?

Try Darker Amps

With the popularity of the boutique amp market and its affinity for “jangle” it’s bit more difficult to find amps with a focus on low end and low-mids rather than trebles. I realize that not everyone can just get a different amp at the drop of a hat – I’m no spendthrift either – but if you find yourself in a position to consider a new or additional amp, then I have a few suggestions for you.

For smaller tube amps, the Fender Blues Jr. Lacquered Tweed is equipped with a 50 watt Jensen speaker, which offers less speaker breakup and a lot more low end than you might expect from such a small cabinet. I also highly recommend the Excelsior Pro, made in the tradition of 1950s low-wattage combo amps and reviled by some for its tonal inflexibility. Still, that 15” speaker sounds huge even at modest volumes and the amp loves pedals. They go for next to nothing on the used market.

For a mid-size amp, the Peavey Classic series tends to be overlooked but you’ll find warmth characteristic of Tweed-era Fenders at a fraction of the cost. For UK tones, the Normal channel of an AC30 works beautifully, but if you’re looking for something with more gain the Orange Rockerverb range should do nicely.

For heads, I have to say that the new Marshall Silver Jubilee reissue surprised me with the amount of lows it has on tap. The Mesa Tremoverb is another hugely underrated and darker-sounding amp, one higher-gain head that I wish I owned.

Come to the Dark Side

I’d like to echo the sentiments of our Sith Lord Vader, welcoming you to the more sinister side of tone. To be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with brighter sounds! If chime is your thing, chase your bliss! Me, I’ll be over on the other side of the stage in my warm, woolen cocoon.

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#WEEZERQUEST: A RIVERS RUNS THROUGH IT

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

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

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

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

This meant A LOT of research.

I’ve Got Electric Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

I may have gone completely overboard.

The Hundred Acre Woodshed

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

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

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

X-Ray Specs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

On Thin Ice

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

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

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

Letterman Jacket

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

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

 

AMP RIG

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

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

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

MOCK! YEAH!

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

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

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

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

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

I guess we both got lucky that night.

PEDALS

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

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

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

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Mike & Mike’s Pot[entiometer] Dispensary

IMG_6151-impby Michael James Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Your mileage may vary, but most of us do prefer 500ks.
** The diagram omits ground connections for the bridge/tailpiece stud and to each pot.
*** Things come better in threes.
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Whoa… Busy Month and a Blacktop Jazzmaster

It’s been quite a while since our last post, but for good reason: we have been the busiest we’ve ever been. Not only are our wares selling like hotcakes (Fortune 500 here we come?) but there has been a marked increase in patrons to our humble store. Some come in for work on their prized amp or guitar, some come to browse, and a few come in just to have a drink and hang out – exactly the kinds of things we’re about!

When you own a shop in a street-level garage that’s around 500 square feet, two or more customers can make it feel very, very busy. Add to this the army of gear we’ve acquired and a veritable mountain of repairs, and I think you could begin to infer just how busy we’ve been.

Even so, I thought I’d take this opportunity to update both the website and our faithful readers on just what the heck we’ve been doing this holiday season. I mean, it’s not all eggnog and carols and flasks of whichever alcohol we’re drinking these days!

The Modified Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster

IMG_1897-impDecember marked the end of a months-long project, one that took far longer to complete than I had expected. Why? Well, it’s because of that dad-blasted Gold Foil.

Our friend John (the owner of this fine machine) saw what we did ages ago with the Skyemaster and wanted something similar but tweaked to his personality. Two additional pickups were to be installed – a total of four on the guitar – to augment the already wide range of tones available to him. He provided a cool old Framus/Guyatone pickup for the middle position, and installing that required routing out the body and pickguard. Pretty straightforward.

However, John was really into the ethereal, otherworldly sounds that came from the Skyemaster’s behind-the-bridge unit, so finding a thin, small pickup that would fit under the adjusted string length of this model was a bit of a problem. We eventually decided that an old Dearmond/Rowe Gold Foil would do the trick, but that would present its own challenge: finding one for a good price.

John and I agreed that, with the recent spate of popularity surrounding these pickups, it would be a game of waiting to pounce on an under priced pickup to keep his already high costs down. I was more than happy to save my customer some money, but between searching and all of the other jobs I’ve had, it started to feel hopeless there for a bit. Luckily, after some time I was able to track one down that was in need of a rewind.

From then on it was smooth sailing. Here’s a brief rundown of what we have going on with this one:

-Stock neck and bridge pickups
-Added Guyatone/Framus pickup in the middle position
-Gold Foil (no base) mounted directly to the wood, no routing required!
-Three way toggle functions normally (N, NB, B)
-Two additional pickups are selectable via two push-pull pots on the Volume (middle) and Tone (behind-the-bridge) pots

So, how does it sound? It’s amazing. The middle pickup lends a quacky sort of darkness to the overall characteristics of the stock pickups, and the BTB unit enables all of the weird, Waterphone-like tones you’d expect. This is certainly one of my favorite mods, and it’s surprisingly useful. I’ll get around to doing this to my own guitar soon enough, I’m sure. Wanna hear how it sounds? Check it out:

There are three more videos detailing some of the quirky sounds available via the modified electronics. Feel free to watch!

I’m going to do a couple more quick updates in the next few days or so. Keep your eyes peeled! Lots more cool stuff on the way!

UPDATE: Special thanks to our pals over at Ampersand Amplification for this custom meme! We think it’s appropriate!

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

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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:

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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

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

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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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Chords and Conviction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Raise Your Action: A Plea

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

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

*Deep breath*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michael James Adams

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