Tag Archives: vintage

All Original… To A Fault?

There’s no experience quite like that of a well-kept, totally original vintage guitar. It’s like opening a rift in the time-space continuum, a direct passageway to an era of craftsmanship that many claim is far behind us. The feel of an old finish or the smell of an old case is enough to drudge up memories of timeless tunes and the players that made them.

As a shop, it’s crucially important we know our stuff and that we’re able to confirm the originality of a piece. This builds trust with potential buyers, and trust is something we value greatly around here. We take pride in the stock we offer, and when something isn’t original we make sure to say so.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that “all original” is synonymous with “better” though. Let’s be realistic: any thing that comes into contact with human beings will wear and deteriorate with use, no matter how precious or well-maintained. Some parts simply must be changed as they fail, whether by age or use, and as many of our most hallowed vintage instruments reach the age of 70 and beyond, it may be time to accept the finite nature of wood, metal, and plastic. At least, those of us without infinite cash at hand.

Over the many years I’ve spent repairing, restoring, and dealing in vintage guitars, I’ve seen many examples of parts that were original but kept a vintage instrument from being fully playable, which is kind of the point of the thing in the first place. If it’s come to that, why not replace the malfunctioning part?

My personal mantra is this: Functionality over Originality.

Disclaimer: I’m about to list some parts on vintage guitars that are prone to wear or failure, and as I list them I want you to keep the Hippocratic Oath of “Do no harm” in mind. I’m suggesting that these parts be changed, but not at the expense of damaging the instrument in the process.

Disclaimer 2: Also, these opinions are those of Michael Adams alone, not necessarily of Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar.

Disclaimer the third: except for a single case, all of these parts should be saved and kept close to the instrument in the event of future sale. A guitar with a changed part and the original included will always do far better on the market than without.

Disclaimer 4: Disclaim Harder: I still love an all-original vintage guitar.

Surgical Tubing

Early Strats and Teles often used surgical tubing to mount pickups instead of the springs commonly used now. This tubing is squishy yet firm and provides adequate resistance between the bobbin and the pickguard, enabling height adjustment. After many decades, that tubing dries out and crumbles, becoming brittle and plasticky rather than the pleasantly gummy texture of its youth.

Obviously, this is no good and renders pickup height adjustment impossible. I’ve opened up too many vintage instruments to find the pickups rattling around in their mounts, the telltale yellow crumbs of tubing still in the cavities.

It’s best the replace these wholesale, either for springs or new tubing. Many aftermarket pickup makers include tubing with their wares, even. Originality be damned, there’s really not a good argument for keeping them in there.

Just look at this sickening mess.

Pickup Foam (Also Fender Mute Foam)

In my latest Demystifying article, I briefly discuss the tendency of old mute foam to degrade into a hard, sticky goop. The same is true for the foam stuffed under the pickups on old Jazzmasters and Jaguars – that stuff is disgusting. Once the foam turns to tar, it no longer allows the pickups to be adjusted, and it leaves residue everywhere, including your hands. If left in its place, it can damage the other parts it’s stuck to, so it really is best to toss this stuff the moment it’s discovered.

When your original foam turns to a gummy blob, it’s time to forget about being original and replace that stuff. Don’t even bother keeping it. Nobody’s going to be excited to find a bag of guitar jerky in their case.

A srtripped pickup screw (L) and a rusty pickguard screw (R) that I had to remove because it fused with hardware.

Rusty or Stripped Screws

I don’t know about you, but I have a soft spot for the patina of an old guitar, especially when hardware takes on a dulled nature. I find nickel and gold hardware especially alluring as the plating wears and oxidizes.

All of this stuff looks great, but once rust takes hold of screws they become more of a nuisance than anything. Stripped pickup screws take the fun out of functional, while rusty, frozen saddle height screws defeat the whole purpose of them being there in the first place. If a pickguard screw turns to ground cinnamon when you try to remove it, it’s best to simply replace it.

If you’re concerned about gleaming new screws looking out of place on your guitar, there are plenty of places to find aged hardware these days. Keep the old parts in a bag, tuck them in the case, and move on with your life.

Frets

Folks make a big deal about original frets, and I get that; In many cases, such a thing speaks to the quality of care the guitar experienced over the years. To contrast, a sloppy refret is a good indicator that the guitar’s been mucked with in some other way.

Original frets are a nice thing to have, but that doesn’t mean the guitar will play any better. Like anything else, frets wear over time, and at the very least they’ll need a good dressing. Too often guitars are advertised as having “plenty of life left” when they’re actually on the deck with deep grooves from a chord masher.

Personally, I don’t balk at a good refret except in cases where I don’t like the fret size used, like putting Dunlop 6000 on a Musicmaster or something. I count a quality fret job as a good thing, one that ensures my guitar will be playable for years to come. Even Pancake, my beloved ’61 Jazzmaster is at a point in its life where those original frets are just too low, and I’m a guy that likes them low to begin with. I’m loathe to make changes, but even I have to admit that new frets are the one thing that will make this guitar even better than it already is now. And so, that’s exactly what’s going to happen this summer.

Pots, Etc.

Going back to the idea that a guitar should be functional, electronic parts can and will fail with age and use, they were never designed to last forever.

Now, a crackling, dirty pot can––and I’d argue should––be first be addressed with some contact cleaner. However, if the pot’s sweep is nonexistent or it just won’t pass signal any more, replace it. Don’t even trip, just get it out of there!

With so many options for high-quality components like Emerson, Bourns, and even tighter tolerance CTS pots, this is one decision that’s easy to make. 

And as I’ve said before, keep those components if you sell. Sometimes a pot can be salvaged by dismantling and repairing it, but that’s a lot of work for a relatively small payout.

To Re- or Not To Re-

It’s a hard thing for non-guitar oriented folks to understand, but a worn finish doesn’t mean it needs to be redone. I remember the first time my parents saw my beat to hell ’73 Precision Bass, my dad cried out, “That needs new paint!” It took the better part of the afternoon to explain that no, the finish is fine and even desirable to some just as it is, and no, I’m not going to touch it.

Still, there are cases where a refinish is a perfectly acceptable and possibly necessary thing to do. If the guitar in question had a previous owner that just didn’t know better and decided it would look great in his favorite color of latex paint, that’s a good candidate for a refin. Has contact with a reactive strap or cable in the case left worm-like marks all over the face of your guitar? Is your instrument a casualty of the 1970s brown stain and brass nut fad? Friend, you’ve got yourself a ticket to any color you want.

A finish that’s simply worn, I’d leave that alone, but one that’s been intentionally ruined deserves restoration. If you’re currently considering a refinish, I’d urge you to have the work done by a qualified professional, and preferably in the style of the guitar’s era of manufacture for the sake of resale value.

Tuners

It all comes back to functionality, doesn’t it? Old tuners are no exception.

If your original tuners just aren’t holding tune, or if they’ve become hard to turn or locked up, it may be time for replacement. Obviously, lubrication goes a long way, so try that first. Barring maintenance, there are many modern tuners to chose from, most of which come in aged finishes and won’t require modification to your instrument.

On a side note, I can’t stress that last bit enough: don’t modify the headstock of your vintage guitar to install new tuners. If your guitar uses push-in bushings, stick with the same for the new set.

***

A changed part can be controversial for sure, but if the swap is done carefully and the original part is tucked away, then it shouldn’t negatively impact value. It will, however, positively affect the instrument’s usability. And in the end, that’s what matters to a player. Let the collectors have the pristine examples!

bfvc (My dog typed this accidentally, but I thought that was cute so I left it)

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

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

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

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

Sunglasses case, no less!

Sunglasses case, no less!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Upgrading a Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To Mod or Not To Mod…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The insolence of Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Undiscovered [Flavor] Country

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

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

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

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Boutique Builders and the Offset Vibrato: A Trem of Great Import

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I spend the bulk of my professional life thinking about offset guitars, from the next way in which I’ll be able to explain solutions to the myriad perceived bridge issues, to my idea of the perfect Jaguar, to mods and possible set up techniques I’d like to explore on one of my own. These guitars have been a huge part of my career, and I’m happy to say that recently I’ve discovered that I have a nickname among some enthusiasts: “The Jazzmaster Guy”.

Yes, dear reader, you likely know already how obsessed I am with these models, and in the same way that some proudly identify with a political party or religion, I wear my love of these quirky guitars as a badge of honor. If elections were held to determine the supreme guitar ruler of the world, I would firmly be in the Offset Party. I would totally rock a “Jazzmaster 2016” or “Jaguar 2016” bumper sticker. In fact, that might be worth putting some effort into.

Recently Summer NAMM took over the Music City Center in Nashville as well as our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. Gear lovers had a lot to look forward to, with new offerings from boutique and indie guitar, pedal, and amp makers as well as updated models from the big boys, and even if you weren’t able to attend in person (like me) there were plenty of goodies showing up online to satisfy even the most stodgy of enthusiasts. Among said goodies were plenty of models in the offset tradition, which is something that should have elicited more excitement in me than I actually felt.

It’s true: everyone makes an offset guitar these days, and how could we begrudge them that? These guitars have never been more popular, what with the spate of indie bands, aftermarket parts like the Mastery Bridge, and Nels Cline’s mind-altering musicianship, new Jazzmaster and Jaguar models (as well as variations on the theme!) are flooding the market at rates never before seen or anticipated. What was once a bargain-barrel, “crappy” guitar is now every bit as coveted and hallowed as some of the other most successful and idolized guitar models out there.

But with all of the complaints levied against these models (all of which we disputed and dispelled in our Demystifying series) one would expect that new offerings would perhaps understand not only the setup techniques involved in making these guitars play as Leo Fender intended, but also the very real affect of sub-par parts on the tone and functionality of these amazing, misunderstood instruments.

And that’s what concerns me about these upmarket models and fresh takes on famous designs, that there appears to be a disturbing trend in the “boutique” guitar market far more pervasive than relic finishes, self-tuning guitars, and ultra-hot gimmicky pickups:

$2000 guitars with cheap import hardware.

Offset Apart

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My favorite iteration of the offset vibrato: the Pat Pend unit found on my ’61 Jazzmaster.

Many builders these days have homed in on the hot, hot, hot market share the offset body design has carved out for itself. Never more popular or readily available, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar-like body designs invading stores and internet forums alike are often as enticing as they are expensive. Offsets are being turned out in huge numbers these days, and so even small builders are looking to remain competitive in this not-so-niche market, and in order to stay that way, some builders are quietly installing inexpensive hardware on their guitars. And because we’re seeing this practice so often, these expensive custom guitars don’t perform nearly as well American reissues offered by the big company with the F-logo. I find that to be inexcusable, and too often, guitar makers are ignoring what I would argue is the most important piece of hardware on the guitar in terms of tuning stability: the offset vibrato tailpiece.

If you’ve read our Demystifying series, then you know that, when properly set up, Leo Fender’s offset vibrato design works flawlessly. Seriously, take a moment to read those articles, then come back to this one with your mind blown, and thus, more open. The offset vibrato is so popular right now for a reason, and that reason is, it’s stable as hell. When well-maintained, I can do more and get more out of the offset vibrato than I can with just about any other unit on the market, and although it may not ‘dive bomb’ the way a Floyd Rose does, how many non-locking trems do you know of where you can depress the bar the whole way, strings flopping about, then release and have it come straight back into tune? 

(For the record, I also love Gibson’s equally maligned Lyre Vibrola, Bigsbys, Rickenbacker’s Accent, and the tailpieces found on old Silvertone guitars. Sorry for answering my own question.)

But hold on a sec, the above statements come with a disclaimer: I’m only referring to vintage and US reissue tremolo units. There is no import part on the market that works as intended.

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From Allparts.com

I’m quite honestly shocked at the number of high end offset guitars at SNAMM  equipped with the unbranded offset vibrato, a unit that can be easily obtained from many parts suppliers yet is never worth even its modest cost. The reasons I’m so down on the ubiquitous, no-name import trem unit is that the parts are made from pot metal, poorly machined, and are generally bulkier in design. They also happen to have arms with the least graceful bend imaginable, something that I’d contend is as much a part of the feel of the trem as the spring.

See, not only are there issues with arms spinning freely, collets breaking and never quite locking-in properly on those units, they also just don’t stay in tune as well as those made in the America. Parts that don’t fit properly together mean that the unit won’t return to pitch or “zero out” perfectly. They feel cheap, and comparing one of these import trems with the real thing, one can plainly see the stark difference in quality between them.

Recently, my pal Jessica Dobson of Deep Sea Diver brought in a new guitar for a setup and to install new pickups, and as part of a setup, I always ensure that the trem unit functions smoothly and accurately. In the case of this instrument and many like it, the vibrato wouldn’t return to pitch even when properly set up. I removed and dismantled the unit, and saw something that I’d seen many times before.

IMG_2590In viewing this photo from my Instagram feed, you should be able to see that the pivot plate on this Asian-import trem is sloppily manufactured, and it’s not just this particular one! Every single one of these I’ve ever worked on is malformed in some way, leaving the hope of tuning stability a pipe dream at best. Now, this can be corrected to some extent by doing as I did here, grinding away the excess material until the plate was left with sharp edges and equally smooth contact points. And while this does ensure that the trem works much, much better than it did, weak springs and inferior materials will continue to cause issues much farther down the road.

Another mark against the import unit: bad metal sounds bad.

A Call to Trem Arms

If you’re a guitar maker offering a Jazzmaster-type model (or any model with that particular bridge and tailpiece combo) then I completely understand that you can’t just put a Fender-branded part on your guitar. In that regard, the no-name, unbranded import vibrato seems like a good alternative, and one that’s easy to relic to hell and back, if that’s your bag. The thing is, because they’re so poorly-made, you may be offering a guitar with a flaw right out of the gate. But there is hope!

One option would be purchasing the U.S.-made ‘real thing’ and replacing the face plate. Companies like Faction Electric Guitars offer stainless steel plates (designed by our pal Paul Rhoney) that would suit this purpose well. Sure, that’s an added expense, but if you’re already charging $1800-$2500 for a guitar, well, it’s a worth while one.

An even better option? Investing in the Mastery Vibrato, a unit that’s free of ties to the California manufacturer with the familiar name that works perfectly and is perhaps the closest in feel and tonality to the units found on vintage offset guitars, and as many of us offset aficionado will tell you, they’re the cream of the crop. Woody designed this piece as an upgrade to the original, with the a new carbon steel spring meant to feel and perform as the originals, low-profile screws that won’t chew through your strings, and a pivot plate that runs the entire length of the string anchor plate. Sturdy, solidly-built, and tonally brilliant, this all adds up to the perfect vibrato for your equally well-made and attractive instruments.

If you’re building your own guitar from parts and you don’t have the coin to drop on upgraded or vintage units, you can find Fender AVRI trems in the $50-60 range, and you can even find ‘aged’ ones on eBay. The no-name unit goes for $35 over at Allparts but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Unfortunately, at this time the  import unit is the only option for those in need of gold hardware.

Now, the purpose of this article isn’t to call out any specific builders out there, so I’m not going to include the names of guitar makers that use the dreaded “no-name” vibrato. Instead, here’s a list of some of my favorite builders that, instead of attaching subpar parts to their instruments, go the extra mile and dollar to install the precision-machined Mastery Vibrato. These are builders that care about quality that you can buy from and know that your instrument will perform as promised every single time.

In alphabetical order:

Ayers
BilT
Collings
Creston
Deimel
Echo Park
Kauer
Rhoney

That’s all I could think of right now, but I’ll be sure to update this post once my other guitar-building friends read this and yell at me for forgetting them. I’ll deserve that much at least, I’m sure.

Anyway, this one’s the only unbranded trem I’ve ever liked, found on Freddie Tavares’ prototype ’58 Jazzmaster in Desert Sand with a huge maple Stratocaster neck and a sweet black anodized guard. Special thanks to Mark Agnesi of Norman’s Rare Guitars for letting me have an unforgettable hour with this thing. What. A. Guitar. Expect a short article about that hour in the future!

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If I only had $100K.

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at the text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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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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Wiring Upgrade for a Fender Reissue Starcaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again I say CHECK IT:

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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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