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

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

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

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

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

A shot of Mojotone's Jazzmaster bobbin

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

Open Coils

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

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

Don’t Drop the Soap[bar]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Offset Obfuscation

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

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

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Oh yeah.

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

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

The Creamery shows us the difference!

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

Sound Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaguar: a Kitteh of a Whole Different Breed

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

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

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

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

-Michael James Adams

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