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Whoa… Busy Month and a Blacktop Jazzmaster

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

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

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

The Modified Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we came up with:

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

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

BODY SCULPTING

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

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

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

ELECTRONICS

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYABILITY

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

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

SOUND

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

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

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

Seriously, this thing is wild!

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The Most Patriotic Guitars Ever, Ever. Happy July 4th!

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Here at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar, we couldn’t be more excited about July 4th. It’s three days after our shop’s anniversary (1 year, y’all!), my anniversary with my wife (3 years, y’all!) and the anniversary of our Nation’s independence (237 years, y’all!) so we’ve much to celebrate! And we LOVE to celebrate. I can’t speak for Other Mike, but I can tell you that in exercising my freedom on the freest day of the year I’ll be hanging with friends and family while eating grilled meats and drinking frosty brews, probably some Mike’s Hard Blackberry Lemonade because I like repetition. And also because I like adult fruit punch. I swear to God, if anyone tries to hand me a Silver Bullet I’m going to glare at them until they leave me alone.

When it comes to the best ways to share American pride, among them are belt buckles, bikinis, gaudy tattoos and, of course, the guitar. Yes, the guitar; is there anything more American?* Given the amount of red, white and blue guitars out there, that answer seems to be a flag-wavin’ HELL NO. In this day and age, everyone’s got a guitar – hell, even Obama plays a Jaguar.

Let’s take a look at some of the most patriotic guitars ever created, and we’ll rate just how proud they make Uncle Sam based on their individual patriotic flair. We’ll also try to give approximate prices, proving that freedom truly isn’t free.

1) Buck Owens Signature Fender Telecaster

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Now that’s what I call patriotic: stately, refined pride. That’s a classy guitar, not some chaotic melange of blue stars and red stripes as if Uncle Sam got sick like so many other instruments. Gold hardware, three-tone sparkle finish and Buck’s signature on the headstock all makes this guitar as attractive as it is reverential, much like Buck’s deep love of his country.

Out of all the guitars we’ll look at in this post, this is one of the ones I’d really love to own. It’s a guitar even a dirty lib’ral could love! The caveat here is that this limited-edition run of guitars was actually made in Japan, for which we’ll have to reflect  in the guitar’s rating.

Buck Owens Telecaster
Price: $1200-1500
Country of origin: Japan
Patriotism Rating: 888 (exactly 1/2 of 1776)

2) 1985 Gibson MAP

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In 1985 Gibson did a limited run of guitars shaped like the 48 contiguous states of America, only nine of which are in this stars-and-stripes finish. Featuring a familiar electronics array, much like that of a Les Paul or an Explorer, these guitars have both style and substance while being a symbol of American craftsmanship. I mean, can you imagine trying to install binding on that thing? I would quit once I got to Michigan.

Because there are so few of these guitars, who’s to say exactly what the going rate would be. That finish is plenty cool, though, so if I came across one in the wild I’d snatch it up no matter what the going rate would be. There are a few of the natural-finish examples on eBay, with the sellers asking $3000, so I’m certain there’s a premium price attached to such a rare finish.

Being that this Gibson has such a rare, cool finish and is made in America, I’ll be awarding this one full points on the scale of patriotism.

1985 Gibson Map in Stars-and-Stripes finish
Price: $????
Country of Origin: USA!
Patriotism Rating: 1776

3) 1965 Mosrite Ventures “Salesman”

1965-Mozorite-Salesman-FramedIn the 1960s, California-based guitar company Mosrite produced about 50 of these guitars know as “Salesman” guitars. The thought was that a Mosrite rep could walk into a guitar shop and say, “Here’s the Mosrite guitar, and these are your color choices: Red, White or Blue.” Easy, right?

Trouble is, I don’t want any of those individual colors, I want THIS ONE. I mean, just look at that! So dreamy.

Aside from the Ventures, many of our guitar heroes played Mosrite guitars including Kurt Cobain, Joe Maphis, Fred Smith of MC5 and Johnny Ramone.

1965 Mosrite Ventures model “Salesman”
Country of origin: ‘Merika
Price: ~$5000
Patriotism Rating: JFK riding a robot unicorn on the moon

4) Blueberry Guitars USA Eagle Thing

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Holy shit. Evidently this was a custom order for a country artist that wanted everyone to know that his pride is bigger than yours. I can’t knock the kind of skill it takes to produce such an instrument, but subtlety is lost on this one. I mean, this thing is… well, I can’t describe this one to you as well as photos can…

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And yes, the headstock shot from the beginning of the article is from this guitar. Can you imagine what this thing must be like in person? It must sound like the tears of an a bald eagle falling onto the Liberty Bell. And guess what: it’s not even made in America! This one’s from Canada, and the thought of someone in another country having to do this is hilarious. I do love Canada, though, and being that they’re our neighbors to the north I want to take this opportunity to say that we should hang sometime soon.

Blueberry Guitars USA Eagle Thing
Price: many thousands, I’m sure
Country of origin: Canada
Patriotism Rating:

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Blueberry actually does really beautiful work. I’m picking on this instrument heavily but I do have deep respect for their craftsmanship and instruments. Check them out here.

5) Fender Wayne Kramer Signature (MC5)

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I’m a huge MC5 fan, and I would totally Kick Out the Jams on this guitar. With US hardware, a Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker in the middle position and an engraved “This Tool Kills Hate” neckplate, I would have no qualms about taking the stage with such a flashy Strat. It’s also worth mentioning that I’m not even a Strat guy!

This model has been relic’d to match the original, and is made in Mexico. “Mexico?!!”, you ask incredulously, mouth agape in shock. Yes. And it’s great. At least it’s an American brand, which is more than I can say for our next entry.

Fender Wayne Kramer Stratocaster
Country of origin: Mexico
Price: $999 new
Patriotism Rating: WELCOME TO EARF

6) Toby Keith’s Stars-and-Stripes Takamine

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I’m sorry, but no. I mean, the other offshore-made guitars we liked were at the very least made by an American brand, but come on! Takamine?! Sure, they make good guitars, but TK’s not even trying here. Yeesh. How’s about you sing us another song about putting boots in terrorist’s asses or bringing American jobs back home. Let’s slap Old Glory on the front of a Takamine! Brilliant!

Irony? He’s swimming in it.

TK’s Takamine
Country of origin: Japan
Price: Custom
Patriotism Rating: McCarthyism

7) 1976 Gibson “Bicentennial” Firebird

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Gold hardware and an understated tweak to commemorate 200 years of American history. It’s no Map, but it’s a nice nod.

1976 Gibson “Bicentennial” Firebird
Country of origin: USA
Price: $4,000-6500
Patriotism Rating: 177.6

8) Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” Gibson J-45

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Woody Guthrie is an American legend, and the songs he wrote are just as poignant and effective today as they were when he penned them. Utilizing familiar folk melodies and the breadth of his experience gained while rambling around the country in train cars, Guthrie deeply loved his country and believed it was inseparable from its people, and aimed to protect her from fascists, singing his songs anywhere people were.

There’s much to be said about Guthrie’s legacy and music, but the song that’s probably the most well-known of his is also one of his most misunderstood: “This Land is Your Land”. Guthrie wrote that song in 1940 as a reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which Guthrie thought was trite and complacent. The song, originally titled “God Blessed America”, is a beautiful example of his feelings of patriotism, far removed from today’s brand-name, fearful allegiance.

Above all, Guthrie believed in the capacity of people to care for one another, but he also believed that the country he cared for was going in the wrong direction, filled with greed and injustice. A socialist, Woody saw the wealthy profit from the labor of the poor, going from migrant camps to union halls, feeling what was happening around him.

I say that “This Land” is misunderstood because until I was in This Land, a play/musical I was in last year detailing Woody’s travels and songs by use of his personal journals and letters, I had never heard the whole song. Sure, everyone sings “This land is your land, this land is my land”, but I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone sing the other more damning verses before. I remember when my family was invited to see president George W. Bush at the York Fairgrounds in York PA, there was a group there singing patriotic tunes, and among them was “This Land”, and looking back those later verses were conspicuously absent. Here are those verses:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
God blessed America for me.
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

As Greg Carter, the director of This Land said, “Woody will tear your flag down and give you a reason to pick it back up again.” And, having spent three months working in that play, singing his songs and playing his notes, I can honestly say that being so enveloped in Guthrie’s words and songs has taught me more about patriotism and heroism than the 30 years of fireworks, cookouts, pledges and elections ever could have. No one ever fights for a piece of cloth; they fight for the idea.

Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” Gibson J-45
Country of origin: United States of America
Price: Priceless
Patriotism Rating: Eleventy Billion

*Yes. The modern guitar has its roots in Spain, and further back, Rome. But of course, we’re a big ol’ melting pot, aren’t we?

-Michael James Adams

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