Tag Archives: guitar tech

An Open[ish] Response to Fender CEO Andy Mooney’s Thoughts on Offset Guitars

A bad guitar, 1961

In a recent interview with Reverb.com, Fender CEO Andy Mooney laid bare his true feelings about the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, and let me tell you, they were anything but glowing. In the exchange, he brands Leo Fender’s original designs as “not very good guitars” at the time of release, declaring the mistakes of the past fixed in Fender’s latest entries into the offset line. 

Mooney takes a hard stance here, but to be honest his perspective here is nothing new. These critiques have been around for years, and even with the informed views of dedicated users of the Offset Guitar forum, the main axe associations with high profile players like Chris Stapleton and Nels Cline, and my own work over the last decade advocating for the guitars in print and performance –– pardon the horn tooting –– opinions on these fascinating guitars among the general populace are still very much divided.  

I don’t blame folks for holding these opinions because even I, Dear Reader, once believed the very same things. Back in high school I had an Olympic white Japanese Jaguar, a parental purchase spurred on by my love of the band Bush. The kindest way I could describe the guitar is problematic; the strings skipped off of their saddles, the bridge shimmied down, and it would not stay in tune no matter what I did. 

Eventually I traded it in on something more reliable, unwilling to wrestle with the instrument. When I finally came back to the offset guitar 14 years later, I realized that insatiable tinkerer Leo Fender wouldn’t have released a guitar he didn’t think was ready, and so I pushed through my preconceived notions of its flaws to gain a better understanding of the thing. I came out on the other side with a deeper appreciation for the man’s work. 

It seems to me that when a player has a bad experience with these guitars, it’s often because they’ve been poorly maintained. In cases such as these, I view it as an opportunity to educate and reevaluate. After a conversation or a quick adjustment, the player might still decide the models aren’t for them, but more often than not they seem to “get it.” And that’s enough for me.

So here I am, returning from an extended hibernation like a grumpy, shaggy bear; like the aging ensemble cast of a ‘90s sitcom, lured into a reunion for the cameras by the dangling carrot of a handsome payday, each secretly knowing that the end product would not be nearly as good as the show’s initial run; like a cherished childhood movie that, upon re-viewing for the first time in 30 years, has way more adult themes than your young mind could then comprehend, causing feelings of retroactive discomfort because you watched it with your parents in the SAME ROOM???

Prodigal namesake that I am, I have returned with my proverbial pen pressed to the also proverbial page of the Guitar Bar website to feverishly scrawl this open[ish] response in an attempt to give some context and gentle rebuttal to his comments. 

“They were not particularly good guitars when they were first introduced.”

When the Jazzmaster and Jaguar were first released in 1958 and 1962 respectively, they were not only top of the line models, but top sellers as well. While neither model was exactly embraced by the Jazz community, they nonetheless found favor with a varied group of players and all but defined the sound of Surf music while still in its infancy. For a time, they seemed to be everywhere. Admittedly, perceived popularity does not a good guitar make, so let’s look at a handful of early adopters.

At first, session players and country pickers liked the models well enough to use them on stage and in the studio, including Wayne Moss, Hank Garland, Willie Nelson, and Luther Perkins, who has an engraving of the model on his tombstone. If more proof is needed, here are three separate performances of Roy Clark absolutely shredding “12th Street Rag” on a bone stock Jazzmaster and Jaguar. These videos remain favorites of mine because they show someone really digging in and playing fast melodic runs on guitars that people seem to think can’t handle that kind of vigorous right hand technique. 

But if they were so good to begin with, why did sales eventually taper off?

A refinished ’65 from a couple of years back. I actually put the stock bridge back on this one instead of the sloppily installed TOM. It was awesome.

Previously, I’ve explained that the most common complaints with the model aren’t the fault of the design, but rather, trying to make that design do things it was never intended to do: wearing a set of light gauge strings.

In the Jazzmaster, Leo Fender’s intention was to appeal to Jazz guitarists by creating a solid body guitar with the string geometry of an archtop: a pitched-back neck, a floating bridge, and a tailpiece, and most importantly, all specifically designed to work with heavy gauge flat wound strings. We’re talking 12s, 13s, and 14s. 

Once lighter gauges (9s and 10s) became the norm in the early to mid 1960s, inadequate string tension reduced the downward force on the bridge, resulting in tuning problems and string skipping. It’s like going off-roading with bald tires: you can certainly do it, but expect to slide around a bit.

At this point in my career I’ve set up well over a thousand of these guitars, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, once you throw on a set of 11 gauge rounds and shim the neck as Leo intended, they just work. They were good guitars then, and they’re still good guitars today.

For more information on setting up these guitars, have a look at our Demystifying series and my May 2017 cover story for Premier Guitar. 

“We’ve made them functionally better”

It’s true that Fender has devoted a significant amount of time and resources into solving the perceived problems with these guitars, including modified vibrato positioning, redesigned bridges, strategically placed nylon bushings, and even neck pockets angled at the factory to eliminate the need for shims. These are all good ideas, a few even great; as is often the case when chasing mass appeal, some have not been as successful as Fender might have hoped.

Take the Classic Player, which features an angled neck pocket and an Adjust-O-Matic bridge yet can still fall prey to the same string path issues of more vintage-correct models. The AOM style bridge was not designed with a vibrato in mind, with sharp, shallow saddle slots that can cause tuning problems of their own. And that’s to say nothing of the mismatched 12” radius bridge on a 9.5” neck, which causes the E strings to be higher off of the fretboard than the D and G in the middle and makes for an inconsistent feel across the neck. 

My friend Brian’s wonderful later model MarrGuar. An amazing guitar that set up beautifully.

Mooney specifically mentions the Johnny Marr model –– indeed a killer guitar ––  yet it’s worth noting that many of the earliest of the bunch left the factory with 56mm bridge string spacing, which turned out to be only a hair slimmer than the width of the neck. Many players reported problems keeping the outer strings on the fretboard, which eventually led to Fender adopting slimmer 52mm spacing in later production runs (linked in case you need one). Here’s a shot of a lovely black one with the worst example of this I have yet to see. 

Strangely, the earliest American Professionals which came a few years later had the same problems, sometimes necessitating the need for aftermarket parts and prompting another mid-run update. 

As for the new American Ultra guitars, they may not be for me but I can understand why many of the features might appeal to other players looking for a more modern take on the Jazzmaster. With an additional lead circuit control knob, a re-purposed rhythm circuit layout for out of phase operation, rollers for individual pickup volumes, and an S-1 switch for series options, it could be argued that functionally they’re more complex than ever. 

However, once agin Fender curiously employs a mismatched bridge radius, this time a 9.5” bridge mated to a compound 10-14” radius neck, which puts the D and G strings higher off of the fretboard than the Es. Generally, compound necks work best when the string path is treated as a cone, flattening as it expands. In this case, a 16” bridge radius would set up far better than that of the stock part. I suspect we’ll start seeing even these guitars sporting alternative bridges before too long. 

So yes, while it’s good that we’re seeing R&D dedicated to making adjustments, some of those adjustments haven’t actually solved the problems, but rather, changed the nature of them instead.

“Now you can actually play them.”

I’ve made this point abundantly not only in this piece but in nearly everything else I’ve done over the years, but the fact is that Jazzmasters and Jaguars were always playable –– stock bridge included. Take it from an ardent Mastery user: the original bridge is as viable as any other, and once it’s adjusted correctly it’s as fun as it is functional.

Not only is there a wealth of great music made with them over the years as proof, you can refer to articles on this blog, numerous posts on both my personal Instagram as well as Mike & Mike’s showing that the stock bridge is dependable and musical. Hell, every offset guitar the shop sells goes through the same setup process to show off what incredible instruments they can truly be with just a little extra effort.

Closing Arguments

Would you play this stripped ’61, original bridge and all? It was a total beast of a guitar.

Real talk: I get that Mooney’s comments may be a marketing tactic to steer customers toward the current lineup in the Fender catalog, and just in time for the holidays at that. You know the old song and dance: newer is better! Fender does make a great guitar and innovation can be a good thing, so to this I say, fair play. 

Still, I have to believe there’s a better way to say so without throwing heritage –– and our beloved vintage instruments –– under the bus. 

You see, over the last five or so years, it seems to have become fashionable in Fender’s corporate culture to downplay or outright disparage the legacy of Leo Fender, with reps at NAMM overheard saying things like “Leo didn’t get everything right” and “we fixed his mistakes,” phrases repeated at the onset of the latest feature set or spec tweak. 

At best, comments like those in the previous sentence (as well as those which are the basis of this response) make Fender seem out of touch, and at worst, could erode the trust of a very loyal legion of customers.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll be saying it for as long as it needs saying: the Jazzmaster and Jaguar are Leo Fender’s most brilliant and misunderstood designs. It may have taken us 50 years to catch up, but now a growing and dedicated group of fans have found a unique sound here unlike anything you can get from other more traditional guitars. 

Speaking personally, no matter what other instruments are available to me, I reach for an offset first. I have found my musical voice in the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, and I’m never more comfortable or more adventurous than when I have one in my hands.

One last quote: 

“I have Jazzmasters and Jaguars… I have four in a line on my wall from 1966.” 

Andy, if you’ve read this and have found any of it compelling, I’d love the chance to show you just how good those guitars on your wall can be. All I’ll need is a few sets of 11s or 12s, a screwdriver or two, and maybe a couple Cold Ones to share between us. Burritos are good, too.

Oh, and parking validation –– it’s a bit of a drive up from Long Beach and the last thing I want to deal with is finding a spot on those notoriously crowded Hollywood streets.

A bad guitar. A very bad guitar

 

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Kinman “Nasty 90” Noiseless Jazzmaster Pickups: Make Noise without the Noise

Recently I was tasked with installing two Kinman “Nasty 90” P90 pickups into this Fender ’62 AVRI Jazzmaster. Already a great guitar, I was excited to hear how the Kinman pickups changed the sound compared with the stock Fender pickups I know so well. I spent time with Kinman pickups at some convention hall guitar gathering a few years back, and although I remember liking them I think we can all agree that guitar shows are among the worst places to actually hear how a thing sounds. The prospect of demoing them in the quiet comfort of my own home was alluring, to say the least.

Before you ask, yes, I totally forgot to take more pictures

Generally speaking, I come away from other noiseless pickups feeling like I was given a raw deal; it seems that the trade-off for hum-free operation is the loss of some pleasant frequencies as casualties of the noise cancellation process. Yet Kinman are widely praised for their ability to retain the tonality of classic single-coil pickups while eradicating 60 cycle hum in their trademark elegant and complex manner––the Nasty 90 pickups have over 200 parts!

Hype, hearsay, or honesty? The real question is, how’d they fare?

Pretty damn well, I’d say.

Installation

Installation of the pickups went smoothly, but was a bigger job than most simple pickup swaps. While Kinman’s proper Jazzmaster pickup is a drop-in replacement, the Nasty 90 pickup has a rather tall assembly, far too tall to install without routing. I removed about 5/8” of wood from the neck pickup rout and a little less in the bridge position. The Kinman website recommends removing 10mm from each cavity, but I wanted a little more room for hard foam so height adjustment was easier down the line. Anyway, I’d rather take a little too much than to have to do the job over again.

Additionally, the dimensions of these pickups also meant that I had to remove the big brass shielding tub present on this stock Fender Jazzmaster. The deeper pickups couldn’t be installed with the tub overhanging into the pickup routs, where it normally meets up with the brass plates found beneath the pickups. I also had to remove those plates, which I made up for with some foil tape as described in my previous article. This proved only to be a minor setback.

Once placed in their respective positions, the pickups were just as easy to connect to the wiring harness as any other pickup. The fit of those lovely black covers in the pickguard was snug but not too tight. I did note, however, that the pole piece spacing was a bit slim for the Mustang bridge installed on this guitar, so the pole pieces never quite lined up with the strings. Kinman offers multiple spacing options and I suspect that the spacing here would line up perfectly with a Mastery or Staytrem bridge.

Even with the very simple installation process, the Kinman website refers you to installation guides which I did not consult, locked away in the “members area” for which I did not register on principle. It’s puzzling that information deemed to be crucial is kept out of reach of a simple internet search; in any case, nothing untoward popped up during this job.

Implementation 

Let me say that these pickups sounded good. As is my test for good, growly P90s, I fired up my ’79 Marshall, cranked the gain, and chugged out the rhythm part from Weezer’s “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” which I contend has some of the most massive sounds ever committed to tape. As I’d hoped, the Kinman Nasty 90s handled those tight inversions beautifully, exhibiting all of the colossal midrange I expect––nay, demand––from P90s.

The neck offered woolier tones while the bridge felt punchy and loud. As a guy who purposely runs bright guitars into dark amps, I did find the Nasty 90s to be a tad dark for my tastes. Even with the brightness of my ’65 Bassman piggyback, the pickups seemed to slightly favor midrange honk over treble clarity. This is the conceit of the Nasty 90 model, which the Kinman website calls “dark and syrupy” so I wouldn’t say I’m surprised or disappointed. I suspect that, were I to order a set, I’d be much happier with the standard Jazzmaster set or even the Clear or Sweet 90s models. If brightness is your bane, the Nasty may be just the right tincture.

And indeed, they were Q-U-I-E-T. So quiet, so noiseless were they that I found them a bit unnerving, as if my living room had become a vacuum. At first I even wondered if my amp was on, and it wasn’t until I slapped the strings did I realize that yes, it was on, and yes, I needed to turn down before the neighbors complained.

Impressions

I would wholeheartedly recommend these pickups to anyone frustrated by the excessive noise of their favorite single coil pickups. I think that Kinman’s done a remarkable job harnessing some of the magic of classic pickups while forging their own path on the quest for tone. After playing these pickups for the better part of a morning, I quite liked their sound and response, and at one point I totally forgot that I was playing a noiseless pickup.

The extra routing required for the P90 set is off-putting both from the extra work involved, and if you can’t do it yourself, the added expense of hiring a tech. Again, this isn’t an issue with the Kinman Jazzmaster set, yet worth noting for Jazzmaster owners looking for an easy P90 swap. And at $189USD each plus shipping from the Philippines, they aren’t the cheapest pickups around. But hey, you’re not here for cheap; if Kinman’s in your sights, then you’re after something special and you’ve likely factored in a premium price already.

If you’re in the market, the Kinman set should definitely be on your list. In future, I hope to get my hands on the Jazzmaster set for a direct comparison with my other guitars.

https://kinman.com/index.php

Just One More Thing…

And if you’ll indulge me one Columbo reference, the Kinman Jazzzmaster page makes the following claim:“Kinman transforms Jazzmaster into THE BEST Fender guitar.” These pickups are great, mind you, but lemme let you in on a little secret…
Come close.
Closer.
C L O S E R .
 

 

 

 

 

 

(it already is)
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Agents of Shield…ing: A Guide to Guitar Shielding

Single coil pickups are the source of some of my favorite sounds on the planet. As a player who cut his teeth on humbucker-equipped instruments, I thought I had it all figured out until I stumbled upon my first good Telecaster. And when I found the Jazzmaster––rather, when it found me––I finally knew how to get that sound that I’ve had in my head since I started playing.

As good as they sound, the problem of 60 cycle hum has been and will always be persistent, though many of us who swear by single coil pickups have either simply gotten used to it. Some have even developed tricks to mitigating unwanted noise, like finding that magically noiseless spot on stage and staying put, using a volume pedal to kill your signal when you’re not playing, or adding a hum eliminator of some kind to your signal chain.

Those are all fine ideas, but in the war against noise, the best, first line of defense is shielding.

The Front Lines

Shielding the guitar entails lining the control and pickup cavities with a layer of electrically conductive material in order to reject as much outside RF (Radio Frequency) interference as possible. I say “as much… as possible” because shielding alone won’t kill 100% of the interference, but the difference between ‘with’ and ‘without’ it is staggering.

This is a must-have modification for all of my personal guitars and one that I recommend wholeheartedly to customers and friends alike.

Which Material?

I prefer to use foil tape over shielding paint for a few reasons, the main ones being that paint requires more than a few coats to work properly, as well as being much more difficult to test for continuity using conventional methods. After all, paint is paint; graphite particles suspended in paint have much greater resistance than one layer of foil. Plus, I just like working with foil; as Data might say, “I have become accustomed to its sensory input patterns.”

Copper tape is generally considered to be superior to aluminum, but I’ve had good results with both. While there’s no contest that copper is indeed the better conductor, I haven’t found it to be so much better that it’s worth the additional price. I plan on revisiting this in the future, but for the purposes of this blog we’ll be using aluminum.

Doing the Deed

Now, I’ve removed enough balled-up foil over the years to know that just because I find something easy to work with, that doesn’t make it so. The truth is, shielding a guitar yourself for the first time––even the first few times––isn’t an easy thing to do. Trying to cleanly line a cavity while simultaneously ensuring that all of your pieces have continuity with each other can be a maddening exercise. Here’s how I do the job cleanly and efficiently:

What You Need

-Foil tape

-A razor blade of some description

-A multimeter to test continuity

I prefer to use a roll of adhesive-backed foil for this job, easily obtained from the hardware store of your choosing. You can also order aluminum or copper tape from most guitar parts suppliers but they normally sell it in lesser quantities and at a premium. Be sure that the foil tape you use has conductive adhesive, as many brands use a non-conductive backing that makes this job much trickier and more labor-intensive. It’s incredibly frustrating to do a nice, clean job only to discover that none of it works.

And honestly, don’t bother with spray adhesive and plain foil. It’s messy and easy to ruin.

I use the same box cutter blades I always have, but any good blade will do the trick. An X-Acto knife would be an asset here, its long handle allowing for more fine control and a better view of what you’re cutting.

Tracing

I begin by unspooling an appropriate length of tape for the rout in question. I trace the shape of the rout onto the foil by firmly pressing my index finger along its edges. At this stage it’s crucial to remember that you’re tracing a two-dimensional version of a three-dimensional cavity. Take care to anticipate the way depths might change and how wires are routed through the body. Each rout will need its own tracing, and it’s important to know how they’ll all fit together.

Cutting

After I’ve traced the shape onto the tape, I use my razor blade to cut it out, making sure to press hard enough to cut through the backing paper. Once satisfied with the cutout, I’ll peel off the backing and line the bottom of the cavity with it. Because the top of a rout is generally the same shape as the bottom, it’s usually a good fit.

Lining the Cavity

When it comes to lining the sides of the cavity, I prefer to use a single piece of tape if I can help it; one continuous piece of foil is always more reliable than a few pieces spliced together. I crudely measure the length of the cavity walls, then cut slightly more foil from the roll than I need. Backing removed, it’s a simple job to line the sides of the rout. I’ll then trim down the excess material for a clean look.

Leave an Overhang

Be sure to leave a bit of an overhang, preferably in the vicinity of a screw hole. Doing so ensures contact between the foil on the body and the foil that we’ll be installing on the pickguard, something which many folks seem to forget.

Don’t Forget the Pickguard

Shielding works best when it’s comprehensive, so to really get the job done, you absolutely must line the pickguard as well. Shielding the guard is a much simpler, almost thoughtless enterprise, requiring only a few strips of foil to completely cover the cavities hidden by the scratch plate. I like to completely cover the surface of the guard and then cut out the control and pickup routs.

Checking continuity

Before you button up the guitar, it’s a good idea to double-check continuity between all of those bits of foil using a multimeter. Most have a function for conductivity, such as the unit shown here. When the probes are electrically connected to each other, the unit emits a beep, removing the guesswork and ensuring that you’ve adequately lined your guitar cavities.

Here I am, checking continuity on a single strip of foil for some reason

Troubleshooting 

If you find that two pieces of foil tape aren’t properly connected, or if you used foil with non-conductive adhesive, you can fix that by making a little bridge from one piece to the other. Cut a small strip of foil and mate it face-down to the back of a much wider piece of tape, then simply stick it across the seam between the non-conductive areas. Bam! Connection.

Once you’re satisfied with your work, reinstall the electronic components and screw the guard back into place. When you plug in again, you will be greeted with a much quieter instrument.

UPDATED: 9/27/17

Speak of the devil, check this out: loose foil stapled into the control cavity. That’s a new one for me. Don’t do this either.

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Squier-O-Practor: A Misaligned Neck Could be Painful

When you think of a decent guitar setup, what comes to mind? Lowering action, correcting intonation, maybe giving the truss rod a good turn? They’re all components of a good setup for sure, but is that really the long and short of it? No, there’s more to it than that!

I’ve always believed that a thorough setup has to go beyond just the basics. You’ve got to take into account the whole instrument, from dressing the nut slots for the player’s preferred string gauge to even giving the tuners a quick twist just to make sure they aren’t sticking. De-gunking a fretboard, polishing frets, spraying out dirty pots, and even removing some problematic rust are often essential to making a guitar fully playable as well as functional.

Case in point, something I’ve often seen slip past the sensors is neck alignment, where the neck is tilted on the body in favor of one E string or the other. With a misaligned neck, the strings closest to the edge of the board are prone to slipping off and intonation can suffer greatly. Almost every bolt-on guitar on the market exhibits this issue in some form or another, which is commonly caused by the extra bit of play in the neck pocket that comes with mass-production. It’s an issue found on high-dollar guitars too, not just imports and affordable models like the guitar I’ll use below as an example.

Have a look at this Squier J.Mascis:

Misalignment on the left, corrected on the right

When I got my hands on this one, the high E had a tendency to slip off the fret ends, and intonation on the plain strings was nearly impossible, especially with the reduced saddle travel of the TOM bridge installed on the model. This kind of thing can even muck with string bending, as the string can be choked off as it crosses the fretboard at an angle. Also note that the strings do not line up with the pole pieces of the neck pickup!

Luckily, this is an easy thing to correct. The most basic solution is to simply pull the neck back into place. In this case, all that was needed was holding the guitar with the upper bout against my body and giving the neck a quick pull towards me, then tightening the neck bolts to ensure it stays put.

Fig. 1

In more extreme cases, shimming around the perimeter of the neck pocket may be necessary for a tight fit. Where there’s only a little extra space, I’ll insert a shim where the neck touches the pocket when tilted. Using this J.Mascis as an example, this could mean shimming the treble side of the heel and along the bass side of the pocket to keep it in place. [See Fig. 1]

As for materials, wood veneer, cut-up baseball cards, or even discarded picks made to fit will work just fine if you’re more of a DIY fan. In the case of an oversized neck pocket, like those often found on some CBS Fender guitars, a qualified tech or luthier should be able to add material if necessary, even going so far as to add a shaped, painted shim along the bass side of the neck. Really, whatever keeps things stable is good enough in most cases.

Next time you’re cleaning or restringing your guitar, have a look at the neck and check to make sure it is properly aligned. If not, you could be missing out on a better setup and truer intonation as a result. All it takes is a little attention and experimentation to correct an issue like this one.

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The Buzz Stop Stops Here: A Rant

Hate is a strong word, and one I normally don’t like to use unless the subject is foods called “salad” which do not contain lettuce (the only exception being Fruit Salad, but why call it that when ‘Cup of Fruit’ would suffice). While I can’t call my feelings for the Buzz Stop ‘pure hatred,’ I have to admit that removing them from guitars is one of my favorite jobs.

For the uninitiated, the Buzz Stop is an aftermarket bracket for Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars which acts as a tension bar, much like the roller bar on a Bigsby B7 vibrato. Affixed to the guitar via the forward-facing vibrato mounting screws, the Buzz Stop forces the strings against the bridge, keeping the them in place while also stopping the saddles from buzzing. Hence the name; it stops the buzz.

In theory it’s a fine idea that attempts to solve the problems so many have with the original Fender design, but it’s ultimately completely unnecessary and in many ways a detriment to your guitar’s sound and functionality. Below, you’ll find the reasons I elect to do away with the Buzz Stop, and why I find guitars without them to be better instruments for it.

1) The Buzz Stop Introduces New Points of Contact

The whole point of the Buzz Stop is to force the strings down, and in doing so invariably creates additional points of friction. The Buzz Stop’s roller bar is one of those points, and while it is intended to rotate as the vibrato arm is depressed, I’ve never encountered one that actually does so in a smooth manner. Most seem to require a bit of force to turn, more than the strings can dish out. As a result, many of the Stops I’ve removed have had grooves worn in them, which means the strings are just grinding against an immobile roller.

The second point of contact is the back of the bridge itself, a problem that Jazzmasters and Jaguars shouldn’t have to begin with. Under normal circumstances the strings flow from vibrato to bridge uninhibited; the sharp angle of the Buzz Stop causes them to dig into the back edge of the bridge, leading to tuning or even breakage issues. The less metal in the string’s path, the better.

2) Buzz Stops Decrease the Stability of the Vibrato

With its nearly unparalleled stability and smooth feel, the offset vibrato really is one of the biggest selling points of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. But with the increased friction of a Buzz Stop, it’s a miracle when the thing returns to pitch. Anything that messes with the functionality of the vibrato is a liability, not an asset.

3) It Forces the E Strings onto the Dreaded Pivot Plate Screws

The vibrato pivot plate mounting screws which sit directly beneath the two E strings have long been a problem on reissue guitars, causing string breaks and tuning issues which can normally be cured with a proper setup and increased bridge height, or by simply turning them upside down as shown in one of the early Demystifying articles.

With a Buzz Stop installed, there simply is no hope for the strings (See above). Pulled down toward the vibrato plate, the Es are forced against those pesky domed screws. As they’re bent, tuned, or warbled with the vibrato, the screws eventually saw through the string’s finish wrap leading to sharp detuning, and eventually, breakage.

4) The Buzz Stop Alters the Guitar’s Unique Vibe

Part of the unique sound of Jaguars and Jazzmasters is the length of string behind the bridge. Like an archtop acoustic, every bit of vibration counts. There’s a fullness and a pluckiness to the tone that comes from the added string length, and the slight decrease in sustain and tension makes these guitars feel and respond unlike other solidbody electrics. It should be no surprise that I also wholly endorse vigorous picking behind the bridge for atonal, noisy fun.

With a Buzz Stop installed, you may as well have a stop tail. It effectively cancels out the length of string behind the bridge, sterilizing some of the three-dimensional resonance that make these guitars sing. And honestly, if you’re looking for more sustain or ‘better tone’ there are far better options available to you in the form of Mastery and Staytrem hardware.

5) It’s a Half Measure Response

The Buzz Stop is a product of a time when these guitars were thought of as toys rather than fully-playable instruments. Without the readily-available, conversational sources for setup and modification that we have today (including this blog and my recent Premier Guitar article) the Buzz Stop was perhaps a once-legitimate option for taming this misunderstood, often neglected offset design. Though its premise was flawed, it served its purpose.

The Buzz Stop, by its very nature, doesn’t really “fix” anything; it’s a stopgap which fails to address core issues, applying force instead of correcting an inadequate setup. All of the common complaints, from bridge buzz and string jumping, tuning stability, and unwanted string resonance are easily solved with an attentive eye, a couple of screwdrivers, and a few hex keys. Neck angle, bridge height, string gauge––all of these things are integral to the design of the guitar, some of which the Buzz Stop website actively recommends against.

With advent of the internet, players now know how to care for the Jazzmaster and Jaguar better than they ever have. Communities like Offset Guitar Forum and Shortscale.org popped up and thrived, surrounding the Jazzmaster and Jaguar with that perfect, geeky love that reminiscent of my fellow Star Trek fans, excitedly swapping tips and parts, digging into manuals and other documents to discover the proper way to work on them.

6) It’s Ugly

It is. Don’t @ me.

The Long Walk into the Sunset

Call me a pedant, call me a purist, even call me ol’ Henry’s favorite, “luddite”––I just think we have so many better options for modifying or ‘fixing’ these instruments, all of which leave the original sound and intent largely intact. And honestly, in every instance where I’ve removed a Buzz Stop and then properly set up the guitar, it just sounds better to me.

We used to joke at the old shop about a cardboard box tucked away in the back that was filled with forty discarded Buzz Stops. We’d always say “forty” for some reason––We have forty of them in a box!––but thinking back that number has to be low. Literally every time we took in a new Jaguar or Jazzmaster bearing one, off it would come, fate sealed, tossed with prejudice into said box never to be seen or thought of again. And that’s just the way we like it.

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Demystifying Part 5: The Fender Mute

After a years-long hiatus, the Demystifying series is back!

First, I need to say thanks to all of you that have checked out the blog, and in particular the many that have shared and reposted these articles. Because of their popularity, Premier Guitar recently asked me to write an offset guitar setup guide for publication, which you can find in the May 2017 issue. AVAILABLE NOW IN STORES AND ONLINE!

So thanks to all of our readers, customers, and friends––without your support, this never would have happened.
The one bit of hardware I’ve not discussed previously is often thought of as a vestigial, an hold-over from a different time fit for the bin. Ultimately, it’s up to you if you’re ever going to use the thing, and to be honest, it seems like many don’t. However, if you’ve ever been curious about it, or if you use it but find it problematic, then friend, I come bearing glad tidings. I am of course talking about the Fender Mute.

A feature shared by both the Jaguar and Bass VI – though not across all models or years of production – this curious metal plate was originally intended to be a surrogate for palm muting. Couldn’t be a simpler mechanism, really: the mute is secured to the body by two screws, and the long bolt in the middle pivots on a spring-loaded plunger sunk into the guitar body. The mute can be engaged by pressing on the plate, shifting it back and forth in place, causing the foam pad to make contact with the underside of the strings.

The Fender Mute leaves the player’s picking hand totally free for strumming or sustain-less leads. This gives the device a sound distinct from traditional palm muting techniques, one widely used on instrumental surf recordings of the 1960s. What’s it sound like? I just happen to have an example for you here:

Like the Fender offset bridge, the mute requires some extra thought to set up correctly. Really, the whole procedure comes down to balance; the mute has to be set to engage smoothly while allowing the bridge to be lowered enough for playable action. If the mute sits too high, the bridge will rest on its mounting screws. Too low, and the mute won’t engage at all.

It’s best to begin with the mute installed on its own––leave the bridge for later. Remember those two mounting screws I mentioned earlier? You’ll need to find the lowest possible setting for them where the mute still pivots. Try screwing them in all the way, then backing off until the foam side of the mute pops up and stays put. Then, install the bridge and make sure it doesn’t sit on top of the mute mounting screws.

It may take a few tries, but you’ll soon find that balance. When pressing on the plate, the foam side should rise up to meet the strings but not push them up, then stay firmly in place. Pushing down on that side should disengage the mute, again with a firm action. If the mute doesn’t stay in place, or is difficult to move, take the bridge off and keep adjusting those mounting screws.

Top: disengaged. Bottom: engaged

It’s worth noting that, In order to get the mute set up correctly, your guitar will need to be shimmed as described in part two of the Demystifying series. A sufficient amount of neck angle is crucial, otherwise there may not be enough room under the bridge for the mute to be functional.

One problem that can crop up with the mute is that it pulls the strings sharp when it’s engaged. Often, this can be due to the mute sitting too high, which effectively shortens the scale length of the instrument. If that’s the case, cranking down the mounting screws should solve this issue for most players. Too-hard foam can also be the culprit, pushing up on the strings and raising pitch. Substituting a softer piece of foam here can work wonders (more on that later). Alternatively, one can easily shave off the bit of foam that touches the strings.

If you have a vintage Jaguar or Bass VI, you’re likely familiar with a problem that arises when the original foam on vintage instruments, due to age or contact with sweat: deterioration. This happens to pickup foam as well, where it hardens and compresses, rendering pickup height adjustment difficult or even impossible.

Hardened, sticky mute foam on a refinished ’63 Jaguar. You can see the gooey residue on the low E side of the mute.

If this happens to your mute foam, I have to tell you there’s no point in trying to salvage it. Touching or removing the stuff, you’ll notice that what was once foam is now a slightly gooey, sticky mess. Even on a totally original ‘60s guitar, leaving foam in this state is at the very least off-putting and potentially problematic, what with the black residue left behind on contact with skin or strings. Seriously, that stuff is disgusting.

Do yourself a favor and replace that foam. I’ll admit, it’s often the only part we’d even thing of replacing on a perfect vintage Jaguar. Replacement Fender foam can be found on eBay, but it seems that every parts supplier is out of stock right now. In a pinch, we use this. The link will take you to some weather stripping foam that’s just slightly taller than the 3/8” by 1/4” Jaguars have from the factory, but it should work like a charm. If the extra height concerns you, the same brand has a version with a height of 3/16″ as well.

Interestingly, this Mute wasn’t Fender’s first shot at string-dampening technology. Earlier, there was foam stuffed under the bridge covers of ‘50s Precision basses. The first Jazz Basses featured stiff pads for each individual string, while the later Mustang Bass  bridge had similar devices. Muting may make a bit more sense on bass than guitar, but give this mute system a shot and see if you can’t make it work for your brand of music. To the author, it’s a fun sound that makes some rhythm parts more interesting, and with effects added, it can bloom into something totally unique. And weird. Definitely weird.

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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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1969 Gibson SG Restoration

IMG_8037 - Version 2-impOver the summer, I picked up this 1969 Gibson SG Standard husk, totally stripped and poorly refinished in natural. The neck was cracked, some wood at the bridge area was replaced and filled, the contours were sanded away and altered, and before the finish was applied it seems like the body was sanded with nothing greater than 120 grit. Super rough, really disappointing!
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I paid about $400 for the wood, and decided that this would be a worthy candidate for total restoration. With all I’ve learned over the years (beginning in my dad’s woodshop as a kid – I was listening!) I felt as though I was finally able to tackle this kind of thing. I’ve been working on guitars for years now, and in the past few I’ve really focused on finishing techniques, but on a much smaller scale; fill-ins and color matching are more my specialty, but I thought, ‘Hey, why not dive in? What’s the worst that could happen?’ At the very least, I might end up with a vintage guitar that I’d enjoy playing.

Although I discussed this project openly, I didn’t advertise it for sale or anything because, to be perfectly frank, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d end up with. I trusted in my abilities and my aptitude for learning quickly and adjusting my process on the fly, but this was my first total refinish, so I wanted to make sure it was good before I went spouting off about how we offer full restorations as one of our many services.IMG_6017-impWith all of the work that needed to be done, I absolutely had to strip the body again. I mean, I’d have to rework the carves on the body anyway, and the finish was really thick and the wood didn’t have the proper SG look. You see, one of the things that sets 1960s SGs apart from those made in the 1970s and beyond is those deep, gorgeous body bevels that make them look so much meaner and tougher than the others.

Given my obsessive-compulsive wiring, I set to work with sandpaper and a block with the mission of restoring the depth, sharpness and allure of the carves.

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Soon, I had the body stripped and sanded from 120-320 while I reshaped absolutely everything, from the horns to the backside bevels, to the neck joint and even the slightly sharper late ’60s bottom carves behind the tailpiece. The hardest part was the interior curves of the neck, for which I studied some hi-res photos as Mike Ball’s original 1968 SG for reference.

After sanding to 400 grit, the next step was grain filler, which is really important to getting the right look to that old Gibson Cherry. See, I searched the internet like crazy for examples of good refinished SGs to pattern my work after, and I couldn’t find anything. I saw a ton of refins, but few that looked quite right. I took it as a challenge to really dig into what makes these guitars look the way they do, and ebony grain filler is a big, big part of that late ’60s look. (everyone else seemed to either skip this step entirely or use a neutral color of filler that didn’t show off the grain of the mahogany.)
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Always up for a challenge, I decided that instead of purchasing proper spray equipment or building a spray booth, I was going to do this in true D.I.Y. fashion: I would only use only amateur finishing supplies to really get the feel for the pros and cons of what’s available to the first-time restorer. This meant rattle can finishes (I used Stew-Mac products entirely) and power tool buffing pads.

IMG_7075I was a little concerned when I sprayed the first coat of cherry. I expected it to be bright as the first run was a tack coat, laying down some color so the next coat sticks. But it was RED, not cherry. When spraying, I usually spray a coat, then wait 30 minutes and spray another. Two hours later, I’ll do another and let it go overnight. After two bright red coats, I started to get really worried, but I put it out of my mind on a Saturday night and came back on Tuesday to discover that the color had darkened considerably. That made me happy.

After the red, I sprayed some amber laquer to gently age the finish. As you know, nitro finishes ‘fade’ over timeIMG_7323, so the clear coat takes on a yellowish hue, which contributes to the softened look of older colors. This step really made all of the difference! The color just got more rich from then on, and after that, clear coats!

With some elbow grease and 1000-1500 grit wet sanding, as well as buffing on my wheel with various grades of compound, I ended up with a shiny finish far beyond what I expected.

Seriously, I still can’t believe that I did this with rattle cans and elbow grease! IMG_8036-imp

I sourced vintage parts all around (save for the tuners, electronics, Lollar imperial pickups and pickguard) and I couldn’t be happier with the results. It looks right, plays beautifully, and sounds freaking amazing.

Oh! And a note on the spot of wear on the horn: that’s fully intentional. I lightly aged this guitar, but the one rally cry against relic guitars that I hear more than any other is that the wear doesn’t have a story. Well, this one does: when I had all of the parts collected, I took a long, hard look at the guitar and thought about what fictional character may have used it before I came along. So, the story with that wear is, the previous owner stashed his picks right between the guard and the body, and when you’re in the heat of a hot solo, you don’t have time to be careful. IMG_8035-imp

If you’re on Tumblr you may recognize this same guitar from the many, many happy photographs of DeeBeeUs, one of the kindest souls on the web. He owns this one now, and from what I can tell, he’s very, very happy with it. -MJA

 

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