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“I’m Feeling Supersonic”, a Squier Super-Sonic Upgrade/Mod Guide

IMG_6309By Michael James Adams
Recently, a long-held dream of mine came true: finally owning a Vista Series Squier Super-Sonic.

When Squier released the Super-Sonic in the late 1990s, I was immediately smitten with its reverse-offset body and headstock, fast looks and the sparkly blue finished model in particular. I had to have one. Unfortunately, it took until May of 2013 – 17 years after it was released – to make that dream a reality. Why wait so long?

For one, I had never seen one in person as none of the guitar shops in my area were willing to take a gamble on a flashy Squier guitar. I think the look of the thing scared them off, and soon I became caught up in other instruments. I consider myself lucky to have owned quite a few cool pieces in my day, but once a month or so my mind would return to the Super-Sonic, which has become a bit of a collector’s item due to its rarity, and players are seeking them out for their short scale and more familiar control layout as compared to the model’s close relative, the Fender Jaguar.

I finally found one for sale via Craigslist, and this one happened to be in Ohio. The guy was open to shipping and payment via PayPal, and was totally up-front about the broken pickup selector switch, a few scratches and lack of a case. I’ve never been scared off by a guitar having been ‘played in’, as they say, and because I was able to negotiate a better price I had no hesitation in pulling the trigger.

Once the guitar arrived, it was clearly in great shape. Because of the sparkly finish it was really difficult to detect the scars the seller had mentioned, but once I found them they turned out to be mere surface abrasions that easily polished out. Win for me! There was an added strap button and the switch tip had unfortunately snapped-off and was hopelessly lost years ago.

Without hesitation, I set about bringing this treasure up to spec in the hopes I’d be able to play it loud and proud at a forthcoming gig. As Ten would say, “Allons-y!”

Electronics

Even though I’d been pining for a Super-Sonic for years, I was also well aware of their apparent shortcomings. Probably the biggest detractors from these amazing Japanese-made guitars are the pickups: Duncan-designed and produced in South Korea, these pickups are known for flabby, muddy sound and insane amounts of squeal. Once I finally had one in my hands, I knew instantly why so many disliked them. They’d have to go.

IMG_7380-impLucky for me, our good friends at Fastback Custom Guitars here in Seattle had just released their vintage-inspired ’59 Zebras, a set of pickups that aim to replicate that vintage Gibson sound with a slight modern twist. Not only do they sound great, but they also look the part, making them a beautiful addition to the already flashy nature of this guitar. A definite upgrade, and you can read my review of these impressive pickups here.

Next on the docket was replacing that broken pickup selector switch. Truth be told, I would have replaced it anyway, as I have little confidence in plastic-backed Asian market devices, having broken plenty of them in my day. Yes, my heart truly belongs to Switchcraft, and their short model was just the thing I needed for this project. Solidly built and just the right size, the switch also has a satisfying amount of resistance when flipping from pickup to pickup. AllParts also chooses randomly which color of tip to send, so I definitely lucked out with the correct black.

Since we’re being honest, I should admit that I just don’t trust the electronics found in most Japanese-made guitars. I’m not saying that the stock parts are unusable, but knowing how hard I am on guitars it’s always a good idea for me to fully upgrade the wiring harness. Pots, switches, wiring – all of it goes. I used cloth wire, CTS 500K pots and a .022 Orange Drop cap.

If you’re at all familiar with this model, you’ll note that the two controls found on its chrome plate aren’t what you’d expect; instead of the usual vol/tone combo, what we have here is two controls acting as individual volumes for each pickup. A nice thought, but I’m the kind of guy that likes having a tone control and a good capacitor on hand. I set about wiring the guitar in the more familiar 1950s Gibson tradition, for which I always use a 1950’s wiring diagram, which allows the pickups and tone cap to work together more transparently.

Hardware

I didn’t go quite this far because a) I’m quite content with the bridge as-as and b) I’m only willing to indulge my obsessive-compulsive upgrades to a certain extent. Even so, the original bridge and hardware aren’t bad at all. In fact, they’re quite good.

The original tuners work brilliantly, but if I were in the market for replacements I’d be looking to my favorite brand Tone Pros. Their Kluson-style machines are made with higher quality materials than the originals, and are super authentic in look but precision-machined for modern reliability. Wonderful stuff, there.

As for the bridge, it’s a great unit that stays in tune nicely. I could see myself going for a Callaham bridge at some point, but I’m not necessarily looking for true vintage Strat tones, you know? Man, what I’d really like to do is pull the trem, fill the cavity and route the body for a Jazzmaster/Jaguar vibrato and a Mastery. I won’t, but that would be amazing.

Cosmetics

Flashy as she was, there were a few visual detractors that I couldn’t simply gloss over; I’m a picky guy, I guess.

For one, the original knobs were a good bit smaller than standard Jaguar knobs, and of course won’t fit on the US pots I dropped in the guitar, so they had to go. I ordered some genuine Fender replacement knobs, which looked very, very new when they arrived. Given that my guitar had been played hard and had tarnished hardware, it didn’t make aesthetic sense to have bright, shiny knobs on the control plate. So, I set about the task of lightly aging them to match, using Other Mike’s ’63 Jazz Bass as my template.

IMG_6652IMG_6650

Using my coarse-grit polishing pads I was able to de-gloss the knobs sufficiently, and after that I sprayed some lightly tinted clear coat on them to soften the look of the indicator. After dirtying them up a bit, I was left with knobs that had the perfect well-worn attire that belied their age.

The other eyesore about the guitar was that the previous owner had added a strap button on the upper bout, a common mod for these guitars. If you didn’t know, the Super-Sonic has its upper strap button on the neck plate, utilizing a longer anchor screw to accommodate the button itself. Some people really don’t like this – I didn’t at first! – but having gotten used to the way attaching the strap to the neck plate button shifts the guitar forward I couldn’t see myself using the other ever again. So, I set about filling in the hole and making it as invisible as possible.

IMG_6795I doweled the hole with some scrap wood we had laying around the shop, and after the glue was dry my aim was to create a perfectly-shaped surface for whatever new finish I would lay on top. Because the addition of the new strap button had chewed out some extra wood, I had to use wood putty to fill in the missing bits. Simple enough!

After allowing the putty to cure for a few days, I was stuck wondering exactly how I was going to recreate the look of blue sparkle finish in such a small area. If it were a solid color or even a burst, that would be a far easier task; laying down sparkles in a convincing way would be tricky, especially when it comes to the way the original finish reflected light…

Then an idea struck me: “What about glitter glue?”, I wondered to myself. Soon enough, I found myself on the hunt for the right shade of glitter at Michael’s, which was appropriate. I stumbled upon the Recollections brand and found exactly what I was looking for: Peacock Blue.

That’s a nice match, innit? It’s even better out of the bottle. Michael’s only carried the two smallest flake sizes in their stores, so the next one up would have been perfect. But hey, I nailed the color, so why complain?

It took a few days to get this right, honestly; laying down layer after layer of glue and waiting for it to reduce as it dried, never quite being able to predict how the flakes would lay. Very tedious. After I achieved the right about of sparkle density, I covered it up with super glue, which polished to a high gloss after it dried. I think it came out pretty well, considering. I mean, it’s not an exact match, but it’s pretty damn close. And now I don’t have an extra strap button hanging out, nor do I have to deal with an open wound on my beloved instrument.

I forgot to upload this shot in my initial post, but better late than never. Like I said, I'm super proud of this!

I forgot to upload this shot in my initial post, but better late than never.

Like I said, I’m really proud of how this turned out. Up close, you can definitely see the scar, but from a few paces away, the mind simply glosses over the offending spot, with the sparkly finish blending together in a pleasing way. Success!

The Final Product

Totally stoked.

Actually, I just noticed that the added strap button is still installed in this picture. I’ll replace it later. Grr/argh.

IMG_6642-imp

– MJA

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar, Pt. 2: Bridge Over Troubled Vibrato

IMG_2101By Michael James Adams

A few weeks back, we took some time to fully explain the electronic innerworkings of Fender’s paradoxically well-loved and oft-maligned models, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. For many players, the tonal options available on these guitars is a breath of fresh air; for others, the switching becomes an exercise in futility, leaving them to wonder how to just turn on the bridge pickup. Hopefully we helped!

In today’s column, we’re going to dive into what be the most misunderstood and subsequently damning design element on these amazing guitars: the bridge.

It’s a common occurrence for players who are used to Strats and Teles or Les Pauls to get the Offset itch and pick up a Jazzmaster or Jaguar and find that it doesn’t play quite the way they expected: strings will slip out of their grooves with moderate pick attack, the bridge sways back and forth with vibrato action, and sympathetic ‘ghost’ notes will ring out from behind the bridge, prompting many stymied players to install a Buzzstop. Please, don’t do that just yet – I’m begging you to get to know your seemingly unwieldy friend before you do something rash.

Shim Shenanigans

Conventional guitar wisdom tells us that shims are bad. They’re tone-sucking, sustain-killing, useless pieces of paper that shouldn’t come anywhere near a neck pocket, right? Well, about that…

That's A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

That’s A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

Most of the vintage Fender guitars we love came from the factory with at least one shim installed, and I’ve seen vintage guitars with four or more original shims! Telecasters, for example, might have a shim in the front edge of the neck pocket so that when the guitar is strung, the strings sit closer to the top of the ashtray bridge instead of down in the middle, which isn’t exactly the most comfortable place for picking. Also, the height adjustment screws on the brass bridge saddles could be longer than necessary, which means sharp pieces of metal digging into your picking hand. Not fun.

Many players operate under the belief that a shim will kill their tone, and to an extent they have a point. Obviously, for maximum sustain and tonal transfer, it makes sense to have a tight neck pocket with full wood-on-wood contact. Here’s the thing: tone is subjective, and the vast majority of us won’t be able to hear the difference between a shimmed and un-shimmed guitar. Add to that the fact that many of the old-school tones we’re all chasing were created with shimmed guitars, and the argument gets even more murky. And, unlike Strats and Teles, Jazzmasters and Jaguars were actually designed with shims in mind!

Break Angle Benefits

You see, Leo Fender knew that his floating bridge design needed a certain amount of downward force to work properly, so he used shims in the leading edge of the neck pocket to adjust the angle of the neck, causing the strings to pass over the bridge at a sharper angle. This is called the break angle.

The further back he tilted the neck, the bridge would have to be set higher to achieve playable action, and thus, more downward force on the bridge. More downward force on the bridge also means greater tonal transfer via the contact between the bridge and its thimbles, which in turn transfer that vibration to the body, and then who the hell really knows how much sustain and resonance you’re losing or gaining?! It boggles the mind.

When players complain about their strings slipping out of the tiny grooves on their saddles, more often than not the problem isn’t the saddle, it’s the aforementioned break angle.  A sharper break angle means more downward force on the bridge, which in turn helps to keep the strings seated! One other solution is to deepen the grooves with a file, which is a fine solution that I’ve had to use a few times. It’s not my first choice fix, but with some guitars with worn or import bridges, there’s not much else you can do, short of replacing the bridge. More on that later.

Players will also cite excessive mechanical buzz from their bridges as a source of frustration, but again, I point to neck/break angle as the first solution. Most of the time, the bridge buzzes because of a weak break angle and thus, less pressure, which means the saddles themselves aren’t tightly seated on the bridge plate. Tilt that neck back and voila, the buzz disappears. At least, it usually does; new bridges that haven’t been played-in will often make noise because they don’t have years of oxidation helping to tighten things up. In that case, either sweat a lot or dab some blue Loc-Tite* on the saddle screws, which will not only diminish rattle but also ensure that screws don’t turn when you don’t want them to.

The other solution to this problem is the Buzz-Stop, an add-on unit that screws into the trem plate and forces the strings down toward the body. While this solution certainly works, it also kills the vibe of having a Jazzmaster or Jaguar; the strings behind the bridge are deadened – a huge part of what makes these guitars  so fun! – and the vibrato has another point of friction to contend with, making it work less efficiently. It also makes the guitar feel different in terms of playability, but feel is subjective.IMG_4061

Rock. YEAH. Ing. YEAH. Bridge. YEAH. YEAH. YEAH!

For the Jazzmaster, Leo Fender designed a new “floating” vibrato system which revolved around a bridge that rocks back and forth as the whammy bar is actuated and promised unparalleled control and flutter as well as better tuning stability. But if this system was supposed to be so great, why does it seem like everyone complains about it?

A lot of people don’t understand that the bridge is supposed to rock, which understandably freaks them out. I’ll admit that this feature isn’t my favorite element of the design, but it really does work, but not perfectly. The bridge doesn’t always return to its zero position, but this is a problem just about every trem system on the market has, and if we lived in a perfect world it would be enough.

If the rocking bridge bothers you and makes your intonation spotty, a lot of us will wrap the bridge with foil tape, which locks it into place in its thimbles. The vibrato still works well like this, but again, it’s not a total solution. This is yet another issue addressed by the Mastery Bridge, with its larger diameter posts that fit snugly into the bridge thimbles.

A Word About String Gauge

When Leo was rolled out the Jazzmaster, he intended to market the guitar to Jazz players, hence the addition of the darker preset rhythm circuit. Because of this, the guitar was also designed with heavy-gauge flat-wound strings in mind. Back in the day, light guitar strings weren’t readily available, especially when it came to flats. That’s why you so often hear older guitarists talking about using a banjo string on the high E and moving the rest of the set over one string! Jazz players were often using sets as heavy as .014”, and .011” sets were considered pretty measly by comparison.

When the Jazzmaster rolled out, the idea was that these jazzers would be using at least .012” flat sets on the guitar, which have much more tension than today’s slinkier round-wound strings. Heavier strings equals greater tension, get it? If you ever try to put flat-wound 12s on a Jazzmaster, they usually won’t go anywhere.

When you want to use light strings on a Jazzmaster or Jaguar, you’re going to have to compensate somehow. You’ll need to increase the break angle and adjust the bridge, but if you’re going lighter than .011” sets you might also consider swapping out the bridge for those found on Fender Mustang guitars, which have a single, deep groove for each string. Or, you could go for the ultimate upgrade, the Mastery Bridge, but I’d make that recommendation to anyone regardless of string gauge. The Mastery Bridge is hands-down the best upgrade you can make to your Fender Offset guitar in my opinion. With it, you may still need a bit of a neck angle adjustment, but your strings will definitely stay on their saddles.

Next time, we’ll take a brief look behind the bridge and how to work with the vibrato unit for greater tuning stability and control. Wanna go wild and return to pitch? We’ve got you covered!

Mastery on a '58. Yessir.

Mastery on a ’58. Yessir.

*CAUTION: Never, ever use the red Loc-Tite on guitar parts unless you want them permanently frozen in place. The blue variety is meant for a non-permanent bond, allowing the user to make adjustments down the line. I think they’ve just come out with a green formula as well that’s not as strong, but I haven’t used it. Also, that stuff dries clear, so don’t freak out when you put blue goop all over your shiny new guitar. It’s cool. Simmer down.

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The Most Ridiculous Craigslist Ad of the Day Award Goes To…

Condoms for guitar players. And they go on your hands, too.

Click here to view

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Chords and Conviction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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