Guitar repair/mod – The Black Squier

My friend Richard has had a lot of music gear, and much of it has been pretty interesting. A lot of it has been so interesting that, when he’s decided to sell it, I’ve bought it.

I played guitar in Richard’s band for a couple of years. After decades of playing bass, it was my first band being The Electric Guitar Player—or even AN Electric Guitar Player—and it was a lot fun.

One day I was poking around Richard’s tidy pile of stuff when I happened upon a black Strat with a black neck and fretboard and white pickups. A tuxedo. I asked Richard what it was, and he said that it was just a cheap Strat he had put together to match his Tele. He has (had?) an extremely nice Tele with a tuxedo color scheme. I tuned up the Strat and tried playing it, and found that the action was really high, and a couple of the frets were really chewed up.

At some point, Richard found the original neck, which made my geeky eyes bug out. This was an old E-series Squier Strat.

 

The Guitar – E-Series Squier Strat

Picture of a guitar
Tape was applied to protect the innocent

You can look up what “E-series”  means, starting here but in a nutshell, these are exceptionally well-made guitars built at the Fuji-gen factory in Japan. My friend Rob has a Fender Strat from the same period, and it is one of the best Strats I have ever played. I love the necks on these guitars. I LOVE them.

At the time, I only owned one electric guitar, so I asked Richard if I could put the original neck on the guitar and make it playable. He’d have a workable Strat, and I’d borrow it to bring along as a backup for shows. He said sure.

 

 

 

Problems

A lot of Strats from this period, whether Fender or Squier, came with Fender’s execrable System 1 bridge and string-locking system. This was Fender’s answer to the Floyd Rose, or more precisely, their answer to the question “How can we make a locking trem that won’t get us sued by Floyd Rose?”

The result was an epic collection of poor ideas:

  • They put a locking system BEHIND THE NUT, giving you all the rubbery crapness of a Floyd PLUS all the string-grabbing of a regular nut.
  • They built a bridge that was quite a bit higher than, well, anything without a railing.
  • They used the Floyd-like and inexcusable concept of locking the bridge pieces in place with hex nuts DIRECTLY under the strings, making setting the intonation a horror show.
  • The fine-tuners on the bridge stick way out at a 45-degree angle, so while they don’t actually get in the way, it always feels like they will.
  • That’s not a problem for long, because the fine-tuners also fall out and get lost very quickly.
  • Which is in turn OK, because they do kind of a crappy job of tuning finely.

I could go on, but I realize that I already have…

Rob’s Strat still has the System 1 bridge, but he had the lock removed from the headstock decades ago, and the bridge has been blocked in place for about 30 years. I think there are three fine-tuners left. Set up like this, the System 1 works pretty well as a hard-tail bridge.

Yep, that was irony you just read.

The upside for this guitar was that ALL of the System 1 stuff was already gone. The lock was off the headstock, and the bridge had been removed. All that was probably done when Richard had replaced the neck.

As I mentioned, the System 1 bridge is tall enough to dunk over Shaq, which meant that the necks on these guitars sit pretty high off the body. The replacement neck Richard bought didn’t sit as high, which made the action way too tall. Someone had put in a cheap-and-cheerful two-point replacement bridge to compensate for this, and the System 1 bridge was lost forever. Boo hoo.

But this created a problem when I put the original neck back on, because it sits a lot taller. Even with the bridge pieces up as high as they would go on the new bridge, the action was just barely playable without buzzing and fretting out. Things would need to be done.

Also, Richard had put a set of Fender Texas Special pickups in the guitar. I don’t like those very much.

 

Fixes – Bridge

Before I go on, I would like to make it clear that what I am about to describe is NOT what I would recommend to anyone. My fix here is most charitably described as “cunning but extremely silly” and I am only being that kind about it because I hold myself in such high regard. I have three things to say in my defence:

  1. I was operating under straitened circumstances, and just wanted to get the guitar working
  2. I was fine not being able to use the trem on this guitar
  3. Nothing I did was irreversible, apart from a couple of small holes in the body

It ended up sounding really good, and I can see no reason to change it, but you probably don’t want to try this at home. If you find yourself with a similar problem, you should just get $30 together and buy a better bridge. Or see the update about shimming at the end of this section.

To recap: The replacement two-point bridge was kinda crummy, and too low to be able to set the action to any sane height.

On pretty much any Strat-style trem system, the bridge ends up being a fulcrum over which you balance the tension of the springs in the back of the guitar with the tension of the strings on the front of the guitar. In this case, the fulcrum was in the wrong place, and I needed to move it and still have the system work.

The idea was to to set the bridge up higher by adjusting the height of the support posts the bridge rests against. Then I’d just block the bridge at that height.

You need to be very careful messing around with this stuff, ESPECIALLY with two-point bridges, and ESPECIALLY if the edges where the bridge sits on the support bolts are sharpened. Screw up those edges or the bolts, and you’re going to be consumed by self-loathing.

I slacked the claw off in the back of the guitar, and I detuned the strings a bit. This took some of the tension off the bridge from both sides, so I could move it around, but kept enough tension on the bridge to keep it from moving around too much.

I set all the bridge pieces so that they were about 1/4 of the way from their lowest possible position. That way, I would have room to adjust the action once the bridge was in place.

There was just enough slack that I could hold the bridge just off the support posts with one hand and do the next bit with the other. At no point was I turning the posts while the bridge was leaning against them with all the tension on it.

I then unscrewed the posts a bit at a time, in order move the bridge up to a height at which I would be able to adjust the action to about what I would like. Then I measured how high the bridge was off the body. I’d need to put something that same height under the back of the bridge, so that the bridge would sit flat.

The something turned out to be two Singapore 20 cent pieces. I stuck them under the bridge, tightened up the claw at the back and tuned the guitar to pitch, and the bridge sat flat.

Then I tried detuning one string, to see if the others changed pitch. They didn’t, which meant the bridge was sitting pretty solidly. I then drilled two holes in the coins and screwed them in place.

From there, I could set up the action and intonation with the bridge, as normal.

Yep. Pretty hacky. It worked though.

UPDATE: Richard eventually sold me this guitar–a great deal, because he is very nice that way.

I later took the guitar in to Linda London in Lincoln, NE. She’s who I go to for frets and acoustic repairs and anything else I need a grownup to do.

The guitar needed a fret dressing, and after we talked a bit, she also shimmed the neck a bit, which has made the guitar play even better. The shimming means that I COULD probably take out my hacky coin trick and of course, I could have changed out to a better bridge long ago. But I really like how this guitar sounds the way it is, and it plays like a dream. It ain’t broke…

 

Fixes – Pickups

Well, I have to admit, I’m still slightly on the horns of a dilemma here, but I’ll get to that in a sec.

I tried to like the Texas Specials, really I did.

I spend about 80% of my time in the 4 (neck and middle) position on a Strat, and while this worked OK-ish with the Specials, they just sound like they are trying way too hard. And the 1 and 2 positions were shrill and over-hyped enough to have their own talk radio show. No sir, I did not like them.

I have tried a whack of pickups in this guitar. So many, in fact, that for a while I was just holding the pickguard on with gaffer tape, to save time taking it off and putting it on. I figured that I would put the screws back in when I finally had pickups in it that I liked.

I got a hold of a Fender Tex-Mex bridge pickup at some point, and tried that. It was much better in combination with the middle pickup, and less annoying (though still annoying) on its own.

It baffles me how I can like something about almost every Tele bridge pickup I hear, and pretty much nothing about every single-coil-sized Strat bridge pickup I hear.

This was all pretty frustrating, because the guitar felt great to play. I’d put some combination of pickups in it and take it with me to shows as a backup. I would even use it to practice on with no pickups in it.

One day, I stumbled onto a Fender Vintage Noiseless pickup for next-to-nothing on eBay. Because the Tex-Mex happened to be in the bridge when the Noiseless showed up, I put the Noiseless in the middle position. This is the position I use the least–my other Strat is wired so that there is no way to just have the middle pickup on its own, and I like it like that. So I was expecting to try this, say “meh” and then try the Noiseless in the neck position.

Instead, I plugged it in and LOVED it. It was nice on its own, and really nice combined with the Tex-Mex in the bridge.

I had 15 minutes before I had to get to a rehearsal, and I really wanted to try this out with a band, but I HAVE to have that 4 position—I needed a neck pickup. I ran downstairs, grabbed a random pickup off the table and slapped it in the neck position. Then I headed off to rehearsal with a screwdriver in my case, so I could adjust the pickup heights as we played.

Turns out, the Noiseless and the mystery pickup worked together ridiculously well in that 4 position. Really stunning–my version of what a “Classic” Strat sounds like. I had never even bothered trying that mystery pickup before, because it was just some cheap goofy stock pickup from my Tickle Trunk of random parts. All I know is that at some point I metered it, because it has a piece of masking tape on the bottom on which I wrote “5.83K.” In this weird guitar, it’s absolutely the right thing.

UPDATE: I eventually put another Vintage Noiseless in the bridge and I am prrrreetttyy happy with it. The 2 position now gives me a near-Tele level of bonkiness, which I like a lot. I think I’m about as happy as I’m going to be without breaking out a router. I still only use the bridge pickup with crunchy sounds. I haven’t found a single-coil-sized Strat bridge pickup that I’ve liked clean yet.

Which leads to the dilemma I mentioned earlier: I KNOW I would be happy with a P-90 in the bridge of this guitar, but the body is cut for single coils only. Even though it has zero collector value by this time, I would never sell it, and it would be easy to just revert back to single-coils anyway, I still hate the idea of cutting a guitar that does a good job of being what it was made to be. They don’t make these E-series things any more.

So I don’t know.

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