bookmark_borderThe Black Squier–Update

More pressing of words, less booking of faces.

This is an update to an earlier post about my beloved E-series Squier Strat from 198something.  It might be of use to you if you are thinking of modding or rehabbing a Stratty guitar.

Since that post, I’ve done the following:

  • Started playing in a band called “Pink Flamingos” (I KNOW!) in which I do a lot of “lead” guitaring using fairly trad-sounding clean sounds.  I am NOT trying to make this thing sound like a Tele, but I want Tele-ish elements to the sound. And lots of bonk.
  • Put in a Fender Super Switch, wired like this:
    • 1 – Bridge only
    • 2 – Bridge and Middle
    • 3 – Bridge and Neck
    • 4 – Middle and Neck
    • 5 – Neck only

This all worked out really well.  Lots of big warm bonk in the 2 position, fills out and gets wider in the 3 position, and still that lovely Stratty-Strat jangle in the 4 position.  I use the bridge alone VERY rarely, and never use the neck alone.

As you’ll find with most kooky single-coil experiments in their raw state, I DID have to deal with a bit of noise. To a large extent, this is just a fact of life with some single-coils.  YES!  I AM AWARE OF VARIOUS NOISELESS OPTIONS!  I even have some in other guitars. But for THIS guitar, and the pickups I have decided to use, noise is part of the fun.

But there ARE things you can do.  Like some basic shielding. I thought I would share with you my example of why this is a good idea, and how not to do it.  For sciense.

I had 3/4 of a sheet of adhesive-backed copper foil floating around for a few years.  It bounced around various shelves and boxes so much that the adhesive had pretty much kinda given up in a lot of places, and the edges had been dinged, ripped and folded.  It was way too shot to use on someone else’s guitar, which makes it just the kind of thing I would use on my own guitar.

On Thursday, I had about 45 minutes before Pink Flamingos rehearsal, which seemed like EXACTLY enough time to do the shielding on the Squier if nothing went wrong.  To ensure that something WOULD go wrong, I didn’t make sure I had all the tools I would need, grabbed the guitar, and ran to my work bench.

I picked up the amp I forgot I had opened up on my work bench and carefully stacked it on top of another amp, on top of a wobbly storage container, so that I would always be distracted by the fear it would fall over while I was working.  Can’t stress how helpful this step is. If you want to make your task more exciting, MAKE SURE YOUR WORK AREA IS AN IMMINENT DISASTER!

I slacked off the strings, then decided I should just remove and change them, then decided to just slack them off, then undid them from the tuners but didn’t use a piece of tape or Velcro to hold them in place, so that they would be sure to tangle.

I removed all the screws from the pickguard and actually put them all in a container.  Crazy.

Here’s a nice picture of the guitar all opened up. You can click on it if you want to see it more biggerer:

Putting on the foil, Coach!
Live Naked Squier!

This next bit is most useful.  First, I didn’t make sure I had my shears or even a pair of scissors in the room. That way, I could cut the foil by either snipping teeny bits with the end of my wire strippers or biting it and then tearing it unevenly with my hands.  If you find these methods too accurate, make sure that you hurry while doing them.

DON’T MEASURE ANYTHING!  Just slap the foil down and start pressing it in randomly. Then, when you discover that things are in the wrong place, just lift it up and move it a lot. Not only will this put lots of random folds and creases in your foil, it will also pull off any adhesive it had left on it.

Speaking of adhesive, for goodness sake don’t bother to reach across the bench and grab any of the adhesives you have there.  Just keep slogging away with the wrong tools!

The torn edges of copper foil can be quite sharp. But I’m pretty sure that’s OK.  Don’t worry about gloves.

Swearing is a great time-saver!

In what seemed like no time at all, but was actually about 15 minutes after the guys in the band showed up, I had the foil properly in place, and was ready to put the guitar back together.

Here’s a picture with most of the shielding in place:

Nice Wrok!
I think that went quite well…

Just to make life interesting, I put on a fresh set of strings, because how could that be a problem right before you play?

All kidding aside, my point here is DO THE PREP WORK!   This job SHOULD have been fast, and the old foil shouldn’t have been a problem, but by trying to hurry before I started, I ended up taking longer and having to do things about three times. Also, it REALLY hurt to play at rehearsal, and I messed my hands up for a gig tonight.

The shielding itself has worked out quite well. You can’t see it in the picture, but I just soldered a wire from the ground of the guitar to the foil. It’s probably never going to be a noiseless guitar, but it’s about 40% quieter than it was, and certainly not a problem when playing live.

And if you stretch them in properly, new strings aren’t a problem either.

bookmark_borderGuitar 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.

bookmark_borderGuitar repair/mod – Festus the Mystery Guitar

guitar picture
Identities obscured to protect the ugly

One of my many annoying habits is sending emails to my musician friends about instruments I know they will:

a) love and not be able to afford.
b) completely hate.

I sent a link to a Craigslist ad for a guitar to a bunch of my friends. The guitar in the ad had started life as some kind of cheap Strat copy and been seriously messed with along the way. On top of everything else, someone had followed the time-honored tradition of writing a naughty word on the headstock with a marker.

Two days later, my friend John called me and asked if I was going to be around, because he wanted to drop something off. I said I would be. A few minutes later, he showed up with a terribly guilty look on his face, and from the back seat of his car, pulled the guitar from the ad.

“Dude! You bought the “F*ck*r!” My neighbors will never get used to me.
“I couldn’t help it. I had to go take a look!”
“Wow. OK.”
“I really like the neck though!”
“How much?”
“I got it for $25. I figured you know, in parts alone…”

We plugged it in. It had a couple of single-coils in the middle and neck, and some had stuffed a gold-colored humbucker in the bridge. That humbucker, in this guitar, sounded really good. Actually, it sounded disturbingly great.

Well, of course I would try to fix this thing up! How could I not? This is just good practice, and kind of fun, in a weirdo detective kind of way.

Over time, we’ve  beaten this thing into good enough shape that John actually plays out with it sometimes. I’m listing everything that’s been done to the guitar to this point in this write-up, and including some points that might be useful to anyone getting into basic electric guitar repair. Things that were changed after the original fix are listed as UPDATES.

 

Getting started

First, I cleaned off the body. Someone smoked a lot around this thing! Eww. Pretty much all the mess came off with vinegar and a cloth, which means that it probably wouldn’t have been there at all if someone had just run a cloth over the guitar from time to time. Or once a week. Or once in a while.

I took the strings off and then cleaned off the fretboard with orange oil and a cloth. It wasn’t really that nasty.1

There was an interesting collection of screws holding the pickguard on. I think two of them even match. I’m always amazed at how often people manage to lose screws and bolts and things while taking them off and putting them on.2

I got the pickguard off, and got a HUGE whiff of smoke. And I thought. They smelled bad. On the outside.

It became pretty obvious that this was not the original pickguard for this guitar, because there were a lot of holes in the body from whatever other pickguard used to be there.

At this point, I started referring to whoever worked on the guitar before as “Festus.”

 

Pickguard picture
The spiders had been given certain chemicals…

The electronics

I THINK that Festus took the original bridge pickup (or some other one) and put it in the neck position. The original leads on that pickup are about 2″ long, so he added a couple pieces of wire to it, using the worst soldering job in human history.3

The middle pickup might have been original. The magnet underneath it has some rust. Having seen the rest of the wiring, I had a theory on how that happened, but there was no discernible scent of urine, so that theory is probably incorrect.

The bridge pickup is a retrofit, obviously. It’s an Epiphone humbucker that was cut out of another guitar by a meatneck, so its pickup leads are about 1″ long. I wish people wouldn’t do this. Anyway, Festus connected it to some other wire, and it looked like he learned something from the neck pickup, because it was only the second-worst soldering job in human history.

There are a lot of ways to wire up a guitar. I’ve fixed some guitars on which it became obvious that the guitar was wired up one way, and then someone tried to add something based on a different wiring scheme. I may have even done that myself. Only once though. Really.

Sometimes it’s fun–or even educational–to try to figure out what wiring scheme was being used, and where it went wrong, and sometimes that’s like running a cheese grater over your brain.

In this case, all the pickup leads went into what appeared to be the last desperate act of a madman on fire.

My best guess is that the guy just kept connecting and disconnecting wires randomly until he got some output, and then soldered things where they were. There were a couple of wires that just came off the pots and don’t connect to anything, random grounding and stuff on wrong legs of pots. The end result was that the volume and tone knobs didn’t do anything, and only two positions on the five-way switch actually made any sound.

But despite the randomness, all the leftover wires were very neatly gathered up and bundled with a zip tie. It didn’t work, but it looked good. Just like me.

 

Physical stuff

The action on the guitar was high, but not too bad. The frets had very little wear, though they felt very soft.  The neck had just about the amount of relief in it I like, and no twists.  The nut was awful.

When I took off the strings, the bridge went right back flat against the body and sat level. That meant I should be able to make it just stay there when I set the guitar up later. As long as you don’t want to use the trem (YOU DON’T ON THIS GUITAR), that makes life easy.

 

Fixes Part 1 — Pickups

Because John is cheap and lazy (he LOVES when I say that), I was just going to get this thing going with the same pickups that were in it.

I re-did the solder joins on the pickup leads and taped them off, so that they wouldn’t ground off on something when I put the thing back together. After the guitar was back together and hooked up, that Epiphone pickup sounded ridiculously good, particularly in combination with the middle pickup. And the other two pickups sounded just awful.

UPDATE: I found a crazy deal on some Fender Vintage Noiseless pickups. I really like those things. I put them in the middle and bridge, and now the guitar sounds great in every position. It’s kind of annoying how good it sounds.

 

Fixes Part 2 –Electronics

I knew I was going to take the electronics right down and re-do them, partly because it’s good practice, partly because all the existing parts were cheap and nasty, and partly because trying to figure out what Festus was trying to do–or what he ended up doing–would be flirting with madness.

He’d used 500K pots on a guitar that’s mostly cheap single coils and high-end squealiness. That’s not the best idea. If there was any thinking behind this, it was probably that 500K pots are usually used with humbuckers, and he had put the humbucker in the bridge. Regardless, it was a bad fit. I had some pots that I had metered, and came out in the high 200 to 300K range, so I used those. There is space here to mention whatever famous guitar hero you want who uses 300K pots. Go ahead, the rest of us will wait.

Got that out of your system? Awesome.

I wired it up in a pretty standard Strat configuration (volume, two tones, five-way switch) with the new pots and new wire.

UPDATE: Even with the new electronics, this thing was really noisy. That probably had a lot to do with the original pickups.

Also, John has some freaky X-men static buildup ability. I am not making this up. The second finger on his picking hand hits the guitar quite often, just below the middle pickup. Every once in a while, there is an audible “pop” when it does. I’ve seen this happen with him on a bunch of different guitars, which have been worked on by different people. It’s weird as hell. John bought some aluminum tape and stuck a piece on the guitar where his finger hits. That worked really well at making the end of his finger turn black.

I ended up lining the cavity and the underside of the pickguard with aluminum tape, connected to the ground, and the problem went away. It stayed away after we put in the Fender Noiseless pickups as well.

 

Fixes Part 3 – Setup and whatnot

There were three springs in the back of the trem. I just screwed the claw in as far as it would go, and that was enough to hold the bridge flush to the body. You can whack the low E, bend whatever strings you want, and not hear any movement.

The frets on this guitar were in OK shape for the kind of action John likes. I don’t think they will last very long, though. The nut is pretty awful: No real radius to the cuts, and very high. John plays a lot of acoustic, and he’s fine with higher action and more neck relief than I am, so his preferences worked nicely within the limited options this thing has for action. I just set it up as low as I thought I could and set the intonation. I think John has moved the action back up a bit.

It sounds great, plays in tune and he loves playing it. That means it’s set up right, as far as I’m concerned.

Aesthetically, it’s the kind of mutt I just love. Crappy-looking cheap pickguard with a chunk of aluminum tape on it, two different colors of pickups, mismatched screws, ugly, ugly wood on the neck. A player.

John couldn’t live with “F*ck*r” written on the headstock, so he took that off with some alcohol. You can see the faint outline of the original “Behringer” label.  And now he calls the guitar “Festus”

Potay-to potah-to

 


1) Musicians are generally disgusting. Clean things before you work on them. Better yet, tell people to clean them before they bring them to you, and THEN clean them. It took one experience of picking up a stringless neck in a basement and not being able to get the smell off my hands for a couple of days to get me into this habit. Learn from my disgusting mistake!

I always start with the weakest possible cleaners and work up. You usually want something astringent, because most guitar grossness is either oily or sticky. Just plain white vinegar works on pretty much any guitar finish, and rubbing alcohol is USUALLY (test it!) OK as well. I use citrus-oil-based cleaners on open-grain or unfinished stuff, but again, test first. I use old cloths that I don’t mind throwing out or recycling. Have lots of these. Paper towels are a bad choice for cleaning guitars.

2) If you’re going to work on ANYTHING with small bits like screws, wires, nipples, or electronic parts, make sure you have a bunch of containers for things.4 “Containers” are things with a bottom, sides and a top. You can put things in a container and pick them all up at once.  You can use empty pill vials, or little bowls, or little boxes or envelopes or whatever

An Altoids tin in an example of a container. An area on a table that you are pretty sure you will remember is not a container.

As you remove each piece, put it in a container, and then label the container. Label everything no matter what.

3)If you do not know how to solder, you should learn. And if you learn, you should learn to do it well. Seriously, this is a cheap and easy skill. It’s like knowing how to change a tire or stop a tap from dripping: You don’t HAVE to do it yourself, but it will probably save you inconvenience and maybe money, and you will know if whoever you pay to do it does a good job.

4)I freely admit that the use of the word “nipples” was gratuitous.