Saturday, June 30, 2007

Super Strat

What happens when you a take a circa. 1986 Fender Squier Stratocaster that you have been playing for the last 20 years and decide it's time for a change? Buy a new guitar? No way! It's hot rod time!

I have been talking about doing this for years. The Seymour Duncan Everything Axe Set looked like the ticket (and ended up being so in a round about way--I could not find it in black so I ordered the pups separately over time).

So, over the last little while I have been collecting the needed parts & tools and during a break from the breakneck speed I am running at work I threw it all together to see what would happen. Can you really have it all in one guitar? Strat quack & humbucker warmth & power. We would soon find out...

Most appointments on this guitar are recent, some go way back (an old Seymour Duncan Classic Stack in the bridge [replaced during this project], the graphite nut, mid pup phase switch & Dunlop Straploks). At some point in the last year or so my wife picked up black vol. & tone knobs & pickup covers for me and they looked great against the original white pickgaurd. Not too dramatic a change, subtle enough and yet it sets the look off quite nicely.

I knew there would have to be some heavy rewiring (since all the pickups were being replaced)--but it would go beyond that. There was no way I would even come close to approximating my favorite Strat tones with the mini-humbuckers pups in the neck (Lil' '59) & bridge (JB Jr.) if they were wired standard. Enter the 3-way On-On-On mini-toggles (there was only one place in town that carried them!). They would serve as Series - Single Coil (aka split or tapped) - Parallel switches for both of those pups. A new 2-way On-On switch would replace the old as a phase switch for the middle (Duckbucker) pup--there is no sense in going the other route since it is intended to sound Start-y. Why would you want to split or put it in parallel? You wouldn't, IMO. There's no need.

That was not all though. Oh no. After all these years, I actually wanted to be able to use the tremolo bar on this guitar without having the thing go out of tune after the first bend. That required some simple yet effective modifications that have worked out incredibly well.

First, I already had a graphite nut in place--shouldn't be any binding there. Next I tossed the cheese ball roller string trees in favor of a couple of new Graphtec string retainers. Finally, for the headstock I replaced the original Gotoh Schaller-style tuners with a new set of chrome PlanetWaves locking tuners.

Then came the bridge. My old bridge block has always been junk. Some kind of cheap alloy with no mass. I wanted a steel block for more sustain and hopefully a more musical tone. Next the bridge. Something had to be done. Years of sweat and grime had coroded the saddles and screws badly. They would have to be replaced. I did my research, priced it all out and made my decision. I would forgo the saddle/screw replacements in favor of a drop in replacement bridge (with included steel block). I went with the Gotoh licensed Wilkinson VSVG bridge from Stewart MacDonald. It turned out to be a solid choice. The intonation screws are inside the saddles and lock down firmly. The saddle height set screws do not protrude out the top or the saddle making general playing and particularly palm muting comfortable. No more chewing up your hand on the bridge during aggressive rhythm attacks. But does it all work? I can say that it does with a resounding YES! You can actually play using the bar, even for dive bomb bends and the instrument still remains in tune. Amazing!

Yes, but how does it sound? That takes us back to the electronics. You know, there is not much room in a Strat control cavity and I was not about to start hacking out chunks of wood with a router or dremel--you can totally destroy the intrinsic tone of a guitar doing that kind of thing. It was not an issue though. Since I have never been a fan of two (or more) tone controls), I simply took out the one between the volume and the other tone pot. Now, it's one each--a master volume and tone (just the way I like it), and I had plenty of room for my mods. The Lil' 59 was already in, so I wired up the Series/Split/Parallel switch and hooked it up in the pickgaurd hole where the tone pot used to be. While I was at it (as I did not have the other replacement pickups yet) I drilled another hole and prewired the second humbucker S/S/P swich and installed that as well. Finally a bit at a time the rest of my parts started showing up and when I found a spare moment, I was ready to begin. To make a long story shorter, I have ended up with what I wanted:
  • Bridge: Series/Split/Parallel Seymour Duncan JB Jr. (I considered two other pups for this spot--another Lil' '59 or a George Lynch Lil' Screamin' Demon)
  • Middle: Phase switchable Duckbucker
  • Neck: Series/Split/Parallel Lil' 59
The Bridge pup sounded too muddy to me, and after consulting with one of the techs at Seymour Duncan, he suggested moving from a 250K (darker) to a 500K (brighter) volume pot--which I did. I think it has made enough of a difference that I can say I am satisfied. Quite a relief. I didn't want to swap pups until I found the right one, if what I already had would suit my needs. I believe it will.

The tone pot is one of the original 250K. For some reason I decided to replace the .047 tone capacitor with the same rated ceramic cap. It sounded awful!! I had another one of the original caps and put that back in as soon as I could. The tone control with the ceramic cap was unusable! Issue resolved...

I should have put in a new 5-way selector while I was at it, but no big deal. The original still works well enough (the screws are rusted though, I should have replaced them when I replaced the pickguard screws).

So... how does it sound? (I'm getting to it, be patient.)

First, wired straight I do not think you would ever be able to approximate Strat tones by any means. My favorite Strat positions have always been the 4 (mid/neck), 5 neck, and 2 (mid/bridge): in that order. If I could get those, I would be happy. With the switching options on the bridge & neck, I can approximate those tones. I think (aside form the 5 position) the Duckbucker really helps in those instances for sure--and, for the first time, I have really started using the mid pickup on it's own. That's something I rarely if ever did in the past. The Duckbucker actually sounds pretty good on it's own. The Lil' '59 sounds very good in series (standard humbucker mode) and so does the JB (now that I have that 500K volume pot--it really only provided a slight difference, but it cleaned it up enough for me tone-wise to make it musically useful to me). It can do heavy rock, has decent sustain, and nice harmonic responce--works for me. My Warmoth has a full-sized JB, perhaps they share some characteristics but they are obviously not the same pups. Don't expect a mini-JB to match the awesome might of the original, but the Jr. can hold it's own as long as you don't expect it to knock you down like it's big daddy.

So there you have it. A hot-rodded 1980-something Japanese made Squier Stratocaster given a new (and useful) lease on life. It was not too long ago that the frets were so worn out, and in such bad shape that I thought it was done for. My local luthier saved the day and made it more playable then ever. It made the perfect guitar to do some experimenting with, and in the end it's now worth more then ever before in all respects. With all of the tonal options available on it (19 variations based on the current switching configuration), it truly is an incredibly versatile instrument.

Oh, and I even did my own setup on the bridge for it. I must not have done too badly. It plays well and the intonation is correct (it should be considering the software I bought). Not too bad, huh? ;-)

No comments: