Tinkering: Minor Guitar Customization

Today I’m going to switch out my American Telecaster’s stock pickguard and Twisted Tele neck pickup with a Seymour Duncan 59’ Model humbucker and a new pearloid pickguard from Warmoth.  I got the pickup at Rainbow guitars in Tucson, Arizona after confirming that I wouldn’t need to rout out the body to install the humbucker.  All in all it should be an easy switch and while I will lose some of the characteristic Tele twang, I will gain a much much quieter guitar.  The Tele pickups tend to be noisy, which I find a bit on the annoying side despite loving the classic Tele sound.  I could have dropped a stacked pickup in the neck and preserved a more traditional Tele tone, but this way I’m going to get more power out of the neck as well so as far as that goes it’s a win.

I have a tendency to tinker with my guitars until I get them how I want them.  Some instruments are easier to adapt than others and I personally find Fender Strats and Teles to be some of the easier instruments to make changes on, particularly the American Standard series, which ceased production this year.  In more recent years these instruments are routed to accept a variety of pickups, primarily humbuckers and single coils, which opens up a range of possibilities when it comes down to personal customization without making any “permanent” changes in the structure of the bodies.  This ensures that the guitar can be returned to an original “stock” configuration at any time, provided you keep the original parts.

The American series also comes with a tilt adjust neck.  This provides for a very even string level up and down the fretboard when combined with the dual flex truss rod.  If the frets are installed and finished correctly, it is possible to set up these instruments with a flat fretboard and the strings virtually paralleling the board at an even height from the nut to the end of the fretboard.  This provides a fast clean playing experience that can cater to a reasonably wide range of personal tastes, once again without any “permanent” changes made to the instrument.  The tilt-adjust feature also eliminates using shimming material to make the adjustments.  Without tilt-adjust, in order to change the pitch of the neck, the neck must be removed from the body, a shim must be made, and then the instrument needs to be reassembled in order to check if it has reached the desired pitch, then repeated until satisfied.  This is time consuming.

Set neck instruments, like Gibsons, don’t have the tilt adjust feature.  Once the neck is glued in, its pitch in relation to the body is fixed.  Most of their electric guitars provide for adjustment of string angle through adjusting the bridge height, and often tailpiece as well.  While one can change out pickups, and tailor wiring to one’s desires, the options are not as wide, particularly when trying to avoid altering the body.  They are also somewhat less forgiving because there is quite a bit more exposed finish areas than found on most Fenders.  Access to the switching and wiring is also more spread out than on Fenders, in some ways.  It is possible to do most of the wiring of a Strat off of the guitar body itself, because the pickups and switch are all mounted on the pickguard.  After that it’s just the ground and the jack that need to be soldered and then it all drops in.  This isn’t the case with most Gibsons.  If you want to get the pot spacing right it often involves mounting everything and then doing the wiring while working in a cramped cavity and trying not to mark the finish anywhere.  It’s doable, of course, but attention to detail is a must because there are the added factors.

Once I learned how to set up my own instruments and basic wiring dos and don’ts, I’ve only taken my guitars to someone else when a much more difficult task was required, like a fret job.  I can do a fret job, but I know my limits and at this point doing a good refret/dressing is something I’d prefer to have a pro do.  It’s not something that I’m willing to accept as good enough for government work.  I’ve known folks who weren’t upset by a fret buzz here or there, but I’m not one of them.  So, today I tinker once again, and I’m hoping for a nice clean result, with no hum or buzz.  Time to get at it!