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!


Gigging and Gear: Beating the load in Blues

I’m basically a less is more kind of guy when it comes to gigging and gear.  It used to take me either multiple trips to my car to haul in my equipment, or I needed to use a Rock-n-Roller cart to get it all from point A to B.  Granted, when I’m responsible for providing a PA I still have to deal with hauling a lot, but otherwise I’ve turned into a bare bones type of guy.  At this point, when I have a gig playing bass I really want to limit what I bring to what I can carry in one trip from the car.  This means that I bring one bass, one cabinet, bass head, cables, tuner, guitar stand and often a band book and music stand.  I also try to ensure that everything is on the light end of the weight spectrum.  When I need the extra oomph from the amp I bring a second cabinet and put the two cabs on a collapsible two-wheeled cart.  Guitar gigs I go as simply as I can as well.

            Years ago as a guitarist I used to have to load and unload with multiple trips.  Sometimes I’d bring upwards of three instruments, a pedal board and a host of other things, although as a guitarist I’ve always been more of a combo amp type of guy than half or full stack.  My stage footprint would often be large enough for two folks, which isn’t unusual for guitarists I’ve found, but I was concerned with the diversity of the tonal palette that I brought to the gig and then there was the old what if I break a string issue.  At that time I worked in a music store and could afford to restring guitars every week or so, so I was playing on fresh strings for most gigs.  It was actually a rare occasion when I broke a string, and in reality since none of my guitars were set up with a Floyd Rose style tremolo, breaking a string would have been a quick fix.  When I started gigging as a bass player the equipment I brought tended to run toward a more is better pattern as well.

            Finally I realized that carting all of that equipment wasn’t really necessary and, particularly after knee surgery resulting from an accident carrying my equipment up and down to our apartment, I decided that it was time to pare down what I was dragging around to gigs.  Currently, as a bassist I can set up and be ready to perform in about five minutes from walking into the venue if I’m rushed.  Usually set up takes about ten because I’ll talk a bit to the drummer.  Load out takes the same five to get out the door and then I’m back in waiting for the band-leader to finish talking business with the venue owner.  If we’re being paid by check that night then I’m usually heading home within ten minutes of the last set being finished because I don’t generally like to hang around shooting the breeze.  By this time the drummer might have his cymbals in their case and the guitarist is putting his guitars in cases.

            When we’re playing larger venues or outdoors I usually bring the second bass cabinet, which means that by choice I’m running two 15inch cabs with horns and pushing around 500 watts at 4 ohms.  This provides more than enough volume for most situations, particularly when there is decent sound reinforcement being provided.  I still can get on stage, set up and ready to go in 10 minutes (off in about the same) without breaking a sweat.  This is great because many outdoor playing situations are at events that have multiple band lineups, which requires a fast turnover if a backline isn’t being provided.  It’s also awesome if you have multiple bookings on any given day or evening.  It also means that when you get home you don’t have yet another lengthy load in to deal with – one trip in and you’re done.

            Don’t get me wrong, I’d be lying if I said I don’t love musical gear because I do.  One of the reasons I don’t currently work in music stores is because I love gear so much that I will find reasons for needing things to the point where every pay check would go for another instrument or piece of gear.  But I really do appreciate the quick set up times, load outs and the added benefit of less wear and tear on my back.  The next time you load up to head out for a gig, try thinking about what you’re bringing in relationship to what you really need to bring.  You might be surprised at what you find you don’t miss.