Friday, 30 October 2015

The End of the Strat Upgrade Project

No sooner is it started but it's finished!


The strat upgrade is done!

Some pics to run through the work.  We'd left it last time with all the components fitted onto the scratchplate but nothing wired up.  It is half term week from my course giving me a couple of days where weather and waiting in for a heating engineer meant I had a clear few hours on the bench (i.e. dining room table suitably covered with rugs, old t-shirts, etc.)


Here is the start of the wiring - some of the wiring for the pots and switches done.


Here with the pickups connected up - There is actually a simple but major error on here that I spotted later...



Here she is naked - stripped of all the hardware I was replacing, i.e. bridge saddles, tuners, strap buttons, scratchplate and backplate.


Dignity being restored with tuners, saddles and strap locks installed.


A close up of the saddles.  I can't say how much if at all they improved the sound as clearly in this rebuild I can't to a side by side comparison with the old ones and the same electrics.  However when I tried it out as bought it was ok but a bit lifeless, or soulless - it just didn't "ring" like some of my others. I'd assumed the quality of the body wood and the bridge block being a cheaper cast one.  However once all assembled she does indeed "ring" / "sing" much better.  How much is due to the saddles?  Hmm.. I'd actually wager a fair bit - for only about £15 a simple, easily reversed upgrade I'd recommend now to anyone with one of these.  Do check your string spacing - this like most Far East ones is 52.5mm across all strings vs a USA (although Jap reissues as well - so check!) are 56.5mm.  These were sold as genuine Fender ones and are stamped as such.  You can find similar unbranded ones under £10 which would still be worth a punt as I say they can easily be swapped back.


So the scratchplate held in on a couple of screws for final "tap test"**.  I did one test before fitting in then one before all securely fixed in case I shorted something out.  But all was good to go.


Nearly there - strung up and being set up.  Like most modern Fenders the radius is a 9.5in.  So I got the two E strings about where I wanted on action and set the rest to a radius curve - you can see my set lying by the neck support.  However final "fertling" was by eye, ear (little buzz on A string at 12th fret) and feel.


Reclining in the sun having been polished up and played.


This shows the new rear backplate fitted to match the front just for completeness.


Final summary.  Well having played it for an hour or so it is really good.  I'm extremely pleased with the result.  As I say as bought it was "ok" but not a singing stunner. Next to my 1983 Squier JV Strat (modified with old 90s USA Standard electrics - the one with the TBX control), possibly an unfair comparator, it was a bit flat and non descript.   Now however it does "sing" and "ring" more to my ears even unplugged I think leading to my thinking the saddles were the best investment on this upgrade.  Soundwise it works a treat.  The Artec pickups are really excellent for the money.  The neck in a brooding heavy bluesy bruiser in humbucker mode with some crunch on the amp.  The middle is a great singing sound in either humbucker or single coil and the bridge is a bright singing humbucker sound.  Being single coil humbuckers mean they seem to maintain some of the Strat single coil flavour in the humbucker mode.  There is a bit of a drop in output when switching to coil tap mode but actually that can be used to an advantage potentially.  Over all I'm really pleased with the result.  I may get around to a video / audio example at some point so watch this space as they say.


** What's a Tap Test?
Simple - plug the guitar wiring into an amp - I use an old practice headphone amp called a pocket rocket as the headphones help determine exactly what is going on.  Then tap the pickups with a screwdriver - this'll show your switching is ok, it isn't all going to earth and pretty much ok to fit down.  I did this when it was all soldered up including the earth connections to the bridge etc.  It was time well spent in this case.  In getting my head around wiring the coil taps etc. I'd connected the neck and middle pickups to the wrong lugs on the switch.  A simple few second fix but better than before all strung up! 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The start of the Strat upgrade project

I have another guitar project underway.  Using some money I got for my birthday I bought a cheap second hand Squier Strat off a local instrument sell/swap noticeboard on Facebook.

Here is the guitar I got - an affinity Squier strat.  Nice colour I thought and very clean.  Previous owner had it as a spare to a "real one" as he called it and wasn't using it much.  I negotiated a cash purchase and a little discount from his asking price.  All cool.




 The plan all along was one I've had in my head for a while to buy a cheap but reasonable Strat copy and upgrade it a bit... well a lot actually.

So the plan is to replace all the electrics in it.  I wanted a sort of Dave Murray Strat like idea with strat sized humbuckers in it.  However Dave's guitar if you buy his latest Fender signature offering is north of £700 (which is good value actually given the hardware you get on it) but also a bit of a no-no for me features a Floyd Rose vibrato.  I'm not a lover of them much at all personally preferring the more traditional strat type including the one of my PRS which is firmly in that stable of design.

Electrics

I wanted single coil humbuckers - preferably hot rails like Dave uses.  Actually he has recently changed for an all hot rails set up with the launch of his new model to one featuring two hot rails in neck and bridge and a JB Jr in the middle position.  Recently Seymour Duncan launched a Dave Murray loaded scratchplate featuring that set up.  They are however as rare as Hen's Teeth in the UK and well north of £200 anyway... like I say makes the Fender model look very reasonable.  Anyway I was thinking of more versatility in the set up myself.

My initial thoughts were for a HSH arrangement with a single coil in the middle.  But as I was buying cheaper non match set pickups I was worried about getting a matched set.  In the end I've gone for three hot rails from the Artec range which were really good value and had some good reviews around.  To retain versatility I wanted to coil tap them in some way.  Original thoughts were three pull pots one on each - but that is clunky and I want strat style knobs on it still which to me don't lend themselves well to pull pots.  So I decided there is room for two small switches amongst the knobs.  My first thought was to have one switch to coil tap both the neck and middle at the same time and one on the bridge.  This would give HHH, SSS, HSS and SHH combinations - not sure on the last one, certainly novel.  But I mused on this - one glaring thing is that I'm missing the HSH combination I original was going for and that seems a useful one, given the many guitars you can buy that offer that out the box.  Thinking more on it I have coil taps on some of my two pickup humbucker guitars (my old Nunostrat and Gordon Smith Graduate) and frankly I mostly favour the bridge as a humbucker with the coil tap on the neck useful.  I rarely coil tap the bridge on those guitars.  So I wanted definitely the HSS set up as that is one combination I'm after with this guitar I don't have in my arsenal currently, along with HSH again a variant I don't have as such.   Therefore having gone through this all I've decided to wire it up as the bridge permanently in humbucker mode and the middle and neck coil tappable independently on the two switches.  This gives the HSS and HSH modes along with HHH and HHS as well. I'm using perloid scratch and back plate - again the Murray model influence, plus looks good with the colour of the body.

Hardware

Originally I had thought to replace the whole bridge unit with something like one of the Wilkinson Strat replacements - probably a modern looking one aping a bit the PRS trem style.  However once I got the guitar and looked at it I realised that the Afinity model (well this one at least) is one of the thinner bodied Squiers.  I thought they only did this with the bullet models but it seems not.  The body noticeably thinner than a standard Squier.  A quick check against my trusty (very) old JV model shows a difference of 5.1mm (46.9mm vs 41.8mm) measured on the top horn.  Therefore most normal trem blocks at 40mm won't fit - or at least will stick out the back.  I measure this trem block about 4-5mm shorter than that which is in line with the difference noted.  Obviously I could buy a new bridge that is compatible with the trem block and reuse the one in the guitar to retain the distance.  However that seemed a bit of a huge compromise as the main upgrade would be the block and the saddles anyway.  So after some thought I opted instead for new saddles only.  I found some reasonably priced on eBay.  I've gone with the more traditional bent steel ones as consensus, shown by Fender returning to feature them on the American Standard, is that these sound best anyway.  Getting some that were the correct (narrow) string spacing was the key point.  Another difference from USA or Mexican or Japanese reissues is that the cheaper strats from the far east have a narrower string spacing at the bridge.  After some umming and erring on my side I've also decided on fitting set of sperzel style locking tuners too as I've found locking tuners on vibrato guitars really useful in tuning stability.  So I've now ordered a suitably value for money set.  Finally I'll be sticking on some Schaller style locking strap locks - which I use as default on all my guitars anyway.

Once completed then the only original hardware will be the bridge except the saddles, the string trees and the plate holding the jack plug... everything else will be replaced!  Oh the neck plate will be original too I see no reason to update that ;-)

Here's some photos of the guitar in a state of disassembly to allow me to check fit the scratchplate - a couple of screw holes don't line up so I've filled them with old cocktail sticks and glue and will drill new ones later - same on the backplate too as my replacement has USA screw alignment.




You can see all the pickups, switches and pots in place now on this one - again a trial fit to make sure nothing it catching anywhere before I start to solder it all together which is the next major task and will be the subject of the next update no doubt.

Monday, 26 October 2015

CD Reviews - Iron Maiden, Show of Hands, City and Colour

Without a doubt this little album review shows my eclectic music tastes.  I find it funny how even more so these days stuff is labelled this of that, Folk, Alt-Country, Metal, Speedmetal, Deathmetal... blah blah blah.  Do I like it?  That should be the only question to ask yourself really.  But the marketeers esp in this online age try to pigeon-hole us so they can then push "targetted" ads into our facebook feed, spotify suggestions list etc.  Frankly just suggest random stuff - in my humble opinion they'd sell more.  Say I'm a young person who's been brought up on modern R&B and that's what I listen to - then Spotify throws some Country my way and I like it - but I've never listened to or downloaded country - am I more likely to go off and seek out more of this new interest?    Well that's my thoughts but then ... I don't run a music company or streaming service or get paid oodles of cash to advise advertising campaigns.

Iron Maiden - Book of Souls

This is the umpteenth album from Iron Maiden in their must be close to 30 year history now.  However their first ever studio double album.  Now the old stalwarts of what us teenagers dubbed NWOBHM still have much of the trademark Maiden sound... the gallop, the bounding bass line, the twin/trio guitar harmony, the time changes and the operatic singing style the Bruce Dickinson brought to the band when his inspired hiring fired them towards global domination.  Yes all that is there but then there are really long tracks - three of the total of 11 are over 10 minutes, this smacks of old song prog rock from the likes of Yes, Genesis when they were more than 3 and Rush in their epic heyday.  Actually those aren't bad benchmarks for some of what you have here this is the most prog rock Maiden have ever been.  And that is for the good actually - this album isn't a barnstormer throughout but it's weaves and twists and turns and different textures make it one that you listen to repeatedly spotting new colour and interest.  The magnum opus that is Empire of the Clouds even has piano courtesy of Bruce Dickinson who only recent acquired one (as a raffle prize!).  This is the best on the album for me and even if you think you know Maiden go listen to this one to get a flavour of where they are today - the lyrical subject as so often for Maiden is more leftfield that many "heavy" bands charting as it does the demise of the R101 airship.  Maiden could have written 8 songs all based on previous hits of theirs but they haven't they have as middle aged rockers with cancer concerns and all that tried to do something a bit different and hugely succeeded in my view.   The plan to tour this album... of course being maiden they've leased a 747 to carry all the kit, crew and the band with Bruce Dickinson having to be trained up to be allowed to fly it - they redefine Spinal Tap at times but I love them for it.

Show of Hands - The Long Way Home

Hello English folk lovers - I did say this was eclectic didn't I.  Fresh in my mits is a signed copy of the new Show of Hands CD prior to it's full release - you need to see them on tour and chuck em £13 to get it at the moment.  The duo of Steve and Phil are as ever joined my Miranda Sykes and a few other friends including some recording of shanty style numbers in a pub.  This is more of a return to a more traditional folk feel than the last offering Wake the Union.  The first words uttered are old Saxon actually!  This is in Breme Fell At Hastings which morns the lost of Saxon England under the Norman yolk just after defeating the Vikings only a few days before... You thought Maiden singing about aircrashes in 1930 wasn't topical... ;-)
The playing and the singing, esp the singing on this are sublime.  Hallow's Eve a topical ditty about 31st Oct is one of my top picks along with 'Twas on an April Morning and Keep Hauling and The Old Lych Way.  But it isn't all totally fingers in the ear and lambswool sweaters with Sweet Bella being a straight up 12bar blues type number too.   If you love just hearing good singing in good songs go check this out once it is on general release - or better still if you can catch them live on the current tour go do that.

City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm

Bit late on this one as it's been out ages but my daugther got it for me for my birthday.  Dallas Green (City and Colour... gettit?) started this as his little side project ages back away from his day job in Alexisonfire.  I'd listen to them a bit but in that field (genre) prefer Linkin Park, Hundred Reasons, Funeral for a Friend etc.  So to hear Dallas churning out these country gems was a surprise for me when I first heard him ages ago coming out of my daughters bedroom.  We've continued to share our interest in him - culminating with us having booked to see him in Brighton on his next UK tour - he's been on the "must see live" list for a while.  Now this is to me his most accomplished, coherent and complete sounding album.  I think him working in the studio with a nucleus that had been his touring band for a while really helped make the whole thing sound more together and relaxed and just gelled.   I ought to catch up more on his latest release and review that soon.   Watch this space.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Gig Review - Show of Hands Canterbury Marlow Theatre

One of Mrs F's presents to me for my birthday was tickets to see Show of Hands.  The Marlow Theatre in Canterbury was back and Mrs F had excelled herself with tickets in the third row :-)

Show of Hands have over the last three years or so become one of my favourite folk acts.  There is something just so unpretentious about them, a working class ethic within many of their lyrics and performance I really like.  They are stunning musicians to boot.  Now mostly they perform as a trio the original duo of Steve Knightley and Phil Beer augmented by Miranda Sykes on double bass and vocals.  Three musicians only, acoustic instruments but what a sound they can produce.  Phil is a master multi-instrumentalist on fiddle, guitar, mandolin etc. and both him and Steve have incredible voices that work so well alone or together.  Miranda adds terrific bass playing and singing to the mix to.  Hats off to the sound engineer again - this is the second time I've seen them live and both times blown away by the quality of their live sound.

The first half was to showcase the new album The Long Way Home, which I snapped up a signed pre-release edition at the interval!  They played a lot of the new material off of that including an incredible a cappella three way version of Keep Hauling which made the hairs on my neck stand up.  After the break it was more of a Greatest Hits compilation going back through their long back catalogue.

All too early it was the last song and encore and they were off but isn't that the sign of a great gig when you're left thinking it flew by.

If you can get to see them I fully recommend they may not have had the notable chart success of others but for me they are one of the best folk acts about in the UK today.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Gig Review - The Shires Folkestone Leas Cliff Hall

Mrs F, Daughter-of-Futheron and I had a night out in Folkestone last week to go see The Shires.  Firstly it very nearly didn't happen, at least for me.  I left work a little early to give plenty of time to get home, changed, have something quick to eat and plenty of time to drive down to the coast.  I get the the station and... no trains running due to some incident.  Quick decision to catch the tube over London to another station.  I get there and get on a new train so now running about 30 mins late.  Not too much of a bother should still have time ... might not get changed.   Then that train is cancelled as someone was taken ill on it just as it was about to leave.  Paramedics etc. So that was it I thought.  I found another train, a slow one that didn't get all the way home and got on that.  I was now telling Mrs F to go without me and have a good time I'd figure out how to get home at some point.  But Mrs F was adamant we'd all go together so she drove to meet me at the nearest station I could get to.  By now we've less than an hour to show time but D-o-F had prepared me a "packed tea" to eat in the car on the way and we found a parking space easily.  We got into our seats and just sat down as the lights dimmed for the start of the show!

Now apologies but after all that I didn't get the support acts name.  I solo acoustic guitar singer/songwriter - I was reasonably impressed esp as I know how hard it is to keep an audience engaged with only a guitar and your voice - he did a short set of thoughtful songs.

The Shires were a much more rockier outing.  A note here about there band - three young lads who barely look to be out of school frankly but tight, loud, accurate and well balanced.  They played their part throughout the night with aplomb - esp the guitarist who I thought was superb throughout and my daughter also commented how good she thought he was too.   The Shires only have had one album so I was a bit worried about a short set or some dodgy fillers thrown in but not at all - a new song "Just about Midnight" (I think) was one of the highlights and then the took the set quieter for a few minutes in the middle with a "song circle" idea, all the band sitting on chairs to air a couple more recently written ones.  Another highlight was a cover of The Corrs Runaway - which they nailed perfectly with it still being clearly a cover but with a hint of their own personality stamped on it. 

The thing I was most impressed by was the vocals - they are a vocal duo at the end of the day but they were flawless throughout to my ears on all the harmonies and they have two voices that excellently complement each other.

Thoroughly enjoyable night out... apart from the journey there!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

https availability on this blog

Whilst this might seem to be a few years late I've just enabled https support on this blog.   This means if any of you so desire you can read this blog via https://guitarsandlife.blogspot.co.uk now meaning it will be encrypted and provides you the following benefits...

"HTTPS is a cornerstone of internet security as it provides several important benefits: it makes it harder for bad actors to steal information or track the activities of blog authors and visitors, it helps check that visitors open the correct website and aren’t being redirected to a malicious location, and it helps detect if a bad actor tries to change any data sent from Blogger to a blog visitor." from http://buzz.blogger.com/2015/09/https-support-coming-to-blogspot.html

Price of books on Kindle

So ... a little rant.

I've had a Kindle for about 4 or 5 years now.  I like the convenience of it.  I can carry a whole bookshelf of books around with me, it's easy to read where ever etc.  My son uses one too - for him, he has dyslexia, the best thing is being able to alter fonts and spacing as it really helps him read.   Good old Amazon lured us all in and we shelled out for these things.  I've actually been considering an update to a newer one as I've not get a paper white etc. I've one of the original ones with the darker unlit screen.  But probably no more.

Increasingly I've noticed that prices of, particularly first edition hardbacks are increasing.  Now I accept some of that, access to it early etc.  But recently a new phenomenon ... Look at Bernard Cornwell's new Hardback, Warriors of the Storm, or Robert Galbraith's (JK Rowling) next book.  Yes... both are MORE expensive on Kindle.   But I'm not buying the book, only a licence to access it on certain devices, I can't resell it or pass it on to my descendants if I die as the licence is with me only.  Also how is an ebook more expensive to produce than a paper book?  It clearly isn't - so this is simply profitmongering.

I may go back to owning the books.  To be honest not something I'm adverse to - all my text books I buy in paper copy as I can't flip back forward in electronic form as easily or make scribbly notes in the margins that matter to me as easily.  I know others do, I've tried, but for me the process doesn't work.

PS - I just did some more quick research on this.  Basically over the last year publishers have been re-negotiating their content deals with Amazon, seems they were unhappy with the discount Amazon was applying to e-books and have insisted that they now set the price.  This is in line of something an author recently told me when I questioned the price of an e-book release of theirs.  Interestingly though I wonder how much they will see people now dissuaded from early purchase of books?  Back in the day when I bought real books I only rarely bought hardback first editions and I'm beginning to think similarly in this situation.  I'll at least wait for the paperback to come out ... hmmm... then WHSmith/Waterstones Buy one get one half price etc. deals look attractive.  I do wonder if publishers will over time lose out since remember if I buy a physical book I'm more likely to pass that on to someone rather than simply recommend and therefore they sell even less...   hmmm

Monday, 5 October 2015

Book Reviews

Some latest book reviews...

The Girl In the Spider's Web - David Lagercrantz

Part four in the Millenium series which started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Of course the biggest issue here is that Stieg Larsson who wrote the original trilogy died in 2004.  So David Lagercrantz has been drafted in by the Larsson estate to write the new edition.  Firstly, a more interesting book may actually be the machinations between Stieg's partner, Eva Gabrielsson, and his family over what he had planned for the rest of the series and also where his inheritance should have gone.  Eva and Stieg were not married and there was no witnessed will leaving her anything so it went to his brother and father.   Enough of the soap opera in the background though...  the book?

Well... sadly it is long long way from as well written as Larsson's books.  Much of the background is given through long sections of dialogue and it is just stilted and not as "on the edge of your seat" as Larsson's original series was.  In the end the development of the storyline from after the completion of the first trilogy is quiet good in someways but where as the original series I thought was simply stunning this isn't.  You can see the obvious plot lines developing and the characters are not developed at all - if anything the characters are regressed in this book as they aren't investigated at all by the author.   I don't envy anyone trying to write this book but sadly it was more a miss than a hit which is such a shame.

One Thumb horizontal I'm afraid ... I wish I could have given it more

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton

Set in 17th century Amsterdam when Dutch traders were some of the richest on the planet this is a terrific book.  You are following young Nella, who has been married to a rich older merchant, Johannes, and is moving to Amsterdam at the start of the book.  From there the story takes on some bizarre twists.  Johannes has a domineering and controlling sister who seems to have no love at all, two interesting servant who have secrets and keep them too, he seems not interested in what Nella had expected her new husband to want from her etc.  He presents her with a doll's house which mirrors the house and it's occupants.  Nella finds a miniaturist who can help stock it for her but that takes on odd connotations too as new models are delivered not what she ordered.  A great storyline unfolds and you move with the characters through it - there is a whole undercurrent of questioning what is love and what moves from love to hate so easily at times.

Thoroughly recommended - a terrific read.


Two Thumbs up on the FTUBRS*

* Furtheron Thumbs Up Book Review Scale - 
lowest is both thumbs down with a frown
two thumbs down, 
one thumb down,
one thumb horizontal,
two thumbs horizontal, 
one thumb up, 
two thumbs up 
two thumbs up with a grin - very rarely awarded

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Intonating an A Style Mandolin

Any long term readers will remember I acquired via the lovely Mrs F a mandolin a Christmas or so back.

Now I get the thing out from time to time to play along on.  But I noticed that it wasn't brilliantly in tune as you moved up the neck.  A quick check showed it was not intonated at the 12th fret.

I checked it out using a decent tuner (my Boss TU-15) I figured out that the fretted notes were about 3-4 cents too sharp.  Meaning the bridge needed moving back away from the nut end.  Now an A style mandolin has a floating bridge - see the picture.  So moving it should be possible but how to do this?

Here is the method I used.

1. Mark the location of the front of the bridge on treble and bass sides with masking tape.  I put two bits of tape up against the bridge so I knew where it had sat originally.
2. Remove all the strings.
3. The bridge can now be moved/removed.  I tried to polish up the top as there has been some colour staining/marking from where the bridge was - I had limited success and didn't want to go into any major hassles I've left that.
4. String up one of the top E and one of the bottom G strings - essentially the two outer most strings.
5. Ensure bridge was a few millimetre back from where it had been previously.  Through trial and error I then got the bridge as close as I could to spot on with my trusty tuner.
6. Taped the bridge down with more masking tape to stop it moving.
8. Completed restringing and tuned up.

Result?   Much better it is much more in tune with itself now.  I'd researched this method online before trying it out and it seems the best way to get a floating bridge in the best place - I'd use it again with an archtop guitar if needed

You can see the amount I moved it back in this picture where the mark left by it's original position on the bass side is notable.