Wednesday, 25 April 2018

HSS strat set up and review

Finally I had the guitar finished but not set up.

I had a quick playing test and most of the fret issues had gone - my initial test had shown that on the E and B above fret 14 it was hit and miss whether you got the right note and that was all gone.  There was some buzzing but all notes sounded.  However bending the top E choked out - a common Strat complaint but one I wasn't expecting.  When I bought the neck off eBay it was specified as having a 9.5" radius.  I thought I maybe needed another go at levelling the frets.

Anyway I put it aside for 24 hours to let it all settle at tension anyway.

Next day I checked the relief which without any adjustment had gone from being dead flat without tension to being a little over Fender factory spec for a 9.5 and closer to a 7.25.  I decided to leave that as that was close enough for now - I was expecting to return to that but read on for the mystery surprise.

The nut slots were all high - not uniformly some much higher than others.  I had thought about putting a Tusq replacement nut in and I might still do that in future but actually this did seem to be a bone nut not just cheap plastic which was a result.  Having got that sorted I turned attention to the action.  The top E was a little low so I raised it a bit which helped massively with the choking I'd found frustrating on the first play.  Not perfect but better.  The bottom E was about right so I dug out my 9.5" radius gauge and adjusted the other strings.  Felt odd - the middle strings were really buzzy and the B now chocked out more.   Head scratch.  I could just raise it all but that seemed wrong and as things were moving about I wasn't convinced my fret levelling was necessarily at fault.  After a few frustrating minutes I had a brainwave.  "Check the radius of the board dummy!".

It is a 7.25" not a 9.5" as advertised.  DOH!  I'm not bothered - I know some hate the vintage feel but frankly I flip from a 7.25" Strat to a 12" Gibson to a 10" PRS with little bother - my playing clearly isn't that nuanced!  Once I set an action more akin to a 7.25" (you have to have it slightly on the high side to stop the choking I've always found) then set the strings to 7.25" radius it came alive in my hands.  No choking bends and every string ringing clear and true.

Intonation.  I didn't have to set it.  Sorry?!  What?!  Yes I know I was completely blown away by this too.  Back on day one my first thing had been to line up the bridge and set it's position.  If you remember the neck was floppy in the pocket so I inserted a shim on the treble side.  That meant I ended up creating my own "centre line" slightly toward the bass side of the body.  But I'd then carefully measured the position of the bridge to be 324mm from the 12th fret.  That was my notional intonation point.  I used a Wilkinson vintage strat type bridge but with their clever staggered trem block.  Now the saddles came factory installed with a stagger.  Honest once I got to intonation I was stunned to find that I only had to move the low E and the D a fraction forward and I mean not even a full turn on the D.  The other four were perfectly bang on.  I was most impressed with that!  Seriously I could have left it as was and it'd be better than any guitar I've got home after purchasing from a shop.

I set the pickup heights which sorted out an initial inbalance I'd felt between the single coils and the humbucker - I will say the last bit of that showed to me that this set is much more sensitive to position relative to the string than I've ever before experienced.  A small adjustment makes a seemingly large difference in perceived output.

By the way - it's set up with Ernie Ball Regular Slinkys .10 - .46 my regular string of choice.

So final impressions.  I love it!  No... I LOVE it!  The neck is comfortable, maybe a shade chunkier in the very bottom open position by the nut than I'd prefer.  Comparing it to my gorgeous Squier JV '62 strat that has the best neck shape ever... I think there is about 1.4mm extra chunk in that area but it is fine and as you progress up the neck any additional bulk is not noticeable at all.  Hey I've got a Les Paul Custom with a truly baseball bat neck on that so this is no bother at all.

As I say now set up as a 7.25" it plays really good.  Many would baulk at the slightly higher action - I head towards 1.5mm on the top E on a 7.25" rather than normally I go for about 1.2mm on a 10" or above.  But I really don't mind and I'm no shredder so it's ok for me.

The Bridge is excellent and will again consider Wilkinson for any other builds/upgrades.  I went with a more vintage one after considering the modern looking one which more resembles say a PRS like bridge.  However I remember swapping large bulky saddles on the red Squier I updated some years back putting in Fender bent steel and thinking that was the single best upgrade on the guitar as even unplugged it changed how it rang. The really really best bit about this bridge is that it looks all vintage and has that ring but the arm is a push fit - it just stays in place!  No mucking about with those little springs underneath that you eventually lose in the case or PTFE tape that then eventually gums everything up.  Genius!

Sounds.  Well now - the Texas Locos are a revelation.  Instant great strat tone - Mayer, Trower, Hendrix, Gilmour etc. etc. all there.  I'm so impressed I am seriously wondering about fitting a complete set of these into my beloved Squier '62.   The Humbucker I initially wasn't as impressed by but after fiddling with the pickup height it is much better and I'm happy now.  I went with this as a set as it was only £75 for the set - incredible value.  But I wish they perhaps offered a set with a more PAF like humbucker but it isn't a bad sound just that the Texas Locos are so good it seems just not as great.  Also the single coil tone is a bit shrill on it - probably as it is voicing the coil closest to the bridge which is closer than a most of a normal strat single coil would be.  But then I have a three single coil strat so it's a nice to have option but not a deal breaker.  This is much more likely to be used as a HSS pretty much permanently anyway.  The 7 sound?  Second guitar I've fitted it to and I honestly don't think I'll bother again - yes they are subtly different but they don't immediately inspire me anyway.  Funny enough I don't regularly use the combined sounds on a Strat anyway I use the three pickups in isolation much more.

However my dodgy wiring still strikes.  Only in my second playing test did I realise that the tones are wired up wrong!  I fixed the pickup issue but not that because fixing the pickup issue now means that we have master vol, tone on bridge and middle and neck tone.  To be honest I'm not a tone pot fiddler I normally leave them set where I'm happy and tone shape via other means so it's not a big deal but at some point when I have time I will have to pop the electrics out again and sort that out.

I made this quick video to send to my son.  This is the first play through - before the set up work.

Finally full specs for any geeks...

  • Mahogany Body
  • Maple neck and fingerboard - block inlays, 22 fret, fretboard bound (more like Jazzmaster / Jaguar than a Strat).  Adverstised as 9.5" radius actually 7.25"
  • Vanson locking tuners
  • Generic roller string trees 
  • Schaller like (i.e. copy) strap locks
  • Wilkinson "vintage" bridge WV6 CR SB
  • Black perloid scratchplate - handmade from Vanson guitars blank - back plate from Vanson to match
  • Copper sheet shielding 
  • Telecaster type knobs
  • Irongear pickups Steamhammer humbucker in bridge, Texax Locos in neck and middle
  • 250K pots
  • 0.47uf "orange drop" capacitor
  •  "Oak" switch
  • Master Vol
  • Tone on neck
  • Tone on Bridge and Middle
  • Coil tap on humbucker
  • 7 sound switch placing Bridge active in all switch positions
  • Strung with Ernie Ball Regular Slinky strings
  • Leather strap by Spartan Music

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

HSS Strat Completed

The build is completed.

When I last updated you on here the scratchplate was cut out in terms of the shape.  So the next job was to cut out the pickup holes, control mounting holes and the screw holes.

So... I drilled into the corner of the pickup holes and then with a coping saw cut those out.  Found various sized appropriate drills for the holes.  Cutting out the pickup holes was a bit tricky but ok in the end with a bit of judicious help from appropriate files.  One of the trickiest bits was to get the switch hole.  For a typical Strat 5 way switch it is a long thin line.  Digging in my tool chest which I so luckily inherited from my Dad in 1984.  It has tools that date back to when he started as an apprentice shipwright in the dockyard in 1942.  I always wonder what Dad is thinking looking down on my hamfisted efforts (ab)using his tools in the process.  Anyway buried in there were some round file blades to be fitted into a saw. They looked about the right width.  I found a fret saw I remember buying years ago for some job which has clamps to hold blades in place and was able to get one of these files to fit into it after a fashion.  I drilled a slightly oversized hole at one end to get the blade through - they have little knob things at the end which are bigger than the rest of the file and then fitted it into the fretsaw.  Bit Heath Robinson but it cut the slot surprisingly easily and well in the end.  After a little manual adjustment after checking the switches actual travel - it needed slightly elongating I then marked the screw holes and drilled them.  It all fitted!

So finished another afternoon.   In all the scratchplate creation by hand took me a good 3 half days!  I know I took my time but I could never make a living out of this!

I had bought some copper shielding so I fitted that to be back of the scratchplate then fitted the controls and tested that again on the body.   I found that the bottom tone control and the vol control just fouled the sides.  A bit of chieselling later and it was all good.  I then screened the cavity with the copper foil - sorry I didn't get a photo of that but it's not that interesting anyway!

So we had the controls and pickups mounted but next to... the wiring up!

Well actually before that I decided to sort the frets out.  I had been trying to keep the strings on it to test out but in all the fitting of the scratchplate on one retune the B snapped and I gave up.  But I knew they needed levelling.  Sorry folks again I forgot any pictures on this step mostly as I was concentrating so much.  Process was for the record.   Removed the neck from the body.  Using the trussrod got it as level as I could using a notched straight edge. Covered the fretboard in masking tape.  I then used a fret rocker to find any high frets.  As my playing test had revealed the issues were mostly north of fret 14 with a couple of really high frets.  I don't have a fretting hammer - if I had I may have gone for trying to bang these in again but they didn't look to be high seated.  Anyway  I marked the top of each fret with permanent marker.  I then took the first cuts using a Crimson Guitars fret levelling file. I then swapped over to a fret levelling beam with 400 grit and finally on the other side of the 800 grit.  I did try the above 12 fret fall away technique as well - two bits of masking tape to raise the end of the levelling beam.  I remarked the top of the frets and ran over it all again with 800 grit in the beam.   Then I crowned them with a traditional three sided crowning file, dressed the ends with a fret end dressing file and finally worked through several grits of fret rubbers to polish them up.  Not the best fret job in the world but probably the best I've ever done! 

So back to the next opportunity to work on it and back to wiring up.  Now this has to be the bit that I find the most frustrating and completely under estimate!  This again was two half days with a soldering iron and the fumes associated.  It is just no doubt practice but I'm slow on this stuff it takes me ages to get wires sorted and then satisfactorily soldered.  I carefully before started sorted out the connections on the switch - I'm using an old style one which are supposedly more reliable.  Having done that and drawn a diagram for myself... I completely ignored that and wired it up wrong!  Fool!   Also adding in the coil tap and 7 sound switch added complication frankly as I was doing this I then regretted.

I'll digress to explain the set up I've gone for.  The pickups are a set from Irongear - more on these in a separate review I'll post.  It consists of a Steamhammer humbucker and two Texas Locos in the middle and neck.  Plan was ( note that more on that later ) was for bridge tone, middle and neck tone and master volume.  Coil tap on the humbucker is the first switch as you go down and the second is a 7 sound switch.  I've fitted one of these before it gives you neck and bridge and all three on together sounds not normally available in a standard 5 way switch.  Most people seem to wire this using the neck pickup.  The switch effectively bypasses the switch and places whichever pickup you've put through it always on.  Made famous by Dave Gilmour on his black strat that is how he has it installed.  To me though then if I get to a solo I wack the switch to the bridge pickup and... I've still got the neck on so I' have to switch that off.  Annoying - to me.  So I do it with the bridge pickup.  So when I flick to the bridge setting on the main switch that's all I get irrespective of the position of the 7 sound switch.  Probably different folks playing styles - if you solo more on the neck pickup Gilmour/Trower like then the neck being always on would make more sense.  I normally solo on the bridge - hence wanting an HSS in the first place.

So all wired up.  Tap test.  Totally confusion for yours truly.  I was bamboozled for a while as I thought the neck pickup totally dead.  Then I realised.  I'd wired the switch up totally wrong ignoring my diagram!  DOH!  Plus the 7 sound switch then added to the confusion in trying to diagnose the fault.

I'll not show you a picture of the rats nest of wiring I end up with.  But anyway.  Screw it all down and - viola!  Fini!

I'll do a "review" separately and talk about the set up in that.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

HSS Project progress

Enjoying the holiday at the moment.  The meniere's disease has almost totally behaved itself the last two days so I got some more progress made on the HSS build.

First - I said that the standard scratchplate I bought didn't fit so I'm making one from scratch using the standard one as a bit of a template.  I thought therefore about some from of jig to help when cutting it out.  I'm a Youtube addict for certain guitar channels, one being Crimson Guitars and the other Susan Gardener's.  Both of these have shown use of the Crimson Guitars Jewellers / Inlay Cutting Bench Jig.  Now I could just have bought one, but it's £20 for essentially a couple of bits of wood.  No doubt expertly made and finished by Ben and the team at Crimson but I rifled through some old bits of wood in the shed and in an hour or so had made one of my own.

Yes more rough and ready than the Crimson one but it does the job.  And so to that job...

I spent a good hour and a half figuring out the fit of of the scratchplate on paper.  I had 2 attempts - the first didn't fit at the bottom well.  The 2nd was my pick.

Now I promised something different ... hmm... you may see a line cutting off the bottom "horn".  I contemplated something closer to a Tyler guitar style scratchplate but in the end after consultations with and aesthetics guru (Mrs F) went traditional.   It differs from a standard in that it is stretched top to bottom - exp the inside of the cutaway which seems very much more swooping than standard - bit like the brand new Silver Sky from PRS.

So with this marked out and outline cut out I doublesided taped it to the scratchplate blank you can see underneath - yes Black Pearloid is my choice for this one.

Then to use my new Jig.

Before and after shots.  After a long time with the coping saw and a file it was ready for a test fit.

Not bad.  Ran out of time today but next will be to cut out the pickup holes then drill holes for the controls and mounting screws.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

New project.. and some history

The History

Back in the mid 70s a young lad convinced his mum to order a Columbus Strat copy from one of the catalogues that she ran.  Do you remember them?  My Mum used to be an agent for Empire Stores and another.  I'm pretty sure the guitar came from Empire.  It was pictured laying close to a Saxon black Les Paul custom copy which at, I think, £89 was out of my price range.  The Columbus Strat though was £75 and I sacrificed most of my weekly pocket money for a year to pay for it.

That was my first electric guitar.  My second guitar of all.  Anyway - wind on a couple of years or so - 1978/79.  I wanted a more raunchy sound from the bridge pickup so I headed to London with my big brother one day.  In a shop (I think Rose Morris) I saw an Ibanez Super 70 humbucker in a cabinet and I could afford it - can't remember the price.  I told the assistant what I was going to do.   He was indignant I was thinking of putting a humbucker in a strat at all esp in the bridge position.  In those days people who did add humbuckers Elliot Randall or Roger Hodgson  put them into the neck or middle position.

Back at home me and my brother went at with chisels, saws etc. and what was definitely not the best bit of guitar modification still gave me what I wanted.  A Strat with great chimey tones off the neck and middle but with more powerful poke for solos etc. off the humbucker in the bridge.  Although I obviously reached the same place at the same times as others this was the first HSS Strat I believe I ever saw and I came up with it!

Here is that very guitar in use by yours truly in 1981.

You can see the gold plated humbucker surrounded by a black plastic ring as I'd had to chop the existing scratchplate and that covered up the gaffs!  My next electric was a two humbucker strat home build built with my Dad in 81-82.  Then in 83 I bought my Squier JV 62 Strat - which I still have today.  But I've actually never had a typical HSS strat ever since.  I don't know why given the versatility that everyone in the end cottoned on to that I'd seen in them.  So... to the project...

The Project

To build an HSS strat.  However I pondered this I wanted something a touch different.  Firstly I decided I wanted Mahogany (or similar) body not typical Strat tonewood but of course used my many others over the years.

And here we are...   I bought a mahogany body that is sort of strat shaped - it's more like a Yamaha Pacifica I think over the lower bout and the cutaway seems wider.  I saw this really unusual Strat neck on eBay.  It is a maple neck but tinted quiet dark for maple.  It isn't too far from a mahogany colour itself.  But more surprisingly it is like a Jaguar/Jazzmaster neck in that it has a bound fingerboard and large block inlays.  So a bit more Gibson than Fender, matching the body wood choice.  However the neck is very Fender in dimensions, C shape 9.5" radius so like modern Strats and with the 22nd fret lip - again another Gibson nod.

Having assembled all the bits I've started to put it together.

The neck pocket was sloppy so I had to put a shim in the side but that was completed reasonably easily.  Lined up the bridge which needed a little fiddling.  The bridge is a Wilkinson Vintage style but with their clever staggered trem block - the strings aren't in a straight line basically and with a modern like push fit arm.

Lining up the neck and bridge before anything is drilled.

 Another new addition - Mrs F bought me this pillar drill for Christmas.

 Neck fitted.

 Bridge fitted
Trial string up.  What did this tell me?  There's a bunch of fret work to do esp on the top two strings.  And the nut slots need lowering.  Or I might get a new nut actually.  However.  It was almost spot on itonationwise on at least three strings so that was time to breath out.

Jobs to do then...   Fret work.  Nut work.  I'm going to be cutting a bespoke scratchplate as a standard one I got just doesn't fit right but I'll use that as a template for another - that may have a slightly different look too - await details.  Then I'll have to wire up the electrics, which I'll explain in a subsequent post but it'll be essentially an HSS strat.  Stay tuned for the next update...