Here’s a guest blog from our in-house guitar technician Simon:
The choice between upgrading an existing guitar or trading it in for a new one is always difficult to weigh up and when looking into the options for upgrades even an experienced guitarist is often overwhelmed with a huge amount of conflicting technical information. With the 10 or more separate components affecting your tone it can be hard to grasp what individual difference each one makes to the sound or playability of your guitar. I was a guitarist of 20+ years experience when I decided to tackle this subject for myself and learn first hand by upgrading my Squier Stratocaster in stages. I learned huge amounts. This blog is intended to guide you through the decision making process and give insight into what results to expect-it is not a technical, how-to blog, that would require an entire ‘Haynes Motor Manual’ publication to cover properly. If you don’t fancy doing the DIY on your beloved instrument, then the alterations and modifications I’ve listed here can all be booked into the workshop at our friendly shop Finale Guitar.
A few months back I was talking a customer through a black strat I had custom built on a budget when I handed him my very own personal Strat d’extraordinare to give him an idea of what something more high spec would feel like. I was expecting a little test run on my own personal strat would have him exclaiming that the difference between the two was marginal and that he would praise the quality of the budget black strat. Instead, after strumming about five chords he held my beloved half squire-half beast aloft and flipped it round to face him like a long-lost child and immediately asked me if it was for sale. I replied it would be a bit like selling one of my own kids and declined. Although he left satisfied with the black strat, little did he know that the guitar that had so tickled his fancy started life as a humble Squier Stratocaster that I bought from ebay for £110.
A lifelong fan of semi-hollows, I was revisiting some compositions that I wrote on my teenage birthday present Squier Strat when I decided I needed that good ol’ fashioned quack and chime back in my life. The fiesta red strat that I didn’t know how to service and maintain had long since been sold as a fixer-upper project so I took to the mean streets of ebay and I bought with my eyes something I had always wanted back in the day; a 3-tone sunburst strat with a maple neck. The exact model was a 2003 Indonesian made Standard Squier Stratocaster. It arrived a few days later and my poor old Gibson 335 was forced to look on jealously and wonder if it had done something wrong as I played and played and played it. My interest in Stratocasters kind of snowballed at this point and I began to dig deeper and deeper into the worldwide web in search of knowledge about what makes a good strat. After flirting with the notion of simply buying a MIM* Fender Strat I decided to keep my Squier and upgrade it in stages for my own learning and growth, also hoping to arrive in Strat heaven with a lower bill. And what a voyage it was. I was to forge a holy unison of acoustics and cosmetics the likes of which had never been seen. No stone was left unturned in the quest for Strat nirvana and I soon found myself drawn into avenues that once had seemed like overkill from steel tremolo blocks to bone nuts to different capacitors.
*Made in Mexico – these are more affordable than their USA made counterparts
The first item up for review was the neck. I loved the 70’s style headstock and look of the maple but the frets were worn and it was twisted, meaning that the bass strings would buzz whilst there was too much relief on the treble side. I discovered the aftermarket neck market and eventually opted for a quartersawn maple neck from Northwest guitars. It cost around a hundred pounds and this was the most I wanted to spend to keep the cost of the uprades lower than buying a new guitar. I didn’t know much about what quartersawn meant in reality but was about to get a big lesson in what a difference a neck makes to tone. When the shiny new neck arrived I removed the original neck from the body and held the two side by side, giving each a little tap with my knuckles. The original squire neck sounded like a cardboard box compared with the quarter sawn maple of the Northwest guitars neck which popped out sound like an instrument in its own right. Once bolted on, it massively brought the sound of the guitar to life, bringing greater sustain, volume and tone. But there was a problem. It was thick. Baseball bat thick. I rechecked the listing and discovered that whilst it was listed as a ‘modern c’ this did not actually mean it was the same thickness a modern c profiled neck. Moreover looking through listings for aftermarket guitar necks revealed a similar trend, in my price bracket they were all extremely thick. The paradox this gave me was that it sounded so good due in part to the extra wood so I opted to continue with it and get used to the width.
The next major ingredient I needed to bring into the picture was a pickup upgrade. I had spent many hours hiding in the toilets at work, browsing through forums and reading up on magnets, coils and windings, eventually arriving at the decision to go for a set of Seymour Duncan SSL-1s. The description of their sound matched my image of what I like about strats and I was beginning to realise that there is an almost infinite amount of choice out there. I learned a core lesson about the decision making process during this time which is that there is an infinite amount of choice out there but a finite amount of time to spend looking and once you get yourself into whatever particular ball park you’re aiming for it’s best for your sanity to make a choice based on gut feeling and move on. The only issue with said choice was the £150 price tag which I circumnavigated with a little luck. I decided to watch and wait for a used set on ebay and soon the universe answered my call. I picked up a set in an auction for a mere £88. Now it was time to try my hand at soldering and attend to some cosmetics. NB- Finale Guitar is a Seymour Duncan dealer and can order complete pickup sets in under a week with a price match guarantee! Contact us today to order your set now (SSL-1s currently available at around £110)–Nye
Every time something bothers me whilst playing the guitar I stop and google it. I probably could have become a senior jazz fusion guru by now had it not been for the countless hours spent trying to eliminate the tiniest of hums and buzzes. The hum induced by the electric guitar was one exact such woe that I wanted to tackle during this project and during the pickup installation was the right time. To install new pickups you need to remove the pickguard and I took this opportunity to do some major hum-killing by shielding the entire cavity with copper tape. It’s a graceless process that takes you back to your primary attempts at wrapping Christmas presents but leaves the inside of your guitar looking like something from a Nasa site. I shielded the body cavity and back of the pickguard and installed the new pickups by removing the existing ones and swapping out the wiring like for like. I won’t bore you with the details of soldering but this was one of my first attempts and lack of knowledge and experience cost me eons of time. Let me instead give you these four pieces of advice. If you are anything like me you will ignore them and then, when your earth wire falls uselessly off the back of the pot for the 10th time, curse the fact that no-one warned you. But here they are:
As well as hum shielding, cosmetics also came into play during the pickup install. The advertising for SSL-1s shows them without their pickup covers and I thought the black looked classy and futuristic so decided to go for black pickup covers. You need to get special pickup covers for Seymour Duncan sets, adding a little extra to the cost.
Once the pickups were installed with their black covers things were starting to get tasty. The sound did not disappoint, they had a clarity, smoothness and balance that was not there before. They chimed like a bell in the neck position, had a beautiful quack in position 2 and a bridge sound that was edgy but refined. The hum of the single coils was significantly reduced, which was a relief because I had come to believe after many years of being harassed by hum goblins, that hum is simply a plague that will follow you and your guitar no matter what you do. The hum was gone but now the cosmetics were troubling me. The black pickup covers were clashing slightly with the white volume and tone knobs, so I decided to switch all of the knobs, pickup selector switch etc to black. I learned at this point that for me personally the pickguard and knobs should ideally adhere to a two tone colour scheme to look right.
I loved the mellow parchment white of the pickguard that came with it as well as the grain of the original squire body so it never got changed.
At this point I had a good guitar that was a real pleasure to play so the process from here on in was one of refinement. A couple of design issues with Stratocasters were next in line. The way the volume knob on a strat brushes into your hand has always annoyed me and I wanted to move it. I also wanted to have a tone control on the bridge pickup. Leo Fender‘s original design concept was that the bridge pickup would have no tone control to ensure it always cuts through but to my ears this gives you an unmanageably harsh sound. Whilst googling tips for adding tone control to the bridge I stumbled across a piece about the 7 way mod, whereby you can hit a switch that allows you to play through the neck and bridge pickup at the same time, emulating a telecaster. You can also use the mod to play through all three pickups at once, like Gilmour on some latterday Pink Floyd tracks. Adding Bridge tone control was a simple matter of linking two tabs on the pickup selector switch but I needed the volume knob moving and a switch for the 7 mod adding in. I solved both problems together. I moved the volume knob to where the middle tone knob sits usually sits, making the bottom tone a master tone. I then utilised the empty hole left by the volume knob to install a low profile switch for the 7 way mod. The switch was an inexpensive offshoot of the automotive industry. As changing the layout meant moving to a single master tone control I wanted to add in a cool extra function to compensate for the loss of dual tone functionality. Switchable tone capacitors! During my research I had whittled my search for the right tone capacitor down to two candidates an Orange drop or Mallory Capacitor. I had debated testing both one after an other but knew that the differences would likely be too subtle to recall how each sounded. I fancied having an on-the-spot way of switching between each and upgraded my single remaining tone pot to a push-pull pot, allowing me to switch between the Orange Drop or the Mallory whilst playing. I was well aware that there might be no discernible difference between the two, in which case I would still not regret the mod, knowing that I had answered my questions! However, I found a small difference in tone which had one main application, The Orange Drop is, in my opinion, the classic fat strat sound, making the sound pump as you turn the tone down, particularly in position 2. The Mallory on the other hand provides a more woody or transparent tone, which I discovered on completing the mods, really suited the new combination of neck and bridge pickup the guitar was now enabled for.
Several months prior to this point I had again been sat, hiding in the toilets at work (NB Before he started working at Finale Guitar!! –Nye) reading a forum discussion about upgrading the tremolo block on a strat from zinc to cold rolled steel. ‘These guys are taking this too far’ I remember thinking. I was about to join the elite club of cork sniffers as I started to question whether my Seymour Duncan equipped, 7 way modded super strat could possibly continue without a tremolo block upgrade? This was one of many occasions where You Tube really came to the fore. I found a video directly comparing the raw tone of standard zinc tremolo blocks to Steel ones and the difference was clear to my ears. Price was again an issue here, there isn’t an affordable option in the UK, only half decent tremolo block is Wilkinson but it isn’t cold rolled and doesn’t resonate in the same way, forcing you to spend £80 on importing a Callaham block that only costs £40. I needed to keep the costs of the upgrades I was performing relative to the cost of the guitar overall. Another stint spent browsing forums in the work toilet provided the needle in a haystack. Someone mentioned a UK ebay seller by name who had manufactured a steel tremolo block cheap for them. I found the seller and sent them a private message and low and behold the guy replied. All I had to do was send him the measurements of my existing block and he made and posted one to me for £20. It was a huge win, it fit my import size bridge plate and made the guitar just ring out in a way it hadn’t done before. It was like a little blanket had been lifted off the strings. Unfortunately the seller has since closed the account and I’ve been unable to get hold of him again.
The increase in clarity and sustain were pleasing but the guitar still felt a little sterile. I upgraded to bent steel saddles which helped a little but the final piece of the puzzle was changing the two point trem to a 6 point. My reasoning was that 6 screws would transfer more tone to the body and it really worked. I took a 6 point trem plate from another import strat I was refurbishing and transferred the trem block to and saddles to it, before lining it up and drilling the six holes required. It did the trick. The extra transference of six screws made the sound move around in the lively way I had been looking for. There are theories out there that a two point trem gives you better tuning stability but when properly setup I would refute that.
The rest of the tremolo system got tinkered with of course, a brief attempt at using five, then four tremolo springs came to an end when I found the action two stiff and reverted to three. I noticed the arm jiggling about in it’s slot whilst testing a stiffer tremolo and I discovered that you can buy small springs that sit under the arm to stop it flopping about or jiggling in the socket when you try and use it. I highly recommend them. Finally I cut the tremolo arm down to a length where I could rest it under my hand whilst playing for ultimate control. This took some trial and error and eventually I had to bend the arm itself to get it sitting just right.
Arriving now at a point close to finished, the thick Northwest guitars neck looked great, sounded marvellous, but it was just too thick. I finally had to face this when I bought a cheap strat with a thin Rosewood neck. I started enjoying playing it more than my super strat, sure it didn’t have the clarity, chime or sustain but the thin neck was a relief and it also delivered a little more warmth in position 5. Something had to change. The relationship was losing it’s spark and I was about to betray my long term love, maple.
I started scanning ebay for necks again but all of the affordable aftermarket ones were a similar thickness and getting a good condition used Fender neck was looking like my best bet but maple ones were scarce. I felt tempted to make a radical change of direction and go for a Rosewood neck. A trip around some You Tube comparision videos revealed that Rosewood can sound darker, less snappy and a shade more articulate, and with Rosewood Fender necks being much easier to come by on ebay I plumbed for a used Rosewood MIM neck. It was a big change of look when I swapped the Maple for Rosewood, but I liked how the darkness of the rosewood corresponded to the black pickup covers and tone knobs and it was nice knowing I had a genuine Fender neck on the guitar. The articulate tone and increased playability of the thinner neck meant I never looked back. It’s worth noting at this point that the neck came with vintage style Kluson tuners that actually worked a little bit better than the set I installed originally so I chalked this up to an ebay win.
At this point the only original parts of my humble squire Stratocaster left bar a tone pot were, the pickguard and body. I love the parchment white of the pickguard and if you look closely you can see the faint outline of a sticker that read ‘I love life’ I like this little detail, like a watermark only I know about. I had toyed with the idea of upgrading the body to a 2 piece American alder one that I saw on sale. It would cost close to £200 but I liked the idea that it might bring me a shade more tone with higher grade and thicker wood. This idea was finally put to rest when I did a direct comparison between the alder body and a basswood one I had bought locally. I had a hunch that the basswood would bring warmth and a lively midrange but it actually lacked the snap and twang of the alder and sounded less crisp overall. Although not a comparison between my squire Alder body and a high end Alder body it made me realise that what I had was delivering a good enough sound to outshine another body so it was good enough for my project. Plus I’d always loved the look of the grain on it and without at least the original body left, any pretence of upgrading a squire would be gone. I made a You Tube video documenting the results of the body swap which you can see here:
Here’s a quick breakdown of what I spent and earned back from sale of parts:
Pickup Covers £20
Black knobs £10
CTS Pot £10
Tremolo Block £20
Tone Capacitors £10
Steel Saddles £15
Steel Springs £10
Jack Input £5
5 Way Switch £15
Copper Shielding £5
Braided Wiring £10
7 Way switch £2
Strap Locks £10
Tremolo Block £10
Old Pickups £10
All in all this long-winded and experimental approach allowed me to put together my dream strat for less than the cost of a new Fender MIM strat, which, were I to buy one tomorrow would immediately leave me wanting to install the same mods and upgrades that I have done to my project. It may not be the route for you to take if you don’t find the DIY aspect appealing but for me, assembling, modifying and fine tuning this guitar was not a chore, it was leisure time. It taught me loads about the instrument I love and makes the playing of it so much more satisfying. I’ve since had several guiatarists remark on the quality of it. One of them, a professional musician, described it as ‘one of the best strats he’d ever played’
If you have anything you’d like to ask about what you’ve just read or would like us to install some custom mods for you then don’t hesitate to get in touch with us here at Finale Guitar! We will be happy to answer your questions or help with mods or custom builds.