I Needed A PURPLE Strat!

Regular readers know I’ve been working with TransTint dyes lately. I did the orange Tele body and liked it so much, as did pretty much everyone who saw it, that I went looking for another color. I found this purple on their website and bought a bottle of the liquid concentrate at Woodcraft.

This project, like all my builds for myself, involved some loose experimenting. Not in any scientific way; more like, “What happens if I do this?”, and “What the hell is THAT??”. I bought a very lightweight two-piece swamp ash body from Larry Robinson at the 2015 Fall Philly Guitar Show to replace a three-piece body I’d bought from him a year or so ago. My intention was to move all the parts from the older Strat to the newer body. I figured that this was the closest I could get to a meaningful comparison between the two bodies. The older Strat sounded good but some people love the lighter bodies, so I wanted to see if I heard a difference.

Of course, that wasn’t enough. I decided to assemble the guitar with the body unfinished. Years ago I met a violin maker who told me that, in his opinion, violins sounded best “in the white”, or unfinished. You can’t play them without the protection of the finish for long, but he felt that even a thin finish changed the sound. Now, Strats and fiddles are different animals, but I’ve already heard the results of applying the thin Tru-Oil finishes I use on all my guitars. The guitars are acoustically brighter than commercially finished instruments tend to be (though there’s a LOT of variation there). What would I hear with no finish?

So off I went, and the short version is that I now had a much different sounding guitar. Strats are bright anyway, and this one had the extra top end I am used to hearing with the thin finish, plus a bit more. The guitar was also clearer and more open sounding than with the other body. Great bass response, which some people say can be an issue with a lighter body. So far, that has not been my experience; the orange Tele body is spruce, and also very light, and it has all the tone I want.

Most of the difference I heard I chalked up to the body weight, and this was borne out after the new body had been completely finished. No doubt the unfinished body was brighter and a touch livelier, but the effect was very subtle, and I don’t need more brightness than I’m already getting. Interesting, glad I did it, time to move on.

The dye concentrate can be mixed with with water or denatured alcohol. I tried the alcohol dilution first, since I’d had good results with that on the orange Tele, but it was harder to get an even, blotch-free color because the alcohol evaporated so fast. I switched to using water and solved the problem. I applied a few coats, to build up the color. I did some tests on pine, but pine isn’t swamp ash, and I couldn’t entirely trust what I saw. Easy to apply more, not easy to remove it.

Finally, I wound up with a dilution that was opaque in the plastic bottle when held a few inches away from a 100-watt bulb (scientific, like I said). This led me to the final dye tone you see above. The color changes amazingly under incandescent, camera flash, and sunlight, but looks cool everywhere. On to the Tru-Oil.

I wiped on eight coats, with plenty of drying time, and more light sanding (1500 grit) between coats than usual. I wanted a higher gloss this time, and no “brushy” look to the surface, which happens with Tru-Oil if you aren’t really careful. On previous builds, I’ve gotten great satin finishes rubbing out with 0000 steel wool, and more gloss from using the aerosol Tru-Oil (the mahogany Tele). The orange Tele got rubbed out by hand with Meguiar’s No. 7 after the steel wool, and that gave me a brighter satin than the steel wool alone did.

This time (another experiment), I went for a lighter rub with the Meguiar’s, just enough to knock down the shine a touch. It’s my glossiest finish so far, and I think it suits the guitar and the color well. The grain is clearly visible (I like that), the color is deep, and the surface looks as though it could have been sprayed.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the lighter body leads to a different sound. I like it! It’s a bit leaner in the bass, and the mids are complex but clear. The whole guitar is very responsive and fun to play. It’s a great chord guitar, but also holds together very well for single notes, and clean or dirty amp settings. The final experiment was a new bridge with narrower string spacing. That solved the E-string balance problem I’ve heard on every Strat I ever played, and completed this guitar. Enough workbench “science” for now. It’s time to play!

More Builders And Their Guitars, Part 2!

Next up is a knockout figured maple top on a mahogany body. The photos don’t do it full justice. This Clearfork body is stunning, and, as we found, became an essential part of a great guitar.

The pickups are Duncan Vintage Stacks. I like this set a lot. It delivers plenty of Tele tone but is noiseless. It looks right and sounds the way it should. The controls mount from the back instead of on a plate. Charles, the builder, did a very careful job sanding and Tru-Oil finishing the neck and body and got a beautiful result. The grain really pops and the maple is as 3-D as you could ask.

The neck is from Allparts, and the tuners are Fender/Gotoh vintage-style. The bridge is also Gotoh, the six-saddle type. I’ve been working with these bridges a lot lately, including on two of my own guitars, and have come to really like them. They’re easy to set up, and sound bright and focused. They’re not the twangiest, but they twang just fine if you know how to pull that sound out with your hands. The pickguard is almost translucent, and a nice change from the usual colors.

Charles did more of the assembly himself than I usually see in our builds, and worked cleanly and confidently. It shows in the result. The maple/mahogany combination works well on Les Pauls, and very nicely here as well. The guitar is punchy and clear, and lets you know there’s more than a pretty face at work here. Great job! I think his other guitars are feeling a little neglected.

More Builders And Their New Guitars, Part 1!

Okay, I haven’t posted anything here for quite awhile. Largely that’s been due to the number of guitars I’m helping people assemble, as well as my own projects and some work on refining certain steps in the process (more tools!) and using Trans Tint dyes.

First up we have Bob’s very cool pine Tele, featuring a Clearfork body and a Warmoth neck. Bob did most of the work himself. He finished the neck and body, selected and ordered his parts, and installed his own pickups (Duncans) and wiring. He was after a Tele for jazz playing, with warmer, fuller tones than you’d think a Tele might produce. He also wanted individual volume controls for the pickups and a master tone control. I helped with a few of the trickier assembly steps and the setup.

This neck features the Gotoh truss rod adjustment at the side of the heel (http://www.warmoth.com/Guitar/Necks/SideAdjust.aspx). That makes it possible to preserve a more vintage peghead appearance without the inconvenience of having to remove the neck to do rod adjustments. It works very well! No doubt there have been plenty of forum arguments about how it changes the sound. There is certainly more routing involved at the factory and more hardware inside the neck. I can’t speak to its durability, but if it ever broke, there’s a conventional truss rod in the neck as well.

Anyway, the guitar plays very comfortably and nailed the sound Bob wanted. It’s very smooth, and fun to play. Well done!

Tele Bridge Choices: What I Like And Why, Part 2

For my swamp ash Tele, I bought a Glendale cold-rolled steel plate with cutaway sides and a set of mixed (one aluminum and two brass) compensated saddles ($157). I like the plate design a lot, and it’s beautifully made. The saddles are tilted to compensate, but I still needed to bend the screw on the E/A saddle a touch to get the intonation just right. One drawback of this design is that the strings are apt to slip sideways on the saddles (as with the Barden), which doesn’t help your string spacing or intonation. I fixed this by figuring out just where I wanted the strings to sit, and filing shallow grooves to keep them in place.

These modifications worked great, but this bridge assembly is the most expensive one I’ve bought, and, for the price I paid, I feel that none of that work should have been needed. That said, it sounds wonderful, and helps the guitar to deliver perfect Tele tone.

Modified Wilkinson
The orange Tele has an Asian-made Wilkinson bridge. I bought one to see how one of the cheaper aftermarket bridges worked, and had mixed results. It has a thin plate, nicely chromed, that sits perfectly flat on the guitar’s top. The lack of flatness is a common problem with cheaper bridges, but not here. The three brass saddles have ridges to set the intonation, but the ridges aren’t even close to where they should be. That’s an unwelcome surprise.

So, I tried the old bend-the-intonation-screw trick. First you set the saddle so that the strings (two per saddle, old school) are off by equal amounts. One will play sharp, the other flat. You can use pliers to bend the screw, or hit the saddle with a hammer to bend it. In many cases, it works well, sometimes perfectly, but not here. The witness points are simply too far apart.

The solution? I had to file new witness points, and was able to get it dead on. The bridge sounds great, very Tele! Next time I re-string the guitar, though, I’ll replace the cheapo saddle intonation screws from Wilkinson with stainless steel ones that have clean Phillips heads. The hybrid (works with a flat or Phillips screwdriver) screw heads on the originals don’t fit any of my screwdrivers well and will strip out fast. Not cool. But for the money, you get a great a good-looking, great-sounding bridge that can be made to work right, if you’re willing and able.

Rutters chopped bridge
Last up on my list is the bridge on my mahogany Tele with humbuckers. Already we’re pretty far from the stock Tele tone recipe here, and using humbuckers means I need a half-bridge, one that supports the saddles but doesn’t also provide a mount for the bridge pickup. Marc Rutters to the rescue with his chopped half-bridge ($85), with a thick steel plate and three compensated cold-rolled steel saddles. The three saddles are about the only part of the traditional design in use here. Looks cool, sounds awesome, and sets up perfectly. I wish he made Strat bridges.

Plenty of food for thought here. Consider these bridges and other choices, along with the wooden parts you want to use and the pickups you intend to install. All these things work together to help you get the sound and playability you want…or not, if you don’t think enough about your choices. I can help with that.

What My Builders Are Up To: Strats!

Strats, baby! First up is Graeme’s first build, on a really pretty piece of alder. Alder is a classic and wonderful sounding wood for electric guitars and Strats in particular, but it’s often very plain-grained. I’ve read that Fender generally uses it for guitars with opaque finishes, but you wouldn’t want to cover this body up. All it needed was a little Tru-Oil for finish, and he got this gorgeous color.

An Allparts neck, noiseless Duncan pickups, and Fender hardware get the rest of the job done. I’ve had the chance to hear Graeme play this guitar several times in jam camp, and he gets great tones out of it. And he’s got another Strat or two on the drawing board!

The second guitar was a particular treat to be involved with, for a few reasons. First, I’d never heard a pine Strat. Leo Fender used pine for some early Teles, but the classic Strats have always been ash or alder, with only a few exceptions. Second, the builder, Jay W., pulled off a very cool hand-applied sunburst, which is not easy to do.

And third, the pickups and hardware on this guitar are all from Callaham, the high-end parts company in Virginia. The pickups are Callaham’s, specially ordered from Lindy Fralin, and they sound great. They deliver some of the best position 2 Knopfler tones yet, and they nail the Sweet Home Alabama tone. I got jealous, I admit. The hardware lives up to Callaham’s great reputation. I have one of their bridges on a Strat, and I don’t think you’ll find better metal work in guitar parts.

Once (twice!) again: gather great parts and put them together carefully, and you really can’t miss getting an amazing guitar. Fun!

Tele Bridge Choices: What I Like And Why, Part 1

“Which bridge?” is always a big question when someone is considering putting a Tele-style guitar together, and rightly so. The right bridge is critical to getting your guitar sounding and playing the way you want, so considering a few choices is time well spent. I hope this article will shed some light on the subject. I’ll cover the bridges I’ve tried (there are many I haven’t), and explain what I did and didn’t like about each one.



First up, seen here on my black alder Esquire, is the popular Gotoh GTC202 ($50-60), which has six separately adjustable steel saddles. OK, this bridge is not so popular if you’re building to vintage spec, because the baseplate is brass instead of steel, and it’s not a traditional three-saddle setup. It sounds a bit darker and smoother than a steel-plate bridge, can be intonated very accurately, and has a clean look. It’s a very well-made piece of hardware, and a solid mid-price choice. It’s also available with brass saddles (GTC201), and in black and gold finishes. More rock than twang with this bridge, and perfect for this guitar.



Next is the Joe Barden bridge ($60 or so), which I used on my pine-bodied Tele. It has great traditional Tele twang and three tilt-compensated brass saddles. I generally need to file the Barden saddles a bit near the screw holes to remove burrs, and the strings sit a bit closer to the saddle height adjustment screws than is ideal. I also had to file small grooves to keep the strings from sliding across the saddles when I play hard. The plate is very nice and has a small cutaway on the treble side, plus holes for two extra mounting screws if you feel you need them (I don’t). This bridge is just a bit pricey, considering the work needed to get it running right. Otherwise, it sets up well, plays in tune, helps a Tele sound like it should, and does what you need it to do.

Rutters vintage

Rutters vintage

My Marc Rutters vintage-style bridge ($130) is a beautiful thing, and is installed on my Catalpa Tele (look it up!). It’s the best-performing, most trouble-free bridge I own. Marc’s grooved-saddle design for compensation is elegant and perfectly executed, and the whole assembly is as good as I’ve ever seen. It’s very reasonably priced for the quality he delivers. Mine is a vintage-style model with a slightly thicker (but still very twangy) steel plate and brass saddles. It sets up easily and sounds great. I love everything about it.

More bridges in part 2!

A Thing Of Beauty: 1969 Fender P-Bass!

This bass has been owned and gigged hard by my friend Sam for many years, and he takes credit for much, if not all, of the wear you see here. This thing is BEAUTIFUL, with the sort of play wear that some people pay big money for on their otherwise brand-new guitars. Sammy and his bass are here to show them how it’s really done.

This bass is really light, only seven pounds. It needed a neck adjustment in a hurry, and while I had it on the bench, I took these pictures. The body looks like alder to me. The finish is not actually worn through in most places. There’s still an intact layer under the sunburst. You can see the light reflecting off of it. Some of the scratches do go through.

Overall, though, you can see it has NOT been abused. The hardware is clean and working well. The bass plays easily. It isn’t chipped or gouged. Even the original case is intact. It’s just been played a lot. Truly a player’s instrument!

The Orange Tele Reveal!

Okay, it looks pretty red here. More orange in person. Whatever, I think it’s COOL and am very happy with how it came out!

Some details: Wilkinson compensated bridge (my favorite cheap bridge), Fender metal parts and pickguard, Rob DiStefano’s killer Cavalier pickups (the Nashville Lion bridge, and the Lioness in the neck), RS Guitarworks pots, an Electrosocket (always!) for the jack, and a .033 mfd Sprague Vitamin Q tone cap. As usual, there’s an Allparts neck with vintage-style tuners and a bone nut.

For those who have bothered to keep up, the body is a single piece of spruce, from a huge tree felled in a storm, and harvested by Larry Robinson. The grain goes every which way, and made finishing a challenge. That’s on top of figuring out a little about how to dye the body. This is the lightest guitar I’ve put together so far, plenty of snap and twang. I’m liking it!

Guitar Building: Orange Tele Update!

This guitar is DONE, but glamor shots are yet to come. As of my last post, I was only two coats into the Tru-Oil application. That became four coats wiped on, and four more sprayed on, until I had what I wanted for the final buffing out.

I wound up letting the body dry for ten days, and then knocking the gloss down with 0000 steel wool. This took away the plastic-looking sheen, and took away the last bits of dust and lint on the surface. This process removes quite a bit of the T-O altogether, which is why I wanted a heavier application before starting.

I then used good old Meguiar’s #7 (the silicone-free variety) and some great microfiber buffing pads to bring up a softer, slightly worn-looking gloss that still allowed plenty of grain pop. I did NOT want to dial back the crazy grain in this spruce body too far! The steel wool and Meguiar’s got me exactly where I wanted. You can see the final gloss in the third and fourth photos above, and it will be on full display once I get the reveal photos done.

Meanwhile, I can tell you the finished guitar looks cool and sounds great…