Guitar Modding: SG Gets Gretsched!

Regular readers of my irregular blog posts know that for the last few years I’ve been assembling Fender-style guitars, and playing them live. The Tele design in particular makes a great platform for a variety of pickups and hardware choices, plus I’ve had fun comparing the appearance and sound of several different woods for the bodies. I like rosewood fretboards and I always flip the plate so that the volume knob is in front.

I play with a band called Swamp Ash, and we play a mix of funky/jazzy/New Orleans/rock covers. I’ve found that the sound of two humbuckers, both switched on, is a perfect tone for rhythm playing in that music, but there’s a problem with the standard four-control Gibson layout. When playing in the middle position, you can’t easily change the volume. Both volume knobs are working, and you hear a change in the pickup blend, but not much in overall level. I have this 2004 SG Special with Jim Wagner pickups and upgraded wiring and hardware, and I really like it, but it wasn’t a good fit for this band. So it was living in its case.

Recently my bench was clear, a rare thing. I was caught up on repairs and had just delivered a beautiful obeche Tele to its very happy new owner, so my building was done for the moment. I starting sketching a modified SG wiring diagram that would give me individual pickup volumes (so I could blend them as I liked) and a single volume to control the overall level of the guitar. The only trade-off would be a master tone control, but that didn’t seem like too high a price to pay.

I figured out a circuit that looked like it would work, and then went poking around on the internet to see if this circuit was already in use. That led me to the T.V. Jones pickup site, and their stash of mostly Gretsch-style wiring diagrams, and there it was. Good to find you’re on the right track! It’s listed as their “Tone Pot Circuit”. Here’s a link: They don’t seem to claim it as their intellectual property, but that’s where I found this drawing. Credit where credit is due.

The photos show my original-style upgraded circuit. It’s worth noting my use of a .012 mfd tone cap on the neck pickup, and a .022 on the bridge. Both volumes have 180 pf “table bleed” caps, which help avoid lost treble when you turn the volumes down. I left those caps in place, and wired the master tone with a smaller size .022. The pot is no-load, which means that I modified it so that it’s out of the circuit when dialed to “10”. As you might guess from the photo, the knobs for the individual pickup volumes are in the top row, with the bridge pickup knob next to the jack. The larger speed knob is the master volume, and the other is the master tone control.

Problem solved! This layout works great, and lets me control the guitar exactly as I want to. It’s out of the case and getting played a lot. This guitar loves these pickups, and it’s fun to play. Try this wiring if you find the stock Gibson controls a problem, as I did, or if you’re just in the mood to experiment. It’s not hard, and you can always go back to the original circuit if you want. Have fun!

Guitar Building: Humbucking Esquire, Part 2

I wanted this guitar to be blue, so I bought a bottle of the appropriate TransTint dye. I like to use the liquid concentrate and dilute it with water, for longer working time when wet. Sanded to 600, raised the grain, and re-sanded. You can see where the first coat got me, and where the final coats landed. Just the shade I was hoping for!

Then things went a little sideways, and I was reminded once again that sometimes the process moves in its own direction. The Tru-Oil did its usual grain pop, but it also changed both the shade and the depth of the color. Tru-Oil is amber-colored, and of course blue plus yellow equals some kind of green, so I expected a little of that. But the top coats interacted with the dye in a way I’d never seen before. I had done four different guitars with dye and Tru-Oil before this, and the color came out as I expected, with the greater depth from the top coats.

I never could have planned this, though. The color changes in different light, as you see, and in sunlight has amazing depth and variety. The green in the last two shots is mostly a reflection of trees overhead, but otherwise the Tru-Oil seems to have “opened up” the blue dye in a strange but cool way. The gold flecks on the front and elsewhere are dried pitch which mostly resisted the dye. Again, who knows, but I think it’s beautiful! So, in a way, I can’t take credit for planning this result, and I suppose there’s some chemical thing happening between the Tru-Oil and the blue dye that produced this result, but hey, here’s to happy accidents!

Guitar Building: Humbucking Esquire, Part 1

The body you see here is a lightweight single piece of Eastern white pine. It weighs 3.5 to 4 pounds. I had just ordered a small DeWalt router with a plunge base and two small bits with bearings, along with two humbucking pickup templates from Stew-Mac. I ordered two templates because they seem a little thin, and I stuck them together with carpet tape. They have holes for screws, which I used to secure them while running the router.

I have a few Teles with standard single-coil pickups, but always reach for one with humbuckers at a gig. I love single-coil sound but I play in bars, and the noise issues are a pain to deal with. I have an Esquire with a BG1400 from the Duncan custom shop, and it’s great-sounding and dead quiet. So I started thinking about an Esquire with a full-sized humbucker and only a volume knob.

First, I sanded arm and belly cuts. The main tool for the arm cut is a random orbital sander, and I used a drum sander (also from Stew-Mac) chucked into my drill for the belly cut. Once I’d finished both cuts with sandpaper, I placed and screwed down the template, fired up the router and was done in just a few minutes. I made two more cuts for the pickup legs, checked to be sure that the pickup fit, and then mounted the pickup on the bridge plate. It sits right where it should, and looks good with the shell pickguard I want to use.

Time to finish sanding the body, and then getting ready to dye it. See you next time!

Bigsby Tele, Part 7: The Wrap-Up!

Some finishing touches you might be interested in. Those of you who come to see Swamp Ash play have already seen this guitar onstage. And if I say so myself, it sounds great, looks great, and plays great!

Thanks to Reverend Guitars for solving the problem of the the Bigsby spring. This model is the B5, and is apparently known for having a very stiff spring, which in turn makes it really hard to move the bar. This spoils all your whammy fun, and that was one of the things I really wanted to enjoy with this build. Reverend rides to the rescue with a lower tension spring that pops right into place, and takes you straight to whammy heaven!

Tuning is settling in nicely. The Electric City pickups are AWESOME, and the body, which is one piece of Eastern white pine, is very happy to be a guitar now. It’s really lively and resonant. If you’re considering your own partscaster build, don’t turn your nose up at pine. Larry Robinson has the good stuff, and it makes consistently exceptional guitars.

Dunlop StrapLok buttons, Gotoh vintage-style locking tuners with staggered posts (only the high E is under the string tree), my usual bone nut, Rutters bridge and control plate, and the amazing USACG neck (my first, and it won’t be the last) are in the mix as well. This one was really fun to put together, and moved right onto the stage guitar list. Check out the band and hear what it will do!

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers, Part 6

Wow, a long time since my last post! One of the most interesting parts of this project was to get the Bigsby perfectly placed. To help with this, the kit comes with a little ball of red string. The idea is to attach one end to the sixth string tuner, run it up the neck to the Bigsby, weave it through the roller that holds the ball ends of the strings, go back down the neck to the string one tuner, and apply a little tension.

You can easily see, once you get the string where you want it, whether or not the alignment is what it needs to be. Once that looked good, I marked the locations for the four screws that hold the tailpiece in place, drilled pilot holes, and installed it.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice my big “OH, HELL!” moment at this point. That’s to say that before now, I hadn’t noticed there’d be no room to adjust the intonation screws on the Rutters bridge. Imagine my delight. Luckily, after much experimenting, I realized I could simply turn the screws from the other end, as long as I slacked the string tension first. So, intonation was time-consuming but successful. Marc’s compensated saddle design works really well, and everything’s in tune now.

Once the guitar was strung, I lubed all the moving parts and the nut slots, stretched the crap out of the strings, and worked the bar to get everything broken in a bit. Tuning is pretty stable, and there’s enough tension from that big spring that I can play pedal steel licks and bends without the strings dropping in pitch. The range of pitch change is fairly limited but I knew that going in, and have gotten comfortable with it since. The guitar likes a standard “ten” set, and sounds really cool.

Next up: finishing touches!

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers, Part 5

In which I solve a small problem: I wanted to install my completed wiring assembly, with the jack. When I tried to fit the jack, screwed into its Electrosocket, into the hole in the side of the guitar, it didn’t fit. Much swearing followed. I found my shop ruler and measured the hole, which turned out to be a sixteenth of an inch narrower than it should be. I needed a hole 7/8″ in diameter, and I didn’t have it.

So, I’ve drilled these holes before, and the right bit for the job is a Forstner, a fearsome-looking thing with teeth and points that is actually very easy to use, even in a hand drill. You mark the hole’s location with something sharp like an awl, and the center point of the bit goes into that mark. You have to hold the drill reasonably straight, but the bit basically guides itself, and drills a beautiful, smooth-sided hole, right where you want it.

What a Forstner won’t do is enlarge an existing hole. If I’d tried that, the bit could have gone anywhere, and would definitely have torn up the side of the guitar. Not cool; more swearing. Finally it occurred to me to fill the hole with wood, mark its center, and drill a new hole. I found a stub of 3/4″ dowel, and built it up by wrapping it with masking tape. When it was almost too big to fit, I tapped it into the hole with a mallet, marked the center, fired up the drill, and got a perfect hole. I was definitely holding my breath, but it worked great, and didn’t damage my finish at all. I felt kind of proud of myself!

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers, Part 4

The electronics are straightforward, with a twist or two. I always flip the control plate for better access to the volume knob. I used 500k pots for the humbuckers and a .022 mfd PIO tone cap, with a 180pf “treble bleed” cap. I found a new brand of jack, called a Pure Tone, which has two contacts each for hot and ground. They claim an improvement in the sound with this design. I can’t verify that, but the plug fits very securely, and the jack looks well-made.

The bridge is a Marc Rutters “Chopped” model, modified by Marc with notches for the strings to pass through. Without those, the strings would rest on the back lip of the bridge. Not good! As always, his bridge is a beautiful piece. The saddles are cold-rolled steel, which sounds good and wears like crazy, so they should work well when I crank the Bigsby.

Marc also made the control plate, in nickel-plated steel, with his slanted selector switch slot and the middle control hole 3/8″ further away from the switch than usual. These modifications work really well. The plate is not cheap, but well worth it!

Finally for this post, the tuners are a vintage-style locking type from Gotoh. I wanted vintage looks, but needed the locking feature because I want to whammy and stay in tune! These took some tracking down, but Philadelphia Luthier Tools had them and got them to me in a couple of days. They install like normal tuners, but have staggered post heights and a thumbwheel locking mechanism which pins the string into place with a steel rod, much like the Sperzel tuners. I have high hopes for these. Gotta have locking tuners if you want to whammy, unless you just loooove tuning up after every song.

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers, Part 3

This beautiful neck came from USA Custom Guitars. Last December (2016), I needed a neck for this guitar and Allparts was out of stock on the model I wanted. On the internet I found the USACG site (I visit from time to time), and followed the pages to some information about a neck sale they were running. I was able to get this flame maple neck with the fretboard width and radius I wanted, with my choice of fret size, neck carve, and other features. Wow! With the sale pricing, the neck was only a few bucks more than the Allparts neck I would have chosen, and the options I could pick made it an amazing deal.

They were buried in orders and it took a few weeks to get it, but it was well worth waiting for. Very pretty wood and great workmanship! It needed only a little sanding to be ready for finishing. They had already rolled the fretboard edges, and I went a little further with that. The fret ends were beautifully rounded and didn’t need any further attention. The peghead’s shape is a slight departure from the classic Tele profile, but I like it and am happy with it as it came. Four coats of Tru-Oil and some 0000 steel wool later, the neck was ready for tuners and a nut, and the wood grain looked great, as you can see.

One option I chose was to get the truss rod adjustment on the peghead, instead of the heel. That’s a huge convenience! I’m good at getting the adjustment done the old school way, but it’s always a bit of a guessing game. This neck straightened with only a bit of adjustment. I’m anxious to see how it behaves under tension. The neck heel fits perfectly on the body. It always blows my mind a bit when I see a neck and body from different makers go together so well. So far, I’m really impressed with USACG’s work.

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers, Part 2

Continuing with finishing the body! Whoever said that finishing a guitar is the hardest part of this process has it right. I used Trans Tint bright red dye concentrate to get this color, and diluted it with water for easier handling. I kept pushing the dilution until I got the shade I wanted, and it’s exactly what I hoped for. More luck and perseverance than skill here.

Once again it’s Tru-Oil for the topcoat, working up to six thin layers and scuff-sanding between each coat with 2000 grit paper. At that point I rubbed it back pretty hard with 0000 steel wool, and then applied two more coats over the next couple of days. I like to allow 12 to 24 hours between coats, and then I let the body hang for a week before another rub-out with steel wool, followed by buffing and polishing.

I don’t grain fill, and feel that the bright, responsive sound I get from the guitars I assemble has a lot to do applying a very thin finish. Tru-Oil gives great “grain pop”, and plenty of moisture protection, but very little impact protection. I’m fine with that trade-off. I also like to see the texture of the wood I’m working with. I sanded this body very smooth, raised the grain with water, and re-sanded until I was happy. Heavy applications of the dye solution re-raised the grain a tiny bit, but I liked it and decided not to re-sand.

I’m not interested in a glossy commercial finish, though I certainly appreciate the skill it takes to do that. I can get a hand-rubbed bright satin luster with Meguiar’s #7 and some buffing pads, and then a final buffing with Virtuoso polish. Looks good to me.

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers! Part 1

The body for this guitar is a single piece of Eastern White Pine (IIRC) from my pal Larry at Clearfork Designs. It’s about 3.5 pounds and very resonant. As you can see from the photos in this first installment, I’m dyeing the body RED, using an awesome black and white shell pickguard, and installing a Fender-logo Bigsby B5. Once the color is right, I’ll topcoat with Tru-Oil, rub it out with 0000 steel wool, and buff it with Meguiar’s for a bright satin gloss (if that makes any sense).

To come: a neck from USA Custom Guitars (en route as I write), maple and rosewood, which will get a bone nut, and a new (to me, anyway) type of Gotoh locking tuner. Final pickup choice will rely on how things are sounding, but I have a brand new set of Electric City low-wind humbuckers that I think will work great. The bridge will be a Marc Rutters “Chopped” model, notched for the Bigsby. Standard wiring on a flipped plate, and we’ll see where we are. Much more to come!