22 Sep

Review – Eric Johnson Strat

Even though the Eric Johnson Strat has been reviewed to death since its release in 2005, I simply couldn’t resist doing another one on my new two-color sunburst. I’ve only had this guitar for a few weeks and it has quickly become one of my favorites, and if you’ve ever had a chance to play one you’ll know exactly why I love this guitar. Eric Johnson Strats are beautifully built with deep, comfortable contours and a superbly shaped neck that is a real pleasure to play. We’re talking high-end, Fender Custom Shop quality and attention to detail here for under two grand. You just can’t beat that.

This is actually my second Eric Johnson Strat. I briefly owned a Candy Apple Red EJ Strat a couple of years ago, but never quite bonded with it. I was acquiring so many guitars during that period that it was difficult to connect with each and every one, so I am glad to have the chance to revisit this great Strat model and spend some quality time with it. The first thing I noticed (as I did with my previous one) was how stiff it played out of the box. Once I put on some fresh Ernie Ball Hybrid strings (.009s on the top and .010s on the bottom), added my treble bleed mod to the electronics, adjusted the truss rod to straighten out the neck, removed a spring, floated the tremolo and readjusted the action and intonation the guitar sounded much, much better and began to play like buttah. With a bit more tweaking (it still needs another truss rod adjustment and some serious playing time), it should break in beautifully and play even better.

I really like the sound of this Strat as compared to my others. I tend to pull out the pickups in just about any guitar I acquire and pop in my favorite replacements. For Stratocasters I typically go with DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Blues singles in the neck and middle position and the Fast Track II single coil sized humbucker in the bridge. This time, however, I am going to leave the EJ Strat electronics completely stock (save for, of course, my beloved treble bleed mod). This is my most “Strat-sounding” Strat at the moment and I am loving it! The Fender EJ pickups are a set of great sounding custom wound PUs made to Eric’s exact specifications and are a bit lower in output than I am accustomed to. I am compensating for the lower output of the pickups by kicking in a little overdrive boost with my TS808 copy (when needed) and a healthy dose of compression from my Fuchs Royal Plush compressor pedal. Lately I have really enjoyed playing it through the clean channel of my Kingsley D32 amp with generous amounts of reverb, a touch of delay from my Boss DD-3 (a pedal I acquired when I first started playing guitar back in the ’80s) and my Fuchs compressor. This guitar just oozes tone through the D32. What a great combo!

I love guitars finished in “thinskin” nitrocellulose lacquer. Apart from the improvement in tone I like the feel of nitro and the fact that nitrocellulose is a natural, organic lacquer (despite being a very environmentally unfriendly substance). These types of finishes also tend to age beautifully over time. I look forward to the wear marks and battle scars that mine will display in the years to come. It took several playing sessions before the neck finish “smoothed out” and stopped feeling quite so gummy and sticky. There is a small break-in period for nitro to smooth out andej-strat-04 become more glassy to the touch, and I really love the feel of a nitro neck once this curing has taken place. Speaking of necks, the EJ Strat’s one-piece, vintage-tinted quartersawn neck is a deliciously chunky, soft V profile with a very comfortably playable and bend-friendly 12″ radius fitted with medium jumbo frets– making fret work super smooth and easy. It puzzles me why Fender doesn’t make more guitars with flatter radii like this. A flatter radius makes for a much easier set up and a more comfortable action; plus, the dreaded “fret out” issue is less likely to manifest itself when bending strings in the upper register.

One of the really cool, unique features of the EJ Strat is the lack of string trees on the headstock. Some people erroneously believe EJ Strats have slightly angled headstocks, or that the headstock is somehow cut differently in order to make it possible to remove the trees, but this is not the case. Fender actually designed split-shaft, Kluson style tuning machines that are dramatically staggered. “Staggered” tuning machines are simply machines with shafts that get progressively shorter and shorter from low to high, which provides the needed break angle behind the nut slot for proper coupling with string, therefore eliminating the need for the string trees– even on the B and high E strings. Despite the stock bone nut (a great sounding, but notoriously bad material for tuning stability with tremolos), this guitar stays in tune quite well even with moderate to heavy tremolo use, and the lack of string trees certainly helps.

I have since upgraded this guitar with a Callaham vintage repo Strat bridge.. A Callaham bridge is pretty much a mandatory modification for me these days whenever I get a Strat that I know I’ll be keeping. The improvement in tuning stability, tone and feel is incredible and well documented on the Internet. If you’ve not head of Callaham Guitars, or if you have and are curious, check out the Callaham website. This guy makes the best Fender replacement parts in the business. I’ll be sure to post a follow up once I get the tremolo installed. I can safely say that this is one of my all-time favorite guitars in the collection!

A version of this post originally appeared on Ryan’s Guitars blog. It is re-posted here with full permission of the original author.

22 Sep

Ten Must-Have Tools for the Home ‘Guitar Repair Shop’

In virtually every guitar repairman’s workshop, including my own, there are remarkable similarities in some of the most basic elements that comprise an instrument repair space. I’ve noticed that although I own a varied array of woodworking and machine shop implements, that there are a select few tools that seem to get used, over and over again, during the normal course of working on instruments at the shop. I started looking closer at what I was actually using most of the time and began to narrow it down to approximately ten different types of tools that I feel no repair bench should be without. In no particular order, here is my Top Ten List of the tools you shouldn’t live without.

Files – There are so many types of files, designed for so many different types of materials. At the very least, you should own a set of wood working files and rasps (larger, rougher files), a set of fine, or ‘needle’ files, a set of gauged round-bottomed nut files, and a set of metal working files. As you can tell from this list, there are a wide variety of applications that require a clean, sharp file to complete the task. I personally believe that the needle files and the nut files are only required if you do your own nut work, something that a lot of guitarists don’t deal with.

Rotary Multi-Tool with attachments – The key word here is “attachments”. A modern design rotary tool can have hundreds of different attachments available, all with distinctly different purposes and functions. From fine sanding, to polishing and of course cutting, a rotary tool is the guitar repairman’s “Swiss Army” knife in the shop. I polish fret tops, cut and trim metal hardware, and sand and grind most everything that can be found on a guitar with this tool. I actually own two, to save me some time when switching out attachments. One rotary tool is permanently equipped with a thin cutting wheel while the other one is host to mostly polishing, sanding and grinding implements.

Drill Press – I strongly urge the use of a table or stand mounted drill press. This tool is used when drilling holes with perfect accuracy is necessary. The drill press can maintain an exact right angle orientation while drilling holes to exact depths. I found mine used in a pawn shop for around $50 and it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made. You can also use these versatile tools as presses. Stewart McDonald makes a variety of swivel-mounted, curved cawls to allow curved frets to be perfectly pressed in to guitar necks. You can also use these sturdy machines as vertical sanders, installing a sanding drum in place of a drill bit. The best models come with variable speeds, and can handle bits sized up to ½” or larger.

Drill Bits – Sounds kind of obvious, but along with the drill press you’ll need a rather large assortment of drill bits in your home shop. Wood and metal bits are not made the same way. So, you’ll need both types of bits, sized from rather large (1 ½ inches diameter) to smaller standard sized bits (1/16th inch diameter). You’ll also need a comprehensively gauged set of small wooden bits, starting with size 60 bit tips and progressing to size 1 bit (1/8th inch). My personal fine bit kit includes over sixty different drill bits, all less than 1/8th of an inch in diameter. There simply is no substitute for the correct size drill bit when you need to do it right! There are also brad point bits, which leave relatively flat bottoms to holes. This is another area where I believe that buying quality drill bits pays off in quality work, so don’t go cheap on the drill bits.

Adhesives – We’re living in the golden age of adhesives. Cyanoacrylates (super glue), synthetic hide glues, and UV cured adhesives are all making the repairman’s job a lot simpler. Super glues, for example, now come in a dizzying array of types and applications. Thin, water-like glues that quickly seep in to wooden crevices are life savers sometimes. Thick, viscous super glue gels allow structural repairs on a variety of materials, all found on a modern instrument. Manufacturers are starting to use UV cured adhesives that set within a few seconds of light exposure. This characteristic allows exact positioning of a critical part without worry of premature glue set.

Sandpaper and other abrasives – Guitars are for the most part, made from wood. To work with wood and associated finishes, sandpapers are a great choice. From heavy 80 grit papers to incredibly fine, 8,000 grit wet finishing stock– there are about as many types of sandpaper as there are guitars. This is one area where I strongly urge you to purchase quality sandpaper and abrasive materials. Cheap sandpaper will leave significant residue on worked surfaces, and have inconsistent results that are not uniform. Wet sanding is an automotive finishing technique that uses a lubricant to help the sandpaper work better with a finer grade of abrasives. Steel wool is another useful abrasive, mostly used in cleaning metal parts and ultra-smooth wooden surfaces such as fingerboards. Be careful using steel wool around guitar pickups, as the pickup’s pole magnets attracts the steel wool threads.

Rubbing and Polishing compounds – Just as sandpaper comes in different abrasive grits, so too do liquid rubbing and polishing compounds. From coarse abrasive pastes to fine glass polishes, there are many grades of these finishing supplies that are useful when working on instruments. I tend to use Plexiglas polish the most, simply because it won’t scratch any finish, it removes contamination from delicate lacquer finishes without removing paint, leaves no swirl marks or white residue and is compatible with a multitude of surfaces (including chrome and nickel). In addition to the proper abrasive compounds, it’s also important to have the proper polishing and buffing supplies. Automotive paint supply stores carry a great assortment of foam buffing pads that mount on hand drills and non-scratch microfiber cloths that leave zero lint behind, which is critical when doing finishing work.

Screwdrivers – Once again, an assortment of varying types of screwdrivers is absolutely necessary in a properly-equipped shop. Both Phillips and flat-bladed varieties, in sizes ranging from size 04 (eyeglass screw sized) to 3/8th inch tips, there are always a multitude of screws to be dealt with. Having the properly sized screwdriver for the screw being worked on will preserve the integrity of the screw head, and ensure its proper operation moving forward. Allen head screws are also sometimes encountered when working with electric guitars equipped with locking tremolos. Contrary to screwdrivers, Allen head drivers are sized for either Metric or English measurements. This means that you’ll probably need both sets of Allen head drivers and wrenches to deal with both import as well as domestically produced instruments.

Razor Knives – Some people call them “exact-o” knives, but these inexpensive little blades are incredibly useful when working on instruments. I use them to smooth rough edges to newly drilled screw holes, scrape and clean plastic edges, remove finger grunge from fretboards and a host of other small tasks that always seem to be popping up with old guitars. These incredibly sharp blades can not only cut materials, but can be used to smooth and polish plastic and finely finished raw wood surfaces as well. I always use a sharp razor knife to do the final finish work on newly cut plastic pickguard edges. They produce a neatly bevelled edge to most modern pickguard materials.

High quality small hand tools – Diagonal cutters, snips, needle-nose pliers, locking pliers and many other types of small hand tools will be in demand as you work. Electrical work on instruments usually require soldering irons, wire strippers and, of course, diagonal cutters. There are hexagonal nuts on potentiometer shafts and output jacks that will require at the very least, a small crescent wrench for service. By purchasing quality tools, they’ll last longer and stay sharp longer. They won’t break at a critical point, gouging the otherwise beautiful top on your guitar. They won’t strip out or damage any hardware they’re used on, and will outlast several replacements with inferior, cheaper tools.

Only you can ultimately determine which tools are the most useful to you and your instruments. Tool manufacturers and distributors try and lead you to believe that you definitely need their latest, laser guided nut saw, to do a great job on your guitar. But, that’s not always the case…the good old ‘standards’ as discussed in this article are a great foundation for your shop, but there are so many different solutions to the same problems, when it comes to guitar repair, that you could spend ten years dissecting the merits of the various types of fret crowning files on the market today. The point is; find out what works for you and don’t think that you have to spend a ton of money to get the right tool. Flea markets and thrift shops can sometimes have some great deals on used tools to help you save a couple of bucks, but be careful and only purchase undamaged tools that function properly. Good luck in setting up your own home-based guitar repair shop, and now go out, spend some money and stimulate your local economy!

22 Sep

Soloway Gosling Guitar – Review

Yes, it is true. I have a guitar problem. I can’t seem to get enough of them and all the new and exciting builders that are coming out of the woodwork these days aren’t helping matters any. I recently purchased one of Jim Soloway’s, of Soloway Guitars, irresistible masterpieces. A gorgeous Gosling model donning a beautiful flamed redwood trans-burst top with Soloway-logo-inspired “f-hole”… once I saw it (and played it) I couldn’t get my wallet out fast enough.

From what I’ve gathered, Jim’s been at this for about 8 or 9 years now and he’s developed quite a fine product in the process. Fusing the design aesthetic of the Stratocaster with his own unique lower bout shape, Jim has produced a truly stunning new take on the classic Strat shape that most new builders rarely achieve. His first model, the Swan, is a semi-hollow body construction and is made from choice tonewoods (alder or ash usually) with all sorts of different top options available (maple, koa, redwood, and others). What is unique about the Swan is its 27″ scale length. Though its scale might suggest it is a baritone, these guitars are strung and tuned like normal guitars. Jim claims the intonation of a 27″ scale length guitar is far more accurate and the lows are much tighter and more piano like.

The Gosling, on the other hand, is one of Jim’s newest models and the first to offer the standard 25.5″ scale length. The first thing I noticed when playing the Gosling I purchased, apart from the flawless fit and finish, was how great the neck feels. Jim calls this neck profile the “.915 Stubby”. It starts at .915 at the first fret with a soft V shape and merges to 1.0 at the octave with a full C shape. Made of maple and topped with a Madagascar rosewood fingerboard fretted with stainless steel frets, bends and vibrato on this neck are effortless and super smooth… in part due to the extra fat profile giving your hand more leverage, and in part due to the ultra slinkiness of the stainless steel frets. Soloway necks are finished with a “thin skin” nitrocellulose satin finish, while the bodies are finished in what Jim describes as “the thinnest possible” coating of polyurethane. All Soloway necks are fitted with beautifully made bone nuts and gorgeous, hand-crafted truss rod covers with inlaid logo (mine is made from sycamore.)

Another thing you immediately notice is how light these guitars are. My Gosling weighs in at a feather-light 6.7 lbs! All of the guitars I demo’ed that day felt just as light. Jim is adamant about building light weight instruments after years of torturing his own lower back gigging heavy guitars. And despite the low weight, the timbre and sustain of these guitars is off the chart! Not even my heavy Les Pauls can keep up.

Jim uses great hardware on his guitars. My Gosling is fitted with a Hipshot fixed bridge with Strat-style bridge saddles, some cool modern metal knobs with rubber gaskets fitted on them for easy gripping and some awesome open-back (yes, open-back!) locking Hipshot tuners. The guitar feels solid and stays in tune beautifully.

Plugged into my favorite Kingsley ToneBaron boutique amp rig, the Gosling just blew me away. It is by far the clearest, most articulate guitar in my collection. While I was easily able to get all the basic rock, shred, jazz and blues tones from it I can definitely see this guitar becoming my main go-to instrument for fusion stuff. This particular build sports a DiMarzio 36th Anniversary PAF humbucker in the bridge position and a custom wound DiMarzio Firebird mini-humbucker in the neck (that was actually made for Jim by Larry DiMarzio himself). The electronics are wired with a 3-way selector switch, master volume and a push-pull tone pot that (when up) puts the pickups in series mode and (when down) puts them in the standard parallel mode. Pulling the push-pull knob up and engaging the series mode fattens up the tone so much that the bridge pickup practically sounds like a neck pickup. Couple this with the tone knob itself and different volume knob settings and a stunning plethora of sounds are available at your finger tips. With the Kingsley cranked under full distortion and the neck position in parallel mode with the volume rolled most of the way down, it was very easy to get a bright, Strat-like chime. There’s almost nothing this guitar can’t do!

So…fit and finish perfect, great sound, plays like buttah and looks stunning. I think I’ve found a keeper! If you are curious about Soloway guitars, go to the website and check out the gallery. If you’re serious, you can contact Jim for a “test drive”. I warn you, though– if you try one you’ll almost certainly be buying, so be prepared to spend your money before you try. 🙂

This post originally appeared on Ryan’s Guitars blog. It is re-posted here with full permission of the original author.

22 Sep

Callaham Vintage S Model Strat Bridge and ABR-1 Gibson Bridge – Review

Bill Callaham really knows tone. Having grown up with all sorts of great instruments with which to develop his ear (Lloyd Loar mandolins and ’50s Gibsons and Fenders), he has built his business on helping others reproduce quality vintage tone. With a strong background in machining, a great ear, meticulous attention to detail and a Mechanical Engineering degree from Virginia Tech, Bill and his company, Callaham Guitars, have introduced an unrivaled level of quality to the vintage guitar repro market.

I recently purchased two of his bridges, one a Vintage S Model Strat bridge for my Eric Johnson Stratocaster and the other an ABR-1 bridge with vintage studs, which is a direct replacement for the ABR-1 Tune-o-matic bridge on my ’07 VOS Gibson R9 Les Paul. At the time of this writing I have only installed the Vintage S Model on my Eric Johnson Strat, but have not yet installed the ABR-1. I have also previously purchased and installed a couple of Callaham Limited Production Narrow Strat bridges in two of my other guitars, so this is not my first experience with Bill’s product.

The first thing you notice when you take one of Bill’s bridges out of the box is how much it weighs and the quality of the craftsmanship. These are made from specific steel alloys that Callaham Guitars has found to produce the widest range of frequency response, increase the guitar’s sustain and improve note separation when playing chords. I can attest to the fact that these Strat bridges have greatly improved the tone on all the guitars I have installed them on. Immediately after installation I can hear that the guitar is much louder when strummed acoustically, the tone is crisper and more focused and sustain is greatly improved. Plus, the superior machining and quality steel alloy makes for a much smoother mechanical action when using the tremolo and tuning stability is never an issue with one of Bill’s bridges.

I can’t wait to get the ABR-1 on my R9 Les Paul and I will post a follow up once it is done. If the Callaham Strat bridges are any indication, then this will be a major upgrade in tone for my Les Paul. If you are looking for that single mod that takes your guitar from ordinary to extraordinary, I would suggest trying a Callaham bridge first before spending money on anything else.

This post originally appeared on Ryan’s Guitars blog. It is re-posted here with full permission of the original author.

22 Sep

Sanyo Pedal Juice – Review

If you are like me, you can’t stand dealing with batteries or wall warts to power your pedals. I have a dedicated pedal board with integrated power for all the effects I use in front of my amp, but I also run a couple of pedals in my amp’s loop that I keep close to the rig. It’s these two pedals that require wall warts or batteries…and that is where the Sanyo Pedal Juice comes in. What a convenient product this thing is!

Sanyo Pedal Juice 05
I was skeptical at first. I mean, 27 plus hours of playing time for two pedals on a single charge? It didn’t seem likely until I charged it up and actually used it for a couple of weeks. After many practice sessions and a couple of jams this thing is still going strong. The Pedal Juice is basically a battery brick (3.7v lithium-ion) with two DC outputs that can power up to three standard pedals (in order to power more than two pedals, one or more of them needs to have a power pass-through or you’ll need a multi-plug cable since the Pedal Juice device only comes with two output cables that terminate in a single male end.) Sanyo claims that a single analog pedal using 10 mA will get about 50 hours playing time, a digital effect like a delay unit using 50 mA should get around 27 hours and a three pedal setup… say, a chorus, od pedal and a delay (with all three using something like 80 mA) should get about 20 hours of playing time. Pretty awesome!

Sanyo Pedal Juice 01
Build quality is superb. It is housed in an attractive, Apple Computers-like white plastic case that feels durable and looks great. The company claims it is water and shock resistant (great for the drunks that spill beer all over your stuff at gigs) and operation is super simple. There’s a single power button and 3-stage LED indicator. You get a continuous green light when fully charged, then orange (30%-60% power remaining) to red (less than 30%) when it gets low. With over 20 hours of playing time for two pedals, this thing will last me a long time on a single charge and the best part is that I don’t have to worry about AC power cords and the possibility of ground looping noise in clubs with less-than-stellar electrical wiring. When both ports are in use they output 1000 mA each, which means you’ll need to check your pedal’s power requirements before using something like this and, of course, usage time may vary depending on those power requirements. Oh, and it only takes 3.5 hours to fully charge… which is actually quite fast for nearly 30 hours of up time!

Sanyo Pedal Juice 02
If you are interested in buying one they can be found at your local Guitar Center or Sam Ash store, and online. So far I am really impressed with this device and I plan to make it a permanent part of my rig. I highly recommend this product!

22 Sep

Resurrecting a Speaker Cabinet

I’ve had this empty guitar amplifier cabinet for a few years now. The amplifier chassis has been long gone, and the single 8” speaker that’s remaining is just too small and underpowered to handle any decent wattage. So it’s just been hanging around my shop, gathering dust. But, if you have a few, basic woodworking tools and a little bit of spare time, you can resurrect old amplifier cabinets and speakers, transforming them in to very usable and good sounding guitar accessories that you’ll actually use!

Two Speakers
I happened to have this spare high-power 12” Peavey Scorpion speaker lying around the shop. I’d always wanted to use this speaker in something cool, and this little cabinet would be the perfect host. Before you start cutting and modifying the cabinet though, make sure your new speaker will actually fit in the host cabinet. If you’re satisfied that it comfortably and securely mounts in the cabinet, then proceed onwards with the rest of the work.

Cab Taken Apart
Here’s the rear of the cabinet, with the baffle board and attached speaker removed. There are four machine bolts that the baffle board uses for mounting to the inside of the cabinet front. In order for our new 12” baffle board to fit flush against the interior of the front, we’ll have to remove these mounting bolts.

Bolt Cutting
Using a high speed rotary tool, carefully cut down the old baffle board’s mounting bolts as close as possible to the wood. Take care to not catch your cabinet on fire, as the rotary tool produces sparks and hot particulate matter when cutting metal parts. You may want to take a wet rag and lay it down on top of the wood surface surrounding the particular bolt you’ll be cutting off.

Baffle Board Layout
Using the rear vented cabinet panel, we can layout the exterior dimensions of the new baffle board we’ll be cutting. I’m using some furniture-grade 5-ply Birch plywood stock for the new board. Trace out the exterior dimensions of the rear panel on to the top of the plywood so you’ll be able to carefully cut along the lines using a saw with a fine tooth blade.

Exact Center
Trace two lines between opposing corners to form an “X” on the inside of the rectangular shape. Where the two lines of the “X” meet is the exact center of the rectangle, so mark this point for future reference.

Trace Cut Outs
Once you’ve cut the new baffle board out, place it inside the empty cabinet so we can trace the outlines of the front panel cutouts on to the face of the board. Depending upon the design and layout of these cutouts, you may want to mimic them with the new baffle board design, or go an entirely new route with a custom design for the cutouts on the front panel.

New Board Cut
Here’s the new baffle board, with the interior cutouts made, and all exterior edges sanded smooth. Continually check the fit of the board in place on the inside of the cabinet. You want the new baffle board to fit completely flush, with no gaps at all. The tighter the fit, the more resonant the cabinet becomes, and that’s a good thing!

Tack Grill Cloth
Before we cover the front speaker grill, spray paint the wood flat black. This will help the new grill cloth to look more uniform, and professional. I found this mesh screen that we’ll use for grill cloth in my kitchen drawer. It matches the plastic trim beading on the cutout edges perfectly. Whatever material you decide to use for a grill cloth, it needs to be acoustically transparent, which means it won’t block any of the frequencies and sound coming from the speaker cone. It also serves to protect the fragile paper cone from any accidental damage, and it looks cool! Measure the cutout openings, and you can tack on the new grill material covering pretty easily.

New Speaker
Place the new speaker in position on the new baffle board, positioning the four mounting holes so that they are placed directly over the baffle board’s interior wood surface. We’ll use some heavy duty wood screws to attach this speaker, along with some washers to help prevent rattling while being pounded by a loud tube amp! Torque the four wood attachment screws down, so that even pressure is applied on all four sides. This will help prevent warping of the speaker frame, which can cause a speaker voice coil to melt quickly due to interior friction.

Loaded Cabinet Rear Finished Cab
Here’s the completed new baffle board, installed with grill covering material in place. This has a very nice, vintage-vibe appearance that houses a very powerful 12” speaker in an incredibly compact package. Great for taking along on impromptu club gigs. It’s also a great companion to the new generation of small, compact tube amplifiers from makers such as Blackheart, Egnater, VOX, Burris and others. This speaker cabinet allows these miniature tube amps to project a lot of power and tone capability in a small physical size.

Until next time, keep on rockin’!

22 Sep

How to Solder

The one thing that most novice guitar repairmen dread is soldering. More damage is done than is repaired by inexperienced hobbyists and a hot soldering iron. But, soldering isn’t that hard if you understand the process and learn a little thermodynamics while you’re at it. Soldering is simply joining two disparate pieces of metal using elevated heat and an easily melted metal mixture.

Soldering irons are like shotguns, you just have to remember to point the working end away from your face! They are essentially ceramic heating coils encased in a metal pointed tool. Some have fixed wattages (a measure of how hot the iron will get) and more expensive professional models have variable heat/wattages. But the basic principles are the same for both types, and learning how to wield one correctly will save you a lot of money and time as well.

Soldering Irons
1. There are 15, 25, 40 and 60 watt soldering irons, with the smallest ones used in PC board work, and the larger ones used to physically ‘weld’ metal together. Variable heat irons can be digitally controlled and have adjustable wattages of 10 to 50 watts available at the twist of a knob.

2. Solder is an alloy mixture of tin and lead, along with a flux. Flux is an additive (usually rosin) that is mildly corrosive at elevated temperatures and helps the two pieces of metal bond both physically and electrically. The most common type of solder used in guitar building is composed of 60 % tin and 40 % lead. Due to environmental restrictions, there is a new type of solder that is lead free, but requires an additional 100 degrees of heat to properly melt.

Soldering Tinning Tip
3. A soldering iron is only as good as its metal tip. If you’re working with a new iron, you must ‘tin’ the tip properly, to help it transmit heat efficiently to working surfaces. When you turn on the iron for the first time, apply a liberal coating of solder and let it work its way all over the heating tip, then tap it against an edge to remove the excess solder. Now the tip of the iron is properly prepared to use for the first time. You must continually ‘wet’ the tip by applying solder to the iron while using. When you place the iron back in to its holder, it’s a good habit to touch a bit of solder to the iron.

Soldering Sponge
4. Keep a wet sponge handy to clean the rosin and impurities off the tip during use. If you use a dry rag or sponge to clean the tip, sulfur deposits can corrode the iron clad copper tip and eventually render it useless and in need of replacement way before its time. Remember that low iron temperatures will slow the rate of flow of the solder. Too high a temperature can burn the flux in the solder, creating a thick white smoke that’s not too healthy to breathe in. This will also cause what’s known as a “dry joint”. This poor connection can cause intermittent faults in the electrical connectivity of the soldered joint and is difficult to trace out. A typical working temperature for normal guitar related soldering is around 270 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s important to have the correct heat for the correct job.

Soldering Heating Joint
5. When soldering two pieces of metal together, always apply the solder directly to the joint and not to the tip of the iron itself. The solder flux is mildly caustic and will eat away at the iron’s tip over time. You want to heat up the two pieces of metal, then apply solder to the joint and let it flow readily into the connection. Don’t use excessive pressure on the tip while heating the working surfaces. It doesn’t improve heat transfer and can cause the ceramic heater coil to break, thereby ruining your soldering iron.

Soldering Cloudy Tip
6. After repeated usage, you may see a cloudy film form on the soldering iron tip. This is oxidation and can reduce the heat transfer ability of the iron and eventually cause the iron to quit working properly. To clean the tip, use some very fine grade sandpaper (800 to 1500 grit) and a small amount of Isopropyl Alcohol to buff the oxide film off carefully. Never clean the tip with a metal file or other rough abrasive materials. After buffing, turn the iron back on and re-tin the tip with copious amounts of solder.

Soldering Wrapped
7. Use a light amount of solder per connection. Too much solder can impair the connectivity and inadvertently ground or short wiring traces, especially on printed circuit boards. Too little solder in the joint can create an intermittent or non-working connection instead of a dependable one. I always try and make some sort of physical reinforcement to the connection by wrapping the wires together or tying off a component while soldering. This can relieve the stress of the physical connection and preserve the electrical continuity for a long time.

Soldering Heat Sink
8. When soldering wires in tight places, make sure your iron isn’t touching any peripheral wiring or components. The entire length of the iron barrel is hot, not just the tip, so be aware of where it’s being placed while in use. When soldering delicate electronic components such as resistors and capacitors, always use a “Heat Sink” in between the iron and the component. A heat sink is a device that allows an alternate path for the heat to disperse, rather than moving in to the delicate component. A small pair of hemostats or other clamping plier works well to divert the heat buildup away from what you’re working on.

Neatness and cleanliness do count when soldering. Remember that whatever you’re joining together may have to be un-soldered at sometime in the future, and making the connection as professional as possible when installing it makes it that much easier to uninstall later on without damaging any peripheral components or wiring. Use as little heat and solder as possible to do the job properly. A correct solder joint is shiny without pin holes or uneven breaks. If the connection’s hazy and flaky looking, it’s probably not going to hold. Be aware that too little heat or too little solder can cause just as much trouble as too much heat or solder. Take your time, and work deliberately to ensure the best possible outcome. The mantra of soldering perfection is this; do no harm and make good strong connections instead. And always remember that the best soldering job is the one that looks like no one’s done any work at all…

22 Sep

D.Allen Pickups – Review

I build pickups, too…You’ll notice I said “too”. Once in a great while a craftsman discovers someone else who shares similar interests, but is also “head and shoulders” above the rest in talent. David Allen is such an artist. I really mean “artist”, because he takes the basic components of pickup construction and takes them to another level of performance and tone. I am jealous, but not bitter. It’s refreshing to see someone really excel at their chosen livelihood.
D.Allen Pickups are based upon two premises: the first is, “be true to vintage specifications” and the second is, “but with a twist”. You can order most sets of D.Allen pickups with either vintage windings and output or tweaked versions that are slightly ‘hotter’ and more ‘modern’ in tone. But rest assured that either way you’ll be getting a handmade, custom wound pickup that has clarity, detail and tone for days!

I recently had the opportunity to evaluate some of David Allen’s finest creations and came away with some strong, favorable impressions. My good buddy the Nashville Super Picker, Johnny Hiland, let me know he was working with David on some new pickup models. Johnny is legally blind; consequently he has some of the BEST ears in the business! He can simply hear things that most of us can’t. I trust his opinions implicitly when it comes to tone, so when Johnny introduced me to David Allen and arranged for some sample sets to be sent to my shop for evaluation, I was stoked. I’m writing a new book for Voyageur Press on how to build an Electric Guitar, and David’s pickups will be a great addition to the section on customizing electronics.

D.Allen Strat Pickups
The first set I tried was for Strat style guitars. This set’s nickname was “JohnnyCats”, being Johnny Hiland’s prototype pickups. They really captured the vintage Strat chime, quack and piano like tones, but still have enough power in the bridge position to drive an amp when picked hard. The neck pickup was based around a genuine ’54 Strat neck pickup, but made with some custom materials that add dimension. The middle pickup had similar influences from a ’59 Strat pickup, but was RWRP (Reverse Wound, Reverse Polarity) for quiet operation in the 2 and 4 positions. The bridge was designed to balance volume-wise with the rest of the set, especially when changing from the neck position to the bridge pickup. This is an extremely flexible set that handles many types D.Allen Pickups Strat Installand styles of music but still always manages to sound like a Strat. David uses high quality, hand-beveled alnico magnets, USA-made ‘push back’ cloth hookup wire and real fiber flat work. A special scatter wind technique, a unique wax potting process, and lacquer dipped hand-built bobbins all add up to superior build quality. I especially liked the fact that each pickup coil is fabric taped to protect the delicate-build wire assemblies. You just can’t buy a more authentic, better made and superior sounding pickups for your Stratocaster than these.

D.Allen Tele SetThe next set of pickups I was anxious to get my hands on were for Telecaster style guitars. Johnny Hiland is known throughout the industry as a ‘chicken picker’ and the Tele is his home turf, so I was especially hoping these were going to be good. And they were! This set was designed to bring clarity, and great note definition. There’s a responsiveness that allows you to produce different tones simply by changing your pick attack angle. David D.Allen Tele Installuses an extremely thin nickel silver cover to help the magnets interact better with the strings. These are wound hotter than vintage specs to really balance well with the bigger sounding bridge. The bridge pickup is also wound a bit hotter so that it drives the amp better, but not so hot that it loses tonal range and definition. These are great examples of some of the best vintage Tele pickups around with a Nashville ‘super picker’s’ best recommendation behind ’em!

D.Allen Humbucker Set
Take it from me, humbuckers are some of the most difficult pickup sets to build. All of David Allen’s pickups are handmade in his shop by the man himself, so I really wanted to see a true craftsman’s work with this set, nicknamed the “Johnny Buckers”.

D.Allen Humbucker Install
They’re wound like an extremely articulate late 50’s vintage ‘PAF’ with lower output but producing a tone that plays and sounds much hotter (think Van Halen I and II). They’ll play snappy or soft depending on your pick attack. The bridge seemed to be designed to balance better with the neck; it’s hotter but still keeps the widest tonal range possible. I really liked the fact that this set plays so smoothly with gorgeous glassy highs, and without getting brittle or harsh in the process.

D.Allen P90 Install
I’m a huge P-90 fan. The problem is that for most of us they’re a bit ‘harsh’ in the midrange, and sometimes unmercifully noisy thanks to 60 cycle hum. Not only do I think D.Allen resolved these issues, he’s improved the format to boot. David’s “CoolCats” were inspired by some really great, early 1960’s P-90’s. But David uses a hand built bobbin carved from real maple wood and deploys Alnico 5 magnets to add the crunch we all expect from a great P-90 of the era. I really found that this pickup can bark and play dirty just like you’d want, but still cleans up really well. These were wound to 8.68 ohms, so they’re a little bit hotter to bring back that period tone with a little extra balls.

D.Allen Pickups
D. Allen pickups are handmade interpretations of the best in classic electric guitar tones, but with a modern ‘twist’ to them. David takes the best of vintage and adds modern enhancements that don’t detract from what we all love about vintage guitars, but adds to that with taste and tone. Price-wise, these are mid-range replacements, well worth the money. You can go to DallenPickups.com to check out his wide array of pickups, and feel free to write David directly if you have any specific questions about his products. He’s a small operation, and he’s invested his heart and soul in to providing the best upgrades in the pickup market to average players like you and me!

22 Sep

How to Wire a Stratocaster

We’ve all seen that jumble of wires that occupy the lower half of a typical Stratocaster style guitar’s pickguard. But, what do all those wires and knobs do, and how can they be made to sound better and work more reliably with more diverse tone? Well, here’s how you can do this upgrade yourself!

Loose Components
1) Here’s the loose components required for a typical, three pickup, three control, 5 way switched Stratocaster pickguard assembly (pictured right). The only thing that’s missing from this picture is the connecting wire, of which there’s actually very little to be used.

Metal Tape
2) Go to the nearest hardware store and buy a roll of “Metal Repair Tape”. It’s thick, aluminum metal strip material with industrial strength adhesive on one side. This makes for excellent shielding material, and it’s less than $5 a roll (10 yards).

Overlapping Metal Tape
3) Using overlapping strips of metal tape, cover the principle area of the pickguard from the rear. Make sure there’s a small overlap between sections. You can pierce the aluminum with a razor knife to ensure connectivity between pieces. The tape will act as a ground shield, and also make grounding connections for metal hardware that’s attached to/through it. So, there’s no need to run separate grounding wire connections for each piece of hardware, because simply mounting the hardware to the pickguard and shielding will do that for you!

Pickups Installed
4) Here’s a set of custom wound, “Will Kelly” pickups that I personally made for myself on my homemade winding rig. I’ll cover that one day for you guys…it’s a great way to get in to building your own pickups. Physically mount the pickups, installing them about halfway in (so there’s room for adjustment either way) depending upon the final string height of the guitar. For the control potentiometers, there are three in stock configuration. The one closest to the strings is the master volume control. Usually the next two are neck tone and middle pickup tone controls; but we’re going to change that up a little bit.

Preamp Assmebly
5) This is an active, 9 volt preamp integrated control from GuitarFetish.com. You usually mount these in place of one of the stock tone controls and make the other one a master control. This is actually more usable, simply because in a stock Stratocaster setup the bridge pickup has no tone control, only the middle and neck positions have that capability. But, with a master tone control you also have control over the bridge pickup tone, as well.

6) We’re going to replace the middle tone control, traditionally the neck pickup tone control, with the new preamp control. I had to use several brass ‘star’ washers in between the body of the control and the rear of the pickguard so that the height of the control shaft would be in line with the other two potentiometers on the face of the pickguard. You have to ‘eyeball’ this in order to get it right, but aesthetics count, and to me all three pots should have exactly the same height off of the front of the pickguard.

7) We’re using Bourns Model 82 vintage potentiometers for this guitar. These are extremely high grade controls originally developed for the military. They’re sealed, lifetime lubricated and use high tech polymer tracks for variable resistance, instead of the traditional carbon tracks found in most all potentiometers. This means they don’t wear like carbon, don’t get dirty or scratchy sounding, and never need cleaning, ever…turn the tone control’s terminals towards the preamp, inward towards the rest of the controls. Screw in the 5 way switch, making sure it’s operation is free and unencumbered by the edges of the pickguard.

Bourns Pots
8) The first thing you should do is wire the ‘hot’ lead coming from each pickup to the 5 way switch. Refer to your switch manufacturer’s terminal output diagram, or simply trace them out with a multi meter. You’ll know which pickup goes to which terminal lug. Solder these lightly. Run the corresponding ground leads to a single point, in this case the spade terminal washer coming from the Bourns Master volume potentiometer’s mount. Use some small tie wraps to secure the bundle of wires, for protection and sorting out later on. We’ll use this single ground point to handle the master volume grounding and pickup grounding. We’ll also ground the tremolo claw wire to the other Bourns potentiometer’s spade terminal washer connection used by the Sprague “orange drop” tone capacitor on the master tone control pot.

Output Wires
9) The output from the 5 way switch connects to the Master volume control’s right terminal, the output of the master volume control is then sent to the input of the preamp as well as the master tone control’s middle terminal. The output of the preamp then goes to the output jack. You want to use as little wire as possible, and make all connections neat and minimal. The easier it is to follow a wire lead visually, the easier it is to fix later, if the need arises. Some people go as far as to use plastic ‘shrink wrap’ tubing on all exposed connections, but if the wiring’s securely soldered, and the wiring routes are correct, then there should be no need for additional protection.

10) Here’s the finished assembly, ready to drop in to a new Stratocaster build. I’m building a custom, ’54 Strat for a very famous guitar player/artist/teacher and this assembly is the heart and soul of this new guitar build. It’s being documented in my new book “How to Modify or Build your Own Electric Guitar” by Will Kelly, available from Voyageur Press in Fall of 2011. So, keep checking back here on RobbieCalvoGuitar.com and I’ll keep putting up great tips and tricks for you guys to try on your own. Until next time…keep on playing!

22 Sep

How to Install Your Own “Clay Dots”

Hi guys, Will Kelly here again. One of the features, and mysteries of vintage Fender guitars, swirls around the iconic “clay dots” that marked rosewood fingerboards on Fender electric guitars from early 1959 through 1965. These off-white, slightly grainy looking inlays have been the stuff of legend, mainly because no one definitely knows what they’re made from. The stories range from Leo using some leftover asbestos floor tiles, to actually being a plasticized wood filler simply packed into the routed hole on the fingerboard. I am more inclined to believe the leftover floor tile story, simply because Leo was such a frugal man who let nothing go to waste. If there were several boxes of tiles sitting around, surely he’d have figured out they made great board dots!

Drilling Out the Dots
I love the look of the slightly off-white dots on a dark rosewood board. Pearl’s nice, but too fancy for the industrial design look of the Stratocaster in my opinion. So, when I’m creating a neck for an old Stratocaster build I love taking the stock pearl dots out and replacing them with my own version of those fabled “clay dots”!

1) Using a 1/8 inch bit, drill a small hole through the center of each pearl fingerboard dot. Be careful to drill only through the pearl inlay, and not into the neck itself. You can ‘feel’ the bit tug a little as it exits the bottom of the pearl dot. I prefer to use a drill press to do this because I can preset the stop limiter for the exact depth I need to hit every time without slowing down.

Drill Bit Lever
2) Remove the drill bit and, using the smooth end, insert the bit into each hole then wiggle it around slightly until you hear and feel the glue crack and release the pearl dot. Simply take the dot out and repeat this procedure with the rest of the pearl dot inlays. Take care to work slowly and deliberately so that you don’t pull up any splinters of wood from the hole edges. If you see a piece of wood lifting, stop immediately and take a small razor knife to cut the edge of the dot away from the splinter. Use a small amount of wood glue to reseat the splinter on the fingerboard. This usually doesn’t happen if you work slowly and carefully, though.

Drill Plugs
3) I use aged Les Paul cream pickguards for my “clay dots” material. I have a ¼ inch plug cutter that makes perfect dot-sized inlay plugs for the newly drilled out holes. The trick is to cut slowly so as to not let the bit build up much heat while cutting through the plastic. The plastic will deform and shred when cut with a hot bit as opposed to a clean, smooth cut with a cool bit. A good tip here is to use electrical contact cleaner as a coolant. It’s highly evaporative qualities mean that it will cool a surface to the touch when applied. Squirt several applications of contact cleaner on the bit for the duration of the cut.

Gluing Dots
4) You’ll have to sand the plugs to match the depth of the holes on the fingerboard. You want the new inlays to be as close to the top of the fingerboard as possible, but not below that level. After sanding and scraping to fit, place a small drop of wood glue in the bottom of the hole to secure the inlay in place. Afterwards, tap a few times with a flat ended punch. The glue will work itself out from around the inlay after tapping, so be sure to wipe off the excess quickly.

Sand Scrape Dots
5) Using a razor knife, scrape each dot inlay flush with the surface of the rosewood fingerboard. Take care not to cut or damage the wood surface. You’ll become adept at scraping and striking only the plastic dot after a few tries. Work slowly and carefully here. Once you’ve scraped them flush, use 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper and some fingerboard oil to smooth out the scraping marks and then do the final fit of the inlays so they are completely flush with the fingerboard.

Close Clay Dots
6) Work your way up the neck, fitting each plug inlay individually. You’ll find the job gets easier as you do more and more of them. You’ll get the knack of sizing up the inlay thickness to the hole it’s going in pretty quickly. Once all the new inlays are in let them dry over night.

This is a great way to authentically relic the neck inlays on a vintage style Fender guitar with a rosewood fingerboard. The dots are durable, and actually obtain a great patina with age and playing. You just don’t see many Fender guitars these days with anything but pearl or abalone dots on the fingerboards. This is a subtle, yet fantastic way to set your axe apart from the rest of the crowd!