RG Kit Guitar

In the quest for the perfect guitar, I thought that exploring some kits would be a cheap way to go. At this point, I’ve already been to many guitar shops and tried out all the most well known guitar models. As I’ve stated before, Telecaster is my favourite. Yet I wondered if there was something I’m missing. So when I saw the “Jason Derulo” kits on the Chinese site tmall.com, I could not resist. I can only confirm by close examination of the photos, but it appears that they are marketed in the west as “Alston” guitars on Amazon.com.

red_guitarI did extensive research online, to try to determine more about the quality, as the merchant description isn’t very detailed. The Amazon product didn’t get good reviews. But I thought I could iron out minor flaws if I got some good wood from it. Unlike some of the other kits, this one has no laminated top or bindings, which some customers complained about the quality of. So, there would be a lesser possibility of flaws. After a few weeks of struggle, I have finally finished the kit. It’s patterned after the Ibanez RG series.

DSCN1769_006I ordered the kit and waited a few days for the EMS shipment to arrive. Everything was carefully packed in a medium sized cardboard box, and a quick inventory revealed that all the parts were included and there was no damage.DSCN1773_005 As I looked it over and began planning, I was optimistic. The two piece neck was straight and the frets were true. It looks like maple, my only complaint is that the wood was not chosen or oriented for the best grain, which should be perpendicular (especially when it is not a multiple lamination). The body consists of three laminated pieces of good quality mahogany. I was extremely grateful for this, as I wanted to use some kind of natural wood finish instead of painting over it. The hardware looked good enough, keeping in mind the price. All the electronics are pre-installed on the pickguard. There are two humbuckers and one single coil pickup, with a 5 way selector switch. More about these later. The pickguard was a botch job. It did not follow the contours of the body well, and the mounting holes for the pickups were off center, enough to be visible from across the room. Also, the pickup openings were oversized. My guess is that they don’t drill each panel individually, they probably take a stack of them and drill through all of them at once. Just a guess. Either that, or they have a broken or no template. So I went back online and ordered a new pickguard from another vendor. Also, I don’t like single coils. So I ordered an Artec strat-sized blade humbucker to replace the middle pickup.

DSCN1782_007I looked around town for wood dye. There is no such thing as a yellow pages here in China. You have to set out on foot and search, or perhaps ask around to find things. Soon I found a friendly store on the main street that sells paint supplies. Although they lacked wood dye in the offbeat colours I had in mind, they had spray cans of automotive lacquer. Well, that’s all they had in spray cans. So I settled for some clear lacquer instead of polyurethane. This would turn out to be a mistake. I went to an art store and couldn’t find anything like a dye there, but I spotted a jar of red ink and realized that it was perfect! I sanded the body and applied a wash of ink after wetting it lightly. After the first coat of lacquer, it looked great.

Next, I considered the electronics. The pickups looked cheap. Well, what do you expect when only one “big name brand” pickup would cost more than the entire guitar? The plastic bobbins are crudely cast, so don’t line up with the base screws accurately. The base legs were bent slightly and the screw holes threaded that way, nonetheless. There was a tiny hint of wax around the outside of the coils and on some of the screws, as if someone had heard about wax potting but didn’t understand what it is for. However, the coils, magnets and pole pieces were adequate to do the job they were designed for.

So I began to hunt for replacements. I narrowed down the search to some EMG-HZ’s that were not too expensive. I also began to research pickups and learned more than I needed to know! After that, I decided I should overhaul the existing pickups to try to improve them, and use the opportunity to test some ideas. I disassembled one with the idea of wax potting it, but the internal connections were made in a way that would make that extremely difficult and risky. Instead, I changed the wiring from series to parallel, and reassembled them, without any potting.

As I lacquered the body, I had a lot of problems. Everything from an outbreak of sea foam like bubbles, to crinkles that appeared in the final finish after an entire week of drying. I did some wet and dry sanding between coats. I think I could make it work next time, with two weeks drying time between coats. I’m not that patient. I never had such problems with polyurethane so I will go back to it for sure.

Examining the neck/body fit, I found two problems. One, the nut was offset, low on one side. I fixed that easily with a shim of sandpaper. Two, the holes for the tremolo bridge posts were 74mm apart. A Floyd Rose or Schaller bridge is almost a millimeter wider, so it will only accomodate a cheaper brand of bridge (many clones on the market are also 74mm). However, the galling fact is that the bridge that they supplied is narrower by yet another millimeter. It doesn’t sound like much, but it means that the tremolo doesn’t pivot properly on the knife edge part of the slot, instead it’s a little off center where it is more rounded. I may gamble on ordering a new bridge, and hope that the new one has the correct 74mm spacing. I used a pencil to apply graphite in the area for lubrication when the guitar was finished. However, I can see now that it does affect the ability of the tremolo arm to swing back into rest position properly. This small detail makes a huge difference in the end! At least I don’t have to modify the body.

A strange thing, no doubt, is the “2-4” arrangement of tuners on the headstock. I did that to shorten the neck so it would fit in my suitcase when I return from China! I chopped off 6.5cm. and drilled two extra holes for the E and B tuners.

guitarThe Artec pickup and replacement pickguard arrived on the weekend, so it was time for final assembly and test. There was a lot of time spent in setting up the tremolo springs, the string height and the intonation. Many long hours, but it came together at last. What are my feelings about it as a player? I like the thin neck and wide fingerboard, but I don’t really care for the jumbo frets. One plus, the frets were already aligned well enough that they didn’t need to be dressed and crowned. Of course it is a good idea, but it’s optional in this case. I was able to adjust the action down very low without any buzzing. I don’t like the “tummy tuck” cutout in the upper body. It makes the upper body press into my chest as I play sitting down. The volume control is too close to the strings, my fingers keep hitting it. It might be true for any tremolo system, but tuning is a huge hassle. I broke a string right away, and it’s amazing I didn’t break more. You see, when you tune any string down, all the others go up! Also if you use the lock screws on the nut and forget about it and turn the machines, you will surely break a string there.

The sound is great. The parallel wiring does seem to give a clearer sound. As an experiment, to compensate for the lower impedance, I put a 100k ohm fixed resistor in parallel with the volume control. It should help damp the pickups natural self resonance, which might otherwise sound a bit edgy. An interesting phenomenon, is that playing with the middle pickup alone sounds really good. I didn’t expect that. I swapped the neck and middle pickup connections on the selector switch. This allows me to select bridge and neck pickups together, while sacrificing the ability to select bridge and middle together.

Here is the cost breakdown, in Chinese yuan:

  • guitar kit – 480
  • pickguard – 16
  • Artec pickup – 60
  • Spray lacquer – 30
  • Red Ink – 8
  • Shipping – 65

So, the total cost was 659 yuan, or approximately US $105. If I replace the bridge, It will come to  US $120.

Bacchus Telecaster gets new pickups

I brought GFS pickups to China to install in the Bacchus Tele, TC70 True-Coil noise cancelling Stratocaster type neck pickup, and the H102 Lil Puncher XL Modern Vintage Tele bridge replacement. I had already installed a Seymour Duncan JB humbucking pickup in the middle position.
bacchus000
At the same time, I replaced all the tuners and chrome screws. Since there were three pickups, I also brought a 5-way selector switch to replace the original 3-way. I already implemented a custom selection scheme on my American Standard Tele. I liked it so much, I decided to use it again. Basically, it allows you to use some extra selections that aren’t normally available with a 5-way switch. You can hard wire it, as I did, or make it selectable with an additional SPST switch. Here is the schematic:
3_way_pickup_wiring PDF drawing

The selector works as a 5-way normally does, with two exceptions. Normally, position 1,3, and 5 select bridge, middle and neck pickup individually, and the “in between” positions 2 and 4 select bridge/middle and middle/neck respectively. With my modification, position 4 gives you all three pickups, and position 5 gives you neck and bridge.

I have several reasons for doing this. For one, I happen to like the sound of the neck+bridge combination, and I refuse to give it up. The only time I play with the neck pickup only, is on my homemade Tele with a mini-humbucking in that position. Not on this guitar. When I installed and tested everything this time, I didn’t get as much tonal difference as I expected. So I reversed the phase of the middle pickup. It give me phase reversal in two positions, while preserving normal phase in the other three. So, I don’t have to have a raft of switches cluttering the front of my guitar (I don’t have the tools to mess with it now, anyway).

Here is the rundown on this dandy arrangement:

Position 1 – Bridge pickup, classic chicken picken country twang.

Position 2 – Bridge/Middle out of phase. Weird spacey hollow sound.

Position 3 – Middle pickup. Brassy, straightforward sound. Usually a little sharp sounding.

Position 4 – All pickups, Middle out of phase. This one is complicated. The neck/bridge combination is in phase, so it predominates. The middle out of phase tends to just knock out the lows a lot.

Position 5 – Neck and Bridge, together and in phase.

I’m quite happy with the result. I had a custom pickguard made to accommodate the Strat neck pickup, which is much larger than a Tele neck pickup. Alas, the Bacchus body has randomly different dimensions (probably to avoid Fender copyright infringement) and it didn’t fit. I pondered my dilemma and eventually realized that the Strat pickup would just barely squeeze into position on the original pickguard, if I removed the white plastic cover. So that is what I did. Time will tell whether the bobbin is strong enough to be exposed like this, I am not too worried about it because it sits quite low and is securely mounted.

GFS Telecaster Kit is my first Home Brew Guitar

electric guitar

Home Brew Telecaster with Mini Humbucking Pickups

For a long time, I had been considering a way to incorporate mini humbucking pickups into my current favourite body shape, which is Telecaster. I also wanted to do some custom wood finishing – but I don’t have a wood working shop. So I started looking at precut, unfinished bodies and necks. I soon gravitated toward the GFS website, where i found a Telecaster body blank, cut for a Stratocaster style tremolo bridge, and routed for P90 pickups. I soon realized that GFS had all the other parts, including a neck, so I placed a huge order and waited patiently for the package to arrive. I was not disappointed, although, as with any custom kit, there were some rough edges and problems to solve. In order to fit the GFS mini humbuckers in the P90 routed holes, I used the black GFS pickup adapter mounts (also available in cream colour).

I started to sand the body, and thought about the finish. I decided to experiment, and used a thinned wash of artists acrylic – pthalocyanate blue, and a tiny bit of glitter (sparkle) acrylic to create a metallic look. The idea was to create a strong colour, but let the wood grain show through. This was the case, but I would use a slightly lighter colouration next time. Also, I will someday try multiple colours to give a “tie dye” look.

I heavily diluted the acrylic with water, and applied with a large cloth. I then wiped it quickly with clean water. Note: the body must be completely sanded smooth at that point, because further sanding will remove paint and expose streaks of wood. Because the water raises the grain a little, a fairly thick finish coat is required. So about 8 coats of polyurethane from a spray can were needed. I sanded with sandpaper on a flat sanding block in between some coats. After about a week of this work, it was starting to look nice.

While the finish coats were drying, I turned my attention to the neck. the nut was grotesquely high. It should have been replaced, but I filed down the grooves instead, to lower the strings there. I adjusted the truss rod to make the neck perfectly straight, and did what must be the world’s crudest fret dressing job, with a large flat file. I smoothed and crowned the frets with increasingly fine grades of sandpaper alone, since I have no tools for such work. I would never do it like that again, but it worked.

For wiring I chose a dead simple arrangement, single volume and selector switch with no tone controls. All the cavities are shielded with copper tape, properly soldered to the ground connection. All the electrical parts were available from GFS.

Finally, it was assembly day! Thanks to a lot of pre-fitting, everything went together fairly smoothly. The only real botch was that the tremolo rocker screw holes could not be aligned precisely enough. So, I had to secure the bridge in a fixed position. I don’t use the “whammy bar” in my playing, since none of my guitars have previously had one (or maybe I didn’t notice!). Really, I would rather have installed a Fender style fixed bridge, but it wasn’t possible because of the cutouts.

So! What’s it like? It’s awesome! The neck is perfect. I tried lowering the action – before any string buzz occurs, the snap is lost. It means the alignment is just perfect. I raised it up to where I like it, comparable with Fender factory string heights. The sound? Beautiful! The mini humbuckers are the best I now have, especially the neck pickup. It is the only guitar I have that sounds really good with only the neck pickup – perfect for jazz. The blue finish is absolutely stunning.

The Guitar that Started the Telecaster Devotion

Fender American Telecaster w/ Custom Humbucking Pickups

Fender American Telecaster w/ Custom Humbucking Pickups

It started when I sold my Gibson Les Paul. I found it a little heavy, just not quite right in my lap (I usually play sitting down, I’m a jazz player). The Gibson ES-345 was my cherished guitar for years, but I refurbished and sold it too, in the name of change. I never cared much for the line frequency hum associated with single coil pickups, so I had not ever seriously considered Strats or Teles. But I went to the store with an open mind, so ended up trying this guitar. It was love. The balance of the body on my lap is just perfect, and I like the extra width of the string spacing at the nut. Tempted by a modest discount, I bought it and began the humbucking conversion. Lifting the pick guard, I found cavities pre-routed for a humbucking at the neck, and a Strat single coil in the middle. So I outfitted it with a DiMarzio DP-384 Chopper at the bridge, a DiMarzio DP-411B Virtual T (neck) in the middle, and a Seymour Duncan SH-2 Jazz at the neck position. The three way selector switch has a trick, of my own invention. I found the neck only position sound too dull. So I arranged some wiring to switch in the bridge pickup when the neck is selected (position 1). A side effect is that all three pickups are selected in position 2. The cream coloured replacement pick guard is a Warmoth custom part.

Bacchus Telecaster Re-worked

Bacchus Telecaster Clone with Humbucking Pickup

Bacchus Telecaster Clone with Humbucking Pickup

This guitar was for sale at a great price at a Chengdu guitar store. I sold the single coil pickups to the store owner, who wanted them. I routed the body to accept a middle humbucker, and expanded the neck pickup rout to accept a future Strat pickup. This would almost make a “Nashville Tele”. It’s staying in China for now. The dimensions are not quite the same as Telecaster, so I couldn’t mix and match much. It’s a great neck, someone previously had carefully dressed the frets (not me). The new pickup is a Seymour Duncan JB SH-4. The old pickup holes have been filled with black electrical tape. No, not duct tape!

Guitars

DSCN0065I had to leave my Fender Telecaster in Canada, so I went down to the music area of Harbin to look for a guitar to play. I came home with a used Jay Turser semi-acoustic. It doesn’t seem much like the companies current offerings. This one charmed me with a smaller size body than a typical semi (such as Gibson ES-335). After a thorough cleaning and truss rod adjustment, it was ready to go. The neck needs the loving touch of a fine luthier, to really get the action down without a bit of buzzing. I think that’s why my first finger is now swollen, from trying to do heavy metal bar chords with the higher action. I’m taking a day or two off playing until that improves.