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.
I 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.
I 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. 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.
I 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.
The 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.