Hi gang! Sooo, this is a bit of a last minute addition. I just finished a set of fully custom pickups for a Gibson SG-Z bass; it was a TON of R&D to get that design to actually sound good, but man-oh-man did I get there! I was going to blog about THAT … but then in comes this fantastic video of our buddy Daniel at WGS upgrading WGS boss-man David’s MIM Tele, and … well … I just HAD to blog about it. So cool! First, watch this short video, then … let’s talk about Tele upgrades!
Cool, huh? THIS is exactly why I make pickups. Really, it’s the same philosophy as with WGS speakers, and it goes something like this:
“Budget” guitars are now the best playing they have EVER been. Thanks to cheap yet skilled labor in places like Mexico and Indonesia, coupled with modern CNC machining, $200 - $300 can now buy a really good guitar. The problem is, the manufactures put all their money into what folks can SEE (and maybe FEEL) … NOT what they HEAR! And so it is that the weak link in a modern budget guitar is the part that actually makes the sound … the pickup!”
In a way, that’s okay, because the average 12 year old getting their first guitar wouldn’t know holy-grail tone from holy-crap tone. However, in another way that’s just plain disturbing. I mean, think about it. That kid may just stick with the guitar, get good, join a band, and turn into a REAL player … and then, what? I guess he’s just supposed to buy a more EXPENSIVE guitar if he wants decent tone. Or worse yet, maybe he gets so accustomed to bad tone that he just accepts it as standard fare.
Or … our young friend can take that lovely guitar they have now bonded with and turn her into a totally flat-out pro level tone machine! Yea, how about that, baby?
Thing is, it’s really quite simple to do. It comes down to this: 1. Have a good pro-level set-up done, including fret dressing and precise intonating, and 2. Put in a truly GREAT set of pickups (even most American Made guitars will not include truly GREAT pickups), and maybe replace the tone capacitor(s) and volume and tone pots while you’re in there. What you wind up with in the end is a guitar that can stand toe-to-toe with a $10,000+ vintage “Holy-Grail” level instrument for a total investment of maybe five hundred bucks!
Okay, so here are the few “secrets” … just details really … that I’ve came up with over the decades.
Folks, the truth is, many pro players are now in agreement that instruments like the Squire “Classic Vibe” Telecasters and Stratocasters are as good as an American Standard Fender or better. I agree, at least once you have done steps 1-5 above, and your total investment will be way less than an American Fender. That’s why so many pros riding out of Nashville on big busses have MIM Fenders, Squires, and Epiphones riding in the luggage bay below the buss. Why take a stupidly valuable guitar out when you just flat don’t need to?
Howdy friends! Sooo, today I was researching a couple guitars, to see if the ones I just picked up used were indeed the good buys I thought they were (An Epiphone Les Paul Plus Top PRO/FX and a Gibson Les Paul Future Tribute) . Now, I generally go straight to reviews from places like Musicians Friend and Sweetwater to see what other buyers of a particular guitar have to say about it. And, as is always the case, I felt that some of the buyers/reviewers just don’t understand the whole “mail-order” guitar concept. Let’s discuss that.
First, if you only remember ONE THING from this blog, remember this: If a guitar is shipped to you, you should EXPECT that it will need at least a rudimentary set-up. This is even more so the case in extreme weather conditions (read my blog on cold-weather guitar care).
Man, I get tired of people complaining that a guitar arrived at their doorstep from a thousand miles away and actually needed a setup. DUDE, get a clue! If a guitar spends the better part of a week (or more) in an un-climate controlled truck traveling through massive changes in temperature, pressure, and humidity, chances are good that it will need a little tweaking on the set-up. If by chance it arrives with the setup just exactly the way you personally like it, then consider it a big bonus, but do not take it for granted as what you can usually expect.
Which of course leads me to the next piece of this set-up rant: personal preference. Fact is, one man’s barely playable guitar is another man’s dream set-up. Personal preference is an opinion, it’s not a fact.
So, here are some areas that you can EXPECT a guitar to need a little love in after a long and trying journey to arrive at your door. If you feel insecure addressing any of these, take it to a qualified and recommended luthier.
Okay, so … how about those things that do NOT change in shipping and therefore SHOULD be mentioned in a review. It’s totally okay to be subjective here, since these are all items that folks will like or hate to varying degrees
Oh, and when reviewing a guitar on-line, please list your experience and musical style. And for those reading reviews, take this important info into account. The reviews I give the most weight to are those that come from pro players with at least a couple decades under their belts, and preferably in many genres. The “this is my first guitar and I play metal” review is generally one I skip over! Nuff said, now go buy a guitar.
Howdy friendly guitar folks! This past weekend I set up shop at the 4-Amigos Guitar Show in Nashville, one of Nashville’s finest annual shows. Man, I gotta tell ya, I LOVE guitar shows! Let me tell ya why!
First, it is, of course a fantastic place to see holy-grail dream guitars, like this ’59 Burst:
Or, this real-deal ’57 Gold-Top!
As a matter of fact, there are ALWAYS more Les Paul’s that you can shake a stick at!
And acoustic players, there are always plenty of holy-grail acoustics too.
Man, I LOVE seeing the cool, the weird, the wonderful, and the unique guitars like these original 60’s clear Dan Armstrong’s.
Vintage not your cup of tea? Maybe you are looking for a custom builder to lovingly craft your dream guitar from the ground up. Look no further, as plenty of top-notch builders are always showing, like these fine friendly folks from Rock Road Custom Guitars.
Of course, there was some goofy guy there selling some really fantastic looking custom hand-wound guitar pickups and amps!
And, while I’m on the subject of me … I did promise myself that I would NOT be dragging any more guitars home from the show, well … you guessed it, I just couldn’t help myself.
Now, if like me the price on vintage gold-tops is a bit out of your price range, you can ALWAYS find something unique and unexpected at a guitar show that you CAN afford. Here’s the bad-girl that I just couldn’t say no to … oh, and she was just as cheap as she is trashy :-).
As I pen this blog, the entire eastern half of the nation is in an icy, snowy deepfreeze. Everywhere I look I see downed trees, and the news is full of the snow and ice-induced carnage of collapsed roofs and interstate pile-ups. Okay, so I think we all agree that this type of weather sort of sucks … but the question every GUITAR PLAYER should be asking themselves is this: How does this affect my guitar? Let’s talk about that! Hint, if you want to go straight to the “what to do” check-list, feel free to skip ahead to the end.
My first lesson in how sub-freezing temps affect a guitars finish came back in about 1987. I was playing on the road with then country super-star Tom T. Hall. It was one of my first “buss gigs”, and for the most part the gear rode in the unheated bays below the bus. I was REALLY green and didn’t think to bring my acoustic up into the buss as we headed into the north-east states for a Christmas tour. You guessed it, the guitar that went into the bay perfect came out with a finished cracked to pieces. Today, I guess we’d call it “reliced”, but in 1987 it was just called UGLY. The lesson learned: guitar finishes can crack when frozen hard. Now, it’s true that certain finishes will crack worse than others, with acoustics being particularly prone to cracking, but given a hard enough freeze, nearly all guitar finishes can be susceptible. The problem is that the finish shrinks at an entirely different rate than the wood it’s on; the result is cracks, baby!
Which brings me to neck warping and bridge pull-away. Once again, the steel strings will shrink at an entirely different rate than the wood of your guitar. This can cause neck warping and twisting. Also, as the air gets not only colder, but drier as well, the glue holding an acoustic together loses much strength, which, combined with tightened strings, can lead to bridge pull-away on acoustics.
And last, speaking of dry air, even if your guitars are never anywhere near sub-freezing temps; they are almost undoubtedly exposed to much, much drier air in the cold winter months. Very dry air wreaks havoc upon ALL guitars, not just acoustics. ALL guitars can end up with the fret ends extending uncomfortably beyond the edges of the finger-board due to the wood shrinking up. You can also expect ANY guitar to need a little truss-rod tweaking in the cold and dry months (which will again need attention in the hot and humid months). When guitars get very dry, the wood shrinks and cracks, and the glue that holds them together shrinks and fails. Not good! Your guitar may in fact get SO DRY that is takes some drastic re-humidification to even get it acceptably playable again. The following list is from Taylor Guitars,
A dry guitar can exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:
1. Low action. Strings are very close to the fret-board.
2. Hump on fretboard where neck joins body.
3. On NT necks, a slight gap around the fretboard extension.
4. Sunken top across the soundboard between bridge and fingerboard.
5. Back of guitar looks very flat when it is dried out.
6. Sharp fret ends extend beyond the edge of fret-board.
7. The plane of the neck angle on a dry guitar hits above the top of the bridge.
Yikes! That sounds like something to be avoided at all costs! The entire pdf from Taylor on “Symptoms of a Dry Guitar” can be found here.
So there ya go. That’s not so bad, is it? Now get to it, and I’ll talk to y’all again next week; until then, stay warm and keep those guitars happy!
Okay, there ya go. If you want the VERY short version, read no “farther”. If you want to know WHY … well then, read on!
Reason #1: because your ears are not on the back of your knees. So, a band I play with regularly rehearses in a hall that has a pair of half-stack Marshalls on one side of the stage. Since electric guitar players are a dime-a-dozen in the Nashville area, I usually am on the far side of the room playing acoustic guitar or keys. Guess what? Those dang Marshall’s are WAY louder where I’m standing than where the dudes playing through them are standing … and what’s worse? The tone is razor thin and harsh. . Why? Simple, because human ears are on the HEAD, not the back of the knees. Those dudes standing a couple of feet in front of the half stacks are having their LEGS blasted … but the sound of those closed-back lasers takes ten feet MINIMUM to reach ear-level. And, since HIGHER frequencies are very directional, and LOW frequencies are not … dudes THINK their tone is big & full when ten or twenty feet out it’s like an icepick being driven in your ear. UGG! Friends, your butt may be able to FEEL low frequencies, but it sure as heck can’t HEAR highs!
Reason #2: because NOBODY in your audience is going to be listening with their head only a foot or two from your amp! Seriously! When I teach audio engineering/mixing I always impress upon my students the importance of monitoring in a fashion that as closely as possible recreates the manner in which the end user will listen. Same goes for an electric guitar player on stage. Let’s say you are playing through an amp like my favorite, a Super Reverb, with the ability to angle up. Cool, that way you avoid the “only hits your knees” thing … BIG improvement! But wait, there’s more. If you are practically standing on top of the amp, you are not going to be hearing a tone that’s anything like the rest of the room is hearing. So, darn it, just step back a few feet and it’s “problem solved”.
One last note. An open-back amp or cabinet with its inherent ability to scatter sound around is much, MUCH more forgiving than a closed-back cabinet where either of my reasons are concerned, so unless you are playing BIG stages, stick to open-back cabs whenever possible.
“Big, little, short or tall, wish I could have kept them all … Lord I loved them every one”. This is a line from a Conway Twitty hit country song in the 80s; when Conway sang this line he was speaking of ladies, but for me it would be GUITARS. To me it’s like this … one person can look at a dog and say “that’s the ugliest dog I ever saw”, and someone else (usually the dog’s owner) will say “no, it’s the cutest dog in the world”. When it comes to guitars, I'm always the latter, what someone else may call ugly, I call awesome. To me, EVERY guitar is beautiful in its own way. I am particularly drawn to guitars from the golden period of the late 50s through the late 60s … and here’s where it gets weird, I actually love those unlovables that have many battle scars and owner hacked “modifications”. I call it “personality”.
Okay, so that brings us to today’s topic, a 67 Gibson Melody Maker SG that I recently found in a little junk shop. Here is a list of what owners have done to her over the last five decades:
So, interestingly enough, the only really BAD thing that had been done was the nut re-positioning. It essentially left the guitar incapable of playing in tune, because the spacing from the nut to the 1st fret was wrong. It would also prove to be the most challenging issue to fix, as I actually had to graft a small piece of rosewood in to the fingerboard to put the nut back where it belonged! As far as all the other mods go … well, I liked them, although I probably would have liked the original pelham blue.
So, having fixed the nut issue I proceeded to get to know the old gal. I can flat tell ya that there ain’t anything that feels as sweet as a good Gibby neck that’s been played for 50-ish years or so. Sweet! But the sound … well, it was thin & ugly. Not a real problem as I was planning to put a set of my own PAFs in her anyway; so, it was time to open her up. Inside, I found the good … the bad … and the ugly!
The good: The pickups were a nice set of PRS McCarty Archtops, which I quickly sold on eBay for a nice little bit of change.
The Bad: Of the four pots, only ONE was a proper 500K! The two volume pots were 100K (probably from Radio Shack in the 70s or 80s), and one tone pot was a 50K.
The Ugly: Well … everything I found inside! Some of the ugliest soldering I’ve ever seen and a real hack-job on enlarging the pickup cavity!
The cure for this old gal’s internal injuries was a set of four new Alpha 500K pots and new orange-drop tone caps … and a set of my Historic ’57 PAF pickups … aged to perfection! I’d also like to note that I wired the guitar using the earliest Gibson Les Paul wiring scheme from the mid-late 50s. Over the years, the value and position of the tone capacitor has changed several times. Most true Les Paul players swear by the original system, and I agree. The interaction between the four controls when in the middle position is extreme … but once you get used to that, it becomes an asset rather than a hindrance. Google modern vs. 50s Les Paul wiring to research the difference.
The result: a super-sweet vintage SG that sounds second to none, plays like a dream, and is a true one of a kind. Best part? My total investment was under $500 … and several long nights at the bench.
Here’s a video of my Gal strutting her stuff. Check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s0yGQrYTok
Hi gang! This blog marks a bit of a first, as it is the first time I am officially blogging about the pickups that bear my name! When I began making guitar pickups, I firmly believed that the best pickups ever made were in fact made from about 1952 to 1965, and my intention was to painstakingly reproduce these mid-century works of art. Where Stratocasters and Humbuckers are concerned, I was dead-on the bull’s eye. However, the Telecaster players were giving me something further to consider. The Strat players were on a magic carpet ride to Nirvana with my 1954-1964 sets, and “les Paul” players consider my Alnico II and Alnico IV PAFs to be truly “Holy Grail” tone. But those pesky Tele players. . .
When Tele players talk about “Holy Grail” tone, the usual statement made is something like this: “Well, I love the sound of a vintage 50’s Tele bridge pickup … but they CAN get a little ice-picky sometimes, and …well, I really don’t use the neck pickup much, it’s just too dead and woofy”.
Okay, y’all, think about this for a second. There are top-shelf touring Tele-masters out there gigging with vintage Telecasters worth tens of thousands of dollars saying, in essence “I’m not really in love with my tone”. Wow! That sucks, and I couldn’t help but feel as though something NEEDED to be done for these folks. Now, I could have gone the route of some, and simply thrown in the towel and conceded defeat on the neck pickup … and focused on the bridge pickup (can you say “Esquire”?). But, that would be against every bone in my body. I LIKE multi-pickup guitars for the tonal versatility they offer, and especially for the complex and uniquely gratifying tone that can only result from a fantastically combining pair of pickups! And so it was that I set out on a path that was already littered with the wreckage of past failures. Could I succeed where so many others have failed? Could a set of Tele pickups be made that truly left Tele players wanting for NOTHING? And, for the record, I strictly desired to keep to “true” Tele sets … I’m talking drop-in replacements here … not some crappily conceived humbucker or other aberration; plenty of folks have went down that road and wound up with the most God-awful sounding Tele pickups ever! My goal wasn’t to remove “hum” or to produce a pickup that looked good on an oscilloscope … no, I wanted tone to die for, true Holy-Grail tone.
I will admit that, living in Nashville, I have an advantage over many other pickup designers and builders. Here in Nashville, I have at my disposal what is probably the largest assembly of top-shelf Telecasters and the Tele-Masters who play them available anywhere in the world. And so I began quite a process of comparing everything that I tried to the “best of the best”. Guess what? It seems as though I did it. Rocket science? Nope, not at all. The recipe I landed on really isn’t that far from Leo’s first designs, in fact. Here is what I found:
So there you have it; almost all my secrets revealed. Nearly a year’s worth or R&D thrown out there for anyone to copy as they see fit. Why on earth would I divulge this? Well, Leo Fender is kinda my hero … and the man never even patented the Stratocaster or the Telecaster guitars; so, I guess you could say I’m following in Leo’s footsteps … and hopefully adding a little to his legacy.
Convinced? Be sure to check out these pickups … that we’ve named “Vaughn’s Velvet Telecaster” set.
Here is a video discussion and demo. If it doesn’t play, follow this link: http://youtu.be/oCJ9xAL2Ltg?list=UUqz2jjVBQhBK3oCSyp1UE9g
Rickenfaker? Fakenbacker? Humm, call it what you want, the bass I recently discovered in a little mom-n-pop music show was most certainly not the Rickenbacker it claimed to be!
On a recent trip to a small Kentucky town not many hours out of Nashville, TN my eyes caught something not often seen in this types of music store, a cool vintage-looking Rick 4001 bass. I took a quick look at the price and got a little excited … five hundred bucks! Here is the bass, I handed it to my buddy Brad to snap a quick pic of my “find”.
Then I decided I’d try to determine its approximate age. Here is a pick I snapped of this “MADE IN U.S.A.” 4001:
Then I flipped it over:
Hey … wait a minute! A bolt-on Rick 4001? No way! This thing was as fake as a three dollar bill. What had made it look so convincing was the fact that it looked like an old club-gig war horse. This thing reaked of cigarette smoke and sported what appeared to be the signs of a lot of actual play time. And, so I figured the somewhat strange pickup and a few other things were just unknown “battle scars” from less than professional “fixes”. But the bolt-on neck … nope. My poor little heart was broken.
Now, possibly the weirdest part of this story is this: on my last trip to this same small town I looked at a “Gibson Zack Wylde Les Paul” in a pawn shop that was also a fake. What the heck? Are fake guitars really that rampant? I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, but I do know this, when buying a guitar second-hand, be sure it’s REALLY what it claims to be … especially if the deal is too good to be true! Consider yourself warned.
Thanksgiving. Is it possible to be thankful in 2014? I think so, let’s talk about that.
I’m 5-foot, 3-inches tall and that makes me downright short by national standards. It’s been proven time and time again that folks as short as me don’t generally get a fair shake. Let’s take a peek at the list of “disadvantages” folks like me have:
And it’s a “double whammy” in my case because I’m now also going bald, and guess what, bald men undergo the exact same prejudices! So, right about now you may be asking what this has to do with being THANKFUL. Well my friend, that’s an easy one; I’m thankful to be a short, bald man living in the United Stated of America, where there is only one disadvantage that really matters: a bad attitude. I’m reminded of the catch-line of Russian-American comic Yakov Smirnoff: “America, what a country!”
I love this country, where disadvantaged folks like me can parlay a “glass is half-full” attitude and a good work ethic into a seriously great life. From the moment I hit kindergarten, I’ve known I was fighting an uphill battle. I was the shortest kid in my class, and kids can be really brutal in letting you know just how inferior a thing like that makes you! It could have destroyed me, but it didn’t, it made me stronger. I began to instinctively know that I would have to be better than average at everything I did if I were to see any real success in life. A Tall, dark, and handsome guy may be able to be an inept idiot and still get whatever he wants when he flashes his 100-watt smile, but not me! And I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I get the job, it’s a damn sure thing that I earned it. When someone is my friend, they probably REALLY like me. And, chances are my wife really loves me, too. See where I’m going with this? Yea, I’m thankful God made me just the way I am; I’m a better man because of the built-in adversity I continually face.
And so, on this Thanksgiving, please dear friend, take whatever disadvantages you may be facing in life and put them to work for you. If, like me, you are fortunate enough to be living in the USA, consider yourself blessed. This country has a rich history of disadvantaged folks from all walks of life rising to astronomical success, both personal as well as professional.
Seriously folks, I hope yours is an attitude of gratitude, because if it is, you are probably a happy person with a bunch of real friends and folks who love you for who you are … and on this Thanksgiving Day, I’d like to propose that having true friends is what we should be truly thankful for.
Oh, and if that isn’t enough, there’s always the “black Friday” sale here at WGS! If you enter the code: GIVETHANKS2014, you'll get 15% off all speakers, pickups, and other goodies. Ha! Feeling a little more thankful now? Yep, I thought so.