I recently received an email from one of my pickup affectionados in Germany asking a question that I realized is of ULTIMATE importance in Strat tone: “what is the best distance from the pickup to the strings for the best results?” Now that’s a question EVERYONE who owns or works on Strat’s NEEDS to know the answer to!
I need to make it clear that I am talking about real-deal vintage pickups and real-deal quality pickups like the ones made by Jason Lollar, Curtis Novak, Lindy Fralin, And myself. Those crappy Ceramic Bars glued next to steel slug things that come standard in so many Strat’s and Strat copies today cannot really be made to sound good, so a trip to the waste-basket is the only course of treatment for them.
I prefer to use a digital caliper to take measurements, but a quality luthier’s ruler will do fine if you have excellent vision! I also should mention that these measurements should be taken from the High & Low E POLE-PIECES, not the plastic cover. Okay, so with no further ado, here are my suggestions and reasons why.
Low E: 3.80mm / 0.149"
Hi E : 4.74mm / 0.186"
Often people will place the bridge pickup too high (close to the strings), with a VINTAGE set this destroys the tone, making it sound too narrow, focused, brittle, and harsh. The reason so many folks get used to placing this pickup as close as possible to the strings is because many of the currently made Strat pickups are muddy and severely lacking in the characteristic chime and sparkle we all love in a Strat! As with all truly fine Strat sets, my pickups certainly do NOT suffer from this lack of sparkle!
Low E: 4.75mm / 0.186"
Hi E : 4.13mm / 0.163"
Here, for me, it's all about making the middle pickup truly magical when combined with the neck or bridge pickup (positions 2 & 4). Yes, these measurements sound exquisite when using the middle pickup all by itself, but it REALLY brings out the glassy, airy beauty that folks crave in the "in-between" positions on a Strat!
Low E: 5.25mm / 0.207"
Hi E : 4.37mm / 0.172"
This is actually a very standard placement, and about where most Strats will come set from the factory. There are three goals here. First, we want a great "SRV" type tone that sings beautifully and does not fall apart into mud even with EXTREME amounts of gain added (think dual daisy-chained Tube Screamers). Second, we want to be able to roll the tone back a little and have a truly rewarding experience playing big Jazz chords and lines. And last, we want to ensure it blends perfectly with the middle pickup for that air and glass we mentioned.
Over the decades I’ve owned a fair number of what I call “big Boy” Les Pauls; you know, the kind with full binding, extra-glossy finishes, and multi-thousand dollar price tags. I have failed to bond with any of them in a sufficient enough manner to justify my keeping them. It’s quite possible that the problem is that I’m just downright spoiled. You see, I’ve had opportunity to possess … but never actually own … several 58 and 59 Pauls. That WILL spoil you, they really are THAT good. Okay, let’s cut to the chase … A couple months back a buddy of mine asks me what I know about the vintage “Burny” Les Pauls. All I knew is that they existed, and that there has been some chatter about them being quite good. It just so happened that I was exhibiting at a guitar show that very weekend, and so I asked around, and in fact played several Burnys. It’s hard to tell on a show floor, but yea, they seemed quite nice, and the fact that they had asking prices from about $700 to over a grand indicated that they were not your run of the mill 70s/80s Gibson knock-off. Actually, the fact that they even appeared in the booths of strictly vintage dealers alongside real-deal holy-grail Pauls spoke volumes!
Which brings us to the guitar on display here. After a week or two my buddy acquired a Burney to his liking and brought it over to the studio for me to check out. I was flat blown away. In every possible way, this “les Paul” is magnificent. It’s neck profile is dead-on to a ’59, not as thin as what Gibby is currently calling the “slim-taper 60s profile”, but not as thick as what they call the “50s profile”. No, it’s just plain perfect, it’s the profile EVERY Les Paul affectionado lusts after. Actually, EVERYTHING about the guitar just flat feels right. The weight, balance, action, and intonation are impeccable, and the pickups sound better than anything Gibson’s made this side of about 1965. I wish I could tell you more about these guitars, but they are new to me, and I’m not anywhere close to an expert. However, a little google search will put you in the camp of plenty of experts in a hurry. What I CAN do is tell you a little more about what impresses me so much about this particular example. And by the way, I can’t even tell you much of anything about the pedigree of this particular guitar, as there are no markings inside or outside other than the Burny logo! It was sold as a 1980s model, and so we assume it is. There, that’s about all I can tell ya, PLEASE … y’all feel free to leave some comments if you can shed some light on this instrument!
The first thing that stood out to me was the fact that the binding encased the fret edges, just like a bound-fingerboard Gibson.
The knobs have a magnificent aged amber look.
All the plastic has aged (or came that way) in a most deep and luscious way.
The truss-rod cover looks a little goofy.
She’s sweet. I hope my buddy isn’t looking to get her back any time soon :-)
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