FOUR YEARS LATER...
07/15/16- I was wrong: The soul of "Strat 10" appears to be its neck, not its body!
Okay, I'll 'fess up: In the original Strat 10 article, I didn't mention that when I took the guitar out in the sunlight to take photos, I realized that the neck and body colors didn't go as well together as I'd thought (notice that the pics are fairly dark?). The neck had a reddish hue and the body had a greenish hue. I'd been so caught up in the details of the project that I didn't even notice while I was working on it. But once I noticed it, I couldn't un-notice the mismatch. That's the sort of stuff that festers... The lesson learned is that when color-matching matters, it's risky to order based on pictures. When I saw a rosewood body on eBay, I jumped at the chance to fix the problem.
It's well-known that rosewood is a dense wood and that rosewood guitars are therefore heavy boat anchor guitars. So I had no expectation that it would be a "player" guitar. I consider a player guitar to be a practical guitar that's lightweight, sounds good, is easy to play, and you don't mind if it picks up a few dings. I've got a few favorites for that already. In my opinion, once you get more than 2 - 3 player guitars, you're getting new guitars for an entirely different reason: Because you're curious, or because they look cool, or you just want something new.
Recycling is Something That You Can Feel Self-Righteous About: G.A.S. (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) can become an obsession. After I'd turned our house into something resembling a guitar store, I started to feel guilty and told myself that I would resist temptation and not get another guitar, even though I still want a Telecaster, a Steinberger, a Dobro, and...and... The inner voice protests loudly.
Enter the concept of recycling and modding, thanks to the modular construction of Stratocasters: Instead of being an evil, decadent, climate-change denier and buying an entirely new guitar, you can buy a replacement neck or body for an existing guitar and make it seem like a new guitar. Better yet, as long as you don't sell the replaced part, there's a chance that it might later get the part that turns it into a complete guitar. (Been there, done that.) It's a devious bit of self-deception. I think it works because it spreads acquisition of smaller chunks over a longer period of time. (Ultimately though, that does nothing for the "where do I put it?" question.)
The Rosewood Stratocaster: According to The Internets, the iconic Rosewood Telecaster immortalized by George Harrison in the Let It Be movie had a fraternal twin: A rosewood Stratocaster, built for Jimi Hendrix. He died before he got to play it, and it mysteriously disappeared. From Internet pics, it's a great-looking guitar, and I had all the parts (black pickguard, white pickups and knobs) to try to replicate that, but decided to do something different.
This is meant to be a fancy guitar. Like I said, I had no expectation that this would be a player guitar, so that opened it up to all sorts of things that I wouldn't want on a player guitar. Hum didn't matter, so I could finally use the wooden Reed James true single coil pickups in a Wenge wood pickguard that I'd acquired years ago. I could use smooth-surfaced wooden knobs instead of those practical grippy plastic Fender knobs. You can probably see where this is going: A maximum wood guitar, similar to those at Woody Woodcaster Guitars. (I almost did that with my modded Malmsteen Strat, but I wanted that guitar to be a practical player guitar with noiseless single coil pickups and grippy plastic knobs.)
This meant that the original body could be mothballed with its EMG pickups, active tone control and distortion circuit intact. Another thing I didn't mention in the original article: I came to feel that the electronics were boring in a been-there, done-that kinda way. In hindsight, if it were to be a player's guitar with a battery box, nowadays I would probably install piezo pickups and preamp instead. For the rosewood body, the simple passive Strat circuitry with standard single coil pickups would be fine. Should be easy-peasy, right?
Ugh, Problems... The biggest problem was that the neck holes I'd drilled to fit the Warmoth body didn't work for the rosewood body. Arrrrgh. According to Internet research, the best way to fix this would be to fit wood plugs into the neck. My lazy-ass instinct wanted to believe that the holes could be filled with epoxy, or maybe toothpicks, or dowels, but after evaluating the different solutions, the "plugs" solution seemed to have the most convincing arguments. While any of the other solutions would probably work just fine, inserting plugs would let me drill new screw holes into wood that matched the grain direction of the neck wood (unlike most common dowels). This would make the strongest possible reconstituted wood surface, and look the most professional (although... it's hidden in the neck pocket, so who cares?). I'd never done this before so this would be an opportunity to acquire plug cutter bits and learn a new trick. It also helped justify the purchase of that badge of suburban living: A drill press in the garage. Ka-ching$$$!
It's easy to do, but helps if you have the right tools, like a drill press: The plug cutter bits have too large of a cutting surface to use with a hand drill (you'd have a really hard time keeping them in place to start the cutting). Likewise, the holes that you drill into your neck for the plugs should be perpendicular to the neck-- a job for a drill press. I made rosewood plugs for 1/4" and 3/8" holes; the plugs were under 1/2" long, which was more than sufficient for the length of the screws. The excess was removed with a flush cut saw.
Doing the job "right" is easier if you have tools that many folks probably don't have lying around, so it's easy to see why toothpicks and epoxy are often used for jobs like this. That's the reason why over half of my guitars have ugly cavities cut with hand drill bits, Dremel bits, and chisels instead of a router. I must say that it's possible to do some jobs like this with a basic set of tools-- I installed my Aluminum Strat's graphite neck (with machine screws and embedded bushings) with a simple hand drill. In that case though, the body's screw holes guided the alignment of the drill bit, acting like a drill press.
A Bridge Too Wide: I'd planned to use the Warmoth body's hybrid bridge (2-7/32" mounting spacing with 2-1/16" string spacing), but the body had been drilled for South-of-the-Border mounting spacing (2-1/16"). Arrrgh. An easy-to-fix problem if you've got a spare Mexican spec top plate hanging out in spare parts... which I didn't. More $$$, but preferable to plugging more holes. Fortunately, the Callaham block and saddles transferred easily to the new top plate-- Callaham's stainless steel "Virtual Pop-In" tremolo arm works so much better than Fender's, with absolutely zero slop (but you've got to use their block). Highly recommended (and better than Teflon tape or shrink-wrap tubing).
The body didn't come with pre-drilled tremolo claw screw holes either, so I had to research how to drill them in an area with zero working room for a standard drill. The solution is to get a really long drill bit and drill at the shallowest angle possible while protecting the finish. More $$$.
The Importance of Right-Sized Screw Holes: Because rosewood is such a dense and hard wood, it's very important to drill holes that are just slightly smaller than the size of the screw. Unlike most other woods used in electric guitars, rosewood doesn't compress very much and if you try to force a screw into a too-small hole, there's a good chance that the screw will break off in the hole-- which is very bad news (been there, done that). So you have to be very mindful of the torque that you're applying, and if there's any doubt, back the screw out. It's also a very good idea to coat the screw threads with beeswax to lubricate them.
A Digression About Whammy Bars: Since the original article, I've developed a preference for floating tremolos, so the Super Vee Mag-Lok stayed with the Warmoth body. (I've removed Hipshot Tremsetters from most of my Strats, too.)
Having gotten used to Floyd Rose-style tremolos, I must say that vintage style Fender tremolos do feel like they could use some improvements in ergonomics (but then they wouldn't be vintage, right?). On the plus side, I do like the Strat bridge's low profile fit and uncluttered access to the spot where the strings exit the saddle: It feels very natural and makes palm muting so easy and controllable.
However, the Strat's whammy bar isn't ideal for grabbing in a hurry. One of the impediments is the Strat's iconic football-shaped jack (that I really like): It depends on the shape and length of the whammy bar (there are many variations) but in the worst case, the cord/plug can get in the way of quickly grabbing the whammy bar since the bar tends to dangle in that area. The split second that it takes to sort it out can make a difference. The other impediment is the vintage-style whammy bar tip: The tip's edge is like a speed bump when your pinkie is sliding up the bar to the end where you get maximum leverage. I like the look of the whammy bar tip, but some whammy-centric playing styles require super-quick access and control of the whammy bar. The modern two-point Stratocaster bridges are better in this regard since they have pop-in bars without the tip. There doesn't seem to be a demand for tipless whammy bars for vintage-style Strat tremolos, but that's probably because folks who play that kind of music use Floyd Rose-style tremolos. Folks who choose the vintage style tremolo probably want it to look vintagey, right down to the whammy bar tip.
These aren't problems if you use the whammy for mood-inspired shimmers and dives. For more deliberate whammy bar use, you can pick with the bar cradled in your pinkie (which limits what you can pick), or grab it whenever you can in advance of using it.
The vintage 6-screw tremolo design potentially adds much more friction to the fulcrum than the 2-point edge designs. It's relatively easy to reduce the friction by mounting it with the two outer screws: The other screw holes in the bridge plate can be enlarged so they don't contact partially screwed-down middle screws. This turns it into a facsimilie of a 2-point tremolo while preserving the look of the vintage tremolo. (Design-wise, the modern tremolo with the blades & tremolo posts still have less friction and are more likely to return to correct pitch.)
It's fairly common for free-floating tremolos to not return to exactly the same pitch when doing dive bombs and pull-ups. I think this is more apparent nowadays since everyone has digital tuners that show minor differences in tuning that probably went unnoticed when everyone didn't, when most players relied mainly on their ears to tell them when a string was grossly out-of-tune. Since the tremolo is a mechanical system of balanced spring and string tension, I think it's unrealistic to expect digital perfection where there's always some amount of friction present, no matter how hard you try to get rid of it with lubrication and low-friction parts. I think it's easy to get overly obsessed about this from looking at displays instead of using your ears. If your ears tell you something's wrong, it's a problem. Otherwise, it's probably not. (That said, there are plenty of other good reasons to set up a tremolo for dives only.)
As much as I love to hate locking nuts, they really do give more stable tuning than lubed and perfectly cut nuts and locking tuners; it totally removes that end of the guitar from tuning stability problems.
Setup and Fine Tuning: At last! When all the pieces are in place you can finally string 'er up, plug 'er in and play the sucker. And spend the next week fixing and fine-tuning all the little things that need fixing. It's a time when strings get loosened many times, tremolo springs get removed, screws get unscrewed, and the guitar gets tuned up many, many times.
Scratchplate Off: Electronics are probably the easiest to fix-- the main hassle is removing the neck and scratchplate (which is why there aren't any pics of its guts). I find it easiest to capo the strings (actually, I use tape), loosen them and remove the neck. Because of this, it's a good idea to make a list of things to fix while you've got the scratchplate off! I'd mis-wired the pickup positions on the switch (a stupid error, especially since I'd tested the switch and pickups to make sure they worked before assembly). I'd wired the middle pot as a master Greasebucket tone circuit (from my Highway 1 Strat), and left the lower pot unused-- this would have been the perfect opportunity to wire it for something, but I didn't have any interesting ideas. The other major thing to fix was lowering the volume pot, which was slightly too high for the whammy bar. The wooden knobs didn't seat as far down on the pots as plastic knobs (a 250K low-friction DiMarzio pot, that seems well-constructed and has a nice taper - the Bourns low-friction pots seem to fit knobs just a tiny bit higher), so this could have been a difficult problem to fix-- especially since the wood pickguard was slightly thicker than a plastic one. Fortunately, removing the washer and seating the pot with a minimal amount of thread peeking through was enough to do the job-- something that I could only test once the guitar was put back together and tuned up with the tremolo block at the preferred angle. I felt very lucky.
For what it's worth, I shielded the innards with copper foil tape... which was tricky since the adhesive didn't stick very well to the rosewood. Pliobond to the rescue...
Fine-Tuning the Tremolo: I spent quite a bit of time dickering with the tremolo. The first step was setting the spring tension (3 springs counterbalancing .009-.042 strings) for a full floating setup, with a small upward pull travel.
After working on the neck, I returned to fine tune the tremolo: I'd felt a slight bit of friction through the bar so I made sure that no part of the block was rubbing against the body cavity, and that the plate wasn't rubbing against the cutout in the pickguard (I had to grind/bevel a tiny amount of wood around the edge). Finally, I removed the mounting screws to test for friction with just the two outer screws installed. I don't know how common this is, but the screws had a slight bit of wobble while being screwed in, which could affect how they contact the holes in the bridge plate-- they had to be adjusted just right. As described above, I enlarged the bridge plate holes for the 4 middle screws so they really don't do anything-- the screws are strictly to retain the look of a vintage tremolo. After everything was put back together, the friction I'd felt earlier had disappeared, and the tremolo appeared to work better.
Fine-Tuning the Neck: The biggest part of the setup ordeal was fine-tuning the neck. I've become accustomed to Ibanez necks which have a very flat radius and can be adjusted for very low action. That was an unrealistic standard, since this neck came from an unknown luthier on the other side of the world, and has a rounder radius (No, I didn't put the Fender logo on it). According to my original Strat 10 article, this was an issue the first time around. My goal was to get it to play as well as my other Strats and not worry if I couldn't get the action as low as my Ibanez necks.
When first assembled, it wouldn't play at all. I had to add a double-thick shim to the front of the neck pocket to change the neck angle. I had to raise the saddles quite a bit to make the majority of the neck playable.
After doing that, there were two areas with significant buzzing that I couldn't fix with the heel-end truss rod adjuster. This appeared to be due to a few partial low frets affecting the treble and bass strings in different areas of the neck. There seemed to be 3 possible solutions: (1) replace the low frets, (2) partially lift the low part of the offending frets and superglue them in place, or (3) leveling the higher frets with an abrasive leveling bar. Option 2 seemed to have potential, but I didn't have fret puller pliers, so I went for option 3 (because I have a leveling bar).
Option 1 is probably the wisest choice, especially if you take it to a luthier to do the job. Austin's got some outstanding luthiers-- Danny Shoemaker, Erlewine, Austin Vintage Guitars-- but I'd hate to take their valuable time to work on a guitar that would probably never see a stage (besides, I'm sort of a cheapskate DIYer). I'd like to someday learn the art of refretting a guitar.
Leveling frets to fix a low fret isn't the solution that most folks would choose-- it's wasteful to grind the life off of perfectly good frets to fix the offending one or two. In this case though, this isn't a player guitar and given my probable number of years left on the planet, it's unlikely that its frets would ever see enough action to need replacing. So it really was a practical choice.
Leveling frets basically means taking a perfectly flat abrasive bar (stone or aluminum) and sanding down the fret surfaces until they're the same height. Most leveling bars are as long as the neck so that all frets are leveled uniformly. To monitor the progress, the tops of frets are colored with a Sharpie so you can see where the leveling is occurring-- when all the frets have been touched by the abrasive, all the frets should be the same height. Naturally, the leveling should follow the radius of the neck or the radius will become flatter and the frets would be very thin at the center of a small radius neck!
You can also use shorter leveling blocks (spanning about 3-4 frets) to target specific areas of the neck, as long as you're aware that all the frets from the starting point up to the bridge will need to be leveled. Otherwise, the buzzing problem will just relocate further up the neck.
Another aspect to this is that strings, when bent, will travel to a different area across the neck. For example, it may be necessary to level the center of the neck if the treble E string buzzes when bending in that area-- even if the fingered D or G strings don't buzz in that area.
After you're satisfied with the leveling job, you should "crown" the frets-- that is, use a special file with a semi-circular cutting groove to put a thinner surface on frets that have been ground flat and widened by leveling. This helps restore the accurate intonation of the fret. You can follow this up by polishing the frets with steel wool (protect your magnetic pickups from the steel fibers) or a non-metallic 3M abrasive pad. Playing the guitar will smooth the frets, but if you're really a pro, use a Dremel polishing bit and some rouge to make them really smooth and shiny. When you're all done, you set the intonation and you're good to go.
It took a lot of trial and error to get to the point where I was satisfied. Each time, I'd loosen the strings, hook them in groups of 3 behind raised pickguard screws to get them out of the way (protect the sides of pickup coils if they don't have covers), do the leveling, tune up, and test. Basically, you want to be conservative and do the least amount of leveling possible. Sure, it takes longer but if you take too much off, you can't add it back, so the only fix would be to replace frets.
I didn't see any need to protect the fretboard wood-- the leveling blocks don't come anywhere near it, and the crowning file shouldn't cause any damage if you're reasonably careful. The 3M abrasive pads do touch the fretboard, but don't leave any marks on matte rosewood. Of course the fretboard should be cleaned to remove the metal fret dust, but for a while, you'll probably still get black fingertips from playing it.
Although the Reed James pickups' pole pieces are all the same height, there isn't any significant output difference by string, and I like that the pick doesn't snag on high pole pieces.
Finishing the Body: The body is unfinished rosewood. Although I like/prefer the matte look, I was slightly concerned that it might need something to protect it from humidity and fading. However, I've read that rosewood is an oily, resinous wood and that most oil finishes don't cure, giving it a gummy, sticky feel. Yuk. Apparently, you can use shellac to seal it for finishing, but I reasoned that if most rosewood fretboards don't have a glossy finish, the body would probably be fine; just a thin rubbing of mineral oil periodically to keep it from drying out.
The Verdict: No suprise: This is a fucking heavy guitar, tipping the scales at 10.4 lbs. It's a little lighter than the boat anchor champ, the solid plexiglass Strat (10.8 lbs). The hollow aluminum Strat is a mere 8.5 lbs. My "player" guitars are in the neighborhood of 7.2 - 7.4 lbs. It's a difference you can easily feel when lifting the guitars from a stand and strapping them on.
"Its deep lows can assert a throaty growl, while bright, sparkling treble notes ring out with bell-like, high-fidelity clarity."
Wow. I wish I could say that about my guitar, but sorry... the truth is more mundane. Acoustically, the dense rosewood sounds less warm (less bass) than my basswood and swamp ash-bodied guitars (Naturally; you'd expect a basswood guitar to be packed to the gills with bass). Electrified, it sounds different as well, but I believe it's mainly due to its conventional (not noiseless) single coil pickups: shrill and thin. While there have been countless discussions since the beginning of Time about the contribution of the body (and neck) wood to tone, I believe that with electric guitars, the wood's contribution is negligible compared to the electronic components. Sure, it all contributes something to the tone-- just like whether the person holding the guitar is lean or well-padded, or the reflectiveness of the surface that the player is standing on, the moon's gravitational pull, etc. Given the depth of that rabbit hole, I think it's useful to focus on the stuff that's readily apparent to most people: It sounds like an electric guitar, but it looks like a fancy electric guitar.
Rosewood is a very pretty wood, and it's main virtue is that it makes for a unique-looking guitar. It's a bragging-rights piece, but not overly gaudy. It's about as far as I'm willing to go in the direction of figured-wood chasing, and I like its matte, bare wood look. Its weight makes it impractical as a player's guitar (unless you're a masochist), especially since you can find much lighter and cheaper guitars that play, sound, and look great.
Once you accept that and have shed unrealistic expectations about the magical sonic qualities of exotic wood, you're free to indulge yourself and dress it up with stuff that's neat looking, but doesn't confer any useful advantages to a player's guitar... like wooden pickups, a wooden scratchplate, wooden knobs, truckstop reflectors, etc. It's the kind of guitar that you can lavish attention on and turn into a well set-up and great playing guitar, even if that's not its primary purpose. I'm totally okay with that.
Actually, I have been playing it a lot lately-- probably because it's like a new toy and it's so purdy! In a home-hobbyist setting, there are work-arounds for most of the things that make it an impractical player's guitar. For example, playing it while seated takes care of the weight problem. Putting an ISP Decimator noise gate after the guitar takes care of the single coil hum that's so annoying with high gain. At low gain, the thin and shrill single coil Strat-iness can be dialed back with Voodoo Lab's Giggity pedal. Like I said, these are work-arounds; a gigging guitarist would be better served with a practical player's guitar that didn't need all this extra stuff.
Check this out (YouTube): willseasyguitar I swear that I just found this guy's Youtube channel! He's a lot more outspoken the I am, but we seem to share a similar outlook on a lot of topics and have come to similar conclusions about a lot of guitar stuff, including those about tonewoods like rosewood, aluminum and lucite.