OFFSPRING OF STRAT 10
10/09/16- More changes for the 'boat anchor" Strat. Actually, it's been played a lot, and I don't even notice the weight when I play it while sitting down.
With a new neck, there's nothing left of the original "Strat 10" in this guitar: Through total parts replacement, that original guitar exists in disassembled form, ready to be reassembled. (That's how partscasters reproduce.) It turns out that "Strat 10" wasn't about its parts; it's the concept of spending lots of money to make a purdy Rosewood Strat partscaster. I just didn't know it at the time.
This time, the focus shifts slightly towards playability instead of looks: This round of upgrades includes a new rosewood neck with a headstock-accessible truss rod and noiseless single coil pickups.
The Neck: The heel-accessible truss rod of the first neck was aggravating. To adjust it, the neck needed to be removed (because of the fretboard overhang) to remove the pickguard to access the truss rod adjuster. A wooden pickguard doesn't bend, so you can't remove it by just loosening the strings: That means neck removal. Definitely not the most efficient way to make and test a neck adjustment!
Unfortunately, when used as directed (no overlapping winds), the locking tuner's strings tended to break from metal fatigue when the neck was removed. This is more an issue of locking tuners than the neck itself: Anything that required removal of the pickguard meant replacing at least a few otherwise perfectly fine strings. That's wasteful (unlike replacing an otherwise perfectly good neck).
Some other cosmetic things motivated me to get a new rosewood neck: The old neck's headstock was noticeably larger than a '70s Fender headstock. Dunno why, but once you notice it you can't unnotice it. It had the faux "Fender" logo, which was dishonest-- hey, it's a partscaster! That dishonesty didn't bother me too much (I thought it looked kinda cool), at least not enough to sand it off. I like Fender logos (yes, I'm that shallow), and I have thought about adding decals to other no-name necks... but I guess I'm too lazy to do that. It doesn't bother me if the guitar doesn't have one, and it does give me the license to be an asshole and feel self-righteous if I were so inclined.
The replacement is a Fender-licensed WD "modern" (12" radius, 22 frets, 10mm tuner holes) rosewood neck with a correctly-sized small headstock from eBay... and a headstock accessible truss rod adjuster. It's raw-wood unfinished and looked really ashen and dried out when it arrived-- Fret Doctor darkened it and brought it back to the land of the living. It lacked some workmanship refinements like rounded and polished fret ends (they're snipped and roughly filed-- sharp!)-- easily fixed with a file and Dremel. Nevertheless, it's very straight and didn't require much adjusting for a fairly low setup. It's a little thicker than most Fender C-profile necks, but doesn't feel objectionably (to me) "baseball bat"-like. Basically, it's a cost-effective, no-frills machine-made neck with very little human craftsmanship involved. It's a dark-ish Indian Rosewood that doesn't match but goes okay with the richer redish hue of the body's rosewood. I can live with that: I'm determined to not make a 10.7 version.
I'd wanted to use the brass Malmsteen nut (because it looked cool), but it wasn't really practical. I don't think it had any playability or sonic advantages, and it was bent for a tighter radius neck. It had occasional and annoying string pop-outs. A flat-bottomed Earvana compensated nut fit perfectly, tight enough to stay put without any glue. No string pop-outs either. For whatever benefits the compensated feature provides, I appreciate that it's a lower-friction nut than brass: Important for the whammy bar to function properly.
This time, I used Gotoh staggered vintage-style (Kluson) tuners with the string anchor holes in the center of the tuner shaft. These work great and take care of the sharp string ends. To be honest, I've become a non-believer in the tuning stability benefits of locking tuners. The theory behind them sounds reasonable, but I believe that most any quality tuner with multiple winds can do a respectable job of keeping the guitar in tune, even with Van Halen-ish string dumps. IMO, the string winds aren't that big a deal and that the nut plays a more important role in whammy bar tuning stability. Multiple winds on the treble strings also lets you position the string exit point lower, which helps the staggered tuner work without using a string tree. Sure, you can do multiple winds on a locking tuner, but isn't the point of a locking tuner to avoid that? Mainly, I didn't see compelling advantages in using the Sperzel locking tuners, except for slightly faster string changes from less string winding. I'm not that pressed for time. Standard tuners are lighter too.
The Pickups: I originally thought that the Rosewood Strat concept was a good reason to use the Reed James wood-bobbin pickups: A major-wood Strat! The main problem was that the wood pickups are traditional single coils. They sound good, but I hate the hum that they pick up when they're around noise-generating devices, like fans, computers, and fluorescent lights: That's the environment that I live in. Shielding helps block noise from entering the wiring, pots and switches, but not what's coming in through the pickups. The ISP Decimator noise gate does a good job of eliminating that noise, but only when notes aren't being played. When you play notes, both the note and the noise are allowed through the gate... and if the signal-to-noise ratio is bad, it can be annoying.
I'm not a traditional Stratocaster purist (obviously), so I don't place too much value on a noiseless pickup's ability to faithfully reproduce the tone of a vintage single coil pickup. I don't think the construction of a traditional single coil pickup makes it sound inherently better than a noiseless pickup. Ultimately, most of the tonal texture can be (and often is) radically sculpted after leaving the pickups. However, I sure don't like the tonal texture of noise that traditional single coils can let in at the front end of the signal chain.
I've installed several different noiseless single coil pickups in my guitars (Kinman, Dimarzio Areas, Dimarzio HS-3 & HS-4, Fender SCNs, Fender Noiseless, Red/Blue/Silver Lace Sensors). I have to admit that it's difficult to say why I have certain preferences. I'd like to believe that it was purely based on tonal and feel preferences, but a lot of it is curiosity and experimentation... and because I like to mod guitars. I don't have really strong preferences. I've A/B'd different guitars with different pickups and the perceived differences (or the lack of them) are hampered by my brain's inability to retain perfect copies for comparison of samples. In other words, my brain's a lousy recorder/playback device. A guitar may sound great to me on one day, but lousy on another day. Mood has nothing to do with objective analysis, but it plays a big role in how a guitar sounds to me at any given time.
There's also the issue of hearing. If you've played in loud bands, frequently see live bands playing, or just listen to loud music with headphones, you've probably lost a portion of your hearing in the important 4000 Hz band. If so, you're probably not hearing the "shimmer" and other subtleties that someone with young, undamaged ears can hear. It gets worse as you age, and because the loss is gradual you might not notice it without a hearing test. It's ironic that by the time you can afford to splurge on boutique pickups, you probably can't hear them as well as when you were young and broke...
I can unequivocally say that I am more readily influenced by the look of a pickup in a guitar (I prefer the traditional Strat look so I don't like Lace Sensors), and by consumers' conventional wisdom (i.e., the expectation of superior performance from the Kinman's boutique prices). And by reading lots of online opinions about pickups. It's hard to know the degree to which my opinions and perceptions have been shaped by those reviews. If you read 10 posts that say that SCNs sound sterile (does that mean clean, without any hum to give it "character"? I think they sound fine.), you may be likely to accept that as a Truth -- even if 9 of the 10 posts may have been similarly influenced. A YouTube video is equally unreliable since a great guitarist and a good quality recording can make most gear sound great. Do I like the gear or what the guitarist is doing with it? The reality is that it's all very subjective. The only way to wade through it all is to consume lots of information and trust that your BS/critical thinking filter is working.
The reason this came up was that I saw some cool wooden Strat pickup covers on eBay (pjhender70) that claimed to fit DiMarzio single coils. This opened up the option of replacing the traditional wood single coils with noiseless pickups. I first installed a set of DiMarzio HS-3 and HS-4 pickups that I'd pulled from my Malmsteen Strat. I thought they sounded perfectly fine (and noiseless). Though they objectively have less output than many, the difference wasn't blatantly obvious since these days I frequently play through a clean acoustic amp setting: I turn the amp volume knob when I want louder. Despite having less high-end, I didn't think they sounded bad, even if they were old-tech and relics of the '80s: Yngwie sure made them sound good! I would have been okay with them, but unfortunately, the bridge pickup was slightly microphonic, revealed under the stress of brutal compression and high gain. No problem: Justification to go pickup shopping.
I settled on a safe, conventional choice that I'd tried before: DiMarzio Areas (61 & 67) with a Virtual Solo bridge pickup (a new one for me). Through a tube guitar amp, it's obvious that the pickups are higher output and drive the preamp into distortion more readily than the HS pickups. That's not to say that you can't get very similar results with the HS pickups, you just have to turn knobs downstream in the signal chain to get there.
A caution about the wood pickup covers: The HS pickups were a snug but easy fit. The Areas and Virtual Solo are a hair's width thicker-- If you try to force the fit, there's a good chance that the wood will split (as I discovered). Not a fault of the pickup covers (which are very well made), but it's the nature of wood. To fit them, I thinned the inside of the wood covers and thinned the steel bars on the sides of the pickups with a Dremel mototool, then "lubed" 'em with beeswax. Perfect, snug fit.
I'm happy with the choice since they make the Rosewood strat sound like an electric guitar... a quiet one, with brown wood pickup covers that go well with the look of the guitar. Overall, the DiMarzio pickups have a slightly smoky earfeel, with a faintly wagyu-like texture, and a WholeFoods-ish aftertone, no doubt due to the resonance of the natural wood pickup covers. My cats like the pickup wires' chewy texture.
Heinz 57 Partscaster: Rosewood body & neck, Wenge pickguard, Zebrawood knobs, and Cocobolo pickup covers