aluminum Stratocaster scalloped graphite neck onboard active electronics

 

aluminum Stratocaster body, Moses graphite scalloped neck

aluminum Stratocaster body, Moses graphite scalloped neck

I do have the aluminum tremolo cover, but that makes it harder to adjust the springs. Although all my other Strats have Hipshot Tremsetters, the Ibanezes have made me appreciate the feel of a floating tremolo. I've gotten pretty quick at tuning a full set of strings from scratch since I've done it so many times. That's a good thing in this case, since I don't see how I could install a Tremsetter in this sucker, since there's no wood!

 

aluminum Stratocaster body, Moses graphite scalloped neck

  Moses graphite scalloped Stratocaster neck Planet Waves tuning machines

Cool headstock engraving; I don't even miss the "Fender" logo. The Planet Waves locking tuning machines increase the break angle behind the nut, but not quite enough on the high 'E' string. This can make the open string sound thin and tentative, like it's not being "fretted" with enough force (since it's not). Normally, you'd fix this with a string tree. I don't want to drill the hole for the string tree since I plan to install a Super Vee locking nut and tremolo.

 

Moses graphite scalloped neck

Neck heel with bushings and thin aluminum shim plucked at random from a junk box. This was needed to give the saddles a different adjustment range, since they bottomed out without it.

 

aluminum Stratocaster body, Moses graphite scalloped neck

Polished aluminum scratches and scuffs really easily, and these are from a couple days of my fingernails indexing atop the pickguard as I pick and dampen strings. They're not from strumming, since I don't do much of that. It's harder to see the scratches from a distance and from other angles, but it should give you a clue about the futility of keeping a pristine finish on a guitar that you play.

 

aluminum Stratocaster body, Moses graphite scalloped neck active onboard electronics

[03/06/11] Another week's worth of mods, after accepting that the chromed aluminum scratchplate was a bad idea (the scratchplate needs a second protective scratchplate to keep it from scratching?). The matte black makes it look more stylish and Cylonish, IMO.

Also, the Fender Deluxe tremolo replaces the Hipshot tremolo. The Fender tremolo stays in tune and fulfills one of my minor objectives, to have as little writing on the guitar as possible. It's hard to believe, but Fender didn't stamp their name or logo on any visible part of this tremolo!

Although I would have liked a Floyd-Rose style double-locking tremolo, I realized that the Super Vee wouldn't provide one important feature: The wide range that comes from having a deep routing at the back and around the tremolo.

I was surprised that the tremolo works as well as it does. The string tree (a chrome American style with tiny rods on both sides) is screwed down just enough to keep the strings "fretted" at the nut, so that the high E doesn't jump the nut when you look at it funny. Between that, the Tusq nut, and the locking tuners, string binding is minimal at that end.

 

CYLON STRATOCASTER


 

02/16/11- A long, long time ago, I saw my first chrome Stratocaster. I wanted it badly, but it was out of my price range. My recollection is rather dim: At the time, I wasn't aware of Fender's brief foray into aluminum guitars, so I can't say whether it was an actual Fender aluminum guitar, or something custom electroformed. All I remember is that it looked really cool, and I wanted one. Maybe someday...

Actually, I'm not big on bright flashy stuff but I do like metal things, and I like shiny chrome things like Waring blenders, toasters, and guitars that look like Cylon robots. That's why, after recently attempting to learn a few Joe Satriani songs and seeing pics of his Ibanez "Chrome Boy", I started thinking about that old chrome Strat, which led me to eBay.

There's sparse info about Fender's aluminum Strats on the 'net, which I'll summarize to the best of my understanding: Fender commissioned production of aluminum bodies for its 40th anniversary (1994), to be used in some special commemorative offerings (Harley Davidson, Ford, and Aloha Strats). Most of the remainder were produced as anodized (colored) Strats, and a few made it to the Custom Shop for extra special treatment. Apparently, dealers started returning them as defective since they were easy to dent and couldn't be repaired. Fender cut off production and vowed never to produce them again. Rumor is that some unfinished/unused/damaged bodies escaped and were sold at guitar conventions and other unofficial channels, which may explain why they're popping up on eBay, nearly 20 years later.

The Aluminum Body An aluminum body Strat partscaster project isn't terribly difficult, but it's not for the fussy or faint-hearted. When my body arrived, I was surprised at how light and how thin (1/16 inch) the aluminum was, but was disappointed that it had a dent in the area behind the upper bout. With a wood body, you'd see the gouge or a chip in the finish, possibly all the way down to the wood. It would be a pain in the ass, but you could strip the guitar and refinish it. Metal doesn't work that way. Like bad hail damage, a dented aluminum body has to be hammered out, which is awfully difficult to do in this case since you can't access the backside for support or hammering. The body is made of a front and back half, welded together. There are beefy aluminum structural supports inside, but most of the thinner outer shell is unsupported. Therefore, a blow that causes a dent will probably deform the face of the body, in which case, a flat pickguard will not sit flat on the body, and the reflective finish will make the warpage pretty obvious.

Given this, it's easy to see why Fender discontinued them and why there are still some waiting to be sold. I'd guess that all the primo undamaged bodies were turned into guitars and sold to collectors a long time ago. The damaged ones would tend to stay in play a bit longer, since the obvious selling point of a chrome bodied guitar is looks: No doubt a few have been sold to folks who expected perfection, and who were very disappointed by what they got. I felt a bit of that when I got mine... but lucky for me, I'm not a princess. Even with the dent, it looked really cool, and I rationalized that I would probably put my own dents in it since I was going to muck with it and play it. Besides... the fingerprints! How can you be fussy about perfection and pristine looks when just touching it leaves a fingerprint haze, and the polished chrome scratches so easily? I worked through the rationalizing logic: There weren't very many made back in 1994, they probably won't be made again, those in perfect condition would command a premium price and one would feel obliged to preserve its perfection by not playing or handling it. As pricey as a damaged Fender Strat body is on eBay, there aren't a whole lot of alternatives if you really want one, and the passage of time probably won't make them cheaper. I wanted my frackin' Cylon Strat, so I didn't have a hard time accepting this, dents & all.

An interesting thing about these unfinished bodies is that they're like the WWII German tanks found at the bombed out factories at the end of the war. Although all the major screwholes were drilled, the holes for the strap pins weren't. That's not a huge deal, but if you're not used to working with aluminum, you'll discover that it's not like working with wood. Aluminum is slippery and drill bits wander much more readily than wood if you're careless. Once the hole gets started, aluminum behaves nicely, although you do have watch for the bit suddenly binding. Aluminum is a soft metal so grinding with a Dremel and filing is very easy.

The Pickguard and Screws I received the parts over a period of days, so I couldn't get started with the neck installation until I had all the key parts: There's a sequence of assembly that you have to follow to install the neck.

One of the first things I played with was the pickguard, and I immediately realized that standard Strat wood screws weren't going to work and that I wouldn't be able to go online and order an official Fender aluminum Strat screw set. I had/have no idea how to figure out what size of screws I needed, except by scrounging through my stash of scavenged screws until I found some that fit. Fortunately, I found a baggie of screws that had shipped with the body (as I was breaking down the box to put in the recycling bin! Aieeee!), so that took care of the pickguard, backplate and jackplate. My screw stash had a couple of bolts that fit the tremolo claw.

The Tremolo Bridge [rev. 03/05/11] The tremolo was a difficult choice. Since playing Ibanezes, I wanted a locking, high-performance tremolo, but due to the oddness of the hollow aluminum body, I didn't even consider installing a Floyd-Rose style tremolo (although, it's probably do-able with a lot of aluminum cutting and drilling). Super-Vee's locking, no-permanent-mods model got my attention, but as fate would have it, they weren't available anywhere, and their websites puts the delivery delay at 90 days (they say end of March 2011). Sorry, but no way I could wait that long.

The Babicz Full Contact tremolo looked like it offered some neat features, but it was too butt-ugly for my tastes... especially with their huge logo emblazoned across the back.

Hipshot's tremolo looked cool, and I assumed that theirs would be top-notch, considering their long-standing experience with Telecaster string bender systems. I ordered Hipshot's tremolo, but discovered that their anchor posts didn't fit the machined screw holes in the body. Practically speaking, you can't (or wouldn't want to) drill aluminum to insert their screw bushings either. Fortunately, the badly worn anchor posts for a used Ibanez tremolo fit as an interim measure, so I'd have a playable guitar. The Hipshot tremolo had problems returning to pitch after divebombs and pull-ups, but I attributed it to the worn posts. I ordered some American Strat tremolo anchors, certain that it would solve the problem. (This part took the longest to get from a vendor that I'll never order from again; none of the local stores had them).

Unfortunately, the Hipshot Tremolo doesn't work properly with Fender's Tremolo Anchor Pivot Posts: Same problem-- doesn't return to pitch after divebombs and pull-ups. You have to use their anchor posts. Also, their stainless steel whammy bar is thinner than stock, so you have to use theirs if you want a replacement. The best feature is that the whammy bar doesn't screw in and is secured by a nylon insert so there's no slop and you can adjust the arm tension. It has a mild mid-arm bend, so rides a little close to the body for my tastes. I think the saddles look kinda cool and it's a well-built product, but I'm not sure that there's enough there and too many caveats to convince me to buy into their system if I had a wood-bodied Strat that needed a new tremolo system.

To get a functioning tremolo in the interim, I installed the Fender-Floyd Rose tremolo that had originally come with my Strat Plus Deluxe. Although it worked perfectly with the Fender pivot posts, it reminded me why I'd removed it in the first place: You can't adjust the saddle heights unless you shim them (they're cast at different heights for a 9.5" radius), and setting intonation is a horrible experience. It's Floyd-Rose in name only; no fine tuners since it wasn't intended to be used with a locking nut. However, you do have to clip the ball ends from strings so you can lock them in the bridge with allen screws. I guess this simplifies the string path (for more stable tuning), but it's a dubious trade-off for the hassle in my opinion. The only thing redeeming feature is that it works, and that the whammy bar clicks into place and has adjustable tension. It wobbles a little bit, but I didn't spend much time worrying about that.

Although I still wanted the Super Vee (primarily because the locking nut would have made a string tree unnecessary), I wanted an adjustable, working tremolo now, instead of a month from now. I installed a single chrome string tree and a Fender Ultra/Deluxe tremolo assembly with the smooth chrome cast saddles and was done with it. Works perfectly, totally adjustable, with a pop-in tremolo arm. Mega-kudos to Darren Riley's Guitar & Amp Shop for processing and shipping my orders so quickly.

The Graphite Neck The neck is the major co-star in this project. I didn't want to cannibalize any of my Strats, so I bought a Moses Graphite neck and a bunch of other goodies after buying the body. I was tempted to buy a 1994 anniversary neck: It's a distinctive neck with a commemorative headstock badge (IMO, kinda cheesy) and neckplate, plus it would have been relatively easy to fit to the body. I decided against that option since it would have been slightly dishonest (ehh... big deal), but mainly because the black synthetic graphite neck seemed to better fit the Cylon "mojo" and I was curious about them (If I'd found a chrome neck, I probably would have gone for that). It's also a more unique look that doesn't miss the "Fender" logo on the headstock like the wooden clone Strat necks do. For purely aesthetic reasons, I preferred that there be minimal/no writing at all on the guitar.

The graphite neck proved to be a more challenging path since they aren't equipped with a nut or drilled with neck mounting screw holes. The online installation guide gives very specific instructions for installing the bolt bushings with a drill press (You can't use wood screws to fasten the neck to the body), reaming the tuning machine holes (if needed), and for sanding the width to fit the pocket (it's intentionally wider to ensure a tight fit). I was a little concerned that I didn't have a drill press or reamer. I considered paying to have the neck professionally installed, but flinched at the prospect that paying to do it might cost more than a cheapie drill press. Besides, then I'd miss the learning experience, fun, and gratification (or humiliation and regret) of doing the job myself.

The Tuning Machines I bought a set of Planet Waves' auto-trim locking tuning machines because they've performed well on a couple of my other Strats (otherwise, I prefer Fender's 'F' tuners, for mojo). The PWs have an 18:1 gear ratio, string cutters, and the string exits low on the post so you *might not need a string tree: Very smart (Ned Steinberger) design. [*Fender headstocks aren't angled so even with a low exit point on the high E string's tuning machine post, there might not be enough of a break angle from the nut to give a solid open E string sound (and to keep the string from hopping the slot in the nut). It's marginal at best, and only works if you're truly blessed. The solution is to install a string tree or a locking nut.]

The tuning machines needed to be installed before I could install the neck. Unfortunately, they required larger holes in the headstock than were drilled. Despite warnings against this (because I didn't want to buy a reamer for just this one job), I used a drill to enlarge the holes. It was slow and cautious going since the bit did tend to grab and bind-- I was worried about splitting the graphite from the hole to the outside. I used a Dremel cutting bit to smooth out the burrs from the drill bit binding, drilled again, and repeated until the bit drilled through. I used the cutting bit to give the holes a final tweak to fit the tuning machines.

Working graphite is very different from working wood. It's stiff and doesn't compress, but it does cut and grind very easily. I learned this the hard way when installing screws for the tuners. As instructed, I drilled a hole for the screws and tried to screw the first one in. At about the last third of the way, the screw felt really tight. I knew that the hole I'd drilled was deep enough, so I applied some heavy effort for that last third... big mistake: The screw head broke off! According to the instructions, you're supposed to screw, then back out, then screw again. I think the crucial thing is to use a drill bit that's very, very close to the size of the screw. With wood screws this wouldn't work well because the wood holding the screw wouldn't be very compressed, so the screw would easily strip out the soft wood. Graphite is denser and doesn't compress as readily, so the screw only needs to cut shallow threads to make a strong anchor. Unfortunately, it's not an easy thing to guesstimate since I thought my first drill bit was close enough... but I was thinking of wood. In retrospect, I should have tested drill bits in the heel, but at the time it seemed like a no-brainer. The lesson is that you shouldn't assume that you know how unfamiliar materials will behave; test first (Of course, I never follow my own advice!).

Fitting the Neck Pocket The graphite neck's heel needed to be sanded to fit the width of the body's pocket. This was the easy part; graphite easily sands and cleans up to perfectly match the stock matte finish. The unfinished aluminum body complicated matters though: The body had never been fitted with a neck, so it hadn't been cleaned up to assure that a stock, fully finished wooden neck would fit, and that the neck bolts would line up through the body and neck. This is critically important since if the neck isn't where it should be, the frets will be in the wrong place relative to the bridge and the guitar won't intonate correctly. Sure, the saddles have some adjustment, but it's a good idea to get it as close to standard as possible. Fortunately, I had my '71 4-bolt "Bastardcaster" neck lying around so I could test fit it into the pocket, which told me where I'd have to grind aluminum to flatten some welds and to straighten the edge of the pocket. Once I knew that the neck bolt holes lined up, I was confident that the graphite neck could be fitted so I could mark the drill holes.

Drilling the Neck Mounting Holes I was resigned to spending the bucks on a drill press. The cheapest one I saw at Home Depot was a huge and heavy thing, waaaay overkill for the 4 holes I needed to drill, but rationalized by thinking that it might be useful for other things that I hadn't thought of. Fortunately or unfortunately, it wasn't in stock, so I left without a clear plan of action (except to go to another store).

The next day, bright and early, I decided to mark the holes with a drill bit that fit through the body mounting holes (but wasn't big enough to drill holes for the screw bushings). This was a bit of a juggling act since the guitar needed to be strung with the top and bottom 'E' strings to ensure that the neck isn't mounted at an odd angle when you mark the holes. The challenge was that 2-point tremolos don't want to stay in place on the guitar without strings and springs installed, and the counterbalance tension requires that the neck be connected. Fortunately, it wasn't that hard to do since the neck had been sanded to fit the pocket fairly tightly, and leaning the guitar in a stand put enough backwards pull so that I could clamp the body and neck with one hand and drill with the other. As I was doing this, it dawned on me that the drill was perfectly perpendicular to the neck, and that if I drilled holes instead of just marking where the holes should be, they'd be as good as holes drilled by a drill press-- maybe even better since they'd be done in one pass, directly from the body. The challenge would then be enlarging the holes to fit the bushings and maintaining the perpendicular angle (an absolute necessity). To do this, I used progressively larger bits (2) to re-drill the holes until I reached the target size. The progressive size changes helped maintain the first hole's angle and kept the bits from binding.

Installing the bushings was easy, after I carefully re-read the installation instructions. The brass bushings have a notch on one end, which led me to believe that they could be screwed in with a flat-head screwdriver. WRONG! I was about to try this after my efforts to screw them in with a nut locked onto the screw failed. Fortunately, I carefully re-read the instructions and figured out that I'd put the bushing on the screw backwards: The notch was actually a cutting edge that should be screwed into the neck, with the nut on top, securing it to the bolt. That's what worked, even though I had use a pair of pliers on the nut to screw the bushings into the holes. After all four bushings were installed, I put the neck on the body, inserted the bolts and miraculously, they lined up!

The Tusq Nut The final step before play-testing was to install a nut. The flat-bottomed graphite Tusq I'd ordered was the victim of a slow-shipping vendor, so I installed a curved pre-cut graphite nut I had on hand. It took a little filing to make it fit in the slot (again, Moses makes the slots narrower than stock to let you achieve a tight fit), but once I hammered it in there (without glue), it was rock solid. After I played the guitar, I decided that it was staying, and that I didn't need the one that's on order (For what it's worth, the Allparts flat-bottom nut arrived, and the two center string channels aren't even cut straight!)

The Acoustic Test Drive Wow. I'm totally sold on graphite necks, and if I weren't liking the look of wooden headstocks with "Fender" logos (and had the time, energy, and money), I'd replace them on all my Strats. I was initially concerned about the truss rod adjustment being at the heel end, and was fully prepared to do some fret leveling, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the neck and frets were perfectly level and flat, all the way up and down the neck. Not a single dead spot, even when bending strings at the upper frets (it has a 16" radius). I was able to adjust the action as low as I could stand it and ran out of downwards adjustment on the treble 'E' string due to the thickness of the saddle (I later added a pocket shim to give more downwards adjustment range). I was shocked!

I think this is the biggest selling point of graphite necks: They're much more stable than wood necks. They're extremely rigid and unaffected by humidity and other environmental factors. The fact that mine required no adjustment and leveling indicates to me that it hadn't changed since it had been finished to specs at the factory. I've had very few wooden necks that didn't need some adjustment or TLC to make them play right.

Some folks claim that graphite necks are too lifeless, inorganic, sterile, and artificial, but that's an opinion that I attribute to the mindset of the beholder. It's an easy target because we know that graphite is a manufactured material. But does it sound "artificial"? What does "artificial" actually sound like, and is it measurable? Subjective assessments like this aren't objectively definable or quantifiable, but acknowledging that never changes any minds. People believe what their brains cobble together from past learning, pre-existing opinions, and what they think they feel. I suspect that many folks who prefer maple to rosewood (or vice-versa), are probably just reacting to the looks or something they've read-- the actual acoustic differences are most likely too subtle for most folks' ears.

That said, the acoustic sound of the aluminum body is clearly different from a solid body guitar, but it would be really hard to attribute any aspect of the difference to the graphite neck, other than the solid coupling between the neck and body. Basically, the hollow aluminum body makes all the difference. It's louder, it resonates, and sounds kind of like a Dobro (I had to put blue Loctite on the saddle screw threads because the loudly resonating aluminum body made them rattle and loosen). At this time, I'm a little concerned and curious about how it will react with electronics and amplification. Acoustic, semi-acoustic and tightly coupled guitars tend to feedback more readily than loosely coupled solid body electrics with whammy bars. Although some people consider this sustain (and a good thing), it's actually feedback caused by the amp's output causing sympathetic vibrations in the guitar, which feed back to the amp (hence, "feedback"). Sometimes it's desirable, but can be distracting and annoying since you have to pay more attention to string dampening.

Next: The Electronics The electronics are on hold for right now, since I'm waiting for parts. Originally, I was just waiting for fancy Bourns pots, but the plan is a moving target. Since the body is hollow, I realized that I'm not constrained by many of the limitations of carving wood-- heck, if I knew anything about Variax circuitry, I'd consider putting that in there. In the meantime, my aim is much more humble: I thought I'd use this occasion to try out one of Guitarfetish.com's stuff, a treble/mid boost/cut circuit. They've been out for a while, but I couldn't find any user's hands-on comments or videos about them. At any rate, I don't think shielding will be a problem, since I measure minimal resistance between any two points on the body, including the pickguard, pickup selector switch tip, and the chrome-plated pickup covers (actually, I hope this doesn't cause a problem with the pickups). At least I won't have to solder a ground wire to the tremolo claw!


02/23/11- Although I really hate waiting for sloooow vendors to process orders and ship, it did give me the opportunity to work on other stuff that I might have had a hard time finding the motivation to do.

aluminum Stratocaster battery box

The Battery Box This guitar was going to have some sort of active electronics. (When I latched onto the "Cylon Strat" concept, I thought about a red chasing LED circuit, but heck... I'm not that dorky!) In a lazy moment, I thought that I'd just stick the battery somewhere in the cavernous interior, maybe affixed with velcro-- nothing to worry about. Practically speaking though, a battery box allows quick access and keeps the battery from banging or shifting around inside the body. It would have been more work to devise a good alternative to the battery box.

This was a straight-forward job. Unfortunately, no template was provided, so I created one based on measurements, traced it onto the body with an Exacto blade, and began cutting with a Dremel emery wheel. I wore good ear plugs, of course! It was great to be able to stuff the battery wires in the hole without needing to drill a channel through to the controls cavity... the whole body is a controls cavity! When I was done, I noticed that the area around had lots of tiny scratches, even though I don't think I placed anything there that would scratch it, except my hands. My theory is that specks of aluminum dust got under my hands while I was guiding the Dremel. It would have been wise to tape the surface before cutting, but I'm not too concerned since the body is a scratch magnet anyway. It's much healthier for you if you don't get too neurotic about stuff like that.

scalloped graphite neck

Scalloping the Neck Contrary to a popular misconception (becuz Yngwie likes 'em), a scalloped neck doesn't help you play faster: It helps you bend and vibrato strings without the friction of rubbing against the fretboard. You'd get the same effect by welding jumbo frets on top of your jumbo frets... but scalloping the neck is easier to do.

Even though I liked the feel of the stock neck, I knew I'd like it even better if it were scalloped; that's the main downside of getting used to the feel of scalloped necks. I could play it just fine, but I couldn't help but notice the friction of my fingertips rubbing against the fretboard.

If you order your neck from Moses, you can have them scallop it for you for an extra fee. If you like scalloped necks (and not everyone does), you may want to consider that since this is one of those not-for-the-faint-of-heart jobs: Once you start, you must continue until you're happy with the job, no matter how badly things seem to be going. There's no bailing out. The alternative is accepting the battle-scarred neck or writing it off.

I've scalloped a few wooden necks before and have been happy with the results. I didn't have any problems sanding the graphite neck to make it fit the body pocket, so I assumed that scalloping the neck would be no problem and approached the job with that level of confidence. Well, it is different, and the tools that work well for wood don't necessarily work as well on graphite.

For wood, I found that the Dremel sanding drums made short work of roughing out and fine tuning the shape of the scallop. However, within a minute of laying the drum to the graphite, I knew there was a problem: Graphite has a harder surface than wood and the Dremel sanding drums have too coarse a grit for the surface: The drum skittered along the surface at first. You have to dwell to get it to dig in, and then you risk getting nasty gouges on the fretboard. This is when I started to get nervous. Hand-sanding with a coarse grade of sandpaper cleaned things up, but was slow going. In fact, you could do the whole job by hand, but it would take a really long time. I'd allocated 3 hours for the job to meet a Fajita grilling deadline, so I needed my power tools to do their job!

I tried a Dremel contour sander, which didn't work well at all. I tried a metal cutter bit and an abrasive buff, which didn't work well at all. Finally, I found a badly worn sanding drum, which seemed to work better, or at least well enough to grind the center depression, and feather the edges out a little. I finished the process by using the sandpaper to clean up, and moved on to the next fret. It was tedious work, but I managed to do all 24 frets, tune and test the guitar before heading out to the charcoal grill. It played great. Unfortunately, the fretboard was an ugly mess, with uneven planing and unsightly gouges: With its smooth, tight and grainless surface, Graphite showed every single defect. At least the Fajitas turned out well.

Fortunately, the sun rose again and there was yet another day. Armed with sandpaper, a variety of rounded sanding blocks and steel wool, I fixed the ugliness from the day before, so that it was acceptable to me. Whew. It was easy, but tedious. If I were to do it all over again, I might try contoured rasp (if I had one); of course, you'd need a variety of sizes to do the whole neck.

Another thing-- if you think sawdust is bad, graphite dust is worse! The fine particles get everywhere and leave an invisible layer of black dust on everything. If you've ever had a copier toner accident, you'll know what I mean.


02/25/11- Guitarfetish shipped quickly, so I was finally in position to tackle the electronics and related stuff.

Stratocaster Telecaster chrome knobs concentric

The Knobs An unhealthy portion of my time was spent agonizing over the knobs! I like to have options, so I'd accumulated a set of vac-metalized Strat knobs, a set of chrome plated brass knobs that looked like Strat knobs with no lettering or numbers, and a set of chrome Telecaster-style knobs. I had a hard time struggling with which was more important-- the looks or the functionality.

Functionality won, and I settled for this ugly hodge-podge of knob types. The Guitarfetish circuit included a concentric pot to control the mid and treble cut/boost. The only kind of control knobs that fit look like a 2-layer cake of Telecaster knobs. I wanted to go with the full Tele knob look, but they're taller than most knobs and the volume knob seemed like it would get in the way of the tremolo arm. For the center push-pull pot, the Tele knob work great-- lots to grab onto.

I also learned that the fancy Bourns pots have a longer shaft above where the mounting threads end; therefore a shallower knob wouldn't give greater clearance for the tremolo arm at the top, and there'd be a gap at the bottom... arrrgh. This stuff drives me nuts! I replaced the Bourns pot with a shorter shaft and (rare) easy-turning CTS pot so I could mount the chrome Strat-style knob low to give the tremolo arm more clearance. It may not look pretty, but it works.

Guitarfetish Telecaster Active 25db Boost- Mid and Treble Preamp

The Guitarfetish Telecaster Mid/Treble Cut/Boost Circuit This may be the first online commentary about any of their onboard active electronics circuits... and they've been making them for years. Hey, I've looked! Either nobody buys them, or nobody wants to talk about them.

I'm not sure what I expected when I ordered this. I don't use the stock treble-cutting tone control for much, usually running it full open without cutting treble or at the other end, for a clean mellow sound or a distorted closed wah-ish sound. However, I was impressed with the EQ controls built into the Digitech Distortion Factory pedal, and thought that having greater EQ control at my fingertips would be a useful thing. I knew that the Guitarfish circuit wouldn't do the same thing, since the Digitech pedal also has Bass cut/boost and parametric filter control so you can sweep through the mid frequency band to cut/boost. However, treble/mid cut/boost had to give considerably more control than a stock treble cut control... which it does.

If I sound less than enthusiastic, it's because EQ is not a flashy effect that blows your socks off. Having onboard distortion is much more fun because it alters the sound so drastically. EQ is a much more subtle and civilized thing... but I wanted to try something different this time. Before installing it, I tested it spread out on the carpet like a gutted stompbox, basically trying it at the extremes: mid and treble at full cut & boost, in the various combinations. For a while, I wasn't sure if I wanted to install it, but it does give some civilized extremes: With the mid boost turned up full is a full-throated tone that pushes nicely with distortion; with the mid and treble fully down, the guitar has a nice acoustic tone that's good for comping with songs like Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary". Of course, there are other combinations that sound distinctive, like the treble full up-- it's very screechy, with a sharp attack. With both controls centered at the pot's detents, the sound is very full since it's boosted way above the passive pickup's natural output.

For me, having 4 knobs to tweak is a bit much since I'm not that fussy about nuanced tone. I enjoy playing with distortion and overdrive, so the mid knob gets the most useage in that context. For a cleaner sound, all three bands are fully usable, which can lead to indulgent knob-wanking if you're not careful. There's a point where having too much control can be a distraction.

Bear in mind that the effect isn't always very apparent, due to the way that the signal chain works: Everything further down the chain (at the amp side) puts the stronger imprint on the sound. For example, a swooshy effect near the guitar in the chain will be less swooshy than the same effect near the amp, after the signal has been distorted or processed by preceding effects. Distortion before a wah wah pedal sounds flat and squashed into the wah envelope, whereas distortion after wah sounds more dynamic, with a less overwhelming wah.

That applies to the mid/treble boost/cut circuit as well. Without downstream distortion, the effect is very obvious and nuanced. Add downstream distortion and it's harder to hear the difference when the pots are sweeped. You can tell, but it doesn't make as obvious a difference. It can be used to push a heavily distorted signal into feedback and pull it back, which is kind of cool. Basically however, the onboard EQ circuit doesn't give the same kind of absolute global EQ control that you get from the amp's tone controls.

Another thing to be aware of is that not all pedals in an effect chain behave well when fed a hot signal. Some clip, some distort and compress, and some accept the boost without any problems. With EQ in a pedal, you can change the order of effects to try to make it work. The trade-off for onboard fingertip control of EQ is that you're stuck with it at the front end of the chain. You need to find out what works, and what doesn't.

Tone circuit designs have been around forever, so there are no surprises in how the circuit does what it does. The frequency bands they chose are appropriate for an electric guitar. The quality of the circuitboard is very good (surface mount components, with clean etching and assembly) and not particularly noisy (no electronic device gives you treble boost without boosting hiss). The instructions repeatedly warn not to overload the circuit's input; Since the Dimarzio (formerly) YJM pickup set has low output, I wasn't concerned and didn't notice anything bad from feeding it a full strength signal. Higher output pickups and humbuckers might fare differently, but I didn't test.

The instructions aren't great: My Telecaster kit included the Stratocaster instructions, which although probably similar enough, wouldn't be very reassuring to a newbie who's afraid to connect the dots. The instructions mention using their optional 50K Gain pot, but isn't very clear about what they're advising. They seemed to be suggesting using the 50K pot in place of the usual 250K pot: I wasn't sold on the benefits of the idea, since that would seem to rule out a bypass switch. I mistakenly thought that they meant to solder it to the three unused & unlabeled pads on the circuitboard. I'm glad that I misinterpreted the instructions because soldering a push-pull pot to the pads miraculously gave me an undocumented bass cut/boost control in addition to a bypass switch! Cool. The "wiring diagram" is extremely basic and minimalist. There are no technical details, specifications, alternate wiring diagrams for bypass operation, nothing. To be fair, the instructions aren't horrible (at least they're not written in Chinglish), and the circuit wiring is pretty much a no-brainer if you have any experience with this stuff. However, the website has a line that plugs their instructions as the "famous illustrated idiot-proof installation sheet", when they're actually just mediocre and vague. Yeah, it's just old-school marketing schtick, but if you put shit like that in your sales pitch, expect to get called on it.

All that petty stuff aside, what probably matters to most folks is performance: For unflashy onboard tone control that's much more versatile that the stock treble-cut pot, the Guitarfetish circuit delivers. I can't compare its quality to the official Fender "Clapton Mid Boost Circuit" since I don't have one, but the GF circuit does what I expected, is a more recent design, more versatile, smaller, and should easily fit within the controls cavity of a standard wood-bodied Strat.

Moronically simple bypass switch wiring diagram, acting as filler to break up large blocks of rambling text.

The Controls Layout

  1. Volume: 250K pot. The pot's input is from the selector switch, and the output goes to the bypass switch on pot#2. I used a CTS pot that was relatively easy to turn and had a shorter mounting shaft than the Bourns. This let me use a thinner knob which gave better clearance for the tremolo arm.
  2. Mid Cut/Boost & Bypass: 25K push-pull pot. Pot connects to the GF circuitboard; inactive in bypass mode. Switch toggles input and output connections between circuitboard/direct through.
  3. Bass/Treble Cut/Boost: Concentric pot (50k?). Pots connect to the GF circuitboard; inactive in bypass mode.

This turned out better than I'd expected, and I didn't have to drill the pickguard for any switches. This is because the circuit is the type that's either on or off, so you don't have to worry about quick on-the-fly bypassing. For on-the-fly usage, a paddle toggle switch is the way to go because push-pull pots are too slow and unwieldly-- you have to grab and pull up or push down. (Fender's S-1 switch would be a good option, but they're expensive and you're limited to their selection of special knobs.)

In my opinion, bypass operation mode is a must-have for any guitar with onboard active electronics because your battery may start to die at an inconvenient time. Besides, it seems wrong to never hear your guitar's natural voice without the silicon implants.

I'd rather not have to unplug the guitar to conserve battery power, so I wanted to install a push-pull pot at the Volume as a redundant battery cut-off switch. However, the body had a thick, short bar welded to a structural beam right at that location, which limited installation to a standard short pot. The bar's purpose is unknown (except perhaps to frustrate me), but it's not worth milling through the bar or drilling the pickguard for an additional switch.

Another thing I would have liked is a tone pot for bypass mode, but I'd need a ganged 25K (50K would be better)/250K pot with a switch. I haven't seen any of those for sale at Stewmac.

The Electric Test Drive I almost forgot this part since the EQ circuit took center stage... and it did so over the novelty of the electric sound of an aluminum-bodied Strat with a graphite neck. That, in and of itself, should say a lot. Once I wired the guitar and plugged it in, I didn't notice anything but the effect of the controls on the sound. I A/B'd it between in-circuit and bypass and didn't stop once to notice that I was playing an aluminum-bodied Strat with a Graphite neck, and how different it sounded. That's because it sounded pretty much like my other Strat with the YJM pickups. I noticed other things like the feel of the neck and tremolo, and how cold the thing felt when I played it without a shirt, and how it felt heavier (8.54 lbs) than my other Strat... but I didn't even notice the difference in tone when I first fired it up in electric mode. It sounded radically different in acoustic mode, so how could this be?

It's entirely possible that the majority of the tonal character of an electric guitar comes from the vibration of steel strings in the magnetic field of the pickups. Of course, everything else affects those vibrations-- the body and neck material, the density and resonant frequency of the material, whether it has a poly or nitro finish, whether the molecular lattice has imperfections, the relative humidity of the environment, the gravitational pull of the moon... but they're lesser effects, and only the most blessed amongst us can truly appreciate them. So yeah, I'm a little disappointed that it didn't gurgle "By your command" in a tinny, metallic voice, and that the acoustic Dobro-ish character wasn't transmitted through the strings to the pickups.

I'd like to say that it sustains for yahrens, but the perception of longer acoustic sustain only comes from it being louder than a solid body guitar. Plugged into an amp, it sustains like my other guitars, with the familiar decay envelope. Pluck a string real hard and the decay envelope changes. There may be differences, but they're within my perception of close 'nuff to not make a difference. No one ever shows a graph of amplitude over time or mentions figures when they talk about sustain, so I can't say anything that would be objectively meaningful. Uh... it sustains long enough?

 

What Does an Aluminum-Bodied Strat Sound Like? (Warning: Prepare to be unimpressed!) 07/28/12- I did a quickie direct-in recording of 2 guitars with vastly different construction: One's got a light swamp ash body/scalloped wood neck-rosewood/single coil pickups and the Cylon Strat has a hollow aluminum body/scalloped graphite neck/noiseless pickups, as described above. The guitars are about as different as can be, so naturally, you'd expect there to be sonic differences, and there are. The most obvious one is loudness-- the one with noiseless pickups is noticeably softer (lower output, with the active circuitry bypassed). There are also differences in the harmonic content of different pickup positions, which makes sense, because they're not the same pickups, wound the same way. I'll let you draw your own conclusions from the audio sample:

 

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