Da ‘Cheap n Cheerful’ Mexican Strat… no ’55 Tele Content!

Heavily Modded Strat from South of the Border (2 borders, actually)

Heavily Modded Strat from South of the Border (2 borders, actually)

I just couldn’t resist when my pal Ronnie Dee offered me this Mexican Strat that he modded with 6100 SS frets, Mojotone steel pole pickups, new pots, blender wired, and locking Gotohs. Just a great axe! In fact, I’ll set up a 2nd pickguard so that I can use this guitar as a platform for my Fishman Fluence pickups. I heard Greg Koch play the Fishmans in a very intimate 20 person demo, and aside from his astounding playing and marvellous/gentlemanly personality, these pickups rocked… plus there was an absurdly low “show special price”… heck I woulda bought them anyway at twice the price!

But for me, there was a “deal-breaker” with this Strat… the impossible orange Urethane neck just felt horrible… sticky, and very unfriendly. Now, being a plastic finish, the only way to deal with it is to get out the sandpaper! So I started with the 100 grit and after 2 hours and 1 water blister later, I was down to a light sanding with 400 grit. So what we have here, if I may jump the gun a bit, is a pretty authentic looking – and feeling (smooth as a baby’s bum and really fast and friendly) “aged” neck. How did I do that?…

The Impossibly orange Urethane Neck Gets a Makeover

The Impossibly orange Urethane Neck Gets a Makeover

So here’s what I did to finish the back of the neck… I went out to the “back 40” with the Strat, and grabbed some wet earth… rubbed it into the neck… then I got some dirty grease from my garage door rollers (no word of a lie!) and rubbed it in… next, a single drop of brown Stew Mac stain… all massaged into the neck. For finish, I used Tung & Teak oil from Home Depot… being careful to let it dry… and then lightly steel wooling (#0000) and polishing between each of the 5 coats. And that’s it! I think it looks pretty authentic… but more importantly… it FEELS great!!!


The ’59 Gibson ES-345 Mod… Deja Vu All Over Again


This is my third kick at the 1959 Gibson ES-345 in only the last half dozen years. I had one that reputedly belonged to Duane Allman – and I had a letter from Greg Allman’s record producer to prove it… he even said he had the original case, totally beat to uselessness… and I could have it for the cost of shipping… which I never got around to… but that’s another story!

In the later part of 1959, the necks on these beasts changed from a whopper to a more sedate “60s slim rounded profile”, and the ES-345 that I have now (courtesy of my pal Stephen S.) has the smallest profile of the 3. That may be why I just had it re-fretted in jumbo 6100 frets. “I don’t usually comment on my own fret work” said luthier Russ L., “but this one came out particularly well!”. Indeed it did! And the lack of girth is not missed as a result.


These guitars typically come from the factory both “stereo” and with a somewhat lame (at least by modern standards) Varitone with 6 different tonal positions. What I did here – and what I usually do with these guitars, at least eventually – is to take the guts out, lose the Varitone, save all the wiring, pots, caps, etc. intact (in case any future owner wants to restore the guitar to original) – and then to install a new, vintage inspired set of pots, caps, etc. This means the guitar is now in mono – thank goodness – and the Varitone is just a dummy switch (for cosmetics). What we also do here, is to save about a pound or so in weight – “light” being “right” here. This ES-345 is around 7.65lbs… and she rings like a bell – very woody!


One of the other ES-345s I owned – a particularly nice guitar that did have the whopper neck – had a particularly nasty hole cut under (and beyond) the Varitone switch. I say this to illustrate my tendency towards “guitar rescue”. Doris Day would be proud! (you may not get the reference, that’s OK). Here are before and after pics of the rescue on that other guitar:





So back to this year’s project… the current ES-345 had replaced pickups – the PAFs were long gone – and for some reason, although this is an original “stop tail”, there was a long tailpiece on it for a while… leaving some extra holes in the top… these two issues got me this beauty at less than 1/2 it’s book value. She’s a “player’s guitar” now! I ended up putting in a real PAF that I had in my stash (although nickel covered and from 1962 rather than 1959), and it’s THE MAGIC in the bridge position – aggressive, woody, open… The Voodoo pickup that I threw in the neck position, while a killer pickup, turned out to be the wrong pickup for this guitar – a brighter, more open sounding pickup being, IMHO, more appropriate. I found a very cool aged gold covered Duncan Antiquity on ebay, and it’s the tone of the Antiquity that my friend Pete F. thought would work best – and I agree. We’ll see when it gets here…

Duncan Antiquity Pickup

Duncan Antiquity Pickup

I’m also a huge proponent of “paper-in-oil” caps or anything but those ceramic disk caps! The paper-in-oil caps have a much smoother taper and a transparent tone that has a broader, wider sweep – very useful – and we now have them in this 345!!!

I’m really pleased with the changes in this vintage 345 so far… there’s a total 10/10 tone from the bridge pickup (and I can see the possibilities for the neck pickup), uber playability, lightweight ergonomics… tone that you’ll rarely find in a newer ES guitar – all good!!! I might even keep this one for a while!!!

ES-345 - Guts... Varitone, Pots, Caps, n Wire

ES-345 – Guts… Varitone, Pots, Caps, n Wire



Leaving That Old Guitar Better Than You Found It… Paying It Forward!

Call me crazy, but there’s something invigorating about respectfully restoring those vintage instruments for the next generation! As I move through middle age, I finally realize that these wonderful vintage instruments will be around alot longer than all of us. It’s partly a tribute to future players and collectors to make sure that these instruments are left in better shape than we found them – at least, that’s my view. If you have taken a vintage Tele (this was long ago, I assume!) and routed it for a neck humbucker or a middle pickup (I know I have…), don’t feel disheartened. We didn’t know! That was the time! One of my first projects was to take a 1959 Gibson ES-345 that had been mercilessly hacked under the Varitone knob and to have it properly restored with a proper, matching, circle of wood grafted as invisibly as possible. Not inexpensive. But a joy to see it through (sometimes it’s as simple as finding the “right” vintage knobs or tuners or plastic for a guitar – so it’s not always a monumental task)! BTW, that was a GREAT 345… maybe THE best… I wish I still had her! Here are the before and after shots… thanks to Russ L. for the work… it might not look like a big change to you…

1959 ES-345 With Nasty Work

1959 Gibson ES-345 BEFORE…

1959 ES-345 mod after Russ' repair

1959 Gibson ES-345 AFTER…

The Varitone ring ended up concealing 80% of the damage… so even what you don’t see at least has a measure of CLASS to it!

Another cool thing I had been inspired to do concerned yet another ES guitar. I found an absolutely killer 1961 ES-335 that was perfect from the 2nd fret down… but the rest of it… broken headstock, plain black overlay glued over the face of the headstock with no logo or cutout to access the truss rod, non-original tuners… yuk! So I had a new neck made and relic-ed. We used the original Brazilian fingerboard, binding, and truss rod from the old neck! A brilliant job by Gord B.! Also a great, great, guitar!…

1961 ES-335 re-neck

1961 Gibson ES-335 re-neck… with the old neck in the foreground.

'61 ES-335 Headstock

’61 ES-335 Headstock – new construction but aged to look authentic and fit with the rest of the guitar.

There have been countless other “interventions” on my part!… piecing together a ’59 Fender Esquire from all the right parts, re-doing worn-through neck block inlays and binding on a 1964 ES-335 and then finding the right knobs and plastic, finding the “right” period correct neck for a 1965 Strat, poperly re-setting the neck on my ES-350 (it had been re-set slightly out of alignment), … Re-setting the neck, converting to humbuckers, re-finishing and aging a 1952 Gold Top Les Paul (currently in progress)…and finally (there are many other projects that I haven’t room to detail here)… fixing, as invisibly as humanly possible (thanks Gord!), the baby fingernail sized “bo-bo” on the back of my 2011 Gustavsson Bluesmaster… behold…

2011 Gustavsson Bluesmaster "bo-bo"

2011 Gustavsson Bluesmaster “bo-bo” on the headstock back.

2011 Gustavsson Bluesmaster front view

Ahh!… now that’s better… the sunny side up pic of the glorious Gustavsson Bluesmaster.




The Great PAF Pickup Debate

Here’s the culprit… a Gibson Humbucker (or 2)!

DISCLAIMER: Before we get too far down the “rabbit hole” when discussing the ins and outs of humbucking pickup tone, I would respectfully suggest, should your head start to spin when overburdened with all these bizillions of small details , that you set it all aside for a bit and learn how to play the guitar. The best tone isn’t worth #$@% if you can’t play. I might add that I am currently looking in the mirror as I type these words!!! Ultimately, it’s about THE MUSIC! …END OF DISCLAIMER!

OK … got that over with, now let’s talk about humbucking pickups. I have really been exploring the tones for a couple of years now. To get the ball rolling let me start by saying that it should be noted that certain sets of pickups mate well with certain guitars. For example, the PAFs that were in the “Stills” Les Paul when I got it – a set of ’61 (ish) short magnet PAFs sounded fundamentally different when I swapped them to another LP. Short magnet PAFs do tend to sound quite bright. I had some in my ’61 SG/Les Paul (they were original to the guitar). Now in the case of the SG, I tried a set of Sheptone Tributes. These are a bit darker sounding, and they sounded stellar in the SG – a guitar that is “bright” by design. Those Sheptones actually sounded better to me than the short magnet PAFs – go figure! They also sounded amazing in my 1994 McCarty. But the Sheptone Tributes really did not “turn my crank” in a single cut Les Paul. So there’s one thing… it very much depends on the marriage of guitar to pickups!


I recently installed a set of long magnet PAFs in my 2011 Gustavsson Bluesmaster. Tone chef Pete F. and I noticed that these pickups had…  1. A percussive quality and…   2. And ability to “clean up” extremely well with a lighter attack. These qualities really weren’t as present in the other Gustavssons that we used for comparison. Those other two guitars had Peter Florance Voodoos in one and Duncan Seth Lovers in the other – both superb pickups in their own right. But definitely not “PAF” clones.


One of the advantages of modern boutique pickups is that you can get away from that typical range of PAF tones… plus, you can split the coils. We all remember the coil splits that have (to quote JR from The Sandbar, Canada) that “doink-doink” sound. Not so good. But my beloved DGT Standard has killer splits… pretty much like a Tele when the bridge pickup is split. I might add that I compared my DGT to my ’61 ES-335 with PAFs and the DGT sounded tonally very, very similar – but just louder and more gainy – kinda like the 335 on “11” or maybe “12”! Then I remembered that Paul Smith and David Grissom used Grissom’s beloved 1959 ES-335 as a benchmark when designing the pickups in the DGT. Makes sense – another piece of that puzzle!


I tend to agree with PF’s assessment of the pickups that he has evaluated in his post, but I’ll give some opinions… forgive the repetition…

Mike Turks – big and clear – best of both worlds. Neck and bridge are perfectly balanced. Neck pickup is warm, yet it “cuts” and is great for soloing!

Haussels – bright and clear. Almost single coil in character.

Throbaks – quite bright and often microphonic to the point of being a use-ability issue.

Voodoos – lots of heat and compression, I like ‘em. Nasty!

Burstbuckers – these are a moving target. They keep changing the formula. The “Bloomfield’ LP pickups are a case in point… amazing! I have BBs in my ’55 Wraptail LP Custom and I wouldn’t change them. Early BBs can sound overly thin, bright, ice-picky IMHO

Duncan Seth Lovers… great but bright… sometimes not the best in the bridge, but sometimes just dandy!

Duncan Antiquities – like a funky Seth Lover pickup!

Sheptone Blue Skies – balanced, lovely, great middle position tone

Duncan ‘59s – the clarity and balance of Alnico 5. A great buy on a budget. Can sound stellar in the right guitar.

Duncan JB – I love them… supposedly “hot”. With a 250k pot in the bridge position of a Fender … “yes!” Like a hot PAF.

PRS DGT – Like a hot PAF although the neck pickup is very traditional in output and tone. Great splits!

Duncan Bonamassa’s – Great vintage tone. A bit understated. No ice-pick. Very easy on the ears. Patterned after one of Joe’s favourite vintage sets.


I could go on and on with more pickups… but I think that’ll do for now!!! Time to practise (or maybe I’ll just have a nap!)

Gibson’s “Silence of The Lam (2012)”

For those who are concerned about the minutia of guitar construction, the 2 piece laminated rosewood fingerboard that has invisibly crept into the 2012 Historic Les Pauls (and many other Gibson guitars as well) seems to be a problem. It is a damn shame that Gibson can’t use a thicker 1 piece board, but the scuttlebutt is that the raids from the US Department of Fish and Wildlife have left the company no choice, with stocks of permissible rosewood depleted .

I know I really may be “flogging a dead horse” here for those of you “in the know”, but this may be a shocker if you’re hearing this “2 piece fingerboard thing” for the first time. There’s lots of talk amongst the dedicated Les Paul junkies that it’s all being done wrong anyway – the thin top piece leaves 30-something individual pieces of rosewood once you cut the fret slots – the glue used to laminate the rosewood is yellow glue (and that’s just wrong!) – etc. I think the easiest way to know if you have a 2 piece laminated rosewood board (the “Lam ” fingerboard, as they call it) is to remove the nut and check the end grain. Some say that it’s done pretty well – under very high pressure. Well, whatever! Can you HEAR it? Does it really affect the tone? I think most who know good tone would argue that it does NOT!

I’ve had two 2012 Les Pauls in my possession and they are both superb sounding and playing instruments. To me, there are other factors that are WAY more likely to have an effect on the tone than the 2 piece rosewood board. So let me mention a few factors that I think are on the “A list” for killer tone… and perhaps amongst the reasons why Gibson 2012 Les Pauls seem to sound consistently great (or so I hear, anyway).  1. I always think about the neck angle to the body. The old ones almost always had a very shallow angle – and I think this is part of their tone-recipe! (and playability too, I might add).  2. In a Les Paul, where the bulk of the wood is mahogany, the quality of the wood in the mahogany back (and neck)  seems to be a significant tone-factor. There’s actually a rumour that in the last year or so, Gibson sourced some AMAZING (and legal) mahogany from a country previously unknown for it’s instrument grade wood.  3. Let me keep going here…a third factor … the pickups. Those Burstbuckers just seem to be getting better all the time… more clarity and percussiveness in the neck pickup… an aggressive but less brittle and harsh bridge pickup. As a matter of fact, thanks to my pal PF, I now have a 2012 “Collector’s Choice #3” Les Paul – also referred to as “The Babe” (horrible name!) – and it is absolutely superb. One of the best sounding guitars I’ve had – 2 piece fingerboard and all! The pickups are referred to in the literature as “Custom Alnico 3 Buckers”. Whatever! They sound great!!! It has a Bigsby, but mercifully, it only weighs 8.85lbs. Hey! – I thought that Bigsbys were “tone-robbers”!? There are NO RULES on a feature-by-feature basis, IMHO – it’s just how everything adds up! Here’s a shot of “The Babe” relaxin’ Two piece board and all!!! Doesn’t seem to bother HER!!!…

Gibson Collector’s Choice #3 “The Babe” Les Paul…only 8.85lbs!

“Light Is Right!” Really???

Here I was last night running around looking for my trusty “fish scale” – which I use to weigh  guitars – ironical considering that I’ve been stewing about writing a Blog entry about how the weight of an electric guitar affects the tone (I love it when a guitar seller says “8lbs on my bathroom scale” – you get it – and it’s 10 lbs!!!).

I used to be 100% in the “light is right” camp until I began to notice that sometimes a heavier instrument just sounds better. Case in point – I had a lovely 7.2lb Korina PRS with 3 X P90s for a while… I sold it…and, you know the story, I had to have another! Well, the next one was the same guitar exactly but it was 8.2lbs – a full pound heavier. And, my goodness, it sounded better than the lighter guitar! What’s with that? As Bill Collings, no stranger to guitar building – both acoustic and electric – says (I’m paraphrasing here): a really light guitar will have less of the fundamental, less middle, that can make a truely great guitar!

Now there are exceptions… for me, Teles with maple necks and ash bodies – the lighter the better. I currently can’t put down my 2 Underwood T style guitars… 6.9lbs for the Blackguard Tele and 6.4lbs for the Esquire… and they RING LIKE A BELL!