The Strat Whisperer?

Da New Aquisition

Da New Acquisition

I’m a bit of a “punter” when it comes to guitar repair. Don’t let me touch your frets with a file…  But I do have a good “feel”, as a player, for assessing a Stratocaster (I’m back into Strats in a big way!) very quickly, and with a bit of intuitive information becoming available to me. So today I got this 50s style Strat… rings really well with it’s Alder body and overall weight of just under 7-1/2 lbs. – a perfect weight for an Alder Strat. But more than that, this is a NICE piece of wood! With the right pickups (I haven’t plugged ‘er in yet) this will be a killer Strat!

So the next question is (here’s the voodoo): “how does the Tremolo WANT to be set up?”. I play the guitar – never plugged in at this stage – and try the Trem. It can feel stiff or loose, stay in tune or go out of tune… all relating to the type of bridge, action height, setup of 6 bridge screws, # of springs, lubrication, position of the Trem claw… this is all after I have lubed the nut and stretched the strings – the #1 cause of tuning issues for a Stratocaster. I play with these variables. Some guitars seem to play, sound and feel best with a floating bridge – and some are best with the bridge flat on the body. Sometimes I use 3 springs, often 4, and rarely, 5. There are different ways to set the springs on the claw. There are some different and unusual ways to set the depth of the 2 claw screws… it goes on and on! Of course these “best” ways for a particular instrument are just my opinions, and it’s really a subjective thing. But for sure, once I have set up a Strat the way that it feels right to me, I never seem to have to fight the guitar or the tuning when I play it live.

There are a few other things I do with a Strat – even a vintage guitar. One trick is that I always flip one wire on the switch so that the 2  Tone controls function on the neck pickup and the bridge pickup. The middle pickup is straight through, with no Tone control. I used to hook it up with the second Tone control functioning on both the middle and bridge pickups, but now I like the middle pickup to be straight through – it works really well when you use the notch position between the middle/bridge pickups. PF and I did a Strat shootout recently and we found that the Tone control on the bridge pickup in some configuration is really a “must” when you get used to having one and hearing the strident tone of even the best Strat bridge pickups when played straight through.

Flip that Middle Pickup Tone to the Bridge Pickup!

Flip that Middle Pickup Tone to the Bridge Pickup!

Since I am a bit of a “hack”, if I detect some binding in the nut after I have properly lubed it, I take it to a luthier. Same with fret issues…

Here’s some eye candy for you… David W.’s ’65 Strat that I owned for many years…




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 1968 Fender Telecaster Un-wrapped.

Close up and personal ’68 Tele


Full view of the glorious ’68 Tele

I took a flyer on a 1968 maple necked Telecaster that was on ebay. It’s “all there” (including the original case) … nice vibe… pretty worn. Just a REAL relic in spades! There’s 50s-like neck wear on the nitro fingerboard. A very cool nicotine orange to yellow to white to blonde body. This was a somewhat unexpected purchase… I threw in a low $4500 offer and it was accepted! I received the guitar a couple of days ago, and I must say that this seller should have been a little more careful in his description. There were a few undisclosed issues. The neck pickup was wired out of phase and had a 2.5k DC resistance – indicating a potentially broken/shorted out pickup. The frets didn’t seem like the stated “original frets”…but that’s OK, the slightly larger than stock size wire and perfect condition just saved me a re-fret! I plugged in my “Bri approved” Weller WESD51 soldering station, reheated the neck pickup wires at the pickup… and low and behold, the pickup was fixed!

This guitar, despite my initial disappointment, turned out to be a great Tele! Plugged in, the 7.2k bridge pickup really rocks! Lots of metallic clang and twang, with plenty of output… just fabulous! A winner. The neck plays smoothly due to 45 years of love. The guitar weighs 7.3 lbs – nice and light. The 5.5k neck pickup sounds musical, but it doesn’t seem like the best match for the bridge pickup – a little weak. And it therefore doesn’t give us the best middle position sound either. I’m not opposed to reversible mods – so I took note of the this issue.

It’s interesting how after a while playing around with guitars you sometimes get an intuition about what changes might work, and I immediately thought of the Fralin wound Jim Weider “Big T” neck pickup. It’s got bigger magnets and a moderately low wind for a nice clear, but robust, punchy, and slightly dark tone (at least darker than all those other “tall” neck pickups like the Twisted Tele pickup that Fender makes). So the Big T went in the guitar and it’s “the magic”, the “Shiznitz”! I also replaced the severely corroded switch while I was at it. The ceramic .05mF disk cap was really “on / off”… no taper at all… so given the fact that I’d already done some (reversible) mods to the guitar, I threw in a paper and oil cap of the same value – one of those big, fat gold cylinders. I think they call it a “guitar cap” or something. Wow! Don’t let anyone tell you that all caps of the same value sound the same. The new cap had a very gradual tone roll off with numerous very musical tones built in – a whole rainbow of sounds!

So there you have it! I put ‘er all back together and I’ve been playing this great ‘ole Tele for the last day or so non-stop! Don’t let anyone tell you that great Fender guitars stopped in 1965 when Leo sold the company! This is one GREAT Tele! Compared to my favorite Tele (and I’ve compared my favorite, “keeper” to many others) – a lightweight knockoff Top Loader with a fatty neck – this ‘68 is at least it’s equal… maybe better. Mission accomplished.





The Vintage Les Paul ‘Burst … What Does A “Real” One Look Like?

Here’s a recent email from my pal Todd L’Ecuyer:

I rediscovered a site that I’ve picked through in the past.  Odds are you are all aware of this place, but it never hurts to be sure.  I was picking through the gallery of ’59 LPs and reached a rather interesting conclusion.  I have this idea in my head of what looks old to me.  For example, my Beano looks like an old LP to me.  9 0328 confirmed this point as it shares some resemblance.  I’m not saying twins (in fact, mine has a little more flame on the lower half of the top, but most of the figuring looks very similar.  Now super flame tops, thin pin stripes, and straight flame (1/4 sawn tops) never looked vintage to me.  If I was to see a RI, I’d often conclude that it didn’t look like an old one.  When I looked through the vintage gallery, I realized I was wrong.  I found many 59s that did not match my so called burst criteria.  In fact, judging by the pics,  if I didn’t know those bursts were old, I’d think them new RI.  I think you get my point.  I’m really rethinking this whole preconceived notion of the “vintage look”.  I want to put this to you guys.  Thoughts?  So the Kossoff reissue all of a sudden looks a lot nicer to me!  I’ve yet to see one of those that fit my previous vintage mindset.

Here’s that “Beano” Les Paul. Mmmm … subtle and warm…

Well I agree… we get this idea of what’s “old” and what looks “right”. A lot of the time, we’re way off base. I think we can say that there were many, many actual vintage ‘bursts that were either:  1. Not properly book-matched or irregular …or  2. Very subtly flamed… Of course, the whole plain top reissue phenomenon of recent years has been created in order to cover those bases. It can also be noted that if you look at some of those famous ‘bursts as they were back in the 60s or 70s, the sunburst finish is often dramatically different. The Peter Green / Gary Moore / Melvin Franks (who?) ‘burst is a case in point… started as a cherry ‘burst and ended up as a lemon “un-‘burst”. I realize that you aren’t talking about the ‘burst so much as the figure in vintage Les Pauls, but I think it’s worth covering the question: “what is the colour that seems “real” or vintage?”. I mean, without the colour seeming correct, it doesn’t matter how authentic the figure is! Of course, a 1960 ‘burst should have red in it – because the dyes were changed to a formula that does not fade easily for that last year of the Sunburst Les Paul. I have actually faded a couple of Les Pauls that I knew to be finished with unstable dyes (don’t worry, not vintage Les Pauls)… from cherry ‘burst to iced tea in 1-3 days poolside!

But let’s face it, we do love that worn in look. For me, I also feel like a super flamey/quilty top is completely untypical of a vintage “look”. I also prefer a subtle degree of figure. Historic Makeovers in Florida tries to recreate vintage spec and “look” Les Pauls out of modern Gibson Historic Les Pauls. Their work is stunning, they keep up-leveling the game, and some of the aging work that the big “G” is doing now looks silly by comparison. Now it’s interesting that Kim and his team at H.M. can take what looks to me like “definitely not vintage” figure, and work their magic… and presto… it does look “real”. So there’s something to consider!!! Maybe that “old” patina and lacquer checking will make an uber flame top guitar look “real”???  Check out their site (Google Historic Makeovers)… and no, I don’t work for them! I know Kim personally and believe me, he has an insane commitment to making sure each guitar is “right”.

Gibson Les Paul that has been aged and had fairy dust added by H.M.


Here’s a close up of that Historic Makeovers Les Paul. Looks “real”, doesn’t it???

Another Gibson Les Paul R9… this time beautifully aged by RS Guitarworks.