“Is it just me or is your guitar upside down?”

Keeping a classic and making it my own.

Fact: the stratocaster is an American icon. After I had outgrown my Squier Affinity Strat, I begged my parents for a real Fender strat, no more of that cheapo Squier stuff. This was around late middle/early high school, and being a huge Hendrix fan, I didn’t want just any Fender strat, I wanted a 60’s reverse headstock strat in olympic white. Oh baby.

At a recording session during my high school years. I think we were called, “The Upside-down Christmas Trees” or “The Mercy Burkas?” It was a weird time.

I know, the whole reverse headstock thing might be silly, but high school me totally dug it so I didn’t mind the jokes, like the one in this post’s title. To be honest, I still really dig it. Also, this was before Fender directly marketed the guitar as a limited edition Jimi Hendrix product and offered it in “ultraviolet” (purple), so I’m quite pleased that I didn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars more. Anyway, on to what this is actually about.

While my Fender strat was certainly a HUGE step up from my Squier, it certainly still sits at the lower mid-tier of Fender’s product line up. And yes, it’s made in Mexico, so it didn’t come with that “made in the good ol’ USA” sticker. Potentially unpopular opinion: where a guitar is made matters a lot less than what most people think. However, I don’t deny the difference in build/part quality between guitars of differing origin, and that’s where my modding journey begins.

Over the years, as my playing needs have changed, I’ve modified my strat to offer better playability and different sound signatures. If you know what you’re doing, modding can be a great way to change things up without dropping a ton of cash for a new guitar. From subtle improvements to complete overhauls, there’s lots of things you can do. In addition, I think it’s really cool to take an instrument and really put your own flavor into it. That’s part of the reason why I won’t move on from my reverse headstock strat; at this point, it is too “me” and I don’t want to get rid of it. Instead, I take care of it and change it up according to my current needs. I’ll go over some of the most impactful changes I’ve made, and you can decide if you want to try these mods. Take caution though: don’t blame me if anything goes wrong.

I’ll start off with some of the simpler stuff that I’ve done recently. I used to love a good glossy polyurethane finish. They can look so pretty and make something feel so smooth. But as I’ve gained more experience and spent more time on stages, I’ve learned just how sweaty my hands can get while playing. Add to that the hot and humid conditions of club or bar venues and I quickly realized that this moisture and glossy finish combo does not make for a good time. My sweaty palms frequently got caught on the glossy finish of the neck and I was not able to play with as much dexterity. I began bringing a microfiber cloth with me on stage, hanging out of my back pocket, to quickly wipe my neck down between songs, if and when I got a chance. This was not ideal. Solution: remove the glossy polyurethane finish, and refinish the neck with something sans gloss, but that would still protect the wood.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. Prep: Start off by blocking off any crevices or cavities that should not have any particulate matter fall into it. This would be areas like the pickups, neck joint, etc. I just taped a plastic bag over it, sealing any potential entrances. I also removed the strings, just because I knew I would be doing a lot more work on other things later.

    IMG_0635
    Ready to be sanded!
  2. Sand: Start off with 500 grit sandpaper. Sand along the entire neck, applying pressure as evenly as possible. The lacquer will come off as a white powder. When there’s no more powder coming off and you start hitting wood, it’s time to stop and move on to a higher grit sand paper. Repeat process with higher grit sand paper. I think I went up to 1000, 1500, 1800, maybe 2400 as well.

    IMG_0637
    “Sand along the entire neck, applying pressure as evenly as possible. The lacquer will come off as a white powder.”
  3. Seal: Some people just quit after sanding to get a really smooth feeling neck. However, this leaves your neck wood prone to the elements, with absolutely no protection from moisture. Save yourself the headache, and refinish your neck. Combine a 50/50 mixture of shellac and rubbing alcohol. Apply to wood with a rag. It’ll dry quickly, so you won’t have to wait too long to apply 3 or 4 coats, total. Let that sit overnight, and then in the morning spend a little time going over it with some 0000 steel wool.

    img_0642.jpeg
    Finish it off the next morning with some steel wool.

Voila, no more sticky neck. Shoutout to PG for the inspiration for this mod.

While I was doing this, I noticed how silly my neck plate looked. Over the years, I had sloppily carved in different designs, and later, after regretting it, opted to sand the entire thing to try and erase my mistakes. Man, I was a dumb kid. I reached out to my good friend, Cindy, who is a super talented graphic designer. Aligning with the theme of making this guitar my own, I asked her to use my initials and design a logo that I might be able to get etched onto a backplate. The result was fabulous. The design is superb: very modern but still super groovy. Luckily she knows me well enough because I really gave her no guidance in designing it. Finding the right engraving shop took a bit of time, but Engraving Connection in Plymouth, MI came to the rescue and did the job. They’re a tiny little shop that does great work for great prices, 10/10 would recommend. This aesthetic choice doesn’t affect playability or sound in the slightest, but it was a fun little side project and I love the way it turned out. I may experiment with decals on the headstock later, but I think this is a great start. It feels almost like I have my own signature guitar, and I didn’t have to get good or become famous to get it. HA!

IMG_1046

If you’re like me and think this logo is super fresh, please give Cindy a follow on the ol’ Instagram @cindyyshaw and check out her website: cindyyshaw.com to see all of the super cool and cute stuff she creates!

Next, onto the pickups, but first, a little bit of backstory: I first switched out the original pickups sometime during undergrad. There was nothing wrong with them, but I had just wanted to explore different sounds and see what other single coil offerings were capable of. After I felt comfortable with a soldering iron (and a few gnarly burns), I plopped in a set of Fender Custom Shop 54’s to get a taste of what that original strat sound was like… Dirty. It was dirty. These pups are noisy, with more 60-cycle hum than acceptable, by my standards. However, the spank and bite of classic strat tones were undeniable. Beware: this means it’s also a little more thin sounding than more modern strat pickups.

When I started playing more at church, I very reluctantly began to move away from the neck pickup and venture into the bridge position. It was a huge shift for me, made even more jarring by the fact that I wanted a little more chime instead of twang in my bridge tone. A fantastic mentor of mine suggested the Seymour-Duncan Little 59, which was a single coil sized humbucker. Since it was my first time playing a humbucker, I was a little nervous, but the warmer, higher output tone was a fantastic option to get that newfangled P&W sound everyone goes on about. Besides that though, It’s addition provided a great deal of flexibility and I felt like I could get the best of both worlds with having both types of pickups on board.

Last August, I picked up a Reverend Charger 290 guitar with a completely different sound. The p90 style pickups are more than sufficiently chime-y for church stuff, so I almost always use it for that now. Lately though, I’ve really started to miss that unmistakeable single coil sound. Enter, Lambertones. I had heard through the P&W grape vine about the rising popularity of their pickups, so I decided to check them out. Sure enough, they had recently released their “Triple Shot” single coils. They sent them to me at the beginning of the year, but it’s taken me until now to put them in. I actually just finished the job and I’m quite pleased. The bridge and middle positions feel like a return to my roots of that 60’s style sound, but better. Flip the switch into the bridge position though, and you get another beast entirely. It is unbelievably spanky, and I LOVE IT. To my ears it definitely has a tele type vibe to it, and I’m curious if that was intentional. Either way, it adds another tonal variation to my palette, and I am not complaining.

IMG_1301
Back in action, featuring Lambertones’ Triple Shot pickups.

Lastly, I did want to give a brief mention to some less glamorous but supremely important work. Don’t underestimate the value of a good set-up. Especially after such a harsh winter, give your instrument some love and give it a proper set-up. It’ll help with playability, intonation, buzz, etc. This time around, I opted for light gauge strings, as opposed to mediums, since I’m doing quite a bit more bending. I also floated the bridge! For so long I’ve left it in more of a hardtail position to preserve tuning, but I’ve been using it a lot more and I feel that it’s time to get LOOSEY-GOOSEY. I’d rather focus on playing and enjoying the dang guitar rather than staring at a tuner all the time, pursuing the myth of perfect tuning.

At this point, I think the only part of the guitar that I’ve left stock are the tuners, and that might change in the future as well. Tinkering is a fun way to experiment with different aspects of the instrument, but it’s no substitute for practicing and playing! That’s the best way to know exactly what you want and need from your instrument. If you’re ready to take that next step though, it can really open up a world of possibilities without having to drop a ton of cash for a new guitar. Just make sure you spend the time learning how to do things first, before you ruin a beloved instrument. All of this sounds like a lot of work, but realistically it probably could’ve been done in one weekend. This TLC couldn’t have come at a better time, as I’m about to head into a stretch of weekends of constant playing, performing, and serving, and I need my gear to be in good shape! I’ll have to play the Triple Shots for a bit more before making a final verdict, but I am so pleased with them already. After months of the strat being out of commission, it’s good to have it back in the rotation. Can’t wait for it to see more action!

IMG_0652
Classic.

 

 

Advertisements

The little victories…

Quick appreciation post:

There’s a reason why Thursday nights are some of my favorite parts of the week. In the midst of good and bad, I’m thankful to have places to worship with friends I love. Also, making great music and loud noises is never a bad feeling. “Loud is more good,” as some might say.

That’s it for the gross stuff, I also wanted to do a quick shoutout to the Line 6 HX Stomp. The reality of my current life stage is that I can’t always blast an overdriven amp whenever I want. Some living spaces/situations just don’t allow for that. To get around this conundrum, I’ve been on a long search for the perfect silent practice/silent stage solution. Don’t worry, I still don’t think anything can beat the feeling of a tube amp turned up hitting you right in the chest, but hey, a weekend rocker’s got to be practical too.

Tonight, I misplaced the power supply for my HX effects, which was a total bummer; I had so many reverbs and delays prepared. I quickly slapped together a patch on the Stomp and knew I needed to have an amp sim, a reverb, and delay of some sort. I hooked up the Stomp to my Macbook and quickly threw together the patch. I even got fancy and did a dual amp setup. Before I knew it, I was up and running with the rest of my pedal board. It didn’t sound terrible, either. I’ll have a full review up at some point, but tonight I can say that I definitely appreciated how fast I was able to set everything up and get playing. Spoiler alert, the amp sims on this little guy are no joke. I need to play this thing more, but stay tuned for the full review, this is sure to be a game-changer for how I make music.

56886509911__423cd683-5259-4d94-8e19-f728cd0fc3f9.jpeg
Tonight’s MVP
img_0731.jpeg
How the completed board should look and function,

Picking a Plectrum

***Just a quick disclaimer about this post and future posts like this, I’m a firm believer in the cliche saying, “tone is in the fingers.” Expensive instruments and gear can sound good, but it still needs a musician to make music. Granted, I’m only talking about cheap, tiny guitar picks this time, but it’s still worth noting that “stuff” will only get you and me so far in becoming better guitarists!

As a young child, the first guitar pick I ever laid hands on was a large piece of plastic, shaped like a Dorito. In fact, it had the Dorito’s logo on it and I’m fairly certain it was part of some promo that included a pick in every bag of chips. If you held it up to your nose, you could still make out the scent of powdered nacho cheese, which later transferred to some strings. KINDA GROSS.

Later, when I actually started learning guitar, I think my preference was to forgo the pick entirely. I love the natural and direct feeling of strumming with my pointer finger and thumb pinched together, as if holding an invisible pick. Also, in the right setting, fingerstyle affords so much control and flexibility.
However, playing with a pick offers a consistency in attack that using my bare hand can’t replicate. Shoot, for that reason I insist on tuning with a pick. Especially in any setting where a strummed guitar is amplified or captured, I try my best to remove any extraneous hand noise. Where mopping up my own sloppy technique has failed, picks have helped. In addition, I came to learn how the wide variety of sizes, thicknesses, shapes, and materials not only affect the feeling of the pick, but also my sound.
Over the years I’ve been able to try a plethora of different plectrums but here are three that have had significant impact on my playing:
  • I started with Fender 346 celluloid mediums, an ode to the Dorito pick. With celluloid, I got a nice warm tone and with mediums, enough heft for a goldilocks attack, not too hard hitting but not too light. The 346 shape meant that I could use it on any side, perfect for my awkward and inaccurate beginner hands. These picks  were huge, which I reasoned would help me hang on to them. When I started leading worship and my hands would get sweaty, I used a hole punch to make a hole in the center to help even more with grip. Not sure if that’s recommended, but I did it. HA. With these, the fat triangle shape lent themselves to my wild, loosey-goosey strumming but I probably wouldn’t use these much for single note picking or lead lines.
  • Later on I stuck with Fender mediums, but this time opted for the more traditional 351 shape. I was still primarily an acoustic strummer, but I ventured more into single note and electric guitar territory. Also the colors were pretty. I stayed with these for the longest, but only because there was a period of time in college where I didn’t really play much guitar at all so I didn’t try anything new. Whoops. I still stick with this pick when I play acoustic!
  • I’m not sure exactly where I came up with my next pick (pun intended), but I’m pretty sure it was when I got a big dump of random picks when my good friend was moving away and getting rid of stuff. Most of them were thin and light nylons, not something I typically played with, but in the mix I did find a D’Addario Black Ice. This discovery coincided to my reemerging interest in the electric guitar. Perfect timing too. I was getting into more lead-type single note playing, and finding that the Fenders just played a little too nicely. For the duralin-made Black Ice, the 1.10mm thickness gave it some heft and prevented too much flexibility, while the matte finish gave ample grip, both for my fingers on the pick and for the pick on the strings. To my ears, this combo gives off a more aggressive attack: nothing too snarly, but still a good amount of bite without overwhelming pick noise. With the small size, fairly hefty duralin material, and moderate thickness, I love the feel and velocity I can achieve while doing some fast passages or even tremolo picking. Basically, Black Ice – 1.10mm: current fav. Also, extra points because my beloved first car was affectionately nicknamed black ice because it was black and could be dangerous at any moment, just like black ice. (bonus tip: once I accidentally got the .80mm, used a new one at a show and by the end of it, the pick was already permanently bent. Too much flex for my liking)
picktins
Some of the picks I’m currently trying.

Wrap up thoughts:

To my ears, I’ve found that a different pick (or no pick at all!) can be one of the easiest and most inexpensive gear changes to alter my tone. How a pick feels in my hand and on my strings is so important in connecting me to the instrument. I’m glad I found the D’Addario Black Ice, which introduced me to the Jazz III style pick. I’m currently going through a sample pack of Dunlop Jazz III’s that included different sizes and materials. I’m looking for one with the same feel and thickness but a tad less pick noise. Also trying the Ernie Ball Prodigy. Very similar to the Black Ice/Jazz III, but with a sharpened edge for even faster, more aggressive picking. I’ll report back if something knocks off the Black Ice to take the crown as my favorite. Keep in mind that these are just my own personal tastes! For anyone out there also still looking for their preferred plectrum, don’t be afraid to try something new; you never know what you’ll find that will sound and feel great! If you’ve already got a favorite, leave some recommendations!
PS I’ve also been experimenting with a Gravity pick that came with a JHS pedal. Big red Dorito, unpolished, sharpened edge, JHS logo. Everyone is raving over them but I’m not finding them to be anything to write home about. Am I missing something?!?!

 

New Year, New Tone

Do you remember the movie, School of Rock? Jack Black poses as a substitute teacher and turns his classroom of kids into a rock band. I remember it dropped when I was either in late elementary or middle school, and I along with many other little twerps like me, thought it was the coolest thing ever. I nagged my parents incessantly for a bass guitar until they acquiesced, but with the stipulation that I needed to learn how to play a six string first. Fine by me. I learned some chords, cool little riffs, and even started playing a basic 12-bar blues! Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about bass, but more on that later. Once I hit college, I still played and even led worship for the campus fellowship I was a part of, but definitely didn’t make time to hone my skills and learn something new.

Fast forward to 2018, I started to take guitar much more seriously. I had been in talks with the worship pastor at my church (shout out to Matt & Grace Ann Arbor) about playing electric guitar on the worship team, but I wanted to start with rhythm parts, since I didn’t feel confident about playing any lead type lines. I was excited but also a quite nervous about this, and knew I had to prepare well. I dug in and got to work. Constant practice and listening helped of course, but for me, what really got the ball rolling was the willingness of so many people around me to give advice on playing, dialing in appropriate tone, and choosing gear. I also borrowed A LOT of people’s pedals. In fact, I still have a lot of those borrowed pedals, so if you’re reading this and you need something back, my bad, just let me know and I’ll get it right back to you. HA.

IMG_0651 2.jpeg
Seriously, if something’s yours and you and want it back, pls take it. I promise I’m not a hoarder.

Nowadays, my skills are still developing and I’m continuing to play at church, but also with other worship teams, bands, solo artists, etc. that previously I would have never even dreamed of meeting. There’s a wealth of knowledge, hacks, and of course, gear out there left for me to try, and I’ll keep working toward my goal of becoming a better musician and guitarist. I’ve had boat loads of fun emulating others’ tones and techniques, but I think it’s high time for me to also craft my own sounds. I’d like to document some of my experiences here because I’m incredibly grateful at how much others have shared with me to aid in my improvement. I’ll probably start off with more written blog posts, but eventually I’ll start posting some sound clips and videos too, since that might be more helpful. Perhaps more aspiring weekend rockers will benefit from this info, just as I did a year ago. Also, I guess I have too much time on my hands.

If you’re like me, know some basics and just want to learn as much as you can but don’t always know where to look, maybe this might help! If you’re already a hotshot pro banging out screaming solos, maybe you’ll just get a kick out of how long it took me to figure some of this stuff out. Either way, thanks for giving this a glance, enjoy!