On guitars, yet again (…for guitar nerds only!)

A couple weeks ago I did an interview about my recent albums “Superfluity” and the Sista Maj “Series of Nested Universes” for a Japanese blog called StarTrip. One of the questions was about equipment I used (the guy is a guitar player) and you know how I love my gear.

So I thought I should update the blog entries on guitars, The Stratocaster (part 2) and Les Paul! Les Paul! specifically, with a mention of the bass guitar as well. You know. Just because there needs to be more on the internet about old guitars and shit. By old rock musicians.

So my main guitars nowadays are the black ’62 Strat and its Strat cohorts and the Les Paul(s). I was trying to explain to my still-patient wife last night about the different ways these guitars feel to play. The ’62 is very interesting, it’s like a vintage guitar made modern (simply by means of making it playable, really) and not in the fake Custom Shop way*. The body and neck are both very old, the finish is coming off (the black [re]finish is super thin, and it’s a July ’62 neck that is unfortunately not slab Brazilian rosewood, but a laminated rosewood fretboard on top of the maple. I prefer the thicker flat-bottomed slab-board fingerboard. Too bad for me, I know. Fender only made slabboard Stratocasters from spring of 1959 to mid-1962) …but the metal is mostly new. And the fretboard is now a little flatter than the normal 7.25″ radius, heading toward the 9.5″ of the newer Strats, plus it’s got new frets, 6105 size, neck work courtesy of Geoff Lutrell at SF Guitarworks several years ago to make a twisty neck playable. Also, it has the DeTemple titanium bridge and tremolo block, so it feels super solid and very modern to play but with that old dried wood feel and weight. Kind of the perfect mix of these things. The pickups are the old ’62 pickups, now all rewound, (neck done twice now, (dammit)—recently by Lundgren here in Sweden.) I moved the Lollars to the ’62 AVRI. This one (the real ’62. I guess they need names) has some weird addenda also, some dude made these weird cast heavy metal parts that I saw somewhere, so it has skulls around the jack, and it has a 1980 “The Strat” brass knob for the volume knob (and the brass tremolo bar tip.) Just because. And I drew on it. I mean, my daughter drew on the 50s Strat, so…

Strat

the best one.

I record a lot with this guitar, on a bunch of Superfluity, (“The Dying Stars” is a good jam with it, for example) and Sista Maj (“A Very Heavy Feather” for example) and on a bunch of Øresund Space Collective starting with Different Creatures. I even brought it on tour with them last May in Europe. I figure if nobody knows it’s an old guitar, nobody will care and try to steal it. It’s all drawn on and shit, obviously not all-original parts!

IMG_7443The ’54/56 Stratocaster, on the other hand, has accompanied me on several solo shows. I like to play it if I play solo instead of an acoustic guitar. It’s so incredibly resonant, and the neck is pretty thick, it’s a lot like an acoustic guitar! Um, well, with a solid maple neck. The 50s pickups are very special, though, each very different from the others (even with the middle pickup repaired by Jason Lollar.) They have very distinct tonal characteristics, like each is the epitome of Stratocaster “neck position,” “middle pickup” and “bridge pickup” sounds. Quite intense. It’s such a pleasure to play, again with the old super resonant wood, but new frets (courtesy of Dan Erlewine in this case, who fixed the truss rod as told in the earlier Stratocaster blog post.) It has its old bridge on it which is not *quite* as stable (tuning wise) as the Callaham it had in that last episode, but is more “stock”.  I end up playing this guitar at home the most, noodling around on it the most. It just feels so good to play. Oddly I don’t record with it as often as the other one. It has its place in recordings, definitely, but usually for when I need a clean and direct sound without effects, just amp and guitar (that old Princeton Reverb, of course.)

Neither of these guitars have their original potentiometers. Which is too bad, I guess? I mean, I sure do see old pots on ebay a bunch for hundreds of dollars. These have decent post regardless, fairly new Mojotone or some CTS variety. I had some old 1962-dated 250kOhm pots for the ’62 but the knurl on the shaft wasn’t long enough (or something) to hold the knobs steady enough, so I abandoned that idea. Both guitars do have the old 3-way switches still, so does the ’72. I usually store the Grolsch bottle-cap washer/straplock on the switch when the guitar is in the case, when I got the ’62 refretted, Geoff Luttrell said, “Hey, is this to keep it in position 2 or 4? Cuz we can put in a 5-way, you know!” No thanks, I’m happy with the three-position switches. I don’t use the out-of-phase much anymore. (Also, that’s a straplock, you doofus.) I also like the standard wiring: volume pot, tone pot for neck pickup, tone pot for middle pickup. No blending, no weird neck-and-bridge pickup parallel or whatever. Come on people, if you can’t find enough different sounds with three pickups, two of which have tone roll-off, something’s not coming together for your sound to begin with. Also, no treble-bleed cap, I like the fact that the tone changes as you roll off the volume. Get off my lawn.

906785_10151855628199335_1627451415_oThe 50s Strat still has the newer anodized metal pickguard. I had a couple old broken 50s pickguards that I fixed up with bits of newer ones in the broken places, and I had one that was matte-backed like the oldest polystyrene ones (honestly I don’t know it it was or not, it’s impossible to know unless you were there) and I intended to switch the metal one out for it, but then last summer I sold a bunch of parts to Halkan from a shop in downtown Stockholm and I accidentally let that one go in the pile of parts. I’ll never get it back, nor see another, so I guess the guitar’s gonna keep the anodized metal guard.

(I was selling a pile of old pickguards and some metal parts, initially he and his son came over to get one of them, but ended up offering a bunch of money for a great big pile of stuff so I took it. Needed to pay the rent, you know. Neither my wife nor I were working at the time! I also sold a guitar that summer. But I forgot to keep the one plastic pickguard for this guitar.)

I’m still not satisfied with the repro parts that are being made for 50s Strats. The repro polystyrene (so-called “bakelite”) knobs and pickup covers are stupid, every manufacturer makes them rounded like they have been used forever, but oddly too much so, like the pickup covers all got rounded edges on all sides equally? Who plays like that? And still nobody gets the number font right, 0s are always too tall. So I eventually just put on new Stratocaster knobs (“60s style” which essentially look exactly like they looked in 1956, just made of ABS plastic now.) I have no idea where nor when the switch tip and tremolo bar tip on this guitar came from, they are hard white plastic like polystyrene, but again, if you don’t have a provenance trail, it’s impossible to be certain. More likely 70s reissue plastic, same polystyrene as the 60s model cars. I bought a Fender *official* Pure Vintage 1954 reissue set of plastic parts, made for some anniversary 1954 reissue, but I don’t like them either. Regardless, you gotta love the fact that Fender guitars are essentially modular!

But, you know… if I wanted to make these guitars accurate with correct period parts, it would cost a fortune. As they are, these guitars aren’t worth much in the collector market. Which is fine by me! With all the refinishing and alteration and repairs and replaced parts they are probably worth maybe a quarter of the price of the examples at GBase or Reverb or wherever (these links are sorted highest price first, btw.) A period correct bridge with saddles for the ’62 would be $750-1200. Replacing the plastic parts of the 50s Strat with actual 50s polystyrene (“Bakelite” as they still refer to it) would be literally many thousands of dollars—you see knobs for $1000 apiece! And over the course of the past 5 years, there are way more fake parts on eBay…well, either that or the sellers just lack knowledge. I see some people advertising “Bakelite” Stratocaster knobs for $650 or so but they are not even spoked on the backside, so not the real thing at all. And the “bakelite” pickup covers are all cracked and broken and still $3000 a set. I don’t think a 1954 polystyrene pickguard survives that isn’t super warped or broken.

So, fine, then.

Anyway, onto the rest of the guitars. I still scour for parts, just in case. Can’t help it. Ancestral junk dealer DNA. And I did find a good cheap ’66 Stratocaster neck, very used, enormous wide frets, thin nut—it was stamped with the B stamp indicating it was the normal width of 1 5/8″ but it was actually thinner than that. I got a ’65 body that had been repainted Lake Placid Blue, because I love that color, but while it was refinished with the correct paint, they didn’t actually do the white primer undercoat, so it looked a little off, especially if scratched. The ’66 neck went on my ’62 reissue (with the racing stripes and Fralin pickups) for a while, I toured with that one with Camper Van Beethoven for a year or two, then I finally decided to put it together with the blue body, fitted it with proper mid-60s ABS plastic parts, the ’62 reissue’s bridge (’62 reissue has a Wudtone bridge, from the UK, a really great design) stuck in some Abigail Ybarra ’69 Custom Shop pickups from 1999 or something, and had a new guitar. For a while. I had a love/hate relationship with this one. Not quite perfect, you know? Lake Placid Blue, but no primer. Neck feels nice and well used, but the frets are super huge, and the neck is a bit too narrow at the nut. Sounds good, a little too crunchy/noisy maybe with those ’69 pickups. So when we needed money last year, this one went. Sold for 40000kr. (probably around $4500 at the time.) The previous summer I sold a ’77 Strat that was “natural,” i.e. just wood colored and clear finish, maple neck. It was OK, pretty but not great. Fender started doing maple necks again in the early 70s, but they’re sort of sharp on the edges of the fretboard, and they had switched to polyurethane finish for necks and bodies, so it’s just not as nice, it separates the player from the wood more, feels more plastic. I only got about 10000kr for that guitar (it had been routed for humbuckers at one time.)

The ’62 reissue’s neck was on Victor’s 1984 ’57 reissue. So I got a 2012 AVRI ’59 reissue neck, but it felt too thick (I never understand Fender’s making of reissues. 1959 Stratocasters usually had very thin necks, 62/63 got much thicker, but the ’62 reissue neck is thin and the ’59 reissue was thick.) So I made Victor trade me necks last fall. (I mean, I traded my Strat neck for my Strat neck. What?) I played his ’57 reissue with the ’62 reissue neck at Camp-Out before taking them all apart and swapping necks.

 

 

 

( late Aug 2016 set at Camp-Out, using Victor’s ’57 AVRI with the ’62 neck on it!)

So the 2004 Fender AVRI 1962 guitar is back together, neck and body, now with the Lollar blackface pickups instead of the Fralins and with a Wudtone bridge. And a tortoiseshell pickguard. Tour guitar. Frets are too small, they sort of tried for the vintage-style small and flat frets. And living in Sweden, which is super dry in the winter, has made all the guitars have problems, not the least of which is the fretboards drying and sharp fret ends sticking out a bit, enough to feel like they’re cutting your hand if you slide around. So I’ve bought a Stew-Mac fret end file and slowly I’ve been trying to file the ends into comfortability.

IMG_6852

’62 AVRI back together.

IMG_5548

LPB ’66/65. Sold.

And the 1972 Strat? Still all stock, still good. Oddly, as it was the replacement and most similar guitar to the 1971 Strat that was stolen in 2004, it gets the least use now. I found an actual 1970s tortoiseshell guard for it (to match my ’72 Precision Bass) but after a couple months decided that it wasn’t right, so it’s all back to stock now. Selling that 70s tortoiseshell guard was the beginning of the sale of parts to Halkan, actually. He got some nice stuff in that deal, besides the 50s guards, there was the ’63/64 celluloid Strat pickguard (which I had on the LPB guitar for a bit, but thought it needed a real ABS plastic white 1965 guard to offset the blue, but from the celluloid one, in the process of slightly sanding the pickup holes from their shrinking in order to fit pickup covers in, I found out the truth of the Vicks’ VaporRub thing: sanding a real celluloid pickguard does give off a strong menthol smell. Weird!) Also several old metal parts, screws, tuners, one working 1965 pickup. But you know, we needed the money. I realized my mistake of including the 50s Strat’s pickguard only later and tried to get it back, but no way, he wouldn’t do it. I blame my bad Swedish. Or something.

903334_10151454431069335_249970728_o

nice, but… I dunno. anyway, that pickguard is long gone now.

Greg Lisher from CVB got a new Stratocaster in 2014 and it’s pretty darn good, though he has a humbucker in the bridge position (and I think he’s swapped the pickups out already. I sure did after I got my 2004 ’62 reissue from Fender, and the ’99 Inca Silver Strat which is now David Lowery’s.) I haven’t tried the Texas Specials or Fat 50s or whatever are in the new Strats, but a lot of stock pickups from Fender from the previous 2 decades sucked. The newer American Standards (2008-2015) have good features, better bridge and pickups supposedly, decent finishes, 22-fret neck at a 9.5″ radius. I’m looking into one of these for a touring guitar now, especially as now they’ve dropped that model in favor of some Elite and Professional series now… (update: found a good used 2011 one, it’s white. And I have a set of Fralins. [rubs hands together with an evil laugh])

15433797_10211781006739034_8760227858850883386_n

Greg Lisher at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, photo by Lisa D Walker-Roseman

That’s Strats.

222067_5677264334_355_n

’73 Les Paul. an old pic (when we lived in Oakland)

The Les Paul is majorly in use in recording, it’s on the ØSC “Different Creatures” album, and all over Superfluity (and Shine Out…Check “Turtles All the Way Down” for Les Paul—even though obvious Hendrix—and “Nice Tree Ice” for the black Strat.). This guitar is just cool, 1973 Standard with full sized humbuckers. Makes me feel like Jimmy Page**. All stock except I replaced the bridge and tailpiece with a locking set from Faber (I have the parts they replaced, but I think they had been changed out before I got the guitar.) The frets are low, eventually it will need new frets but I can’t bear to do it yet. Instead, I sometimes bring “The Paul” in its place, as I did on the Sista Maj recording and on the most recent ØSC recording session (of which nothing is out yet, just finished mixing all of that stuff!). “The Paul” is very non-stock now, Seymour Duncan pickups, a brass-saddled Tone-Pros bridge and a Deusenburg “Les Trem” tremolo stop piece. The Les Trem is good, actually—I tried a Bigsby on this guitar but it never worked right due to the placement of the pickup switch. I had to drill an extra hole to move the switch out of the way of the Bigsby/Vibramate footprint, eventually I gave up and took it off and put on this trem system and moved the switch back. Works well now. Strong guitar, with all that walnut and the ebony fretboard.

 

Also used on the Superfluity album was the late 90s Danelectro DC-3 that I rigged a Gotoh sitar bridge onto. It’s sort of like the Jerry Jones or old Coral electric sitar now, almost in tune enough to record with. It was a cheap guitar to begin with, now more useful as a sitar.

Dano-sitar

Dano with sitar bridge

Of course I also use my Rickenbackers, the 450-12 is on many tracks on Superfluity, (as per usual, can’t make a record without it!) and the 481 is actually on “Sleep for a Hundred Years” for the ” I wish I could sleep…” parts. The basses on this album are either the ’72 Precision or the ‘fretless’ Musicmaster, although when I recorded basics with Mattias Olsson, I played his Hagström baritone guitar on the track “Superfluity” and some old thumpy 60s bass on “Imply It, Deny It.” I love that 60s thud bass. Need to get me one of those, like a Hohner or something. Hagström, more likely, over here.

Recording “Strawberry Sun” on baritone

In addition to all of this, I got a lap steel a few years back, some later-50s Fender Champ lap steel (exact year unknown as of yet, haven’t checked the potentiometer date) and have been playing it a bunch, it’s on many tracks on Superfluity and “Series of Nested Universes,” as well as the upcoming Øresund Space Collective music!

IMG_6528

Recording setup for Øresund Space Collective Nov 2016 at Black Tornado Studio in Copenhagen. Clockwise, from bottom left: pedals, Moog Theremin, Farfisa (studio’s), violin, ’62 Stratocaster, Princeton Reverb, The Paul, Fender Champ lap steel, more pedals.

So, there you go, more trivial information for your vintage guitar curiosity. Write that shit up, Vintage Guitar magazine.

Wait, not done yet, here’s the geekiest part. All the measurements of the different necks and pickups, so you can see how consistent Fender has been over the years.

 

I totally forgot to write about the Gretsch. 1964 Double Anniversary, so I guess from the dates on the pots, because the serial number sticker inside is burned! I got it about 20 years ago from a guy who rented instruments to studios in LA, who knows, perhaps it was stolen at one point and they thought burning the serial number would keep them safe (from the karma of stealing instruments?) It has Filter’trons instead of Hi-Lo’trons like it *should*, and I put a Gretsch-branded 60s Bigsby on it. It’s quite incredible, from jazzy to rockabilly, the pickups have a twang and a crisp crunch when pushed. I used to use it when I played with Victor and Alison in McCabe and Mrs Miller a decade ago, and have recorded a bunch with it. Guitar solo on “Civil Disobedience” for example, from both Edgy Not Antsy and CVB’s New Roman Times. On Superfluity, it’s the main guitar on “Mouse” and (with the Ric 12-string) “The Luxury of Living” and “The Luxury of Dying”, it had flatwound strings on it at the time.

jes gretsch

photo by Kevin Graft 2004 from a CVB show, I believe.

*Sorry, Fender, I’ve just never felt a Custom Shop guitar whose wood felt right, nor was the right size or weight. Though I have played vintage guitars that felt like they were recent Custom Shop reissues… at guitar shows… hmmm. And Victor had a Nash Stratocaster that was supposedly a ’63 reissue and everybody seems to love Nash Guitars. Well, I hated it, it felt super fake and way too thick to me. So whatever, my opinion.

**just like Page. Like, all strung out and drunk trying to flub your way through the intro to Stairway. (kidding.)

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musician. real person. that's my real name, go ahead, look me up.

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Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Guitar, Music, recording
One comment on “On guitars, yet again (…for guitar nerds only!)
  1. Steve Cammack says:

    What a great article. You are a master of the craft You should get a job with Taylor or some other group who believe a musical instrument is a piece of art. One that wants to find the next boundary to break. Cheers S

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