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Stratocaster Supplement

Strat Customisation

Heave off One, bolt on Two.

Actually, it's quite a difficult guitar to talk about at the moment without getting a solicitor's letter. I can partly understand their sensitivity; what I have to say applies to most of the copies and derivatives that inspired the sensitivity as well as to dear old birthday boy.

So, be it an original, a Jap copy, or a recent pile of parts, there's always a little more zap to be had out of the classic three-single-coil configuration, and the odd bug to be squashed as well.

The prime bug is the one Lloyd Loar got around by knocking up a hum-cancelling pickup, but as he also got a different sound, that's another story. A single coil pickup will inevitably hum a bit, and a bit more when it's close to mains transformers and amps, but many adherents live with more noise than they really have to. Fair enough, in the good old days when Dad hopped on a bus to a gig, guitar in one hand and Watkins Dominator in the other, sound levels were comparatively piddling. Turn it all up in '84, and up comes the noise as well.

Good shielding is crucial. Take the thing to bits and line all the internal cavities with foil. If you can get hold of the sticky back copper shielding tape, great. Watch the edges, it's easy to cut a finger. With a 370 deg Centigrade iron, say 50 or 60 watts if temperature is not specified, you'll be able to solder to it, and solder joins together, and connect the whole lot properly to the jack-socket earth. DiMarzio used to have some available in the UK (write to Atlantex Music Ltd, (Contact Details), if you have difficulty locally, as they distribute it now). It's worth a major effort to get hold of some of this tape, but if all your endeavours fail then you'll have to make do with heavy grade cooking foil.

It's unlikely that you'll be able to get solder to stick to kitchen foil, but you can try outside the guitar first. When you discover that it won't solder, line the inside cavities with it and leave a bit lapping over on to the top surface of the body. The scratchplate will probably already have foil on it. If not, take the pickups and controls off, and cover it with foil. Tack it discreetly with cyanoacrilate (where the scratchplate material will take it) or general purpose soft glue (like Bostik).

The control bodies will then make an earth contact with it, and when you put the guitar back together the lapped-over bits of the cavity lining will make contact as well. At this point, make sure that I here is a good earth route soldered to the backs of the pots with wire, and that this continues to the jack socket earth side. If you're soldering to a clean pot, scratch the surface up a bit first so that the solder gets a good key.

I am a little dubious about the efficacy of shielding paint and can't personally recommend it, but a noted guitar expert has recommended it. As with all things to do with the guitar, opinion varies, and a gathering of guitar freaks will cluck away happily for hours.

Drilling the hole with a 2.5mm drill.
Marking the block with a centre punch.

Attaching the screw and earthing lead.
Tapping it (M3 metric coarse tap).

The other area with potential for improvement on tremolo models is the string earth. If strings aren't earthed properly, they'll act like an aerial. Normally, a wire is soldered to the tremolo spring-retaining plate and then runs to the jack-socket earth. This system means that there are two dry joints between the earth and the tremolo block which are subject to infiltration by grease and dirt. Soldering to the tremolo block itself is extremely difficult without very heavy duty irons, and generating sufficient heat could well spoil the plating. A solution I have used successfully involves cutting a bolt hole into the block and attaching the earth wire there. The bolt head can sometimes foul the cover plate, but this is worth living with.

I use an M3 metric (coarse) tap, which requires a 2.5mm tapping drill. If you have an engineering background or mate, this will be no problem to you. If you haven't, you will need an M3 screw, 10-12mm long, an M3 taper lead tap and bottoming (plug) tap pair, a small tap handle, and a 2.5mm drill, which, with a tin of cutting fluid, will cost you around £6. Actually, most of the bridge block material involved is so soft that bicycle oil will do fine for cutting.

You'll also need a centre punch to start the drill off; if you go mad and get an automatic one, get the toolshop to wrap it and keep it wrapped till you get home. An unsympathetic copper might well regard it as a burglarious implement.

I couldn't find anyone to show me how to do this — if you have that problem, here's what we do. Take the bridge put, and if the block will unscrew from the saddle plate, take it to bits. If it won't, you'll have to pad up your vice jaws so that the bridge plate doesn't get scrunched. Poke a thin screwdriver down the hole that the tremolo arm screws into, and get an idea of the depth and angle.

Do it gently and don't mess up the internal thread. This will help you decide whereabouts on the bottom of the block you've got enough material to cut the new hole into.

Mount the block upside down in a vice, select your spot, and give it a tap with the centre punch so that the drill won't wriggle all over the place. Using the 2.5mm drill, cut in straight to about 12mm. You can mark this on the drill with an elastic band. Keep the drill straight throughout or you'll widen the hole unnecessarily. Clear the swarf, get a bit of oil or fluid into the hole, and you're ready to start tapping the thread in.

Take the taper tap (that's the one where the thread seems to disappear at the pointed end) and put it in the hole. Turning gently clockwise, cut the thread into the hole wall. Don't bend the tap — it will break, and a tap extractor will cost you another fiver. You can mark the hole depth on the tap with an elastic band again, and you'll feel a firmer resistance when you reach the bottom. Don't force it at any point, just keep turning steadily and smoothly. You may need to back up an eighth of a turn occasionally to allow swarf to clear into the tap flutes. When you're done, unscrew it gently, and clear the swarf. Repeat the process using the plug tap, which will take the thread right down to the bottom of the hole.

Feel for the start of the thread when you're starting off the plug tap so that you don't louse up the first cut. Unscrew the plug gently, and clear all the swarf. One way is to poke the tube of an aerosol switch cleaner into the hole, wrap a rag around the top, and squirt. Using a little more oil, run the M3 screw in and out a few times to check everything fits nicely, and then clear all the oil — it will reduce the effectiveness of the electrical contact. Use an aerosol of silicone grease if you need lube from here on.

Once you've done it, the string earth simply attaches to the M3 screw — either solder it to a washer or wrap it round the top of the screw barrel. You'll have a much more reliable contact.

As far as altering the sound goes, we've a lot of options now. Replacement pickups run from vintage types to stacked humbuckers, from smoothies to hairy overkill. It seems to me to be very easy to move right away from what this guitar is all about. Fine. If you like the shape and feel but can't stand the original tonality, then maybe a blade-type humbucker in the front slot, like the Lawrence, is a nice idea. It can give a full sound, no drop-out on bends, and be a nice gigging alternative to an edgy little vintage number in the back slot, with maybe a high output job in the centre for cranking up a Marshall.

The back and centre "out-of-phase" sound will still be near as dammit and fool a few people. And maybe a judicious bypass capacitor across the volume pot will give you something near its two pickup predecessor's character when the volume is backed off. If .001mf is too harsh, try 500pf.

So you can increase power and versatility simply by choosing the right pickups, but you may well gradually lose the option on the original.

A little while ago, whilst hopefully poking things around with a soldering iron, I fumbled my way into an absolute stunner of a passive circuit for this configuration. Over 100% measurable output increase with no top-end loss, a midrange control with no coil and consequent power loss, no batteries, no extra holes, and still the old five-way when needed. I put it into various guitars with consistently good results, and passed it on to a mate who has been gigging happily with it for a year now.

Here it is. The middle pot (tone control for the front pickup in the original circuit) is ditched, and a mini 4PDT switch takes its place. The bottom pot (tone control for the centre pickup) becomes master tone control. It must be 250k linear for best results. The volume control stays the same, and I've usually stuck to 250k linear here as well, though you may feel a need to experiment with the value with some pickups. I've had no problems though, and the nature of the circuit probably avoids most of the top-end-loss problems. If you get an unsatisfactory performance in the normal mode, then go for a 1 meg. But I'd be surprised if you had to.

In one position, the 4PDT leaves the circuit normal except for the altered tone control system, so all the old favourite five-way stuff is there. Put the 4PDT the other way, and boost/bleed characteristics come into operation. Primarily, the switch throws the pickups into a series chain, but with several important exceptions. When the pickup selector is fully forward, the bulk of the signal comes off from the front pickup, but the top-end from the bridge pickup is bled out in parallel via the .001mf capacitor. The 47k resistor separates this top-end from the tone control, so it cannot be cut. The tone control will still cut from the rest of the signal though, and so the overall effect is of cutting middle.

Move the selector one notch back from full forward, and a subtle shift in tone occurs as the top and some mid from the centre pickup are bled out in parallel with the bottom end, still in series through the front pickup, and retaining the tonal weight. The top from the back pickup still bleeds out in parallel, and the tone control still cuts middle.

When the selector moves to the centre position, we start to get a light bass cut, because the 0.1mf capacitor is blocking off bass from the selector. The tone control now has a mild 90 deg phase shift effect on the tone.

The next selector position back is not noticeably different, but right back, and the bass cut is quite savage. The tone control here makes things a little nastier, and is of limited value. The sound is not necessarily a good one for stage work, though my mate has used it for sharp soul-type rhythm chops, and it's ideal for multiple-overlay home recording as there is no bass to muddy things up.

The extra components needed for all this are absolutely minimal at one 4PDT mini toggle, one 47k resistor, and one each .01mf and .001mf capacitors.

You must take care wiring the 4PDT; don't overheat it. Keep the capacitors off the bottom of the switch and keep the links as low as possible — you don't want them pressing against the cavity bottom. Mount the switch as close in to the scratchplate as possible, and use dress nuts on the protruding shaft. You may well need a wide flange washer to cover the old tone control hole, which is bigger than that needed for the mini-4PDT shaft. Be careful tightening up the switch shaft nuts. If the hole was exactly right, much of the strain would be taken by a lip at the bottom of the switch shaft. Here, this may not happen, and some of the strain could be passed on to the switch body, which could be deformed or broken.

Use the full length of the capacitor leads and use insulating sleeving on them. They can be taped to the side of the switch to relieve strain. Make sure you keep the pickups in-phase, or the guitar will sound vile. Maintain a proper solid earth rail throughout the circuit, pot casings and all. Don't rely on foil for earth contact.

This one I do urge you to try — it's well worth all the fiddling about and burnt fingers. The mid-cut obviously works more dramatically on the more middly "power" pickups (where there is more mid to cut), but it is still extremely effective on vintage types. The real joy of the circuit is that it is possible to retain the original character of the instrument and still pack a wallop when required.

On cheaper copies or derivatives, a soft plastic nut might be detracting from performance, particularly in the treble. The brass craze has died down now, but a brass nut still makes a lot of sense in terms of a more even tone, and is of course a lot more resistant to accidental damage. If you want to stay close to a vintage character, then you should probably go for bone. Usually, the old nut can be tapped out sideways with a pin-punch, but make sure you scrape off excess finish first to avoid lifting neck finish. Try and get the old one out whole, then you can use it for marking out the replacement. On rosewood fingerboards, it is easy to lift chips out of the little bit between nut and headstocks — these are usually easily glued back in with cyanoacrilate. New blanks are available in good custom shops.

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Strat Operation

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Strat Maintenance

One Two Testing - Copyright: IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


One Two Testing - Mar 1984

Stratocaster Supplement

Feature by Adrian Legg

Previous article in this issue:

> Strat Operation

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> Strat Maintenance

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