Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wear your ply with pride pt. 1

Recently I stripped down my old Washburn RR2V with a view to sorting it out.

The paint on the corners was well and truly scuffed off exposing the nicely contrasting ply underneath. I'm thinking this might make an interesting thing to show rather than hide. Old 80s plywood bodied guitars are definitely pretty low rent but why hide it?

Tonight I took a little more paint off to see what it would look like and it's still fairly positive. I'll have to take the whole top off to get a proper idea but it could be nice with an oil finish to bring out the contrast.

It'll really come down to what the top is like, if there are any flaws I'll have to do something else. I'd actually quite like to stick a piece of pretty veneer to it and cover all the old holes. That way I could go down to a single pickup and simple control layout.

Update: In a fit of enthusiasm I took the bulk of the paint off the top and one side.

It's not the prettiest bit of wood but there is at least a little grain on the top rather than the featureless expanse I was expecting. It's looking more and more like a plan.

Mr Blackstar, with these tiny amps you are spoiling us

So, the other day I wandered round Ruperts house on foot and used the prehistoric 15W practice amp I had at college as it's small enough to carry easily. Clean it was OK, but the moment I used my old Boss MZ-2 it sounded godawful.

I've got an Indie IT-30 I normally use but despite being only 30W it's a monster that fills the boot of my car and I've been vaguely dissatisfied with it recently despite changing the valve for the 'drive' channel.

Having a plonk on the Nanovalve recently made me want to use an amp at home more often but you really do need to wind it up a lot to get anything beyond a cleanish tone. I modded it with an L-pad but this seems to make it a bit muddy if you wind it back to indoor volumes. Even then it's really only 'heavy crunch' and not the out and out heavy rock/metal tone I want a lot of the time.

I've been toying with the idea of a Blackstar HT5S for a year, but when it comes down to it this is another 5W amp I'll only ever use a fraction of the power of. They're also quite big lumps and cost £400.

Almost on queue, Blackstar have come out with the HT1 which is essentially a trimmed down 1W HT5. You've been able to buy tiny boutique valve amps for ages but with Blackstar leading the charge on the 'consumer boutique' amp front, they've come in with an amp in a size that I might use at home at a sane price.

Not wanting to impulse buy online, I eventually saw one in PMT Romford while killing time post-Christmas. After a bit of dithering, my brother egged me on into buying it. Impulse buying in person is just so much more sensible.

It's a lovely little thing (BFG included for scale) and while is obviously built down to a price you get a fuckton of portable valve tone for this price. PMT only had the HT1R which is the slightly more pricey model with digital reverb, but I'd probably have run to this one anyway as it's not a huge price hike.

You could sit this on a bookshelf if you used a right angle mains lead, it really is that small and light. Despite the amps tiny dimensions, the speaker works well and conspires with the almost fully closed cabinet to give a solid heft to the sound, there's no tinniness here.

The controls are pretty simple with just a channel switch, gain, volume, EQ and reverb knobs but I certainly managed to get an assortment of acceptable tones from it. The clean channel is actually pretty solidly overdriven at full gain too giving you a few more options.

There is a reason people are simply gushing about these, I expect Blackstar to sell lots.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Indie #28 - 'Shape Floyd' cherry sunburst

My Christmas present to myself. Not that I seem to need much of an excuse to buy guitars.

This is an Indie 'shape' but rather unusually fitted with a Floyd Rose licensed tremolo instead of tune-o-matic and stop bar. It was listed by Indie as a 'custom shop' item but I'd say 'short run' is a more appropriate description given this used to be in their 'custom' UK range as far as I know and still appears in the US range. The other 'custom shop' models I have are noticeably different in some way to the standard/custom/extreme models.

Nonetheless it's very nicely finished item, with a deep carved maple top over the usual mahogany body and full neck binding. Somebody has put some real care into the finishing and setup, either at the factory or here in the UK. The Floyd is a good quality licensed affair, it's a shame it's not a Gotoh or Floyd original, but it's still well machined. Oddly they've chosen to fit locking machine heads even though it's got a locking nut. Still that'll make it dead easy to restring.

It has Indie's high output Alnico 5 DV8 pickups and having played it a bit in the last few days they seem better in this than in my other 'custom shop' guitars. Perhaps they changed the spec or manufacturer. Or it could just be the simple lack of active pre-amp and associated bypass switching, which I've not found very satisfactory in the others. I'm building up to rip this out of them. They're currently selling DV8s very cheaply on eBay and if I didn't have a massive pile of alternative pickups kicking around I'd be tempted to buy a couple of sets in.

I had been wondering about picking up one of the cheap 'Festivals' that are for sale regularly and attempting to fit a Floyd as a bit of a project, but thankfully this negates that as I'd never have got round to it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

All men play on ten

This afternoon I cranked the Nanovalve up to ten (it doesn't have numbers on the dial, but you know what I mean) in the kitchen and noodled around for half an hour or so.

I've really warmed to it recently but I think it definitely needs a better speaker. I must try it with a clean boost or wah before the input.

What is easy to forget is quite how loud 5W is in the house. My cat was not impressed and despite the snow went out to escape the din.

While I might lust after a Blackstar HT5S or HT1R I ought to make more use of the amps I already have. I spend so much playing time plugged into a computer using headphones that I forget what a dynamic, physical experience a real amp at volume is. My Indie IT-150 frankly scares the bejesus out of me and that's hardly a mental amp.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Indie #27 - 'IJG1' tobacco sunburst

When is a Jaguar not a Jaguar? When it's an Indie IJG1.

I've watched various of these come and go over time, but eventually picked this up. Not that many companies make a Fender Jaguar style guitar, which is understandable as despite a brief grunge-led period of popularity, along with the Jazzmaster, they've always been in the WTF camp.

One of the defining things of the Jaguar is the mad-ass switching mechanism, which is like having two completely separate sets of controls you switch between. Indie ditch this for a bog standard 5-way switch and master volume/tone.

The Jaguar pickups are two strat-esque single coils with metal mounting 'claws', but Indie have gone for a perhaps more versatile bridge humbucker and two single coils.

The Jaguar has a slightly mad tremolo with a pressed steel moving tailpiece but, as far as I can see also a moving bridge that's allowed to wobble about a bit. This is renowned for being cheesy and unstable. Indie have gone for a two-point modern strat tremolo.

So when it comes down to it this is a modern HSS strat with a Jaguar shaped body. Which is a much safer bet.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Is this a Washburn disease?

One of the projects I have is my RR2V, which is a bit of a 'barn find'. I've been meaning for a while to have a look at it and today dug it out. I plan on this being my next refinishing project, given it's in such a state. It may get a new tremolo as well, the one fitted is missing one of the original fine tuners and a bit rusty.

Looking at it I was considering that as it was a cheap plywood guitar it might be amusing to 'wear your ply with pride' and go for a clear finish. Perhaps even bevel the edges a little to show it off like the Gibson 'Zoot suit' SGs.

I'd noticed that the paint had flaked at the tremolo stud but assumed that was just down to a little shrinkage and movement under string pressure. However it's done what my two project Mercurys have done, i.e. a lack of wood round the bush means it's broken through. This time it's 'behind' the bush in the tremolo cavity.

They've also broken into the control and pickup cavities when routing out for the tremolo springs. This is on top of the very real cracks at the neck pocket, multiple dings and chewed up tips of the V that years of abuse have given it. So all in all the body is in a pretty poor shape even though the neck is in nice shape and great to play.

Now I'm not so sure what to do with it. Do I try and rescue this, or do I simply bin the body and keep all the parts? There really is very little wood around the bridge studs so I'm not sure using the same method I did with the Mercurys will work.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Isn't technology great pt. 4 - Digitech RP200

This was £20 off eBay, FFS all those sounds and options I would have killed for as a teenager for the measly sum of £20. OK so the PSU lead was a bit mangled but seriously, we're spoilt today.

I bought this because I fancied a Whammy pedal but it was far far cheaper to buy one of these, which includes a model of one, than just the Whammy. OK so it's not quite the same but I had fun making stupid noises with it at about an eighth the price and didn't feel guilty about the fact I never did anything constructive with it.

The only bad thing about this was that if you used the expression pedal as a Wah it was always on/off depending on the preset. So you needed to change presets to switch it on/off and on these old Digitechs that means a brief interrruption in sound that's irritating.

I've since replaced this with an RP350 that has a on/off function on the expression pedal you activate by pushing the toe down firmly much like an analogue Wah despite it being done with a strain gauge or something.

Amazingly I sold this for far more than I paid for it, somebody really must have wanted this specific pedal.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Isn't technology great pt. 3 - Behringer V-amp 2

When I bought my first Indie I also suffered from having a collection of old pedals and crackly cables that were never great when I was a student. The delay pedal seemed to have completely died in the intervening years which is a bit odd for a solid state device.

So while I was at the guitar show I picked this up. It's a poor man's Pod and was in the remainder bin of one of the box shifters. Nevertheless, things have really moved on since last time I tried digital modelling and this suited me fine for quite a while.

The guitar shaped box is quite tacky but it does loads of stuff and means I could practice without annoying the neighbours. One feature I particularly like is the 'virtual pointers' on the control knobs which are a ring of LEDs. So as you change between presets, the LED shows the 'position' of the knobs and makes for much more intuitive tweaking. I briefly had a Vox valvetronix and found the fact the knobs didn't represent the current amp settings kind of counter intuitive.

It even comes with a footswitch for changing presets and a carry case. As it has a limited display, you have to get used to pressing arcane sequences of buttons for some functions (adjusting the noise gate for example) but it's all there in the manual.

These are now available secondhand for a pittance, unlike the Line 6 Pods, so if you're after a basic unit for a beginner on a budget I'd highly recommend one of these. I'm about to loan it to a friend who wishes to learn to play.

Indie #26 - 'T type' tobacco sunburst

Despite owning two Indie 'Super T's I didn't own a 'proper' Telecaster until picking this up. The 'Super T' is a hot rodded model with bridge humbucker and strat single coil fitted rather than traditional Telecaster pickups so tends to feel like just another humbucker equipped guitar.

This is an older Indie model, they stopped doing the standard T-type some while back, and is a pretty faithful Telecaster copy. The concessions to modernity are the tummy cut on the back, Schaller style die-cast machine heads and a 6-saddle bridge. It's even only got 21 frets.

Despite being a few years old it's in mint condition, it really must have lurked under a bed in the case most of the time. I'm not 100% sure how much use it'll get as I'm not really a single coil guy but I do occasionally fancy playing something a little different.

With this I think I'm really close to owning an example of every mainstream electric Indie have produced apart from the Dragon (Superstrat with OTT inlays), Jaguar (which is really an HSS strat with a Jaguar shaped body) and a couple of semi-acoustics.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Explorer stripdown

The manky Goth Explorer I've had kicking around for a while needs refinishing so I've stripped it back to a lump of wood. This is the easy bit of the job.


I have picked up a pile of Graphtech 'string saver' parts, essentially one for each common kind of bridge.

The strat saddles will go on my Indie Futuristic, the TOM saddles perhaps into my Indie Extreme Plus but I'm not so sure what to do with the Floyd Rose.

As the Graphtech Floyd has Gotoh style knife edges with a straight edge on the bass side I may see if it'll work as a replacement for the Washburn 600T tremolo in one of my EC29s which has slightly odd stud spacing.

I hope I like this stuff.

I went to Guitar Nation 2010...

...and all I got was this lousy truss rod cover.

Still, my savings breathe a sigh of relief.

It was far smaller than shows I've been to previously in London and Birmingham, which seems to be a symptom of the economic downturn. Nevertheless it was pretty lively, with a reasonable selection of exhibitors. Organisation was a bit shambolic first thing, they weren't really ready when they started letting people in and the whole 'early entry' ticket thing caused frustration in people who'd turned up to buy tickets on the day as the doors opened.

My friend wanted to have a look at a Gretsch Tim Armstrong but nobody had one and I wasn't looking for anything in particular. We were gone by 12:30, but it was still an OK day out. If I'd travelled a long way to it I'd have been slightly disappointed though.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Eggs, instructions for the sucking of pt. 1

AKA "How to re-string and set up a Floyd Rose tremolo"

My friend Mik's son Kai has a lovely ESP-LTD Alexi-600 in the unusual pink sawtooth design but hasn't played it for a while because it needed setting up. Like a lot of people who own guitars with Floyd Rose bridges, he'd changed strings and found it wasn't right afterwards but didn't know how to sort it out. Kai was going to come along and watch me do this, but couldn't make it in the end so I've decided to stick it on my blog instead.

I'll mention some tools and sizes here, these are specific to the guitar I worked on so use some common sense before wading in. Always use acceptable quality branded tools, they don't need to be Snap-On, but don't use chewed up screwdrivers made of cheese.

The first picture shows how it was when I got it. The bridge was so poorly 'floated' that it was pulled right up, like you'd used it to divebomb the guitar.

I always work on a table covered with an old folded bedspread to protect the guitar and a roll of cloth under the neck by the headstock to it's not resting hard on it.

Start by taking the old strings off one at a time. Wedge a little bit of wadded up cloth under the back of the bridge so that as you slacken the strings it won't mark the body.

Undo the locking nut with a good quality 3mm hex key. Slacken the strings off one at a time using the tuners until the string goes completely loose. A basic 'string winder' like the yellow plastic one in the photos helps. Start with the high E. As you loosen the strings the remaining ones come under a lot of tension so it makes sense removing the weakest string first.

Once a string is loose, undo the locking bolt at the bridge using a 3mm hex key and carefully remove the string while trying to keep the sharp end away from the guitar so you don't scratch it. Once you've removed the string gently tighten the locking bolt again to stop the clamp blocks falling out, which is annoying.

After all the strings are off I use this as a time to make sure the machine heads are firmly attached to the headstock. It seems not uncommon for either the bush or screw on the back to come slightly loose. They may not even have been tight from the factory. With string tension this may not be obvious but with no strings you can soon see if any are loose. Here I used a 10mm spanner on the bushes to check them. Do not use pliers you Neanderthal.

Also, turn the guitar over and remove the cover on the back of the guitar which exposes the tremolo springs. You'll need to adjust them so may as well remove it now before you have strings flailing about. If you didn't tighten up the bridge clamp bolts this is when all the clamp blocks fall out.

I also use this as a time to clean the fretboard and guitar body with a damp microfibre cloth. It is much easier to do this with no strings attached. Do not get the fretboard soaking wet.

I then string the guitar. On something with a Floyd Rose I do this 'backwards'. I leave the string ball end on and pass the string through the hole in the machine head down to the bridge before clamping it. With the low wound strings you'll need to cut them back, removing the plain core that's exposed on most sets.

Do one string at a time and clamp it at the bridge end. There's no need to do up the clamp bolts massively tight, just firmly. If you're heavy handed it's possible to snap the bolt or strip the thread which is bad. Again using decent tools helps, a 't bar' style hex key with a moulded handle like I've used means you get much more feel than a crummy little short hex key.

As I do each string I put a little tension in it so it doesn't flap about. My recipe for stringing guitars is to hold the string onto the fretboard near the nut with my first finger then hook up some slack with another. This isn't very well explained, but the picture of my pudgy hand to the left should make it clear.

You don't need much slack to secure it at the machine head especially with the low strings, pull the excess through until it looks roughly like this and start to turn the tuning peg, it should 'bite' fairly easily because you're keeping tension on the string. You'll need slightly more slack for the higher strings, particularly top E.

My favoured string winding technique is to pass the string over the loose end on the first wind then below for the subsequent ones. This grabs the loose end, in my opinion making it less likely to unwind and means you can cut it almost flush. Again I've not explained that terribly well but I hope the photos make it clear.

Once you've done all six strings we can get onto the real business of setting up the tremolo. Don't cut the ball ends off the strings just yet, in case you've misjudged how many windings were needed. In extremis you can loosen the string off, push a little more through then tighten it again. Once you've done this a few times you'll get a feel for how many windings are needed.

What we're aiming for on a flat top guitar with a shallow neck angle like this is for the base plate of the tremolo to sit parallel to the body. Get the cloth you've wedged under the bridge set so that the base plate sits roughly level before you bring the strings fully up to tension. You may need to use the tremolo arm to lift the tremolo up and move the cloth around.

One string at a time, starting with low E and using an electronic tuner, bring the strings up to tension. When you get up to top E, low E will have slackened off again, so bring them all up to tune again several times.

The strings will need stretching. I start this by grabbing hold of one and lift up until the guitar just starts to lift. I then let go so the string snaps back. Do this several times.

If at any point the tremolo base plate starts to lift so it's no longer level, turn the guitar over and tighten both the screws that secure the 'claw' the tremolo springs hook onto. Only use about 1/8th of a turn at a time.

If these screws are already obviously screwed all the way in you'll need another tremolo spring fitting. Loosen the screws off a few turns, use the tremolo arm to move the sustain block closer to the claw and then fit the new spring. I do this by fitting the 'hook' end of the spring in the sustain block then grasping it firmly and pushing the 'loop' over the claw. You need a firm grip to do this, but it can be done. You can use a special 'spring puller' or improvise with a screwdriver but it's easy to slip and damage the guitar. On Kai's V I had to add a third spring.

If an extra spring is too much but you want more tension from them, you can run them at an angle, like in the photo on the left. It also looks cool. :-)

The reverse process is also true, if the strings are fully at tension and the tremolo is still pulled down hard onto the cloth you need to loosen the tremolo springs underneath and perhaps remove a spring. However I've found it is always easier to tune 'up' to a pitch with a Floyd Rose than 'down' to it so if the springs are obviously too tight I'd straight away take a fair bit of tension off them.

This is a dull repetitive process. The Floyd Rose relies on an equilibrium between the springs, strings and neck. As you change one, all the others move. So you'll need to keep retuning all the strings, checking the 'float' of the tremolo to see if it's level and then doing it again.

And again.

And again.

Eventually you'll get to the point where you can remove the cloth and the tremolo will sit roughly level. Go through this process with the cloth removed again until the tremolo is perfectly level. It may be worth leaving it a few days before you do this, as the neck can need to 'settle' a little if you've changed string gauge or tuning.

Now we need to set the action. I do this by putting a capo on the first fret and then measuring the height of the strings at the 17th fret. For this I use a small hex key and slide it along the top of the fret. I then adjust the height of the bridge studs using a 3mm hex key until it just touches the small hex key, with maybe a little extra clearance on low E. My usual starting point is a 1.5mm hex key. People have different preferences for this, but measuring it like this at least means you can be fairly scientific about it.

If you've had to adjust the bridge height more than a tiny amount, it will have changed the distance between the nut and bridge slightly and mean you need to float the tremolo again. As tremolo float also affects bridge height this is a repetitive process as well, but you probably won't need to do this more than a couple of times as the amount things are moving now is quite small.

When you've done all this and are happy, have a little play of your guitar. This also helps with a final stretch of the strings. If it feels right, now is the time to cut the loose string ends off. I do this very close so they're almost flush with the machine head, making it less likely you'll stab yourself with them.

With the strings cut off, we need to finally lock the Floyd Rose in place. Look at the fine tuners on the bridge and one at a time adjust them so they're halfway through their travel then retune at the headstock with the normal tuner. Once you've done all the strings, refit and tighten the clamps on the locking nut. Again this doesn't need to be brutally tight, just firm. Doing this may take the guitar out of tune slightly.

From now on all tuning must be done with the fine tuners on the Floyd Rose, unless you first undo the locking nut. It may seem blindingly obvious but people forget.

With new strings, they'll continue to stretch unless you've made a good job of pre-stretching them when fitting them. You may find you run out of adjustment on the fine tuners pretty quickly. Just undo the locking nut, reset the fine tuner to the middle of its travel and retune. Eventually it'll settle down.

Also, refit the cover over the tremolo springs before you forget and/or lose it.

So that it for part 1, the next part is to set the intonation.