Archive for the Guitars Category

The Grunging of the Red Marlin

Posted in Guitars on January 17, 2011 by jacquesdante

Sharon and Wayne gave me an old Marlin Slammer which Wayne had left under the bed at his Mum’s house for the last 20 years or so.  I had wanted a nasty old junkshop type guitar for a while, so I could hack it up and turn it into something for slide blues.  This Marlin was perfect.

I’ve never seen guitar electrics quite like what was inside this – the pots are weird looking things and the pickups look like they were made in a science class at school in some Russian client nation.  They didn’t sound all that good either, not to my ears anyway, so I pulled off the whole scratchplate assembly.

With a chisel, I hacked out more space in the pickup rout so I could fit in a P90 type pickup from Iron Gear, in a humbucker sized casing.  This just happens to be the nearest spare pickup I had lying around.  I also had a strat scratchplate which wasn’t right for one of my other guitars, so I butchered that as well, not bothering to be be neat about it.  The electrics are now very simple, just a volume control.  There’s a lot of space inside the guitar now.  It sounds OK as a slide guitar, which was the main objective, and looks like a

nasty hack job, which pretty much goes with the sound.

It does sound quite good through a fuzzbox into an overdriven valve amp.  Great slide sound, with quite a lot of definition.  I left off the bass E string and tuned it to an open G with the remaining 5 strings.  With this type of tuning, it is possible to quite easily create some basic slide blues type of sounds.

This is what it sounds like (video below – pictures and the soundtrack is an example of what it sounds like when played through a Fender HotRod Deluxe and Boss Overdrive pedal with a glass bottleneck)

Drop Tuning

Posted in Guitars, Music, Technique on May 3, 2010 by jacquesdante

In my quest to learn to play the blues well in all sorts of different ways, I have been learning how to play slide on a guitar with drop tuning. There are many ways to tune a guitar, but one popular one seems to be ‘Open G’ tuning where the guitar is tuned to a Major G chord with a D at the bottom – DGDGBD. In this, the E, A and Top E strings are all dropped down a tone from standard tuning. Once done, I grabbed a piece of glass tube and started moving it up and down the fret board with my left hand while picking strings with my right. Surprisingly, it started sounding a bit like Delta Blues… though I need to practice a bit more.

Still, it’s a lot easier than it looks to get a a nice sound out of a guitar this way, though probably a long haul to become a real master of it. I guess the old blues masters originally did things this way because it is not all that hard to build an accompaniment to a song like this, and if you break a string or two, it doesn’t matter all that much. Years ago, I used to have a glass specimen jar that was perfect as a bottleneck. Sadly, they make them out of plastic now, so I had to buy a bottleneck from a music shop, which felt a bit institutionalised and nowhere near makeshift enough.

There is a good page on this kind of playing to be found here. The only thing I don’t like is that it uses tablature to write music examples, and I hate tablature.

Johannes et Jacobus Thinline Telecaster (JJ005)

Posted in Guitars, Technique on April 4, 2010 by jacquesdante

Finished it on 1st April 2010 (the picture above shows the finished body being fitted and wired), and spent the next two evenings setting it up properly.  I decided to build a thinline because I like Telecasters and I don’t have one in this style.  I also wanted to try out some Bare Knuckles pickups without mucking up another guitar.

This is another partscaster – made from parts which were manufactured by someone else.  I buy bodies which have been pre-cut and routed but left otherwise unfinished.  This just saves me some time (and expenditure on machine tools), while leaving it entirely up to me what the finished guitar looks like.  I also buy pre-built necks, but drill out the machine head holes and finish setup of the necks myself.

On this guitar, the wood was rather nice.  It was a slightly more up-market body than I have bought in the past, so I decided not to bother staining it.  It didn’t need any grain filler either, just a light sanding and rub down with wire wool.  I then used about ten or twelve coats of french polish to finish it off.  The body came from chguitars who sell stuff on eBay, and I think the neck came from axesrus.co.uk.  The machine heads and bridge are Wilkinson and also came from axesrus along with most of the other hardware.

The angle of the neck pocket was not quite right for the neck, so I had to shim it a bit.  You can’t tell from any of the photos, but I had to put a shim under the heel of the neck (nearest the edge of the guitar) rather than the end of the neck pocket, as the neck needed to be raised slightly to allow proper setup.  I cut the shim from an old credit card instead of snippingout brass sheet, as I didn’t have any brass sheet the right thickness.  It works fine…

For this guitar I chose to mix a stratocaster neck with a Telecaster body, simply because I prefer the look of the Strat head.

The electronics are about as simple as you can make them.  I hardly ever use the tone controls on the guitar when I play, though I do use the volume control a lot to vary the amount of signal hitting the front end of the amplifier or pedal.  JJ005 therefore has two pickups, one switch and one volume control.  The switch gives you neck, both or bridge pickup, just as a standard telecaster switch would.  The volume just varies the output level of whatever is switched in. Because the elcetronics are so simple, I put the output jack on the front panel and left the side of the guitar unmolested by a drill or router.

As I said earlier, the pickups are from Bare Knuckles, a Devon-based company who make pickups by hand and have a very good reputation.  I can vouch for the fact that the reputation is well-deserved.  These pickups are beautifully made, and sound wonderful.  I chose the Brown Sugar matched set, which are a bit ‘hotter’ than standard Telecaster pickups.  They sound fantastic.  Tim Mills at Bare Knuckles was very helpful when I was deciding which pickups to select.  His pickups come with a free set of strings (.10 E Rotosound, which I quite like) and a lifetime warranty.

This is the neck pickup, set into a simple metal mounting plate rather than a large scratchplate.  Below is the bridge pickup mounted into a Wilkinson standard Tele bridge with compensating saddles (this is an excellent bridge by the way).  The last picture shows the control panel which is extremely simple indeed.

The setup took me quite a while, as I had to unship the neck five times before I was satisfied that the shim was correct.  I adjusted the truss rod slightly, and got the intonation correct quite quickly – one advantage of these very simple Telecaster bridges.  The string height adjustment needed quite a bit of fine tuning, and there is still a bit of ‘sitaring’ on the higher register strings (E B and G).  This is caused by secondary sympathetic vibrations of some sort.  It is often solved by increasing the breakover angle at one or other end othe string.  On this Tele, the breakover at the bridge is fine, so I experimented a bit and found that the breakover at the nut needed to be increased a bit.  For this I will need a couple of string trees which have now been ordered.  The nut is a single piece of brass which was filed to be an exact fit in the neck.  The string slots are a nice fit for the strings, so that’s not likely to be the cause of the sitaring – sometimes a too wide slot can be problematical.

I’m pretty happy with this guitar – each one I make seems to be a tad better than the previous one, which rather proves the old saying that practice makes perfect.

The Correct “Black Pearl” Guitar Circuit

Posted in Guitars, Technique on December 14, 2009 by jacquesdante

This is the correct circuit diagram we used for the ‘Black Pearl’ Telecaster we built.  The circuit I originally posted is not accurate.  This one correctly shows switching between series and parallel configuration for the stacked humbuckers.  The other diagram showed switching between single and double coil (which can also be interesting). 

This circuit uses two ‘stacked Humbuckers’ from Seymour Duncan.  These are double coil pickups with the coils stacked on top of each other rather than side by side.  They are packaged to drop into a standard Telecaster pretty much without modification.  However, they do have separate fly leads for each of the coils, and this allows you to experiment with putting the coils in different configurations – single or double, in and out of phase, series or parallel.  You can do this just by using switches – I used DPDT switches that are attached to the potentiometers, so the guitar does not have extra holes drilled in it. 

There is no tone control in this circuit.  I hardly ever use tone controls on the guitar itself, preferring to adjust things on the amplifier or with an FX pedal.  However, these pickups allow for a wide range of tone anyway.  Playing around with the switches in this circuit will take you from bright and punchy to thick and grungy (or whatever adjectives you prefer).  I will try and upload some example sound files soon, demonstrating the range of sound available from the pickups alone.  Each pickup has a potentiometer in circuit, and with the pickup switch in the centre position you can mix the output of both pickups to vary the tone even more. 

Electric Circuit - Black Pearl

Sorry the schematic looks rather ugly – I used Dia for Windows instead of Visio or Smartdraw and I am not sure yet how to get the best out of it.  Of the three applications I use for drawing, Visio is the best.  Dia (which is free software) and Smartdraw are both excellent programmes, but each has a fatal flaw.  Dia cannot rotate shapes (a limitation of GTK apparently) and Smartdraw 2009 has really crappy connectors that make untidy lines between shapes.  Maybe they fixed it in SD 2010, but I am loathe to pay $99 to find out and their website does not show the differences between 2009 and 2010 versions. 

Guitar Wiring Diagram Shape Library

Posted in Guitars, Studio, Technique on December 10, 2009 by jacquesdante

I like drawing wiring diagrams for the guitars that I build, and I use both Visio and Smartdraw to create these diagrams. I thought someone would have crated a library of shapes for guitar wiring diagrams, but I could not find one on the internet anywhere. I therefore made my own. I usually use Smartdraw as that is the programme I have on my studio computer, so I first created a Smartdraw library. It is cobbled together from other Smartdraw libraries plus some symbols for pickups etc which I created myself.  With this library you can create simple guitar wiring diagrams such as this:

Guitar-volume

You can find my Smartdraw Guitar Wiring Shapes Library here. I will try and upload a Visio version some time soon.

Gretsch Electromatic G5120 Hollow Body Guitar

Posted in Guitars, Reviews on November 26, 2009 by jacquesdante

Gretsch 5120 11sThe Gretsch G6120 and the Gretsch Country Gentleman are the classic rockabilly guitars, and have been used by many different people.  They are very expensive though, starting at 1500 pounds and going on up in leaps and bounds.  An original 50s Gretsch costs many thousands.  One of the most well-known Grestch-playing guitarists is Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.  Pete Townshend used a Grestch G6120 on the studio recordings of Quadrophenia, and you can see one in pictures of his line-up quite a lot.  It has a very respectable heritage.Gretsch 5120 04s

For those who cannot afford to pay the price of a small car for a guitar, Gretsch have produced a budget line, the G5xxx Electromatic guitars.  For just under 500 quid, you can get a G5120 which looks at first sight to be identical to a G6120, but at 25-30% of the price.  Obviously Gretsch have to cut some corners to produce a much cheaper guitar, so they manufacture the Electromatic series in Korea to cut down on labour costs.  However, there are quite a few other corners cut as well.  I played this guitar without an amp in a music shop, and thought it played really nicely – it has a slick and playable neck and the full-size  hollow body is solid and comfortable to wear with a strap or just holding the guitar on your knee when sitting down.  When I got it home I eagerly plugged it into my Fender Deville and was hugely disappointed.

TV Jones Pickup 01sThe pickups on the G5120 are humbucking pickups (often referred to as Gretschbuckers), and nothing special at all.  They lack tone and definition and really do not complement this basically OK guitar.  This is definitely not just a cheap G6120, it will need some work to make it fun and interesting to play.  I did some research and discovered that the top of the line Gretsch’s  now use TV Jones pickups, so I invested another 100 quid in the bridge version of these (TV Classic, English mount 2) to see if it improves things.  I haven’t had time to install it yet, but will do so soon.

Gretsch 5120 07sHaving been so disappointed in the sound, I was not surprised to find  some other things to deplore.  The machine heads are cheap crap, and don’t hold the guitar in tune even if you don’t use the Bigsby.  They are also not accurate and seem to have some play in them so it is difficult to get the guitar in tune to start with.  I will have to replace these as well (another 50 quid or so).  The bridge is also a bit pathetic.  It leans slightly forward towards the pickup, and the bottom is not contoured properly to fit the top of the guitar.  It has no locating pins and therefore needs careful Gretsch 5120 10spositioning every time you re-string the guitar.  I shall probably need  to replace this as well (another 50 quid?).  For some reason, the guitar is supplied with a little bit of packing foam separating the bridge from the body. You have to pretty much unstring the guitar to get rid of it, and then reposition the bridge exactly as was while you re-string it (or re-do the intonation yourself anyway. Gretsch 5120 05sGretsch supply odd strap buttons as well.  They seem to be a primitive sort of locking strap button, in that you can unscrew them from the body and then attach a strap by screwing the button back in through the strap hole.  I don’t like these either and will probably replace them with Marvel straplocks which I do like (another tenner).

Finally, the electrics are a bit counter intuitive.  I plugged the guitar into an MXR Dyna-Comp pedal, and when it is switched out the guitar has a nasty dull grungy humbucking sound.  When the compressor is switched in it goes quieter and much cleaner.  Exactly the same settings with a Strat give a huge burst of energy when the Dyna-comp is kicked into play.  Maybe it’s just me.  I need to figure out what each of the knobs is supposed to do and take a look at whether or not it can be improved when I install the new pickup.

Gretsch 5120 03s Gretsch 5120 02s

So, a great looking guitar, but out of the box a disappointment when plugged in.  I will need to spend another 200-300 quid on it to make it really playable (new pickups, new bridge, new straplocks, new machine heads).  It was already a bit pricey for a ‘budget’ guitar, and this just makes it rather expensive (around 750 quid) for what it is.  I hear that the Epiphone Wildkat does a better job by far, and costs about 350 pounds. I haven’t yet tried one so I can’t venture an opinion. I would also definitely like to try the new Epiphone Emperor Swingster as an alternative. I wouldn’t buy another Electromatic – I would rather save up a lot more money and get a genuine Gretsch G6120, and then only after rigorously testing it through an amplifier and inspecting the build.

Visit Gretsch.com for more information

A very useful Gretsch player community can be found in a forum at Gretsch-talk.com

Johannes et Jacobus Precision Bass “Le Roi du Soleil”

Posted in Guitars on November 25, 2009 by jacquesdante

Roi du Soleil 05sThis is the fourth Johannes et Jacobus guitar, and this time we built a bass because I wanted a Precision bass to sit along my Jazz and acoustic basses. We were very happy with this once it was properly set up.  I think it looks great, and it certainly sounds great.  It has Seymour Duncan Quarterpounder P-Bass pickups and standard P-Bass wiring.  All the  hardware is gold plated (I don’t know if it is actually gold), and was acquired along with the neck from CH Guitars who have an ebay shop. The body was also an eBay purchase and is a decent piece of work.  We stained it very lightly with a Colron Golden Pine stain, then used many applications of French Polish to get a shiny finish like a good piece of Versailles furniture. 

I had no idea how to install the pickups.  All the guitars I have built or fixed so far had pickups which were attached to a scratch plate with screws and springs.  The way P-Bass pickups are constructed makes it immediately obvious that there must be another way of fixing them.  I searched on the internet but could find nothing about how they should be installed.  Eventually I took the scratch plate off someone else’s P-Bass and found that the Roi du Soleil 01s pickups are held directly to the body with wood screws, with some foam or neoprene padding underneath them to get the height right. Crude but effective, and they are solidly attached this way so rattles are not likely.  The pickup and control routs are lined with copper foil which is then connected to the chassis along with an earth wire from the bridge.  Before I earthed the copper and the bridge, I had impatiently plugged the bass in to see what the SD pickups sounded like.  There was at once a horrible loud buzzing hum.  After everything was earthed, the guitar became beautifully noiseless, and all you hear now is the strings.  So it IS worth doing and you DO need to be meticulous with your electronics.

Roi du Soleil 03s The maple neck has 20 frets and a standard Fender bass scale length of 34 inches. The bridge is a Wilkinson Bass bridge with compensated brass saddles – an excellent bridge which was not at all expensive. I needed to shim the neck a little to get the angle right (using 0.8mm brass cut to about 1cm x 5cm).  The neck also needed the truss rod to be adjusted so that it was straight when under tension from the strings.  Once done, only a few tweaks on the bridge got the intonation and action right, and it was finished.  I am always surprised at the range of tones available from a single pickup Precision bass.  You can do everything from ground-rumbling dub and stride bass-lines to wild Entwistle-like solo playing and it all sounds good.  The SD Quarterpounders are fantastic high output pickups with a good range to them. Roi du Soleil 04s

This is now my favourite bass. It cost about 200 quid to make, but that’s less than half the price of a Fender.  Yes, you can get commercially made basses for this price or less, but I have played a lot of basses and this one is more like an 800 quid bass than a 200 quid bass, so I think the work was very much worth it.  It took about two weeks to build, bearing in mind that we had school and office to go to during the week.

Below is the circuit diagram for this bass.  It is very simple as you can see. I like this because it is a very clean signal path (and is very easy to solder together…)

20091127 Precision bass Circuit

Boss RE-20 Space Echo v Roland RE-201 Space Echo

Posted in Effects, Guitars, Reviews on November 25, 2009 by jacquesdante

As everything retro is in many people’s eyes better than everything Boss RE20 01smodern, manufacturers have been driven to make modern versions of older devices, instruments and amplifiers in order to capitalise on this enthusiasm for the past.  Actually, some of the older kit was designed and built by enthusiasts rather than just engineers (though some of the enthusiasts were engineers as well as being musicians).  This gave a certain amount of musicality and artistry to the technology, which is often lacking in these days of hard capitalism and charmless corporate products.

The RE-20 pedal is one of those voyages back into the past to a grand old Daddy of retro FX units, the Roland RE-201 Space Echo.  I have an original RE-201 in my studio, so am able to compare the two, albeit in a highly subjective way as with everything musical (one man’s cacophony is another man’s symphony).  Roland RE-201 04sThe old RE-201, for those who don’t know, is a tape echo device with a spring-line reverb unit built in.  It has a number of playback heads, and the tape speed can be varied.  This allows everything from rapid slap-back echo to long psychedelic repeating phrase type effects.  It has the typical decay pattern and sound of tape echo and can feedback on itself to help create wonderful or awful sounds as your taste dictates.   It deserves classic status as it really did the job well, and appears on probably thousands of recordings, and is still being used.  Boss Roland RE-201 01shave used their COSM modelling system to capture pretty much every nuance of what an RE-201 does, and squash it into a double-size Boss pedal.   The front panel is obviously based on that of the RE-201 and they have done their best to make sure the same controls are there and that they do the same things.

The RE-20 pedal has a few features that the RE-201 did not.  Firstly, you can set the echo rate using ‘tap tempo’ – tapping your foot on the right hand pedal.  Personally, I really like this.  It also has stereo inputs and outputs and an expression pedal socket. Boss RE20 02sIt doesn’t use tapes which wear out, and it is a lot smaller and lighter, and has footswitches built in. The RE-201 has a three channel mixer to increase the knob count on the front panel.  I have never used either of the MIC inputs though. Take the lid off the RE-201 and you see the tape cassette, spare tape envelope and head assembly.  Inside the lid is a pink and yellow idiot’s guide to using the Space Echo.Roland RE-201 03s

So what does the RE-20 sound like?  To my ears it sounds very like the original RE-201 Space Echo.  I have tried both of them one after the other, and apart from having to match the outputs to get signal levels correct, I could not really tell the difference.  I was a bit afraid that the pedal might sound rather digital, but in fact the modelling is excellent.  I have read other reviews that compare this pedal to other echo pedals like the Boss DD-3 which is not a fair comparison.  The RE-20 is a very good effort at modelling an early ‘80s analogue tape echo with all the noise and flutter that goes with it.  It is not intended as an alternative to a digital delay pedal, and in fact sounds quite different, but still good. 

I have only tried the pedal as a guitar effect, and I did read somewhere that there are difficulties with using it as a send effect on a mixing desk, which might inhibit it’s use for dub, something for which it’s older tape-driven relative was justly famous. ON the other hand, someone else said this is rubbish and it can be used perfectly well as a send effect. One day I shall try it and see who is right.

Johannes et Jacobus Custom Telecaster “The Black Pearl”

Posted in Guitars on November 24, 2009 by jacquesdante

Black Pearl 01s This telecaster style guitar was built my son and I.  It is really what some people call a partscaster project because I bought most of the parts and assembled them rather than carving the guitar out of a piece of 200 year old gnarled driftwood and having it finished by a Zen priest Japanese sword polisher.  It is actually the third guitar we have built. 

The body is Ash, in three parts. We stained it with a Dark Oak stain, then spent ages finishing it off with Danish Oil.  When finished it did look rather like a piece of Tudor furniture that had once lived on a Pirate ship, so we decided to continue the piratical theme which is why we called  it “The Black Pearl” after Jack Sparrow’s ship in the Disney film “Pirates of the Caribbean”.  Black Pearl 07s The neck is a second hand Allparts neck I got for just over 50 quid on eBay, and I finished it with an extra very thin layer of lacquer.

It has Wilkinson gold machine heads, a Bigsby style tailpiece tremolo arm,  a Wilkinson bridge with roller saddles and ebay scratchplate and control panel.  I got most of the electrical parts from Axesrus with the exception of the pickups.  They are Seymour Duncan pickups which came from Crazy Train Music, and they are a bit different from the usual Telecaster pickups.  These look exactly like the traditional Tele set, but are in fact humbuckers with the coils stacked vertically instead of side by side.  The coils have a tap between them, and the guitar is wired so that either pickup or both can be switched from single Black Pearl 09s coil to double coil by pulling and pushing one of the control knobs. You can  just about see in one of the pictures below that one knob is pushed in and the other pulled out. There is no tone control in the circuit, just two volume knobs.

The tremolo arm is exactly like a Bigsby, and works the same.  It’s a far east knock off, and is perhaps one of the ‘licensed by Bigsby’ items, just without the stamp on it to say so.  I have a genuine Bigsby on my Gretsch, and the only difference I can see is that the Gretsch Bigsby is made of a duller metal, more like gunmetal.  The quality is about the same.  TheBlack Pearl 06s Far Eastsby cost a lot less, though, at about a third of the price of a genuine item.  

There is a slightly cheesy decoration on the shoulder of the guitar, where we nailed a piece of a horse brass that has a skull and crossbones motif in the middle.  We also hunted around until we found the right ‘aged brass’ finish knobs and strap pins.  The control panel is finished in shiny gold, though you can’t tell from the picture.

This is one of my absolute favourite guitars.  The neck had to be shimmed with small pieces of brass to get the angle right for the higher than normal bridBlack Pearl 04sge, necessitated by the tremolo mechanism.  I spent ages setting it up, tweaking the truss rod and getting the shims just right.  The action and intonation are now spot on, and the sound  is fantastic.  It even stays in tune after you use the tremolo!The switchable pickups give everything from clear twangs to heavy growls.  In fact, I strongly recommend these Seymour Duncan pickups – STK T1 and STK T3 Vintage Stacks. They are a bit pricey (something over a hundred quid for the pair), but they really made the sound on this guitar. 

20091127 Telecaster Circuit with Swtches

This is the circuit I used for this project – I think!  I just did it from memory and I don’t want to take the guitar apart to check.  The pickup selector is a standard Telecaster switch, and the other switches are DPDT switches on the potentiometers, activated and deactivated by pulling the knobs out and pushing them back in.

Boss OS-2 Overdrive/Sustain Pedal

Posted in Effects, Guitars, Reviews on November 24, 2009 by jacquesdante

Boss OS2 01

I got this for 33 pounds on eBay, and it arrived in the original box with all leaflets and packaging.  It has no real marks of use, and could well have come straight from the shop.  It’s a brilliant pedal.  I have often been dubious of distortion/fuzz/overdrive pedals, thinking I just liked overdriven valves.  However, to get that sound from a valve amplifier, even a fairly small one, you have to drive it quite hard – meaning it will be very loud.  Although the mesmerising beauty of my playing no doubt captivates my family and neighbours, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  I therefore cannot turn my amps up high all the time.  This pedal does a great job of overdriving the input stage of my amp in such a way as to provide some great crunch that still has good definition. 

Boss OS2 02

I first used it in front of my Fender Deville with a Stratocaster.  It sounded excellent after a few tweaks.  I haven’t tried the distortion setting yet, but as an overdrive this pedal is very good indeed.  You can see the settings I used on the right.  I patched the pedal into the clean channel on the amp and could switch between clean/twangy and crunchy/powerful. Very nice little pedal, and at the ebay price great value.  I think they are about 60 quid new, and are probably worth that much.

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