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DR. FRANKENSTEIN and the QUEST for the PERFECT GUITAR, or the DIABOLICAL CREATION of “OLD BLUE”

Posted in electric guitar, GUITARS, music, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2012 by Joseph Allen Popp's Cellular Multiverse

“OLD BLUE”

What makes a guitar special?  Is it the way it looks?  Is it the way it sounds?  Is it the way it plays and feels?  I say, “Yes, yes, and yes.”

There are many things combined that ultimately make a guitar special. But, why do different people find different guitars to be the special one? Everyone has a different agenda when it comes to picking the right guitar. I’ve been playing guitars since I was about 12 years old (I’m now 57), and I was pretending to play guitars long before that! Over the years, through trial and error, good choices and bad, I’ve gone through a lot of different guitars. Have I finally found the special one?  Well, yes, you could say that I have. But, it goes a little deeper than that.

Let me take you back a bit and explain what led to my even knowing what I was looking for in a guitar…

I have been lucky enough to own some fine instruments.  Each of them had something special, but was lacking in some way that eventually led me to want something else, or something more.  I’m not going to go through all of them, that would take way longer than this already lengthy entry.  I’ll concentrate on two readily available models…

My Gibson Les Pauls’ (I’ve had a few) humbucking pickups sounded good, but they didn’t come with a vibrato bar.  The Fender Stratocasters I’ve had (there’ve been a bunch) have had the vibrato bar, but the single coil pickups sounded a little thin to me, at least the one closest to the bridge.  The original vibrato bar design is also imperfect, and puts the guitar out of tune all of the time.

So, in a nutshell, from owning/playing Les Pauls and Stratocasters I’ve discovered:

  • I like the scale length of the Fender Stratocaster
  • I like the Fender Stratocaster’s surfy looking, solid color body style over the fine-furniture-finish Gibsons
  • I like the Fender vibrato bars, despite the inherent tuning issues (hey, Jimi dealt with it, right?)
  • I like the sound of the Gibson humbucking pickups in the bridge position
  • I like either single coil or humbucking pickups in the other positions
  • I like the mix-and-match Henry Ford modularity of the Fender design (necks bolt on, rather than glue in like the Gibsons)

Okay, there’s something to shoot for: a Fender scale, vibrato-equipped guitar with some sort of combination of single coil and humbucking pickups.

Over the years, many guitar players have settled on this same set of choices, for much the same reasons that I did.  Because of us, there have been lots of big guitar companies, as well as independent luthiers, trying to design the instrument we all want.  As time went on, there were more and more builders using these criteria as their blueprint for the dream guitar.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s, though, that a couple of hardware designers finally came up with a vibrato design that could be used without throwing the tuning of the guitar into never-never land.  Floyd Rose and Kahler were the first two makers to solve the problem, and make their systems available to us.  Both of them came up with the idea that once the strings were tuned, they should be locked in place.  That is, at the bridge and at the nut the strings would need to be somehow clamped down so that the length of string beyond that, in either direction, had no effect on keeping the string tuned.  Look them up.  They both work fabulously, although, like everything else about a guitar, there are advocates and detractors for both makes.  When I first discovered the magic of locking whammies I was on the Kahler side of the fence, but I quickly jumped over it into Floyd-land. They work equally well, but feel completely different from one another.

I bought and played several Floyd-equipped guitars, very happy with their ability to stay in tune, even under the heaviest abuse, and I loved them…until I experienced breaking a string in the middle of a song while standing on stage in front of an audience!  Because the string is clamped in on both ends, changing a string means finding a hex wrench (also know as an allen wrench) to unlock the clamps!  What a major hassle! After a number of years of dealing with this, and bitching about it right there on stage, we players had made enough of a noise to thankfully catch the attention of some other hardware designers.  Along came the locking tuner!  Yay!

“OLD BLUE”…FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER…MY DREAM GUITAR…

As far as the carcass of the guitar, I have found the special one.  The body is an early 1980’s Surf Green Wayne Charvel Strat-style, made of alder.  The neck was blasphemously pulled from a 1963 Fender Telecaster.  It has a rosewood fingerboard.

Sperzel Locking Tuners were the first ones made readily available to the parts buying market.  I bought a set, daringly re-drilled the holes on my Fender Tele headsto0ck, mounted them, and removed the locking nut. Relieving myself of that hex key locking nut was like finally waking up from a whammy nightmare.  Way better not needing to unlock that nut with every broken string. That being said, I still must the hex wrench on the Floyd Rose bridge.  Having only one end of the string clamped has made my whammy life way easier, though, if not perfect.I replaced the FR Locking Nut with a self-lubricating graphite nut, and added a couple of graphite string trees where the old metal Fender ones used to be.

The pickups are an ongoing project, still.  Although I’ve found a number of beautiful sounding models, I have yet to come up with the perfectly matched trio.  Right now I’m playing with an EMG Select single coil-sized humbucking pickup in the neck position, a PJ Marx single coil in the middle position, and a TOG dual blade single coil-sized humbucker in the bridge position.  They all sound fantastic.  My only complaint is that the TOG is just a bit louder than the other two.  I use it as an advantage when I want to kick in a little extra punch for a solo, but I would rather be able to kick the pickup selector around at any point in a piece of music and retain the same overall volume…just changing the tone.  “Tone is more important than volume” has become my maxim. I’m hoping that some day it will all come together, as I continue on my quest for perfection.

I’ve recently been experimenting with yet another pickup system. I installed a Roland GK-3 synthesizer pickup on the guitar, but I really dislike the bulky control box that accompanies it; mounted right on the face of the guitar.  Not only is it inconvenient, I also find it rather unsightly.  It’s a pretty large footprint, blocking out my nice Surf Green body.  I will be removing it, and using another guitar to perform synth duties.

I love that I’ve found the special one, as much for knowing that I have more changes ahead as for enjoying it’s already perfected parts.  I hope you find your dream guitar, too, and that you recognize it underneath it’s as of yet unperfected wardrobe.  Mine has gone through lots of changes. Change is a good thing, as long as you know what you are looking to improve.  Examine what you have, and ponder what you would like.  And have fun stitching together the parts!

more than you wanted to know?  some things bare repeating.

OLD BLUE (THE BEST GUITAR IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD)
1983 Wayne Charvel surf green body
1963 Fender Telecaster neck/rosewood fingerboard
Floyd Rose whammy with baby doll arm attachment
Graphite nut
Graphite string trees
Sperzel locking tuners
Custom cut Bakelite pickguard
EMG single coil neck pickup
P J Marx single coil pickup
TOG dual blade humbucker (single coil size) bridge position pickup
Roland GK-3 hexaphonic pickup

…just for the record, a nice sounding and playing instrument doesn’t have to be pretty…some of the monsters can be downright frightening! Below you can see a good example of that…

JAP

“THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH GUITAR”

Ugly and wonderful.

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