So, about a month ago I wrote a post about the ‘Superstrat’ and its origins in the 70’s. My aim was to replicate that , but to see if I could iron out some of the problems that often occurred with the tuning, especially when the trem was abused fairly heavily by the likes of Van Halen!
What you see above is the first of the finished articles. I decided to go for the very original feel first, so it’s a very stripped back and basic approach to the guitar. I also went for a ‘worn in’ feel. The neck is stripped and oiled, polished with 2000 grade paper to simulate 40 years of playing. The body is meant to be recovered junk, the sort of thing that we used to buy as kids for next to nothing when others had got bored of experimenting. It’s a proper ‘Frankenstrat’
Pretty early on I decided that if it was going to have that feel then it had to be a ‘non Floyd’ guitar. Firstly, and most significantly, because I realise that I just don’t like them. At all. I just finished working on a customer’s Floyd, and you know what, after sodding about with all the little pieces of string block, Allen keys and the suchlike, I felt like a I needed a stiff drink! What a pain in the arse. OK it didn’t help that his was a floating bridge, and I’m not a fan of those either – and that’s because I usually sing in most of the bands I have played guitars in. There’s nothing worse than getting two lines into a song when a string drops off, then you have to decide whether to carry on with the guitar woefully sharp or give up the vocal and retreat for the spare!
The biggest thing is the sheer bulk of them. And then you get to another downside – a good one is very expensive, and the cheap ones are rubbish. A vintage trem has many fewer parts (and none of them fall out when the strings are off, so you don’t end up crawling around the floor of the pub looking for them). And on top of that, I wanted to find a different solution to the one that was initially sought by Mr Rose. Because let’s face it, time has already proven his solution to be exceptionally effective. I just think it has other drawbacks that I don’t particularly enjoy.
So my answer was to elongate the neck by about 3/8″ and insert a Zero Fret. By keeping the string angle over the zero fret very light, I could ensure that there was no friction. This negated the need for anything like the Fender LSR roller nut (which aren’t cheap either and are prone to wear). As a precaution against the Zero fret wearing out I used stainless steel fretwire. In fact, I went against my usual practice and used Stainless for the whole guitar.
Well I have to be honest – it worked, and it didn’t. Using the usual tuning method for strats with tremolos (Tune it, wang the bar hard, then tune any sharp notes back to pitch and then leave it alone unless it goes flat), it behaves much better than any vintage trem strat I have ever had or used. But you still have to tune it ‘like a strat’. You can’t just tune it how you would a non trem guitar and hope it will stay in perfectly. Now knowing that there is no friction in the nut (because it doesn’t have one) and the guide isn’t touching any string, the reason for this is a bit of a mystery. I find it hard to believe that the zero fret is causing any friction, and the tuners are ‘Sperzel’ style back locking ones, the same kind I have used exclusively for many years. So I’m sure that’s not an issue.
I think the next experimental model will have to have a modern two point tremolo on it. I’m not convinced that many of them are very good in terms of the base plate and locating pins, at least at the budget end of the market – the bearing edges can be a bit soft. I’ll do some research with my suppliers. But I’ll have to try it as I can’t answer the important question without doing so.
One big success of this guitar however, has been the pickup. When I build a new guitar, I usually put a Bare Knuckle Mule straight in. I love em, but they are a bit too well behaved for this kind of guitar, smooth and rich but never really jumping out at you. I like the Stormy Monday Alnico II pickup for the bite it has, but it isn’t powerful enough for a guitar like this. The VH II has that classic Van Halen sound which is actually quite bright – but with the stainless frets I thought that might be a bit too sharp. (The VH II is a more modern design utilising the strength of the magnet rather than classic overwinding to get the power. Those went In James Ready’s Signature model).
So I went to a company called AxesRus in Hull who I do a lot of business with when it comes to bringing in parts for repairs and improving budget guitars. They have a lot of proprietary hardware made for them now which has turned out to be very good. Their tech guy Craig has been recently having pickups made to his specifications – one of which I tried on a customer’s guitar and was very impressed (especially as that particular model was half the price of the Seymour or Dimarzio equivalent). In their range they have an Alnico II overwound to about 10K. That allows it a bit more bottom end to even out the potential brightness. And that’s also classic 70’s hot rodding. Eddie Van Halen took a pickup from his 335 (probably a II but maybe a IV), rewound it with about 1/3 too many turns and then soaked it in paraffin wax. So I took a punt.
Well what a good move that turned out to be. I fitted some ‘Slash’ Alnico IIs a while back to a customer’s Epiphone Les Paul and ended up sitting there for about an hour playing it. Just didn’t want to give it back. This ‘Mucky Puppy’ is as good as that, at least as good as that! It has a bit more midrange in it because of the hotter winding and harmonics just jump out of the guitar, even at low volumes in the teaching room. Playing faster picked runs the attack is always there, but the note is there too, it’s not just percussive noise. Slow it down and it sings! I can see me fitting a lot of these!
So overall I think the project so far has been a mild success. I’m going to use it for a while, I have absolutely no problem in abusing the whammy bar so that the strings are loose and still keeping it in tune.
In the meantime, I’m going to make a second guitar. This one will probably now be a test bed for a two fulcrum point tremolo rather than the vintage one. As much as possible I want that to be the only difference, because that might be the best way to find out if the vintage trem itself is casing this sensitivity to tuning method that sees the G string especially go sharp on return to resting position.
Off to recapture my lost youth….now where did I leave those leather trousers?
If anyone has anything to add to the experiment in the way of experience with the vintage or two point tremolo systems, please share in the comments. Every time I undertake one of these experiments I find something that I thought was pretty much fact slips into ‘grey area’. I now no longer ‘know’ why strat trems come back sharp on the G string. I’d always assumed it to be simply the nut/string tree/tuning pegs. And in most cases it possibly was. But maybe not this time….