Battle Scars – the JR1 returns

Finally, the JR-1 (the James Ready signature model) has returned for its proper service.

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It came in briefly once before to repair a slightly raised fret, but not for its full setup post delivery. It’s been on the road about three and a half years now I think, and been featured very heavily on Walkway III as the main rhythm guitar – especially on anything drop D tuned.

It’s had an unbelievably hard life already, which was one of the reasons I originally wanted to work with James. Walkway is a proving ground for my building method, in that if it can survive that kind of heavy gigging then I’ve got it right.

The main issue was that James was reporting a little buzzing from the top E. I hit the strings fairly hard and it was rattling a bit, so I lifted the strings very slightly and the problem disappeared. The truss rod was just about right though, so I just unwound it about 1/4 turn, then slowly put the pressure back on a touch to add a little more clearance. That seemed to clear any buzz but the action was not noticeably higher.

Then it’s time to look at the bridge.

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The pickup and the bridge are carrying a fair amount of corrosion. Now destrung, its time to see what moves. The posts on the bridge are held tight with grub screws. I can’t adjust the height at the Bass end (though I’d already moved the treble end slightly) because the screws are rusted solid. In fact I can’t even get an allen key into one of them, so badly has the rot set in.

So I freed it up with a little heat and oil, then took the bridge off its posts to clean it up and try to stop the corrosion in its tracks. You can see how bad it is below.

Some of the rollers are seized, which rather defeats the object of the exercise to reduce breaking against bending. Although there aren’t any sharp edges, they have to be freed up.

The best way is just to soak them in oil, to dissolve any crud and hopefully soften any surface rust.

Everything that will come out goes in the oil bath. The saddles come off, but the grub screws were tight so I left them in initially for an hour, returning to them to unscrew them when the oil had done its job.

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After a couple of hours while I was working on something else, I came back to a much better situation. Putting the bridge back together, the screws went back in with almost no resistance at all which was rather more reassuring.

Of course, getting all the surface oil off was a bit of a task, but the best way is to leave a film on anything the hand doesn’t touch, which will repel at least some moisture for a while. There’s no harm in putting a little Vaseline into screw threads on a guitar, just to keep the rust away, when restringing – especially if you’re one of those players who rots guitars for fun every weekend.

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Next is to have a good clean up. You can see what looks like glitter on the headstock – that’s shredded string and metal pick from the last few gigs. There was lots of it all over the guitar. Then it was taped up and the frets polished. There’s a bit of wear, but nothing too serious and there’s no point in a dress at this point.

Considering the use it gets, the frets have held up fairly well – and possibly in some way aided by the use of elixirs because the string doesn’t become more abrasive on its underside through corrosion.

And so then it’s time to put it back together and set it up. With the bridge now working properly, it’s a piece of cake. Really, apart from the bridge the guitar has survived almost intact, and that will last a few more years before it needs replacing. The electronics are fine, and sounding great. The Bare Knuckles in this one are the VHII pair – bright and spanky, and apart from the Mules my favourite to fit.

The paintwork however….well that’s another story!

 

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Repairing a Ship in a Bottle

Last Friday night, my friend Simon brought his Epiphone 335 over to the house for a bit of TLC. It had a buzz, he couldn’t figure out what was causing it and had become a bit frustrated with it.

It stems back to the fact that the original pickups that were fitted to it had been a little uninspiring and he’d acquired a set of fairly modern SG pickups that he’d had a shop wire in for him.

Unfortunately, the soldering job looked a bit like this:

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These aren’t the actual pots but two I pulled from another Gibson that had been butchered with a soldering iron some time ago. I wish I’d have taken pictures on Friday, but I just didn’t think of it at the time!

Wires were twisted together into masses of unspecified solder joints, the solder was almost melted to itself, but the contact with the Pot body was poor, contacts were badly twisted and none of the wires were through the contact holes or had any real mechanical grip. More than one joint fell off just by removing the pot from the hole! It was a mixture of far eastern promise and local desperation!

My initial assessment was that the mess needed cleaning up and the joints remade. But that’s easier said than done on a 335. This is the ‘Ship in a bottle’ bit.

335 rewiring
Here’s a link to Music radar’s guide on changing 335 wiring, if you’re feeling brave! https://www.musicradar.com/tuition/guitars/how-to-change-the-pickups-on-a-gibson-es-335-style-guitar-364062

 

So at the outset, I made an important error. I know a lot of people (even in the guitar business) aren’t very good with soldering irons. But I assumed that the installer had put the wires in the right place. And to be fair, the pickups did ‘work’ – in that they made a sound which seemed fairly consistent with humbuckers in a 335.

I tested that the earths were consistent with a meter – no resistances that you wouldn’t expect. The covers had been removed from the pickups, and this is where I got that Friday brain fade and didn’t notice the obvious mistake.

So we rewired a lot of it, cleaned up the joints and put it all back together. And still it hummed. So, having run out of time on Friday evening I sent Simon away with it with the proviso that I’d have another look when I had parts in stock to do a proper rewire if it were required.

Pickup Wiring Guides.

As an installer, I see a lot of different pickups. The wiring for them isn’t universal. Original Gibson pickups only had one wire – a positive that was straight to the pot and the shield which was connected to the ground side of the pickup and was tacked to the pot body. Modern Gibsons often have two conductors plus the shield. The colours are green and black. Seymours and Dimarzios are almost opposite to each other in terms of colour coding, especially with 4 conductor units. Every time I install a pickup I look up the pickup wiring guide online if I don’t have the original paperwork.

Having had a rethink over the weekend I asked Simon to bring it back last night – I had a feeling that the shields on the pickup wires were the problem, acting as an antenna. They weren’t independently earthed, so I was going to earth them separately -and that’s when I noticed the mistake:

Green is NOT live on a Gibson Pickup (at least not these ones) – black is. The original installer had wired the pickups in backwards, making the shield of the pickup wire part of the signal path. I quickly checked my hypothosis by taking a piece of loose wire from the bridge to the chassis of the pickup – which removed all signal from the guitar to silence. We swapped the wires around and suddenly the noise was gone.

The take away:

Never assume anything. It was late Friday, I was a bit knackered, and I missed something incredibly obvious. Always check the wiring colours!!!

The Ship in a Bottle

The real trick with 335s and other similar guitars, is to have the entire wiring out on the top of the body to work on it. Getting it back in is then a choice between two methods. One is to use soft and over length wires to give you lots of room to manoeuvre it in – using plastic tubes through the holes in the guitar and back onto the spindles of the pots to draw it all back. The jack socket needs a plug in it that will go through the hole (usually by removing the case from the plug) to draw it back.

The other method is to wire the pots on a cardboard caddy that replicates the shape of the holes in the body with fairly stiff earth wire (and possibly the capacitor)  running forwards from Tone to Vol on both sides. This way if your hand is small enough you can put the vol in near the hole, and that will guide the tone to the right spot. Use a soft wire to join the two tones together and to the socket, nicely long so that you can remove one side at a time.

Lastly: Solder

Old farts like me will always have some old solder lying around for restoring older guitars. This stuff isn’t so readily available any more because of its lead content, and its not used on production items any more.

We’re allowed to use it (and actually to obtain it for repair work). It flows better and at lower temperatures than modern solder. You’ll find that working on a modern guitar requires a lot of heat when trying to unsolder a ‘big blob’ of earth where everything has been twisted together onto the back of a pot for quickness. It can make a quite a mess. For any tricky job I’ll use the old stuff to reduce the heat necessary.

Using a solder station with a temperature control can help, especially with lead free solder. But also, its really important when making the joint to make sure the solder ‘flows’ and not just sticks. Because the stuff requires so much heat now, I see a lot of joints that aren’t really well made. Be patient, you’ll see it flow when there’s enough heat. The wire will get very hot, so hold it with pliers where you can.

Always remove all the solder from a pot leg, using a solder sucker (they’re cheap enough), and make sure the wires go through the hole. This way you can use less solder to make your joint and it will flow more easily. Plus it then has a mechanical strength – important when you’re wrestling it back through the F- Hole of a 335!

Happy Ship building!

 

 

Squier Jazz: On the workbench

I get a a great number of ‘budget’ guitars across the workbench in the course of a year, it has becomes a much more substantial part of my workload in recent times. Part of this is because there has been a glut of them on the market that are actually quite playable (rather then the junk that I was subjected to as a kid), so the shops are stocking more of them. The other (and probably the larger part) is that the economy is still in the toilet, and doesn’t look  like it’s going to climb out for many years to come.

This has left the working musician often looking to less prestigious names to adorn their gigging headstocks. So as they come into the workshop, I’ll take a good look at them and try to give a fair rundown of their strengths and weaknesses.

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The instrument on the bench this morning is a Squire Jazz Bass. It’s fairly new, a 2014 build from the serial number. Black, with a black scratchplate and the maple neck reminiscent of the 1970’s Fender. The owner is reporting the action a little high for his taste, but that’s not the issue that strikes me first. It’s the fret job. Its not uneven along its length – its not buzzing out. I can lower the strings significantly without choking. No, its the ends that seems to me to be at issue. It makes the bass feel harsh on the hands, especially on the treble side when fretting the low strings, your hand can’t avoid the sharpness and very shallow pitch of the fret ends.

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So my first job was to tilt the fret ends in with the end file, a large and course file that is run along the length of the fret ends and takes equally from them to create an even profile.

Each fret end then needs to be shaped with the fine file and then the frets are polished. The amount of difference this makes to the bass is very significant. Suddenly this feels a much more expensive instrument, it’s smooth and fast and the action now lowered is very smooth.

The bass has been fitted with a heavy string set, but its not affecting the neck setup at all because the owner has been very smart about his tensions. This is a trick I’ve been advising players on for many years – how to keep your bass straight when you tune down. Its all about string tensions. DiAddario publish a string chart(pdf), where string weights are compared through both note and string tension. The trick is to decide what tension you like at standard tuning for feel and then for down tuning to choose a string set that as closely as possible matches that tension. That is what the owner had done here. This has left me a minimal amount of work to do on the neck tension itself, because it has not been over tensioned. It also means that you don’t get the effect of floppy strings bouncing off of every fret because they’re too light.

On plugging it in post setup, I’m pleasantly surprised by the tone of the beast. Its not the most aggressive sounding Jazz bass I’ve ever heard, but even at Drop C (C,G,C,F) it has a pleasingly articulate tone. It’s not over boomy either, the bottom string is not overbearing, and its fairly even across the fretboard.

The neck is fast and smooth, the finish is good and now that the fret ends are dealt with it would be hard to tell the difference between this and for example a Mexican Fender. The body is a little light for  my liking, which makes it a touch head heavy, but for the player who likes a fairly lightweight bass that won’t be a handicap. It sustains well all the same, and intonates without too much messing about.

When you consider the price that these are being offered for – (I think this is probably the Squier 77 vintage modified model), you just can’t argue against them on sheer bang for the buck. Yes, to a degree you get what you pay for, and you’ll hear reviews on the web and on youtube of Asian built guitars that tell you where they save their money – mainly on the hardware and pickups. (Phillip McKnight has a good stab at that here in video format).  But in the bass market, while this matters, it matter less. So long as the pickups have a good range and the tuners stay in tune, you can get a great instrument for absolutely peanuts here. Some things will inevitably wear out quicker than their USA counterparts – mainly the potentiometers (volume and tone controls) and the Jack socket for example. But that’s not going to cost you the hundreds of pounds you’ve saved over the Mexican or US equivalent.

The only thing that puts me off this slightly is the physical lightness of it as an instrument – those fret ends are nothing that any local luthier can’t deal with as part of a setup. It just leaves it with a balance that doesn’t suit me particularly. I like my basses a little heavier so that their balance is very much a product of their body mass. But most younger players actually don’t like a heavy instrument at all, and I’m 5’11” and far from waif like – and this is advertised as a Punk players bass – they didn’t exactly have me in mind!

So here’s the crunch – there are a lot of these kinds of instruments on the market. What you aren’t going to get from an Indonesian built guitar manufacturer is the quality control levels you would get from the USA Fender plant. That’s not to say that they are going to churn out trash guitars, but they are going to let go some things that the USA workshop would reject – it’s a cost issue.

Therefore the message is simple – don’t mail order, buy in person. Play the bass. If it’s fretting out all over the place, leave it on the shelf. If it sounds good, don’t worry about a few sharp fret ends – even if you have to pay a luthier £35 to set the bass up and file the fret ends, you’ve still got a good deal if the bass is generally sound and you like it. There is one hidden problem on far some far eastern guitars: The Truss Rod!

The most common big fault I find on them is that the truss rods don’t support the neck. So unless the neck is fairly straight in the shop, walk away. It proves that the shop is not one to be buying from – would you sell your car with a flat tire and cigarette ash all over the seat covers? If they haven’t set the instrument up then they are in one of two positions – either the don’t care enough or they don’t have the technical skills. If it’s either of those, you have to consider whether you want to shop there. If I had a shop, nothing would go on the wall until it was at least given a polish and a setup. Fret ends are a different order of magnitude, it requires a little more tooling and experience – but if you can’t get the neck straight, the guitar intonated and the strings at a playable level, and you’re a retailer, it’s time to get a different job!

So, ready to pack this one back in the case and back to its owner. It’s a good bass, it’s more than just playable, it’s quick and it has a pleasing tone. It’s well finished, the hardware works well, and the electronics are plenty good enough to gig. At the price these go for, that’s a lot of bass.