Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fender ST72-80SC Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster | Part 3

I mentioned in Part 2 of this series that I wanted to completely rewire my Japanese Fender ST72-80SC Stratocaster from Ishibashi. This guitar is an unofficial Malmsteen model from 1992 or 1993, for sale in the Japanese market-only, so just for kicks, I decided to up the Yngwie pedigree and change the front and bridge pickups to DiMarzio HS3's.

So off I went to Singapore's Haven For All Things Guitar (Peninsula Shopping Centre to you readers from these parts) in search of supplies for the big rewire.

I managed to procure a CRL 5-way switch, two .047 Russian military-grade paper-in-oil capacitors, and of course the two DiMarzio HS3 pickups. In addition, I also bought three Seymour Duncan YJM 250k potetiometers. The pots are made by Bourns and are probably the smoothest, fastest pots you can buy. Great for quick volume swells but one must be careful when using these puppies in a performance setting. It's really easy to accidentally turn a tone pot down to zero.

seymour duncan yjm pots
Duncan YJM volume pots
But why two capacitors you might ask? I wanted to get the guitar wired so that the centre tone knob controlled the neck and middle pickups, while the second tone knob controlled  the bridge pickup. That bridge pickup can be a beast sometimes, especially through a bright-sounding amp like a Twin Reverb.

paper-in-oil capacitors
Russian paper-in-oil .047mf caps
The stock Stratocaster wiring never made sense to me. In the stock layout, the first tone pot was wired to the neck pickup while the second tone pot controlled the middle pickup. The bridge pickup, the brightest and potentially most brittle sounding of the the three was tonally always wide open.

I found that I had to constantly compromise on the amp settings when using a stock Strat. When I got the bridge pickup sounding warm and full, the neck pickup sounded muddy. When I dialed in a bright, twangy, ballsy tone on the neck pickup, the bridge pickup became a raging banshee -- absolute shrillsville.

What to do? Take a cue from tone guru Eric Johnson and dedicate the second tone pot to the bridge pickup.

In this very early article, I mentioned how Joe Bonamassa is also a fan of this mod. Although I'm not sure if his suspiciously overly simple description in the video of moving one wire on the 5-way switch to the left (or was that the right) would actually work.

I'll leave wiring my guitars to the pros.

Luckily for me, my go-to guy for guitar electronics, our good buddy and film location sound recordist Arnold San Juan, had just wrapped on a TV series he was working on and was on a two-day break before his next project. Arnold, if you remember, also rewired my Gibson BFG Les Paul, replacing the pots and caps, reconfiguring everything to traditional Les Paul wiring -- killswitch be damned.

After unsoldering the old Gotoh pots from the stock pickups, Arnold proceeded with installing the Duncan YJM pots. As expected, the shafts of the Duncan pots were a tad larger than the Gotohs which meant that the holes in the pickguard had to be enlarged. Good thing there was a circular file lying about.

unsoldering pots and 5-way switch
Unsoldering the Gotoh pots and 5-way switch

After seating the new pots in the pickguard, it was time to break out the DiMarzio HS-3's from their packaging.

Installing DiMarzio HS-3
Duncan pots installed. Time to unleash the DiMarzios!

The store I bought the HS-3's from only had them in black and white. White would have looked fine, but a single black pickup would really have looked out of place. Fortunately, the store a few doors down had a set of three DiMarzio pickup covers in cream. And they weren't too expensive at 15 bucks.

The original owner of this guitar had replaced the front pickup with a generic Fender single-coil, so rather than buying three HS-3's, I decided to switch this pickup to the centre position, with the two HS-3's bringing up the front and the rear.

fender japan single-coil pickup
Original Japanese Fender single-coil pickup. Note additional magnet below
'Bringing up the front and the rear'. Bet you've never heard that phrase applied to guitar pickups before.

The cream pickup covers slipped over the HS-3's without a hitch, but the Fender pickup's coil was too short for the DiMarzio covers. The polepieces were just buried underneath, so I chose the best looking of the three original pickup covers and used that for the lone Fender pickup instead.

Using the supplied DiMarzio pickup screws and springs, Arnold mounted the two HS-3's in the neck and bridge positions. Oddly enough, we found that none of the original screws fit the mounting holes of the Fender pickup. All of them simply slid through the mounting holes without engaging the threads. Very strange, considering that the neck pickup was securely mounted with the old screws. Arnold managed to dig up a pair of pickup screws from his tool box that fit nicely although they were a little rusty.

Okay, very rusty, but they'll do for now.

CRL 5-way switch
Installing CRL 5-way switch

So why not the new Seymour Duncan Yngwie pickups, the ones that Malmsteen has been swearing are the best ones he's ever heard? Believe me, I was tempted.

But after hearing the Duncan Yngwie's and comparing the two, the DiMarzio HS-3's just sounded juicier to my ears. There was a slight compression to the tone of the Duncan's I didn't quite dig, and the overall tone was a little more scooped around the mid-range. But hey, Yngwie swears by them.

Our other good buddy, Sherman, recommended I give paper-in-oil capacitors a try when I wanted to rewire my Les Paul BFG. I liked how they sounded on the BFG so I decided to go with .047mf PIO caps for this rewire. So out went the stock dark green mylar capacitor along with the three Japanese Gotoh potentiometers.

paper-in-oil caps
Russian military-grade paper-in-oil capacitors

But does it all really make a difference? To be honest, with better pots and better quality capacitors you can expect a 10% improvement in tone. The pickups and the wood on the guitar itself make for the other 90%, player notwithstanding. But hey, we're replacing 20-something year old parts for a few bucks so why not?

It's like wearing a nice, clean pair of socks. No one can really see 'em, but at least you know they're there.

Stratocaster wiring
Wiring done!
When Arnold did the obligatory screwdriver tap-test on the pickups, we found that the Fender pickup, relocated to the middle position was the loudest of the three.

DiMarzio HS-3's are known to not be very hot, but I found it a little strange that they would have less output than a generic Fender single-coil. Setting the middle pickup low and flush to the pickguard a la Yngwie helped to even out the volume difference.

And I'm glad I didn't go with three HS-3's. The stock Fender is a nice contrast tone-wise and I often find myself playing off the middle pickup by itself, something I never used to do.

dimarzio hs-3 installed
DiMarzio HS-3's installed in neck and bridge

The DiMarzio's by themselves do the job very nicely. They are smooth and creamy at high gain -- a very even sounding pickup with no surprising frequency spikes. But I do miss that typical ballsy Fender twang.

Leo Fender wasn't messing around, he certainly got it right way back when.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Fender ST72-80SC Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster | Part 2

If you read Part 1 of ordering this early 90's Fender Japan ST72-80SC Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster from Ishibashi's U-Box, I mentioned that I would be peering under the hood for a peek at the pickups and internal electronics.

In Part 1, I also mentioned that I would be installing KTS Titanium Saddles. Which didn't go too well as I'll detail later.

Taking a Strat's pickguard off to check for cracks in the body wood is something I have been doing since buying my very first Stratocaster on 1989.  I had returned home in the evening after a day of guitar shopping and was plugging in my new pride and joy, a black, rosewood-neck Japanese Fender Stratocaster into my 60-watt Ibanez IBZ amplifier. It sounded great as I put it through its paces and explored its different tones while 'Good Morning Vietnam' was showing on TV.

But over Robin Williams' histrionic dark humor, something told me to take a look under the pickguard. And lo and behold, there was a huge break in the wood where the neck pocket meets the front pickup. The bare wood was visible through the black finish. It was as if someone had dropped the guitar head first, which would have also left a huge dent in the headstock at the very least. Oddly enough, there wasn't a single mark.

What made me look under the pickguard? It was just one of those things -- something I can't explain to this day. And somehow, that memory still haunts me whenever I buy a new Strat-type guitar. And checking under the pickguard of any bolt-on guitar I might buy, regardless of manufacturer, has become a ritual of sorts.

The happy ending to this story was that I brought the guitar back to the store the next day, expecting to show the damage to the store's owner and have to explain that the guitar was already damaged when I bought it. Surprisingly, he didn't even ask to look at the guitar but offered me an immediate exchange. I asked how much a Fender American Standard would cost -- four extra bills -- and went with one of those, a black Strat with a rosewood fingerboard.

The store owner fetched it himself from the storeroom, the guitar in a molded black Fender ABS hardcase, still in the factory sealed cardboard carton. I offered to open up the carton myself and had to ask for a pair of pliers to remove the large brass staples. I didn't even have to try another American Standard to compare it with. It just felt right and it definitely had that Hendrix at Monterey vibe.

That black American Standard Stratocaster became my main workhorse instrument for many years and is a guitar I still own. Some things are just meant to be, I guess.

But back to my latest acquisition.

fender malmsteen brass nut
Brass nut and chrome bullet truss rod nut 

 After cutting the strings off the ST72-80SC, I proceeded to remove the eleven pickguard screws, which I noticed, were brand new. I'm guessing the old screws were replaced as a courtesy by the good folks at the Ishibashi setup department since 20-something year old nickel-plated screws would be seriously tarnished with rust, grime and who knows what else.

Popping the pickguard off, I noticed no splits, cracks or breaks in the wood -- phew.

I also noticed that despite the pickguard having been on for two decades, the paintwork underneath was the same shade of yellow cream as the rest of the body. I was expecting a 'shadowing', where the paint under the guard would be a much lighter color than the rest of the body that was exposed to light for 20 years. Interesting.

fender malmsteen pickup cavity
The pickup cavity of the ST72-80SC
But I was most curious about the pickups. Johan Lindh at Ishibashi informed me that the front pickup had been exchanged for a Fender USA model number 016730. Which turned out not to be a model number at all, but a part code one of Fender's pickup bobbin suppliers used. Part number 016730 can be found stamped underneath the stock vintage-wound pickups used on many Fender USA and Mexico models.

Fender ST72-80SC pickups
Note additional grey magnets underneath the middle and bridge pickups
Fender Japan's brochure from the '90s lists the pickups supplied with the ST72-80SC as 'ST-Current'. Note the additional magnet under each ST-Current pickup in the middle and bridge positions. Not your typical stacked single-coil configuration. And they sound pretty good -- a little higher output than regular single-coils, but without the screechiness especially at the bridge.

DiMarzio HS-3 pickups, Yngwie's personal choice at the time, came standard on model ST72-950SC in the bridge and neck positions. The ST72-950SC is identical to the ST72-80SC in specifications except for the pickups.

The wiring on the ST72-80SC features Japanese-made Alpha potentiometers, ubiquitous green capacitor and typical cheapo plastic 5-way switch. No fancy cloth-covered vintage wire here. If you ask me, even the soldering is a little sloppy.

Fender Japan ST72-80SC pots and capacitor
Alpha potentiometers and ubiquitous green Fender Japan capacitor

Perfectly functional, but I might upgrade the circuitry at a later point with a CRL 5-way switch, Bourns 250k pots and a nice paper-in-oil capacitor. And yes, some braided cloth-covered wire, just for kicks.

I found out that the Fender Japan ST72-80SC and ST72-950SC were not official Malmsteen models -- hence the absence of Yngwie's signature at the headstock. Although the US-made Fender Yngwie Malmsteen model had already been around for a few years, Fender Japan had yet to strike up a deal with the Swedish maestro and were producing these unofficial Malmsteen models for sale in Japan's domestic market only. And the best part is that they were more like Yngwie's famous 'Duck - Play Loud' 70's Stratocaster, than the American Standard-style Strats that passed for the official Malmsteen signature model at the time.

An unofficial Ritchie Blackmore model, the asymmetrically scalloped ST72-75SC was also available at the time, decades before the current Mexican-made Fender Blackmore signature. No surprise really, seeing as how popular both Messrs Blackmore and Malmsteen were in Japan.

Fender Japan scalloped fingerboard
Scalloped, lightly figured maple fingerboard

Speaking of scalloping, the ST72-80SC is not as evenly scalloped as the current USA Yngwie signature models. Fender Japan seems to have played it a little safe and the scallop starts about 1mm after the fret, leaving each fret on a slight ledge. Not a bad thing really, it's just something I noticed when taking these pictures up close. And since each fret is on its own ledge, it might actually be easier to refret should I ever need to.

fender japan stratocaster scalloped fingerboard
Closeup of scalloping
I also noticed that this guitar has an unusually thin finish for a Japanese instrument. The ding you see in the picture below -- one of several -- shows the thinness of the urethane finish against the bare wood underneath. Most polyurethane finishes render the guitar almost bullet-proof.

fender stratocaster ding in finish
A ding to the bare wood shows how thin this finish actually is.

And about those KTS Titanium saddles..

These KTS saddles were a gift to me some years ago by a good friend of mine, but I never had a Strat lying around that needed a saddle replacement. I'd always been a GraphTech guy and would replace the stock bent steel or diecast saddles on a newly acquired Strat as a matter of course.

KTS titanium saddles
KTS Titanium saddles
When this guitar arrived I immediately thought of replacing the die-cast saddles with the KTS Titanium saddles at the next string change. I had never experienced playing a Strat with titanium saddles and I was definitely curious as to how differently the guitar would feel and respond. But I made sure to bring the guitar with its stock die-cast saddles to my usual Monday night gig first so I would have at least some remote frame of reference for tonal comparison later.

Original die-cast saddles and KTS titanium set
Things looked rosy as I removed each die-cast saddle and replaced it with a KTS saddle. I had replaced the saddles for the low E, A, D and G strings when I started noticing a problem. Instead of lining up in a straight row, I could see that the saddles were starting to fan out in an arc. The KTS saddles I had were too wide for this Japanese bridge!

Dang!


KTS titanium and die-cast saddles
Saddles starting to fan out
Browsing the KTS site, I realized that the KTS saddles I had were from their PR-11 set which fit American and Mexican Fender bridges. The bridge that came with the ST72-80SC, probably made by Gotoh for Fender Japan, required the narrower saddles from the KTS PR-04 set.

Nothing to do then but to put the old die-cast saddles back on. I used the different hex screw heights on each saddle to determine their original order on the bridge and also so I wouldn't have to do a massive readjustment re-setting the saddle heights.

Stay tuned for Part 3 where I will upgrade the electronics and pickups on the ST72-80SC.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Ordering A Fender Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster From Ishibashi's U-Box | Part 1

Watching a couple of Deep Purple and Rainbow videos recently had me hankering for a Strat with a scalloped fingerboard. Preferably one in Olympic white, with a rosewood fingerboard and black Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder single coils. Just like you-know-who used to play before he went medieval.

Ishibashi's U-Box had a Mexican-made Fender Ritchie Blackmore signature Stratocaster for ¥84000 or US$690 at the prevailing rate. Which was a bargain considering that a new one sells for ¥165000 or US$1350 on the Ishibashi site.

I must admit that I have long gotten over my Mexican vs Japanese vs American biasness when it comes to guitars. My Mexican-made EVH Van Halen is a good case in point -- it plays amazingly well and the workmanship is top-notch. A lot of great guitars are coming out of Fender's Ensenada, Mexico plant these days.

But as with most guitars on the U-Box that are a great value, the Blackmore signature was snapped up quickly by another customer.

Beat me to it. Foiled. Dang.

So continue browsing I did.

I noticed one particular guitar, listed as 'ST72-80SC YWH Mod' had been languishing on the U-Box site for a couple of weeks. From the model number I could tell it was a Japanese '72 reissue Fender Stratocaster, but what was with the 'SC' delineation?

'SC', it turns out, denoted a scalloped fingerboard, which meant that this particular guitar was an Yngwie Malmsteen signature model of some ilk.

Fender only ever produced scalloped fingerboards on two of their artist's models -- the Ritchie Blackmore signature, which came with an asymmetrical, gradated scalloped rosewood fingerboard, and the Yngwie Malmsteen signature models which came with evenly scalloped maple or rosewood fingerboards.

fender ritchie blackmore scalloped fingerboard
Asymmetrical scalloping on the Blackmore signature Strat

I wasn't sure if I was ready to bring a Malmsteen signature Strat out on gigs, since I don't associate my style with Yngwie's by any stretch of the imagination. You know how it is -- whip out an Yngwie Strat and people immediately start wincing, in anticipation of a barrage of swept arpeggios and a flurry of 16th note triplets. But a Strat is a Strat, is a Strat, right? Whatever that means.

My consolation was that the ST72-80SC YWH lacked the ubiquitous Yngwie signature at the headstock, found on all Malmsteen models. So for all intents and purposes, other than the scalloping, it was a just another blond, large headstock 70's style Strat.

And like the cherry on an ice cream sundae, that chrome bullet truss rod nut looks very cool. And you don't have to pop the neck to do a simple truss rod adjustment.

fender yngwie malmsteen stratocaster ST72-80sc YWH
70's style bullet truss rod 

Listed at ¥60000 or US$493, I thought it was pretty good deal. Actually, it was an amazingly good deal. And why no one had jumped on it so far, I just couldn't figure.

So off went my ever hopeful email to Johan Lindh at Ishibashi who handles all the English correspondences with overseas customers.

And he replied with this description:

Thank you for your inquiry. Below, I will list all information we have
available for this item, and information on how to order.
=======================================================================
03-316479209 (used) FENDER JAPAN ST72-80SC MOD YWH M
Basswood body, 1p Maple neck / fretboard. Scalloped fretboard.
Neck pickup is a non-original Fender USA 016730 and the switch has been replaced as well.
Overall scratches and dents. Larger dents and chips in the lacquer/wood. No playability issues. Frets, truss rod and neck in good condition.
Serial: MIJ N043967
Made in Japan 1993-1994
WEIGHT: 3.6kg
Non-original gigbag

Item price: 60,000 Yen (excluding tax)
Shipping cost including insurance:  10,000 Yen
-----------------------------------------------------------------------
Total cost: 70,000 Yen
-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Wonderful. It hadn't been sold yet.

And seeing as how it was built between 1993 and 1994, this guitar, as of this writing, is 21 or 22 years old!

fender st72-80sc ywh m
Fender ST72-80SC YWH M


But the basswood body, I'll admit, I wasn't too thrilled about. The wood snob in me was hoping that it was alder, the standard body wood for Stratocasters.

Basswood is softer than alder, which, to my ears, gives more of an emphasis around the lower midrange. Alder is a harder wood and sounds a little brighter and springier. But since this was an all-maple neck, I reasoned that the basswood body would balance off nicely against the maple, tone-wise. And we've all played Strats with the alder body and maple neck combo that sounded a little too bright haven't we?

fender stratocaster basswood body
Basswood it is.

See, if you set your mind to it, you can rationalize almost anything.

The guitar shipped out from Tokyo International last Saturday, October 31st, and was at my doorstep on Tuesday evening. Or rather, the postman was at my doorstep with a large Ishibashi carton on Tuesday evening, with nobody home to receive it.

I immediately had a flashback of my last Ishibashi order, the Tokai L173. And like that last experience, the postman rang me on my mobile and sounded a little disappointed when I told him no one was home. He then told me that he had to go back down 14 floors to the van to get a delivery notice to slide under my door.

What? You mean you don't carry around a bunch of those in your pocket just for these instances?

But of course I didn't tell him that. I didn't even dare suggest it. The last thing I wanted is for a disgruntled postal worker to hurl my precious Fender ST72-80SC -- SC mind you -- into the back of the van in a huff.

Yeah, I'm paranoid that way.

And what do I find when I get home? A crumpled delivery slip jammed in the handle of my front gate. What happened to putting important documents into the mailbox or slipping it under the door where no one can get at it? Wake up, SingPost!

The next day, with delivery slip in hand, I made my way down to my neighbourhood post office in the afternoon to pick up my guitar.

The young lady who assisted me had some trouble finding the carton in the backroom, walking back to her workstation a couple of times to re-check the shipping number. She left the door slightly ajar as she went back to search for the third time and through the crack I noticed the Ishibashi logo emblazoned on a carton standing against the back wall.

I found it a little strange that she told me in Thai to go to a security side door where she could hand the carton over to me. Stranger still that I actually understood her. A new guitar will do that to ya.

The carton looked very well packed and felt well-padded from the inside so I decided against asking for a pen knife to check the contents for damage. I also didn't want to draw the attention of the somber looking people queuing to pay their bills and traffic fines by whipping out an ostentatious scalloped blond Fender Stratocaster in their midst.

Guitar in carton under my soon-to-be aching arm, I trudged my way home, stopping for a leisurely sushi lunch along the way.

My self-restraint these days is amazing.

In my impetuous youth I would have hopped into a cab, ripped open the carton with my bare hands and teeth in the backseat, tuned the guitar and then enthralled the cab driver with the plinkety-plink of my hottest licks along the way.

When I ordered the guitar, I expressed to Johan Lindh at Ishibashi that I needed the guitar to be very well packed since it had to endure a long trip in a softcase all the way from Japan. And also that SingPost could at times be quite rough in handling items. He told me he would take care of it and pack the guitar personally.

And man, did he oblige.

ishibashi carton
The famed Ishibashi carton. Good things do sometimes come in large packages 

He bubble wrapped the guitar thickly in its softcase, enclosed it further in a cardboard frame and placed it snugly into the carton surrounded with lots of packing paper. The guitar would probably have survived a drop from the cargo hold of a plane at take-off.

ishibashi carton
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you properly pack a guitar for shipping.

Thanks Johan! Much appreciated.

The guitar arrived strings loosened and in perfect condition other than the dings and dents on the body as Johan had described in his email.

On closer inspection, the few dings didn't look too bad, considering this guitar is 22 years old. They add a bit of real vibe and character unlike the faux scrapes, scratches and dents you find on the relic jobs coming out of the Fender custom shop these days.

fender stratocaster dings and dents
Two dents on the lower bout. No fake relic'ing here!

Surprisingly, the entire neck of this guitar is in pristine condition with nary a scratch or even a spot of wear. Even the top edge of the headstock, where most guitars of this vintage would at least have a couple of battle scars, is absolutely immaculate.

There is also almost no fret wear on the thin vintage-style Fender frets, and neither has the shiny brass nut lost any of its luster.

Amazing. The previous owner really took care of this instrument.

The setup guys at Ishibashi had strung the guitar with fresh .009 - .042 strings and adjusted the neck nearly straight with a hair of relief at the seventh fret and also adjusted the intonation. Interestingly, they had set the tremelo bridge so that it sat flush against the body, which is how I always set up my Strat bridges. This allows for maximum transmission of tone from the strings to the body and the guitar doesn't go wildly out of tune if you break a string.

Perfect.

What I found a little odd though is the extreme angle the tremelo arm sits when it is screwed into the bridge -- it points up at nearly a 45 degree angle relative to the body. I guess I'll have to bend it back to a more reasonable playing position.

Stay tuned for my next post where I peer under the hood of this Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster to check out the internal wiring and pickups. I might even install a set of KTS titanium saddles for good measure.

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