Wednesday, August 15, 2018

DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build | Part 1

A good buddy of mine, Shuen, recently mentioned that she wanted to put together a Stevie Ray Vaughan-style strat from after market parts. A capable guitarist steeped in the Texas blues tradition, she wanted to know what the best options were as far as neck and body woods, neck profiles, pickups, electronics and hardware.

Having gone this route very recently with my Warmoth/MJT strat-style partscaster (an article on which will appear very soon), I felt I could give her the benefit of my experience as far as some of the potential pitfalls of assembling a DIY guitar. As well as the frustration she might encounter with a certain well-known courier company. But more on that later.

My first reaction when Shuen told me that she wanted to get the best parts for her DIY build was why not just buy a regular Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan signature model Stratocaster. After all they were pretty common on the used market for 500 to 800 bucks below retail.

Wring That (Guitar) Neck

Her response was an expletive-fueled rant about the shape and feel of the SRV necks from Fender.

When the dust had settled and I had stopped blushing, I gathered that the stock SRV necks were too big and chunky for her relatively small hands. And the glossy polyurethane finishes on them were something she just couldn't jive with.

Fair enough.

I tried to steer her towards ordering a Warmoth roasted maple neck with stainless steel frets which I felt would give the best bang for her bucks.

My own experience with Warmoth necks is that they require minimal fret dressing since their frets are already so meticulously installed and level.  And she could choose the neck profile that best suited her, out of dozens of neck shapes. Roasted maple necks also do not require a hard finish, a plus since she liked the feel of raw wood so much, and the stainless steel frets were likely to last for a couple of decades before they were even worn enough to require a fret dress.

And it's a heck of a lot more fun wringing that neck for those huge Albert King bends on slippery smooth stainless steel frets.

But of course, off she went shopping to Singapore's guitar haven, Peninsula Shopping Centre, in search of a new neck.

What she purchased wasn't half bad, although pricey at 450 bucks. It wouldn't have been my personal choice but she chose a quartersawn flamed maple neck, with a rosewood fingerboard and medium jumbo frets. Quartersawn flamed maple is one of those rare wood types that one doesn't see very often, hence its higher price tag.

Regular flame and quilt maple is commonly derived from flatsawn wood, so to see a combination of flame maple on quartersawn is only less rare than finding a pearl in a dinner plate of oysters, as far as guitar necks go. Even Warmoth charges a premium for it.

But most importantly though, she felt the neck profile fit her hand perfectly.

Quartersawn flamed maple strat neck with rosewood fingerboard
What every girl wants - a nice dark rosewood fingerboard with medium jumbo frets
I recommended that she go with a gloss nitrocellulose finish for the headstock but a matte nitro finish for the back of the neck since she was averse to the sticky, tacky feel of a gloss finish. Nitro finishes I feel, allow for maximum resonance and are not as thick as polyurethane finishes which basically encapsulate the wood in a layer of plastic polymer.

quartersawn flamed maple neck
What every girl needs - a quartersawn flamed maple neck

And as luck would have it, the same shop she bought the neck from also offered guitar finishing services in nitrocellulose. Nitro, I might add, is one of those hazardous materials that require a  spray booth, full protective gear and a respirator mask when being applied.

But about a week after sending in the neck for finishing, Shuen suddenly remembered that the edges around the headstock felt sharp to the touch -- a testimony to the accuracy of CNC machining technology, no doubt. Unlike polyurethane which covers quite thickly, the nitro finish would only yield a finished sharp edge. She called the store only to be told that they had already sprayed the initial coat. They didn't mind sanding over the sharp edges on the headstock but informed her that it would add another two weeks to the finishing process.     

quartersawn flamed maple headstock
Nitro tint comparison with a vintage Stratocaster

The pictures of the partially finished neck they sent over as a teaser are nothing short of stunning! Nothing like glossy nitrocellulose lacquer to bring out the natural beauty of wood.

quartersawn flamed maple neck
Highly figured quartersawn flamed maple!

Stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3 of Shuen's DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build

Friday, December 22, 2017

Ordering A Kiesel Vader V6X | Part 2

It's been a long 4 months since I put in my order for my Kiesel Vader V6X, but it's finally here. I'm not sure what happened exactly, but the 4 months far exceeded Kiesel's stipulated 9 to 10 week build time.

"This is the droid you've been searching for", quipped a buddy of mine, given that it's the week of the opening of Star Wars 'The Last Jedi'.

Vader V6X
Vader V6X

I'm a pretty patient guy. I put in my confirmed order on August 10th but when November rolled around with absolutely no updates from Kiesel, I shot my sales representative an email on the 5th.

And guess what? No reply.

Another email on the 20th November and a Facebook message to another Kiesel rep, Chris Hong, finally got me a rough estimate on the completion date -- December 4th. Chris, I should mention has been stellar in bridging my email communications. My very first email enquiry went unanswered for two weeks until I contacted Chris.

Sorry Kiesel, you guys make great guitars but I'm just telling it like it is.

Interestingly, the build tag attached to the shipping carton states that the build for my Vader V6X started only on November 6th, a day after my email. The build tag accompanies every Kiesel guitar through each stage of construction from the very beginning. The build tag for my Vader also states 'Rush', which makes me think they might have overlooked my order. It also didn't help that a buddy of mine who had put in his Vader order a few days after mine received his guitar in October!

But it's always exciting to see one's long-awaited guitar appear on the Kiesel Facebook page. In that one fleeting instance, everything is forgiven.

The guitar arrived well-packed in the cardboard carton, softcase snug within. Kiesel ships exclusively via FedEx, so you can be pretty assured of reasonably careful handling and fast shipping. And did I mention that the flat rate of $27 that Kiesel charges applies to shipping anywhere within the US as well as anywhere else in the world? Pretty amazing, and kudos to Kiesel for that. I hope that doesn't change anytime soon.

Amazingly, upon my initial inspection, the guitar was actually in tune when I took it out of the softcase with the exception of the low E which had flattened just a tad. A testament to the headless design no doubt.

Vader V6X in White/White
Vader V6X in White/White
My Vader V6X came with a clean, flatsawn maple neck with no unsightly mineral marks -- those random brown streaks you sometimes see, even on high-end custom shop guitars.  There was even a tiny bit of flame in the maple at the 6th fret. But that's wood for you -- we can never guess how it'll turn out after it's cut into shape, unless we have the luxury of handpicking the piece ourselves.

Vader V6X maple neck and mahogany wings
Vader V6X maple neck and mahogany wings
The fingerboard is made of a nice slab of ebony with meticulously inlaid jumbo stainless steel frets which are immaculately well-dressed and polished with smooth fret ends. The neck was set up with virtually no relief, which usually means buzzes at the first couple of frets, particularly on the low E string. Not so in this case. Kiesel obviously has certain construction methods in place that allow for extremely close tolerances. And with not a single Plek machine in sight. That, or whoever did the fret dressing on this Vader is a genius.

Vader V6X ebony fingerboard and stainless steel frets
Vader V6X ebony fingerboard and stainless steel frets

The dual-action truss rod coupled with Kiesel's twin carbon fiber rods that run alongside make for a very stable neck. I've always felt that carbon fiber reinforced necks actually make the guitar sustain and ring a little better, making every note on the fingerboard sound absolutely even.  Truss rod access, if the neck ever needs to be adjusted, is conveniently located at the top of the neck behind the nut.

And those absolutely sublime abalone inlays! Where does Kiesel get stuff of this quality from?

While browsing the Vader guitar galleries on the Kiesel site I noticed that the abalone inlays looked consistently amazing. I had to go for block inlays for maximum bling since the rest of the guitar is pretty plain. And I certainly wasn't disappointed. The blue, green and pink swirls are among the very best I've seen.

Vader V6X abalone inlays
Vader V6X abalone inlays

And if you need help seeing the side dot position markers on dark stages, Kiesel's standard Luminlay dot markers glow very distinctly in low light.

When I ordered this guitar with stainless steel jumbo frets and super-flat 20" radius, I thought it would take some getting used to. But surprisingly the flat profile is super comfortable.

I prefer .009 to .042 strings for 25-1/2" scale Fender-style guitars and .010 to .046 for 24-3/4' Gibson scale. I figured that the slick stainless steel frets would enable me to bend strings effortlessly on the 25-1/2" scale Vader.  The stainless steel frets coupled with the flat 20" radius makes for a string bender's dream. And given how long wearing stainless steel is, this guitar will never need a refret. Ever.

Vader V6X 20" fingerboard radius
Vader V6X 20" fingerboard radius

On one of Kiesel's Q and A videos, someone once asked Jeff Kiesel what experience would be required to join the company as an employee building guitars. Surprisingly, Jeff said he would prefer someone with no experience in lutherie at all. In this way they can be trained according to Kiesel's methods without any interference of bias or opinion that an experienced luthier would have. If this guitar is any indicator of that philosophy, then it definitely works.

This Vader V6X is a pretty simple build.  I didn't want any kind of wood top glued to the body as I felt it would interfere with how the guitar resonated, particularly with a small-bodied instrument like this one. I also chose mahogany for the body wings, as mentioned in my previous article, as I wanted to take advantage of Kiesel's supply of Honduran mahogany. And I'm happy I did.

Vader V6X Honduran mahogany wings
Vader V6X Honduran mahogany body wings

The quality of the wood is outstanding, literally orange with straight close grain. I could be wrong, but I can't detect any resonance-dampening wood filler on the mahogany through the clear gloss finish.  And this guitar resonates loudly unplugged!

But because I chose to go for no top and a clear gloss back -- one of Kiesel's Option 50s, which is any specially requested feature not listed in the online Guitar Builder -- the guitar becomes non-returnable. Which was fine by me. The clear gloss back and sides also allowed the beautiful mahogany to show at the bevels at the front.

The Vader V6X comes standard with a master volume and master tone and a 5-way selector switch. I chose the standard Lithium pickups although I was seriously considering the Holdsworths. The Holdsworth pickups were, oddly enough, not wax potted which to me meant greater potential for microphonic squeals at high volumes. I can't substantiate this as I've never tried them.

The Lithium pickups supercede the old Carvin M22 pickups that were introduced in 1978. The M22s were designed by Jeff Kiesel's father, but the company has decided that the Lithiums are good enough for the M22s to be phased out entirely.

The Lithiums strike me as a very versatile pickup, with an almost chameleonic nature. Depending on one's amp rig, pedals, and playing style, they cover everything from heavy metal, classic rock, stinging blues, to clean jazz with ease. One thing I noticed when researching the Lithiums by watching the many pickup demos on YouTube was how good the split-coil positions were. At my usual Monday night blues-rock gig I was able to coax credible single-coil SRV-type tones with the pickup selector switch in positions 2 and 4.

Vader V6X 5-way pickup selector, volume and tone controls
Vader V6X 5-way pickup selector, volume and tone controls 

According to the Kiesel site, when Allan Holdsworth was invited to test out the Hipshot/Kiesel tremolo bridge, he liked it so much that he asked the new bridge to be a standard feature on the Kiesel Holdsworth models. The Hipshot/Kiesel bridge is extremely responsive and sensitive. On my Vader, the trem effortlessly pulls up four frets to the note B on the G string and drops the strings absolutely slack on divebombs.

Vader V6X Kiesel/Hipshot tremolo system
Vader V6X Kiesel/Hipshot tremolo system
String changes look simple enough -- something I haven't attempted yet -- although a Vader owner buddy of mine did warn me about over-tightening the Allen screws that hold the strings at the nut. He broke two brand new high E strings from torquing the screw too tightly.

Vader V6X Kiesel/Hipshot tremolo system fine tuners
Vader V6X Kiesel/Hipshot tremolo system fine tuners
(All photos courtesy of Jeffrey Toh. Thanks Jeff!)

Overall, I'm very pleased with how this Vader V6X build turned out. The workmanship is truly impeccable and there is definitely a strong 'wow' factor the first time you open the case. Kiesel offers a 10-day return policy on all their non-Option 50 guitars and you can tell that they want to take your breath away at first sight of your new guitar.

But Kiesel could improve on their email communications and follow-up on reasonable enquiries such as, "It's been 4 months since I placed my order. Any idea when my guitar will be ready?"  But we can't be absolutely perfect in everything can we?

www.kieselguitars.com


Friday, August 11, 2017

Ordering A Kiesel Vader V6X

Took the plunge yesterday and put down a deposit for a Kiesel Vader V6X. 

Do I really need another guitar? Nope.

But do I need a headless guitar? Most definitely!

Before I get too excited, let me backtrack just a little bit.

I'm not sure why, but there was a spate of orders of Kiesel guitars by a few of my guitar playing friends recently. And everyone who bought one was raving about their build-quality, stunning wood tops, and all-round great tones and playability. 

I'm quite familar with the Carvin brand, now known as Kiesel, having pored over their advertisements in Guitar Player magazine back in the 80's where the ad copy guaranteed the action at the twelfth fret be 1/16th of an inch! Not too shabby, especially for a time when most guitars seemed to ship set up for slide playing.

I made several pilgrimages to Sunset Boulevard and the now-defunct Carvin store in the early 2000's. On my first visit, I remember trying out the very first few Allan Holdsworth models to be produced, marveling at how the Wilkinson tremolos were so well adjusted that they seemed to flutter unfettered for several seconds when you flicked the trem bar.  

And all this recent hubbub about Kiesel had me revisiting their website again after quite a number of years. It was nice to see Kiesel still producing the good old Carvin staples like the DC, Holdsworth and Bolt series, along with a bunch of new models I was completely unfamiliar with. 
But I must admit, one glance at the new Kiesel Vader immediately drew me in with its sleek profile and delicious curves. And all for a ridiculously low base price of $1199 for the 6-string model.

Essentially a neck-through instrument with body wings, the Vader is available in a myriad of wood and finish options. 'Myriad', in this case, is an understatement -- the options available are staggering. 

Did I mention that the Vader is also available in 7 and 8 string versions, in regular and fanned-fret 'multiscale' configurations? So if you're the OCD type and prone to option anxiety, it's best to browse the cool Guitar Builder tool with the supervision of another adult.

Ah, that Guitar Builder tool. What a slippery slope it is.

Kiesel Vader Guitar Builder
Kiesel Vader Guitar Builder -- hours of fun

After a couple of hours with Guitar Builder I actually hit the checkout button all set to pay for the Vader V6X. But when I clicked for shipping options, only a $27 Ground Shipping option was available. So off went that first email to Kiesel.

Strangely, I didn't hear back from them for almost two weeks. In the meantime, a near mint 2011 '61 Reissue Gibson SG floated past on Ishibashi's U-Box which I pulled the trigger on. But that's a story for another article.

When I did hear back from Keith at Kiesel, he informed me that the $27 covered shipping by FedEx Air to Singapore. Which is an amazingly good deal!

So off I went to the races again with the Guitar Builder tool, trying to envision in my mind what the different wood and finish options would not only look good together, but work well sonically, while keeping within a budget of around $1500. 

Here's what my initial specifications looked like:

Kiesel Vader V6X with Hipshot/Tremolo System

  • Maple Neck/Alder Body 
  • Clear Gloss Finish
  • White/White
  • Clear Gloss Finish Back Of Neck
  • Rear Body/Neck Natural Clear
  • Birdseye Maple Fingerboard
  • Staggered Offset Dot Inlays
  • Abalone Inlay Material
  • Stainless Steel Jumbo Frets .055"H .110"W
  • 20 Inch Fretboard Radius
  • Kiesel K12B Passive Bridge Pickup
  • Kiesel K12N Passive Neck Pickup
  • White Coils With Black Bezels
  • Black Hardware
  • Black Logo
  • Metal Knobs With Abalone Inlays
  • Dunlop Straplocks
  • Black Ultimate Soft Guitar Case

Browsing the web further, I came across a white Vader with a beautiful Kiesel-treated, baked maple fingerboard that showed off the grain of the birdseye very impressively. Jeff Kiesel apparently hand finishes each Kiesel-treated fingerboard personally, with, some say, an upgrade from a special wood stash with extra grain and figure. Beautiful indeed. Unfortunately the baked maple and Kiesel treatment would have put me over budget. 

It'll have to wait for my next build...

Instead, I decided that I was going to bling out the fretboard with nice blocks of abalone on a birdseye maple fingerboard.  But I had a feeling that the blue-green of the abalone wouldn't stand out as well on pale maple. At any rate, I already have several several guitars with maple fingerboards and only two guitars with ebony fretboards -- a Gibson ES347 and my trusty Ibanez Pat Metheny PM100. So ebony it was going to be, to contrast against and really make those abalone block markers pop! 

After a couple of days of sleeping on it, I came up with these fresh specs which I emailed to Keith at Kiesel:

Kiesel Vader V6X with Hipshot/Tremolo System

  • Maple Neck/Mahogany Body 
  • Clear Gloss Finish
  • White/White
  • Clear Gloss Finish Back Of Neck
  • Rear Body/Neck Natural Clear
  • Ebony Fingerboard
  • Block Inlays
  • Abalone Inlay Material
  • Stainless Steel Jumbo Frets .055"H .110"W
  • 20 Inch Fretboard Radius
  • Kiesel K12B Passive Bridge Pickup
  • Kiesel K12N Passive Neck Pickup
  • White Coils With Black Bezels
  • Black Hardware
  • Black Logo
  • Metal Knobs With Abalone Inlays
  • Dunlop Straplocks
  • Black Ultimate Soft Guitar Case

Kiesel's mahogany stock is of the Honduran variety, close-grained and with a beautiful reddish-brown hue. I figured it would be a shame not to take advantage of this option -- it would look really good in contrast with the neck-through maple neck, visible on the back of the Vader which will be finished in clear gloss. 

Maple and ebony are both really tight sounding woods so I'm hoping the mahogany body wings will temper the brightness a little.

This will also be my first guitar with a very flat 20" fingerboard radius. Definitely Holdsworth-approved. 

The stainless steel jumbo frets are also a first for me but I've always been fascinated by how smooth and slick stainless steel feels -- .010 to .046 string gauges play almost like a .009 to .042 set in terms of bendability. And the fact that fretwear over time will be next to imperceptible is a huge plus. The guitar will likely not need to be refretted -- ever.

Browsing the Kiesel Vader V6X picture library, I couldn't find another guitar with the exact same specs as what I have in mind so I cobbled up this picture composite -- just to have something to look at before the real thing comes in in a couple of months.

Kiesel Vader V6X White/White
Kiesel Vader V6X

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