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!


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.


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.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Replacing The Wilkinson Bridge On A Tyler Guitar

Back in July 2009 I mentioned getting a Wilkinson WVS 50 II K bridge to replace the original Wilkinson VS100 bridge on my James Tyler Psychedelic Vomit.

And guess what? I'd just got around to swapping out the bridge a couple of weeks ago in time for my Monday night gig, slightly more than six years to the date I bought it.

How's that for procrastination!

The Tyler Psychedelic Vomit had been one of my main gig guitars for a good eight years since 2001 until the corrosion on the original Wilkinson bridge got a little out of hand. Or more precisely, all over my hand. Rather than risk blood poisoning -- the side of my right hand would turn rust brown from playing the guitar for any length of time -- I put the guitar away, telling myself I would install the new bridge soon. Since then, the guitar has been sitting in a corner of my music room on a guitar stand in semi-retirement mode while I flirted with various Fenders, Suhrs, Firebirds and Les Pauls.

The original Wilkinson bent bridge saddles that came with the Tyler are similar to the current Wilkinson/Gotoh VSVG vintage tremelo but with the VS100 two-pivot point baseplate. The original Tyler Psychedelic Vomits came with the VS100 tremelo, with saddles that were solid blocks like the ones on the WVS 50 II K. But around 1999, when I bought this particular guitar, Jim Tyler decided to switch out the saddles with the then-newly available Wilkinson bent saddles while keeping the original VS100 bridge baseplate. Interestingly, this particular bent saddle/VS100 baseplate combination was never made available commercially -- the bent saddles always came with the traditional 6-screw plates.

Tyler Psychedelic Vomit
VS100 bridge with original block saddles on this earlier Tyler Psychedelic Vomit

Theoretically, replacing the original block saddles with the lighter, low-mass bent saddles would give a brighter, vintage, more resonant tone. In practice, I don't think anybody can really hear the difference. To me, it's the baseplate and tremelo block that make any kind of audible difference as far as Strat-style bridges are concerned. And even then, the differences are subtle at best.

Swapping Out The Bridges

Initially I thought of keeping the original Wilkinson VS100 baseplate and simply replacing the bent saddles with the block saddles from the WVS 50. But just from looking at it, I could see that the black screws holding the block saddles to the baseplate were a different size and length.  Anyway, the original baseplate screws securing the bent saddles to the baseplate were seriously corroded as well.

How the heck did this thing get so rusty?

wilkinson bridge
Rust in peace, old friend..

Instead of mucking about any further with baseplates and Imperial versus metric size screws, I decided to just swap out the entire bridge.

I loosened and cut off the old strings before removing the three tremelo springs from the spring claw in the trem cavity. With a little maneuvering around the bridge posts, the old bridge came off, releasing a generous sprinkling of powdered rust everywhere, like a final farewell.

Note to self:  Never, ever, remove rusty guitar hardware in bed. Ever.

Out of curiosity, I unscrewed one of the bridge posts to see if there were metal bushings anchoring the bridge posts to the body and I was happy to see the glimmer of a shiny, like-new brass insert. I could never understand how some bridge manufacturers would choose to use simple wood screws without metal bushings to hold bridge posts that would have to cope with string tension and constant friction during use. That's a lot of stress put on them.

The earlier versions of the original Floyd Rose trem, for example, had wood screws anchored directly to the body. No wonder the more vigorous exponents of the Floyd found themselves having to have their tremelo knife edges professionally filed and resharpened every few months just to stay in tune -- small movements in the wood screws probably caused the knife edges to get chewed out sooner. Like in the case of Steve Vai, who claimed to go through a new Floyd Rose trem every week on his Green Meanie guitar! Ain't nothin' worse than a Floyd that won't return to zero after a dive bomb or stratospheric harmonic up pull.

With one of the original bridge posts out, I tried to see if the bridge posts supplied with the Korean-made WVS 50 II K would fit. I found the WVS 50's posts much larger and if I wanted to use them, I would have to remove the original bushings and drill larger holes in the guitar's body to accomodate the larger bushings.  A major modification, and unnecessary. Not that I would have the skill, tools, or the daring to carry out such a mod on a Tyler guitar!

I cleaned up the slight bit of gunk buildup off the original bridge posts with a toothpick and cotton bud and lubed up the groove where the bridge would contact with the posts with Graphit-All.  As expected, the new Korean Wilkinson bridge worked fine on the US-bridge posts, pivoting nicely once the tremelo springs were reattached.

I tried to see if the original VS100's tremelo arm would fit the slot on the new bridge, and it did. The only thing was that the VS100's trem arm sits unusually high on the WVS 50 bridge -- the tremelo arm slot on the VS100 is about an inch deeper. The tremelo arm that came with the WVS50 is made from a hollowed piece of metal but works just fine.

Imperial Versus Metric - Why, Why, Why?

And this was where I came upon a major problem.

The bridge posts must have moved when I was cleaning them because the guitar's action had become unplayably low for some reason when I put a pack of fresh strings on. I needed to raise the two bridge posts and the metric-sized wrenches I had on hand were either slightly too large or slightly too small. And my old set of 16ths of an inch, US-sized hex wrenches were nowhere to be found.

Since it was a Monday, and I really wanted to play my Tyler that evening, it dawned on me that if I was to loosen the strings, remove the bridge and adjust the bridge posts by hand, I could very possibly raise the action up to where I needed it to be!

So that's exactly what I did.

Fortunately the Tyler came with locking Sperzel tuners so the strings remained firmly attached at the tuner end when the bridge was removed. I managed to turn the bridge posts, bringing them up by just a hair before they refused to turn anymore without a proper tool.

Reattaching the bridge and trem springs, the action was still too low but playable, without fretting out too much on string bends. I deemed the setup gig-worthy but decided to ask my good buddy Keane to see if he happened to have a non-metric set of hex wrenches. He said that he might and would come by my gig that night with a few different sized wrenches.

wilkinson WVS50IIK bridge
Wilkinson WVS50IIK installed

I was a little uncomfortable playing the first set with such a low action on the Tyler, having to watch my bends on certain notes that were most likely to fret out. But thankfully Keane showed up the during the middle of the set and I was able to do a quick adjustment, raising the action up to where the Tyler could wail uninhibitedly once again.

Thanks Keane! Both you and Liverpool rock!

The Verdict

As expected, the WVS 50 II K performed very well, from subtle wiggles to divebombs. Frankly, I could not tell the difference in tone or sustain between this Korean-made bridge and the old US-made VS100. But I did notice that the WVS 50 feels a little more solid when I rest my hand on it and the block saddles feel smoother unlike the bent saddles.

Or maybe it was all that rust on the old VS100.


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