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.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Music Man Luke Signature Model with Flaking Finish Problem

I met with my good buddy Reggie for lunch recently to talk guitars and gear, and also for him to pass me a batch of his superb homemade cheng tng -- a sweet Chinese dessert known for its cooling or 'yin' properties.  We all need to balance our yang with some yin once in awhile. And if we can get our yin while satisfying our sweet tooth, so much the better.

Tupperware containers of cheng tng firmly in hand, Reggie told me he wanted to show me a guitar he had left in a music store that was awaiting a refinish. I thought it was going to be just another 'vanity refinish', much like the refinish job I had done on my Gibson Les Paul BFG a few months ago. Purely cosmetic and didn't really need to be done, but you know how it is -- a newly refinished guitar is the next best thing to a new guitar!

We entered the shop, made some small talk with the owner and looked around a little bit. Reggie disappeared into a corner of the shop and reappeared holding a guitar. It was going to rain outside and it was getting a little dark in the shop, but judging from the silhouette (no pun intended!) of the headstock, I could tell it was a Music Man guitar of some sort.

And when he brought it into the light, I could hardly believe my eyes.

There it was, an Ernie Ball/Music Man Luke model sans strings and looking a little worse for wear.

Which is probably a huge understatement.

music man luke
Finish flaking off the headstock face of this Music Man Luke 

The black sparkle polyester finish seemed to have cracked and was lifting off in chunks, leaving either bare wood or the black undercoat. Indeed a small piece cracked off as I was examining the guitar and when I picked the piece up off the floor, I found it had the texture and brittleness of a potato chip, yellowed, hard and crumbly.

It was something that, in my 40 years of being around guitars, I had never seen before. And as we all know a polyester finish is as hard and durable a finish as you can get.

music man luke
Finish on the guitar's top 

My luthier friend, Luca Quacquarella, was just complaining to me a few months ago about how difficult it was to scrape off a polyester finish, saying that even an overnight soak in paint remover sometimes failed to do the job!

music man luke
Back of the guitar

But frankly, Ernie Ball/Music Man finish problems are something not entirely new to me.

Another good buddy of mine returned from the States in the early 90's with a fire-engine red 5-string Music Man bass. It played great and sounded even better. Ernie Ball chose not to mess with the original Leo Fender-era Music Man bass's design and electronics, and the pickups on this bass were classic Sting Ray with all their growl and clarity.

music man luke neck joint
Close up of the finish around the 5-bolt neck joint

Paired with a highly figured bird's eye maple neck, the glossy red finish was also really something to behold.

But after a couple of months of owning the bass, things started to go south rather quickly.

That wonderful red polyester finish started to dull and become tacky and sticky to the touch. It got so bad that fibers from the inside of the hardcase were actually sticking to finish like tiny hairs.
Fortunately, there was no Ernie Ball/Music Man dealer in Singapore at the time, or else they would have been faced with quite a sticky situation -- literally -- as this was not an isolated case.

Put it down to Singapore's 90% humidity and tropical heat I suppose. But strange that other major instrument brands never had the same problem.

Oddly enough, Reggie owns another Music Man Luke also from about 2005 and in exactly the same color, and it is in pristine condition!

ernie ball music man luke
Reggie's other Music Man Luke from 2005 

The only thing indicating its age is that the Luke logo has yellowed from its original silver.

ernie ball music man luke
Black sparkle finish on Reggie's other Luke

(Pictures courtesy of Reggie Tan)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ordering A Tokai LS173 From Ishibashi's U-Box

I recently ordered a pre-owned Tokai LS173 from Ishibashi in Japan and received it in the mail a few days ago. That is, if you could call going personally to Singapore Post's headquarters not once, but twice, 'receiving it in the mail'.

It all started when the guitar was delivered at 5pm on a Friday evening, with no one home to receive it.

I hate when this happens. I immediately start imagining a disgruntled postal worker schlepping a bulky cardboard box containing a delicate guitar and hurling it unceremoniously into the back of the van after a failed delivery, prominent 'fragile' stickers notwithstanding.

After a couple of fruitless calls to customer care that same Friday night -- both of which promised a call back which I never received -- I decided to try my luck and go to Singapore Post's headquarters on Saturday morning to collect the guitar.

At SingPost, I gave them the tracking number and waited for 20 minutes while they tried to locate the carton. They finally came back and told me that the guitar was in the 'holding area'. And the clincher was that the staff member on duty who had the key to the holding area was nowwhere to be found, and neither was this person answering their cell phone.

Well done, SingPost. Looks like you have a disciplinary problem on your hands.

I was told I could collect the guitar 'probably' on Monday or Tuesday, with more promises of a call back. So off I went home, guitar-less and slightly agitated.

Make that very agitated.

I was up bright and early on Monday morning and back at the post office -- call backs be damned -- reminding myself not to lose it if they gave me another 'holding area' story. The cheerful girl at the counter, who seemed to be harbouring a nasty cold, took note of my tracking number and went around back.

I felt like Mel Gibson in the final climactic scene in the movie 'Signs' -- "his lungs were closed, his lungs were closed, no poison got in, his lungs were closed.."

Except my chant was "the holding area is open, the holding area is open, someone has the key -- and that person is there -- the holding area is open.."

Sure, we laugh about it now, but those were some intense moments.

Tokai LS173
The Ishibashi carton at the post office -- finally!
Thankfully, this time they located the carton with my guitar in it.  I decided it would be prudent to check the guitar there and then for any possible shipping damage.

The guitar, snug in its case, was well packed in an Ishibashi carton with lots of bubble wrap. Opening the Tokai hardcase I found more bubble wrap around the headstock and the strings completely loosened.

It's always wise to loosen a guitar's strings for shipping, especially on Gibson-style instruments with angled headstocks. If a guitar at full string tension is accidentally dropped during shipping, the delicate headstock and neck joint is more likely to crack from the impact because of the strings pulling at it.
Tokai LS173
Safe and sound

After a few light taps on the back of the neck to check for a rattling or broken truss rod, I looked the guitar over and was surprised at the extremely new condition it was in, especially for a used instrument. These Japanese guitar players either baby their guitars or hardly play them at all!

Put it this way, I was expecting a guitar in a far more used condition based on the description Ishibashi sent me:

=Used TOKAI / LS-173 GT /03-315959009 

Some light used appearance as light scratches and some tiny dents could be seen on whole item

On the top, there are scratches and some tiny dents

On the back, there are some buckle wear scratches and dents

Edge and side body, there are scratches and dents

Neck condition is good

Fretwear could be seen, approx 80-90% remains

Working condition is good

Serial number : 1433041
WEIGHT : 4.4kg

It comes with original hard case

Tokai LS173
The guitar as listed on the Ishibashi website
I literally cannot spot any of the scratches and tiny dents described, which I think is something very telling about Japanese retail culture. They would rather err on the side of extreme caution than to send out a used guitar to a customer as 'near mint', no matter how microscopic the imperfections.

But why a Tokai Les Paul-copy you might ask?

Tokai LS173
Amber celluloid inlays

If you remember my series of articles on Sherman's Les Paul Quest, my good buddy Sherman's  most recent acquisition was a Tokai Pacifix Exclusive, based on a 1956 Gibson Les Paul goldtop. Pacifix is a high-end music retailer in Yokohama, Japan that collaborates frequently with Tokai guitars to produce limited run models built to their exact specifications.

Tokai LS173
Meticulous fretjob

Sherman has been through so many Les Pauls and Les Paul-type guitars of late that I've lost count. But his newly aquired Tokai was unique. It had a vibe and tone that rivalled the best and most expensive of Gibson's custom shop Les Pauls. And at about a third the price.

I'd always thought Tokai guitars were cheap Japanese knock-offs. I had no idea that they also made very high-end models priced at what Gibson was charging for some of their custom shop Les Paul Standards.

Needless to say, my curiousity about Tokai guitars was piqued.

A Little Tokai History

Tokai Gakki started out in 1947 manufacturing harmonicas. Based in Hamamatsu prefecture, Shizuoka, the original factory is still where Tokai is based. A family-run business, the current president, Shohei Adachi is the grandson of Tokai founder Tadayouki Adachi.

Tokai started making guitars in 1967. Its sole model, the Hummingbird -- not to be confused with Gibson's steel-string acoustic of the same name -- was Tokai's take on Semie Moseley's Mosrite line of guitars.

By the early 1970's, Tokai's quality had improved to the point where they had begun to take on sub-contract work from other larger Japanese companies. Tokai was even commissioned by the iconic American acoustic guitar company C.F. Martin to produce guitar parts and to manufacture their budget-priced Sigma line.

When the contract with Martin guitars ended, Tokai continued to produce acoustic guitars under their own Cat's Eye brand which were excellent copies of various Martin models. Interestingly, the Cat's Eye series is still being made -- by a single craftsman who builds every Cat's Eye from scratch! Pun slightly intended.

By the early 80's, Tokai was making about 100 different models, almost all being direct copies of Fender and Gibson guitars and basses. And they had begun exporting to Europe and the United States.

Tokai Les Paul Reborn, Reborn Old And Love Rock

In the beginning, Tokai unabashedly named its Les Paul copies 'Les Paul Reborn' -- emblazoned in large script in gold letters on the headstock, no less -- which naturally caused Gibson to threaten legal action.

'Reborn Old', and subsequently, 'Love Rock' replaced the 'Les Paul Reborn' script.

The 'Reborn Old' model designation was used for a short time and are the rarest of the vintage Tokai models, making them quite sought after by collectors. 'Love Rock' remains Tokai's model designation for all their Les Paul clones.
Tokai LS173 Love Rock
'Love Rock'
These days, Tokai makes guitars almost exclusively for the Japanese domestic market with only a handful of small companies handling their distribution in the UK, Australia and Europe. And because they are meant for the Japanese market and produced in relatively small quantities, they are able to copy Gibson's headstock design exactly without fear of legal repercussions. Or, more likely, fly under the radar just enough for Gibson not to bother.

Tokai LS173 Premium Series Specifications

In 2014, the Tokai LS173 model designation replaced the previous LS160 model.

Tokai LS173 Love Rock
Quartersawn mahogany neck
The LS173 features a one-piece mahogany back, two-piece maple top, long tenon '59-profile  mahogany neck with 18 degree headstock angle, amber celluloid inlays and a nitrocellulose lacquer finish. Hardware includes an ABR-style bridge with brass saddles, aluminum tailpiece and Gotoh tulip peg tuners.
Tokai LS173 Love Rock
Beautifully figured one-piece mahogany back
The LS173's electronics feature US-made CTS potentiometers, Sprague orange drop capacitors, a Switchcraft outout jack and Switchcraft 3-way selector switch. The pickups are Japanese-made PAF-Vintage Mk II's.
Tokai LS173 Love Rock
Sprague orange drop capacitors and CTS pots

What I found particularly conspicuous about the LS173 were the yellow brass saddles.  I was familiar with nickel plated cast metal saddles, graphite saddles, and even nylon saddles -- but brass?

Tokai LS173 Love Rock
Brass saddles
A quick consult with the oracle of all things Gibson (my good buddy Sherman) revealed that original Gibson '59 Les Pauls featured brass saddles which Gibson chose to nickel plate to match the rest of the hardware.

Looks like Tokai was trying to make a statement by showing off their brass saddles au naturel.

Setup And Tweaking The Action

The guitar came with .010 - .046 nickel plated strings, and was intonated perfectly by the setup guys at Ishibashi before shipping. The neck was adjusted with a tad more relief than I liked -- I like my necks almost straight -- so I popped the truss rod cover and gave the nut a quarter turn. There seemed to be almost no tension on the truss rod nut and it turned with minimal effort.

Tokai LS173 Love Rock

Straightening out the relief brought the action extremely low, perfect for checking for potential uneven fretwork. Applying the ubiquitous 1-2-3-4 fingering exercise along the whole range of the instrument revealed no overly buzzy frets or fretted out notes. A sign of a good and very even fretjob!

Raising the action out of ultra-low Allan Holdworth territory to a more playable height, I could almost feel the guitar chomping at the bit to start wailing at its first gig that very night.

How It Sounds

Not exactly a featherweight at 9.7 lbs, the LS173 is nevertheless very lively when played acoustically. Even unplugged, chords jangle loud and clear and single notes ring true with no dead spots.

But I was a little concerned about the pickups. And I'll be honest, outside of the Ibanez Super 58's -- which I think are really fine --  I have never been a fan of Japanese-made pickups.

The general consensus on the various Les Paul forums was that the pickups the Tokais came with should be immediately removed, quarantined and destroyed, lest the hapless Tokai owner develop a life-threatening case of Horridtoneitis causing him to be shunned by band members, past, present and future. They were supposedly that bad.

The pickups, not the band members.

Plugging in the guitar at home for the first time instantly allayed any doubts I had about the PAF-Vintage Mk II's that come stock on the LS173's.

The neck pickup was warm without being wooly or dark. And the Sweet Child O' Mine intro lick -- don't laugh, its my go-to lick for testing neck humbuckers -- sounded throaty and absolutely convincing with the tone control backed off.

The bridge pickup, meanwhile was sweet sounding, with that elusive cry that Les Paul players crave and sell their first-born for.

But seriously, that cry, that sweet top-harmonic that adds a lilting tail to the high notes, is why people throw big bucks at boutique pickup makers. Unbeknownst to many, the quest for this ghost harmonic is a walk to the edge of a very slippery slope, leading to an endless loop of buying, selling and replacing of pickups. It's a descent into gear acquisition madness.

You know you're in trouble when your pickup soldering chops have superceded your ability to play the A minor pentatonic scale in 8th notes at 120 bpm in the fifth position.

But yep, that tone -- that cry -- is right here, folks  Go get your pair of Vintage-PAF Mk II's if you can find them.

Using the Tokai LS173 at my regular Monday blues-rock club gig that night confirmed my opinion further. These pickups sound as good or better than any pickup on any top-end Gibson Les Paul  I've played.  And frankly, Emperor's New Clothes aside, don't you think that some of those pickups on those custom shop signature Gibson Les Pauls are downright anemic sounding?

So there it is. You might say that I'm a total Tokai convert.

And why I wasn't hip decades earlier to this dark horse of Japanese guitar manufacturers I'll never know.


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