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!


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.

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.

Friday, February 20, 2015

EVH Striped Series Guitar Review

I recently ordered an EVH Striped Series guitar from Japanese online music store Ikebe-Gakki and received it in the post a couple of days ago.
evh striped series red black white
Carton from Ikebe-Gakki

This is my first time dealing with Ikebe-Gakki and I must applaud them for the quality of their communication and their prompt replies to my emails. They only accept payments by bank wire transfer for purchases from outside Japan, though, making a schlep to the bank to fill out forms necessary.

The EVH Striped Series guitars ship in a softcase so I requested that they pack the guitar with extra layers of bubblewrap to ensure it got to me in one piece.

And did they pack it well!

The guitar was shipped thoroughly bubble-wrapped and double-boxed. And despite the Floyd Rose nut not being locked, the guitar was actually pretty much in tune when I took it out of the softcase, with only the G and the B strings slightly flat. Ikebe-Gakki will definitely be seeing more business from me in the near future.
evh striped series red black white
Carton within a carton and generous amount of bubblewrap!

The Mexican-made EVH Striped Series is manufactured in Fender's Ensenada factory. Fender Mexico has really upped their game in recent years -- the Roadworn series in particular, stick out as very well-made instruments with tons of vibe. In my opinion they gave more bang for the buck than any relic'd guitar from the Fender Custom Shop.

Eddie Van Halen is well-known for being very hands-on with the design of every guitar model that bears his name, choosing wood combinations, hardware and voicing pickups.

He is also legendary for giving guitar manufactures a hard time whenever he visits a factory, simultaneously striking fear and a sense of awe into the hearts of those who happen to be tweaking guitars in the final setup department on that particular day.
evh striped series red black white
It's here! Shrouded in mystery

I reckon it was his early experience with Kramer in the 80's where only his name and likeness were used in ad campaigns to sell guitars, with virtually no creative input from Eddie himself, that set him on a tangent of being very involved in the design and manufacture of every one of his guitars and amplifiers, from Ernie Ball/Musicman, to Peavey, and now, Fender EVH. In all honesty, I can't recall ever having played a bad guitar or amplifier that had Eddie's mark on it.

To think that Kramer missed out on a golden opportunity, all those years ago, to recreate an Eddie Van Halen signature model, stripes and all!

But on to the review.

EVH Striped Series Main Features

The EVH Striped Series guitars are available in three color combos -- black stripes on white, yellow stripes on black, and the iconic red, white and black.

All models feature a hand-rubbed, oil-finished quartersawn maple neck with built-in graphite reinforcement rods, an easy access trussrod adjustment wheel at the base of the neck, Stratocaster headstock, jumbo frets, EVH-branded tuners, basswood body, Wolfgang humbucking pickup, single volume control via an EVH-branded 500k low-friction pot, and side-mounted output jack.

Of course, the Striped series just wouldn't be EVH enough without a Floyd Rose bridge.

Oil-Finished Neck With Graphite Reinforcement 

evh striped series red black white
Quartersawn neck with 'quarter flowers'
The necks on these guitars are devoid of any kind of finish other than a couple of coats of oil applied at the factory. Oil-finished necks, or any neck that has not been hard-finished in lacquer or polyurethane, are prone to shrinkage, expansion and warping, depending on the relative humidity the instrument is stored in.

All EVH Striped Series guitar necks are carved from quartersawn wood for the simple reason that  quartersawn necks are much more resistant to twisting and warping than flatsawn necks. And if you're dealing with an oil-finished neck, quartersawn is much more stable and definitely the way to go. You can tell a quartersawn neck from flatsawn by the vertical grain pattern and visible row of 'quarter flowers' running down the centre of the neck.

And to make doubly sure the neck on your EVH guitar lasts through years of sweaty gigs, the built-in graphite reinforcement rods add even more stability. Graphite is so stable that some companies like Vigier guitars have even done away with trussrods entirely, relying on graphite rods to keep their necks stable and fingerboard relief constant.

The Neck of Legend!

The first thing that struck me when I picked up the EVH Striped Series was the neck profile. This is the neck that vanished from the face of the earth!

In 1987, when Ibanez released the first Steve Vai JEM guitars in that lurid Loch Ness Green, I remember trying one out and being immediately amazed by the profile and feel of the neck. Even before plugging it in, I wrapped my hand around that neck and I just knew.
evh striped series red black white
EVH-branded tuners

But the mystic, magical properties of the original Loch Ness Green neck was forever lost after that limited run of seven hundred and seventy seven guitars.  The many subsequent incarnations of the JEM series did not use the same neck profile as the Loch Ness and I could never understand why. It was as if someone decided to simply can it, the blueprints relegated to some secret archive in the Hoshino factory.

Or Steve Vai's basement.

I was really happy when I reached into the softcase to pull out my guitar. There are some things you just cannot forget. The neck profile on the EVH Striped Series is exactly like the one on the almost mythical Loch Ness JEM!

The EVH's neck profile can best be described as a slim 'C', with beautifully rounded, rolled fingerboard edges. The glued-on maple fingerboard features a compound radius that goes from a Gibson-like 12" at the nut, to a very flat 16" at the fingerboard end, allowing for super-low action without fretting out when bending strings. I'm not an ultra-low action kinda guy -- I like a teeny bit of fight from the strings but they must still be low enough for me to throw in the occasional right-hand tapped legato run with ease.

But just for a lark, I brought the EVH Floyd Rose down about as low as it would go, and the guitar still played very evenly, with no odd chokes or fret-outs at random points indicating that some fret were higher than others. Kudos to Fender Mexico for the stellar fretwork. And did I mention that the jumbo frets on this guitar were polished to a chrome-like, mirror shine?
evh striped series red black white
Gleaming frets!

While waiting for my guitar to arrive in the mail, I came across a few negative reviews on a couple of guitar forums that said that the EVH Striped Series guitars came with sharp fret ends. This was not my experience with my own guitar, but I can understand why this might be the case for some.

As I mentioned earlier, oil-finished maple necks are sometimes prone to expansion and contraction, depending on relative humidity. If the guitar has been stored in a relatively dry environment for several weeks, the wood is likely to contract, causing the fret ends to protrude slightly. Some guitar manufacturers cut the fret tangs a little shorter at the fingerboard ends for this very reason. Fortunately this is something that can be easily fixed by any competent luthier or repairman. A quick buff of the fret ends with a fret rounding file, a dash of linseed oil to restore the finish on the fingerboard edges, and you're done.

So what's with all the hype about oil-finished necks?

To put it simply, oil-finished necks feel as smooth as butter -- much smoother and silkier to the touch than any kind of man-made polyurethane satin finish. But like it or not, when the naturals oils from the hand react with the wood of the neck, it will start to darken up in some areas more than others. You can pretty much analyze a guitarist's playing style and even his knowledge of the fingerboard by looking at the grime marks on an oiled maple fingerboard after a couple of years. The more evenly marked, the more it shows he uses more of the fingerboard!

On my old black Ibanez JEM 77V, I sandpapered the finish off the back of the neck in an attempt to replicate the feel of the Loch Ness JEM I mentioned earlier. Despite being lightly finished, the back of that JEM 77V neck felt unusually 'hairy' with slightly raised grain. Strange.

To counter the hairy, slightly rough feel, I buffed it down with very fine sandpaper and applied several coats of Warwick beeswax to seal the wood. I checked just now, and the contents of that one-and-a-half-decade old can of beeswax had solidified into clumps that resemble a broken yellow candle.

Guess I'll stick to Dr Duck's AxWax for general maintenance of the EVH neck.

That, and as Ritchie Fliegler mentions in his book The Complete Guide To Guitar And Amp Maintenance, regular wipings of the back of the neck with oil from the forehead every morning!

How's that for a personalized guitar?

After playing the EVH for a couple of days at home and at one of my regular Monday night gigs, the fingerboard is starting to darken up in the more well played areas. Not so much from finger grime, mind you, but from the black carbon residue from the factory-installed strings. My fingertips were literally a gun-metal grey from playing the guitar out of the box for a couple of hours when it first arrived. Ok, maybe there was a wee bit of grime involved.

Before my guitar arrived I thought about taking some fine steel wool to the body to take away some of that glossy shine off from the polyurethane finish. Now that the guitar is in my hands, I kinda don't have the heart to. But I think that as the oil-finish starts to dirty up some more, it will save me from having to relic the body in any way -- a well-played dirtied up neck will take the eye away from the 'too new' poly finish body. And we all know how awful it looks when a poly finish guitar body is relic'd.

evh striped series red black white
EVH Floyd Rose with D-Tuna
As I mentioned earlier, the EVH guitars feature a handy trussrod adjustment wheel at the base of the neck. No popping off the neck to do a simple truss rod adjustment. The wheel can be tightened or loosened accordingly using any metal object that can fit into the holes on the adjustment wheel and they have even provided a simple, slim hex-wrench for this purpose.

EVH-Floyd Rose Tremelo System with D-Tuna

The EVH Striped Series just wouldn't look right without a Floyd Rose trem system.

And the EVH-branded Floyd Rose that comes standard on these guitars is not some licensed cheap knock-off. According to the Floyd Rose website, the EVH Floyd is exactly the same as the German-made Floyd Rose Original, except that it is made in Korea. Same specs, different country of manufacture.

As stated on their website also, the EVH Floyd is OEM and made exclusively for the EVH line of guitars, meaning that you can't buy an EVH-branded Floyd Rose off the shelf. But if you do want to buy one, the equivalent model would be the Korean-made Floyd Rose 1000 series.

And you've got to give it to the Koreans. Aside from the hex wrenches needed for the bridge and locking nut screws, they even provided an additional regular length string lock screw and one more longer string lock screw that fits the D-Tuna!
evh striped series red black white
Obligatory hex wrenches and complimentary string lock screws

Which means also, that if you do not wish to have the D-Tuna installed, you can remove it and install the shorter string lock screw in its place, for a more traditional Floyd Rose look.

A nice touch!

Like the Floyd Rose Original, the EVH Floyd features hardened steel saddles and baseplate, nickel-plated brass trem block, a stainless steel tremelo arm and a locking nut to clamp the strings down

The EVH-branded Floyd Rose tremelo also comes with a D-Tuna that allows you to instantly drop the low E string to a low D, just by pulling out on the knurled post attached to the low E string's locking screw.

evh striped series red black white
EVH-Floyd Rose
Of course, in order for the guitar to still be in tune when the D-Tuna is pulled, the entire bridge must have it's back end resting firmly on the body. If you set the Floyd to a floating position, activating the D-Tuna would throw all the other strings out of tune.    

I'm leaving the D-Tuna on mine for now to see how it works out in a live playing situation. If not, then it's back to floating the trem and removing the D-Tuna.

For good measure, and to ensure that there was minimal friction at the fulcrum points, I applied Rene Martinez's GraphitAll guitar lube to the Floyd's bridge posts and knife edges, really getting it in there with a toothpick.

EVH Striped Series Finish

The stripes on the EVH finish were sprayed on one by one, in layers.

A painstaking process no doubt, which probably went something like this:

  • Over an undercoat of primer, the body was first sprayed black. 
  • The black base coat was taped up and the entire body was sprayed white. When the tape was removed, the result was black stripes on a white body. 
  • More tape was applied and red paint was sprayed, again over entire body. 
  • When the tape was removed, the final red-white-black combination was achieved.

What I find amazing is how Fender managed to replicate Eddie's original red-white-black finish down to the smallest detail, using tape just like he did. No easy task when you consider that the factory's finish department has to do exactly the same graphic on hundreds of guitars! No wonder the Striped Series is made in Mexico -- American guitar factory workers would probably have gone on strike!

evh striped series red black white
EVH striped finish back detail
Eddie's original guitar -- the one featured on the cover of the Van Halen I -- started out as a white guitar with black stripes. As his popularity exploded, he soon found his guitar being copied not only by fans but also by a few Japanese guitar companies who were making a few unlicensed 'tributes'. To throw them for a loop, he masked off certain areas of his black and white guitar with tape and sprayed everything red. When the tape was removed... well, you know the rest.

Fender could have just gone with a single template and sprayed all the different colors on all at once, but it would probably have caused the colors to run into each other, and the lines would not look quite as crisp as if they were sprayed on one by one, with each color layer allowed to dry separately. And you can see this in the finish -- the lines look slightly raised at the edges where the tape was peeled off after each color was sprayed.

EVH Wolfgang Humbucking Pickup

Earlier in his career, Eddie preferred a single humbucker screwed right into the body in the bridge
evh striped series red black white
Double Phillips screws on each side of the pickup
position with a single volume pot and no tone control. He has said that he cannibalized the pickup, an original PAF, from an old Gibson ES335 he owned and dipped it in paraffin wax to stop microphonic squeal.

True to form, the bridge EVH Wolfgang humbucking pickup is screwed right to the body, but with two smaller Phillips screws on each side of the pickup instead of just one screw on each side. This makes for a very solid mount and I can't even get the pickup to move even a tiny bit back and forth when I grab on it!

The EVH Wolfgang pickup features Alnico II magnets, have a DC resistance of 14K and are double wax-potted to ensure absolutely no microphonic squeal even at ear-shattering arena volumes.

How It Sounds

All this jibber-jabber would mean diddley-squat if the guitar didn't sound good.

When I brought my EVH Striped series to my usual Monday night gig, I was a bit worried as to how it would fare tonally, with only a bridge pickup and a single volume control.
evh striped series red black white
Low-friction 500k volume pot -- most likely a Bournes pot

My band's repertoire is pretty wide -- Hendrix, Cream, Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd -- and I do a fair amount of switching between the neck and bridge pickup during songs and on solos, along with much tweaking of the tone controls.

To be honest, I didn't feel I was missing my neck pickup at all. Although to compensate, the worry wort in me decided that I needed to set each of my overdrive pedals differently, one brighter, and one much darker with the tone almost rolled off.

But I found that I was fine with just hanging with one pedal into an early '90s Marshall SL-X head and cab the entire night. The Wolfgang pickup performed admirably, cleaning up nicely when I backed it off, and really laying on the juice when cranked.

And that low-friction pot -- it'll get away from you if you're not careful!
evh striped series red black white
My guitar as it appeared on the Ikebe-Gakki site 

The EVH Striped series is, all in all, a joy to play. And if you've been jones'ing to dust off your Van Halen riffs and licks with some Floyd Rose divebombs and stratospheric harmonic screams thrown in, this guitar is for you!

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