Friday, August 17, 2018

DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build | Part 2

In Part 1 of our DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan strat build series, we detailed budding blues guitarist Shuen's choice of a quartersawn flamed maple guitar neck. After the first few coats of nitrocellulose lacquer were applied, the gorgeous figure of the flamed maple is finally starting to really show through.

Nitrocellulose lacquer takes several days to dry between coats, and longer if humidity is high. While she waits for the neck to receive its final coats of lacquer, she could now turn her attention towards purchasing a guitar body.

Your (SRV) Body Is A Wonderland 

I don't know if she was being serious but Shuen initially indicated to me that she wanted to go with a cheap Squier body. Which went against the grain -- pun intended -- of her original intent of getting the best possible after-market parts for her DIY SRV strat build. My reaction to that of course was why would she want to couple a beautiful 450 dollar quartersawn flamed maple neck with a glued-together-from-5-or-more-pieces-of-wood, el cheapo Squire Statocaster body?

No offence meant to any Squire guitar owners out there. Your guitars rock. But only if it was made in Japan in the 1980s.

After trawling eBay for a good fifteen minutes in between sets at my regular Saturday night gig, I suggested that she look into getting an actual Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan signature model guitar body . EBay seller The Stratosphere had a few nice ones on sale, loaded with Stevie Ray-approved lefty gold Fender bridge, neckplate, neck screws and backplate. After a few messages back and forth the next day, we both agreed on the one that had the nicest wood grain of the four, made from two pieces of alder and joined right down the middle.

Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan body in 3-tone 'burst
Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan body in 3-tone 'burst

The good thing about guitars with finishes like the Fender 3-tone sunburst is that the grain of the wood is plainly visible and for this reason, guitar companies also typically save their better-looking woods for their guitars with transparent finishes. No ugly knots or unsightly grain -- those are reserved for solid colors.

Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan body in 3-tone sunburst
Dig that mellow 3-tone sunburst!

Ebay seller The Stratosphere has an interesting business model. They seem to routinely take apart various models of Fender guitars -- even the Custom Shop ones --  and list the necks, bodies and hardware separately.  Perhaps they move stock more quickly this way, rather than selling complete guitars.

Wherefore Art Thou UPS?

The Stratosphere shipped the SRV body via UPS.

Now I don't know about the quality of service of UPS anywhere else in the world, but the service of their Singapore division leaves much to be desired. They seem to require more than one delivery attempt, which makes me wonder if the first delivery attempt was even made at all.

Case in point, my own recent experience with UPS prompted me to advise Shuen to leave a clear notice outside her office door. In spite of the sign, she received an SMS message from UPS that a delivery was attempted but was unsuccessful since no one was there to sign off on the package. And since they had her cellphone number which was stated clearly on her door sign and the package, they could at least have called when attempting to deliver.


UPS Sign
The now famous UPS sign that UPS missed

At any rate, after a phone call to UPS customer service in which she made her dissatisfaction clear, she received the package with the SRV body the next day.  The phrase 'Hell hath no fury..' comes to mind.

Pickup The Pieces

Shuen and I entered into a heated debate on the merits of purchasing a loaded pickguard versus obtaining the pickups, potentiometers, capacitor and 5-way switch separately and doing the soldering of the electronics ourselves. And by 'ourselves' I meant bringing it to a professional who could do it properly.

Loaded pickguards, on the other hand, are off-the-shelf units that come complete with pickups and soldered electronics. The only soldering that needs to be done is the connection of the ground wire and the output jack. She decided, wisely I think, to go the loaded pickguard route.

After another round of debates about pickup choices -- this one more testy than the first -- Shuen decided that the Fender Custom 69 pickups were the most pleasing to her musical sensibilities. And lo and behold, there was another seller on eBay, Twilight Guitars, offering a loaded pickguard with this very pickup configuration.

Pickguard with Fender Custom 69 pickups
Tortoiseshell pickguard loaded with Fender Custom 69 pickups

On her initial enquiry email, I suggested that she ask if they could do a simple wiring modification where the second tone knob controlled the bridge pickup. The conventional 3-knob Stratocaster wiring is master volume and two tone controls, one for the neck pickup and one for the middle.

The shrill beast that is the bridge pickup is untamed by the tone controls and, in the wrong hands, has been known to blow audience's minds but not in a good way.  She checked with the seller and they replied that they already include this mod as a standard feature on all their loaded pickguards. Awesome.

Loaded pickguard with Fender Custom 69 pickups
Loaded pickguard wired by Twilight Guitars

Shuen chose a tortoiseshell pickguard and white parchment pickup covers, knobs and switch tip which look stunning against the sunburst of the SRV body. Yep, it's all coming together very nicely.

Fender SRV body with Custom 69 pickups

(Photo credits: Shuen Ong)

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build | Part 1

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

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

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

Wring That (Guitar) Neck

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

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

Fair enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quartersawn flamed maple headstock
Nitro tint comparison with a vintage Stratocaster

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

quartersawn flamed maple neck
Highly figured quartersawn flamed maple!
(Photo credits: Shuen Ong)

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


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