Everyone knows he changed the way we play the instrument. But it’s less celebrated that Eddie Van Halen first changed the instrument itself. By cobbling together the limbs and innards of dead gear, he gave the Strat new life, turning it into a fire-breathing metal monster—a new species, known as the FatStrat. He dared to tinker. And in doing so, he revealed that the wizard behind the pickguard is merely a few wires and solder—not so mysterious after all. Today, Van Halen’s “Frankenstein” is a representation of his ascendancy into rock stardom, and subsequent transformation into a brand, with replicas fetching more than $20,000. It’s a testament to the power of trial and error (not to mention the failure of metalheads to grasp the concept of irony).
But even though Ed did it with trial and error, it doesn’t mean we can’t refine the process. Here are 20 tinkering tidbits I’ve learned so far, with the burn scars to prove it. I hope you find this helpful as you make your own monster to unleash on an unsuspecting audience without breaking the bank. Feel free to leave your own nuggets of DIY wisdom and survival stories in the comments section.
1. Get a good soldering iron ($30)
It’s analogous to playing guitar through a good cable. Yeah, you can find ‘em cheap (without the accoutrements), or you can get a pro one with holder, sponge, and temperature dial. Both will get the job done, but the more jobs you do, the more you’ll appreciate the durability of a pro model. Besides, they make you feel like you know what you’re doing.
2. Always de-solder ($1.53–$15)
Unless you’re starting from scratch, chances are you’ll need to remove old solder to apply the new stuff. I prefer de-soldering braid, but they also make cheap de-soldering pencils that work like irons, but with a suction pump. Be mindful of where you leave it when plugged in as they often come without holders and heat up like a mother. That’s how the castle burned down in Bride of Frankenstein.
3. Use 60/40 rosin core solder ($3.95)
It figures that the best solder would be made from the worst stuff—lead. Rumor has it that rosin core is scheduled to be banned, so get it while you can. Always solder in a well-ventilated area, and/or get a good gas mask. If the lead scares you, try heating up some McDonald’s fries with a burning cigarette. I’m sure that works just as well.
4. Use heat sinks and save your pots ($0.99–$5)
Small, copper alligator clips will suffice for guitar electronics work, or you can buy a larger one specifically designed for this application. Either way, before soldering, clip it to the component to draw excess heat away to prevent frying the circuitry. If using the small clips, remove them with needle-nose pliers to avoid battle scars.
5. Keep sandpaper on hand ($1–$5)
When grounding pickups and/or claw wire (for vibratos), lightly sand the hosting metal so the solder sticks. If you’re a fussy neat freak, ring terminals are also an option, available at RadioShack for cents. I prefer the standard method of using the tops of pots, now that I’m getting to be a better solderer.
6. Heat shrink tubing is your friend ($2.99–$14.95)
Sooner or later you’ll need to solder new wire to your pickup leads to extend the length. Do it enough times, and your wires will look like Slash’s head after an all-nighter. So slip ‘em through this nifty stuff and light a match to see the tubing shrink and conform to the shape of the solder joint, keeping the contact safe and your axe’s innards orderly.
7. 4-wire humbucker = 4 tones ($20–$150)
Why not swap out your two-lead humbuckers with newer 4-lead pickups? The extra leads will allow you to split the coils, put them in series or parallel, or change the phase with a simple $3 DPDT switch from RadioShack.
8. Practice on cheap parts ($20–$100)
You can get 4-lead humbuckers on eBay from Hong Kong for $20 and fully wired pickguards for under $50. Make sure they are open-coiled. If they’re capped, they’re probably epoxy-filled and unalterable.
9. Install a kill switch ($1.99)
Otherwise known as an ON/OFF momentary switch. It’s the easiest mod to execute (see our how-to here), and will help build confidence. If you mess this up, check with your doctor—you may be a drummer.