Read the December 2015 issue online
more... GuitarsArtistsHumbuckerGearHow-TosGuitar & Bass ModsDIYGuitaristsPickups & AccessoriesDIY DeskSolidbodySolidbodyHumbucker-equippedTools

20 Steps to a Kinder, Gentler Frankenaxe

20 Steps to a Kinder, Gentler Frankenaxe

10. Save them phone cables (free with purchase)

Ever notice how electronics always seem to come with a phone or DSL cable? That stuff isn’t so useless after all. Strip it and voila: four strands of different-colored hookup wire! It’s not the most robust wire, but will do the job for small work. But don’t bother using wire from RadioShack or your hardware store. That’s meant for electricians, not mad scientists with musical ambitions. Thanks to the guys at the forum for that tip!

11. Ask for directions (time and pride)
Speaking of online forums, you can find a wealth of information and support online, so don’t be afraid to join an online community before you start. Chances are, you’ll find an answer to every electronics question, no matter how lame. I’m a member of the aforementioned forum—they’re remarkably patient with novices.

12. Heavy metal matters ($40–$100)
If you’re a whammy bar enthusiast like myself, check your tone block (the alloy slab through which you pass the strings). If the block is thin, the bridge is crap. Replace it with a steel or brass block. Or, better still, a titanium one, and say hello to sustaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiin. Ironically, titanium is not heavy metal, but the sustain it delivers is pure Tufnel.

13. Don’t fall for pickup sorcery ($10)
Don’t assume ceramic bar magnet pickups suck before trying them. You can find a set of Chinese, single-coil pups that are hotter than vintage ones for the cost of a three-item plate at Panda Express. Leo Fender would be proud to install them because they’re utilitarian and sound perfectly fine. Tone is a matter of variables.

14. Swimming pool or hot tub? ($50)
Check the body’s routing cavity before starting a mod. If you’re modding a USA Strat, the Alder body will be routed for single-coil-sized pups. So if you want to install a humbucker, make sure it’s the right size. Or, buy a cheaper Agathis body with a “swimming pool” route to allow for any combo of pups and wires. Tonally, it’s like Alder, though some believe the reduced mass affects tone. Maybe, but on the flip side, they’re sausage-finger accessible.

15. Invest in a fretting kit ($40–$200)

A good fretting kit pays for itself in a single trip to the luthier. Check eBay for cheaper ones, or visit where they machine their own tools, like the Fret Rocker—an absolute must for spotting uneven frets. But practice on a cheap neck, first. And don’t forget to file the last fret on the fingerboard. I’ve gone insane more than once because of that damn fret.

16. Mini-pots require big skills ($5)
Cheap guitars often come with cheap mini-pots (though not all mini-pots are cheap). On the one hand, they allow room for more switches. But they’re also a soldering nightmare if you’re not a whiz with an iron. I prefer full-sized CTS pots. And I now wear a magnifying visor (see tip No. 19) having blown my eyesight thanks to mini-pots.

17. Switch your switch ($15)
If you play a cheap guitar, it came with a cheap switch. Replace it with a good one. Check Allparts, Stewart-MacDonald, or eBay for good, American-made switches.

18. Avoid the Floyd ($50–$200)
If you own a USA-made Fender Strat, for the love of God, don’t install a Floyd Rose (like I did). They eat tone, not to mention the value of your guitar. Besides, you can sound just as dated with a good Fender bridge and some Big Bends Nut Sauce. (Remember that Eddie went unlocked for the first three albums.) Or check out the Super-Vee system, which requires no extra routing and can be removed at anytime to revert to your stock setup. If you have a Floyd, replace the tone block with a brass or titanium one from Floyd Upgrades, or “And watch your sustain go to eleven,” claims Nigel Tufnel.

19. Get a magnifying visor ($5–$25)

Yeah, you look like a dork, but boy does it make a difference in tight spaces. The fancier ones come with LED lights, too. If someone catches you wearing it, tell them you’re auditioning for Devo.

20. Remember how it all started (free)
Always refer back to Eddie’s Frankenstein for inspiration. It’s a testament to the fact that you don’t need to know what you’re doing to know what you’re doing. And who knows? Maybe one day, a repro of your hunk of junk will fetch $20,000.