Offset OptimizedOf all Fender’s “offset” 6-strings, the Starcaster is probably the rarest and least lusted after—though there’s definitely resurgent interest these days, thanks in large part to the influence of longtime user Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead). Soon there’s bound to be even more interest since Squier just released its Classic Vibe version—a stunningly light guitar that goes for a mere $399 street.
Originally produced for only six years (1976–1982), the semi-hollow Starcaster was likely Fender’s effort to compete with bigger-bodied instruments from Guild, Gretsch, and especially Gibson. The fact that so many successful models from the latter sported humbuckers no doubt informed the Starcaster’s dual-pickup array, while its 3-way selector and 5-knob control scheme—dedicated volume and tone controls for each pickup, plus a master volume—is rather Gretsch-like. But some Starcaster appointments likely left many players of the day scratching their heads; notably its large, swooping headstock and the use of such an unorthodox asymmetrical shape in a traditional-leaning market segment. It didn’t stop there, though. Whereas most semi-hollow guitars of the era—and even now—used a trapeze tailpiece or else a Tune-o-matic-style bridge paired with either a stop-tail or perhaps a Bigsby vibrato, the Starcaster used an unusual new hard-tail bridge with through-body stringing somewhat akin to the brand’s Telecaster models. It also featured the same pickups that debuted on the Telecaster Deluxe four years prior. For the latter two reasons especially, one can’t help thinking many ’70s shoppers saw these Tele-derived elements and concluded the Starcaster wouldn’t conjure the fat semi-hollow tones that B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton, and others got from their Gibsons.
Even so, the Starcaster’s distinctive “Wide Range” humbuckers sounded exceptional and became staples for high-profile players like Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos. Designed by Seth Lover (who developed the legendary PAF pickups found in so many Gibson guitars), original-spec Wide Range pickups are “wide” in two ways: First, they are physically a little larger than a standard humbucker, and second, their tones are sort of a cross between single-coil and humbucker—a gritty, articulate blend of chime and brawn. Their unique sounds derived from the fact they used both nonstandard (and now-expensive) magnetic materials and incorporated them differently from other pickup designs. So, while Fender has, for many years now, offered guitars with humbuckers that look like original Wide Range pickups (complete with metal covers and two staggered trios of visible pole pieces), the truth is that the pickups in these guitars are standard-design humbuckers whose tones aren’t a whole lot like the originals’. Many companies now offer their take on the original Wide Range sound, some using pricey materials and original-spec construction, others aiming for the same tones via more readily available materials. To get our Squier closer to original Starcaster sonics, we settled on a set that takes the latter approach.
Because the Wide Range-embracing bands mentioned here also tend to play Fender’s other famous offsets, particularly Jazzmasters and Jaguars, we thought it would be cool to outfit the Classic Vibe with a Jazzmaster/Jaguar vibrato system, too. We’ll focus on that process here, since it’s an endeavor rendered much trickier than on a regular solidbody due to the Starcaster’s carved top.
Dave's Installation Tips
1. Cut a 7" x 16" piece of polystyrene to span the width of the guitar body in the tremolo area. Make the corners as square as possible, and mark a centerline lightly with a pocketknife (Photo 1).
2. Line up the polystyrene’s centerline with the Jazzmaster routing template’s centerline (Photo 2).
3. Using the 3/8" brad-point bit—sans a drill, just by hand—remove polystyrene from the four inner corners of the square tremolo-cavity section (Photo 3).
Next, use a 1/2" bit to remove polystyrene from the tremolo-lock section (the rounded portion at the top of the square in Photo 4). Then connect all the holes using a pocketknife blade, and cut out the template shape.
4. Square and clean up the template’s edges with bastard mill files. Your final routing template should look like the one in Photo 5.
5. Disassemble the Starcaster and set the neck aside. Use an ESP Multi Spanner wrench to loosen the controls’ hex nuts, then drop the controls into the body and remove the pickups and hardware.
6. Use low-tack tape to cover the guitar’s f-holes and control holes (Photo 6).
Tape off the guitar’s face and mark the centers of the following: both pickup cavities, the bridge, the stop-bar posts, and the lower strap button (Photo 7). Connect the dots and this becomes the centerline for our tremolo-cavity work.
7. Lightly score (i.e., carve shallow, parallel slits on) the top surface of the polystyrene template created in steps 1–4 so that it will mold to the Starcaster’s top more easily. Label the side that should face up.
8. Line up the centerlines on the guitar and the polystyrene. Use double-stick tape to attach the polystyrene to the guitar’s top.
9. Clamp the body to your workbench with two long-cam clamps (Photo 8).
10. Use your palm router to carve the tremolo cavity to a depth of 1 3/8" (Photo 9).
Halfway through the route, remove the template to get to the full depth. Because the template is intended for a single use, it will come off in pieces (Photo 10).
To protect the finish during subsequent steps, apply more low-tack tape (Photo 11).
11. Using a 1/8" aircraft extension bit, drill a ground-wire hole for the bridge through the cavity toward the volume and tone knob area (Photos 12 and 13). The ground wire will be pinched in place by the tremolo housing upon installation.
12. Reassemble the guitar: Install the neck, connect the new pickups in the same manner as the originals (unless you’re opting for custom switching), solder the bridge’s ground wire, mount the controls, and install the Tune-o-matic-style bridge. (Note: I left the original stop-bar bushings in the body, since they don’t rattle and aren’t hurting anything.)
13. Use spare 1st and 6th strings under light tension to line up the tremolo assembly and mark your mounting-screw holes. Drill holes using a 1/8" brad-point bit. Start with the front two and work your way back, six in total. By hand, countersink each hole using the no-chip tuner-hole countersink tool, being careful to paste-wax the mounting screws. Countersinking and paste-waxing decrease the chance of finish chipping.
14. Install the tremolo. Because the curvature of the Starcaster’s top results in the back edge of the tremolo plate sitting slightly above the face of the guitar, I used two rubber spacers as washers (on the underside of the plate) for the two rear screw holes.
15. Set up the guitar and wiggle away!
Shawn’s Post-Mod Observations
Recorded using a Ground Control Tsukoyomi boost and a Celestion Ruby-loaded Goodsell Valpreaux 21 miked with a Royer R-121 feeding an Apogee Duet going into GarageBand with no EQ-ing, compression, or effects.
I know I’m not the only one who’s thought a trem-equipped Starcaster would be a blast. I’ve seen both Bigsby-modified Starcasters and Starcaster-style custom guitars—sans carved top—with an added JM-style vibrato, but I’ve never seen a JM trem added to the real McCoy. Thanks to Dave’s killer work, my hunch has been confirmed. I knew the contoured top would make it impossible for the mounting plate to be perfectly flush, but Dave’s genius application of rubber spacers (which are hardly visible) make it possible to enjoy incomparable Jazzmaster/Jaguar trem action that’s as stable as on any other guitar. Lastly, Brian Porter’s take on the storied Wide Range recipe is a lovely one, yielding a lot of the bell-like responsiveness and grit associated with the original ’70s pickups. Paired with the Starcaster’s stock electronics, they can yield surprisingly bright tones, but the guitar’s complement of dedicated volume and tone knobs for each pickup facilitates a truly wonderful array of shades, from cutting and spanky to jangly, smoky, and myriad tones in between.