The Squier Vintage Modified Tele Custom comes stock with a humbucker in a Wide Rangestyle housing and a Duncan Designed bridge pickup. Photo courtesy of FMIC
Premier Guitar’s editor in chief, Shawn Hammond, is a huge fan of taking well-built, affordable guitars and customizing them to sound as good as axes many times their price. He’s already had me do work on a Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster ’50s, which he upgraded with Fender Custom Shop Jim Campilongo pickups. This time around, he’s asked me to really go to town on a surprisingly great, brand-spankin’- new Squier Vintage Modified Telecaster Custom, which has a street price of $299. We’re going to turn this Tele into a head-turning, twang-bangin’ monster!
When Shawn first bought this Squier, it was mainly so he’d have at least two Teles on hand in case one died or had a string bust during a gig. What Shawn wanted to see when I was done with it was a guitar that sounds and looks great. He’s not concerned about knee-jerk reactions that other players might have to the headstock decal. In fact, he hopes to maybe help a few players out there realize it’s not the price or the brand name that matters, but knowing which things to change to get a fantastic-sounding guitar for a very reasonable price.
To that end, the first no-brainer upgrade for almost any guitar this affordable is new pickups. Shawn wanted authentic Telecaster twang—sparkly, complex tones with some spank—from the bridge pickup, so he went with a handwound Curtis Novak TEL-V. The more he thought about the project, though, the more he wanted to have some fun with it.
Shawn’s also a big Bigsby fan, and given that Teles with Bigsbys are pretty rare on the whole—let alone at a low price point—he added that to the upgrade list, too. He was also intrigued by Tele-forum talk of keeping the ashtray bridge rather than using the standard Bigsby Telecaster kit (which requires replacing the ashtray assembly with a chromed pickup surround that has a Mustang-style bridge attached to it), so he asked me to mod the ashtray bridge to work with the B5. He also wanted to replace the Squier’s original steel saddles with compensated brass ones that would facilitate better intonation while maintaining old-school tones.
Because Shawn usually prefers single-coils and often finds neck pickups too bass-y for his band’s original “indie-twang-punk” tunes—and because he still hasn’t been able to add a Jazzmaster to his collection—Shawn decided to swap the Tele Custom’s stock humbucker with a Jazzmaster-style pickup. “I want to be able to get that hollowed-out, ghostly twang without having to pick way back by the saddles,” he told me. Having heard great audio samples online, he decided to go with Novak’s JM-V, which is based on the pickup in the builder’s own 1963 Jazzmaster. The pickup is narrower and has different screw placement than a Wide Range-style humbucker, so this also required a new pickguard. Shawn chose a visually striking gold-anodized aluminum model from Tone-Guard.com. He also wanted the guitar set up to play with .011–.052 string sets.
The completed project features Curtis Novak JM-V (neck) and TEL-V pickups, a Tone-Guard anodized-aluminum pickguard, a Bigsby B5 vibrato, compensated brass saddles, and upgraded pots, output jack, tone-pot capacitor, and knobs.
Although I knew what Shawn wanted from the final product when he dropped off the guitar and the main parts, I still needed to give the Squier a thorough exam to see if there were any other issues to address in the process. When I did, I found that it has a good, solid feel and really nice fretwork for its price. But once it was on my workbench I noticed the neck angle was slightly crooked—the low E was almost off the edge of the neck near the body (Photo 1). Luckily, when I took the neck off to see what was causing the misalignment, I found that it was due to a bit of sawdust and polishing compound wedged in the pocket. Cleaning that out allowed me to remount the neck at the proper angle.
When I plugged the Squier in, I was surprised by the quality of the pickups. The neck pickup looks like the Wide Range unit used in the first Telecaster Customs from 1972, but it sounds like a very generic stock humbucking pickup. Shawn told me before dropping off the guitar that he was surprised how good the Duncan Designed bridge pickup sounded. “It’s a little thin sounding,” he admitted, “but it does have that essential Tele character.” I plugged it in to hear for myself and found that the bridge pickup indeed had a lot of that classic Tele twang. It also had decent output and balance after some height adjustment.
LEFT: Photo 1. The Squier’s low E was originally misaligned, but cleaning excess sawdust and polishing compound out of the neck pocket remedied the issue. RIGHT: Photo 2. The Tele’s interior was nicely shielded and grounded straight from the factory.
Moving on, I noted that the volume and tone potentiometers had a slightly loose but smooth feel, but most of their taper was all at one end of the rotation—and every now and then the bridge-pickup volume pot shorted out when I turned it up all the way. Gotta fix that! The knob and switch placement were comfortable, but though I liked the look of the press-on, amp-style knobs, they felt a little less than robust. I decided to replace them, too. Lastly, I love the simplicity of the Tele output jack, but I knew from experience that it will eventually come loose and either require annoying tightening every time someone plays the guitar, or possibly fail at a critical moment. For that reason, I suggested to Shawn that we install an Electrosocket jack mount, which screws directly into the body to prevent loosening of the jack. I also figured I might as well install a sturdier output jack and drop in some more reliable CTS pots and different capacitors while I had the Squier in pieces.
After finishing the external exploration, I moved on to looking at the guts of the Vintage Modified Tele. First, I had to lose the strings. Next up, I removed the 16—yes, 16—screws that keep this kitchen table of a pickguard on! Once they were off, I saw that the guitar was clean inside. There’s shielding paint and it’s fully grounded (Photo 2)—nice work. When I saw the Alpha mini pots, I worried about whether the full-size CTS pots would fit in the existing body route, but first things first. Although I wasn’t going to start with the electronics, I removed the bridge, desoldered and pulled the output jack and ground wires, and clipped the leads on the bridge pickup. Voilà—a clean slate to work from.
Photo 3. When I first placed the ashtray bridge and Bigsby, I worried that the string width was too wide from the saddles to the vibrato, but it ended up fitting just right.
Installing the Bigsby
I decided to start with the new vibrato first, so I covered the adjacent area on the guitar’s top with blue painter’s tape both to protect it from scratches and to give me a place to write notes with impunity. I put the bridge back on and took some measurements to start my layout. I needed a centerline and some horizontal lines to keep everything nice and square, and the 3-saddle ashtray tailpiece proved to be great for finding center locations. It has a hole in the center of the back, so I used that as a reference and used a T square positioned at the edge of the body to mark a centerline to work from.
To get an idea how the strings would lay out as they passed over the saddles, I mocked up the Bigsby and used a string to estimate where the strings will fall when I’m done. Based on pictures I’d seen online of other Bigsby-fied Teles, I already knew they wouldn’t clear the back of the ashtray, but at first glance I also wondered whether the overall spacing of the six strings would be too wide to fit the Bigsby’s roller guide (Photo 3). Fortunately, once I put strings in both E positions, I could see that there was just enough width in the roller guide to facilitate straight string pull from the saddles to the Bigsby’s axle pin (where the ball ends will be anchored). I could also clearly see where I’d need to cut away material from the back of the ashtray bridge to allow the strings to pass through (Photo 4). At this point, I took the bridge back off and set it aside.