Here’s a DIY project for tone chasers: how to turn a $199 single-coil Squier Bullet Strat into a beefy humbucker-voiced 6-string, with coil-splitting in the neck pickup.
If you try this project yourself, you’ll need three Seymour Duncan JB Jr. pickups, a Pure Tone Multi-Contact Output Jack, one .022MFD orange drop capacitor, two 500k CTS potentiometers, a push/pull pot DPDT on/on switch assembly, 60/40 rosin core solder, 22 AWG non-shielded PVC-insulated circuit wire, heat shrink tubing, small zip ties, and a set of your favorite guitar strings. For tools, Dave uses a Hakko Soldering Station, small clippers, small round-nosed pliers, a Phillips screwdriver, a 1/2" nut driver, a strip of painters or masking tape, and a small jar with a lid. A Stratocaster circuit schematic will also come in handy for reference. You’ll also need to brush up on your soldering skills. (Consult “Soldering 101: A Step-by-Step Guide” at premierguitar.com to get on the good foot.)
Step one will be removing and stripping the pickguard, and then cutting wires within the circuitry so the new components can be put into place. Since this is an S-style guitar, much of the work will be done on that pickguard, which helps simplify the process. Installing the pickups—in this case, Seymour Duncan JB Jr.’s—is simple. You might need to do some routing on the pickguard to accommodate the new pots. Duncan’s JB Jr.’s come with about 10 inches of four-conductor circuit wire already attached. Strip off about 3" of that wire’s outer casing. Then you’ll see red, white, black, green, and ground wires. Peel about 1/2" of casing from the tips of each of those smaller, color-coded wires. For the neck pickup, the green and bare wire are tied together and attached to ground—soldered to the top of the middle (tone) pot. Dave carefully explains each step. For a written version with photos, see “DIY: Hot-Rodding a Squier Bullet HT” in the May 2023 issue or at premierguitar.com. There's also a companion video, specifically focused on replacing the output jack. Got a question for Dave? Go to scalemodelguitars.com.
How I’ll always remember Edward.
One memory often triggers another, so, while writing about my experiences with Metallica over a crucial decade in their career for this issue, I kept flashing back on my sole encounter with Van Halen—the man and the band. It was during 1988’s Monsters of Rock, and I was on assignment for the tour’s two-day stand in Akron’s Rubber Bowl, a decrepit concrete pit turned convection oven by the summer heat, to interview all the guitarists on the tour: Kingdom Come’s Danny Stag, Dokken’s George Lynch, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica, Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs of Scorpions, and, of course, Edward.
For the first day I was there, Van Halen’s publicist kept nudging me aside. Nonetheless, I enjoyed their headlining set, save for the perplexing choice of a Sammy Hagar ballad about burying the placenta from the birth of one of his children under a tree. (If you know what that song is called, please let me know so I can more purposefully continue to avoid it.) Edward was especially brilliant, of course.
I was literally and anxiously sweating it out as Van Halen’s second-night performance neared, when the publicist finally ushered me back into the band’s dressing room, in the distressed bowels of the Rubber Bowl. Their green room was actually a casbah created within the area’s grim concrete walls. There were hanging tapestries, plush furniture, floor lamps, and other homey appointments, all cooled by giant fans at its edges. But the most impressive sight was Edward, Sammy Hagar, and Michael Anthony plugged into a vertical-standing road case packed with practice amps, jamming out some blues. Alex had a practice pad atop the case, and pounded so hard he cut through the astonishing web of sound. They tossed me a few nods, and I sat on the couch next to a table with a bowl of M&M’s on it—I did not check the colors—and watched them wail on for a good 10 minutes. Edward, plugged into what I think was a Fender Champ, still sounded every bit like himself. I thought, “Well, even if I don’t get to ask a single question, this is worth the trip.”
But they did unplug, and suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of a cartoon—or maybe an episode of The Monkees. They all raced toward me and piled onto the arms and back of the couch. I was surprised and surrounded. They answered my questions, but Eddie kept playing his unplugged 6-string, and nearly every reply came with a silly joke or a pun that left them in stitches. They all talked at the same time, sometimes completing each other’s sentences—always answering me but spinning off into all kinds of wild digressions. At one point, Sammy did a decidedly un-PC Ray Charles impersonation that put Edward, Alex, and Michael on the floor. And when I asked a guitar-centric question, Edward slid off the back of the couch and landed next to me to reply.
“But they did unplug, and suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of a cartoon—or maybe an episode of The Monkees.”
It was hilarious—almost sketch comedy. But it was also beautiful, because it was obvious that at this point they were deeply connected by friendship and the joy of still discovering what this line up of the band, which had released OU812 a month earlier, could do. There was a tangible, open-hearted purity to them—at least about this music they were making and the experience of making it—and it wasn’t drugs, because Edward had recently been through rehab and not even beer was allowed in their green room. They were, in June 1988, truly a band of brothers.
Somehow, amidst all the crosstalk and antics, I managed to get all my questions answered, and spent a few more minutes hanging out with them, enjoying a cold cola and avoiding the near-100-degree outside temperature, as they bantered with each other and prepped for the stage. Then it was time for the publicist to reappear and throw my butt out, and for them to hustle theirs into the spotlights.
There were more troubles to come for Edward—struggles with addictions, divorce, and cancers—and a lot more music to be made, until he died, too young, in 2020 at age 65. But because of that day, I always think of him as happy-go-lucky, practically exploding with positivity and elation. And I’m very glad for that. Seeing somebody at their best and happiest is always a gift, and when it’s somebody like Edward Van Halen, it’s a treasure.
When designing a guitar rig, stick to your music’s essentials.
Whether you navigate it consciously or unconsciously, guitar-rig building has multiple stages. In the beginning, it’s all possibilities and no responsibilities. The current state of the art and status of the market are such that nearly anything that you can conceive of is within your grasp. If you’d like your pedalboard to produce the sounds of yesterday, the guitar hive mind will provide you multiple methods. If you want to do something that’s never been done, the sheer volume of pedals and other gear that’s available makes for a set of permutations whose depths can likely never be fully sounded.
As a rig builder, I’m often brought in after the initial conception stage. The player has at least a general sense of what this pedalboard or rig has to be and do. There are lots of potential problems that can manifest at this point. A very common one plays out as follows: A young player (either in stage of life or stage in career) gets their first major gig. Their initial desire is to build the rig of their dreams— something with enough pedals and sounds to ensure there is next to no chance they won’t have what’s needed in every situation from stage to studio. This leads to a sort of feature creep as they add more pedals to deal with musical edge cases. “I’m going on the road with a mid-market Americana band, but one time 10 years ago, I sat in with a band to play ‘Shakedown Street.’ So, I should probably have an envelope filter.”
The result of this unfettered specification can be a pedalboard three sizes too large. For bigger touring outfits, any remotely reasonable size is manageable, as semi-trailers are spacious. But I can tell you from experience that inappropriately prepared players can open themselves up to chiding by bandmates and crew who might perceive the player as pretentious or, worse, clueless. The problem really comes to a head when this well-intentioned player now has to play the employer’s a-shade-over-three-minute 1–5–6–4 single at the Opry as a host of grizzled veterans stand in the wings wondering why there is a spaceship preparing for takeoff at the stage’s edge for an act that is going to come and go between commercial breaks.
Picking pedals for a gig means knowing the songs, arrangements, and having a producer’s ear.
Is the rig “good?” Without a doubt. Is it “right?” In terms of essential simplicity, maybe not. During that initial design phase, having a very clearheaded understanding of what the board should not be is just as important as determining what the board should be. You might be thinking this overzealous gear response is strictly the domain of newbs and rookies, but you’d be wrong. I’ve sat in hour-long rig consults with some of the most recorded guitarists in history—card-carrying guitar heroes—and in the first conversational lull after arriving at the “final” plan, this supremely confident, completely secure player will say, “Is there anything else I should be putting in there?” The idea that we might be missing something is no respecter of persons.
I’ve been having this same conversation with guitarists of all ages and stages for over 20 years. Recently, it has gotten me thinking of a certain Swiss patent clerk who said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
So, how do we follow patent clerk Albert Einstein’s exhortation to keep it simple? Picking pedals for a gig means knowing the songs, arrangements, and having a producer’s ear for what sounds and parts are actually required to make it through a full set, a shortened direct-support position, or a one-off TV date. Having drive pedals that are useful separately and stacked can round out your tonal core. Adding your bread-and-butter modulation and time-based effects will keep that section from becoming too expansive. A multi-effect pedal can catch all those edge-case scenarios that would otherwise add low-utility square footage.
Consider a more modular approach where a primary board can have auxiliary boards patched into it to expand its utility and allow it to collapse in size easily when necessary. Don’t be afraid of adding what’s called for, I’ve built super complex rigs that were as simple as they could be, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking a single monolithic pedalboard setup is the only answer.
The Foo Fighters’ frontman once took my Les Paul at a Halloween gig and played it onstage, with glee, for 90 minutes. But his new autobiography is full of better stories and plenty of wisdom.
“Life is just too damn short to let someone else’s opinion steer the wheel.”
—Dave Grohl, The Storyteller
In 2013, I was playing a Halloween party at Paul Allen’s Beverly Hills home/studio. It was a surreal gig, playing “Season of the Witch” with Donovan while supermodels, musicians, titans of industry, and celebrities like Sacha Baron Cohen, Dan Aykroyd, and Gina Gershon weaved around the packed yet spacious and spooky dance floor. Right in front of me, dressed like an Amish farmer, was Dave Grohl bobbing his head to the music. I held out my guitar to him and shouted, “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY?” He shrugged his shoulders like, “why not,” jumped onstage, took my Les Paul, and proceeded to play for 90 minutes, pretty much nailing every cover song requested by the crowd.
It was an impromptu jam at a party, but Grohl turned it into an epic performance, putting everything into every song, hitting the high notes by screaming like his life depended on it while beating my guitar like it owed him money. I remember thinking, “Man, no wonder this guy is a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. He gets it.”
I hadn’t thought about that for years until last week, when Dave Grohl told me his life story over the course of 10.5 hours as he read the audio version of his autobiography, The Storyteller.
Right in front of me, dressed like an Amish farmer, was Dave Grohl bobbing his head to the music. I held out my guitar to him and shouted, “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY?”
If you’re a musician, you know people like the young, pre-Nirvana Grohl: the seemingly misguided who dropped out of high school to tour with a bunch of grown men in a dodgy van, sleep in abandoned squats, and survive on a diet of gas station corn dogs, generic cigarettes, and whatever else a $7 per diem can get you. Most professional musicians go through a similar rite of passage when they first forsake all common sense, security, and comfort to play music full time. Check back with those friends 10 to 30 years later and you’ll hear a lot of stories—some sad, some triumphant, but few more inspiring than Grohl’s. Consider these differences between Grohl’s experience and other sadder versions of parallel musicians’ lives.
Grohl put in the work.
Before he had drums, Grohl learned to play by hitting pillows in his small childhood home and making drumbeats with his mouth when no kit or pillows were available. He played and listened all the time, learning every song by his favorite bands. So, when Scream auditioned drummers, he already knew the entire catalog, proving that success is when preparedness and opportunity intersect.
Grohl had the humility to listen and learn along the way.
Like many young drummers, Grohl was shoehorning fills into every space, thinking he was killing it. One day, Scream bassist Skeeter Thompson forced Grohl to get very high and play one simple groove without any fills for 30 minutes. Grohl described it as “breaking a wild pony.” I know a lot of young drummers who could not or would not do this. Consequently, they never get to the next level.
Grohl puts everything into every performance.
When Nirvana saw this skinny kid playing the shit out of his drums for the tiny crowd at a Scream show, they knew he was the guy. I see guys onstage checking their texts between songs or looking bored. If you’re going to play, be in it. Every gig is not just a performance. It’s an audition for the next gig.
Grohl said, “It’s hard to put into words the belief I have in music. To me, it is God. A divine mystery in whose power I will forever hold an unconditional trust.” We’ve all met wild-eyed Law of Attraction zealots who look at the universe as a divine vending machine, where you say the magic words, believe with all your might, and then get the shining prize you crave. It’s not about the prize; it’s about the journey: the rejection, embarrassment, discomfort, and lessons you learn along the way. The reward is that you become the person you’re supposed to be. I suspect the trick to manifesting your destiny is to move forward trusting that what’s happening to you is happening for you. Big dreams remain an empty distraction from real life unless you put in the work, sacrifice, and hustle to make it happen.
Honestly, if, like Grohl, you steadfastly work, keep your mind/soul open, say yes, be grateful, and put your whole heart into it, eventually, amazing things will happen to you. It will be a wild ride full of soul-crushing and soul-expanding experiences that will lead you where you’re supposed to be. That may be rich and famous or poor and anonymous, but if you can find happiness in one, you will have it in the other as well.
Gain is fun in all its forms, from overdrive to fuzz, but let’s talk about a great clean tone.
We’re all here for one thing. It’s the singular sound and magic of the stringed instrument called the guitar—and its various offshoots, including the bass. Okay, so maybe it’s more than one thing, but the sentiment remains. Even as I write this, my thoughts fan out and recognize how many incarnations of “guitar” there must be. It’s almost incomprehensible. Gut-string, nylon-string, steel-string, 12-string, 8-string, 10-string, flatwound, brown sound, fuzztone…. It’s almost impossible to catalog completely, so I’ll stop here and let you add your favorites. Still, there’s one thing that I keep coming back to: clean tone.
I’ve had the luck and good fortune to work in the studio with Robert Cray, and it was the first time I watched how a human being could split the atom with tone so pure that you could feel it in your blood, not just your gut. It’s a piercing voice like heaven’s glass harmonica. Now, I’ve had fellow musicians turn up their noses when Cray is mentioned, but that’s their problem. I love a saturated guitar—my Analog Man King of Tone cranked way up high in the clouds—but it’s a power trip. I know it’s scarier to get it right when down low and tight. Fearless Flyers tight.
It’s not that I don’t like distortion. I’ve chased saturated and singing sustain all my guitar life. I’ve experienced it all, from big amps with quads of Mullard bottles glowing brightly as they approached meltdown, to tweed combos turned up to a sagging and farting 12. There have been racks full of effects piled upon effects—hushing, squashing, squeezing, chorusing, echoing, and expanding my guitar’s output like some Lego sound transformer. The good, the bad, and the relatively unknown. I even tried building my own amp line with a friend when I was 17 years old just to get what I heard in my head. But when I’m honest with myself, the stinging clean sounds of guitar strings are what move me the most.
When I started playing guitar, clean was about all you could get. If an amp started to distort or feed back, we worried that the amp might burst into flames.
When I started playing guitar, clean was about all you could get. If an amp started to distort or feed back, we worried that the amp might burst into flames. I didn’t understand how it worked, but I learned fast. The instruments didn’t ignite, but the sound did. That buzzing, clipping tone hid all my bad finger technique, and I was on my way, squealing and spitting fire from the speakers. The neighbor lady complained to my parents, so, clearly, I was doing something right. It was the power I was looking for in my young life. Clean tone was a thing of the past; long live the square wave on the throne of 16 speakers piled high above the stage.
Many of us have clamored for that thick distorted sound we’ve heard on records and in concerts. Guitarists still curate their collections based upon the building blocks we all discovered during our formative years. It started on the early rock ’n’ roll recordings, when small combo amps got turned up loud to compete with the horns. Bluesmen dimed their amps on Chicago’s Maxwell Street to be heard down the block—good for business. The Brits cranked it up a notch and we players took notice. To some degree, clean was being pushed out. Then, in 1978, “Sultans of Swing” and “Roxanne” came clean. Alongside the slow burning rise of metal, the chiming clarity of the guitar returned to the fray. I’m not trying to build a definitive timeline history of popular guitar sounds here. I’m just merely acknowledging that they ebb and flow. But I always come back to clean.
Even the apex of thick, fat, beefy tone—the PAF humbucker—was and is built for bold hi-fi tone. Its shimmering, articulate clean highs are often lost on period recordings or lousy playback systems. If you doubt it, listen to Michael Bloomfield’s piercing tone on “Albert’s Shuffle” found on the Super Session album. His contemporary, Peter Green, also made extensive use of the clean tones available from his PAF-loaded axe on seminal Fleetwood Mac recordings. Humbuckers can play sweet and clear. It’s worth contemplating that some of the most revered guitar sounds ever committed to record were, in fact, cleaner than we remember. Don’t even get me started with country music.
A lot can be said about practicing guitar with a frighteningly clean sound. Strip away the fuzz and echo and bask in the glory of that stringy, popping, slicing tone that will reward your progress but punish your carelessness. Even after all these years, I’m a sloppy player. But getting it right when all the distortion is put back in the toy box is a scintillating high you can be proud of. It’s just a different addiction. The best part is that when you dial up the dirt again, it feels like flying.