march 2012

For players used to really big sounds, compact high-gain tube combo amps sometimes seem to demand too many tradeoffs to make the convenience and portability worth it. If you’re

For players used to really big sounds, compact high-gain tube combo amps sometimes seem to demand too many tradeoffs to make the convenience and portability worth it. If you’re used to pushing air with a 4X12, the relative lack of clarity and punch at high volumes and low headroom that you get from a 1X12 can feeling like you’re missing an arm—even if it’s still really dang loud.

With the Machete—Fender's newest addition to their Pro Tube series of amps—the aim is dish blisteringly aggressive tones from a 50 watt, dual-channel combo without sacrificing the range players get from big cabinets. And Fender achieves a lot of this versatility by making it one of the most tunable amps the company has ever built.

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It had been his dad’s guitar since the age of 16, when his uncle bought it for him around 1940 at a pawnshop in Roanoke, Virginia.

This well-loved 1940s Gibson SJ-100 still has lots of songs to share.

The thrill is still not gone. After almost 40 years of coveting, owning, playing, building, fixing, studying, buying, and selling (generally being obsessed with guitars)—they still continue to give me the same thrill I got the first time I held one. Not every guitar, mind you, but every now and then it happens. This is the story of one of those guitars.

Back in the early ’90s, when I was working in my one-man shop at home, my neighbor Dan called and said he’d like to bring his father up to see the shop and to show me his dad’s old guitar. His dad played it regularly, but they wanted me to check it over and see if it needed any TLC. When I first saw the old case, my interest was piqued. Opening it did not disappoint—inside was a very nice, old Gibson SJ-100, circa 1940. It had been his dad’s guitar since the age of 16, when his uncle bought it for him around 1940 at a pawnshop in Roanoke, Virginia. While he remembered sending it back to Gibson for repair work not long after he received the guitar (he couldn’t recall exactly what was done), nothing else had been done to it since. This SJ-100 had a few cracks that didn’t seem to be going anywhere and the action was a bit high, but other than that, it was in really nice shape and absolutely oozed that old, Gibson mojo.

A little research showed it to be one of those wonderful, old Gibson anomalies. It had the old, stairstep-peghead design of a 1939 model, but the tiered bridge from a 1940 model. If the bridge had been changed during its early trip to Kalamazoo for repair, there was no evidence on the top. They were shocked to hear that it was a fairly valuable example of a rare model. In their eyes, it was just dad’s old guitar. I advised them to try and keep it humidified in the winter (even though it had survived more than 50 years without a thought of humidity control) and to consider getting the cracks stabilized. I also suggested they look into an insurance rider.

I didn’t see the guitar again for a number of years, but I would ask Dan about it now and then. His dad was still playing it—at gospel sings on Sunday mornings and evening campfires at the campground where he worked as a host in his retirement. I shuddered to think of this guitar being played out in the open (not to mention around a fire), but in his dad’s eyes, it was not a valuable collector’s piece or some kind of commodity. It was simply the only guitar he ever owned, and he wasn’t about to stop playing it just because it was worth some money.

Dan’s dad passed away a few years back and the guitar has been in his widow’s closet ever since. The guitar has, of course, continued to appreciate. And while the family is aware of its monetary value, the sentimental value still trumps any ideas of cashing in on this vintage instrument that represents so much of what they remember about him.

I did get a chance to see the guitar again just a few days ago. Dan brought it up one night when we were playing some old Hank and Lefty stuff. We tuned it up, toughed out the high action, and played the oldest stuff we could think of.

Mystery Solved … Almost
The recent publication of the excellent Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902-1941, and a conversation with the author, helped me to learn more about this guitar. The order number from the factory and the serial number actually identify it as a 1939 model that was shipped to a store in Greenville, South Carolina, on September 21, 1939. The guitar must have been pawned in Roanoke fairly quickly since Gibson’s records show that Dan’s father returned it to the factory for repairs in late 1941. It was returned to him on February 1, 1942. There was no record of what repairs were performed, so the peghead/bridge mystery still remains.
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Hardware has a huge influence on the primary tone of any guitar, and it’s here that different materials can really make a difference.

Brass saddles and a thin steel bridge plate play an integral role in classic Tele twang.

Last month, we began exploring the Telecaster and simple modifications to enhance its fundamental tone [“PrimaryTone Mods for the Telecaster,"February 2012]. Before we heat up the soldering iron and launch into more complex projects, let's continue on this path and get a solid grasp on Tele tone.

Hardware has a huge influence

on the primary tone of any guitar,

and it's here that different materials

can really make a difference.

For example, it's worth experimenting

with nut material. For

me, nothing beats a good bone

nut, but others prefer brass, wood,

stainless steel, plastic, or other

synthetic materials. Whatever

you settle on, changing the nut

material really affects the tone.

Bridge saddles are another area

to explore. If you have die-cast

saddles on your Tele, consider

replacing them. Die-cast saddles

tend to dampen your guitar's

primary tone and should be

replaced with more vibrant and

resonant materials for a better

and faster tone transfer. The

original Tele saddle material from

the '50s is brass, and cold-rolled

steel followed in the late '60s.

These materials will noticeably

influence the tone, so changing

saddles is an easy and inexpensive

way to explore mods. Try steel

saddles on a guitar lacking highs

and brass saddles on a guitar with

too much high end. For a good

vintage Telecaster tone, brass is

the right choice. There are many

options—stainless steel, titanium,

and aluminum, for example.

Believe it or not, tuners affect

your tone, too. Heavier tuners,

such as most Grover machines,

will give you more sustain and a

stronger and louder primary tone.

The old Kluson tuners will make

your Tele sound more open and

transparent with a faster attack—

perfect for a vintage tone.

The material and thickness of

your Telecaster bridge plate is also

crucial. For a vintage blackguard

tone, you should use a thin metal

bridge plate, preferably loaded

with brass saddles. But bridge

plates are also available made out

of die-cast stainless steel, aluminum,

brass, and titanium. The

choice has never been better, so

you can experiment with this, too.

Underneath the bridge pickup

you'll find a copper-plated base

plate that makes a very important

contribution to the classic

Telecaster sound. These plates

are also available in other materials,

including zinc (the original

material from the '50s), sheet

metal, and brass. If you buy a

new bridge pickup, pay attention

to this detail. I don't recommend

changing the base plate yourself,

however, because chances are

good you'll damage the pickup.

The metal cover on the

Telecaster's neck pickup influences

its tone. Cheap covers

are typically made from steel or

other metals that will kill some

high end. If you want to avoid

reducing high-end twang, use

a pickup with a German-silver

cover. (Despite its name, this

material actually contains no

silver and is usually composed

of 60 percent copper, 20 percent

nickel and 20 percent

zinc.) Replacing the cover is

an option, though you have

to know what you're doing to

avoid damaging the pickup.

Naturally, the most important

factor in a guitar's primary tone

is the wood used to construct it.

Leo Fender used pine for the very

early models, followed by ash,

and sometimes swamp ash—the

latter mostly because of its visual

appeal when covered with his

preferred butterscotch finish. This

is the classic Tele body wood.

Together with a one-piece maple

neck, it creates that vintage blackguard

and Bakersfield sound.

Alder bodies sound noticeably

different, as do necks with rosewood

or ebony fretboards.

There are other discussions I

don't want to voice an opinion

on, but should mention so you

can decide if you want to experiment.

On some forums, there's

a lot of “nuts and bolts" tech

talk about how the screws, neck

plate, pickguard, control plate,

and the string ferrules influence

Tele tone. Many companies have

jumped on that bandwagon,

offering these parts made from a

variety of materials. There's a lot

to explore if you're so inclined.

Increasing the mass of your

guitar will have a noticeable affect

on the tone, and this can help

eliminate dead spots on the fretboard.

A classic trick is to clamp

or screw some metal to the headstock.

I recommend checking out

the Fatfinger clamp from Groove

Tubes. The difference is subtle,

but audible. You can use a metal

capo to test this out—Kyser's

Quick Change works great. New

tuners made out of a heavier

material will have a similar effect.

It makes a big difference to

Tele tone whether or not you

use string trees, and where

they're located if you do. String

trees change the string pressure

against the nut, and the higher

the pressure, the stronger the

tone. I use metal “butterfly"

string trees on the top four

strings. Because I do a lot of

behind-the-nut bends, I don't

have the string trees too near

the nut. Putting a drop of

lubricant on the string trees will

result in better tuning stability,

especially if you have a Bigsby

tremolo on your Telecaster.

In closing, here are a few

other tips for your pursuit of

great Tele tone:

  • Check your guitar's internal wiring—it's not unusual to find a lot of crappy wire connecting the components. If so, get some high-quality hook-up wire from a luthier supply company and completely rewire the electronics. It's almost unbelievable how this can improve your tone.
  • Check the pots, pickup selector switch, and output jack. If you find some poor quality offshore parts, swap them for better replacements. A little online research will turn up quality brand names like Switchcraft, CTS, and Bourns.
  • Restring your guitar with pure nickel strings and hear details you never heard before from your pickups. This will work on a lot of guitars, but not all.
  • Try different flatpick materials and discover what you like best. From my experience, tortoiseshell celluloid picks provide the best Fender tone with a percussive attack and a lot of twang.

Taken together, very small

changes can make a huge tonal

difference. Most of the tweaks

we've discussed here are easy

to do and not too expensive,

so I encourage you to try some

of them—you might find the

signature tone you've always

wanted. Next month we'll ease

into some “warming up" Tele

mods, so stay tuned. Until then,

keep on modding!

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