september 2009

When Tim runs into a dangerous power situation in an old Magnatone lap steel amp, he''s tasked with completely reimagining the project.

It seems as if almost all of our clients have at one time or another, purchased something online. Often a funky old guitar or amp that was acquired at, what seemed to be at the time, a decent price. We hear the same words uttered over and over again. I just got an amazing deal on this at e…(rhymes with hey) but I think it needs a bit of work. Often, the amount of work required to transform the instrument into something playable makes the “great deal” now seem like a thorough hosing. Sometimes items come with a trial period in which the buyer can return it if doesn’t meet his/her expectations. Other times the piece may be salvaged or kept, though unusable, simply because it has a certain amount of character that makes it worth having if only for a wall hanger.

This month we’ll be taking a look at one such project. It involves a Magnatone lap steel and amp set.

A client purchased a beautiful (and very early) Magnatone lap steel and amp set. They were brought into our shop to have a basic “check and clean” done to the amp and to have the lap steel repaired/restored. The lap steel needed to have the tuning machines replaced as the buttons had deteriorated to the point that they were now little ratty stubs that needed a pair of pliers to aid in the tuning process. A similarly styled set of Tone Pros 3-on-a-strip tuners were installed, scratchy pots were salvaged with a bit of electronics cleaner and some minor setup work was done to level the string heights at the nut.

The amplifier was powered on to see if it was working and to listen for any nasty noises that would need to be addressed in our “check and clean” procedure. Surprisingly, the amp sounded pretty darn good. It had a very unique character to the break up as the amp was pushed into distortion. The amp was then disassembled to check for leaky caps and resistors that may have drifted out of spec that would cause the voltages to swing to unsafe/improper levels. First I tried to locate the power transformer to get my bearings. Hmmmm, strange I thought, no power transformer! Then it dawned on me. This amp is running on pure AC!

While this isn’t that unusual in very early amps and it certainly contributes to its unique tone, it’s also very dangerous. One leg of the AC is tied to the chassis as a buss in the same way a ground would be in a more modern design. This would almost be okay if the instrument being played through it had the strings isolated from the electronics (though it's still present on the metal chassis). However, in most modern guitars, the strings are attached to the ground. In this instance it means that the player now has one leg of the AC on his/her strings! This puts me in a rather precarious position. As the tech and owner of the shop, there are some obvious liability issues associated with this project.

The client was consulted and told of the dangers that lurked within this design. As he loved the look and character of the box, he gave me the go ahead to build a simple and more “modern” (late-'50s) design into the existing chassis. A promising schematic was found (a Valco of some sort) that used a 6SL7 octal preamp tube a 6V6 and a 5Y3 rectifier. This design was chosen simply because of its funky character, which was thought to be in keeping with the original design.

The build was a bit tricky as the amps chassis was quite small and was never made to carry the bulk of a power tranny. Every component was stripped off and the task of figuring out a layout that was physically possible, considering the tight space, begun. It was necessary to make a metal plate to cover a hole left by one of the tube sockets that had to be relocated to make room for the new Mercury power tranny. The output transformer had to be located inside the chassis due to lack of room caused by the speaker's magnet protruding into the optimal space. New holes had to be drilled/punched for the input jack, transformers, IEC style AC socket and tube socket.

It’s freeing being charged with the task of simply making something funky that works. Certain liberties can be taken in component selection that wouldn’t necessarily be considered when shooting for a dead silent recording amp or a rock solid touring amp for example. I was able to use some really neat Soviet-era paper in oil caps that I found while traveling in Bulgaria last year as well as some interesting carbon comp resistors acquired at the same time. Fortunately, the original speaker was still in good shape and was reused.

Mission accomplished. The end result was a marriage between over-the-top vintage form and functionality. The amp was transformed into a safe and usable conversation piece and I’m told, gets many hours of use a week. While this project may not have been the most economical way to go about getting a small practice amp, it did end up salvaging a very cool set and making it safe and enjoyable for the proud and happy owner.

How to add individual on/off switches for each pickup to your Strat

Hello and welcome back to “Mod Garage.” Thanks for all the emails during the last few weeks. Lots of people have asked me about modding a Stratocaster with three individual on/off switches for the pickups, to replace the traditional 5-way pickup selector switch, so here it is.

Replacing the common 5-way pickup selector switch on a Strat with three individual on/ off switches is more or less a variation of the “7-sound Strat” mod we discussed in detail earlier. With three individual switches, it’s possible to dial in the bridge/neck pickups together in parallel (as you can do with any Telecaster) as well as all three pickups together in parallel. You can’t do this with the traditional Strat wiring and a 5-way switch. The easiest solution is to simply route the neck pickup via an additional toggle switch and you’re done (for further details please see my earlier column about this subject).

So why would someone replace the traditional 5-way switch on a Strat with on/off switches? There are several reasons: 1. with three switches in a row, it’s easier to visualize what pickups are selected; 2. it looks cool and will get some attention because it’s different; 3. with three push-pull or push-push pots for controls, it’s possible to build a pickguard without any switching controls on the surface (this will look even cooler on a beautifully grained wooden Strat pickguard) 4. three on/off switches are much cheaper than a 5-way switch, so it can be economical when building a new Strat pickguard from scratch; 5. it’s easier to do some special mods with this configuration, so you’ll often find this on heavily modified Strats.

In a nutshell, this is like cutting a 5-way switch into three equal pieces and connecting each pickup to one of the pieces. Electrically, it’s the same as having the 5-way switch, so it will have no influence on your tone. To start, you need three on/on SPDT toggle switches of your choice. You can also use on/on SPDT push switches, push-pull or push-push pots, or any other switching device of your choice. For this mod, I recommend you use a new pickguard without the routed slit for the typical 5-way switch. Such pickguards are available from many sources and will definately look better than drilling three new holes in addition to the (now unpopulated) slit. Naturally, you can use your stock pickguard and drill away. It’s your axe, and you have to like it!

As mentioned earlier, a beautiful wooden pickguard allows you to use three push-pull or push-push pots to switch pickups, so you won’t have anything on the surface besides the three knobs. This really looks cool and will definitely get your axe noticed. Some time ago, I had a customer who wanted three touch-sensitive switches underneath the pickguard, so he just had to tap a certain spot on the pickguard to dial in the desired pickup combination. This is also possible and could raise a few eyebrows. As always (in case you haven’t done it before), printing out the standard Stratocaster wiring and placing it on your workbench is a good way to start. This way, it’s much easier for you to see and understand the differences from the modded schematic.

Wiring diagram courtesy Seymour Duncan Pickups and used by permission. Seymour Duncan and the stylized S are registered trademarks of Seymour Duncan Pickups, with which Premier Guitar magazine is not affiliated.

Let’s Get Started
First of all, desolder all connections from the 5-way switch and take it off. Naturally, you don’t have to do this when you’re building a new pickguard from scratch. Decide what switching device you like best, and install it on the pickguard. Now connect everything as shown in the drawing below and you’re done. It’s very easy to do, and if you compare this wiring with a traditional one, using a 5-way switch, it’s very easy to see how these switches substitute for the function of the 5-way switch. Each toggle switch has an input (middle lug) to connect the pickup, and an output (bottom lug), to connect to the next switch, and finally to the input lug of the master volume pot—just the same as on the 5-way switch, but with individual switches. The upper lug of each switch is connected to ground. To make this connection easier, each of these lugs is connected together, and only one has an additional ground connection, to ground all three switches. This will save you from a cable mess on the pickguard. Alright, that’s it! It’s a simple mod, and you have only to decide if you want it or need it. Based on the number of requests I received, I assume a lot of players need it.

Stay tuned for more Strat mods coming in the months ahead. Until then... keep on modding!

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Peter Stroud''s tips to becoming a great rhythm guitarist

“I’m the rhythm guitarist…” is not a response you hear often when you ask a guitarist if they play rhythm or lead. Back in earlier days of rock ‘n’ roll, there seemed to be a clear delineation of roles in a band. The Yardbirds had Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, and Eric Clapton and later Jeff Beck on lead. Even though Brad Whitford of Aerosmith contributed notable solos, he was mostly known for holding down the rhythm. Keith Richards recorded more memorable solos than most realize, but it’s his rhythm guitar style that has become the blueprint for rock rhythm guitar. Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes is a modern-day notable rhythm guitarist. He too contributes stellar lead playing, but along with his songwriting, it’s his rhythm parts, playing and tone for which he’s recognized.

Playing rhythm is not necessarily a relegated role or somehow inferior to taking the lead guitar spot in a band. It requires a different mindset and is every bit as demanding. I’m equally challenged, if not more so, when playing rhythm. There are a lot of factors you have to consider when playing rhythm guitar versus being solely a lead player—who embellishes and usually tends to play on top of everyone else, sometimes to the detriment of the song! First and foremost, when playing rhythm, you have to have just that: rhythm. You must be able to fall into the groove with the drums and bass. Ahead of the beat? Behind the beat? You have to be solid, just like the drummer and bassist. If you drop out, drop your pick, stumble on a beat, it’s noticed. And you’ve got to have tone.

With that in mind, here are some ground rules for being a stellar rhythm guitarist.

Lock in with the drums and bass. I like to huddle in with the drummer and bassist when playing rhythm guitar. I’ll have the drums in my in-ear monitors, primarily the kick, hi-hat and snare. Our drummer in Sheryl Crow’s band, Jeremy Stacey, is very quick to make comment or complain if he feels any of us rushing or dragging behind him, which makes us very aware if we’re slacking off. We’ll usually come back at him with a few derogatory remarks about being a Brit (he’s from London), but in the end we know he’s right.

Rhythmically, find a groove that works around the beat of the drums and bass. Creating a rhythm part like this most often becomes a significant hook of the song you’re writing (all parts should have a hook, actually). Use space, breaths and silence as well.

Have your tone dialed in. That can mean a lot of things, depending on what style of music and band, but there are some common sense factors. Make your sound full and pleasing to hear: not too much harsh treble; clear, maybe with less distortion. If your band has a high-gain kind of sound, make it the best—complex and full with rich body and overtones (sounds like I’m describing a coffee blend). All of this usually means getting a good amp.

Be careful not to dial too much bass into your tone, lest you conflict with the tonal spectrum of the bass guitar. Find your own tonal space. Also take care not to dial in too much midrange, or you’ll fight with the lead guitar and vocal. I find the bass control on my amp barely exceeds 3–4. In the past, I’ve had hi-gain amps where I’ve had the bass completely off.

Your sound engineer can help with this on a gig. Listen to the way it sounds out front. Don’t argue with him, just fine tune your tone accordingly to blend with the band. Sometimes it may even sound a little sucky from your perspective onstage, but it will be just right out front.

The same goes in the studio. Choose amps that sound good specifically for rhythm playing. You’ll know you’re onto something when the recording engineer places a mike in front of your cab, takes all of one minute to dial your sound at the console and says, “Okay, next!”

Choose your notes carefully. Rhythm playing isn’t all about playing barre chords. As far as note choice, you play with the bass guitar—or better yet, play off the bass guitar. You’re part of a mini-ensemble, not the entire band, when it comes to playing rhythm. If your bassist is holding down the root notes for the majority of a bass line, try building chords that start with the third or fifth on the bottom. Try using spatial three-note chords. This trick was the creation of guitarist Freddie Green, the big band jazz legend of the ‘40s, who developed a style that most often avoided the roots in his chord structure, playing only the most important notes in relation to everyone else. He’d prefer thirds, fifths or sevenths, with wide intervals between notes. This made his sound bigger than playing chords with four or five voices.

In the end, you can rest assured that being the rhythm guitarist always equals cool, whereas the lead guitarist often equals jack-ass!

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