A Case Study in an Assault Victim – A Fender Squire Strat – Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series I have been chronicling the "healing” of an Indonesian Squier Stratocaster known as SS. SS was brought to me by his owner after being viciously assaulted by a former housemate.

Due to the owner's meager financial resources, I purchased the necessary parts to repair SS and brought him up to a level that bested his original abilities at birth and made him the sharp dressed instrument that he is today. In this final installment, I'll describe his renovation in terms of the electronics.

So when I received SS, his electronics had been baptized with a fairly conductive mystery fluid that left a faint odor not unlike the pharmaceutical agent known as urea. His owner had tried to open him up, dry him out and deal with the broken connections within, but with limited success.

The first step was to remove the pickups, the pots, the switch and the output jack-plate/jack assembly. However as SS's owner opted for a new pickguard and I was going to install all new pickups, pots, switch and jack-plate/jack assembly, I simply cut the wires that held the old pickguard and related parts to the body. I then proceeded to install all new parts to the pickguard assembly. This is a fairly straightforward procedure as there is plenty of room to work and the pickguard can be rotated to any angle to facilitate the parts installation.

First to go in were the new pickups. Instead of the Squier-grade single coils that were in SS originally and at the owner’s request, I installed a trio of single coil sized, tandem coil pickups known both generically and the Seymour Duncan moniker as Hot Rail pickups.

Now these were an aftermarket, no-name set, but of very good quality as I've installed this no-name brand in my own instruments in the past. They're good quality, have the typical "Hot Rail" tone and cost me the same for the three that one of the name brand would run. So much is put in stock to certain brand names and while there is a risk that the no-name brands might be crap, this is not the case here with the pickups.

The innovative, late English Producer and Audio Engineer Joe Meek is on record as having said, "If it sounds good, it is good." Meaning that there are no magic words, secret recipes, rigidly followed methods/procedures or a certain brand of gear that one must absolutely utilize in order to get good tone. Such are these pickups.

The installation was as follows: I inserted one of the retaining screws through the pickguard and then threaded the spring onto the screw from the tip to the back of the pickguard. I then compressed the spring about halfway with my left hand and kept the screw from moving with my right and then pinched the spring screw assembly with my left hand and then switched that same grip to my right hand.

With my now free left hand I grabbed the pickup and turning it to the proper orientation, I then pressed the screw end to the opening of the screw hole that is drilled into one of the sides of the pickup's metal base and placing the thumb of the same hand over the bottom of the hole in the base's opposite side to keep the screw and base perpendicular. While simultaneously reaching around the edge to the top of the pickguard, I kept the screw from popping out under tension from the spring with my thumb.

I then took the screwdriver in my free hand and proceeded to turn the screw a few turns to engage the threads into the base and make the screw fast so that I no longer needed to hold it. I then repeated the exercise, but to a lesser degree of dexterous acrobatics as the one side was secured. After getting the second screw seated and the pickguard now supporting both screws and springs, I screwed the two screws in an alternating fashion to where the pickup was now poking up through the aperture in the pickguard about 1/4". This was repeated with the two other pickups.

Next, I screwed the 5 -way switch into place. Easy peasy. Then I screwed the three pots into place. Then came the hard part. I'm not going to described how I wired this. Suffice it to say that I partly used a commercial schematic (pictured below) and I improvised the custom parts of what SS's owner had requested from the switching based on experience.

To split coils in a humbucking pickup, it is necessary that the pickup be a 4-wire variety as shown in the photo below. Unfortunately, it did not work as planned as the push pull pots that I had ordered do not conform to a standard internal connection scheme. So that issue will be addressed at a later point...perhaps when the owner would like to repaint the guitar, a job that he's expressed in having done. Again, that's an easy job to take on in terms of a single solid color with the paints that are available. That'll be another article for another time.

After getting the pickguard all wired, I used solderless connectors to create connections to the output jack and to the bridge/string ground on the vibrato spring claw. I ran a short length of wire off the pickguard electronics and then I ran a short length off the output jack for the hot and the ground and a third from the claw.

The raison d'être is to allow him to switch completely wired pickguard assemblies with different pickups without having to solder. The connectors I used are the type used in automotive applications that make a good, secure contact and are not prone to corrosion or anything else that would spoil the connection. I plan on taking from the abundance of assorted single coil pickups and pots I have in my booger box and creating him another more traditional Strat sound pickguard from the old one that SS was born with.

The wires I used from the output jack are color coded. The black is the hot, the white is the ground and the clear is the claw ground. The pickguard wiring matches this scheme, so there is no question as to which connector goes to which connector when he decides to switch. I also included an Orange Drop Type tone capacitor, as opposed to the U&C ceramic as these do enhance the tonal properties a bit in my experience. Will it make a difference here? I don’t know, but it certainly cannot hurt.

So with the wires all connected, the pickguard got screwed down. Then the 13 gauge strings went on and stretched. Once I tuned it to the desired B to B, I made sure the truss rod was adjusted to render a flat fingerboard. I began fine tuning the nut. Because I had measured the old one and sanded down the new one to the same exterior dimensions, all I had to do was open up the slots a bit wider and file them deeper to approximate the radius of the fretboard and applied the right amount of clearance at the first fret (as measured with a feeler gauge) with a capo on the second.

Once the nut was in good shape, I re-tensioned the strings to full tension, adjusted the truss rod for the correct amount of back bow for the owner's style of playing and then tightened down the vibrato claw screws just a bit to make for a bridge that was neither raised or lowered with respect to the top of the body.

The next step is to check the bridge height and adjust to the radius of the fretboard also. Once this was done, the next step is to retune at the desired tuning and pitch. Then on each string, a fretted note is played at the 12th fret. It should match the note of the open string on an accurate electronic tuner. Strobe tuners used to be the standard for setting the intonation, but the one built into my Avid 11 rack is more than adequate.

Then the 12th fret harmonic is played. If the note is sharp, then the saddle position screw must be turned to move the saddle away from the nut. If the harmonic note is flat, the saddle screw must be turned to move the saddle closer to the nut. After each saddle adjustment, retune the string to the desired note and repeat. When the 12th fret, fretted note and harmonic agree, one moves on to the next string. When the process is done, retune all the strings again and again until they are in tune. I say again and again, because that is the drill with a floating bridge setup. One must have patience.

I then plugged it in and checked it out on clean and dirty settings. There is a minor issue with the middle pickup due to the dubious nature of the pots (this may not make sense to the seasoned modder, but please take my word for it as it’s a long explanation and has to do with the grounding “convenience” tabs that may not actually ground that well and where I wired the ground for that pickup) that I will not purchase again.

The owner is not upset as the guitar works and never uses the middle, but I know SS wants it addressed, so when I open the instrument up to make for the coil splitting, I'll be replacing this disappointing brand of parts with CIS, Alpha or Bourns and a set of Switchcraft micro switches so as to make SS happy and his owner happy.

Normally I would have made the necessary changes before returning the instrument, but the owner was wanting SS back as he missed playing SS and as SS is in eminently better shape than when he came under my care, the situation was more than acceptable.

The take home message here is that sometimes when unknown brands (as in unknown to me as from previous utilization) of parts are utilized, sometimes they do not perform as planned. Yet one must experiment with the unknown and not be totally risk averse either, or nothing new is ever learned and nothing of potential greater use is discovered.

I have the replacement parts to remedy the unfinished business on order and when SS and his owner are ready for the next much more minor surgery, I'll be re ready to operate; hopefully this includes a new paint job as well.

-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist
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