Friday, September 11

The Parts-o-caster: Part V - Electronics

Ok, a quick confession. I did not completely hand-build this Strat. The most important part where I took a "shortcut" was in ordering the pickups and electronics. At the outset of this project, I had approximately 0 experience in soldering. I wasn't about to buy individual pickups, tone pots, wire, etc., and wire them all up. Sure, I could follow wiring diagrams, but if something went wrong, I'd be completely lost and probably very discouraged. So I found this website, Picker's Parts. The coolest thing about them is that I could custom-order a pre-wired pickguard to be however I wanted. And since I was looking for a late 60's sound, their default "Nico's Vintage" pickup was exactly what I was looking for. I chose the slightly upgraded 5-way switch (American), and a short time later, I had the most important part of my new guitar.

Here are the pickups and electronics, removed from the pickguard. I had a lot of relicing to do, so I had to remove them. What I will say is that the pickguard itself was easily the most frustrating, work-intensive part of the whole process, as you'll see. After having soaked the pickup covers in tea for several days, I found that they had actually swelled a little. I was able to jam them over the pickups, but getting them into the pickguard itself required some quick filing.

After finally getting the pickups into the pickguard, I tried to put the tone pots and the switch in. Lo and behold, those holes were a little small, too. A bit more filing...

So then I put the tone pots and the switch in, doing the requisite screwing and wrenching. But then, what should I notice, but that the holes pre-drilled onto the body did not sync up perfectly with the holes in the pickguard. And, what's more, having gotten the guts onto the pickguard and trying to get everything to fit together, the body's neck joint wasn't exactly to Fender specs. After about an hour of filing, fitting, and more filing, I finally was able to shape the pickguard's neck pocket so that it would fit. Unfortunately, this left the area of the pickguard around the neck looking rather ragged and amateur. And then, on top of that, I still had some more holes to drill to attach the pickguard.

My advice, and something I would not hesitate to do if I built a second guitar, is to pick out a body that doesn't have any holes drilled in it yet. Sure, it will take you a little longer to drill the 20-ish holes required to get your guitar together, but it will save you a lot of time trying to get the pickguard to work. Incidentally, the pickguard I have is also the modern, 11-screw variant, and I would definitely go for the 8-screw, vintage style pickguard, if only for continuity's sake. Either way, the more wood that is in your guitar, the better.

Next, we need to do a little soldering. The standard wiring for a Strat has three wires going from the pickguard to other parts of the guitar: a hot and ground wire going to the input jack, and an additional ground wire going to the tremolo assembly, and thus, every metal part of the guitar. Up first, the tremolo ground.

Two long screws secure the tremolo spring plate to the guitar. Later, once the tremolo springs are on the guitar, the depth of these screws will dictate the height of the bridge, but for now, a close-enough approach is all that's needed. With that in place, I ran one grounding wire (black is ground, white is hot) through the guitar and soldered it to the plate.

That done, I attached the trem springs to the hooks, stretching them a little. They weren't anywhere near as tight as they would be with strings on, and again, the screws will need to be adjusted once you get some tension on the springs, but this is the first step.

Lastly, we have the other two wires to attach. On the advice of more of the internets, I twisted the two remaining wires together to get a natural shielding effect to cut back on a little hum inherent in single-coil guitars, and fed them through the hole going to the jack.

A quick word on hum in a single-coil guitar. A lot of people go to the trouble to put a lot of shielding on the cavity of the guitar, maybe use humbuckers, and pretty much do whatever they can to eliminate the hum. But I believe that an important part of the vintage sound that I'm going for is that hum. I twisted the wires because I figured that it made sense to do that little thing, something that likely would have been done in constructing vintage guitars anyway. In the end, this guitar with or without twisted wires was really not all that noisy, as it's coils aren't terribly hot in comparison with some pickups available.

Quick soldering, white to the tip, black to the sleeve, and we're done. Someone online said that it doesn't matter which wire goes with which part of the jack. They are very wrong. I actually miswired the jack at first, and when I went to plug things in, all I got was a horribly un-grounded sound. Nothing but noise. In fact, I think that the picture I have is the miswired first attempt. But a little more soldering work, and things are clean and clear!

Two screws securing the jack plate to the guitar, and we're 95% done!

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