Category Archives: pop

Gear Talk (6): Squier Stratocaster pickup upgrade – The ‘Tim Higgins’ signature set?

As previously mentioned in a previous GEAR TALK post (read it here), I have had my Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster upgraded, swapping out the original ‘Duncan Designed’ single coils for ones specially made for me by a sole builder in the USA.

Health warning: This post contains a lot of (potentially guitar-geeky) chat about pickups and the magnets which make them work. You will frequently read the word ‘Alnico’ in this post!

If that’s your bag, read on – and feel free to start a conversation about your preferred Strat pickup choices! If you’re interested, but require more info, please refer to these useful blogs here or here.

Spot the difference

The pickups which came fitted in the Vintage Modified (VM) Strat – ‘Duncan Designed’ (as in Seymour Duncan) SC101S – were nice, but somewhat flat. When I say flat, I do not mean compared to other guitars per se. On it’s own, it sounds great and was a fantastic purchase. However, compared to its gigging partner, my Classic Vibe (CV) Simon Neil signature Stratocaster, they didn’t quite sound ‘stratty’ enough.

So what’s the difference between these two guitars? They feel very similar to play, neck shape (and rosewood fingerboard) are the same; both of them sell in the same price range; finally, they are both set up identically, to make switching guitars mid-performance that much easier.

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My two main gigging guitars. Left: Squier Vintage Modified Strat in vintage blonde (before the pickup swap). Right: Squier Classic Vibe ‘Simon Neil’ Strat in fiesta red.

It seems the pickups are the key difference between the two guitars. The red Strat uses special pups which really capture that early 60’s Strat tone. They feature Alnico V magnets in most of the pickups, except for the three treble-end strings (the thinner ones) of the bridge pickup, which are Alncio III. Many might argue there really isn’t much of an audible difference between two types of magnet, but I have to say the bridge pickup feels less ‘harsh’ sounding on these higher strings, while holding onto it’s ‘tight’ sound on the bass strings (where the Alnico Vs remain).

These pickups are officially made in-house for Squier. However, another pickup company, Tonerider, operates within the very same plant, so if you were looking to buy these pickups, I might suggest you search for their Vintage Blues set for Stratocaster. I have another post addressing Tonerider pickups available to read here, if you require more info…

The ‘Tim Higgins’ signature series?

I was all set for installing a set of Toneriders into the blonde Strat, until I started thinking that my guitars should have some differences in tonal quality. Otherwise, I might as well own two Classic Vibe Strats! I ended up talking to Rodhan pickups, a small independent company in the USA. Their owner/founder/designer Brendan was brilliant at helping to shape the sound I wanted for these pups.

I opted for a slightly unorthodox setup for Alnico III magnets in the neck and middle single coils. These magnets were only used in the very first Fender Strats from 1954 and quickly replaced by Alnico Vs by the late 50’S. However, having heard sound samples which still showcased plenty of Start-like snap and bite, I thought they’d make for an interesting tone, one that could be well used with the tone rolled back for warm, jazzy lead lines played clean. Both of these pickups were wound to vintage specifications (5.5k and 5.6k respectively, I believe).

For the bridge single coil, I wished to combine the snappiness of a normal Strat pup, without the harsh treble attack, but also have a similar dark growl as can be found in a humbucker (such as my HSS Strat). In the end, this pup was fitted with Alnico II magnets, wound to around 6.1k. More commonly used in humbucking pickups, these magnets still have plenty of snap and might just be my favourite ever bridge single coil. In fact, I might go for a full set of Alnico II magnets next time I upgrade the pickups on a Stratocaster!

I’ve had the guitar back for a few weeks now, taken it on a few gigs, and I have to say the tone of my guitar has improved. In a word: Strat-tastic! (that might be two words!)

VM Blonde Strat

The Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster, now upgraded with specially-made Rodhan single soil pickups and a mint green pickguard, for a retro vibe & timeless guitar tone.

As you can see in the above photo, I used the pickup refit as an opportunity to switch the pickguard for one in a more vintage-styled, mint green colour, while changing the control knobs, pickup covers and selector switch tip to a lovely aged white.

For those interested, you can read a very interesting and in-depth analysis of the SC101 set via this link, which allies with my own opinion that these pickups gave my guitar more of a Telecaster tone, rather than the traditional Strat sound. It was a great tone, but not what I needed in my Strat. These new pups are perfect in my new, vintage-styled axe. I also quite like the idea that these are the only set of its kind currently in existence… Thank you, Rodhan!

So what do you think? As always, feel free to post replies and comments, especially your own experiences in this situation. I look forward to speaking with you all!

Until next time…

 

 

 

Gear Talk (5): a rare gem

In all of my previous ‘Gear Talk’ blogs, one of the pedals that went unmentioned was this one, the Snarling Dogs ‘Mold Spore’ wah…

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For many years, before I started this blog, this beast was my main wah. It’s heavy enough & solid enough to stay put on stage, and the three options for different voicings make this a very versatile effect to have at your feet. On top of that, it also features a Ring Modulator die some psychadellic nosiness. Both effects can be used seperately or together for some pretty crazy sounds.

The company Snarling Dogs closed nearly twenty years ago, so this already unique effect is now something if a rare find. I had it refurbished & cleaned up a year or so ago, and intended to start using it live again. The thing is, I hardly use wah at all now, so this pedal has been sitting in my cupboard unused.

After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to sell it. Sure, I could keep it as a rare collectors-item. However, the (no small) amount of money I could sell it for now would go a long way towards a new guitar – something that I will actually use. And that seems more important to me. My studio and musical career are areas of work, not a museum.

Still, this bad boy will be missed…

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Reblog: NAMM 2018 – meh

Another insight regarding NAMM 2018.

What I find particularly interesting is the self-acceptance near the start (“I’ve found my sound. I know that whatever gear I play, I will sound like me”) which I feel all good guitarists, and indeed musicians, reach at a certain point.

Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about gear and guitars, but for me, these are tools. My guitars are facilitators, helping me achieve my own sound in the most effective and hassle-free manner possible. As always, I’d be interested to hear your own experiences in this regard, so do get in touch!

See the full reblog below:

NAMM 2018: Meh…

Until next time!

Tim X

Gear Talk (3)

Summer has ended, and with it wedding season. The number of gigs I’ve been playing each week is now returning to a level more compatible with two other jobs and a master’s degree. Now I have time to take stock and update you on my two new working guitars…

Vintage Modified Strat in vintage blonde (left) & Classic Vibe Strat in fiesta red (right).

My previous Strat, one of the new Fender Made in Mexico Standards, featured coil-tapping on both the neck & bridge pickups. In my current function band, I found myself playing it almost exclusively in the single-coil setting. After years of having a humbucker in the bridge position, I finally fell in love with the classic single-coil Strat sound. As it turned out, the Mexican Strat’s neck didn’t feel quite right for me – a trifle too thick, certainly compared to the thinner, vintage feel of my favourite blue Strat (see ‘Gear Talk’ 1 & 2). At the same time, I’d read several reviews singing the praises of the top-end Squier models. It seemed that Squier were no longer solely the savvy choice for the beginner.

I’d been looking for two guitars which sound and feel similar enough to each other to make mid-gig changes much smoother. The weight and shape/feel of the neck needed to feel close to identical, while the sound had to match up as best as it could. I had also been hoping to use more budget-concious instruments – if the build quality was up to it – in order to retire my favourite blue Strat from regular function gigs. On paper, the squires seemed ideal, so I took the plunge and bought two varying models on a retro theme…

Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster

The rave reviews on the deluxe, Classic Vibe and new Vintage Modified lines claimed that many guitarists might well be fooled in a blindfold test with some of Fender’s classic guitars. Likewise, build quality and parts were considered by some to surpass the recent Mexican standards. With this in mind, I purchased a brand new Squier Vintage Modified Strat, finished in a quote lovely custard yellow colour they call Vintage Blonde.

The Vintage Modified range aims to replicate a vintage guitar that’s been retro-fitted with player upgrades. Here, that means Duncan-designed pickups, a better bridge than the entry-level Squiers, a thin, tinted neck and vintage style tuners for better stability. The pickups appear to be a slightly aged off-White, adding to the retro vibe. Best of all (in my opinion), it has the large headstock that Fender started using in the last sixties/early seventies, which is the most obvious nod to the past.

I really like the sound of this guitar. And that’s not compared to Squier’s Affinity range, but the Mexican standards. The basswood body is lighter, but it doesn’t have an obvious effect on either the sound or sustain if this guitar, even compared to my Blue Mexican. Likewise the feel, not to mention the incredible playability, of this guitar far exceed its humble price tag. This has become my main axe for function work. All I needed now was a similar beast to partner it with…

Classic Vibe Simon Neil Stratocaster

I’m going to come clean here and admit I’d never heard of Simon Neil. While I had heard of his band, Biffy Clyro, I couldn’t name or even recognise a single song of theirs, nor could I adequately describe their style. However, friends more clued up on this sort of thing than I am informed me they have a mix of street cred with a younger audience and play interesting, heavy rock music. The specs on this guitar imply that Mr Neil has good, and indeed similar, taste in guitars to me. While I wouldn’t normally buy a signature model (other than a Les Paul, naturally), seeing this guitar going for £200 second hand was too good an opportunity to pass up. Heck, if I didn’t like it, I could always sell it on.

This (now discontinued) guitar is essentially a budget-friendly version of the Fender Simon Neil signature model. Based on a ’62 Strat in gorgeous Fiesta Red, it certainly looks the part. The Mark Knophler/early Hank Marvin vibe in the aesthetic was enough to override any boggling doubts about the subtle Biffy Clyro logo on the headstock. The rosewood fingerboard is slightly lighter than expected, but sounds as warm and dark as you’d expect. As with the Vintage Modufied guitar, the bridge and tuners are an upgrade from those axes at the lower end of the Squier range, and the overall build quality feels like another great job from their Chinese factory. The pickups are a custom mix of Alcino 3 and 5 magnets, which offer up a delightful blend of early and late 60’s Strat tones in one guitar. Very nice!

Having played this guitar for a couple of weeks now, I feel it’s here to stay. I’m currently setting it up so it’s gig-ready, as the action on the two guitars wasn’t quite matching up. There is a slight difference in the sound, particularly when overdriven, but it’s close enough to be complimentary. Other than that, and the obvious differences in finish, these guitars feel the same in my hands and under my fingers, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Finally, even though I never thought I’d say this, I encourage you to give Squier (and indeed other budget models) a go before spending all your money on the top-end guitar brands. Now, more than ever, you may well find the difference is that you’re paying extra for the name. All in, these two new guitars cost less than one New Mexican standard, and for what I need as a working musician, they do the job exceedingly well. Join us, and you too can live the two Squier dream onstage!

R.I.P. Glen Campbell (1936-2017)

I’m writing too many of these. Am I nostalgic? Or was there a truly golden period, filled with stars who so much that their passing inspires grief in even the most removed and passive music fan?

This morning, I leaned of the Glen Campbell’s passing. He was 81 and has only recently retired from performing following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2011.

Beyond the country-pop hits Campbell enjoyed in his long career (‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ to ‘Gentle On My Mind’, as well as the classic ‘Wichita Lineman’, in the video below), he was also an accomplished session guitarist.

Campbell’s early influences included gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt and one of my own guitar heroes, session guitarist Barney Kessel. Campbell’s career would see him in the same first-call bank of musicians as Kessel (now referred to as ‘The Wrecking Crew’ – I highly recommend you read up on these amazing musicians and the inumeroua hits they helped to create). In this role he performed on records by Phil Spector, The Monkees, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys and countless others. In fact, he was the live replacement in The Beach Boys for Brian Wilson, who was not up to touring by the mid-sixties.

Aside from and indeed above his beautiful singing voice, I will remember Campbell as a highly versatile and talented guitar player. I hope you enjoy the video below.

R.I.P. Glen Travis Campbell (1936-2017).

Video: Funk & Soul Medley (with Switch)

Been a while since my last post (several life-changing events recently – all positive!) but thought I’d post a new video from Switch.

For those new to my blog, Switch are my main function band at the moment. I’ve been their guitar player since the beginning of 2015, and we’ve performed at all manner of function & event in that time.

This medley was recorded last winter, but only recently uploaded by the band. It features three funk & soul songs, all of which are staples of the wedding/function band scene:

  • Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Stevie Wonder)
  • Never Too Much (Luther Vandross)
  • Ain’t Nobody (Chaka Khan)

This medley showcases Switch’s full six-piece lineup of female vocals, bass, drums, keys, guitars & male backing vox (me), plus alto sax & female backing vox.

For my part in this recording, the guitar used was my Fender Modern Player Stratocaster (short scale model), DI’d direct into the studio desk. Recording took place at Nemix Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. I must admit that I don’t know which ‘re-amp’ patches were used for my guitar tones, other than I requested a Fender Blackface/Deluxe style amp for the clean sound. Sorry there isn’t any more detail….

As always, let me know what you think. In case the video above does not play, you can access it on YouTube here.

Enjoy! xx

R.I.P. Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

R.I.P. Charles Edward Anderson, AKA ‘Chuck’ Berry (1926-2017).

To say that Chuck’s guitar playing was an influence on mine would be to do him quite a large injustice – he influenced everyone!

Building on the foundations of the early blues and jazz single-line players (such as T-Bone Walker, for one), and making great use of double-stops (two notes played at once throughout a phrase) to emulate the horn sections of larger bands, Chuck Berry created rock’n’roll as well know it today.

I could have picked any number of Berry’s songs to share here, but opted for ‘You Never Can Tell’. Best known from it’s inclusion in Pulp Fiction, I sang this tune with Switch as a first dance request for one of our wedding gigs last year. Great fun & a guaranteed floor-filler whenever we’ve played it since…

https://youtu.be/qK5N2LavUZQ

The live version by Berry & band in the video above below features some pretty cool soloing by the big man (not featured on the original 45rpm recording). Enjoy! x