Tag Archives: blues

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.

img_5054

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…

 

 

 

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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

New Year’s resolutions for guitar players

As a general rule, I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. My philosophy is that changes can be made at any time, so why wait until January?

However, there is something about the end of a year which causes us all to reflect on the previous twelve months and start focusing on our plans for the next twelve. For us working musicians, many of us have recently reached the end of one of our peak times, the ‘Christmas Party Season’.

Like many bands who find most of their work comes from weddings & function work, 2016 ended for me with a NYE gig. In January, things start to feel a little quieter by comparison, which gives us time to ponder on the gigs we’ve enjoyed, what we didn’t enjoy, and what we hope to change for the new year.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of my suggestions for guitar-related resolutions for musicians looking to grow as better musicians in 2017:

  • Learn a new style.

Always wanted to start learning those jazz chord voicings? Perhaps you keep meaning to work on your reggae & ska rhythm playing? Or your country picking? Blues slide? The list goes on…

Take the time to work on these new genres & styles of playing. We are very fortunate to live in a time where we can access a world of free tutorials on the Internet, or videos in YouTube. However, don’t rule out the possibility of taking lessons to focus on specific areas – working one to one with an experienced guitar tutor does wonders for improving your playing! 

  • Mix things up.

Learning a style doesn’t mean you have to abandon all you know & travel the world playing strictly Django/gypsy jazz for the rest of your life (though I imagine there are plenty of worse ways to live)!

Have you found that the majority if your playing has been on acoustic guitar? Trying swapping to electric more often (or vice versa). Do you always practise at the same time of day? If possible, can you change to a different time? Your brain operates differently throughout the day – you may well find yourself going down very different musical avenues simply by switching from a morning to an afternoon practice session.

Sometimes learning to play a song you are very familiar with in a new style works brilliantly in helping your playing. Not only do you freshen up material which might be getting a bit stale, but you’ll have a safer means of exploring new options in your guitar playing.

One area of guitar playing I can’t recommend highly enough is solo performance. By this, I don’t mean the lead guitar solo in a song, but playing the melody, harmony, rhythms, etc on one unaccompanied guitar. It’s something a piano player wouldn’t think twice about, but I’m frequently amazed at how many guitarists simply haven’t tried it properly! If you’re unsure about how to start doing this, there are several books, online tutorials (like this blog!), and of course YouTube videos to help inspire you. Which brings us nicely in to…

  • Widen your horizons.

Music is a language. Even when playing on your own, you are creating sounds for yourself to hear, effectively taking to yourself. But there’s only so long you can do that before you end up going round in circles, or going crazy!

Set yourself the following challenge for the year: discover a new artist each month of 2017. Learn from what you hear. Take examples of their playing & try to incorporate it into your own. It can only make you a better guitarist! The beauty of this is that you don’t have to focus on other guitar players. In fact, it might be better not to! Many of the jazz & Blues guitarists I admire take inspiration for their improvisational playing from horn players, translating their melodies & ideas into their own instrument. Try it!

It also helps to get out amongst other musicians, jam, join or start a new band, particularly in a new style. It also goes further than this – always wanted to sing while playing? Start! Learning a new instrument? Do it! The best way out of a rut is to climb upwards!

  • Get your music ‘out there’.

…And if you’re meeting new musicians & launching new projects, you’re already doing this. Go to more live gigs, gig more yourself, especially new and original music. I know all too well how easy it is to get stuck in one ‘world’ (in my case playing in a covers band), and finding it hard to do other things, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Remember to have fun while you’re out there expanding your guitar playing horizons!

Best of luck and wishing you all a very happy new year! Let’s make 2017 – like every year – a great year for music, for the guitar, and for you!

Tim xx

Please do get in touch to tell me what your own guitar/music new year resolutions are, and stay in touch to let me know how you’re getting on with them! Don’t forget I’m here to help if you need it! xx

Gear Talk (2)

It’s been almost two years since the last post running through all of my gear (which you can read here), and a lot has changed since then! Time for an update…

What’s the same?

First off, my blue/purple Strat is still my main weapon of choice (pictured, below).

My main Strat, with modded pickups. Seen here with my fave stomp boxes.

Known as the Standard Stratocaster HSS, this Mexican made beauty has been with me for sixteen years now. A few years ago, I upgraded the pickups to:

  • Fender Vintage Noiseless (neck)
  • Seymour Duncan Cool Rails (middle)
  • Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker (bridge)

I love the combination of these pickups, not to mention their individual tones. I’m buying a new ‘fat Strat’ soon (expect a review to follow) and should I find the standard pickups somewhat lacking in quality, I’ll be replacing them with the same choices mentioned above.

What else has remained the same?

My acoustics – the Taylor 314ce, Admira classical and Tanglewood electro acoustic – are the same as before. My ukulele is a standard concert model by Kauai.

Most of my pedals have remained the same but here’s a quick rundown of my main stompboxes:

  • Joyo Vintage Overdrive (highly recommended!)
  • HotOne Boost
  • Boss OD3 (overdrive) & DS1 (distortion)
  • Marshall Bluesbreaker overdrive
  • Snarling Dogs Wah
  • Joyo Digital Delay

I have a pedal board to house all of these. However, I often simply take two or three pedals out to a gig without the board. This changes from gig to gig, but looking back through the pics on my Twitter account, I find the Joyo Vintage OD (a top quality tubescreamer clone for a fraction of the price) usually makes an appearance.

So what’s new?

ELECTRICS

My current second Strat is a Chinese made Modern Player Stratocaster. Interestingly, it is short scale (24 inches instead of the usual 25.5). Apart from being a feet shorter on the neck (only twenty) you barely notice when playing, though the body is a little smaller. In terms of sound, the pickups on this are classic Strat and I love the Guild humbucker in the bridge – the chrome looks really cool against the scratch plate (see pic below, sun best guitar on the left)!

Modern Player short scale Strat, sunburst (left); Mexican HSS Strat, midnight blue (right); Fender Stage 100 solid state amp (rear).

Finally, I also own an Epiphone Les Paul plus top PRO. The main difference between this and the standard Epi LP is that both the top quality pickups are coil-tapped. They’re also uncovered, which looks very funky against the gold finish (see pic, below).

Epiphone Les Paul plus top PRO, gold with those beautiful uncovered ‘zebra’ humbuckers.

When I bought this guitar, I thought I’d be using it with bands in the heavier end of the rock spectrum. However, I’ve found myself using it more & more for blues & jazz gigs. It was my main guitar for my blues workshops at the Sage Gateshead this summer, and provided those early blues times perfectly.

AMPS

I’ve finally bowed to the inevitable and invested in a digital amp. I’m glad I waited, because evidently Fender did too. The first wave of modelling amps were full of lags & bugs. By waiting, Fender’s first foray into the genre ensured they got it right first time. Even then, they were minor bugs, quickly improved in the line of amps released when I started looking – and now I’m a very happy owner of a Mustang III version 2 (pictured below).

Fender Mustang III v.2 digital amp, pictured here with my gold Epi LP.

This has every amp option you can think of, as well as every effect you’ll ever need. I prefer to keep my overdrive stompboxes, which frees up the amp to add modulation effects (such as phaser or their wonderful chorus choices). There’s room for a hundred saved channels, which is more than I need but useful to have. Also, their pitch-shift effect allows me to down tune the entire guitar without the need to, well, actually down tune the guitar! Very cool!

What else?

Well… I’ve just today ordered a Fender HSH Strat, so expect a review when that arrives. I’m also quite keen to look at a few more pedals from Joyo. Watch this space.

Until next time…