Tag Archives: gigging

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…

 

 

 

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Gear talk (4): Stratocaster mods & repairs

In the last year, I’ve been using my two Squier Strats for the majority of my live work. My blue Made-in-Mexico Fender HSS Strat (let’s just call it the Blue One for the rest of this post) has been in semi-retirement, for two reasons:

  • It’s my most expensive electric. The Squiers are much cheaper to replace if a drunk guest at a wedding/corporate gig (about 80-90% of my live work with the electric guitars) kicks, spills beer on or otherwise ruins one of them!
  • It still has a humbucker-strength, high-output pickup in the middle position (a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails).

My MIM Blue Stratocaster, before the Hot Rails pickup (middle) was removed.

Nowadays, the bands I work with on a regular basis don’t require that full-on, airy sound I previously used so often. I also missed the in-between sound achieved by using the neck & middle pickups together, as the Hot Rails tended to dominate in the mix. Time for a change…

In with the old

So the Hot Rails is coming out. What do I replace it with? This guitar has been my ‘Hot Strat’ for the best part of two decades; I require a classic-sounding pickup which isn’t considerably weaker than the neck & bridge pups.

By chance, I stumbled across another Fender Vintage Noiseless for sale on a well-known online auction site (you know which one) and snapped it up for a great price. Perfect! Now I have exactly the same pickup in both neck & middle positions, which means I don’t need to worry about how they’ll match up together.

How does it feel?

In a word: good. But we need more words. It’s very, very good.

This guitar remains a souped-up Strat for rock gigs & studio work. But now, it’s regained a wider range of the ‘classic’ Strat sounds. The sparkle & twang you’d expect to hear are all present, with a lovely ‘quack’ in positions 2 & 4. The middle pickup on its own has a lovely BB King feel to it, especially when my amp is clean but just starting to push into breaking up. Marvellous!

I haven’t had a true single coil in this axe since I took out the stock pickups over a decade ago. Those original ceramics weren’t great, which is why I changed them. These, however, are somewhat wonderful.

A true HSS once more, thanks to the Vintage Noiseless pickup (middle).

But wait! There’s more…

As well as swapping the pickup, my tech guy also rewired the tone controls. The back tone knob now controls the bridge humbucker, leaving the middle pickup unwired. This means that the middle pickup is effectively always set to 10. However, this enables a certain shimmer to come through when selecting the in-between positions (2 & 4), adding definition without dominating the mix. Add to this the new ability to dial back some of the harsh top-end on my bridge humbucker, and I expect to be using the bridge more on clean settings as well as continuing to exploit it’s beautiful overdriven tone.

In particular, the aforementioned shimmer (there really isn’t another word to describe it) from the middle pickup adds a lovely bite when using this pup in combination with the bridge. This is especially true when played through a slightly pushed amp – perfect for a tough yet clear Robert Cray-style lead tone. And that is a very good thing, in my opinion!

In other gear news…

My Squier Classic Vibe Strat was also in need of a little TLC. I noticed at a recent gig that the volume pot was starting to come loose. Mercifully, this has been easily fixed before it became a serious problem (and started pulling on the wiring, potentially cutting out the sound altogether).

This only leaves a few mods on my other Squier, the blonde Vintage Modified Strat, still to do. I’m looking to make a few changes to the electrics on this axe, which I’ll discuss in greater detail in a later post. For now, I can say that I am in talks with a small pickup manufacturer in the USA regarding a custom set of single coils. But that’s a story for another time…

Gear Talk

I’ve been asked about the gear I use a fair few times this year so while I have a little spare time today, I thought I’d share with you details of the regular equipment I use.

ELECTRICS
My main guitars (which go out on every electric guitar gig) are both Mexican ‘Fat Strats’ by Fender. Both are made of Alder and feature Rosewood fingerboards.

The spare (my black one) was bought from the USA already customised, with humbucker in the bridge position and one master tone control. Where the second tome used to be is now a three-way toggle to split the humbucker to either half on their own or fully combined, which works brilliantly for acoustic simulation (and a lot less hassle than lugging an acoustic guitar about for one or two tunes!).

The main (blue one, pictured) is a Mexican ‘fat’ Strat (humbucker in the bridge). A few years back, I upgraded all three of the pickups. The bridge now houses a Seymour Duncan J-45 (usually used in Les Pauls) which gives a delightfully ‘throaty’ but open overdriven sound. The middle pickup is a Seymour Duncan ‘Cool Rails’ – but don’t let the name fool you – this packs a wonderfully modern-sounding punch and effectively gives me a humbucker in the middle position. Plus, switching to the position between bridge and middle gives an amazing ‘quack’ sound that cuts through a full band mix brilliantly when both clean and driven. The neck is a Fender Vintage Noiseless. This is my only single coil on the guitar and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the ‘pout’ you get from the Strat’s neck pickup and would never sacrifice what is my all-time favourite guitar tone for a little extra power.

AMPS AND EFFECTS PEDALS
My electric amp is a ten+ year old Fender Stage 100. They don’t make these any more but are without a shadow of a doubt the best transistor amplifier out there. I gig far too much to deal with the unreliability of valve amps and with one this good (and thanks to the 12″ Celestion ‘Greenback’ speaker, an amp this LOUD) I hopefully never need to. It’s been serviced twice in all of the time I’ve had it (since new) and works a real treat.

Should I ever upgrade, I have heard good things about Fender’s digital range and tried out a Roland 80 Cube last year. While the Cube impressed me a lot, it only had two switchable channels, and I’m rather spoilt by having the option of an additional drive channel with my amp, so looks like I’m sticking with it for now.

I don’t use many effects but rely on a BOSS OD3 as a solo boost (or occasionally as an ‘additional overdrive channel’ when I need a different sound to my amp.
My main solo boost pedal is a rather cheap and relatively unknown make, called a ‘Vintage Overdrive’ (JF-01) by Joyo Pedals. Joyo are a Chinese company and this pedal features the same chip inside as the classic TS-808 Tube Screamer. Put simply, it sounds amazing for lead work. I cannot recommend this pedal highly enough (and it costs less than £30 – you may as well buy two so you have a spare handy)!
My other effects are a Digital Delay (another wonderful Joyo creation) and a Cry Baby Wah-Wah.

ACOUSTICS
Classical: Admira Sevilla.
Higher-level ‘student’ model with a solid Cedar top. One of the most beautiful-sounding guitars I have played in this price range, and my nylon-strung axe of choice for solo classical gigs.

Electro-Acoustic: Taylor 314CE.
I first tried out this guitar over ten years ago, then shopped around for SIX MONTHS for another guitar which felt so comfortable and natural under the fingers, not to mention sound anywhere near as good. I failed, and eventually had to stump up the extra cash to buy the Taylor. It was money very well spent. Taylor’s range is extensive and I seriously suggest you try one out – they will have something which suits you, particularly if your style is heavily folk/fingerstyle based.

The gear I use has seen me through countless gigs, concerts and studio sessions with very few problems all in all. That said, if anyone has equipment out there that they feel would suit me (I play a huge range of styles) please do get in touch – I will happily borrow a guitar/amp for a weekend or two and put it through it’s paces at a few gigs, then review for you. My reviews appears on this blog, but will also happily write (or edit the blog to suit) for other gear/guitar review sites, as well as your own media. Get in touch via the blog or find me on Twitter (@tim_guitarist) to discuss!

Happy playing!