Tag Archives: vintage

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 (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!

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…