Project Offset - Phase two, modding & tackling common Import obstacles.
If you have a guitar you're planning on modifying, chances are that it will be an import instrument. There's good reason for that, they offer great quality bang for buck resulting in a great base for tweaks here and there than perhaps a more premium, pricier American made equivalent would. Let's face it, not everyone who's just spend £1500+ on a USA made instrument wants to go at it replacing bridges or pickups, so the import market offers great scope for DIY tweaking.
Some of the most common mods we are all likely to make is changing out the electronics and pickups, which is something we're doing on a few instruments at the moment. One is our 'Project Offset' Jazzmaster which I'll be focusing on in this post. The Squier Vintage Modified series offer a superb canvas for modding, but they're not without their little quirks which can cause hiccups along your modding journey. I hope posting about these differences may help someone else plan their own project and sail much more smoothly along the way.
One I encountered early on after stripping it all down to it's parts, was that the right angle bracket that mounts the rhythm circuit roller pots to the pickguard is quite different to the replacements available. The two mounting screws are located much further inwards, whereas with the USA spec bracket the mounting screws are located further apart. So if you're planning on replacing the wiring in your Squier VM Jazzmaster or other import model, I'd recommend keeping hold of that original bracket as you'll need to re-use it. I'm looking at sourcing replacement ones for those that need them, so sit tight import modders! Because of the mounting screws being further inwards, the screws that fix it to the pick guard do also foul the mini pots, which is far from ideal as it can indent the pot casing meaning the internals of the pot won't rotate correctly. So I had to space out the pot slightly using a washer and spare nut which you can just about see in the below image, which gave enough space for the fixing screw to miss the pot.
You'll also notice there are USA and Import spec mini pots for this circuit. This isn't just a difference of country of manufacture, the diameter of the solid shafts are different between those of Alpha and CTS branded items for example. So whichever you choose, be sure to get hold of the correctly suited roller knobs to help relieve frustration upon coming to fit! I wanted to test the quality of the Alpha pots on this particular part of the wiring, so the original rollers suited just fine.
Many of us would be interested in changing pickguards too, if we're gutting out a guitar it would make sense to do it at this point for sure. Import instrument pickguards 99% of the time are different to their American made brethren, so to show this I lined up a USA guard against this import JM body to show some main differences.
As you can see, the bridge holes don't line up, this could be modified to fit if you wished by elongating those holes. You'll also notice almost all of the screw location holes don't match, this is usually a given for USA / Import pickguards though and most players of course wouldn't be too worried about drilling new holes to suit if it's on a lower cost instrument like this.
Here's the bit you can't really overcome though, the curve on the lower horn is shallower on this USA spec guard meaning the electronics cavity is visible by a good few mm by the toggle switch position. Due to the very tight fit by the neck pocket and around the pickups, there wouldn't be much you could do about this. So on this occasion and on this model, you would need to source a Squier VM series Import spec pickguard. I wanted to stick with the original pickguard as it had a nice dark brown tort which suited well, but I did want to give it a touch more character. It's a nice dark brown tortoiseshell, but was very shiny and 'plastic' looking (sounds ridiculous given the fact it is indeed plastic, but I'm sure you understand!). I wanted the white ply to look a little more aged, so I roughed up the bevel slightly with a fine emery paper and then proceeded to soak it for over 24 hours in a insanely strong coffee which made my house smell superb it has to be said. This worked a treat and gave it a subtle but effective hint of character to the white bevel edge. I then went over the face of the guard with a very fine emery paper (about 1500) to dull down the plastic shine, and finished it off by going around the pot and switch areas with a more course sanding paper to add a bit more realistic wear. not relic work as such, but it certainly improved the look of the guitar a great deal. You can just about see the bevel edge colour tint and shine taken away from the guard in the photo below.
To match the 'newly' aged pickguard, I set to work doing similar tasks to the control knobs and pickup covers. For these I went at them with a lighter to dis-colour the plastic more effectively than coffee. As due to the shine on the plastic, coffee simply wouldn't take to it so I wouldn't waste any time or precious coffee attempting! For this I grabbed a lighter, and carefully held the items over the flame one by one to darken areas which was very effective indeed. Be careful not to get them too hot and melt the plastic though, this is literally just enough to give them a dark tint. This came out looking great and I'm really happy with the results.
Next up was the neck, after removing it from the body I set to work giving the frets and nut some attention. As I'll be fitting gts.co 11-50 strings and this guitar was originally set up for 9s, the nut needed re-slotting. Which is a relatively quick job and I finished that off by applying some 'Nut Sauce' to help with tuning stability and to help reduce sticking at the nut. Really effective stuff and I'd highly recommend it to every player.
Frets were next up, a full polish revealed than non needed leveling. All were nice and in good condition, no high or loose fret ends which is a great start! Wish it was always like that! So I tidied up the fret ends and dressed them meaning it's much smoother feeling in your palm. No rough fret ends at the fretboard edge. To finish this part off, I went to work with the fine wire wool and shifted the thick poly finish off the back of the neck. With a spot of Tru-oil it's now super smooth and feels superb! The fretboard came back to life perfectly with a couple of sessions with lemon oil, the rosewood looks lovely now it has to be said.
Upon re-fitting the neck, I felt this Jazzmaster would benefit from a neck shim. This is quite common on all Fender guitars, but especially so with Jazzmasters/Jaguars to help lower the action and improve the neck break angle. I made my shim from thin (0.42mm) real ebony veneer and placed it right at the heel. This really helped get the neck break angle set better. There's a great deal of discussion on forums about shimming a neck and how's best to do it, with some products on the market which are certainly great for doing this. Like Stew Macs full neck pocket degree shims, which provide a full contact patch to the neck and body at the heel. But are quite pricey, and challenging to make you're own correctly without the right machinery. There's a lot of worry about shimming a neck with a small piece of material from some users saying it can warp the neck shape at the heel. But my thoughts on this is that with a neck like this which has a thick poly finish for example it would take a very long time for a minute thickness shim to have an effect on warping the neck's wood. If it makes the guitar vastly more playable and enjoyable, then I'm down for that. I've seen factory shims on early Fender instruments which have been there for 50 years, surprisingly no wood warping. But I do respect why players would foresee it happening with the tension the neck pocket has.
Now the neck and body we're poised and ready to go, I got back to wiring this selection of nice electronics and pickups together! If you remember from our first post, part of the reason for this project was to test, develop and demo the range of Jazzmaster items I offer here. One of the items very top of that list were the superb McNelly 46/58 Pickups. So they're ready and waiting, but before we can hear them I need to trial some of my wiring! In it's first phase I wanted to test out a conventional vintage style re-wire, with CTS 1meg pots, Switchcraft toggle, slide switch and jack, and due to being an import and using import sized rollers and bracket, the Alpha 1meg & 50k Mini pots for the rhythm circuit. But I did decide to treat myself and use the Jensen PIO Aluminium Foil 0.22uF and .033uF capacitors. ooo la la. I have plans to develop an alternative wiring set for the Jazzmaster, but I'll come to that at a later date (Such a tease!).
You'll also notice the (rather embarrassingly applied I hold my hands up on this occasion!!) copper foil shielding. As Jazzmasters are prone to 60 cycle hum, shielding the pickguard will help reduce this common hum which always adds to a more enjoyable playing experience for tone geeks.
With the rhythm circuit wrapped up, I moved onto the lead circuit which again I'll list in the store soon as an individually available wiring harness. This is a relatively straight forward and to the point bit of wiring and simply activates the 3 way toggle switch to select your pickups along with a master volume and tone. The 1 Meg pots are the traditional choice for Jazzmasters, so when you engage the rhythm circuit it retails some treble, but it is common for players to opt for 500k. On this occasion I used 1 Meg to simply trial how this wiring set would work traditionally. The McNelly 46/58s worked incredibly well with 1 meg pots which was a very pleasant surprise. McNelly recommend a 500k pot application for this set, but if you did want to stay traditional to the Jazzmaster wiring then 1 Meg works superbly which you'll hear when I film a demo video soon.
Aaaand here's the complete harness! All ready to drop in and finish off by wiring the pickups to it, which I was pretty darn excited about.
Once I dropped the pickguard in and finished wiring the pickups, next up was getting the bridge in with it's new KTS Titanium saddles. I'm going to write a seperate post about Jazzmaster bridge options soon so I'll go into a lot more detail about these saddles then. But what I will say here is that they were very easy to install to the existing bridge, have a very accurate 9.5" radius which perfectly suits this JM fretboard radius, are very well machined and allow very easy intonation adjustment. Lots of 'verys'! But they get my seal of approval, nice indeed!
You'll also note here the gts.co 11-50 GT Round strings! These feature the long twist which we've discussed in our gts.co spotlight here on the blog. These longer twists add tuning stability and strength at the ball end, both troublesome areas for the JM and their floating tremolo systems.
After giving it a full set up now everything was fitted and good to go, I am being totally honest when I say this guitar is truly incredible. A huge transformation and it is now a guitar I would very happily own as my only instrument. It suddenly feels incredibly well balance, the 11-50 gts.co strings are so well suited and a testament to Gabriel Tenorio & Michael James Adams development and knowledge of these offset instruments. The tension feels just right, allowing easy play with enough balance across the set. They pair very well with the KTS saddles, which being made from titanium, help produce a wonderful acoustic resonance which translates beautifully when amplified. And talking of amplifying, OH MAN! The McNelly 46/58 pickups are mind meltingly (not a word but going with it!) good! The design of these pickups comes from the Jazzmaster single coil and the P90 respectively, and both aspects marry together superbly creating the most versatile single coil I have ever used. Along with the wiring set, I would happily put this instrument up against some of the finest vintage and boutique handmade JMs knowing it would hold it's own or even blow some out of the water.
The rhythm circuit is what has really stolen my heart though. Originally this guitar suffered from a very thin sounding lead circuit, and an incredibly muddy rhythm. Which I understand is a common reason for players disliking and often completely ignoring or disabling the rhythm circuit entirely. But this is a totally lush, jazzy (almost like how Leo intended huh!) sound, which along with McNelly's 46/58 dynamic and detail is just wonderful. I have spent a serious amount of time with that switchcraft switch flicked upwards, really enjoying a circuit which is sadly often forgotten about. I think this combination of items has given a breath of fresh air to the rhythm circuit.
The neck with the small amount of work I carried out, along with the 0.42mm ebony shim has formed an action lower than I certainly imagined would be possible from this instrument and it plays like butter. It finishes off what truly is an enjoyable playing experience and has cemented my love of Jazzmasters and modifying instruments!
I'll be recording a demo video asap of this guitar, as it is in phase two. Phase three will see an AVRI trem fitted and a comparison there against it's existing import model and some other items all being well!
Thanks so much for reading this VERY long post, but I hope it was worth it.