Projects and Musings

Bumblebee Replica

Back at the beginning of the summer I decided to clear some old stock parts and some wood that I hadn't used. One such pairing of pieces were a neck that had come in as part of a bulk buy and a large single piece Alder blank that was always going to be ideal for a strat. That had been allocated to a vintage Strat relic, but the customer then went for an ash blank that I had so this became a surplus body waiting for a project.

So in line with my policy of 'summer blowout' projects, I thought - let's make a superstrat. So I cut the body with a single pickup hole for a humbucker. But when I put the neck and body together, and was thinking about paint colours, I could just see that one guitar in my mind - Eddie Van Halen's 'Bumblebee'.

However, there are production models of that, so it didn't seem like a particularly interesting thing to build. But what if I could actually build it how it originally was, not the modern version of it that Fender currently produce? Now that would be interesting. What's more, what if I could actually make it work the way that Eddie originally did - a functioning standard trem with nothing but the tools and equipment that Eddie originally had? Now that was more of a challenge.

The Guitar

I looked into the history of it quite closely. Bumblebee, as everyone knows, is the guitar featured on the cover of Van Halen 2. But it isn't on the record. In fact, I'm not certain that it's actually on any Van Halen record.

The original guitar had a black pickup in it - I get the impression it was a Seymour Duncan pickup. It was apparently too hot according to old interviews with Ed, and he swapped it for an old Gibson pickup, which he rewound and potted. There's a picture of this which seems to be either a studio or rehearsal picture, which seems to show the original guitar as it was, with this one change.

 

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You can see in the picture the changed pickup, but still the vintage trem and the original neck. and that's the guitar I tried to copy.

It was this guitar that was played on the second leg of the Van Halen 1 European tour mainly in support of Black Sabbath, but also at their first UK headline gig at the now defunct Rainbow Theatre.

So what happened to it? Because you don't see it again by the end of the VH2 tour. Firstly, the neck was swapped with with Frankenstein's neck. When we first see the 'red' covered black and white Frankie on the pictures from the VH2 tour in 79, then it has a black headstock. At the same time, the Bumblebee has a plain neck, no finish, with a locking trem (the original Floyd with no fine tuners) on it. By this stage it has a Dimarzio Super Distortion in it, and the zebra pickup probably just went back in the spares bin. 

Then, following the VH2 tour, it seemed to be ditched in favour of the original Frankenstein, which then gains the full Floyd with fine tuners, and has the original neck restored to it with the locking nut. I can't find much evidence of Eddie playing it beyond that point, though it does appear on pictures in the early 80's. 

When Wayne Charvel sold out to Grover Jackson, Jackson tried to make copies of the guitar and there was for a short time a production 'Charvel' bumblebee. This was nothing to do with Wayne Charvel himself, and Eddie apparently send desist notices via his lawyers. Jackson sent him several of the guitars as a peace offering, but I'm not sure they were ever used and may have been given away in publicity drives. The copies stopped being made commercially.

In the end, the guitar lay apparently unused for two decades, until the untimely death of Darrell Dimebag Abbott. The guitar was a favourite of his, and when a replica was requested for burial with Darrell, Eddie simply gave his family the original and it was buried with Dimebag.

The Replica

Specs:

Alder Body (1 piece)

Maple Neck (painted black on reverse and headstock)

Standard Fender Type tremolo with Heavy Steel block

Gotoh Tuners

Hand Wound Alnico II Pickup (Zebra), about 10k

9-40 nickel steel

 

In Use

As you can imagine, any guitar based on Van Halen's original designs will have the limitations that he suffered, and that caused him to take on the locking trem as a remedy. But it's also true that the fender vintage trem does sound better with its large block and increased body contact. It has more bottom end and better sustain. 

The pickup, a hand wound one, mimics as closely as I could the sound from VH1 - as this is the sound that I have to reference at that time. Of course, there's no evidence that the bumblebee was ever recorded anyway - but there's no secret in that Eddie didn't like high powered pickups in the bridge position. We also know that he used a Gibson pickup, probably Alnico 2, from a 335 for his original Strat. He rewound it a little hot and potted it.

The setup is also pure Van Halen. 9-40 strings were his favoured gauges at the time, probably a result of Hendrix having used the same strings and that they were sold as a 'Fender' balanced set for strats in the 70's. The guitar is setup with these strings 1/2 a tone down at Eb, as Eddie did back then for David Lee Roth's vocal.

Keeping it in tune is fairly straight forward, so long as you don't ask the impossible of it. Eddie didn't favour the 'trem pull' trick - he set his tremolos flat to the wood. That means that if a string went sharp he couldn't pull back on the trem to release it. Another trick often used is to press the tremolo hard down and then tune the sharp strings back to pitch - but this causes  a hard bend of the string to flatten it badly until the bar is depressed to create the friction again. Eddie couldn't deal with that due to the sheer amount of bending he used.

Eddie's rememdy was to try to keep all the components as straight as possible. 5 Strings were wound up the posts to reduce break angle and friction at the nut. The 009 sits under the string tree for which the 50's 'wing' style was always favoured, but the string wound down to reduce the friction across the tree. The nut was opened out a bit, not enough to rattle, but there was enough space to make sure there's no pinching.

At the tremolo end, all but two screws were removed, creating a two point trem, neither of which hold down the tremolo plate or reduce movement. The 2 springs are set so that the tremolo always returns to to the flat position with a certain force, so that the grounded position doesn't shift without positive pressure on the bar, even with a string break.

The final move was given away with the release of the new 'Fender Frankenstein' replicas (the £25k ones). Inside the case is a bottle of the original lube that Eddie used to use on his nut. Basically, it's cheap 3 in 1 oil. So that's what I did, and it works pretty well. I'm not going to say that it never catches, but it creates a balance where you can bend strings and use the bar heavily and yet maintain tuning, even at these incredibly low tensions.

So here is - the video: Van Halen's Bumblebee....

The 'Saint' Hybrid

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About five weeks ago, I was approached by a long standing customer to help him with a project guitar that he was hoping to build. He had a neck, but wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do with it. His wife had bought it for him for his birthday, along with some other parts as a bit of a surprise - because he's been talking about doing a build project.

We had a mahogany neck, that really belonged to an LP Junior, two good planks of hard rock Maple, and some other bits and bobs. so I set about drawing up a Junior type guitar for John, but before long we could tell that this wasn't really where he wanted to go. I had an old neck lying about the workshop that I had brought in to use on a tremolo testing jig that I built a decade ago to test a new trem design I'd had engineered ( a story for another time maybe). So we opted to use that instead and put the Junior neck into stock.

John had his mind on a bolt on, probably something strat like - but he wanted something slightly different too. So we started drawing out bodies and came up with a body that is kinda half Strat, half Telecaster.

Now hybrids like this aren't anything new per se - but they tend to be either very much more one than the other. Telecaster body with an altered scratch plate, or a strat with a tele bridge. We decided to very much design the body around the scratchplate for a Strat because he already had a loaded plate we could use - but with the telecaster top bout and the less rounded edges.

Anyway - the result you see above.

But it's got me thinking - I really like this design. It's got a slightly 80's vibe to it, more Charvel than Fender. If I were to build this a stock guitar, (though maybe with my own headstock design), would players be interested in it as a fairly cheap (sub £1000) intro to handmade guitars with the option of bespoke colours on demand, alternative body woods, bridge and pickup choices?

Let me know what you think.....

Red Rocker - Sparkle Esquire

Simple things...

A lot of the guitars I build for customers are quite complex in terms of wiring and configuration. Even my old No.1 has parallel/series wiring and three pickups.

But back in the 90's, I used to throw away the switches, the neck pickup, the tone control, and just go for a total hot rod simplicity. This is a guitar like that:

The concept was simple - a rock esquire that you could hit hard, would hold its tuning under a firm hand, and would be fun to play. This was the result.

At the time of starting this project, my spray booth was out of action. So rather than wait, I spoke to a friend in King's Lynn, Graham, who is a custom Motorcycle and Car sprayer. He suggested a sparkle finish, layered with real glitter in lacquer. The result was spectacular!

The specs here:

Alder Body, Red Sparkle Finish, Single Blade split coil Humbucker, Six saddle Bridge (string through body), Push Pull coil tap, Single Vol (no Tone), Maple Neck with Birdseye Maple Fingerboard, Paua Dots, Gotoh Tuners, Jumbo Frets, Bone Nut.

I'd like to get this one out and being used, so for a quick sale I'll take £575. Come and talk to me if you want to try it!

All the best

Tony

 

Jaguars and Jazzmasters - a highly strung issue!

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Over the last few months I've had a few of the 'Offset' Fenders through the door for service. Jaguars and Jazzmasters, they have that really funky shape which has become synonymous with the alternative music scene. Johnny Marr was a Jaguar player for instance, as were Elvis Costello and Robert Smith I think. Kurt Cobain played a Jaguar (and a short scale Mustang too), and they are much loved by Indie and other bands that stay out of the 'Classic Rock/Blues' genre that dominated guitar markets for years.

The Jazzmaster was the original, first issued in 1959 with the Jaguar coming a few years later. I've had originals in the workshop, but not often. Mostly I see the reissues that came over the last 20 years. They seem more popular now than they were in their original format. Both share the Rhythm/ Lead split circuit, but the Jaguar had the chrome plates and the extra switches on the Lead Circuit.

One thing they share in common is the very slim feeling neck, one of least chunky in the Fender range that I remember. It's one of the primary reasons why they're so popular I suspect.

So, what's the big deal with them - are they great or a historical misstep that gained cult status?

Cool look, quirky yet attractive

They certainly have a very unique sound. I don't think they respond that well to heavy distortion, but they have a special resonance that I don't think anything else has. If that's a sound you like, you really like it.

Nothing else looks quite them either - that funky retro 'modernist' chic of the late 50's and 60's Americana. If you set them up right (and deal with the bridge), then they can be pretty reliable. The offset waist design is very different to the Strat or Tele, and has more in common with Gibson's Firebird (non reverse). The access to different tones at the flick of a switch is also an uncommon feature amongst its contemporaries.

The Limits of the Big Cat

Those switches. They tend to get rubbish in them and get intermittent, and of course they're a nice repository for condensation. Fortunately they're quite easy to get hold of now in the growing spare parts market on the web. They've always been available through electronics spares mail order of course, because they are just a standard switch used by a number of low tech devices. Just like the original Fender 5 way blade switch which was designed to run the Slow/Fast/Stop not of something like the Leslie Speaker (which they are still used on), but a washing machine.

Then there's the Rhythm circuit itself. The pots are mounted sideways, which can make them a little more difficult to clean out quickly. And to add to that you have to take the bridge off to get to the electronics on most Jazzmasters, so as a repair guy who has to do some quick turnaround stuff for touring musicians, that can be a pain on a Jazzmaster (because you have to set up the bridge again to clean out a pot). Even the modern ones with tune-o-matic bridges require the bridge posts to be removed from the body because the holes in them aren't big enough to just slide them over the top. Lots of people don't use the switched circuit and just bypass it, especially on Jaguars - just because they tend to hit the switches by accident.

The tremolo. Just leave it alone. Don't go there. Take the arm out and behave yourself. OK, that's a bit harsh, it can work very well. But you do have to make sure that you have that bridge sorted out well and don't go to crazy with it. A lot of writers tend to suggest throwing away the bridge on the original design ones, which reduces or removes the unwanted motion on the pins depending on what you fit. The newer iterations (non vintage repros) have standard tuno'matic - but these are still better replaced with a high quality roller, which actually isn't an expensive job.

But the big potential problem is the neck. A lot of Jaguar and Jazzmaster players don't tend to be big string benders, so they get their tone with a set of 11's or 12's, which gives real warmth and girth to the sound. And that's where the real problems of the big cats start.

Trussed up and strung out

Over the last few months I've encountered three different models of Jazzmaster/Jaguar. All three are suffering with the same issue to one degree or another.

All three were only straight enough when the truss rod was really quite tight. One owner had already over tightened the rod, the second was complaining of some uneven buzzing (the neck was a touch twisted) and the third had an almost new guitar which had too much relief in the neck when it came in, but with the truss rod already quite tight.

The problem is how slim the neck is, allied with the use of a heavier string and sometimes bottom heavy sets, and the modern age.

Angles and curves

A single part rod truss works by being placed in the neck in a curved state. When you tighten it, you're trying to shorten it, which forces it straighter and pulls the neck backwards. However, the less depth the neck has, then probably the less the initial curve in the channel. So the level of adjustment that each turn is capable of producing is slightly less. Once that rod is straight, it can't do anything - and that can also happen due to the fillet in the neck not being pushed in far enough during production (Mexican models apparently have a history of this, across the whole range). So there's nothing to force the resting state curved enough, adding to the problem of an already shallow neck.

Truss rods can stretch. It did happen to old guitars - early Teles suffered it for example, but in recent years it has seemed a more regular complaint. My guess is that it's probably because the supply of steel into the production process isn't the same as it was in the 1950's. Industrial processes required different properties in steel, and possibly that's made steel stronger for most uses, but decreased its tensile strength a little. It might also just be that cost cutting in production leads to lower spec steel being available for low tech products.

But Strings are the big issue. Here's the numbers:

A set of 9's - total pressure of 84.44lbs at A=440hz (25.5" Scale)

A set of 10's - 102.45 lbs

A set of 11's - 116.71 lbs.

That's 32.27 lbs difference between 9's and 11's - a whopping 38% extra pressure for 11's. As a guide, I'm just under 6' tall, and I'm about 170lbs. A lot of pressure goes on a guitar neck.

So it can become a bit of a perfect storm - heavy strings, not much wood to create stiffness, what is probably a low curve in the truss rod chamber, a rod probably more prone to over tensioning and the desire for low action. 

Now of course, wood alters from batch to batch, so a good number of these necks are quite happy with 12's at standard pitch - but if yours isn't, it's not game over.

Remedies

The first is lighter strings. If your truss rod is fine now, but it's tight, using a lighter string will allow you to loosen back the truss rod, or at least prevent the need to tighten it further.

If you've got a body end adjustment with the cross head and you've run out of thread, the thread can be packed out to create a turn or two. Usually, if the neck is still concave without string pressure, this is allied with a heat straightening process.

If you've run out of thread and you have a modern Fender style captured nut headstock adjust rod, it's more difficult. To pack it, the walnut fillet has to come out. Sometimes a new neck is easier, especially if you have some twist too. If you're having a replacement neck made then I always suggest a true biflex rod (Rod and bar type) which has a flat profile channel - especially the gotoh/ steel channel ones because they add so much stiffness. A little more fretboard depth also really helps.

But the most important advice goes to Buyers:

Check the neck when you first pick it up. Is it quite straight, is the setup generally good? Then go ahead and check that the truss rod turns quite freely (if you can). If it's really tight, walk away. There's plenty of them out there, you'll always find another. It's just a fact that some people sell them when they go to a luthier for a setup and get told - "Sorry, the truss rod is already wound right up". Rather than pay to fix it, they just put lighter strings on for the sale, allowing less relief to be obvious.

If it's body end adjust, you can't check the rod tension so easily, and its got too much relief, walk away. There's enough of them that you'll find a good one.

 

 

A Les Paul...Vegan style!

Once every so often, a customer comes into the workshop with a request you've never had before. The customer had been trying to obtain a Les Paul from the USA that he'd really taken a shine to, but because of the fear over CITES measures that came in earlier this year, Gibson won't sell that model in the EU.

Really, what he was looking for a was a particular look - Red, white binding, Chrome with all chrome parts, no plastic pickup rings, knobs or switches. But the model had a rosewood fretboard - and they aren't exporting too many of those now.

But that wasn't the unusual part.

The customer is Vegan. He would have lived with the idea of animal glue, Mother of Pearl and other animal products if he were buying second hand - but in commissioning a guitar he wanted to have a guitar which conformed to what was a core life philosophy. So challenge accepted!

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So the first difference was the use of Titebond II as a fretboard adhesive. I don't usually use anything but hot hide glue on necks, simply because the glue 'pulls' better with less pressure as it cools, and also it's easier to steam open.

But actually, in almost ten years of doing this I've never made a Les Paul before - and so the whole build has been a steep learning process. I didn't want to use synthetic glue and a single rod Gibson style truss. So I used a biflex and a slight volute to strengthen the headstock.

The medium frets are laid into an ebony Fretboard, bound with white ABS plastic. The ABS is much harder to work with than Celluloid, but still dissolves well in Acetone enough to stick it, and to link two pieces together to cover the extra depth of the cutaway.

Carving the top was done by routing the edge to the correct depth, then carving outward with a number of different curved 'Gouge' chisels. That was a long morning's work! But the result was satisfying. To allow for the flush fit pickup rings, it's not quite a normal Les Paul carve - the rings are flat so therefore so is area between the pickups.

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So this week it's been in the spray booth, and I'm spraying a translucent red - a red dye in Nitro clear coat. It's the trickiest job I've ever done with the gun - usually I rub such finishes, but the red doesn't look the same unless it's sprayed, and I'll always spray these colours in future I think. Then on to top coats, after another long morning scraping back the red lacquer from the binding with a razor blade. There are two ladies in the Gibson factory who I'm told can do a Les Paul binding scrape in 15 minutes. I didn't get close!

But now it's in the spray booth drying - and that's where it's going to be for the next two weeks.

See you then for the next instalment of the Vegan Les Paul build!

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