Proof, If Any Was Needed, That I Just Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone

Those who have been following this blog know that I’m a beginning guitar player. Very beginning, and a slow learner (ask me how long I’d been writing before I was selling regularly, if you want proof). But that aside, I’m also still working out what sort of guitar I want to play. Do I, will I have a preference? Les Paul? Stratocaster? Both? Something else entirely? Right now I’m in the experimental phase. My first guitar was and is an Epiphone Les Paul Special II, which I still think was a smart choice for a beginner’s electric guitar. The controls are relatively simple and it sounds great except when it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t I know it’s me and not the guitar. No excuses.

Yet I admit I’m Stratocaster curious (Let’s face it—like the Les Paul, the Fender strat is iconic), so when this pawn shop special showed up on an online auction, I bid low. And won, somewhat to my own surprise. That’s the first photo. It’s an entry-level Squier Affinity Stratocaster, made in 1999 in Taiwan (Squier is to Fender as Epiphone is to Gibson, sort of). The resolution of that photo is such that you really can’t tell, but believe me, that guitar was pretty beat up. Playable, but just barely. One of the tone controls was out, all switches were “scratchy” from accumulated dust and crud and three of the machine heads (tuning pegs) were shot. You could tune it, but it wouldn’t stay tuned for very long or sound very good even when it was tuned.

So what went through my mind? Aside from “WTF was I thinking?” I mean. Sure, I hadn’t paid much for it (to put it mildly), so the smart thing would have been to cut my losses. Riight. I went straight to “I can fix this!” but wasn’t content to stop there, oh no. I proceeded right along to– “I can make it better!” The tone controls weren’t really a problem; I found a broken solder joint on a capacitor that would have been an easy fix. I used to make up serial cables for our old mini-computer system, so I’m not afraid of a little soldering. But the pickguard was flimsy white plastic, the pickups (what feeds the sound from the strings to the amp, if you didn’t know) were low-end and cheap even when they were new. So if its immediate problems were corrected, the guitar still just wasn’t good enough. But it could be.

Step 1) Disassemble. Which means I took a guitar and turned it into a collection of parts. There is one big advantage that the strat has over a Les Paul(LP)-style guitar—the assembly is completely modular and so this was the easy part. Fortunately, the neck and headstock were in pretty good shape, most of the problems were in the body of the guitar, except for the tuners. I removed the old tuners from the headstock and all the electrics from the body (I almost said “electronics,” but that would be misleading. The basic wiring of an electric guitar hasn’t changed all that much since it was invented).

Step 2) Strip and refinish the guitar body, which was a mess. This took the longest. Oddly enough, the coatings on these things are meant to last, even on a low-end beginner guitar like a Squier. I had to really work and employ harsh chemicals to get it ready. One coat primer, three of gloss enamel, five of lacquer topcoat. The two photos show part of the process. I wasn’t entirely happy with the finish, there were things I’d do differently now, but it’ll serve.

Step 3) Show the neck a little love, which was mainly to clean it. Whoever had the guitar before me played the living heck out of it, but the wear was no worse than you’d expect for its age. A little Goo-Gone and Murphy Oil Soap did wonders. I found a set of original Squier tuners in good condition online (sometimes eBay is your friend) and installed them. I could have upgraded to a higher-end tuner, but that would have required putting more holes in the headstock, and it already had enough.

Step 4) Upgrade the electrical components. Okay, this is a Squier Stratocaster. It’s a real strat but it’s not like it was ever top of the line. But I’d already decided that I’d rather have something I could grow into rather than grow out of, so I wasn’t going to try and fix the broken connections and put it back the way it was. I replaced the cheap white plastic pickguard with an upgraded two-ply cream pearlescent pickguard fully loaded with two Dragonfire(tm) single-coils and a humbucker bridge pickup, thus converting the standard SSS configuration to HSS, sometimes referred to as a “Fat Strat,” which differs from a traditional strat, which uses three single coils, one each at neck, bridge, and one between the two. The main advantage of a humbucker is that it “bucks the hum” (thus the name). Single coil pickups tend to have a 60 cycle hum, sometimes quite loud and annoying. A humbucker consists of two single coils, with their wires wrapped in opposite directions, which cancels this out. Fortunately, the guitar body was already routed to accept either single coil or double coil at bridge and neck, so it only took a few minor modifications to the body for it to accept the new components. Once everything was installed I only had to solder one ground wire to the “claw” that holds the springs that connect to the bridge, and then solder the hot and ground wires that connect the amp plug to the other components. The foil was just in case any stray solder reached the body.

This is the underside of the bridge, with the “claw” in place. The ground wire solder joint was placed just to the right of the leftmost spring at top. I had wanted to replace the original Squier bridge with a heavier MIM (Made in Mexico) Fender bridge, but the Squier body just wasn’t deep enough. Fortunately, the original bridge was in good shape. One of the few parts aside from the neck that had held up.

Here’s the pickguard below. It required more screws to attach than the original, but that’s what drills are for.

Step 5) Put it all together (attach amp plug, re-join neck to body, replace strap buttons, and restring…and learn how to properly restring an electric guitar. I’d never done that before, either.)

It’s a guitar again. And it sounds goood.

This is the kind of thing that happens to me when I have a new (or in this case, kind of old) interest–I throw myself into it. The interest may fade, it might stick around for years (I am hoping this one does, because I’ve always wanted to play guitar), but whether it does or not, I’ll know a lot more about guitars and music in general either way. Maybe next time I write about a minstrel or musician, I’ll know what the hell I’m talking about. In the meantime, I’m having a ball. I also have another guitar that’s too good for me. For now, anyway.


3 thoughts on “Proof, If Any Was Needed, That I Just Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone

  1. “…ask me how long I’d been writing before I was selling regularly, if you want proof…”

    How long had you been writing before you were selling regularly?
    I’d say it was worth the time it took.

  2. Totally astounding, Richard! No better way to find out how to right about guitars, right? You certainly have done yourself proud with this renovation!

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