Dr. Fronkenstein, I Presume? Mad Guitar Science!

I have been having some fun by sticking guitars together.  Specifically, a cheap Stratocaster copy (made by Canvas) with no vibrato and two humbuckers, an ugly body and a wonderful neck (Guitar One), and a cheap semi-strat copy (Behringer) with a nicer-than-strat body, an ugly neck and three single-coil pickups.

From the first, I took the neck, the humbuckers, and the volume/tone pots.

From the second, I took the body and one single-coil pickup.

To these I added a blank Stratocaster pickguard, pickup covers, a couple of knobs, two 3-way switches from AllParts, and an oak dowel from the hardware store.  And copious elbow grease and time with Dremel tool, drill, chisel, and soldering iron.

It all started when I saw the cheap red strat copy for sale on a local site.  For $30, what could I lose?  Well, $30.  But from the moment I touched it, I knew that I wanted that neck.  But the body was a disaster–plywood dipped in plastic, for all intents and puposes, with lots of chips.  And ugly.  But the sound–from two slightly rusty humbuckers…not bad…

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I decided to fix it up a bit.  I could do that.  But I also started looking for a better body.  The one challenge was scale length.  Gibson-style guitars typically have a shorter distance between the bridge (where the strings stop near the bottom of the guitar) and the nut (the divider between the “peg head” where you adjust tuning and the fret board, where you actually play.

Fortunately, research on the web showed me that the Canvas had a Fender-style neck.  Now for a body.

A student at the University where I sometimes teach was selling his Behringer, a sort of semi-strat guitar with a more (to my eye) graceful body, without the flat bottom of a strat:

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Here’s a real Stratocaster for comparison:

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See what I mean?  If not, never mind.

Anyway.  My first challenge, having checked and confirmed that the necks had the same scale length, was to unbolt the necks and swap one for the other.  That’s when I realized I had a problem!  The Canvas guitar neck had a slightly different drilling pattern from Behringer body:

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As you can see, the Canvas neck (on the left) had its holes more widely spaced.  The neck fit the Behringer body alright, but could not be secured.  So:  I drilled out the holes to 1/4″, sanded an oak dowel smooth, and used super glue and pounded the dowel home.  Probably won’t hold up forever, but long enough.

Then I carefully mounted the neck to the body, installed a couple of strings, and flipped the whole meshugas over so I could use the body as a template to drill the new holes.  It worked.  I bolted the neck to the body, and suddenly, things started to look possible!

Then I started thinking about electrics (some people call the wiring of a guitar electronic, but unless there are active components in there doing things, it’s really electric).  I decided that I wanted to keep the two humbucking (“HB”) pickups from the Canvas, and since I had three single-coil (“SC”) pickups lying around…well…one of those, two.  Controls would be three switches (one for each pickup) and the tone and volume controls from the Canvas.

I considered adding a dummy coil to cut down on noise, so a fourth switch.

All of this meant that I needed a new pickguard, which in the case of this guitar, would also support the magnetic pickups.  So I bought one.  Because of the similarity of this instrument to a strat, I thought a strat pickguard might do.  Close, but no cigar.  I had to do some cutting to make it fit:

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Ugly, but this is a cheap guitar, so.  Next step was to cut holes for the pickups.  The Behringer body had what’s known as a “bathtub route,” which means that the space under the pickguard, with some limitations, was fairly open, rather than narrowly cut for the three original SC pickups.  Great, I thought.

Well, as it turned out, not great.  I had to use a Dremel tool and chisel to open up that space in places, carefully, so as not to crack the body.  I more or less succeeded, and the result, after I cut some holes in the pickguard for the HB and SC pickups to pass through, was this:

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FUGLY.

I fixed it a bit by covering the pickups with blind plastic covers.  Less hardware showing.  The holes aren’t perfectly cut, but they’re OK.  Hand tools, people.

Now, I had second thoughts about wiring.  The four switches would look complex, plus, did I really need those switches?  Some of the positions would duplicate the sounds of others.  I made myself a test unit by fitting the pickguard and two strings, and bringing out the wires from each pickup.

I tried various combinations with clip-whips, and decided that what I wanted was to have a standard Les Paul-type switch for the HBs, and be able to combine them with the SC in reverse phase (Stratocasters typically wire the middle pickup reverse-phase, which gives them their distinctive “quack”).  That would give me the greatest variety. I also decided not to bother with the dummy coil, as testing showed little effect without more complex circuitry, and I was in a hurry.

I could have done this with with one AllParts switch and an SPST toggle…  But I also wanted to have the SC available on its own (on its lonesome it wouldn’t care about phase).  A few quick sketches showed that I needed two AllParts toggles to make it work.  Quick trip to the parts store…and disaster.

The Strat pickguard blank normally covers more space than was available in the Behringer body.  So I had to break out the Dremel again to make room for the switches.  Finally, I got everything to fit, then flipped the pickguard over to wire things up.  I made a nice common ground bus to avoid noise, and used my soldering-fu.  I put on some strings, and the result was this:

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The two toggle switches work together to give me quite a range of sounds.  Here’s a demo recorded on my phone, using the the guitar through a Fender Mustang I amp.  You need to go to this link–a hidden page on my professional web site–to hear it:

Mad Guitar Science Demo

I apologize for how totally incoherent I am on that demo recording, and how badly I play on it.  I’m still fighting a head cold (which you can hear) and I’m also not used to the long scale length on the guitar yet.

Anyway, that will give you a sense of the kinds of sounds I can get.  My favorites, as I say on the recording, are the neck HB pickup (a nice round town), the SC pickup alone (a little brighter and more mid-rangy without being harsh) and both HB and the reverse-phase SC together (a bit of rubber-band on the bass strings, rather thin and harsh on the treble, but it cuts through distortion.

Perhaps the best combination would have been just the HB neck and SC mid-position.  Dunno.  But I’m reasonably happy with what I’ve got.

Next steps:  You may have noticed that the Behringer body has a “floating tremelo” bridge arrangement.  I am not a fan of tremelo (I can do real vibrato) so I expect I will be blocking that tremelo, or perhaps even removing it and setting the guitar up with a hardtail bridge at some point.  But for now, this is what I’ve got.

Thoughts?

 

 

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It’s been a while.

So.  It’s been a while since I last wrote.  Maybe I’m getting old.

Or maybe not.

There’s a piece in today’s New York Times that examines the question of getting old.

Honestly, I do not feel old.  Oh, I ache a little in the mornings, but that’s OK.  My mind feels 20-something.

OK, that’s all throat clearing.

The other day, I was listening to Bob Dylan in my car.  The song that came on was Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.  And it got me to thinking.

I got married when I was 28 years old, which means that I had about 12 years of experience with women before T and I settled down.  And I was thinking about why none of those earlier relationships had worked out.

Some didn’t want me after a while.  Some, I didn’t want, after a while.  Some wanted me to change, and those were the hardest ones.  Because sometimes I wanted to change.  Some others just wanted me strange.

The ones who wanted me to change–there were Jews who thought I ought to embrace my Jewishness.  There were Christians who thought I ought to revise my franchise.  There were Marxists who thought I wasn’t revolutionary enough.

And then there was T.

I won’t say that T didn’t want me to change, and I won’t say that I didn’t change.  But when I sometimes changed back–and over the past ten years, that’s been the largest part of my life–she didn’t kick me out.

Not a whole lot to say here.  I guess the main thing is, when you find someone who won’t kick you out?  You’ve got a love worth keeping.

 

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A Meditation on Autumn

October

Some people like Spring. I think Spring is OK—bare trees burst into green, lining fields and streets (if you’re fortunate enough to live in a city with trees, that is).  And of course, Spring is the traditional dating/mating and/or birth season, when life bursts forth.  Spring is the season of weddings and proms and babies…and mosquitoes and horse flies and other good things.

Summer is pleasant, because you don’t have to wear much in the way of clothing (and neither does anyone else).  But it can get oppressive if you live in a place with humidity and if, like me, you loved school (something I never would have admitted at the time), Summer is boring.  There are days, weeks, months, when there’s either nothing to do, or you’re roped into someone else’s plan (work, if you’re an adult; a cross-country parental death march, if you’re a child).  Relationships that were heady and exciting in Spring can feel stale and constraining by the end of the Summer.

Winter is nice, because you can sit indoors and drink coffee of mulled cider in front of a fireplace; unlike Summer, where there’s a limit to how much you can remove in public or in private (skin is usually not removable), in Winter you just add another layer, whether it’s a sweater or a blanket.  It’s a time for duvets, and in no other season does bedtime feel quite as good.  On the other hand, precipitation in Winter isn’t self-clearing; it requires shovels and lifting and aspirin; sidewalks and roads are often slippery and dangerous; and the world can seem wrapped in monochrome.  The whiteness wears off.

Perhaps Autumn is the way it is because it’s a sort of compensation for Winter.  Where the latter brings monochrome, Fall brings color; trees on fire in the day, fading into morning mists, and leaves crunching underfoot in the night.  What falls from the sky is still self-clearing, and school has begun again.  If you’re a student, that means old friends and new and exciting people. New beginnings.  If you’re a parent, you get a break for the first time since June.  Stores are full of school supplies, many of which are merely things to buy and within the first few days, will be lost, broken, or stuffed into the back of home or school drawers (I have  a particular fondness in memory of “reinforcing rings”—tiny  gummed circles that you could [nobody that I knew of ever did] use to fix the holes in 3-ring binder pages that had torn—that and the smell of Sheaffer liquid pen ink).

I have one memory, from when I lived on Dorchester Avenue in Chicago, of walking out of the house I was living in and seeing beautiful golden and reddish leaves plastered by rain onto gray sidewalks and gray steps up and down the street, and feeling the cold air hitting my lungs and just feeling alive.

Fall is the season of New Beginnings.  And, in my opinion, October is the best part of Fall.  October brings with it things like Halloween and—if you were like me and attended a school that started in late September (as most “quarter” schools did, rather in than August, like most semester schools)—a little comfort with your neighborhood.  You know where to go to get an omelet and decent coffee when the cafeteria puts Okra Fugat on the menu.  You know where the laundromats are.  The bookstores and stationers and record shops (pardon the nostalgia).  Whether you shoot in black and white or color, you walk around with your phone or camera at the ready.

It’s not Winter, but there’s already woodsmoke on the air, if you’re lucky; it’s warm enough to require just a shell to deal with any rain or drizzles, but you wear your sweater underneath the shell.  It’s a time for bonfires and guitars (whose wood and tone appreciate the drier air); for long walks, kicking through the leaves under streetlights.  For warm bread with real butter.  When I was a kid, it was the time that you’d build a fire to burn the mounds of leaves you’d collected from your yard. While I recognize the problems associated with burning leaves, I hate the brown paper bags that now line our streets.

It’s a time to peruse the shelves of used bookstores, where cats stretch across the mystery table; for chili and quiches with friends.  Scarves begin to appear.

It’s a time to sit by a fire (or radiator) sipping tea (hot) or cider (hot or cold).  It’s the season of apples and squash.  It’s the fat time of the harvest, and of harvest festivals.  It’s a time for journals and fountain pens and espresso in small cafés.  A time of healing and reflection, of resolutions and hopes for the new year.  The time to spend hours with good books while thunderstorms paint the streets in watercolors and light.  For red wine and cigarettes or pipes, if you’re so inclined.  For Ray Bradbury.  For momentary melancholy surprised by joy.

So light a candle as the days grow shorter and cooler.  Fall tells you you’ve made it through another year and fills you with promise.  Celebrate October, curiously the tenth (rather than eighth) month of the year, and arm yourself against the coming Winter.  This is the best time to be alive.

 

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Buying Shit on Sale

This sort of goes along with my previous entry…a bit of wisdom that I used to know and then forgot:

Never buy anything because it’s on sale.

This is difficult to remember, because T loves shopping for bargains.  So, for many years, I learned to shop for bargains.  That’s OK when you’re digging around in the scratch-and-dent section of Ikea, for instance, but when you’re lured to purchase something because it’s on sale, it generally means you’re buying it because it’s on sale and not because you need it.

Know what?

You may not even want it.

 

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Buy, Buy Love

This is mostly about me, but I suspect it’s an affliction I share.

I like to buy things.

A new phone?  Sure.  A new computer?  Sure.  A new bag?  Sure.  A new Shirt?  Sure.  And so on and on.

I remember when politicians used to refer to the American Citizen.  But about 15-20 years ago I started to notice that we had become American Consumers.

I hope this doesn’t describe you.  I am trying to make it not describe me.

But the media in which we stew these days are way more effective than TV advertisements of days gone by…  Now there’s Amazon and Alibaba.  If I notice something that I have isn’t just right, I can almost always find something better.  Just a few clicks.

Sometimes that’s a really good thing.  But often, it isn’t.

There’s no good reason for buying a stairway to heaven.

 

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Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.

They’re tearing down the junior high where I went to school in the early ‘70s.  My senior high school, which I graduated from in 1976, is now a community and (appropriately) senior center.

I don’t miss them.

I learned a great deal about various subjects and myself when I was in school, but if I had to think of something that I miss, in an emotional way, it would be something that I first acquired in 1976 and lost some time in the past two decades.

When I started college, in the fall of 1976, I lived at home with my parents.  My dad was a professor, and it made sense for us to share the ride in each day.  He parked just off campus, a lot behind one of the fraternities that lined University Avenue.  From there, it was a short walk to a café where I hung out sometimes before my first class, or a longer walk to Coffman Memorial Union or the West Bank campus.

But that first fall, I wandered through the wonders of just-off-campus shops in Dinkytown, and one of my first stops was along 14th Avenue, not far from  its intersection with 4th Street (which I have always identified as that 4th Street).  It was Gray’s Campus Drug at 327 14th Ave SE.  I needed folders, paper, pens, stuff to fill my bag.  I found those things—and something else.  A light-blue hooded sweatshirt.

I’d never owned a sweatshirt before, let alone a hoodie.  Just hadn’t been my style.  But this one became my style, and I kept it for years.  I wore it throughout my college career, into grad school, all over Europe (I believe) and it kept me warm at protests, camp-outs, you name it.

By 1986 it was pilled, dirty on the elbows, the cord was frayed, and I honestly don’t remember if the zipper still worked.  But I had already lost it, in the way one loses one’s heart.

T had acquired it.  At some point, I think she got rid of it—likely during one of our moves—but she wore it for years.  And I think that’s the reason that I don’t miss my old schools all that much:  They have to have meaning that you share with another person, and at those school, I just didn’t.

But that blue sweatshirt still comes up in conversation from time to time.  If I ever find a photo of it, I’ll likely post it, and likely not.

Look what they’ve done to my song

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Consumer Retorts: Brother Printers, Zenni Optical Glasses

OK, that’s just a fun title.  I thought this would be a good time (why not?) to write a couple of positive reviews that are long overdue.  I will not post links to the manufacturers, but you can get them from the names.  Neither of these is paid for or any crap like that.  Just a couple of good experiences I’ve had.

1. I tend to be cheap.  Really cheap.  So cheap that for years I used printers I bought at Goodwill.  (This is a short review.)

So, let me cut to the chase:  If you don’t have a printer and you need one, buy a cheap (inexpensive) Brother laser printer or multifunction printer.

By “cheap” I mean in the $100-150 range.  I have two (both DCP-L2540DW printers (one at home and one at the office), both set up for wireless use.  Each cost something like $120.  They just work.  End of review.

2. I wear bifocals.  I’ve worn classes since I was 6 or 7.  I’m 60 now.  Bifocals are expensive.  When we lived in Wisconsin, I had an insurance plan that covered glasses and I got good glasses at an expensive shop.  Best I’d ever had.  But after many years, my eyes changed and I was in a position not to have glasses that were worth crap.  (This is a longer review.)

So, I looked around and there was this place called “$39 Glasses” and I figured what did I have to lose?

Well–first off, the glasses start at $39 and mine were more like $90.  OK, still 1/4 of what I’d pay most places.  Then they took months to arrive.  Then they had to be remade multiple times (including in one case because there was an obvious 1/2″ circular mark in the center of the visual field.  Then, they stopped carrying the frame I had ordered the first time.  Then…  Hours of waiting on the phone.  Weeks of frustration.  I recommend that you avoid $39 glasses like the plague.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ve changed?  I do not recommend them.

So I got an inexpensive pair locally.  They were…”weak.”  I don’t know why this tends to be the case, but almost every time I’ve had glasses made at one of those “mall” places, they come out feeling weak.  I suspect that’s because most people, when they get a new prescription, are getting a stronger prescription, and that’s going to give them headaches, so these places look at the tolerance zone and make their glasses to the low end of said zone.

So I went back to my by-then-10-year-old glasses.  They were starting to fall apart, but hey.

Then, a little over two years ago, I went for an eye exam and the doctor told me that I had cataracts and would, at some point, need surgery.  Didn’t say when that point would be.  So.  I needed new glasses.  I checked.  At a half-decent (and I emphasize the “half” part) optical place, I would need to pay $350, and I didn’t even like the frames they had.  And I might not even get five years’ use out of them because surgery??  No way was I going to do that.

So…I went back to the Internet.

I honestly forget how I found them, but there was this place called Zenni Optical that advertised glasses as cheap as $6.  Once again, the ones I wanted were way more: $35 just for the frame (you can see them on me here)!  Something like $70 baseline with lined lenses.  But I figured WTH, warranty, and got them with all the trimmings.  $95.

I think they took two weeks to arrive and they were perfect.  The best glasses I’d had since the expensive place in Wisconsin that was covered by insurance.

They were so perfect that a month or two later I ended up buying matching sunglasses.  Also $95 with a dark tint.  Nice!

Two months ago, I had another eye exam and still didn’t need surgery, but needed a slight change in my correction in one lens.  This time I went to Zenni and decided to try a different frame.  When it arrived, I didn’t like it as much; it felt fragile (their fault) and sat funny (my fault).

I tried them for a couple of weeks, but ultimately decided the frames weren’t for me.  So I returned them (you get about a month), and then ordered a pair in the frames I’d had before.

And when they arrived they were perfect.  The change was small, and so for driving purposes my “old” sunglasses are still good.  And my old regular glasses are there as a backup.

My daughter, who has a much simpler prescription and very different frame preference than I do, has had three pairs from Zenni, at around $20-25 each time.  All good.

Yes, I know I’ve spent over $300 on glasses over the past two years.  Three pairs.  All Perfect.  As opposed to $370 for one pair that might not be.

I recommend Zenni.  That’s it.

 

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