27/08/2013

Upgrading a Squier Strat

Not Strats
In which I attempt to put a case for spending money on a cheap guitar, and document the process itself.

Rationalisation for spending money

I've had an old Squier Strat for a little over a year, given to me for free by a guy at work. I took it because I couldn't resist the idea of a free guitar and because part of me still regrets selling my Strat Plus. It's not really correct to say that nothing else sounds like it, because the design has been copied so much that in fact plenty of other guitars sound like it, but there are certain tones you just can't get with a Tele or a humbucker-equipped model like my Gordon-Smith GS2-60, much as I like them both.

Dating an old Squier is a little approximate - in fact, Fender won't commit themselves for any pre-1993 instruments - but going from other information on the 'net, not least the Wikipedia page, the indication is that mine was made in 1991 by Samick, and thus is a fairly early Korean Squier. It has a very acceptable maple neck and a red painted body which is probably "laminate" (otherwise known as plywood); that is, it's a collection of bits of wood glued together. It's not possible to tell because it is entirely painted, even inside the control cavities.

The guitar looked to be entirely original when I got it; it was missing some strings and had clearly been neglected for a while, the electrics were somewhat flaky and there was a certain amount of corrosion on the hardware (although not the machine heads for some reason, which makes me wonder how original they are), but the neck and body were in good nick.

It's an ideal project guitar, of course; fundamentally sound, but worth so little that any mistakes made while working on it are not a disaster. It's also an ideal starter guitar for the kids - but only if the electronics are actually working. So I decided to replace the wiring and upgrade the pickups, which were the usual cheap bar magnet type. Obviously you can spend a fortune if you want, but after looking longingly for a while at the Bare Knuckle Irish Tour set (I've just discovered Rory Gallagher), I plumped for an IronGear set for less than a third of the price. They claim to be researched and designed in the UK but made elsewhere to keep the cost down. Internet reviews are reasonable, as is the price. Forum rumour is that they are merely rebadged Artec pickups, but it is also possible that they are genuinely designed by IronGear and made by Artec in Korea. Hey, whatever, I'm not fussy.

IronGear pickups are sold in the UK via the Axetec web site, which includes much other guitar hardware, and while shopping I managed to add a few more "essential" items. I ended up with:
  • Pickups: a set including an IronGear Texas Loco (bridge) and Pig Iron (middle & neck) - a good saving over their individual costs;
  • Strat wiring kit, with all pots, wires, capacitor, jack socket, 5-way switch;
  • Strat knob set (the old ones looked very off-white);
  • Strap buttons for Schaller style strap locks (every guitar should have strap locks);
  • String trees (the old ones were badly rusted);
  • Scratchplate screws (the old ones were corroded and one was missing);
  • Strings (own brand 10s) x 2
All of these seemed like reasonable prices to me and the total was just under £85 (with free delivery), which seems in line with the value of the guitar itself. Since one of the benefits of the Strat's design is that you can assemble almost all of the electronics out of the guitar, on the scratchplate, I had looked into getting it pre-assembled, but given that this was a £70 service at Bare Knuckle, for example, I decided I could do with the soldering practice.

The process

1: Strip the guitar down
First step was to strip the guitar down of everything to be replaced. Given that all the electronics were being binned, I just cut wires where necessary rather than unsoldering. The only hardware being kept are the tuners, the bridge and the scratchplate. On the right is what it looks like naked. You can see the ground wire coming out of the back of the bridge pickup cavity; this is attached the term claw at the back, and hence (via the springs and the trem block) to the bridge. You might wonder why there are two spoons amongst the tools on the table. These were used to prise the old knobs off the pot shafts without damaging the scratchplate.

2. Line the scratchplate
Received wisdom on various internet fora is that most production electrics are poorly shielded, and this was no exception. There was a tiny bit of foil on the back of the scratchplate, around the volume and tone pots, and that was it. Following advice on the GuitarNuts site, I decided to fully line the scratchplate and the body cavity. Once done, this creates a fully metal-lined box (a Faraday cage?) for the electronics, which both protects against (some) external noise and forms part of the ground circuit (whatever that is) - more on this later.

Above is the scratchplate, properly insulated. You can buy rolls of sticky-backed copper for this purpose (including on the Axetec web site) but I a) didn't realise this, and b) decided to go the cheap way with household aluminium foil and Pritt Stick. I used a Stanley knife to cut around the edge of the foil.

3. Line the body cavity
The second part of the shielding is the guitar itself. This was very fiddly, and took some time. Ultimately I learned that you should cut rectangles of foil out, apply the glue to the foil rather than the guitar, and line the sides first and then the bottom. Some posts mention the necessity of using a conductive glue. I have no idea whether Pritt Stick is conductive but the end result seems to work. Note that some of the shielding extends to the top of the guitar, particularly around some of the screw holes; this is to ensure contact between the foil in the guitar and the foil on the scratchplate. The ground wire from the back is poking through a hole in the foil (not from the bridge itself as it appears here). You can also see that, in my enthusiasm, I lined the separate cavity for the jack - this turned out to unnecessary and counter-productive.

4. Install the components
 Once the guitar was prepared, I got out the wiring kit and installed it onto the scratchplate. On the left you can see the various bits that came. The IronGear Texas Loco is already in place in the bridge slot. The supplied wiring instructions claim that all IronGear pickups will have colour-coded wires, including blue for the bridge pickup, but it turns out the that the Texas Loco has waxed cloth insulation and so the "hot" wire is always white (I checked with Axetec about this). Waxed cloth insulation is both more "vintage" correct and less prone to melting when subjected to cackhanded soldering. Everything fitted fine. The supplied volume and tone pots were noticeably larger than the originals, which I assume to be a good thing, although it did result in a tight fit inside the guitar.

5. Solder up!
As I mentioned, most of the work can be done out of the guitar and the scratchplate effectively acts as a useful cradle for all the components. On the right you can see it all installed and wired together, with the exception of the "orange drop" capacitor which I forgot initially! You can see it out on the table in picture 4 above - and it's a lot larger than you think from this pic. I'm not quite sure what it does, to be honest. Soldering is something I only ever do on my guitars, so it's only every few years - hence the amateurishness on display here. Note the lack of ground wires from the other pots to the middle tone. This is unnecessary because the foil lining on the scratchplate performs this function.

6. Wire into guitar
Now we have to wire it into the guitar itself. You can see the capacitor in place here. I don't think this is a normal way of placing it, but as I said, it's quite big and this keeps it out of the way!

Normally, the ground wire from the guitar would be attached to the other ground wires on one of the pots, but as you can see on the left, the ground wire from the bridge and the jack ground are going to a screw on the inside of the cavity. This will mean the only connection from the guitar to the whole scratchplate assembly is the "hot" signal wire from the volume to the jack socket - which makes things a little more convenient. The ground connections are made via the foil lining of the scratchplate, through the connection at the scratchplate screws, to the foil lining of the cavity and then too the ground connection to the bridge.

Ideally one should test that this does form a complete circuit, I think, but I don't have a multimeter and I wouldn't know how to use it. So I soldered in the jack and plugged the guitar into a Pocket Pod, and tapped the pickups to check they worked. There wasn't an appalling amount of hum so I guessed everything was OK!

7. Put everything back together
The final step was to put everything back together and add the additional hardware - the strap buttons, string trees and knobs. I had ordered white knobs and pickup covers because I thought the scratchplate hadn't faded, but clearly it had slightly! One of the holes for the strap buttons was too big, so I glued a bit of cocktail stick into the hole (using proper wood glue this time) and put that button on later.

This tested OK without strings, just by tapping the pickups, so I put strings on and tested it properly. Once I was actually playing it, the sound kept cutting out. I had a hunch that this was something to do with the shielding in the jack cavity, which I thought might actually be surplus to requirements - and so it proved. My uneducated guess is that something on the jack socket was shorting on the foil lining in there. Since a ground wire runs from the jack socket to the ground inside the main cavity, this shielding is probably not necessary. I took it out and it solved the problem.

Overall, I'm really pleased with the result. The guitar sounds great, just like a Strat should, and I think the tone has more meat than the old pickups did. I daresay a "proper" US Strat with that Irish Tour set in it would sound better - but only a bit, and at some significant extra cost. I also feel really happy I did it myself. (Although a few days later I met a guy who makes his own Soldano clones as a hobby and realised how pathetic my knowledge of electronics actually is).

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