Vaughn's Musical Notation

How To Adjust (Set) Pickup Height on a Stratocaster for ULTIMATE STRAT TONE!

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I recently received an email from one of my pickup affectionados in Germany asking a question that I realized is of ULTIMATE importance in Strat tone: “what is the best distance from the pickup to the strings for the best results?”  Now that’s a question EVERYONE who owns or works on Strat’s NEEDS to know the answer to!

I need to make it clear that I am talking about real-deal vintage pickups and real-deal quality pickups like the ones made by Jason Lollar, Curtis Novak, Lindy Fralin, And myself.  Those crappy Ceramic Bars glued next to steel slug things that come standard in so many Strat’s and Strat copies today cannot really be made to sound good, so a trip to the waste-basket is the only course of treatment for them.

How To Adjust (Set) Pickup Height on a Stratocaster / Strat

I prefer to use a digital caliper to take measurements, but a quality luthier’s ruler will do fine if you have excellent vision!  I also should mention that these measurements should be taken from the High & Low E POLE-PIECES, not the plastic cover.  Okay, so with no further ado, here are my suggestions and reasons why.

Bridge pickup:

Low E: 3.80mm / 0.149"

Hi E : 4.74mm / 0.186"

Often people will place the bridge pickup too high (close to the strings), with a VINTAGE set this destroys the tone, making it sound too narrow, focused, brittle, and harsh.  The reason so many folks get used to placing this pickup as close as possible to the strings is because many of the currently made Strat pickups are muddy and severely lacking in the characteristic chime and sparkle we all love in a Strat!  As with all truly fine Strat sets, my pickups certainly do NOT suffer from this lack of sparkle!

Middle Pickup:

Low E: 4.75mm / 0.186"

Hi  E : 4.13mm / 0.163"

Here, for me, it's all about making the middle pickup truly magical when combined with the neck or bridge pickup (positions 2 & 4).  Yes, these measurements sound exquisite when using the middle pickup all by itself, but it REALLY brings out the glassy, airy beauty that folks crave in the "in-between" positions on a Strat!

Neck Pickup:

Low E: 5.25mm / 0.207"

Hi  E  : 4.37mm / 0.172"

This is actually a very standard placement, and about where most Strats will come set from the factory.  There are three goals here.  First, we want a great "SRV" type tone that sings beautifully and does not fall apart into mud even with EXTREME amounts of gain added (think dual daisy-chained Tube Screamers).  Second, we want to be able to roll the tone back a little and have a truly rewarding experience playing big Jazz chords and lines.  And last, we want to ensure it blends perfectly with the middle pickup for that air and glass we mentioned.

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Vintage Burny “Les Paul” … a Fake that’s Better Than the Real Thing?

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Vintage 1980s 1970s Burny Les Paul Fine Example

Over the decades I’ve owned a fair number of what I call “big Boy” Les Pauls; you know,  the kind with full binding, extra-glossy finishes, and multi-thousand dollar price tags.  I have failed to bond with any of them in a sufficient enough manner to justify my keeping them.  It’s quite possible that the problem is that I’m just downright spoiled.  You see, I’ve had opportunity to possess … but never actually own … several 58 and 59 Pauls.  That WILL spoil you, they really are THAT good.  Okay, let’s cut to the chase … A couple months back a buddy of mine asks me what I know about the vintage “Burny” Les Pauls.  All I knew is that they existed, and that there has been some chatter about them being quite good.  It just so happened that I was exhibiting at a guitar show that very weekend, and so I asked around, and in fact played several Burnys.  It’s hard to tell on a show floor, but yea, they seemed quite nice, and the fact that they had asking prices from about $700 to over a grand indicated that they were not your run of the mill 70s/80s Gibson knock-off.  Actually, the fact that they even appeared in the booths of strictly vintage dealers alongside real-deal holy-grail Pauls spoke volumes!

Which brings us to the guitar on display here.  After a week or two my buddy acquired a Burney to his liking and brought it over to the studio for me to check out.  I was flat blown away.  In every possible way, this “les Paul” is magnificent.  It’s neck profile is dead-on to a ’59, not as thin as what Gibby is currently calling the “slim-taper 60s profile”, but not as thick as what they call the “50s profile”.  No, it’s just plain perfect, it’s the profile EVERY Les Paul affectionado lusts after.  Actually, EVERYTHING about the guitar just flat feels right.  The weight, balance, action, and intonation are impeccable, and the pickups sound better than anything Gibson’s made this side of about 1965.   I wish I could tell you more about these guitars, but they are new to me, and I’m not anywhere close to an expert.  However, a little google search will put you in the camp of plenty of experts in a hurry.  What I CAN do is tell you a little more about what impresses me so much about this particular example.  And by the way, I can’t even tell you much of anything about the pedigree of this particular guitar, as there are no markings inside or outside other than the Burny logo!  It was sold as a 1980s model, and so we assume it is.  There, that’s about all I can tell ya, PLEASE … y’all feel free to leave some comments if you can shed some light on this instrument!

Vintage 1980s 1970s Burny Les Paul headstock

The first thing that stood out to me was the fact that the binding encased the fret edges, just like a bound-fingerboard Gibson.

Vintage 1980s 1970s Burny Les Paul bount fret edges

The knobs have a magnificent aged amber look.

Vintage 1980s 1970s Burny Les Paul Amber Knobs

All the plastic has aged (or came that way) in a most deep and luscious way.

Vintage 1980s 1970s Burny Les Paul cream switch tip

The truss-rod cover looks a little goofy.

Vintage 1980s 1970s Burny Les Paul headstock truss rod cover

She’s sweet.  I hope my buddy isn’t looking to get her back any time soon :-)

Vintage sunburst flame top 1980s 1970s Burny Les Paul front and back

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Upgrade Your Made in Mexico Standard Telecaster [MIM Tele] to be Truly Top-Notch! (Pickups, set-up, and other secret tweaks)

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Upgrade Your Made in Mexico Standard Telecaster [MIM Tele] to be Truly Top-Notch! (Pickups, set-up, and other secret tweaks)

Hi gang!  Sooo, this is a bit of a last minute addition.  I just finished a set of fully custom pickups for a Gibson SG-Z bass; it was a TON of R&D to get that design to actually sound good, but man-oh-man did I get there!  I was going to blog about THAT … but then in comes this fantastic video of our buddy Daniel at WGS upgrading WGS boss-man David’s MIM Tele, and … well … I just HAD to blog about it.  So cool!  First, watch this short video, then … let’s talk about Tele upgrades!

 

Cool, huh?  THIS is exactly why I make pickups.  Really, it’s the same philosophy as with WGS speakers, and it goes something like this:

“Budget” guitars are now the best playing they have EVER been.  Thanks to cheap yet skilled labor in places like Mexico and Indonesia, coupled with modern CNC machining, $200 - $300 can now buy a really good guitar. The problem is, the manufactures put all their money into what folks can SEE (and maybe FEEL) … NOT what they HEAR!  And so it is that the weak link in a modern budget guitar is the part that actually makes the sound … the pickup!”

In a way, that’s okay, because the average 12 year old getting their first guitar wouldn’t know holy-grail tone from holy-crap tone.  However, in another way that’s just plain disturbing.  I mean, think about it.  That kid may just stick with the guitar, get good, join a band, and turn into a REAL player … and then, what?  I guess he’s just supposed to buy a more EXPENSIVE guitar if he wants decent tone.  Or worse yet, maybe he gets so accustomed to bad tone that he just accepts it as standard fare.

Or … our young friend can take that lovely guitar they have now bonded with and turn her into a totally flat-out pro level tone machine!  Yea, how about that, baby?

Thing is, it’s really quite simple to do.  It comes down to this:  1. Have a good pro-level set-up done, including fret dressing and precise intonating, and 2. Put in a truly GREAT set of pickups (even most American Made guitars will not include truly GREAT pickups), and maybe replace the tone capacitor(s) and volume and tone pots while you’re in there.  What you wind up with in the end is a guitar that can stand toe-to-toe with a $10,000+ vintage “Holy-Grail” level instrument for a total investment of maybe five hundred bucks!

Okay, so here are the few “secrets” … just details really … that I’ve came up with over the decades.

  1. Replace the tone capacitor(s) while you’re replacing pickups.  All my Strat and Tele sets now include a .1uf tone capacitor.  This is the original value Leo chose, and it’s also used on nearly all Custom Shop Fender Strats … I believe the .047 & .022 caps found on newer Mexican and low end Strats sound thin & brittle, so I suggest using the .1uf cap!
  2. I ALSO suggest wiring the second (bottom) tone control to the BRIDGE pickup (as are most Custom Shop/high-end Strats); not to the MIDDLE pickup, as are most lower-end Strats.  If you do not understand this slight mod, please consult a qualified guitar tech!
  3. Often the factory volume and tone potentiometers (pots) are of questionable quality.  The biggest problem is that their values are just plain out of spec.  I just did a pickup swap in a MIM Strat and found the number one volume pot went from 400k-ohms to about 4-ohms … where the value was supposed to be 250K-ohms to less than .1-ohm.  Yes, that will totally wreck your tone!
  4. While modern CNC machines are terrific at getting all the frets in precisely the right position (resulting in great up & down the neck intonation), it still takes a GOOD tech an hour or two to fully dress the frets (for smooth play and feel) and set overall intonation.  Be prepared to have this done!  Even many American guitars will desperately need this service.  The modern “pleck” machines, for instance, NEVER leave the fret-edges feeling acceptably smooth in my opinion (actually most anyone’s opinion).
  5. Upgrade the tuners.  If you want top-notch tuning stability, you've gotta have top-notch tuners.

Folks, the truth is, many pro players are now in agreement that instruments like the Squire “Classic Vibe” Telecasters and Stratocasters are as good as an American Standard Fender or better.  I agree, at least once you have done steps 1-5 above, and your total investment will be way less than an American Fender.  That’s why so many pros riding out of Nashville on big busses have MIM Fenders, Squires, and Epiphones riding in the luggage bay below the buss.  Why take a stupidly valuable guitar out when you just flat don’t need to?

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What You Need To Know About Buying a Guitar On-Line : Vaughn’s Guide to Guitar Reviews

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Epiphone Les Paul Plus Top PRO FXGibson Les Paul Future Tribute Guitar

Howdy friends!  Sooo, today I was researching a couple guitars, to see if the ones I just picked up used were indeed the good buys I thought they were (An Epiphone Les Paul Plus Top PRO/FX and a Gibson Les Paul Future Tribute) .  Now, I generally go straight to reviews from places like Musicians Friend and Sweetwater to see what other buyers of a particular guitar have to say about it.  And, as is always the case, I felt that some of the buyers/reviewers just don’t understand the whole “mail-order” guitar concept.  Let’s discuss that.

First, if you only remember ONE THING from this blog, remember this:  If a guitar is shipped to you, you should EXPECT that it will need at least a rudimentary set-up.  This is even more so the case in extreme weather conditions (read my blog on cold-weather guitar care).

Man, I get tired of people complaining that a guitar arrived at their doorstep from a thousand miles away and actually needed a setup.  DUDE, get a clue!  If a guitar spends the better part of a week (or more) in an un-climate controlled truck traveling through massive changes in temperature, pressure, and humidity, chances are good that it will need a little tweaking on the set-up.  If by chance it arrives with the setup just exactly the way you personally like it, then consider it a big bonus, but do not take it for granted as what you can usually expect.

Which of course leads me to the next piece of this set-up rant: personal preference.  Fact is, one man’s barely playable guitar is another man’s dream set-up.  Personal preference is an opinion, it’s not a fact.

So, here are some areas that you can EXPECT a guitar to need a little love in after a long and trying journey to arrive at your door. If you feel insecure addressing any of these, take it to a qualified and recommended luthier.

  • Truss-Rod tweaking
  • Action (string height) adjustment
  • Intonation (string length) tweaking
  • Fret dressing (in extreme cold/dry conditions)

Okay, so … how about those things that do NOT change in shipping and therefore SHOULD be mentioned in a review.  It’s totally okay to be subjective here, since these are all items that folks will like or hate to varying degrees

  • Electronics like pickups, pots & switches
  • Neck shape/profile (but remember, this is a personal preference)
  • Fit & finish
  • Features/appointments
  • Included accessories
  • Overall and specific tone(s)
  • Overall and specific Feel(s)

Oh, and when reviewing a guitar on-line, please list your experience and musical style.   And for those reading reviews, take this important info into account.  The reviews I give the most weight to are those that come from pro players with at least a couple decades under their belts, and preferably in many genres.  The “this is my first guitar and I play metal” review is generally one I skip over!  Nuff said, now go buy a guitar.

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Best Place to Buy a Guitar? Best Place to Sell a Guitar? I say: Guitar Show!

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4-Amigos Guitar Show Nashville 2015

Howdy friendly guitar folks!  This past weekend I set up shop at the 4-Amigos Guitar Show in Nashville, one of Nashville’s finest annual shows.  Man, I gotta tell ya, I LOVE guitar shows! Let me tell ya why!

First, it is, of course a fantastic place to see holy-grail dream guitars, like this ’59 Burst:

1959 Les Paul Burst Original

Or, this real-deal ’57 Gold-Top!

1957 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top Original

As a matter of fact, there are ALWAYS more Les Paul’s that you can shake a stick at!

Les Pauls

And acoustic players, there are always plenty of holy-grail acoustics too.

Vintage Martin Guitars

Man, I LOVE seeing the cool, the weird, the wonderful, and the unique guitars like these original 60’s clear Dan Armstrong’s.

Dan Armstrong Clear

Vintage not your cup of tea?  Maybe you are looking for a custom builder to lovingly craft your dream guitar from the ground up.  Look no further, as plenty of top-notch builders are always showing, like these fine friendly folks from Rock Road Custom Guitars.

Rock Road Custom Guitars

Of course, there was some goofy guy there selling some really fantastic looking custom hand-wound guitar pickups and amps!

Vaughn Skow Hand-Wound Guitar Pickups

And, while I’m on the subject of me … I did promise myself that I would NOT be dragging any more guitars home from the show, well … you guessed it, I just couldn’t help myself. 

GoldtopNow, if like me the price on vintage gold-tops is a bit out of your price range, you can ALWAYS find something unique and unexpected at a guitar show that you CAN afford.  Here’s the bad-girl that I just couldn’t say no to … oh, and she was just as cheap as she is trashy :-).

Clear Acrylic B.C. Rich Bich Rare Orange Frost

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The ET10! Plus a Rundown on 10" Replacement Guitar Speaker Options

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10" Replacement Guitar Speaker Options

Howdy guitar slingers.  Today is one of those excellent days to be alive and playing the electric guitar.  Today is the day the awesome WGS ET10 is available to the masses!  Let’s talk about this fine lil’ filly.

First, what does it sound like?  That’s fairly easy, it sounds a good bit like it’s big sibling the ET65.  Like the ET65, the ET10 has a sweet “organic” tone that’s perfect for overly sterile, clinical, or downright harsh sounding amps.  It’s not QUITE as warm as an ET65, but it’s close.  The ET10 will join the ranks of the G10C as a great all-around 10” speaker.  It is one that will sound good in almost any amp, and music style.

I’ll try to get some head-to-head shootout vids done as quickly as possible, but for now … if you are trying to decide how the ET10 fits in to the WGS stable of ten inch speakers, here is my quick take on the field (the “new” ET10 is mentioned at the end):

The Vet 10: This is a VERY good sounding speaker … in the old CTS Alnico 10 kind of way … it’s a very light-weight speaker that is surprisingly warm, given its diminutive nature.   I do not often recommend a Vet 10 in a single 10 amp … but they really sound great in 4x10 or 3x10 configurations.

The G10C: This is the undisputed heavyweight champ in 10” guitar speakers.  Able to take on 75 actual RMS TUBE WATTS (!) … this thing seems to defy the physics of a 10” speaker … sounding downright HUGE, with lots of big, tight bottom, while still remaining extremely nimble, with a nice “Fenderesque” chime on top.  This is the BOMB in a 1x10 combo, but also sounds impeccable in an open-back 2x10 config, like a Fender Vibrolux Reverb Amp.  They do sound great in a 4x10, but these things are also VERY loud … so a 4x10 loaded with G10s will be heavy, and have very late break-up … or lots of clean headroom, if you prefer.

The G10A: (same as the G10C, but with a bit sweeter top end, especially when driven, or heavily saturated.

G10C/S:  Okay gang, this one trips a lot of folks up!  The smooth-cone does not sound much like the regular ribbed G10.  The smooth-cone is a LOT warmer/darker.  This is the speaker to turn to to REALLY warm-up an amp.  This is instant tweed-tone!  If your amps already a bit on the dark side … don’t go there!

The Green Beret 10:  This is our most “British” sounding ten.  It has a good bit of throaty growl, and with a lightweight cone, paper former and 20-watt power rating, it’s also quite easy to push into a bit of cone breakup.  In other words, this is our best 10” speaker for those who want fully authentic vintage Marshall crunch tone.

The Retro 10:  This is the 10” speaker for those of you who want a very forward tone that can cut through a loud band.  It has a bit of upper-midrange bite and top-end sparkle, with a tight bottom that is perfect for large sealed cabinets.

So, having run through the options up to this point, how does the new ET10 fit into this list?

The ET10: If you were to make an equilateral triangle, with the Big and Bold G10C in one corner, the uber-warm G10C/S in one corner, and the throaty Green Beret 10 in the third corner … the ET10 would sit right in the middle of that triangle.  The ET10 is fairly big and bold … but not as much so as the HUGE G10C; it’s a bit Britt throaty sounding, but not as much as the GB 10; and it’s a warm and organic speaker, but not as “blanket over the amp” warm as a smooth-cone G10.

So what does that mean?  It means that this speaker should be a serious consideration for anyone looking for a tone that can cover a BUNCH of ground.  This is one versatile ten folks!

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Cold Weather Guitar Care and Precautions

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Cold Weather Checked Cracked Guitar finish acoustic

As I pen this blog, the entire eastern half of the nation is in an icy, snowy deepfreeze.  Everywhere I look I see downed trees, and the news is full of the snow and ice-induced carnage of collapsed roofs and interstate pile-ups.  Okay, so I think we all agree that this type of weather sort of sucks … but the question every GUITAR PLAYER should be asking themselves is this: How does this affect my guitar?  Let’s talk about that!  Hint, if you want to go straight to the “what to do” check-list, feel free to skip ahead to the end.

My first lesson in how sub-freezing temps affect a guitars finish came back in about 1987.  I was playing on the road with then country super-star Tom T. Hall.  It was one of my first “buss gigs”, and for the most part the gear rode in the unheated bays below the bus.  I was REALLY green and didn’t think to bring my acoustic up into the buss as we headed into the north-east states for a Christmas tour.  You guessed it, the guitar that went into the bay perfect came out with a finished cracked to pieces.  Today, I guess we’d call it “reliced”, but in 1987 it was just called UGLY.  The lesson learned: guitar finishes can crack when frozen hard.  Now, it’s true that certain finishes will crack worse than others, with acoustics being particularly prone to cracking, but given a hard enough freeze, nearly all guitar finishes can be susceptible.  The problem is that the finish shrinks at an entirely different rate than the wood it’s on; the result is cracks, baby!

Cold Weather Checked Cracked Guitar finish electric Les Paul

Which brings me to neck warping and bridge pull-away.  Once again, the steel strings will shrink at an entirely different rate than the wood of your guitar.  This can cause neck warping and twisting.  Also, as the air gets not only colder, but drier as well, the glue holding an acoustic together loses much strength, which, combined with tightened strings, can lead to bridge pull-away on acoustics.

Cold weather warped guitar neck bridge pulling away off

And last, speaking of dry air, even if your guitars are never anywhere near sub-freezing temps; they are almost undoubtedly exposed to much, much drier air in the cold winter months.  Very dry air wreaks havoc upon ALL guitars, not just acoustics.  ALL guitars can end up with the fret ends extending uncomfortably beyond the edges of the finger-board due to the wood shrinking up.  You can also expect ANY guitar to need a little truss-rod tweaking in the cold and dry months (which will again need attention in the hot and humid months).  When guitars get very dry, the wood shrinks and cracks, and the glue that holds them together shrinks and fails.  Not good! Your guitar may in fact get SO DRY that is takes some drastic re-humidification to even get it acceptably playable again.  The following list is from Taylor Guitars,

A dry guitar can exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:

1. Low action. Strings are very close to the fret-board.

2. Hump on fretboard where neck joins body.

3. On NT necks, a slight gap around the fretboard extension.

4. Sunken top across the soundboard between bridge and fingerboard.

5. Back of guitar looks very flat when it is dried out.

6. Sharp fret ends extend beyond the edge of fret-board.

7. The plane of the neck angle on a dry guitar hits above the top of the bridge.

 Yikes!  That sounds like something to be avoided at all costs!  The entire pdf from Taylor on “Symptoms of a Dry Guitar” can be found here.

Okay, convinced?  Well then here is your simple check-list for proper cold and dry weather guitar care.

  1. Unless you are looking to relic your guitar with a prematurely checked finish, do everything you can to keep it from freezing.  A sub-zero “hard-freeze” is particularly dangerous.

  2. Be prepared to do a little truss-rod adjusting as the seasons change.  If you are not comfortable doing this yourself, take it to a pro.

  3. Use humidifiers in the rooms where you store your guitars, especially acoustics.  Ideally, the humidity should not be allowed dip below about 30-40%.

  4. In drastic cases, or when you cannot humidify an entire room, use guitar-humidifiers like the ones made by Oasis Guitar Humidifiers.  Read Taylors excellent pdf on using a guitar humidifier here.

So there ya go.  That’s not so bad, is it?  Now get to it, and I’ll talk to y’all again next week; until then, stay warm and keep those guitars happy!

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One Thing You Can Do in LESS THAN A SECOND to Improve Your Guitar Tone

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One Thing You Can Do in LESS THAN A SECOND to Improve Your Guitar Tone

Stand farther from your amp.

Okay, there ya go.  If you want the VERY short version, read no “farther”.  If you want to know WHY … well then, read on!

Reason #1: because your ears are not on the back of your knees.  So, a band I play with regularly rehearses in a hall that has a pair of half-stack Marshalls on one side of the stage.  Since electric guitar players are a dime-a-dozen in the Nashville area, I usually am on the far side of the room playing acoustic guitar or keys.  Guess what?  Those dang Marshall’s are WAY louder where I’m standing than where the dudes playing through them are standing … and what’s worse?  The tone is razor thin and harsh.  .  Why?  Simple, because human ears are on the HEAD, not the back of the knees.  Those dudes standing a couple of feet in front of the half stacks are having their LEGS blasted … but the sound of those closed-back lasers takes ten feet MINIMUM to reach ear-level.  And, since HIGHER frequencies are very directional, and LOW frequencies are not … dudes THINK their tone is big & full when ten or twenty feet out it’s like an icepick being driven in your ear.  UGG!  Friends, your butt may be able to FEEL low frequencies, but it sure as heck can’t HEAR highs! 

Reason #2: because NOBODY in your audience is going to be listening with their head only a foot or two from your amp!  Seriously!  When I teach audio engineering/mixing I always impress upon my students the importance of monitoring in a fashion that as closely as possible recreates the manner in which the end user will listen.  Same goes for an electric guitar player on stage.  Let’s say you are playing through an amp like my favorite, a Super Reverb, with the ability to angle up.  Cool, that way you avoid the “only hits your knees” thing … BIG improvement!  But wait, there’s more.  If you are practically standing on top of the amp, you are not going to be hearing a tone that’s anything like the rest of the room is hearing.  So, darn it, just step back a few feet and it’s “problem solved”.

One last note.  An open-back amp or cabinet with its inherent ability to scatter sound around is much, MUCH more forgiving than a closed-back cabinet where either of my reasons are concerned, so unless you are playing BIG stages, stick to open-back cabs whenever possible.

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1967 Gibson Melody Maker SG - Love & Historic ’57 PAF Pickups

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1967 Gibson Melody Maker SG with Vaughn Skow '57 PAF Pickups

“Big, little, short or tall, wish I could have kept them all … Lord I loved them every one”.  This is a line from a Conway Twitty hit country song in the 80s; when Conway sang this line he was speaking of ladies, but for me it would be GUITARS.  To me it’s like this … one person can look at a dog and say “that’s the ugliest dog I ever saw”, and someone else (usually the dog’s owner) will say “no, it’s the cutest dog in the world”.  When it comes to guitars, I'm always the latter, what someone else may call ugly, I call awesome.  To me, EVERY guitar is beautiful in its own way.  I am particularly drawn to guitars from the golden period of the late 50s through the late 60s … and here’s where it gets weird, I actually love those unlovables that have many battle scars and owner hacked “modifications”.  I call it “personality”.

Okay, so that brings us to today’s topic, a 67 Gibson Melody Maker SG that I recently found in a little junk shop.  Here is a list of what owners have done to her over the last five decades:

  • The original single coil pickups had been replaced with humbuckers.
  • A “SG” like pickup switch had been added, and the original removed.
  • Originally Pelham blue, she had been painted black, a long time ago from the looks of it.
  • The Mastro Vibrola had been removed and a tune-o-matic stop tailpiece bridge installed
  • Strangely, the nut had been re-positioned further forward.

So, interestingly enough, the only really BAD thing that had been done was the nut re-positioning.  It essentially left the guitar incapable of playing in tune, because the spacing from the nut to the 1st fret was wrong. It would also prove to be the most challenging issue to fix, as I actually had to graft a small piece of rosewood in to the fingerboard to put the nut back where it belonged!  As far as all the other mods go … well, I liked them, although I probably would have liked the original pelham blue.

So, having fixed the nut issue I proceeded to get to know the old gal.  I can flat tell ya that there ain’t anything that feels as sweet as a good Gibby neck that’s been played for 50-ish years or so.  Sweet!  But the sound … well, it was thin & ugly.  Not a real problem as I was planning to put a set of my own PAFs in her anyway; so, it was time to open her up.  Inside, I found the good … the bad … and the ugly!

1967 Gibson Melody Maker SG on bench Vaughn Skow '57 PAF Pickups

The good:  The pickups were a nice set of PRS McCarty Archtops, which I quickly sold on eBay for a nice little bit of change.

The Bad:  Of the four pots, only ONE was a proper 500K!  The two volume pots were 100K (probably from Radio Shack in the 70s or 80s), and one tone pot was a 50K.

The Ugly:  Well … everything I found inside!  Some of the ugliest soldering I’ve ever seen and a real hack-job on enlarging the pickup cavity!

The cure for this old gal’s internal injuries was a set of four new Alpha 500K pots and new orange-drop tone caps … and a set of my Historic ’57 PAF pickups … aged to perfection!  I’d also like to note that I wired the guitar using the earliest Gibson Les Paul wiring scheme from the mid-late 50s.  Over the years, the value and position of the tone capacitor has changed several times.  Most true Les Paul players swear by the original system, and I agree.  The interaction between the four controls when in the middle position is extreme … but once you get used to that, it becomes an asset rather than a hindrance.  Google modern vs. 50s Les Paul wiring to research the difference.

1967 Gibson Melody Maker SG with Vaughn Skow '57 PAF Pickups

The result:  a super-sweet vintage SG that sounds second to none, plays like a dream, and is a true one of a kind.  Best part?  My total investment was under $500 … and several long nights at the bench.

Here’s a video of my Gal strutting her stuff. Check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s0yGQrYTok

1967 Gibson Melody Maker SG with Vaughn Skow '57 PAF Pickups

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The Terrible Telecaster Ice-Pick

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Telecaster Ice-Pick Pickup CURE!

Hi gang!  This blog marks a bit of a first, as it is the first time I am officially blogging about the pickups that bear my name!  When I began making guitar pickups, I firmly believed that the best pickups ever made were in fact made from about 1952 to 1965, and my intention was to painstakingly reproduce these mid-century works of art.  Where Stratocasters and Humbuckers are concerned, I was dead-on the bull’s eye.  However, the Telecaster players were giving me something further to consider.  The Strat players were on a magic carpet ride to Nirvana with my 1954-1964 sets, and “les Paul” players consider my Alnico II and Alnico IV PAFs to be truly “Holy Grail” tone.  But those pesky Tele players. . .

 When Tele players talk about “Holy Grail” tone, the usual statement made is something like this: “Well, I love the sound of a vintage 50’s Tele bridge pickup … but they CAN get a little ice-picky sometimes, and …well, I really don’t use the neck pickup much, it’s just too dead and woofy”.

Okay, y’all, think about this for a second.  There are top-shelf touring Tele-masters out there gigging with vintage Telecasters worth tens of thousands of dollars saying, in essence “I’m not really in love with my tone”.  Wow!  That sucks, and I couldn’t help but feel as though something NEEDED to be done for these folks.  Now, I could have gone the route of some, and simply thrown in the towel and conceded defeat on the neck pickup … and focused on the bridge pickup (can you say “Esquire”?).  But, that would be against every bone in my body.  I LIKE multi-pickup guitars for the tonal versatility they offer, and especially for the complex and uniquely gratifying tone that can only result from a fantastically combining pair of pickups!  And so it was that I set out on a path that was already littered with the wreckage of past failures.  Could I succeed where so many others have failed?  Could a set of Tele pickups be made that truly left Tele players wanting for NOTHING?  And, for the record, I strictly desired to keep to “true” Tele sets … I’m talking drop-in replacements here … not some crappily conceived humbucker or other aberration; plenty of folks have went down that road and wound up with the most God-awful sounding Tele pickups ever!  My goal wasn’t to remove “hum” or to produce a pickup that looked good on an oscilloscope … no, I wanted tone to die for, true Holy-Grail tone.

I will admit that, living in Nashville, I have an advantage over many other pickup designers and builders.  Here in Nashville, I have at my disposal what is probably the largest assembly of top-shelf Telecasters and the Tele-Masters who play them available anywhere in the world.  And so I began quite a process of comparing everything that I tried to the “best of the best”.  Guess what?  It seems as though I did it.  Rocket science?  Nope, not at all.  The recipe I landed on really isn’t that far from Leo’s first designs, in fact.  Here is what I found:

  • Alnico II magnets: These are what I call the “sweetest of all magnets”, and man, they REALLY work their magic in Tele pickups.  And, that goes for both the Bridge AND neck positions!  SWEEEET!
  • Careful consideration to how strongly the magnets are “charged”:  This is NEVER a consideration on mass-produced pickups … it’s just not something an automated process can accurately achieve … but each and every single pole-piece must be charged to optimum levels to achieve perfection in TONE.
  • Stick with the 43-gauge wire on the neck pickup … but abandon the pre-conceived ideas about how it should be wound.  Sorry, I can’t totally give THIS secret away!
  • Get rid of that neck cover (or at least the part of it that stands between the pole-pieces and the strings.  Sure, it’s true that modern covers do not deaden the tone as much as early 50’s chrome over brass covers … but they DO still suck tone to a very notable degree!

Telecaster Ice-Pick Pickup CURE!

So there you have it; almost all my secrets revealed.  Nearly a year’s worth or R&D thrown out there for anyone to copy as they see fit.  Why on earth would I divulge this?  Well, Leo Fender is kinda my hero … and the man never even patented the Stratocaster or the Telecaster guitars; so, I guess you could say I’m following in Leo’s footsteps … and hopefully adding a little to his legacy.

Convinced?  Be sure to check out these pickups … that we’ve named “Vaughn’s Velvet Telecaster” set.

Here is a video discussion and demo.  If it doesn’t play, follow this link: http://youtu.be/oCJ9xAL2Ltg?list=UUqz2jjVBQhBK3oCSyp1UE9g

email Vaughn     About Vaughn Skow

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