Vintage Vibe, Master Built Magic, and Cheap Cool
By Sophie Dockx
Three to go
At one time I had three Strats in my workshop: a 1963 sunburst worth 9.000 Euros, A 2001 white Custom Shop, master-built by John English, worth 5600 Euros, a 2004 Mexican ‘Buddy Guy’ signature strat, worth 600 Euros.
They all needed a fret leveling job, and they all needed new strings and a proper set-up.
All three are built to exactly the same design, and they all had alder bodies, and Maple necks. They were all fitted with three single coil pickups each, and sported a vintage-style Fender Synchronized tremolo bridge The Buddy Guy had a maple fretboard, the two others had rosewood fretboards.
Which one did I like the most? Not an easy question to answer, since I am four ‘I’s.
I like listening to guitar playing, I like playing guitar myself, I like teaching guitar, and I like working on guitars. To each guitar, I am audience, user, instructor, and caregiver.
Each guitar that comes in, gets plugged into the dry channel of my Roland Jazz Chorus.
It is not the most musical of amps, but it is plain honest. Tube amps are instruments in their own right, that is why I find it difficult to distinguish between the sound of the guitar, and that of the amp. It is like tasting a Frankfurter, wrapped in a bun, embedded in tasty Sauerkraut and with French mustard on top. You can say you had a great hotdog, but you can’t really say much about the Frankfurter inside it, that way, right?
I don’t care much for unplugged testing of electric guitars. Continuing the metaphor, that would be like tasting a cold Frankurter, straight out of the jar. It tells you a bit more, of course, but not a lot more. I test unplugged only when trying to locate connectivity issues, like buzz, dampening, and dead notes.
Age and Period are overrated. On average, the fifties and sixties Strats weren’t better built, and the ageing process isn’t unequivocally beneficial to musicality. True Vintage is a precious and rare distillate: a product of Darwinian selection. The guitars deserving the name, are members of a small band of survivors, from a contingent of thousands that didn’t make the cut. The ones made on mondays, the ones made under the pressure of time and money, and the ones worked on by novices, weren’t all that great when they left the factory, to begin with. The best ones were more likely to inspire care by their owner, than the so-so ones. And if the first owner thought it good enough to be treated as a ‘keeper’, the guitar would have met fewer consecutive owners, during its lifetime. Nothing wears out a guitar more thoroughly than being handed down from one player to another, countless times in a row.
The ones that have been cared for consistently and skillfully, over many decades, simply sound fantastic. The ones that have been neglected, sound average at best, and many are completely past salvaging. I politely refuse to work on most. I can always promise the owner that I can get ‘some’ more life into most old guitars, but only a small fraction of the half-a-century-olds, I can restore to genuine vintage status.
If I were to work outside the ‘Rules of Restoration’, I could have saved a lot more old guitars, but the rules are very strict: don’t replace parts, and avoid invasive repairs.
About a decade ago I could still propose: “… to make it a ‘player’, a very good one, even, but I can’t raise its market value on the collectors market.”
Working on Vintage offers valuable learning experience, just because of the limitations involved. It forces you to get creative. I have vintage guitars to thank for most of the conservative procedures, that I apply on every guitar. Vintage makes a luthier less ‘scalpel-happy’, so to speak.
Even the best vintage guitars aren’t exemplary players. You will hardly come across one that hasn’t got at least a hint of an S-curve in its fretboard. Contrary to popular belief, S-curves are not always caused by too much string tension. Too little string tension, combined with too much truss rod tension, can cause the same effect. More often than not, vintage guitar owners have their guitars strung with modern thin gauge low-tension sets, with a plain G, exerting 45 kilos of sum string tension. On any Strat that came out in the fifties and sixties, string tension was at least 65 kilos, and they all had a wound G. If you wanted lower string tension, in those days, you had to do like Chuck Berry: use an A as an E, a D as an A , a G as a D, A b as a G, and borrow the B and the E from a banjo set.
I am not going to get into the beneficial effects of aging on wood, the right weight of bridge assemblies, and the unique filtering pattern of Bumblebee capacitors. I leave that to the real vintage connoisseurs, of which I am –clearly- not one. I have to admit that I can’t resist talking down the myth-infested ooh-la-la, that often permeates conversations about vintage guitars. It is like making fun of the Royal Family. It is what us ordinary punters do, for we can’t afford ‘Château Pré-CBS.’
Nevertheless, the sound of true vintage, to my ear, is unmatched, even with modern string sets hovering over their slightly underpowered, slightly microphonic, poorly shielded, but exceptionally high definition pickups. Perfect playability, however, is mostly found with modern Master Built guitars.
Master Built Magic
Whereas Vintage Vibe is the combined result of darwinian selection, and decades of consistent care, Master Built Magic is all about care: from log to instrument, and from youth to old age. The master luthier’s workshop knows no mondays, no feverish work pressure, and no novices. The sound of a master built Strat is very much like vintage, but enriched. They have longer sustain, more overtones, better intonation, and put out a more noise-free signal. I am a fan of Master Built, but I often feel their sound can be too rich, to my taste. It is easy to admire, but not that easy to love. Perfection does that to me.
I feel obliged to make the distinction between ‘master built’ and ‘custom built’, here. Custom built guitars are made to the wishes of a particular guitarist. Master built guitars are the ‘Plat du Chef’: they are built with no particular guitarist in mind. Custom built strats are not always the best instruments. If the customer wants a mahogany body, a reversed headstock, a rosewood neck, and lipstick pickups, they are bound to get just that, regardless of the fact that it might be a bad idea, with regard to the quality of the instrument.
The wholemark of master-built guitars can be found in their extremely tight tolerances.
Nomatter what your requirements for string action, you can set it up to less than a millimeter over the twelfth fret. Strings go nicely over the middle of each pickup polepiece, and the shielding of the conttrols cavity is more than complete. All of the parts are of better quality than Fender standard issue, regardless of which year. On the bridge mount, the string saddles don’t fan out, and the saddle screws are a better fit.
In fact, the whole guitar is a better fit: the neck joint is hermetic, and the laquer layers are flawless, yet remarkably thin. The fret leveling job is another important clue: the frets are not only perfectly leveled, but they are rounded again, after leveling. Stock Strats, including the vintage ones, rarely are that well ‘crowned’.
Only rarely I see master built Strats sporting the Fender logo. Those made by the late John English are worth every cent, but the best Strat I ever had in my hands was a 2005 Sonic Blue one, built by Sander De Gier, in Rotterdam. All the runners-up to that one, were all European built.
The main difference, between true vintage and master built, is the compliance of the latter, to the musician’s commands. It responds more readily to your fingers, and requires less effort to get out of it what you want. That is what I would say the number one weakness of budget versions of the Strat: they are a lot less compliant. If you are a real “playalot”, you will know: less compliant guitars get you tired sooner.
Vintage guitars make me nervous. They cost a lot of money, and they are always full of skeletons left there by my predecessors, not all of whom must have known what they were doing. Screw holes plugged up with toothpicks, on a fifty-year old Strat? OMG!
Sleeping cracks that show up, as soon as you unscrew the neck. Blobs of soldering that are full of charred sawdust, so that they break on contact … .
Master built guitars, on the other hand, are a breeze. They are the easiest to set up. But the most fun I have with Mexican Strats. They usually have much more potential, than is expressed straight off the factory. A great advantage of the design of the Strat, is that you can always redo the last four working hours that go into mass-produced stock. This work is typically ‘underdone’, and rarely ‘overdone’, enabling me to simply start over, and make it better. Much better, often. It is a bit more work, but it is very rewarding.
When you compare a Master Built Strat to a Mex, the first thing you see and feel is the quirky alignment of neck, nut, strings and bridge, in the cheaper version. You will also notice that the fret tops are leveled, but not re-rounded afterwards, leaving some partially flattened. Nothing a thorough set-up job can’t correct, though. The first thing that meets the ear, is the loud and full, but crude sound of the ceramic magnet pickups, compared the more refined signal coming out of the Master Built or a Vintage version’s Alnico magnet pickups. The Mex hums more, too. Its shielding isn’t that good. In that respect it is similar to most vintage strats.
From where I stand, it all comes down to care. Care during the build, during maintenance, and on stage. It is care, and not so much materials, manufacturing quality and age, that have created the illusion that ‘they made’em better in the old days’. It is again the care invested in the instrument, by a skilled craftsman and not so much better parts and finer woods, that make master built guitars the best instruments on the market.
Mass produced Strats are built under pressure of time and money, which isn’t conducive to care on the workfloor, which in its turn doesn’t inspire much care from the owner.
But as far Strats and Tele’s are concerned, much care can be injected later-on, by a skilled luthier. Up until a few years ago, before I started designing my own guitars, I made a good living, upgrading American Standard Stock to Custom Shop Level, Mexican stock to American level, and Squiers to Fenders.
Fender guitars are designed so that all of the precision necessary to make it from an object into an instrument, is being injected into the build, at the end of the building procedure. They are also designed so, that all of the work done at that stage, is perfectly reversible.
All mass-produced stuff in the 1950-ies was designed that way, making it perfectly adapted to the high-maintenance culture of the day. That culture isn’t there, anymore. Music stores are trading in their set-up homework for attractive discounts. I am a tinkerer, but my son is a hacker. He cleans up my OS X, I set up his Strat. He programs software, I program hardware. He deals with digital, I deal with analog. We are each other’s teachers, and each other’s students.
I wouldn’t advise a master built guitar to any player who doesn’t play guitar as often as a taxi driver drives a car. And I wouldn’t advise Vintage guitars to live performers. They pick up far too much EM-interference on stage, aren’t that stable, and they often get stolen.
The best value for money to date, is skillfully upgraded recent mass-produced stock. Get a second hand Mex for 250€, and have a seasoned luthier bring it up a few notches on the quality scale, via a conservative (no major parts replaced, exept for the nut) make-over of 120 €.
Pierre Journel / GuitarChannel.biz / Interview / Sophie Dockx / Holy Grail Guitar Show 2014 / Berlin
Eurocaster landed in Texas / Lance Keltner / Dorian Guitars