Friday, June 1, 2007

Creative Destruction (or, How to Ruin a Guitar's Resale Value)

Besides the Peavey Limited and an Ovation acoustic, I've got another guitar -- a Jag-Stang. The Jag-Stang is a bit of an oddity; it was going to be a Curt Cobain signature model. Cobain favored the Fender Mustang and Jaguar, because of their thin, short-scale necks. My first electric guitar was a Mustang, and I also love the feel of the neck. Cobain died before the guitar was really anything more than a prototype, and the design did not get Cobain's final approval before his death. In a somewhat ghoulish move, it was put into production anyway, with components based on the prototype, rather than the guitars as Cobain actually modified them. The result is a Japanese-made instrument that is a bit of a mixed bag, with a few good things and a few bad things. First, the good:

- It has a bit of the Mustang magic, with its short scale and thin, playable and quite solid maple neck with rosewood fingerboard.

- The body shape is quite nice.

- It has more sustain and tone than one might expect from a relatively cheap instrument.

Now, the bad:

- The body is a "slab" cut and lacks the nice forearm and belly countour of my 1968 "Competition" Mustang.

- The stock pickups aren't very good, and in particular don't have a modern rock tone at all -- kind of like the original Mustang single coils. Cobain didn't use the Mustang single coil pickups.

- The volume and tone pots, and even the switches, aren't very good.

- It follows the original Mustang switch arrangement, which is odd. (Basically, the Mustang wiring of the two 3-position switches puts each single-coil pickup either off or on in one of two phases. So out of the out of the 9 possible combinations, one setting has both pickups off, which is kind of pointless; one setting has both pickups on, in phase; two of the settings have both pickups on, out of phase; two settings are "neck pickup only" and two settings are "bridge pickup only." If you drop "both off," there are only really four useful settings, since absolute phase has no noticeable effect, only whether the pickups are in or out of phase relative to each other. The same combinations could be achieved much more sensibly with a four-way toggle, or a three-way toggle and one phase switch).

- The Mustang tremolo and bridge were never all that good; the tremolo is pretty much unusable. The modern copy is even worse, lacking the polish of the original. I think Cobain had his Mustangs retrofitted with non-tremolo Tune-o-matic style bridges.

- The fit and finish of the whole instrument is relatively poor. The frets were not all that well-dressed; it has a thick, cheap-feeling poly finish instead of the hard nitro finish; the pickguard tends to peel apart at the corners leaving sharp points sticking out; and the pickguard doesn't line up very nicely with the guitar body shape. It certainly does not compare to the fit and finish of the original Mustang neck and body. (I should know; I've taken both of them apart).

Nevertheless, oddities tend to excite collectors, so this guitar is apparently now considered "collectible" and "vintage." But I didn't particularly want a collectible guitar; I wanted a guitar to play. So, my Jag-Stang has undergone a few changes.

- I ripped out the pickups and purchased some Duncan pickups.

- There are some creative rewirings possible that let you use the switches more effectively. For example, you can use one of the switches to switch out the volume and tone pots.

- I put a Roland guitar synth pickup on the instrument.

- I taped up the tremelo bridge so it wouldn't move.

My wiring job wasn't very good -- I'm strictly an amateur with a soldering gun. It wasn't adequately shielded. It picked up radio stations, in fact.

- Did I mention that it also has a few dings? When you're trying to play with a group, and your guitar starts picking up radio stations -- well, let's just say I lost my temper.

So, eventually I ripped out all my wiring as well as the pots and switches and took the whole mess up to Elderly Instruments in Lansing and had them wire it up. While managing to stifle their laughter at my crappy wiring job, they did a much nicer job, using heat-shrink tubing and foil shielding, and the resulting instrument no longer picks up radio stations. The Duncan pickups I put in sound excellent. I also picked out some new chrome knobs, which look considerably nicer than the stock knobs.

Later, I decided to switch to 11-gauge strings. These are much heavier, and thus harder to play, but produce a lot of crunch and tone. Unfortunately, they also put more stress on the neck, and so the setup changes. The truss rod can only be accessed by removing the neck. Taking the neck off is a big operation and you have to be very careful when re-tightening the screws. You'll have to adjust the bridge height on a bridge that is not all that adjustable. The body wood is pretty soft, so the pickguard screws at this point no longer hold very well. I shimmed a couple of them with bits of toothpick, but that's a kludge.

I have ordered (but not yet installed) some new locking tuners to replace the worthless stock tuners, which are not even as good as the original Mustang tuners.

I'm considering replacing the bridge with a more adjustable version of the Mustang bridge, available from Warmoth.

Anyway, there it is -- an instrument that is now nearly worthless to a collector. But it sounds pretty good, and it is still fun to play. And if I ever get to the point where I can have a custom shop build me guitars from scratch, one of them is going to be Jag-Stang-like instrument done right. Here is how I would do it:

- A short scale neck -- but with 24 frets.

- A body with the Jag-Stang shape, but properly contoured, with a hard nitro finish.

- A decent fully adjustable hard-tail bridge. No tremolo.

- A slightly altered pickguard shape to better fit the body, made out of better material.

- Two Seymour Duncan humbuckers (exact models to be determined).

- Locking tuning machines, a better nut, and no string tree (basically, something more like the Peavey tuning machine arrangement).

- No more stupid switch arrangement like the Mustang; something more like the 4-way I described above.

- Finally, a new guitar synth pickup mounted properly and permanently in the instrument cavity, with a switch to send the signal from the pickups into the hex output instead of the 1/4" output.

That will truly be a custom guitar! It would probably cost at least $2,000 an possibly $3,000 to have made, so it is not in my immediate future. But a guy can dream.

My Latest Guitar

I recently came across a used Peavey Limited ST in the "tiger's eye" finish with a nice quilt, and snapped it up. I have been playing this instrument for a little while now and I still feel like I made the right decision when I bought it. Why?

- This is an American-made instrument. There is an "EXP" model available, made in Korea, but I really want to support American manufacturers. (I realize they don't actually get paid when I buy a used guitar, but I can at least voice my support by promoting the American-made Peavey instruments by my example).

- It has an extremely nice neck, with very low action. This makes it easy and comfortable to play for long periods of time.

- It has a nice tone, with a lot of twang. The humbucker in the bridge position is loud and crunchy. The two single coils sound nice as well, but I have not yet fully explored the different tones I can get out of them.

- The body has chambers cut into it, which not only improves the sustain, but makes it very light.

- The tremolo is the best I've used -- the instrument doesn't drift out of tune.

- It has very nice locking tuners.

- The "fit and finish" is flawless, absolutely flawless -- practically the best I've ever seen.

- Last, but certainly not least, the price was outstanding. Peavey instruments tend to be less hyped; they don't have the reputation of Paul Reed Smith or Gibson Les Paul instruments. Less hype means a much lower price.

There are a couple of downsides; this used instrument has some noticeable fret wear, and so will need a fret job pretty soon. That's OK. It doesn't cost that much, and I live pretty close to Elderly Instruments in Lansing. They do good work, and even taking into account the cost of a fret job in six months or a year, it was still a bargain.

There are only a couple of things I would possibly change. First, because it has a flat top, this instrument doesn't have the contoured arm rest, so that can become slightly uncomfortable to play after a long practice session. Fortunately it does have the "belly cut," although I've been losing weight so I have a little less need for this feature than I used to.

I would like to have an instrument with a 24-fret neck at some point.

If all other things had been equal, I probably would have preferred the HB model with two humbuckers.

If all other things had been equal, I would have preferred a blue top. I have a thing for the "whale blue" or "slate blue" or "midnight blue" colors. But when you stumble across a used instrument you can't choose the finish.

Maybe someday I'll stumble across an American-made Limited HB in flawless condition with a blue quilt top at a ridiculously low price. But until that time this is my main instrument, and I'm quite happy with it!