Thursday, June 25, 2015

Cobbling Together My "Perfect" Electric Guitar #alittlethunder #fender #gibson

Growing up, my ideal form of a guitar was a Fender Stratocaster with a maple fretboard, black paint job, a white pickguard, three stock single-coil pickups, and a whammy bar. I don't know why the guitar had to be that specific; I must have seen a random '80s pop-rocker earnestly strumming away on a black-and-white Strat on TV.

In 1994, I acquired a Fender Stratocaster with those same specifications. To this day, I cherish playing that guitar. When pretending to be Hendrix, Clapton, or Gilmour, you can't beat jamming on a Stratocaster.

While hands-down my favorite guitar, the Fender Stratocaster isn't my "perfect" guitar.

In 1996, I purchased a "backup" for the Strat: An Epiphone Special II. It is the lower-end, well, lowest-end derivative of the Gibson Les Paul, with a similar body shape. With a rosewood fretboard, sunburst paint job, no pickguard, and two humbucker pickups, my Epiphone is basically a diametrically-contrasting guitar to my Fender. For much of the late '90s and into this century, the Special II wasn't so much a backup, as it was a complementary guitar, especially for recording purposes. For $150, which could have bought a lot in 1996 dollars, the Epiphone Special II was a good buy. Oddly enough, this was the first year that the Special II was in production, so as far as cheap guitars go, it's basically "vintage."

Playing both the Fender and the Epiphone gave me a lot of insight regarding what I like and dislike about both styles of electric guitar. Since the Epiphone Special II is a low-end Gibson, I'll refer to the overall style of this guitar as a "Gibson." I like the non-angled headstock found in most Fender guitars. Gibson guitars usually have angled headstocks, which might possibly break in a freak dropping accident. I would rather transport my guitar with a soft gig bag slung on my back versus lugging around a hard-shell flight case, so I prefer Fender headstocks.

I really don't care about the material used in for the fretboard of a guitar -- maple or rosewood or even ebony, as long as it works. I found, however, the scale length (that is, twice the distance from the nut to the 12th fret, or roughly, from the nut to the bridge) is something worth considering. Gibson-scale guitars tend to have a shorter scale length than most Fender scale guitars. Gibsons are usually 24-3/4", while most Fenders are 25-1/2". All other measurements being relatively equal, a Gibson tuned to standard tuning will have looser-feeling strings compared to a Fender tuned the same way. String-bending is easier on a Gibson than on a Fender.

I dislike hum. Whenever I play my Stratocaster with lots of fuzz, distortion, and overdrive, I tend to select the "in-between" position between single-coil pickups. This usually cancels out the hum of the stock single coil, almost like a humbucker. Whenever I play my Epiphone, well, the humbucker is already there.

I prefer the output jack of an electric guitar to be on the face (like my Strat), rather than on the side of the body (like my Epiphone, and many Gibson-style guitars). When practicing and/or fiddling around on a guitar, while sitting in a comfortable chair, there aren't any cable connectors poking about on a Fender-style output jack location. You'd need a right-angle cable to do the same with a Gibson-style output jack location.

I rarely use a whammy bar, but I don't mind having a tremolo bridge ... or not having a tremolo bridge. The paint job doesn't matter to me, and neither does the shape of the guitar.

In early 2014, I modified my Epiphone Special II. I removed the neck-position humbucker, and replaced it with a single-string humbucker (by Paul "Ubertar" Rubenstein) under the low E string, with the intent to use an octave pedal for some "fake bass" while playing the guitar. In doing so, I replaced the selector switch with an additional output jack, and I rewired the whole mess. The bridge humbucker now has an output jack on the face of the guitar, while the fake bass pickup has an output jack on the side of the guitar. If it wasn't for the worrisome angled Gibson-style headstock, this Epiphone would have been a darn near "perfect" electric guitar. Having fake bass only under the low E string also limits how I play the guitar. It's great for Dropped- and Open-D songs and riffs, but it's inefficient for almost everything else.

1995 or 1996 First-edition Epiphone Les Paul Special II.
In late 2014, I saw a Facebook post from Captain Anderton (known for the Top Gear-like guitar gear videos on YouTube, to me anyway, because of the accents of course) about an invention by guitarist Andy Alt called A Little Thunder. It is a guitar pickup -- a humbucker -- that provides bass notes under the low E and A strings, with no external octave pedal needed. There is also a "low note priority" mode, in which you can play a chord, strum both the low E and A, and the pickup will choose the lowest note to sound out -- preventing some muddy bass chord playing. At the time, A Little Thunder was selling pickups via a Kickstarter campaign.

A little thunder god named Thor, with A Little Thunder humbucker pickup.

I had to buy this new pickup; it's what I attempted to cobble together -- and more! And so I pledged X amount of dollars to Andy Alt's ALT campaign on Kickstarter. I didn't want to replace the pickup on my "fake bass" Special II, and I refuse of modify my Strat, so I was on the search for a new guitar. It had to:

1. Be inexpensive,
2. Have a non-angled headstock,
3. Have a Gibson-scale length,
4. Have a humbucker-sized pickup slot to accommodate A Little Thunder, and
5. Have an output jack on the face of the guitar.

I bought a Squier Cyclone (by Fender) during Musician's Friend's 2014 Black Friday/Cyber Monday sale event. The Cylone's shape is based on the Fender Mustang. Interestingly, the Fender Mustang is a short-scale Fender, shorter than Gibson scale. The Cyclone also:

1. Was inexpensive, at about the same price as my 1996 Special II, but in 2014 dollars -- therefore, way inexpensive,
2. Has a non-angled, straight Fender headstock,
3. Has a Gibson-scale length, longer than the Mustang,
4. Has a humbucker slot in the bridge position, and
5. Has an output jack on the face of the guitar.

With a rosewood fretboard, Lake Placid Blue paint job, a pearl white pickguard, and a tremolo bridge, the Squier Cyclone was a perfect match for my needs.

It's almost as if my Strat mated with my Special II.

Earlier this month, June 2015, A Little Thunder arrived in my mailbox. The ALT pickup was slightly larger than the Squier's stock humbucker, so I had to use some metal files and sandpaper to fit A Little Thunder through the pickguard. After a relatively simple wiring job, we were in business. The inventor himself, Andy Alt, was available online to answer all my installation inquiries.

Lake Placid Blue is a tricky color.

I am so far impressed with A Little Thunder. Compared to my modified "fake bass" Epiphone, my guitar playing is no longer limited to E-string basslines. I have the A string as well, making I IV V progressions simple again, without jumping all over the fretboard! The "ALT bass" tone of A Little Thunder has ample growl, contrasting the sort of thin tone of a single string pickup through an octave pedal. The low-note priority mode has some tracking issues -- it's basically a computer making split-moment decisions on which string to play, so I must applaud the pickup's efforts. Low-note priority works well for slower songs, as well as for dropped-D, power chord riffing on the E string, to prevent muddy basslines. For general rhythm guitar/ALT bass usage, I seem to gravitate toward turning off the low-note priority function, and instead play either the low E or A string, but not both. I have the other four strings for guitar chords anyway, and I don't like muddy bass chords.

A "perfect" guitar equipped with A Little Thunder is a dream to play. It is a guitar that is also a bass. Combine that with a lead vocal microphone with a harmony vocal effect, and a footswitch-triggered drum machine that triggers LED light patterns, well, I now have a band show.

There is effectively a live band at my fingertips and toes, and I could play as many simple arrangements of almost every song in popular music. I can play alone or jam with another musician, and the sound will almost always feel "full." I just have to come up with a good setlist ... and practice.

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