How to Make an UnStrat

Well, why not? The Strat (tm Fender) design is about 50 years old. Things change. The people who were playing gigs with them back then are grandfathers and great grandfathers now. For some styles of play, the inside horn is just something to whack your wrist on the high notes. Most solid-body electric guitars are about 1-1/2 inch thick, and a bit heavy and unwieldy, expecially with tremolo hardware, for some people, say female players. There is a need for lighter guitars.

The modifications described here were not perfectly done to a commercial level of polish. But for a first time ever effort, the results are not entirely trashable. In some respects, the guitar functions better than it did before, and what it lacks in finesse, it has in character.

Pick the victim and apply the instruments of torture

First you start with a Strat (tm FMIC), such as a Squier Bullet Special (tm FMIC). It's cheap enough to dare to mutilate, yet still has good enough sound quality to survive. Strip off the hardware, mark it with a set of French curves and cut off the horns with a jig saw. In this case, the belly cut was also widened. A router 3/8 inch round-over bit was used to soften the cut edges of the shoulders.

The picture to the left shows the front of the body superimposed on the back in PhotoShop. The dark solid lines show areas chosen to be removed from the back to a depth of about 1.1 inches to lighten the guitar body. Notice that they avoid a) the structural column between the bridge and the neck, b) the screws holding the bridge to the body, c) the cutouts for pickup and electronics on the front of the body, d) the belly cut, and e) the forearm slope on the front face, where the lightening cut could have broken through. A rectangle with a light outline on the left just below the shoulder places a 9-volt battery box on the back so that the cut will break through into the front electronics cutout at one end. The picture on the right shows how the lightening and battery box cuts actually turned out. The lightening cuts could have gone all the way through the body, but I wanted to leave support to put a guitar art decal on the front.

Avoid another's mistakes

  1. This Squier body has 22 wood plies of a type that does not cut, sand or rasp without tearing, or feathering upon the application of lacquer. Fender apparently covered all such defects with a dip coat of 1/16 inch of plastic to get an ultrasmooth base for the top finishes, a metallic blue covered with a yellowish clear coat. The next person to do this should make sure that all the finish sanding and sealing of exposed wood plies is completely done before applying any other lacquer or finish.
  2. Definitely use a router bit with a bearing on this wood. This wood does not take well to the burning friction of a bit without a bearing.
  3. Widening the belly cut is particularly hard to do without introducing waves into the surface, since the wood sands away faster than the plastic dip coat. A large diameter drum sander may work better than a belt sander.
  4. A metallic undercoat, such as Dupli-Color Metalcast (tm), produces a lot of whiskers that stick up. Unless they are taken down with 000 or preferably 0000 steel wool, they can soak up an entire can of "anodized" color overcoat and still show as "bare metal". Then, when steel wool is applied to the overcoat color, they will break out and leave pits in the finish. It might be even better to apply a clear coat or more between the Metalcast and color coat to even out the surface before the color coat is applied. Note that lacquer coats are exceedingly thin and generally do not fill in pits and voids.
  5. Baking the guitar body in an oven on very low can decrease the lacquer cure time. But just a few degrees higher, and gases coming out of the wood, such as from incompletely cured ply glue, can easily bubble the soft lacquer.
  6. Polyurethane spar varnish and acrylic lacquer do not bond together well, and the spar varnish imparts a yellowish cast to the color.
  7. Ordinary two-part epoxy can be useful for filling in voids and waves in bare wood, but it does not work well for filling in pits in lacquer. For whatever reason, chemical incompatibility or incomplete mixing of the epoxy, it can literally suck away from random areas and leave gaping potholes, completely defeating the purpose of using it. It is also very difficult to apply it without leaving wipe marks, which have to be sanded down. Doing this over finish or color coats can break through them.
  8. The epoxy in the "potholes" may remain soft and incompletely cured. Trying to remove it with a solvent, such as paint thinner or isopropyl alcohol, will likely soften the remaining epoxy and cause it to lift from the surface. Pulling it all off will rip off various layers of finish below it.                    
  9. Not a mistake, but an observation. Trying to hog out volumes of body material with a router bit to lighten the body is very slow. Using a Forstner wood bit is much faster, leaving the router bit for the finish cuts.

The Calico Gat

I finally got tired of trying to get the finish right. The multiple attempts included layers of Dupli-Color metal underfinish and blue anodizing finish, clear coat, polyurethane spar varnish, Rustoleum (tm) blue metallic finish, blue Krylon (tm), and one or two kinds of bubble-pack two-part epoxy. There could have been as many as a dozen layers. When the last coat of two-part epoxy failed and began to detach when treated with solvent, I pulled it all off, along with several layers of finish, which stopped at different layers in different places. Since I wanted this doneand the guitar reassembled before I went into the hospital for a hip replacement, I smoothed it all off with 600 grit wet sandpaper and 0000 very fine steel wool. Then I polished it in sequence with TurtleWax (tm) brown rubbing compound, white polishing compound, and hard shell car wax. I used both hand power and an orbital sander with the sandpaper replaced by a section of tube sock.

What you see is what you get. The gray things on the left are picks stuck under the pick guard. Note that the strings run almost directly over the pickup poles peices (see tuning notes below). Nevertheless, what this guitar lacks in commercial perfection, it has in character. One large guitar maker sells a line of preworn guitars that it claims look and sound like they have been played and abused in thousands of bar gigs. One can only suppose that the purpose of this product is to allow the owners to say, "Oh yeah, that old thing. It's just something I used to open the Stones."

Well, this guitar didn't open the Stones, but it is about a pound lighter, weighing in at about 5.8 pounds. That leaves it a little neck-heavy, but much more suitable to smaller musicians, such as women, or those whose age or disability makes it harder to hold up a standard weight solid body guitar.

Tuning and Taming the Beast

This guitar is tuned G-C-E-G-C-E, from the 6th to 1st string positions, with string diameters 50, 38, 30 and 22 thousandths inch wound, 13 and 11 thousandths plain. The first string is missing in the picture below, with the strings centered over the poles. Except for the 50 string, a GHS DY50 Boomer, they are Ernie Ball strings. The Ernie Ball strings were chosen according to a string chart to allow down-tuning of from 2 to 4 frets.

The position of the pickup, as assembled at the plant, was shifted slightly in the direction of the largest strings. Previously on this site, I suggested that this made the pickup output more nonlinear and that it would be better to put the strings centered directly over the pickup pole pieces. After more thought and experimentation, I found that I was wrong.

The output of the pickup depends upon how the metal string affects the magnetic field of the round pole piece. The output changes as the string moves between lesser and greater values of the field. As I recall magnetic field theory, the output is also higher the faster the string moves, but I could be wrong.

The field is more uniform over the center of the pole piece, therefore, as the string moves over it, there is less change in the voltage. The field drops off quickly away from the center of the pole, especially at the edge of the pole piece. So, although it may not be linear with string position, the pickup produces more of the fundamental vibration of the string when vibrating over the edge of the pole piece. When it vibrates over the center of the pole piece, it produces higher spikes in the output and higher harmonics of the fundamental that do not actually exist in the vibration of the string. That sound is harsher, more metallic.

Click here for larger image

In the picture above, the bridge saddles are canted to place the strings over the centers of the poles as much as possible. Which is not fully evident from the perspective in this closeup picture. The volume pot on the guitar connected to the pickup can affect the sound by muffling the higher frequencies, making the sound "muddy", especially for pickups of higher impedence or pots of lower resistance. So in this case, the volume pot has been removed from the circuit. The pickup is connected directly to the output jack. It will sound best when connected to an amplifier with a very high input impedence.

How does it sound with the strings over the edges of the poles? Judge for yourself. Click here for a sample digitized (wav) file of the guitar connected to a computer sound board (PCM 22.050 kHz 16 bits) through Altec Lansing (tm) Model BX2 computer speakers. The Altec speakers provide a higher input impedance than the sound board, allowing more of the high frequencies through. The tuning is nominally G-C-E-G-C-E, picked with a 0.6 mm nylon pick. It plays well on QuickTime 6.5.1. With this digitizing setup, the side and center pole string positions do not sound much different. The differences, if any, are apparent only when listening directly.

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