The Relic – Part 3: Transformation

And finally, here we are with the third and last episode of the series, which I think will be the most exciting to read for most of you.

When I received my very first electric guitar 15 years later, it wasn’t in a playable condition. So I began with “what is a must fix for it to be playable again?” I already knew from the photos that my cousin sent me that I needed a set of tremolo springs, and a new set of strings. That was the bare minimum required at first sight. I also noticed most of the screws on the pickguard and pickups were rusty, as well as the tiny bridge saddles’ adjustment screws. The pickguard was pretty old and full of scratches but all of that is secondary, and I noticed how the frets were mostly melted, and it worried me a bit. But I thought, I could have it refretted if needed. So, the first thing I ordered was a set of original Fender tremolo springs and some black screws for the pickguard.

With the springs and a set of new strings that I had laying around, I will be able to test drive the electronics and see if any part needs to be replaced before I decide what I wanted to do with the guitar. When I received the springs and installed them along with the strings I was already full of excitement to plug this baby again. I dialed to a clean sound on my Axe-FX, turned up the amp and hit a chord. No sound! I immediately knew the output jack was busted, this happened a few months ago to my other guitar, the Ibanez. I tried plugging it half way in, sometimes it does the trick, and yeah it works! My wife was there witnessing this magical moment and even she noticed how pure, clean and different the guitar sounded. If you’re aiming for a crystal clear and bright sound, you can’t go wrong with Fenders. They have a very distinguishable brightness and characteristic tone that I have never heard on any other guitar.

Onwards!
So now I need a new output jack as well, it’s a must. And I tried the pickup selector switch, it was making a lot of noise when switching, time to change it as well. But to my surprise, none of the volume or tone pots were making a noticeable noise when I tested them, just a very slight crackle on the lower tone pot, but it went away with a quick spray of contact spray I already had. I kept playing for a bit, and was enjoying my time when it hit me in the face while I was bending the second string at the 14th fret. It was like hitting a wall when you’re enjoying the drive, or like finding hair in the most delicious meal you’re having, or uh… like buzzing and cutting off the string sustain when you’re enjoying the bend. My fear has almost turned into a nightmare. Now all that’s going through my head is, how do I fix this, could it be the neck, no it can’t be. Maybe the string action is too low, nope. Something, just give me something other than refretting. I was out of options, so I contacted my beloved ex-bandmate Amr Rifai for advice, who now happens to operate his own handmade electric guitar workshop, Amorite. Amr told me I need to sand down and level the frets. When I gasped, he said this is something his 7 year old kid could do, and proceeded to tell me what I would need, and what a great guy, he shot a few videos in his workshop specially for me, explaining in detail on how to accomplish this daunting task. Buckle up Shant, I told myself. You’re about to go on a new journey, and win some luthiery experience points.

And so I bit the bullet and placed some orders for all the tools I needed:

  • A notched straight edge
  • A fret leveler
  • A fret Rocker
  • A fret Crowning File
  • A variety sandpaper, from course to fine
  • Masking tape, which I already had
  • Steel wool
  • Sharpies, which I have a lot laying around

In the meantime, I wanted to do some photoshopping to decide on what to change in terms of looks. I thought black and gold would be nice, knowing that Fender carries gold replacement parts. And while I waited for most of the fret leveling tools to arrive, I went ahead and ordered a few of the necessary parts, namely the selector switch and the output jack with a gold plate.

I made 4 mock ups in Photoshop and posted them on my Facebook page and asked my fans and friend for their opinion. Most of them voted for #2. Which is what I was secretly hoping they do. 😉

But then I found a new pickguard that is a great fit, and compliments the hardware a lot better with its golden motives, and I did yet another photoshop mock up with the new pickguard.

This one is a winner! Time to take it all apart and give it a good clean.

I tried using some CLR and WD-40 to get rid of the accumulated rust on the pickup magnets. It helped a bit, but I settled for ordering a black cover that will hide all that and give it a slick look as well.

A couple of days later, the selector switch and all the tools for leveling the frets have arrived, along with the new pickguard.
Enter, operating theater.

The procedure for the first step is basically leveling the neck using the truss rod and making it as flat as possible (scary!) and check with the notch edge ruler for the straightness.

When it looked flat enough, it was time to mask the entire fretboard and part of the body, leaving the frets exposed, to avoid any accidental damage.

The next step was marking all the frets with a sharpie and start sanding with the leveling bar and a coarse sandpaper. The sharpie will help you identify which frets are higher and which are lower, after you sand for a bit, any frets with no marks means those were high frets, and anything with the sharpie mark still showing, means it is untouched. I used a double sided tape to fix a course sandpaper on one side of the leveling bar, and started moving the bar along the fretboard back and forth without applying any pressure, and making sure I cover the entire length of all frets. I repeated this process until most of the marked frets disappeared.

Now it’s time to use the fret rocker and do another check on each fret. Sometimes you have frets that is higher at the lower strings, or higher at higher strings, this is where the rocker comes in handy. The principle is to rest the rocker flat along three frets and start rocking it back and forth. If it rocks, it means the middle fret is higher than the other two. I repeated this steps at three locations on each fret; top, middle and bottom. This time, I used the sharpie to only mark the part of each fret that was higher. You can see the higher parts on my frets in the picture below.

And you keep sanding away, and repeating this process until it’s all level.

Now it’s time to file it with the fret crowning file, this will bring the frets back to their original arched shape.

Once again, we mark all the frets with a sharpie and file away until we are left with a thin line in the middle of the fret. My file had two sides, coarse and fine. It’s pretty easy to use, just place it on each fret and grind up making sure you follow the curvature of the neck to cover the entire length of each fret equally.

This is how the frets looked after I was done filing.

Next up, using a thin plastic card or a credit card with a sandpaper wrapped around, to smooth the sides of each fret one by one. You need to repeat this process with different sandpaper grits, 600, 800, 1000, 1200, 1500 and 2000. This is by far, the most cumbersome and repetitive step in the entire. It has to be done, otherwise your fingers will feel the rough edge of the frets while playing, as a result of the filing process.

When I was done with the entire fretboard, it was time for the last step before giving it a try. The last step is pretty fun, all you have to do is work the frets with the steel wool. The steel wool will get rid of any sharpie marks residue and make the frets look extremely shiny and smooth. It is important to note here that I felt my throat itching after using the steel wool, I did not know that this thing releases flying micro particles in the air. When I asked Amr, he laughed and said he forgot to tell me to keep a magnet nearby. Oh well, the damage is done.

We’re done here! Time to remove the masking tape, put it back together and give it a try.

But before I did that, and since I had the new pickguard, I wanted to replace the selector switch while the guitar was taken apart.

I don’t exactly know the science that goes behind soldering the selector switch, but I thought if I mirror the wiring to the new switch, it should be operate as intended.

Now I’m not a professional soldering soldier, but I think I did a good job with the tools I had.

I did not have the new output jack yet, so I had to use the old one for now. At this point I’m both excited and worried to know if all the effort was worth it.
So I put everything together and plugged it in.

The operation was successful! I can now bend without any buzzing or silencing the strings. I specifically checked where it was doing that most, all gone! 😀
Well, I’m not gonna brag. When I showed the results to my luthier friend Amr, he suggested I file the higher frets a bit more since they looked flat in the photos I sent him.
So, once again, I masked the higher frets (12 and up) and repeated the filing and step, and then the long sanding step using the credit card method, and finally the steel wool; this time I used tons of very strong magnets and I was wearing a mask as well. 😆

When I was done, I plugged it in again and gave it another try, and it sounded great.

Then some aesthetic items arrived, pickup screws, height springs, blank pickup covers, and the gold output jack.
Time to take it apart again and install those items.

Problem #1: The humbucker pickup height screws were a bit long, and it was preventing the pickguard to sit in place, so I had to improvise with a pair of pliers and trimmed the excess ends making sure I don’t end up with a small room for height adjustment.

Problem #2: The gold jackplate arrived broken, because the seller shipped it in a padded enveloper instead of using a box. I had to return it and asked for a replacement.

When the replacement arrived, the soldering ends were ok this time, but I ran into another problem that I didn’t even notice when I got the first item.
The plate was not made by Fender, so it did not sit well in its place when I tried it on. Luckily though, I haven’t started the soldering process, so I was able to return it again.
This time I thought it’s time to order from Fender, and since everything else was working well, it was time to replace all the chrome hardware with the gold version. The bridge, tuning keys and everything else that was chrome. so I placed down the order for all the hardware, and a few weeks later they arrived.

Time to make the finishing touches.

The tuning keys I ordered are also locking, so that was actually an upgrade.
And the tremolo bridge arrived as a kit, it included a couple of trees and a set of springs and the spring plate. So now I have a spare set of springs.

All done! Time to install a new set of strings. Then do some fine tuning and intonation. Tightening or loosening the screws that attach the saddles at the back of the bridge will move the saddle pieces toward or away from the fretboard. If the fretted note on the 12th plays sharp, the screws should be tightened (turned clockwise). If the fretted note sounds flat, you turn the screw counter-clockwise. To check if it sounds sharp or flat, you can play the harmonic note right at the 12th and compare it to the fretted note.

The tiny screws that are on top of the saddles adjust the string action, in other words the height of the string. It is important to note that any of these adjustments including the spring tension adjustment in the back of the guitar will affect string tuning, so every time you make a small move you will need to re-tune and test it again.

Well, this was a fun post to write. One of my longest post to date, if not the longest one yet.
Thank you for taking the time and reading through. And special thanks to my dear friend Amr Rifai from Amorite Guitars for his help and supervision throughout the entire process.

And now I let you enjoy this glorious view.

Cheers!
Shant

The Relic – Part 2: Journey

With the guitar getting found, the next step was shipping it to me. But with the country in a state of war, it’s not an easy task to accomplish. Courier services like Fedex or DHL do not operate regularly, and costs are not very friendly as well, they run around $900. So the next option was to have someone bring it with them as a carry on for example. But once again, the international airport in Aleppo is still shut down. The only option is to take it to the closest neighboring country and make the next move from there; Beirut, Lebanon.

Luckily, I was about to go on a trip to Armenia in May, and the likelihood of finding someone going to Armenia rather than Canada were much higher, so I had some more options. And if I can find someone who’s planning to go to Armenia from Aleppo, that would be amazing. So the search starts with asking one of my friends, whose family I knew were also going to Armenia during that period. Initially they agreed to take it with them but only to Lebanon, and leave it there with one of my friends until I find some other way, but I have been told that I would need an official invoice for the guitar to pass through customs. Uh oh! How am I supposed to remember where have I kept an invoice from 22 years ago?

Now, I have to somehow make a new invoice, otherwise no deal.
So I contact a friend to ask if maybe there’s a slight change the music store I purchased the guitar from was still open. Luckily it was, so I immediately send a message to the owner who should remember me well. The plan here, is to get the invoice before my friends’ family leave to Lebanon, we had a few days. The owner agreed to make a new invoice for me, but unfortunately the store was temporarily closed and he was out of town and would only return after my friends’ family had already left. Bummer. Can you already tell what am I going through?
Alternatively, these people were going with a private cab and the driver also moves belongings for a fee, but would you trust a 22 year old Fender guitar, which happens to be your first ever electric guitar in the hands of a stranger? It’s not like I had another option, I had to get the guitar to Armenia while I was there. Now the new plan is, this guy will confirm if the guitar needs an invoice or not at the border on his first trip to Lebanon, and on his next trip he will take it with him to leave it at one of my old friends’ place there.

A few days pass by, and upon his return it comes to our attention that we do not actually need an invoice. Great, at least it’s a one less step involved in this process. Next up, delivering the guitar to the cab driver. I contact my cousin and ask him to kindly do so, things go smoothly and in a couple of slightly stressful days on May 24, my friend in Lebanon sends me a photo of the guitar case safely delivered to him, assuming my guitar is in it 😀

Poor thing has to sit there now, waiting for somebody to take her to Armenia. My trip was in a few days, so time is of the essence. I make a post on Facebook asking if there was any of my friends going from Lebanon to Armenia.

A few people responded tagging others, and another old friend from Lebanon said “it would have been a good meeting, but I’m coming on the 9th of June” by that time I wouldn’t be in Armenia anymore. It looked like it wasn’t going to happen, and the plan B was moving it directly to Canada. So I start making inquiries again, first candidate was my wife’s cousin who was in Lebanon at the time, and would return to Canada in a couple of weeks, which was perfect. She agreed initially, but then said she has too much luggage and a kid, so it would be very difficult for her. I had no choice but to leave it there until we found someone who can bring it to Canada with them in the coming months.

It’s now June 5, and we’re at the airport excited and ready to get back home. It’s me, my wife and my brother, we’re at the airline kiosk asking for our boarding passes to get printed, and having our passports checked. We do not find the concerned look on the agent very comforting when she was checking my brother’s documents. She reaches for a thick book, checks something and looks around searching for the manager. Uh oh… The manager steps in, she asks a few questions and confirms to us that my brother cannot travel on that day because one of his documents were expired. Panic mode on. Now I’m on my phone trying to check if what she was saying makes sense, my wife is telling me we’re going to miss the flight if we don’t move, at least get the ticket refunded, and my brother is standing in shock in a pool of his own sweat. Eventually we run to an office where we can at least get his ticket canceled and refunded, meanwhile we’re doing some exchanges in our luggage, and I find out that he will need at least an extra 2 weeks until his document gets renewed by the Canadian embassy in Armenia. The denial phase is over now. It’s inevitable that we’re leaving him behind.

But every story has a silver lining, right? Well, at least for me 😀
Since my brother was staying longer in Armenia, he could meet with the other guy who was only going to Armenia after we leave. I contact him after we return home, and he gives me the ok, but my guitar has to be checked in. And he proceeds with telling me how he has seen workers at the airport throwing around luggage like there’e no tomorrow. Oh the struggle. Hmm, well my guitar is in a hard case and do I have options?

June 9, my guitar arrives safely to Armenia. And now it’s in the hands of my brother, bound to return home.
Fast forward to July 7, my brother has the honor to bring with him a guitar that I haven’t touched for 15 years. I open the case in excitement and snap this shot.

Welcome home. Next step is restoring it and make it playable again.

To be continued…

The Relic – Part 1: Acquisition

First, a little backstory.

This American Fender Stratocaster is the very first electric guitar I ever owned. It’s a limited edition 50 years anniversary model made in 1996 that I bought in ’97. The original model had the current glossy black finish with a white pickguard and pickup covers and a SSS (3 single coil) setup.

Well, I just dug into my hard drive’s darkest corners and found this photo of me during one of our gigs in ’98 with the original setup

In early 2001 I decided to make some modifications to the guitar and get rid of the white bits. So, I started with replacing the white pickguard with a black one. A few months later, I thought the white pickups needed to go black as well, and while at it, and since we were playing some heavy stuff, I threw in a Dimarzio Air Norton in the bridge position to help me get rougher tones. The black pickguard I had purchased was a 3 single coil setup, so a friend helped me modify it to fit in the humbucker, and helped with the installation as well; soldering the wires and what not.

Here’s another bad quality photo I found that I took back then with one of the very early digital cameras on the market.

And that was it until I left the guitar into the hands of my cousin, who asked me if he can borrow the guitar and my old Peavey amp while I was out of the country, and that he wanted to learn to play the guitar. I thought why not, better put it to good use and help inspire someone instead of just sitting there and collecting dust.
But my extended stay has let me forget about the guitar and move on. And in 2014, things took a tragic turn; we lost my cousin during the war in Syria, and I really don’t want to go into details here. During that period, I knew (and my mother confirmed) that he needed some money, and that he sold the guitar to provide for his family. But his passing made me completely forget that he had the guitar and sold it.

A few months ago I was very hesitant to ask his brother if there was any chance he knew the buyer; after all, it’s a very delicate matter to discuss, but it would be a shame if the guitar was lost with all of the history it bears. So I built up the courage to ask him, he was very understanding and kind enough to start looking for it, and the first place he wanted to check was with his sister in law. When I asked why would it be there, he told me that his brother might not have sold the guitar after all. And as he suspected, the guitar was found in one of the boxes at his sister in law inside a soft case that wasn’t mine. But to have it shipped, we needed the original hard case which was missing. I thought, maybe when I gave my cousin the guitar, he had that soft case that he took it with, and probably left the hard case at my place. Luckily, his brother had the keys to our old apartment, so I asked him to go and check when he had some free time, but after a brief search he wasn’t able to locate it. He was even kind enough to take pictures of where he looked and sent them to me… Oh, the memories.

A couple of weeks later, he told me that he had found the case. It was thrown in the attic at my cousin’s apartment. Yes, apartments in Syria have small and very low attics, we had one above our bathroom. They’re usually about 4 to 5 feet high so you have to crawl your way in, but it’s a good space for storage. And now you’re thinking how can you fit a 5 foot high attic above a bathroom. Well, room ceilings were also high, the average height of rooms were around 3 to 4 meters, that’s around 12 feet.

Here are a couple of photos my cousin snapped after finding the guitar.

As you can see, the back panel of the guitar was open and the springs were missing for some weird reason, but the strings were intact. I asked my cousin to loosen the tension on the strings to have the bridge rest back into its place. The next step was finding a way to ship it out to me.

But that’s a story for another day that I will leave for my next post.

Remodelling The Black Strat

Ladies and gentlemen,

Once again, I’ve successfully situated myself in this unhealthy predicament, which I’m very good at: Choosing: which I’m very bad at; obviously.

This is my very first guitar that I got reunited with a couple of days ago. I’ve already took it apart, did some cleaning, but I need to change some rusty parts and while at it, I’ll remodel it.

I’ve made 3 (maybe more) mockups of what I’m planning to change. I thought why not ask my lovely friends here for their opinion. Pick one… please. This is already hard.
Or, what would you do if you had the choice?

Black Strat

New Toy in House

New toy in the house! 😊
So far I’m loving what this controller offers, with a bunch of faders, pots and pads that will make my life a bit easier to record new juicy synth and pad sounds.
It’s highly customizable and not very expensive too.