The Strummercaster. Pickup, and final hardware installation.

The pickups for the guitar are hand-wound by Tony at Ironstone Pickups. Designed to give a vintage Fender sound – I’m using these, since the pickups he supplied for the Gilmour plate on the Ash Stratocaster sounded right on the mark. The pickups are, of course, brand new. It would be good to age them up a bit – but I don’t want to risk damaging the delicate copper wiring on the coils, so anything I do can only be pretty superficial. For the bridge pickup – I don’t want to risk chemically ageing the poles on the pickup – so all I can really do is add a dusting of rottenstone powder with a small mop-headed brush. The pickup comes with a protective strip of plastic taped in place to protect the copper coil. With that removed, a black ribbon covering is revealed. The original pickups may have had a vintage, string-type covering – but there’s no way of checking. A light dusting of rottenstone makes the pickup look like it’s been gathering dust for a few years, and helps remove any “newness”.

The neck, or lead, pickup has the usual, metal “lipstick” cover in place. This is attached to the pickup bobbin via three tabs which are bent around the bobbin to hold it in place. At the third location, the tab is soldered on to the ground wire. The pickup wires are combined into one thin cable with a central, screened hot wire surrounded by the ground – kind of like a typical coaxial cable, but much, much finer. I don’t really want to mess about with the wiring at the pickup end – so taking the shine off the lipstick cover with Ferric Chloride will have to be done with the cover in place. I need to find a suitable way to support the pickup, while the PCB etch does it’s job.

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I find a suitable container which can support the pickup – leaving the sides clear. It’s then just a matter of pouring in enough Ferric Chloride to reach most of the way up the lipstick cover – but no more. A few minutes later, and the etch has done it’s job. A good, but careful clean over with a damp cloth – followed by a coating of renaissance wax leaves a duller finish with a bit of pitting. The sides, where the shiny finish must have been thinner, has worn through to a copper or brass base coat. I could, perhaps, do with a bit more wear to the face of the cover – but I’ll end up completely wearing through the coat on the sides. It’ll do as it is..

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Both the pickups are mounted to their respective plates using small springs over the connecting screws. This enables a degree of adjustment to the pickup height – the springs acting against the tightening down of the screws. The springs are either small metallic coils, or  are fashioned out of rubber tubing. There’s plenty of debate online about which is the best approach – many guitarists swear there’s a difference in sound, others say there’s no difference. For this job, it’s more a matter of what’s easiest. I find the actual springs are incredibly fiddly to fit – but once they’re in place they last a long time. The rubber tubing has an advantage in that, as you fit the adjustment screw through the supporting bridge or scratchplate – through the tubing and finally into the pickup bobbin – the tubing helps hold everything in place while you connect and tighten it all up. It’s like having a spare hand. The metal springs are problematic, since they need  compressing slightly while everything is held in place. It’s definitely a case of, “four hands are better than two” – and can be a bit of a struggle.

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But, despite taking all the online opinion into account, together with the fiddliness of the job, I decide to mount the bridge pickup with springs, and the neck pickup with rubber tubing. The bridge pickup promises to be the most difficult, so I tackle that first. I remove the bridge plate, and check the fit of the screws and springs. When I’ve fiddled about with pickup screws in the past, I’ve found they can sometimes vary slightly, and the spring length is also, sometimes, too long to allow for easy installation. When I find a combination I can work with, I disassemble one last time, and then treat the head of each screw with Ferric Chloride to knock the shine off. I fit the neck side screw first, and leave it lightly attached. This gives a bit of wriggle room to allow the other two, bridge side screws, to be inserted and then pushed aside slightly, to allow the springs to go in over the top. It’s fiddly – but eventually all three screws are seated without the risk of cross-threading. They are then tightened up until the springs are compressed equally on all sides. I usually do them up about half way.

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You can see in the image above, that a ground wire is already attached to a brass plate on the bottom of the pickup bobbin. This means there isn’t any further need to ground the plate, and connecting the co-axial wire to the circuit will provide the necessary connection to the ground side of the circuit.

Next, the scratchplate is removed, so that the neck pickup can be mounted to it. I tend to use lengths of tubing roughly 1.5cm long. It helps if you try to make sure the cut lengths are equal and are square at the ends. It’s much easier to mount the neck pickup using the tubing and once mounted, I tighten each adjustment screw up approximately half-way – keeping both screws equally adjusted, and the pickup level.

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With both the pickups mounted, I re-install the bridge and scratch plates – routing the pickup wires through the internally drilled routes. With this body, the wire from the neck pickup is routed backwards, through a small conduit hole, into the bridge pickup cavity. From there, it can run on into the main control cavity, along with the bridge pickup wire. On some bodies, the neck pickup wire is routed via a more direct, separate conduit. Whatever the configuration, it’s vital to check that there’s enough pickup wire supplied to reach the switch and ground connections in the main control compartment.

It’s necessary therefore, to fit the neck pickup and scratchplate first, with the bridge plate off. This, so that the neck pickup wire can be routed backwards to the bridge. I’ve completed the build using a 22 fret neck, rather than the more historically correct 21 fret specification. (I don’t object to the look of the 22 fret neck, and it’s a bit more practical since the access to the truss rod adjustment nut is via the pegboard end of the neck). The fingerboard overhangs the scratchplate a little on the 22 fret neck, and this means that it can be difficult to slide the scratchplate back into place with the pickup mounted. You can, sometimes, flex the plate and wiggle it into place – but to be safe, it’s sometimes necessary to remove the neck once more. This can sometimes prove the safer option, in the long run – especially if you want to avoid damaging the pickup wiring connections, or damaging the scratchplate.

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With the scratchplate finally in place, and with the, (red), neck pickup wire routed through the bridge pickup cavity – the, (blue), bridge pickup wire and the red wire are routed through into the main control cutout, via the small connecting conduit. The bridge plate is now screwed down into place, with the bridge pickup in place. The two ends of the pickup wires can now be tucked away into the main pickup cavity, until they need to be wired in.

With the bridge pickup in place, I can now re-install the six string saddles, together with their intonation screws and springs. Everything’s been separated in order to age the various components. I’m using the original saddles from the re-used Fender bridge. I believe Joe’s original might have used brass saddles – but I can’t find any suitable replacements. I don’t want to risk any chemical treatment for these, since I want to make sure everything works as it should. They are some 20 years old as it is, and whilst they might appear a little too shiny, and perhaps out of context for this build – there is, at least, a little bit of honest wear and tear from the years I played and gigged them.

It’s a simple task to seat each bridge and attach an intonation screw, with a spring in between, for each of the string positions. The saddles are slotted off-centre, for the strings to provide the correct string alignment through the body, over the bridge saddles, across the pickup poles and up the neck.They need to go on the right way round to avoid mis-alignment. The saddles are adjusted to approximate position, with the treble side saddles slightly further forward than those on the bass side.

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And finally, a few extra bits of hardware can be finally installed. On the rear of the guitar body, the ferrules for the through-body stringing are pushed into place. The ferrules were purchased, already pre-aged – but spent a few minutes in the acetic acid chamber, ageing with some of the other metal components. The finish on the body around the holes, which I drilled to accommodate the ferrules, is quite badly chipped and worn in a couple of places. It’s a little difficult to get the ferrules to sit securely whilst maintaining equal spacing. (My drilling may have been a little off-line in places, too). Where the ferrules are loose, or where they need holding in line, I use a little superglue around the inside edge, to hold them firmly in place. I haven’t drilled the holes to countersink the ferrule flanges – so they sit proud. It’s not the finest job – but it’s functional.

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The last bits of hardware to fit into place are the strap buttons, (I’ll do the string tree once the guitar is finally strung up – that way I can get the location where I want it). Positions for the strap pins are measured and marked, and holes are drilled for the strap button screws. I find it’s sometimes useful to use a laser level, to sight along the neck markers. This helps centrally locate the button on the lower bout – but most people can probably eyeball it, just as well. As with some of the other components – the strap buttons are pre-aged, vintage style items – so the finish is suitably dulled. They are screwed into place, each with a new, black, felt washer – as supplied. the finishing touch is to add a pair of “traditional” Grolsh-style, strap lock rubbers. I’ve tried various strap locks over the years, and never really got on with them. I’ve always used this cheap and effective way of keeping the strap on the guitar and, in this case, it’s bang on authentic. Joe Strummer used the red rubber washers himself.

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