The Black Strat. First assembly. Starting to bring it all together.

On the ash Stratocaster project – on first installation, the scratchplate sat a bit too close to the tremolo plate, and I had to modify it slightly. I really don’t want to have to modify the custom-built, acrylic plate for this build – so a lot depends on the overall quality of the basic components, and how accurately the parts are dimensioned and pre-drilled. I can’t check the plate until the guitar begins to come together, and the neck pocket / bridge relationship is established. I need to start the build, in order to check, and I finally have the parts I need.

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While I’ve been sourcing components, and waiting for them to arrive from suppliers in the UK, USA and Europe, I watched the auction at Christie’s in New York, which saw Gilmour’s original Black Strat go for almost $4 million dollars. It’s astonishing that any one thing – let alone a guitar – can become acquire such a legendary status that it can far, far exceed the intrinsic value of it’s component parts.

The parts for my version of this, now historic giuitar, are all genuine Fender, or custom-built specials. I’m hoping to build my own version of the Black Strat which is, in most respects, true to some of the technical aspects of the original, whilst not attempting to relic or accurately reproduce a “fake”. I see it as a sort of “New, Old Stock” approach – although, with some bits, the accent is very much on “new”. But then there’s nothing wrong with getting to own a brand new, shiny Fender every now and again.

So, with my work table full of boxes and parcels and Fender tagged goodies – I start to unwrap the bits I need, to begin to bring the first assembly of my Black Strat together. I’ve already prepped the body cavities with copper foil, and wired and installed the jack plug socket – but the body has been re-boxed until today. First out of its’ wrapping however, is the neck and tuners.

Neck and tuners

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The neck is a Fender Classic Series 50’s – all maple neck. Made in Mexico, and finished in a frighteningly glossy, vintage-tinted, nitro lacquer. (Fender part number 0990-061-921). It has a vintage correct, 7.25″ radius fingerboard – and is a pretty reasonable representation of some of the necks Gilmour has used on the original Black Strat over the years. Everything is pre-drilled, including the tuner screw holes on the reverse of the headstock – so if the guys at Fender are anywhere near where they should be in terms of quality and accuracy – then this should fly together.

I first check the neck for straightness, with a metal straight-edge. The frets and fingerboard seem level, and it looks like Fender may even have pre-engineered a little fall-away for the upper frets. No need to level or dress the frets. No need to tweak the truss rod. This looks set up to go.

The tuners to be fitted are Fender “American Vintage”, Kluson type tuners with a “single-line” Fender logo. (Fender parts number 0992-074-000). Supplied, as usual, with the correct bushings to fit a vintage type Fender neck – the bushings should fit straight into the pre-drilled pegholes. However, I’m always a bit cautious. Too tight a peg-hole – and forcing the bushing into the hole risks splitting the nitro on the headstock – or even worse – the headstock wood itself. For that reason, I usually ream out the inside of the peg-holes with some 320 grit paper – just to work away, a little, at the nitro at the edges of the hole. Hoping, perhaps, that if there is any pressure on the nitro – it’ll split around the edge of the hole, under the bushing – and not out onto the face of the wood.

As it turns out, after a little light work with some grit paper – the bushings press into place with a good shove, and just my fingers. No need for the extra shove of the drill press. They’re easy to push home – but snug enough that they won’t move about or rattle.

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And with the bushings in place – the tuners slot straight through. No need for the handy template, which Fender always seem to include in their tuner packaging. (I’ll tuck that away for another job). The pre-drilled holes seem to match up well – but I double check the tuners for straightness, with a metal ruler, before screwing them in place. I’m replacing most of the screws on this project, with high quality, Stainless Steel screws, as supplied by Charles Guitars (Part number CH24086). Replacing stock screws with Stainless is something I always used to do on motorbikes I owned. It’s amazing how much money manufacturers seem to be able to save, by replacing proper screws for ones made out of toffee. Cheap screws have a tendency to shear, and their cheap finishes easily flake off. These stainless screws are sharp, and self-tapping – but like all screws into wood – especially hard maple like this – I wipe each screw on a block of wax before turning it home for the first time. I sit all the screws at about 95%, before checking final alignment, and then fully tighten them down.

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The neck comes supplied with a Fender “synthetic bone” nut. It’s probably a sort of TUSQ-like composite – but on my electrics, I always prefer a bone nut. I usually have a small bag of spare nuts in the workshop. After checking the nut isn’t bound to the nitro lacquer anywhere – by running a razor blade around the edges – I tap the original nut out sideways, with a small pin hammer and a suitable drift. These bone nuts sometimes come flat-backed, sometimes curved. Most of the 7.25″ radius necks I’ve worked on have a curved nut. This one sems to be somewhere in between – but it certainly isn’t flat. My bone nut is also a little bit thicker than the original. I’ll have to sand it down slightly, and do a little re-shaping so it sits and fits the nut slot properly.

I stick the nut blank to a small, wooden block with double-sided sticky tape, and then work it up and down a piece of 320 grit paper, which I similarly tape to the workbench. This keeps the action of the paper as even as i can make it, overall. I check the progress against the original, and once I near the ideal thickness, I switch to 400 grit for the last few strokes. I work the nut just until it starts to bind on the sides of the pre-cut channel. I don’t want it too loose – but neither do I want to run the risk that subsequent removal of the nut will cause the nitro to lift, or flake off. Eventually – I get to the point where the nut stays in place on it’s own – but I can, reasonably easily, push it out with my fingers. If it’s at all loose – I’ll secure it in place with a drop of shellac.

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I test the nut slot with a profile gauge – and you can see how the original profile isn’t quite flat – but certainly isn’t as curved as my bone blank. Using a slightly curved piece of flatwood, wrapped in 320 grit – I gradually work away at the profile of the base of the nut, until I get it to closely match the profile shown on the gauge. (These nut blanks generally need a, “bit off the top” too, before they’re at the right height for strings). The nut is then checked for final fit, the ends rounded and sanded down until the fit is flush with the sides of the neck and then the whole thing is polished up with some fine micro mesh. The nut slot is given a quick clean out, and the nut pushed home. If I do need to secure the nut in place, I’ll do it once I’ve had a chance to check it with strings in place.

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Since the neck attachment screw holes are already pre-drilled – there’s nothing more to prepare at this stage – so the neck goes back into it’s protective packaging – and it’s on to working on the body.

Tremolo bridge, Claw and Springs

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I used a Callaham, Vintage S Model Bridge assembly on the Ash Strat project from last year. It’s a great unit, and the heavy block just adds so much to the tone. The tremolo fitting has a better collet as well – and the arm is supplied with the option of a pre-cut”Gilmour length”. The “vintage” specification offers a Vintage Repro Block. 6 pivot, 2 7/32″ mounting & 2 7/32″ string spacing. (Callaham parts number CA21001). I’m using the same assembly on this build. It looks the part, it works great, it sounds great and it’s ideal to pair with the vintage credentials and dimensions of the Fender body. .

The Fender alternative would probably be the “Pure Vintage” tremolo assembly – but when it comes down to a straight A / B  shootout – the Callaham is, in my view anyway, comes out on top. The pivot edge on the Callaham bridge is specially milled to make sure the specific screws supplied just nip the edge of the blade. This is supposed to provide a much more precise tremolo operation – with no danger of screws mis-aligning and binding the tremolo movement. The only bit of detail which suggests I go with the Fender option – is the fact that Gilmour’s original guitar very clearly displays Fender, “Pat. Pend.” saddles – just like any authentic, vintage Fender should.

So – to keep the Callaham functionality and still get the proper “Pat. Pend.” saddles – I  decide to swap the CG saddles out for Fender “Pure Vintage” replacements. The Fender “Pure Vintage” line is supposed to reproduce the styling,  the methods of manufacture – even going so far as to use some of the old school Fender machinery and materials. The saddles look to be a straight swap for the Callahams. The springs and intonation screws supplied with the bridge assembly fit straight into the Fender saddles – all I have to do is match the grub screw heights with the originals, so that I can set the profile to match the fingerboard’s 7.25″ radius.

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It’s only a rough adjustment – but it’s important to get each saddle installed in the correct string position. I’ll have to check the final string heights, and the way the saddles sit on the tremolo plate, during setup. But this should get me somewhere near the mark.

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The bridge assembly comes, as you’d expect, complete with the claw and springs for installation into the rear compartment. The claw screws, (and the crucial bridge screws), aren’t duplicated in the stainless steel replacement set – the Callaham originals are specifically designed, and are well up to the job. The claw is fitted  with two long screws – into the pre-drilled holes. Drilling these yourself takes a special long drill bit, to get the flat angle right – but having them pre-drilled keeps things nice and simple. A long screwdriver does help though, and a bit of padding protects the face of the guitar body from accidental scratches. Once the claw is roughly positioned, about a quarter of the way down the cut-out, I take a small diamond file and scratch up the surface of the claw a little – just to work through the surface coating – and to help solder to stick. I then take a piece of black cloth covered wire, and run it round the back of the claw, and through the small interconnecting hole – into the main control cavity. I always like to make sure there’s a little extra loop of wire behind the claw. A bit of slack in the wiring here and there can sometimes help you out of a tight soldering spot. Better too long a wire, than too short. It takes a fair bit of heat to get the wire soldered to the claw – so you need a fairly decent soldering station – but once the wire is  securely attached to the claw, I can turn the guitar body over, and thread the other end of the wire through to the main cavity.

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I pull the slack through, and then solder a lug onto the end of the ground wire. I locate a point on the side of the control cavity, which should be clear of any pots or switches, and then push a bradawl into the wall of the cavity. This gives me an angle, so I can anchor a securing screw directly into the wood of the body. This attaches the claw to the ground side of the guitar circuit, and will provide a central point – where I can attach other ground wires, as required. The jack plug ground – pictured loose, with it’s accompanying “hot” wire, will be attached during the subsequent installation of the guitar circuit.  I can now fit the bridge assembly.

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The holes for the bridge attachment screws are already drilled and countersunk. The Callaham screws supplied with the assembly are made of specially strengthened steel, to resist deformation – and are specially rounded under the heads to work precisely with the tremolo plate. The bridge screws are given a little wipe with wax, before being lightly driven in. As they are turned, I check they’re going in straight and true.

For the tremolo to function properly – the tightness of the screws against the edge of the tremolo is critical. I tend to work from the middle, outwards. G, D, B, A, E, E. As each screw gets to about 97%, I watch the angle of the tremolo plate against the body. Once the screw is slowly tightened down to the point where the back of the tremolo plate just begins to lift – I stop, and then back the screw off, about an eighth of a turn. Once all the screws are similarly driven, I back the middle four screws off another quarter turn. This effectively leaves the outer two screws to control the movement of the pivot. It’s, supposedly, the way Gilmour has his trem set up, and it seems to make perfect sense to me. Two outside pivot points is the most economic way to control the precise movement of the plate. It’s hard enough getting the two outside screws to the exact same depth – let alone all six.

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With the bridge in position, I turn the guitar over again, and fit the springs. As with all standard Stratocaster assemblies – the Callaham bridge comes with five tremolo springs. In this case – and in the same manner as Gilmour’s original – there will be three, with the outer two angled from the middle out, towards the edge of the tremolo block. Because there’s no tension from any installed strings to pull against the floppiness of the bridge – I put a couple of pieces of masking tape across the cavity, just to make sure the springs don’t fall out until there’s some tension in the system. And finally – it’s time to fit the neck to the body.

Neck attachment

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This can be fraught, especially if the neck and body haven’t been made to match. But this is a Fender body, and a Fender neck, specifically designed to fit to a standard pattern. It’s all pre-drilled, and the neck pocket should be a perfect fit for the neck – including the sprayed nitro finish. In all honesty – I’m anticipating perhaps a tiny bit of sanding – just to get things perfect, but then the neck goes and drops in and stays there. Fits. Like. A. Glove.

I’ve acquired a “custom” neck plate – stamped with a generic number, “in the style” of a vintage original. It’s a decently thick plate – so I think it’s probably a refurbished Fender original, although I’d have to doubt the authenticity of the stamped number. Real vintage examples of Fender plates from the period go for silly money. I suppose it’s similar, in a way, to the custom registration plate market. Authenticity sells.

The number on the plate doesn’t appear to exist on any Fender database. It’s likely it falls within a tranche of numbers not actually produced – but a number in that area of the series would indicate a date of somewhere around 1961/62. Gilmour’s original Black Strat bears the number 38979, which would mean a production date of 1958/59 – but then that’s likely a retro-fitted plate anyway. The original Black Strat was widely thought to have developed from a modified, late 60’s model – and it’s been highly altered since. I think it’s likely that Gilmour’s plate perhaps came with one of the vintage necks he eventually settled on using. I’ll take the “used” plate #70737 for my version of the Black Strat. (Although the neck also bears it’s own official Fender serial number). It’ll add a unique identity to my particular version of the original, and will also add a little vintage mojo. The plate is lightly reliced, and has some of the chrome rubbed away at the edges and corners. I like the contrast, and the way it looks like a vintage part, mounted on all the new hardware.

The plate fits on, and the stainless steel neck bolts from my replacement set are waxed and threaded into the body. The screws go in as if the body is already tapped. Within the pocket, I’m pleased to note that the pre-drilled holes on the neck are in exactly the right place. I tighten each screw in turn, working diagonally across the neck – Letting the screws cut their paths into the neck holes until the plate is just tight against the body.

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And yet another Black Strat takes shape. I’ve already put aside a Fender badged, G&G case – specifically for this project. I’m pleased to see that the guitar fits securely within the padding. In all honesty – I can’t complain about the ease with which the build has come together, but sometimes a little struggle helps stamp a personality. On the one hand – the build has gone easily, as I’d expect from quality, authentic parts. On the other hand – the sense of achievement in bringing them together, so far, is less than in a project where I’ve had, in some cases, to measure, cut and work out critical geometries and alignments.

Fundamentally – I can’t get away from the fact that it’s a kit build. A real “partscaster”. Can I really call it a proper Fender? Well – the components certainly have the required authenticity and provenance. In some cases they exceed the original specification and are the kind of after-market parts that get fitted by players looking for a quality upgrade. Just because my components were assembled, by me, on a kitchen table in Kent – rather than by a worker in Ensenada, or Fullerton, or Scottsdale, or wherever – does that make it any less than authentic?

It’s an interesting question, and one which ultimately leads me back to thinking about how an assembly of branded wood and wire can become so iconic – to the point where it can become worth, in plain financial terms, much more than the sum of it’s various parts. But – building this guitar isn’t about profit. This is a bit of a personal test, and the project won’t be a success unless the instrument plays well. My criteria for success in building my own guitar will be closely related to how it eventually sounds and, crucially, how it is set up and how it plays. And I’ve still got a little way to go before I find out how much the quality of the build alone, has to play, in the fine balance of things.

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