The Ash Stratocaster – one year on. Modifications and upgrades

I’ve been really pleased with the Ash Strat. For a first attempt at a “Partscaster” – things came together really well, and the end result is a light, and very playable guitar which sounds excellent. So, in some ways – it’s hard to justify changing anything. But I’ve got a growing number of projects – and only so many guitars I can play at any one time. It makes much more sense to be critical of my own efforts as I develop and, rather than build new guitars always from scratch, to modify and improve the ones I already have.

Building my Gilmour Black Strat over the last few months, has been a bit of an eye opener. I set myself a pretty high standard there, and I’ve tried to keep the build quality as high as I can. I’ve learned a lot in the process. Consequently – there are a couple of bits on the Ash Strat which I now want to revisit – and to bring the same, strict, quality approach to. There are also a few things I’ve learned about my own requirements and preferences for an instrument – both in terms of sound and setup. I want all of my instruments to look good, play well, and sound great.

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One of the things which has become clear to me, over the last year – is that I really like 7.5″ radius necks. There’s just something about the way my fingers shape over the fingerboard, which makes the vintage radius boards seem so natural and comfortable. I sometimes seem to struggle with wider, flat fingerboards – certainly when playing six-string electric.  My G&L bass, which I’ve played for so long – has a 7.5″ radius. So does the Jaguar I built last year – and now the Black Strat. It’s not that I particularly disliked the, slightly flatter neck I provided for the Ash Strat – it’s just that I suspect I’ll get on with a 7.5″ neck even better.

I also want to try and refine the 70’s styling of the Ash Strat. I’m actually aiming for a kind of transitional look – somewhere on the cusp between the original vintage Strat, and the 70’s, CBS driven revamp. For some players – this is when Fender really started to lose the plot. Selling out to CBS led, some say, to a drop in build quality which Fender didn’t really begin recover from until the late 80’s. Some just hate the styling – full stop. For me – the large headstock look was probably the first version of the Strat which I got to know as a boy, and the look of it has a certain nostalgia. Back then – I dreamed of owning a real Fender, and in a world of knock-offs and cheap “Woolies” imitations – even a “clunky-looking” Fender was a thing to be desired. I’d like my Ash Strat to continue to build towards an instrument which takes some of the characteristic 70’s styling – and marries it with some of the best Fender vintage heritage. If I’m looking to the entire Fender catalogue for inspiration – that’s probably going to look something like a 1969 / 1970 model. Maybe a Classic Series “70”, or some such.

So – a large, CBS style headstock is required. I could obtain a generic, maple neck – spray it, put a logo on it, and install tuners again – but then that might not be as cost effective as it may seem. There’s also a lot to be said for getting hold of original, quality Fender parts wherever possible – rather than resorting always to cheaper approximates and knock-offs. That said – the choice of new, large headstock, maple necks from Fender isn’t exactly overwhelming at the moment, and there’s no way I can run to an original vintage example. The only thing I can find within budget is a Fender Classic 70’s, all maple neck, (Fender parts number 099-7002-921) – however I couldn’t find one available in the UK. In the end, my mind was made up for me when I recently came across an advert on eBay for a “used”, but box-fresh neck – offered for sale with a set of Fender “F”-stamped machine heads – still in their packaging (Fender parts number 099-0822-100). I managed to get the unused neck and the brand-new tuners for considerably less than the two would have cost me to buy abroad, and import. Cheaper even than I could have bought them, brand new, in the UK. A good deal, all round.

The new neck is original Fender, made in Mexico. 21 frets, all maple, large headstock – and with a “bullet” truss rod. The neck is urethane finished and has a quite deep “U” profile – which actually feels much like a “C” profile to me. Perhaps it’s a little deeper – but I can’t really feel the difference. Perhaps I’ll notice it more later on, in play. The neck comes pre drilled for both 3-bolt and 4-bolt fixing options, and looks to have a plate in place for a micro-tilt adjuster – should I ever need such a thing. I’ll have to see how well the official Fender neck fits my “unofficial”, ash body. The tuners are classic 70’s style – rhomboid in shape, and bearing the same “F” logo as the existing neck plate. Just as long as the neck fits the body pocket well – all I should have to do is fit the hardware to the new neck, add a string tree and possibly a new bone nut, and then swap the necks over.

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For the rest of the planned mods – I’ll have to get to grips with the main electronics. From building the Black Strat this year – there are a pair of Fender Custom Shop ’69 pickups left over from a complete Abigail Ybarra set – and I really don’t want to see them go to waste. Tonally speaking – the custom ’69’s should also be an ideal addition to my “transition” period Stratocaster. The ’69 pickups are often described as “the best pickup set ever produced by Fender” – but also, as having the “worst bridge pickup ever produced by Fender”. In using one pickup for the Black Strat – I just now happen to have a vacancy in that “troublesome” bridge position. I looked around the usual second-hand market, and managed to get a good deal on a lightly used, Seymour Duncan, Custom Shop SSL-5 pickup – still with it’s original packaging. That should do the job nicely. The SSL-5 is an updated, production take on the original overwound SSL-1 pickup, (a custom variant of which is used on my Black Strat). The SSL-5 is a common bridge upgrade, and should give me an overall sound pallette drawing on classic 60’s tones – with a bit more oomph in the bridge position. The 69 pickups are suppose to evoke the sound of Hendrix – the SSL-5, supposedly, the overdriven blues typical of Gilmour. If they do what they say on the tin, and if I can mount them in a way to get the most out of them – I have high hopes for this particular pickup combination. I may even have to get my Uni-Vibe pedal out for a while.

Pickup-wise, I didn’t really have many complaints with the Ironstone Gilmour Plate, which is currently installed in the Ash Strat. The nine-way pickup selection circuit is, perhaps, a little more confusing to use than the seven way Gilmour option it’s modelled on, and which I’ve put into the Black Strat build – but the pickups sound great themselves. If I’m super picky – I’d rather the circuit wiring was done with cloth wire, and with my usual CRL and CTS components – but I can always rewire the pickups and switches myself, if I should want to use them again, somewhere. Since it remains a real possibility that I may, one day, decide to embark upon yet another Strat project – I’ll probably retain and re-use the whole Ironstone plate installation, further on down the line. It therefore makes sense to  keep the whole plate as-is, and to replace the entire pickguard assembly – together with the new pickups.

So I’ve ordered up a new, black, 11 hole Fender scratchplate to match the original, (Fender part number 099-1359-000). I’ve also obtained another Stratocaster wiring kit from Six String Supplies, and another one of the 1970 Luxe, “orange dime” capacitors, as used on the Black Strat build – so I can upgrade the electronics as I go. I’d also like to visually differentiate this series of mods from my original build – so I’m going to go with a slightly different colour scheme, as regards the pickup covers and switch tips. All original, vintage period Fenders came with white pickup covers, and these have aged over time, with older examples becoming off white – even cream with age. Fender began to offer a black option in the 70’s – so my original colour scheme probably wouldn’t be correct for a 1969/1970 period look. Since I’m building an entirely new pickguard installation – I might as well fit “vintage” style knobs, pickup covers and switch tips. A Fender, “Pure Vintage” 60’s accessory kit, (Fender parts number 099-2097-000), has “white” parts which are produced as being “sympathetically yellowed”, and should give a nod towards the correct period look. The black plate – which looks great against the ash grain – will nod towards the later, 70’s, options which became available from Fender.

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While I’m overhauling the Ash Strat – I’m also planning to upgrade the tremolo. Well – not exactly upgrade it – but remove the stop, and make the tremolo functional. I originally stopped the tremolo because I didn’t think I needed it at the time, and because it seemed quite complicated to get everything in proper balance. Since then, I’ve found the tremolo on the Jaguar to be a lot of fun. The Stratocaster system is a little different in operation than the Jaguar setup, and I need to get to grips with the differences in order to properly finish the Black Strat build. I might as well do a preliminary setup, and de-stop my Ash Strat first.

I still have the original Callaham whammy bar from the Callaham Vintage-S tremolo set, and I stopped the bridge off by temporarily inserting a couple of wooden blocks – held in place by the tremolo spring tension. I should easily be able to remove the blocks to free up the tremolo, and restore the full function.

So, out of one project comes another. I’ll have to put the other projects aside for a while – but that’s not a problem – they’re all at stages where I’m either waiting for components to arrive, (or for the money to buy them) – or are otherwise at points of development where I can easily take a break. Sometimes it’s good to do something different – and it’s often the case that experience on one project can help, and influence, processes on other projects. It’ll also be good to get the Ash Strat out of it’s case again. For general play recently, I’ve been mostly switching between my 355 and my Jaguar. With the Black Strat nearing completion, and with the planned mods to the Ash Strat – it’s probably going to be all-out-Strat – for a little while, at least.

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