The Ash Stratocaster – More modifications and upgrades

My Ash Strat was the first “Partscaster” I put together. Over the past two years, it has had various bits swapped out, as I’ve sought to learn from my other builds, and upgrade. This leads to a bit of an existential problem. If I’ve changed the neck, the pickups and hardware at various times – what’s actually left from the original? Furthermore – is it accurate even, to call it the same actual guitar?? I’m fond of my original, because it was my first build – but I’m always looking to get the best from my efforts. Nowadays – there’s not much of it actually left.

The only bit now left from my original build is the two-piece Ash body. I’d originally intended the build to reflect a sort of “Transitional”, late 60’s/early 70’s Stratocaster, and I’ve made various chages to the specification along the way, in order to get even closer to that original vision – The neck was swapped out for a genuine Fender, large headstock neck. The pickups were changed to Fender Custom Shop, Custom 69’s. The tuners were swapped for a set with the right 70’s credentials. Actually – apart from the body – I think only the Callaham bridge now remains from the original, and even that has been set up differently.

Throughout the changes, I’ve always built on and around the original Ash body. But there have always been a few issues with it that bugged me. Having to shim the neck pocket was an early compromise I was forced into, and I’ve always noticed that the sides of the neck and body don’t quite line up flush, in the lower neck cutaway. I recall I also had to modify the tremolo rout to stop binding on the tremolo block, and I was pretty suspicious early on – when I thought that the tremolo spring rout might be a little off-line.

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It was only really by looking at other Stratocaster bodies, and by putting together other guitars, that I gradually began to learn a bit more about what was probably going on. The giveaway turned out to be that arm contour on the front of the body. My original Ash Strat body has a distinct angle break – wheras genuine period Fender bodies I’ve been looking at, and comparing, all seemed to have more gradual curves. It’s obvious really – but sometimes you can only really learn about this sort of stuff by immersing yourself in it. Subsequently, I discovered how Fender originally joined their two-piece bodies off-centre – wheras my original was a clear centre join.

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Basically – compared with other Stratocasters – the original body looks a bit unfinished in form. A little too angular. It’s also quite possible that the neck pocket, pickup and tremolo routs are slightly off-line. I made a decision a while back that I’ll have to evolve the guitar again. This time, to try and get a more authentic looking, and feeling, body.

I’ve used guitarbuild.co.uk now for a few of my projects, and for the money – they turn out really nice bodies to work with. It looks like some of the bodies are modelled from templates, which themselves are copied from original, vintage, Fender examples. In my experience, their level of finish is always good. Most of the time – you can pretty much move on with your finishing straight out of the box. It’s even possible through their website, to choose a particular wood blank from a selection – and then consult how best to fit the template. This is really useful when you’re looking to show off the grain to best advantage.

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From a selection of three, I chose a single piece of Swamp Ash and a template based on an original Vintage 60’s Strat body. A week later, the new body for my Ash Stratocaster arrived. Only 1.77kg in weight – this was as light as my original. (One of the things I really liked about it). The grain is a bit more pronounced and shows a bit more character. Side by side – you can clearly see the differences in contour. It’s a beautiful piece of lumber, and it adresses all of my concerns regarding the shape and contour of the original.

Since the body is cut from a single piece of timber – there’s no join, and so the grain figuring comes naturally from the way the tree grew. It’s arguable that this may help make the body more resonant. One thing’s for certain – it looks the part, and when struck – the tonewood has a nice ring about it. For me – part of the souund of the Stratocaster is that bell-like chime, and I think some of the character, at least, comes from the quality of the tonewood used. This looks promising, and I can’t wait to get to work, and build up the natural, oiled finish I’m looking for.

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But first – I just need to double-check everything over. The contours are really good, and there’s no sign of any “squareness” or flat curves anywhere – but especially on the radiused edges. (Some of the cheaper, less well-finished copies I’ve seen in the past have this as a typical problem).

The body contours themselves are really smooth. I’ve recently found myself even more handicapped by my cataract problems – but in some ways, this has forced me to find jobs I can do,  where I can rely on technique and more on my sense of touch. Guitar finishing is that sort of job. It’s less reliant on being able to read rulers and gauges – and more about the general look and feel – even the sound of things. Examine a new guitar body by eye in different lights, and you just might miss something. Do it with your hands alone, and you’ll feel every imperfection. Every bit of grain.

And the only imperfections I can find are at the neck end – where the end grain looks to have ripped slightly as the router has bitten. This sometimes happens with Ash. It’s normally quite a hard wood, and can be quite heavy. Swamp Ash differs from the usual stock Ash timber, in that the trees grow with their roots entirely immersed in water. Swamp Ash therefore seems to have a lot more porosity, and a much more open grain. Sometimes – especially adjacent to the grain lines – the timber can be quite soft. I think that’s the case here. I’ll need to fill the imperfections with grain filler, and then sand everything back flat, before I can move on with the finishing.

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