“Mary Kaye” Blonde Fender Jaguar. Fitting the neck to the body, and test-fitting a Bigsby B5 tremolo

Now that the re-purposed neck for my “Mary Kaye” style, ash blonde Jaguar has been re-finished and fitted with its’ gold hardware – I can finally drill the heel for the attachment bolts where they need to be, and get my first look at how the guitar is coming together with a test-fit.

Test-fitting the Bigsby B5 tremolo and “Vibramate”

Ideally, I want to check the neck for alignment with the tremolo unit fitted – so that also means a test fit for the Bigsby B5, and the Vibramate unit I’ve sourced to make the whole process that much easier.

Normally, the B5 – which is the Bigsby variant specifically designed for flat-bodied guitars like the Jaguar – would be bolted direct to the body slab, and since there’s no concealed spring “inside” the body, there would normally be no need to even have the usual Jaguar plate rout cut. However, in the case that any Jaguar owner might just “fancy giving a Bigsby a try” – there’s a useful add-on available, which bolts directly over the usual rout, and which acts as a mounting plate for the Bigsby. In this particular case – I didn’t have to think about getting a custom body milled – merely use a standard-cut body with the conversion kit. If I should eventually decide I can’t get on with the Bigsby – I can always revisit the usual, Fender tremolo. The “Vibramate” kit, used as a “converter”, (you need the “JAM” version for a Jaguar) – is designed to attach to the Fender body using four of the usual tremolo plate attachment screws. Having already drilled for a Fender plate – there’s no need to drill out anything else. The plate is attached to the body as a base for the tremolo unit, and it conveniently blanks out the Fender rout, and the unused screw holes at the same time. Simple, but effective.

Now I’m really only trying a Bigsby on this Jaguar because I fancy trying something different – in this case, gold hardware on this semi-translucent, blonde finish. Also – I simply can’t find an authentic Fender Jaguar tremolo unit, in gold, anywhere. I certainly can’t afford to get a Fender chrome unit specially re-plated, but with a gold Vibramate plate matched with a gold Bigsby… well, it almost makes it look as if I’ve planned the whole thing…

Laying the grounding lead for the Jaguar tremolo

As with all tremolo units on a Jag – the isolated metal needs to be brought into the ground side of the circuit, or it can cause interference problems during play. Because the unit stands separate on the face of the guitar, and because the central grounding point is usually somewhere within the Jaguar’s various control cavities – any grounding wire ideally needs to travel through an internal conduit. This guitarbuild copy of an original 60’s Fender Jaguar body, has just such a conduit pre-drilled between the tremolo rout and the main control cavity.

I’ll hook-up all of the other various ground wires when I come to shield the cavities – laying wires which will link them together, and incorporating the traditional brass shield plates as I go. For now – I’ll hook things up at the tremolo end, and leave a tail of black, cloth-covered, push-back wire laid through the condit, on into the main cavity. At the business end, a piece of self-adhesive copper foil is laid onto the body, and around one of the four attachment screw holes which will be in use with the “Vibramate” plate. The end of the ground wire is stripped, and the covering pushed back far enough so that the tinned core can be pushed down into the screw hole – with a short exposed length left in direct contact with the pre-laid copper foil over the edge of the tremolo rout. This stripped portion of wire is then sandwiched under another little tab of copper foil. The sandwich helps conductivity, and also assists in securing the wire, whilst the tremolo is attached. However – once the screw is eventually driven home – this creates a much stronger, and directly conductive connection, which can’t easily become dislodged.

Attaching the gold “Vibramate” (JAM) plate

The other, loose tail-end of the black grounding wire is threaded through the conduit, into the main control cavity, and is trimmed to a convenient length so it can eventually be connected either to a central “star” ground, (or just as easily on a Jaguar – to any suitable point on one of the brass shielding plates). With the loose wire tucked out of the way, the Vibramate (JAM) plate can now be fixed into place using the four supplied screws, at four of the corner mounting points I’d drilled prior to re-finishing the body. The plate is shown in the image above with the tremolo retaining nuts and washers removed – and you can see the four locating posts on the Vibramate, where the Bigsby B5 unit attaches.

Attaching the gold Bigsby B5 unit to the “Vibramate” plate

The Bigsby unit simply drops onto the four posts, and then the four retaining nuts, with their black rubber washers, are tightened down – securing the unit firmly in place. (The tremolo spring is loose until held in place by counter-acting string tension – so that’s safely stashed away until setup). Before finally attaching the tremolo unit to the base plate – it’s important to remove the felt pads which are normally found on the bottom of the Bigsby’s “horseshoe” frame. These can affect the tremolo’s stability if not removed when using with a Vibramate, and would do nothing to help the conductive connection of the lever unit to the installed grounding wire.

Once the unit is firmly attached, I make a quick visual assessment and take a few key measurements to ensure that the tremolo is sitting straight and square to the neck pocket. If any minor adjustment should be required – this can usually be achieved by partially shimming the screw holes with little slivers of hardwood at one side. I use thin slivers shaved from bamboo barbeque skewers. The bamboo is hard enough to slightly push against the screw at one side of the hole, so that the screw taps into the body wood a little deeper, at the other. Careful placement of one or more of these little shims can often iron out slight deflections from square, without the worry of having to completely plug and (more) accurately re-drill.

Fender Jaguar neck – Fitting a new bone nut

Before I can go on to check the neck alignment properly – I need to fit a nut, so that the installed strings will follow their eventual paths all the way up the neck. The old nut has been stripped out, prior to my lacquer repairs to the headstock. It was one of the first nuts I’d ever cut myself, and I can do so much better these days. The re-finished neck still hasn’t had new bolt holes tapped into the heel – so I’m hoping I can, at least, fix two outer strings and keep the neck in place on the body – well enough to generally assess things, and then mark the new bolt hole locations through the fixing holes.

For the replacement nut, I use one of my usual pre-slotted bone nut blanks, and select one with the necessary curved bottom. Checking the nut against the slot – I see I need to make a few adjustments to the overall width, and to the thickness of the blank. By checking the necessary dimensions on the neck with a digital caliper, and then removing any unwanted material with fine grit paper – the shape of the nut is gradually refined until it fits perfectly snugly in the slot. As I test-fit the nut, I also discover the need to make a few minor changes to the actual curve of the base of the nut. This – so that the ends fit down snugly against the rosewood, and so that the nut isn’t at danger of “rocking” at all because of being “beached” in the middle. I pre-measure the curve with a tracing gauge, and then make small revisions to the curve of the bottom of the nut – checking the fit from time to time, as I go. Eventually, I get the nut to fit snugly in the slot with no gapping at all between it and the surrounding wood. When nuts fit this well – I find I don’t need really any adhesive at all to hold them place. I will need to slot the nut for setup at a later date, and will properly shape the fallaway at the headstock side, at that point. For now – the nut will do enough to help locate the outside string paths accurately, for alignment purposes.

Fitting the neck – Checking alignment

The Jag body is laid out on a table top and the neck, supported by a bean bag, drops into the pocket nicely. The fit isn’t too snug – but the natural taper of the neck holds it in a good position, in relation to the sides of the pocket. The neck looks straight, and there’s a little bit of leeway if I find I need it – but with the neck positioned so that the sides of the heel lie parallel with both edges of the neck pocket – things already look promising. I take two spare guitar strings, and install them in the two outside “E” positions. Once there’s a little bit of tension put into the strings from the machine heads – the weight of the neck is still just enough to keep the geometry of the setup reasonably stable, whilst I check the path of the strings all the way up the length of the neck. The bridge isn’t installed at this point – but I can see that both strings are running equidistant from the edges of the neck, and that this relationship remains constant all the way up to the nut.

Marking the new bolt hole locations

The tricky bit now – is keeping the neck in that position, whilst I mark the new bolt hole locations with the tips of the four securing bolts. Fortunately – there’s not too much play in the neck, and it already sits pretty square with the bottom of the heel set against the bottom of the pocket. The screws are also “tapped” into the body – so they’re threaded and don’t rattle around in there at all. I manage to hold the neck and body together in the correct position with one hand, whilst I thread and tighten the four screws in turn – just enough to leave visible marks on the heel, once the neck is removed again.

These positions are then drilled out with a sharp, new wood bit – to the correct diameter and depth. Using the correct bit reduces the chances of “tracking” into one of the old, filled holes, (and I always double-check the drill depth to ensure that I don’t accidentally drill through into the fingerboard). For accuracy’s sake – it’s usually a good idea to use a bench press, so that the new bolt holes are drilled straight, square and true.

Fitting the neck

The neck is then attached to the body. I’m using a thick steel plate which won’t deform like some of the thinner, cheaper Fender ones. The plate is plated with gold, to match the rest of the hardware, and has been custom inscribed with a random, Fender 1963 format, serial number. This to help “personalise” the guitar for me, and to add a nod of recognition to the original ’63 Jaguar which was “traced” to provide the body template. The four gold bolts which go with the plate, are lubricated with a little bit of candle wax before they’re tapped for the first time and the plate is supported by a Hosco plate gasket – to help protect the body finish. The gasket binds a bit at the corners – so I find I have to cut away small pieces of the gasket upstand with a sharp blade, to get the plate to sit down properly. The bolts are tightened up until they “pinch” and hold securely – but I avoid any overtightening which might damage the finish, or otherwise compress the wood underneath.

Blonde Fender Jaguar with gold Bigsby B5 unit – Ready for the rest of the hardware

The guide strings are left in position for now, but are left slack – with no real tension applied. With the bridge unit still uninstalled, I don’t want the strings to damage the heel of the fingerboard or any of the upper frets – but they’ll be useful in place whilst the bridge is installed. It’s taken a while – but I quite like the look of the guitar as it begins to come together. Very promising. Now I just need to get the rest of the hardware installed, and sort yet another Jaguar wiring job. With things still “coming together” – I always really enjoy this phase of the planning and build of a project. I know the colour and configuration of the hardware I’ll be using, but I still haven’t finally decided on the scratchplate colour, the type of pickups, or the type of switching circuit I’ll use. With so much “personality” still to decide on – there are still a few different possibilities to settle, but plenty still, nevertheless, to keep me busy in the meanwhile.

Next up – installing the bridge, and incorporating the grounding and shielding elements…

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