Bass Frustration, Tele Intonation Riddle

As a father of young kids, with a relatively demanding day-job it’s just not possible for me to be part of a band. Maybe in a few years I could commit to rehearsals and gigs, when my daughters are older (right now the younger is 10 months, the older just over 3 years) , but that’s still some way off.

So I’m a bedroom guitarist, or rather a spare-room guitarist, and I devote my playing time to trying to improve myself as a musician and trying to come up with original music that I record on Garageband. The GB projects led me last year to buy an electro-acoustic bass. A Dean EAB, which I managed to get from Guitar Center for about $130 out of the door when they had a coupon. I figured an acoustic bass could be a lot of fun and it has been, at least initially. The day I got it, I came up with a bass groove, which became the basis (bassis?) of a song I’m quite pleased with.

One thing I noticed straight away however is that the output from the passive pickups is totally lacking. So recording using a regular guitar lead straight into my USB interface just doesn’t work. I have to mic up the bass. I’ve been doing this since the beginning, just putting my cheap MXL condenser mic up to the soundhole. However, in the four months I’ve had the bass, the playability has degraded considerably. The strings now buzz and rattle like mad and all of these things get picked up by the mic. It’s now got to the point where I can no longer play grooves or more complex bass lines on it, but instead just have to follow the route of the chord and be extremely careful about how I play, to try and minimize the horrible extra noises. I’m tempted to ditch the thing and go looking for a cheap electric bass on Craigslist, but perhaps I can try raising the action (through introducing more neck relief) and also change the strings to try and fix some of the buzzing and rattling. I might also experiment with an after-market acoustic pickup as an alternative to the onboard electronics. In searching for images I found a nice post on another blog about the EAB. This author also seems to have experienced similar issues.

I’ve also experienced some strange problems with the intonation (‘staying-in-tuneness’) on my new Telecaster. I found I could tune the open strings perfectly but on the lower frets the notes would be out of tune, but then fine again at the 12th fret (where the octave of the open strings can be found). This really bugged me, because this could’ve meant some nasty issues with the lower fret placement and some serious time, $$$ or even a new neck to correct. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t noticed this in the store either. I must’ve been playing higher up the neck all the time.

Fortunately I was lucky. In trying to find out what the problem might be, I discovered a virtual text book on intonation written by luthier Mike Doolin of Doolin Guitars. After reading this I examined the problem with an electronic tuner and discovered that the fretted notes were going consistently sharp and that the degree of sharpness was increasing depending on how much pressure I applied. I figured that the guitar had just been in the store a long time and the strings were past their best. I changed them out last night and the problem, although not totally gone, is much improved and if I focus on fretting lightly I no longer notice it. Phew.

The New Addition

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So here it is. My Telecaster lust is sated. I just got back from Guitar Center with a Made In Mexico (MIM) Fender FSR Silverburst Tele. Listed at $499, but because it has a ding in the finish, I managed to get them to discount it to $326 + tax, which is $350 out of the door. This is a saving of about $100 below the full price guitar, once you’ve done the haggling, and is not far off what you’d expect to pay for a good condition used instrument. I’m pretty chuffed!

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So there it is. Project Telecaster is a wrap. I don’t plan on buying any more guitars this year. It would be difficult to justify on every level. I have my Tele, the Ibanez Artcore hollow body electric, my lovely Breedlove acoustic, plus my Strat in storage back home in Helsinki. I have quite the collection. The only Guitarchetype guitar I’m missing now is a Les Paul type with dual humbuckers, but I am in no hurry to get that one.

No I really need to focus on playing the damn things!

Hola Mexico: A Brief Field Report

I finally managed– for the first time this year– to get some significant time to myself at a time when guitar stores are also open (I usually get my free time late at night when the kids are in bed). On saturday morning I went out to try some Teles for a few hours and also continued the search a little bit for 20 minutes at lunchtime today.

So over the last few days I have tried many Telecasters from the Squier Affinity ($180) to an Nash roadworn/reliced boutique version ($2000)

I think the run down would be

  • Squier Affinity ($180): 3 different examples played.
  • Squier Classic Vibe at ($350): 3 played
  • Various Made in Mexico ‘MIM’ Teles at ($400…$500): 9 played
  • American Special ($900): 1 played
  • American Standard ($1000): 2 played
  • American Deluxe ($1700): 1 played
  • Nash Relicted Telecaster: 1 played

That’s 20 guitars in 4 stores.

I think the first thing to note is that the Affinity is terrible. On one of the guitars the bridge pickup didn’t work at all. The salesperson’s response was “yeah… well… what do you expect”. On the functioning guitars, they were totally playable, but the tone was thin and reedy. To me it didn’t sound like a Telecaster and indeed didn’t sound any better than my Traveler Speedster travel guitar, which has no body at all.

I had high hopes for the Squier Classic Vibe, but it too fell short. The three I played were all nice enough and a big step up from the Affinity, but there just felt something lacking in the tone department when I played them against other more expensive guitars. And at nearly the same price as a MIM then I can’t see how these are a good deal.

At the high end. the roadworn Nash— a new, handcrafted, made in USA, boutique guitar that has been lovingly distressed to look like it has been gigged since the 1950s– felt great to play, but I just really don’t dig all this artificial wear and tear business. Dings don’t bother me, but I’d like guitars to earn that look. Also far too expensive of course.

It’s when comparing the American made Fenders and the Mexican made MIM Fenders that things get interesting.

The US made guitars were uniformly great. I actually played one American Standard straight after an Affinity and the difference was so extreme I nearly passed out. On the US guitars everything just feels right and sounds right. It is easy to fret a note, your hand skims up and down the neck and the sound is just perfect. They are wonderful instruments.

The MIM Standards and FSR (Factory Special Run) guitars I played where highly variable. Some of them had poor setups, high actions and lacked oomph in the tone department. But others were a joy and rivalled the Americans. At one point I had myself set up with one of these ‘good’ MIM guitars and an American Special. I had both their volume and tone pots on circa 75%, middle pickup selector position (both neck and bridge on) and I swapped backwards and forwards between them, keeping the amp with the exact same settings. When playing, just judging with my ears and my fingers, I couldn’t really tell a difference. If I looked closely I could discern things like the America neck was slightly more comfortable (rounded fingerboard edges and fret ends) and the finish definitely looked nicer, but as a guitar to play, at least for me, the MIM was its equal.

So I’ve discovered a MIM will be good enough for me. I’m going to try and find a deal on Craiglist, but if none pop up, then I’ll probably buy a new one around my birthday in the summer.

The Headstock Placebo Effect

There’s an excellent podcast I listen to called The Skeptics Guide to The Universe. It’s published every Sunday and is a really great mix of science news, critical thinking, skepticism and geek humour. I discovered them in summer 2005 and have listened to every episode. I also regularly listen to The Guardian’s Football Weekly, Asymco/5by5’s Critical Path (which I listen to for work reasons but also really enjoy), Kevin Smith’s Smodcast output (especially Hollywood Babble On), Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and more latterly The Guitar Podcast. But The SGU is the podcast that I’ve listened to the longest and it’s an indispensable part of my week to get the new episode on a Sunday and  listen to it while doing housework etc.

A few weeks ago they discussed a study that some scientists did on violins. The SGU Host Steven Novella blogs about the study here. He writes

…a researcher had 17 professional violinists try to tell the difference among six violins – two Stradivarius, one Guarneri, and three modern violins. They were literally blinded to which violin they were playing (they were blind-folded). Seven stated they could not tell which one(s) were a Stradivarius, seven guessed incorrectly, and three guessed correctly. This is consistent with random guessing.

Now these were all good violins. The modern ones were worth (if I recall correctly from the podcast) around $10k, but the students could not reliably distinguish them from the Stradivarius (Stradivarii?) that of course are worth close to a million bucks.

This to me has an obvious relevance to Telecasters. Is a Custom Shop $3k guitar really worth more than a $1000 American Standard, a $500 MIM or even a $250 Squier standard? I think this is the viewpoint a lot of my geekier posts have come from. I think I can say with some confidence that an Affinity at $170 is a lot worse than a top line Fender Custom Shop guitar, but at some point on Squier/Fenders bewildering price spectrum I believe you will hit some kind of ceiling where the incremental value gained from spending extra money will be marginal. I just don’t know where that ceiling is. As Novella writes

…subjective experiences can be modulated by suggestion, expectation, and other sensory cues.

… such as, I would argue, the brand on the headstock (Fender/Squier), the country of origin (US, Mexico, China) or even just the price itself.

Project Telecaster: Would a Partscaster make sense?

I’ve built up a bit of a backlog of things I want to blog about. I’ve been too busy working, being a Dad and a husband, and playing my Ibanez jazz box.

So there’s a couple of things I want to dash off. The first one is about the possibility of putting together a decent Telecaster out of parts. A Partscaster. I’ve thought about this before, but started thinking about it seriously again two weeks ago when I spotted an ad on Craiglist: a guy advertising Strat and Tele bodies, unfinished, supposedly returned by Fender to a supplier due to cosmetic defects. They were “solid one piece swamp ash” and “made in the US”. I pinged guitar guru Loren Hunt at The Guitar Podcast for his opinion. Based on the photos he said that they looked like swamp ash and that the $60 asking price was fair enough. But he also cautioned that I should probably take a neck to check fit, which of course I don’t have.

But this led me to thinking. Could such an unfinished swamp ash body be part of a good route to a really high quality guitar at low cost?

So I tried to price out what such a guitar could cost. I tried to pick components that would not require any really special tools or equipment. The Wudtone finishing kit requires no spraying gear, is inexpensive, thin (for good tone) and non-toxic. I’ve also tried to choose components that should on paper at least give a really great guitar.

Body
– Unfinished Swamp Ash per Craiglist ad $60
– Body finish: Wudtone $30
– String ferrules: Amazon $9
– Bridge assembly: Amazon (Chrome American Standard) $36
– Pickguard: eBay $20

Neck
– Neck (with frets, truss rod and nut): eBay Mighty Mite $90
– Tuners: Amazon $30
– Neck plate and bolts: eBay $15

Electronics
– Pickups Amazon Fender Noiseless Tele $93
– Switch-plate, electronics + jack: eBay Sigler $50

Total = $433

This price would put the Partscaster on the same price level as a new Fender MIM Telecaster. So that begs the question, if I built this Frankenstein guitar, would it be better than a MIM Telecaster? If it would only be on par then, I think I’d rather look for a used MIM  (and save some money) or even buy a new one.

I’m going to pose that question on the TDPRI forums and see what the experts think.