For various reasons, we can’t all afford to go out and spend a couple of thousand pounds on the guitar of our dreams, be it a vintage Les Paul or a '59 Strat. In my case, these various reasons include four children and a mortgage. There are, however, many budget guitars around these days that are made incredibly well. It pays to remember that some of the Far Eastern companies are more than likely using the same machinery to manufacture their guitars that the better brands also use. Some of this CNC stuff can work to microns – one micron is a thousandth of a millimetre – and once it’s programmed, they can turn out a Strat-style bodies in something like two or three minutes. Last year I made a visit to one of the big manufacturers in the US, and their 'hands on' time for making a neck that was to go on a £2000 instrument was 11 minutes! Of course, the more expensive instruments are far more finely-finished than the less expensive ones and naturally they use far better quality tonewoods, better quality hardware and skilled people to assemble them – but my making time is in the region of three days for a slotted headstock acoustic neck. Maybe I should buy a CNC router!
I picked up this Squier Strat from my local music store. All I was looking for was something with a straight and comfortable neck with a reasonable finish: we can work on the frets and fretboard to give us a clean, smooth feel and a better action. We can also put on a well-cut bone nut to help the guitar ring a little, and set up the trem. The only other outlay I’ve planned is £150 for a set of Seymour Duncan pickups. These will give the guitar almost more than twice the power of a stock pickup at 12.2K ohms, and we should end up with a fat, punchy sound which is nice and clean at lower volumes and seriously rocky when turned up.
First, the pickups. We’ll remove the strings and scratchplate, making sure when taking the screws out to hold our fingers around the bottom of the screwdriver; this way, if we do slip, we’ll hit our fingers rather than the finish. I’ve removed the earth wire that goes to the spring plate on the tremolo and the wires to the jack plug so I can work on the pickups without anything being in the way. You’ll need at least a 25W iron to do most of these connections, especially the earth to the spring plate. Make a drawing of all the wiring; it pays to make sure it all goes back in the right place. Strip the outer cover of each of the wires you need to solder to show about 4mm of inner cable. To avoid the risk of dry joints, this should be 'tinned' by holding the iron on the end of the wire and melting some solder onto it before connecting it to the terminal.
Remove one pickup at a time and fit the new ones, working your way down to ensure you don’t end up with a load of terminals that aren't connected to anything. You're simply replacing one wire with another. Connect the hot wires only at this stage (generally white, but check this on the fitting instructions); the earths can be connected all at once when all three pickups are in. Try to make sure you cut the wires from the pickups so that they’re just a bit longer than you actually need, and route them neatly. They can be held together with tape to keep them all in place.
Once all of the hot connections have been soldered you can cut the earth wires from the pickups to length, and remove the sleeves to show about 13mm of inner cable. The inner cables then need to be wrapped around each other and tinned. Before you try to solder them to the back of the pot, scratch the back of the pot with a Stanley blade: this will make sure you’re soldering to the actual metal and not any kind of coating. Connections to pots always need a really good soldering iron. If the iron isn’t powerful enough you will end up slowly heating up the pot, and wrecking it.
The only mod I’m going to do concerns one of the tone pots. Normal Strats offer no control over the bridge pickup tone, but by finding this pickup’s blank terminal on the switch and making a little bridging wire from the neck pickup’s terminal, the middle pot can now bleed treble from both. Because the switch layout means that pickups 1 and 3 are never on at the same time, this is a nice, practical arrangement.
You can see from the picture that we now have the rewired scratchplate already to refit, so the next thing to do is reconnect the jack plug. Make sure the earth (black) goes to the tag that connects to the main part of the jack plug, and the hot (white) goes to the tip of the jack plug. If you’re unsure, plug a jack into it and have a look. That just leaves us with the earth on the trem spring plate to resolder.