Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Building My Stage 3 Fender Jaguar: Adding a Bigsby, Caps, and a Diode Distortion Circuit

I’m a customization nut. If you look through my past blogs you’ll notice that merely owning something isn't nearly enough for me… I have to make it my own. I've written about customizing my sound rig, record player, motorcycle, and now? My guitar. Specifically my Black Fender Jaguar HH. I already had a Seymour Duncan P90 style Neck pickup and a Gibson Dirty Fingers (highest output passive humbucker made) installed and was delighted with the results, but that wasn't enough. So in this blog I’ll cover my Stage 3 mods which include:
Stock Jaguar HH
  • Oil in Paper Capacitor in Top Controls
  • Orange Drop Capacitor in Bottom Controls
  • Passive on-board distortion circuit in bottom controls
  • Shield guitar body using copper-tape
  • Adding a Bigsby B5 Tremolo (utilizing a Vibramate)
Side Note: There is a TON of online arguments on whether “big money” capacitors are even worth the time/energy/money to install. I’m not going to get into that, but there are some amazing youtube videos that test the tone of different capacitors such as the one HERE.  Do yourself a favor and make up your mind up if they change the tone or not. It IS important to remember that the capacitor value has a much greater influence over tone than what type it is. Personally I’m a control freak and knowing that I was already opening up the cavity of my guitar, I had no problem spending the $6 per capacitor to ensure my own potentially placebo based happiness.

Fender Jaguar Promo Image
The off-set waisted Jaguar was introduced by Fender in 1962 as the company was trying to steal customers from Gibson by giving the musician more control over their sound (some argue too much). The guitar (and its sister the Jazzmaster) did well in the surf-rock scene and bands such as The Beach Boys were seen playing it. However, it never took off in popularity and was promptly discontinued in 1975. This caused both Jaguars and Jazzmasters to plummet in value and by the late 80’s they were readily found at local pawn-shops for astoundingly cheap prices. It was at this time that musicians such as Kurt Cobain, John Frusciante, Thurston Moore and other 90’s mainstays began to use them, leading to a resurgence in their popularity which can still be seen today.

Personally, I grew up on Nirvana, thus I was enamored with the instrument from an early age. I vividly remember hanging out with my good friend Nick Dellaposta (From To No End) and pulling my first ’66 Jaguar off of a Guitar Center wall and plugging it in. Though the bridge/tremolo seemed to be a pain in the ass to deal with, this particular Jag had been outfitted with a Black Ice mod, which replaced the seldom-used mid-cut switch with a passive distortion circuit. The idea of having an on-board distortion has stuck with me for years, and last week I finally implemented it.

Basics: Switch Setup
First a bit about the controls of the stock-Jaguar. Keep in mind that all switches on the Jaguar are in the ON position when they are up and directed towards the player.

Top circuit
Switch A in the ON position activates only the top control circuit (just the neck pickup and the top Vol/Tone). In the OFF position, it activates the bottom system allowing you to only utilize the bottom control circuits (Switches B, C, & D as well as the bottom Vol/Tone).

Bottom circuit
As stated, when switch A is in the down position it activates the bottom controls. Switch B turns ON/OFF the Neck pickup and switch C turns ON/OFF the bridge pickup. Switch D in the ON position activates a capacitor (Caps as they're known cut certain frequencies) and acts as a mid-cut of sorts. The bottom knobs control Vol/Tone.

Getting Started: Shielding
Since you’re already opening the cavity of your guitar, you've already done the hard part of shielding. Copper tape is the easiest thing on the planet to use, simply unstick the back of the tape and cover the entire cavity of the guitar as neatly as possible. Now you have to make sure that the metal tape touches the other which means getting around the adhesive on the back of the tape.

To do this simply take a needle and make small punctures in the tape wherever you have placed multiple layers of tape. In order for the shielding to be effective, you need the taped area to make connection to the ground. To accomplish this you can either solder a wire gently from it and to the ground (hard because the tape burns easily) or, since the back of your pickguard should already be shielded, just leave little pieces of tape overtop of the pickguard holes. When you screw it back in, this will branch the two points with a metallic connection. One word of warning, if you think paper-cuts suck, you've never experienced one as deep as caused by copper paper, be extremely careful because it hurts like a motherfucker.

Wiring: The Capacitors:
As for the capacitors they're pretty easy to figure out: Take apart your controls, unsolder the existing capacitor, and re-solder the new one in it’s place. As I previously stated, I added an oil-in-paper Russian capacitor in the top controls and a Orange Drop to the bottom. The only advice that I can give for this is to keep in mind that you’re dealing with very small cavities in the guitar so maximizing space is essential. The O-I-P nestles nicely in the area I show, but too much one way or the other may result in your not being able to place the controls back in the cavity. The bottom controls have a much bigger cavity, thus it is pretty forgiving with the massive area that the Orange Drop cap requires.

Wiring: Diode Distortion
Since I personally never, ever use the mid-cut switch (Switch D from earlier) so I wanted to turn this into a distortion circuit when activated. This can be one of two ways, either buy a “Black Ice” brick for $20, or make your equivalent circuit own using schottky diodes. Seeing as how diodes are INCREDIBLY CHEAP to buy, I went this route.

To make this circuit, connect two diodes together making sure that the black-color strips at the bottom touch the uncolored top of the other connect them together. To assure that these didn't make unwanted connections, I bought shrink wrap and covered them in it before wiring them together.

Remove the existing capacitor and discard it. Now that
you have an unused switch and your diode circuit, the rest is simple. The middle connection of the switches is effectively always on, so solder one end to where the capacitor was before. This will now activate the circuit when turned on. Next, solder the other end of the circuit to a ground (the one on the side is the easiest to get to).  It’s that easy.

Note: When activated, just a bit of volume is lost to the process. However with how strong my two pickups are it is relatively unnoticeable on my guitar.

Installing the Bigsby (via the Vibramate)
The Vibramate is one of the best little contraptions on the planet. It allows you to install a full Bigsby B5 without drawing any holes into your guitar. It’s a horseshoe looking little intermediary made of aircraft grade aluminum that sits between the tremolo and your guitar. Basically you just remove the tailpiece and replace it with the device with the two bolts supplied. This has four pre-drilled and threaded holes that allow you to insert the supplied 4 bolts holding it directly to the Vibramate. Past that, the rest is pretty self explanatory. The spring supplied sits quite obviously between the arm and the body of it and just sits there with pressure, there are a few supplied O-rings that allow you to slightly raise the arm of the tremolo if necessary.

Tailpiece Change
One thing to keep in mind with the Bigsby is that when it is applied you are putting a great deal of pressure on the nut and the tune-o-matic bridge. The tension on these is responsible for most of the concerns with the bridge not returning to the correct tuning afterwards. The easiest way to remedy this is to install a Graphite nut in its place and change out the bridge. Now there are two major options for the bridge, you can replace it with a roller bridge, which allows the strings to stretch over-top of a roller pin rather than sticking on a hard surface. The other option is using Graph-tech Stringsaver saddles, which is the way I’ve went.

Stringsavers for Tune-O-Matic

Stringsaver saddles are made of a Teflon like material that allows the string to more easily glide over the edge. I've been using Graph-tech Stringsaver Saddles for years and can vouch for them. I once broke one by over-tightening a screw on a Stratocaster, called them up and they replaced it for free. Good people.

I love the distortion option, its aggressive with zero sustain, but is very reminiscent of an original Big Muff Distortion (which makes sense because it's diode based as well). Plus it's WAY more useful than the mid-cut that existed before. It's fun to just flip a switch and have a dirty aggressive sound, but it's far from a proper overdriven sound. Going forward, I'm going to experiment with adding this to my bass as I think that would be a fun option.

I adore the look of the Bigsby, but in all honestly it's a bit more of an aestheic choice for me, but one I'm excited about and it does seem that if you don't overuse the tremolo, it does a fine job staying in tune. I can't really tell a huge difference with the Orange Drop capacitor, but the O-I-P does seem to make a huge difference when it's used with the tone dial on 5 or more.

Finished Product
The one thing I do regret and will soon remedy is not purchasing the Vibramate Spoiler. I've always read that Bigsby's are a pain in the ass and although I feel that is an over-simplification, the main issue seems to be with how hard it is to string. At the base of the Bigsby are little pins that you put the eye of the string into and it’s held by pressure.

This requires you to bend the string at a 90 degree angle towards the end. As you change the string you need to keep constant pressure on it which is a pain in the absolute ass. The Vibramate Spoiler mounts to the bottom and gives you easy access to change the strings. It too is held on by pressure, but it’s much easier to deal with than the stock Bigsby. Past that? I'm absolutely in love with this new configuration.

So that's my experience with my Stage 3 Fender Jaguar, I adore every change I've made and it's a far more useful and beautiful tool now.

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