Saturday, November 01, 2014

There's just something women like about a pickup man

Happy to report that I have completed installing a new pickup system in my guitar with no injuries to myself OR the guitar (other than one tiny imperceptible 1cm scratch by the end jack where no one ever looks but me anyway). And it works!

I'm not a handyman by any means; as a result, I don't jump into projects without careful consideration. It also means I don't always have the right tool for the job. But I'm not totally inept, either, and I like to do the occasional project just to remind myself of that. Saving money is a nice benefit, as well. As necessity is the mother of invention, I did a little improvising. It wasn't always pretty, and I was glad not to have witnesses, but it's the result that counts.

It all started at the birthday writers round I hosted in admission of my 50th birthday. I went first to make sure everything was working properly...and it wasn't. My amp (our sound system) was issuing some terrible sounds, like a mix of hard static and extreme white noise, when I hit the louder volumes. We checked cords, bypassed the mixer, etc., and determined (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the amp was freaking out. It's been around a while, like me, so that kind of made sense. So we replaced the amp with one Gary Talley happened to have with him and I limped offstage in defeat (since it was time to move on through the performing roster). I tried to shake it off (I could've used Taylor Swift's video) but of course given my obsessive nature, I was not completely successful. I suspect everyone had a better time than me. Oh, well, there's always next year (Lord willing).

Started looking at sound systems, and happened to plug in to my cheapo little amp I sometimes use as a monitor, and got the same effect: distortion only on the low E string (the thick one). Whoa...same problem, same guitar, two different amps? After testing on my little mixer with headphones and on yet another amp, I realized it wasn't the amp after all; the problem was with my guitar pickup. An Equis Silver system, no longer made by Washburn. Good news/bad news, indeed.

I took it to Nashville Used Music where the tech could not bring himself to get involved, given the multiple possible sources of the problem and the likelihood of not being able to find and fix it. No man savors the thought of failure. Not SUCH bad news, really, given that I live in a guitar-rich town, and had considered maybe it was time to get a new one (i.e., good used one), make a new start and put this ugly episode behind me. So I went guitar-shopping/browsing, and searched the internet for pickup solutions. Maybe one with a microphone to get that acoustic sound? Opinions are divided on that. Saw a couple of good affordable guitars...and also some that cost more than three times what I paid (uh, am paying) for my car. ("Thirty thousand, huh? Does this come with a case?"). The latter were at famous (and friendly) Gruhn's Guitars. They have a nifty room containing a chair, an amp, and three guitars in which multiple pickup systems are installed, with the end jack (the hole where the cable plugs in) for each labeled, so you can compare them.

Naturally, after careful consideration of the alternatives and the price of each, I went with the cheapest option: order a used pickup system online and install it myself or pay someone to do it. Found a good one on (referred via a message board thread, maybe on the Washburn site?) made by Alvarez. It had the basic qualities I liked about my old one: easy exterior placement, volume knob (not a slider), EQ and Presence controls. And as a bonus, an on-board tuner. Nifty. And less than $50 including shipping.

Both parts of the new system that attach to the outside wall of the guitar (preamp and end jack with battery) were smaller than the existing holes occupied by the former parts, but I could see that it could very well install into the old brackets, with some careful cutting. Explained this to two or three guitar shop folks but they seemed skeptical toward my vision. The aforementioned tech at Nashville Used Music had just gone on vacation (to avoid me? I hope not, but it worked out well for both of us). I got a quote from another pro who wanted to create new brackets out of rosewood that would fill the old holes and look nice. It was a very fair quote given what he proposed, but a couple hundred bucks could've put me halfway to a decent replacement. Plus, I wanted to try it myself.

After viewing a few "how-to" videos (thanks, Youtube!), I launched into it by taking out the old preamp and tearing out the innards to leave just the plastic external brackets. I don't have a small enough screwdriver for the job, so I used the little hard-rubber screwdriver bit holder from my drill set (still in near-mint condition, btw) as a handle, with the one bit in it, to turn the screws manually. This gave me better control than the drill would have allowed. (I became less careful as I proceeded). I glued a paper template on it, then I cut (and sawed, and filed, using the less-than-ideal tools on hand) a hole for the new preamp. Messy but effective. The old piezo pickup (a thin little stick that hides under the saddle, changes vibrations to electrical pulses and sends them via a little wire inside the guitar to the preamp) had a plug that pretty much matched the new one. I thought I'd leave it in place, so as not to disturb the setup of the strings, etc.. I checked the new preamp by connecting it all up, putting in a battery, and playing it through an amp. Yep, it worked all right. I colored over what was left of the old silver markings on the bracket with a black Sharpie.

Next step was making the hole for the new end jack and battery unit in the old hard plastic bracket; fortunately the old system had both a 1/4" plug and an RCA plug (the latter of which never worked for me), so it was bigger than the usual deal. Not having a tool to cut hard plastic, I borrowed the idea from one of the videos to use a drill to perforate the cut line and a box knife to do the rest. First, though, I taped the bracket securely to a box in lieu of a clamp (since I don't have the latter) and also taped over the cut areas and drew the cut line on it. Then I drilled the screw holes to match those in the new piece. Once the large hole was made, I used the tiny file on my fingernail clippers (the only file on hand) to enlarge it further. This took a long time, especially, I kept having to exchange drill bits for screwdriver bits. But I'm a single guy, it was a Saturday at this point, so no problem there.

Once I put the new end jack unit in the old, newly-modified bracket, I still had to cut a notch in the existing hole in the end of the guitar to get it all in. I marked the area to be cut, and not having a jig saw, and because the area included part of a bracing element, I thought maybe I should take it to a pro. Or at least someone who has access to a jig and knows how to use it. But, after some thought, I figured I'd give the old box-cutter a go at it. It was only a small chip off the bracing, and even if it would leave a small structural "gap," that would be covered by the bracket. So more cutting and chipping and filing ensued. Inefficient, yes, but again...single, Saturday, etc.

I hooked up the system and plugged it in for another amp test. Here's where I made an interesting discovery: I still got the distorted sound on the bass string. So the problem was probably with the piezo pickup alone the whole time. Oh, well, it's been fun, anyway; the new system didn't cost much more than a new pickup, and now I have an on-board tuner.

So I replaced the old piezo pickup with the new one. This was a matter of loosening all the strings (with a piece of tape to hold them all together), unhooking them from the bridge, pulling out the saddle, pulling out the old piezo, and dropping the new one in (after carefully and with some trepidation filing the slot to accommodate the wider new pickup), then restringing and testing. Beautiful. Except now my action was too low and strings buzzed midway up the neck. The new piezo is flatter than the old one, so the saddle sits lower in the slot. I recalled that the old one had a filler piece, apparently for that purpose. So, we take the string ends out again, take out the saddle (it falls out, actually, which is not ideal), and pop the filler in over the pickup, then replace everything...and realize the filler was UNDER the pickup, not on top. Strings back out (fortunately not having been tightened up yet), saddle out, and that piezo is NOT coming out again in one piece. So, hey, let's hope it won't make a difference; it's all vibrations traveling through pieces of solid stuff anyway. So back on everything goes, with restored action that is low but not buzzy, and I'm happy again.

Somewhere in the amp testing phase, I noticed there was a light knocking noise whenever I moved the guitar. It turned out to be the wire that connects the piezo to the preamp. It's sensitive to any rubbing or striking against the inside of the guitar. So I rather clumsily taped a long section of it to the nearest bracing piece inside, and that stopped the noise. At least until the tape gives out, but that'll be a minor thing.

Next challenge: making the pre-drilled screw holes in the new piece fit the holes I'd drilled in the old bracket. They weren't far off, so a combination of reaming the holes bigger with the drill, and yet more filing of the cutout area, did the trick. Of course I went too far with one hole and now the screw slipped through. I half-filled it with a tiny bit of rolled-up tape and flat tape covering the hole, and went in fresh. This held the screw well enough, though it may need more attention (or super glue) later.

Awesome! We're done! I can clean up all the various tools (and things used as tools) in my living room. Exceeeeeeept...the new preamp juts out just a wee bit more than the old one (having been made to be put on the upper bout and having been put on the lower), and it's a tight squeeze in my fake-fur-lined case. So I retrieve the box cutter, cut a patch out and glue that next to the bare patch to push the wall of the guitar away from that side. Then I glue a patch of thin foam padding to fill the area to add some protection to the unit.

NOW I'm done.

It was just that simple! If you want to hear the results, check my schedule to see where I'll be performing next.