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Mod: Master Tone on a Stratocaster (and One Less Knob)

One thing that’s always bothered be about Stratocasters is the controls. The placement of the volume knob is annoying, for one. It gets in the way when I’m palm muting, and I bump it a lot. Maybe I have beefy hands, but wow do I hate that. The other control issue is the two tone knobs: one for the neck pickup and one for the middle. The pickup which needs toning down the most is the bridge; it’s like an icepick in my ears without it. Fender doesn’t see a problem with this, but they’re more about pleasing their connoisseur audience than the likes of me.

I found a good compromise: master volume, master tone. I can then remove the offending knob and place the other two further down. Wiring this up wasn’t too hard, but nowhere did I find a step-by-step. I did find a master tone wiring diagram from Duncan pickups, but that didn’t help me sort out the “how do I get there from here” problem.

While I’m planning on making a step by step video for this, for now the secret is basically (referring to the “master tone” diagram above):

  1. Remove all the wires going from the 5-way switch to your two tone controls. I simply desoldered them, and had a couple extra wires to hang on to.
  2. Carefully desolder the tone capacitor (cap) and set it aside. Most likely, there will be a lead from the cap to both tone potentiometers (pots); trim that out.
  3. Remove the wires connected to the bottom tone pot and then remove the pot itself.
  4. Attach the tone capacitor to the remaining tone pot (it will become your new master tone pot, see diagram).
  5. Attach a wire (one you removed will do) from your new master tone pot to your volume (there should already be a ground wire from this pot to your volume pot, see diagram)
  6. If you like, move your two remaining pots (master volume and master tone) down a hole to get them away from your bridge (and ham hands in my case).

As with any wiring mod, be careful! If you don’t know how to solder, YouTube is your friend. It’s not hard at all, but requires you to be very careful and have a steady hand (and ability to not burn the crap out of your fingers).

A Tale of Two Squier Telecasters

I recently got the Telecaster bug. Maybe it’s an age thing, I don’t know. Anyhoo, I ended up getting two Teles, both manufactured overseas. One from Indonesia that turned out perfect, and the other from India (India?) which took a ton of work to get playable. Enough work that my local luthier would have had to charge about what I paid for the thing in the first place. Not ideal.

Beatrix

I ordered a Squier Vintage Modified Special, butterscotch blonde. Basically it’s a Jazzmaster neck on a Telecaster body. For added fun, the tiny chrome Telecaster pickup on the bridge is replaced with a Jazzmaster pickup. I fell in love with the thing, and aside from a small wiring glitch, it was pretty much perfect out of the box. I love the pickups and the vintage touches like the ashtray bridge, glossy tinted maple neck, slotted tuners and semi-transparent gloss finish.

Beatrix

Work done:

  1. set intonation on the bridge; the factory didn’t even try (15min)
  2. lower the action; adjusted bridge saddle height and truss rod (30min)
  3. find the wiring problem; turned out to be a short in the bridge pickup wiring, sorted out with an xacto knife and electrical tape (15min)
  4. added aluminum foil under the pickguard; the static produced from touching it while playing was nasty (30min)

All in all, while the electrical goof is a little embarrassing for Squier, I absolutely love this guitar. Because of the yellow/black color scheme, I named it after Uma Thurman’s character from Kill Bill.

O-Ren

Emboldened by this first experience with a Squier Tele, I found another, the Squier Vintage Modified Telecaster SSH. Olympic white, gloss maple neck, and some interesting pickups: Tele bridge, Stratocaster middle, and a chrome mini-humbucker in the neck position. Basically, nothing but trouble on this guitar, and the more I found and fixed, the more I wished I’d just returned it.

O-Ren

The debugging laundry list:

  1. dressed the fret ends; they were digging into my hands like a cheese grater (2hrs)
  2. replaced the 6-saddle bridge with a 3-saddle from Stewmac; hated this bridge, it was ugly and rough on the hands (1hr and $30)
  3. replaced the Stewmac bridge with one that was the same as Beatrix’ which I found on eBay (1hr and $25)
  4. adjusted the nut slot heights on 3 of the strings (45min)
  5. oiled the truss rod nut; it seemed stuck (30min)
  6. adjusted pickup heights; balance between the totally different pickup types was ridiculously hard, I’m still not 100% happy with where I ended up, but at least I have 5 usable tones (2hrs)
  7. added a shim to the neck; the angle was diving the strings under the sides of the ashtray bridge (1.5hr)
  8. added vintage tuners; the ones that came with this Vintage Modified were the same crappy ones from, say, a Squier Bullet Strat (1hr and $45)
  9. at this point, during final adjustments, I discovered that the truss rod problem was deeper than some gunk in the threads; purchased a new neck from eBay because the labor of fixing the truss rod looked super daunting or expensive to drop off at a local shop (1hr and $100)

In all, about 12 hours of labor and an additional $200 later I have a pretty cool and fairly unique guitar. I know it’s unique because I’ve since seen several other people stuck with this turkey, and it’s been discontinued from most every online store out there. I say that was a good call. If you combine my out of pocket with the original price, I could have picked up a Fender Standard Telecaster; not my ideal choice, but it’s a sobering price comparison.

Lessons Learned

While it’s fun to do routine maintenance and mods to a guitar, it’s ultra important to check the truss rod functionality first. Don’t assume the thing won’t adjust because there is some gunk and move on; get that working or send the bloody thing back.

Just because a pickup arrangement looks cool or has potential to “do it all” doesn’t mean it’s going to be a great guitar. Basically, I have two good sounding tones (bridge and neck), and the other three are dodgy. While I can replace the middle pickup with something that has higher output, it won’t necessarily solve the problem. I run the risk of having to continue my search after some trial and error, adding even more money to an already expensive “fixer-upper”.

I’ve had good experiences the last couple years with Squier, but they use several factories. Try to check the country of origin before you buy, and compare with other people’s feelings on forums. Ratings and reviews on an online store don’t give you the full picture.