Everyone knows he changed the way we play the instrument. But it’s less celebrated that Eddie Van Halen first changed the instrument itself. By cobbling together the limbs and innards of dead gear, he gave the Strat new life, turning it into a fire-breathing metal monster—a new species, known as the FatStrat. He dared to tinker. And in doing so, he revealed that the wizard behind the pickguard is merely a few wires and solder—not so mysterious after all. Today, Van Halen’s “Frankenstein” is a representation of his ascendancy into rock stardom, and subsequent transformation into a brand, with replicas fetching more than $20,000. It’s a testament to the power of trial and error (not to mention the failure of metalheads to grasp the concept of irony).
But even though Ed did it with trial and error, it doesn’t mean we can’t refine the process. Here are 20 tinkering tidbits I’ve learned so far, with the burn scars to prove it. I hope you find this helpful as you make your own monster to unleash on an unsuspecting audience without breaking the bank. Feel free to leave your own nuggets of DIY wisdom and survival stories in the comments section.
1. Get a good soldering iron ($30)
2. Always de-solder ($1.53–$15) Unless you’re starting from scratch, chances are you’ll need to remove old solder to apply the new stuff. I prefer de-soldering braid, but they also make cheap de-soldering pencils that work like irons, but with a suction pump. Be mindful of where you leave it when plugged in as they often come without holders and heat up like a mother. That’s how the castle burned down in Bride of Frankenstein.
3. Use 60/40 rosin core solder ($3.95) It figures that the best solder would be made from the worst stuff—lead. Rumor has it that rosin core is scheduled to be banned, so get it while you can. Always solder in a well-ventilated area, and/or get a good gas mask. If the lead scares you, try heating up some McDonald’s fries with a burning cigarette. I’m sure that works just as well.
4. Use heat sinks and save your pots ($0.99–$5) Small, copper alligator clips will suffice for guitar electronics work, or you can buy a larger one specifically designed for this application. Either way, before soldering, clip it to the component to draw excess heat away to prevent frying the circuitry. If using the small clips, remove them with needle-nose pliers to avoid battle scars.
5. Keep sandpaper on hand ($1–$5) When grounding pickups and/or claw wire (for vibratos), lightly sand the hosting metal so the solder sticks. If you’re a fussy neat freak, ring terminals are also an option, available at RadioShack for cents. I prefer the standard method of using the tops of pots, now that I’m getting to be a better solderer.
6. Heat shrink tubing is your friend ($2.99–$14.95)
7. 4-wire humbucker = 4 tones ($20–$150) Why not swap out your two-lead humbuckers with newer 4-lead pickups? The extra leads will allow you to split the coils, put them in series or parallel, or change the phase with a simple $3 DPDT switch from RadioShack.
8. Practice on cheap parts ($20–$100) You can get 4-lead humbuckers on eBay from Hong Kong for $20 and fully wired pickguards for under $50. Make sure they are open-coiled. If they’re capped, they’re probably epoxy-filled and unalterable.
9. Install a kill switch ($1.99) Otherwise known as an ON/OFF momentary switch. It’s the easiest mod to execute (see our how-to here), and will help build confidence. If you mess this up, check with your doctor—you may be a drummer.
10. Save them phone cables (free with purchase)
11. Ask for directions (time and pride) Speaking of online forums, you can find a wealth of information and support online, so don’t be afraid to join an online community before you start. Chances are, you’ll find an answer to every electronics question, no matter how lame. I’m a member of the aforementioned guitarnuts2.proboards.com forum—they’re remarkably patient with novices.
12. Heavy metal matters ($40–$100) If you’re a whammy bar enthusiast like myself, check your tone block (the alloy slab through which you pass the strings). If the block is thin, the bridge is crap. Replace it with a steel or brass block. Or, better still, a titanium one, and say hello to sustaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiin. Ironically, titanium is not heavy metal, but the sustain it delivers is pure Tufnel.
13. Don’t fall for pickup sorcery ($10) Don’t assume ceramic bar magnet pickups suck before trying them. You can find a set of Chinese, single-coil pups that are hotter than vintage ones for the cost of a three-item plate at Panda Express. Leo Fender would be proud to install them because they’re utilitarian and sound perfectly fine. Tone is a matter of variables.
14. Swimming pool or hot tub? ($50) Check the body’s routing cavity before starting a mod. If you’re modding a USA Strat, the Alder body will be routed for single-coil-sized pups. So if you want to install a humbucker, make sure it’s the right size. Or, buy a cheaper Agathis body with a “swimming pool” route to allow for any combo of pups and wires. Tonally, it’s like Alder, though some believe the reduced mass affects tone. Maybe, but on the flip side, they’re sausage-finger accessible.
15. Invest in a fretting kit ($40–$200)
16. Mini-pots require big skills ($5) Cheap guitars often come with cheap mini-pots (though not all mini-pots are cheap). On the one hand, they allow room for more switches. But they’re also a soldering nightmare if you’re not a whiz with an iron. I prefer full-sized CTS pots. And I now wear a magnifying visor (see tip No. 19) having blown my eyesight thanks to mini-pots.
17. Switch your switch ($15) If you play a cheap guitar, it came with a cheap switch. Replace it with a good one. Check Allparts, Stewart-MacDonald, or eBay for good, American-made switches.
18. Avoid the Floyd ($50–$200) If you own a USA-made Fender Strat, for the love of God, don’t install a Floyd Rose (like I did). They eat tone, not to mention the value of your guitar. Besides, you can sound just as dated with a good Fender bridge and some Big Bends Nut Sauce. (Remember that Eddie went unlocked for the first three albums.) Or check out the Super-Vee system, which requires no extra routing and can be removed at anytime to revert to your stock setup. If you have a Floyd, replace the tone block with a brass or titanium one from Floyd Upgrades, or K-T-S.com. “And watch your sustain go to eleven,” claims Nigel Tufnel.
20. Remember how it all started (free) Always refer back to Eddie’s Frankenstein for inspiration. It’s a testament to the fact that you don’t need to know what you’re doing to know what you’re doing. And who knows? Maybe one day, a repro of your hunk of junk will fetch $20,000.
Got writer’s block? A little bit of Nic Cage and Robert Smith might forestall your Jack Torrance tendencies.
“Writer’s block” is one of those things that’s simultaneously so self-important and cliché and yet so devastatingly real that pretty much everyone can identify with it at least a little bit. Countless movie and novel plots revolve around it, but it’s not confined to the Stephen Kings/Jack Torrances of the world. It burdens all of us at one point or another, whether we’re signing a greeting card, trying to post something motivating for an upcoming gig, working on a new song, or attempting to compose a monthly column that doesn’t suck ass.
Why is this? Usually it’s not so much that we don’t know what we want to say. We know we love to death the person we bought the overpriced Hallmark for. We know we just want our goddamn friends and family to get off their asses and come to a show rather than vegging in front of a TV for the gazillionth time. We know the mood we want our lyrics or the new bridge section to have. We know we want to say something meaningful … or at least not embarrassing.
The problem is the how. And sometimes figuring out the how—especially if it’s for something that means a lot to us or that’s going to stick around for a while (and possibly come back to haunt us)—is so grueling you can start to feel a little like you’re coming apart at the seams.
For Adaptation screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the pressure and anxiety—the feelings of disintegration—were so strong the only solution he could think of was to put himself into the plot of the book he was supposed to be adapting. Not only that, Kaufman sidelined the source book’s plot (or lack thereof) and made writer’s block and its attendant lovelies the central point. The horror of the blank page was so grave he even gave his onscreen self a doltish twin brother for whom the concept was completely foreign. Nonexistent Donald Kaufman incorporates snide plot ideas Charlie spits out with nary a thought and spins them into gold—and via Charlie’s own agent, no less!
What’s my point? Fuck if I know! Maybe that I feel like Charlie Kaufman once a month? Maybe that all of us artists feel a little like Charlie now and then—especially if we’re looking for the elusive final puzzle piece for a tune we’re aching to finally get out to the world … or a musical feeling we just need to get out of our head so we can move on.
At the end of the day, the importance of our ideas/songs to humanity is minimal. The world will go on just fine, with or without whatever twisted expression we eventually piddle out. But that doesn’t change how excruciating the process can be in the moment. And yet still … you never know when plowing through and putting power to that feeling can help someone else, even if whatever you settle on seems pathetic or ridiculous. Or at least cleanse your pate’s palate and exorcise your inner expressive demons. Or get you past another deadline.
So it’s all come back round to breaking apart again
Breaking apart like I’m made up of glass again
Making it up behind my back again
Holding my breath for the fear of sleep again
Holding it up behind my head again
Cut in deep to the heart of the bone again
Round and round and round
And it’s coming apart again
Over and over and over
Thanks for the inspiration this month, Mr. Smith!
Legendary KISS frontman Gene Simmons partners with Gibson for his first-ever signature artist bass.
The Gene Simmons G² Thunderbird Bass guitar is designed to meet Gene’s performance needs and preferences in stadiums across the globe. Designed for modern bassists, it features the classic Gibson Reverse Thunderbird body and headstock shape. The Gene Simmons G² Thunderbird Bass is voiced with a pair of powerful T-Bird Pickups, each with individual Volume controls and paired with a master Tone control. The bound ebony fretboard features pearloid reverse split diamond inlays. A GraphTech nut and Hipshot Mini-Clover tuners keep the tuning rock-solid, while the other end of the strings anchor to a Hipshot Bass Bridge. The back of the headstock features a G² logo. The Ebony nitrocellulose lacquer finish is paired with Black Chrome hardware and a Mirror Plex truss rod cover with a Mirror Plex pickguard which features a laser engraved custom Gene Simmons logo. A hardshell case is included.
“We are excited to launch the first of many projects together with Gene Simmons!” says Cesar Gueikian, Brand President, Gibson Brands. “The Gibson Gene Simmons G² Thunderbird Bass guitar has been more than a year in the making. It looks and sounds EPIC, and it is unmistakably Gene. Working with him is such a privilege for all of us at Gibson; he is deeply involved in every aspect of developing the guitars and planning our launch. A legendary musician who has touched the lives of generations of music fans, Gene is also a creative and successful entrepreneur. This is the first of many ways in which the G² partnership will be paying tribute to Gene, his iconic status, and continue to inspire new generations of Gibson and Gene Simmons fans to play and create music.
Explore the new Gene Simmons G² Thunderbird Bass at www.gibson.com.