Thursday, September 17, 2020

Partscaster: T style with P-Rails

Super pleased with this guitar that I put together from custom parts a short while ago:

One of my life-long passions has been creating music. For the past decade and a half, the form that musical expression has taken is in playing the guitar. I've played most Sundays in church for the past several years and over time, I've been exploring different variations on amps, effects, and guitars to try to find the perfect balance of tones, to fit the mood of the moment in music.

Since many of the songs we play are by different groups, who each use different instruments, I've been looking for a way to have a wide variety of different sounds on tap. Ideally, this wouldn't require carting half a dozen different guitars and amps on stage each weekend. This started me looking for different styles of guitar pickups that are versatile and mimic a number of different popular configurations. When I learned about Seymour Duncan's P-Rails pickups, they sounded like a perfect solution for the kind of versatility I sought.

These pickups include a P90 pickup as well as a "rail" style coil, both in a tidy package that fits a space for most humbucker pickups. If wired to switch between the P90, the rail pickup, or both, this one pickup could do triple-duty; matching three common pickup styles. Seymour Duncan also provides a great way to handle the switching between these different modes in their Triple Shot mounting rings. These are essentially pickup rings that also include two small switches, and by flipping through different combinations, the pickups can be run as: P90-only, rail-only, both in parallel, and both in series. My mind was swimming with possibilities.

With the pickups sorted out, now the question was, what kind of platform should these pickups be put into? I've recently been enjoying Telecaster guitars, and the traditional shape and style of an early 1950s Telecaster has a timeless appeal that seemed like an inconspicious way to bring a surprising amount of versatility on stage. Rather than buy a Tele to rip it apart, I thought I could start fresh, and it seemed like building my own Tele-style guitar from parts might not be too far a stretch for me, as little woodworking experience as I had had at this point. The place many people turn for custom guitar parts Warmoth, which has a great reputation for high quality custom work. I choose a Telecaster shape routed for Humbucker pickups, made of Alder (same as the American Standard Telecaster I also have).

For the neck of the guitar, I had a couple of unique things in mind. First was the thickness of the neck. I have relatively long fingers, and the thin necks on some electric guitars tend to cause discomfort on long playing sessions. I've found thicker necks to be much more comfortable, so I decided to pick a Boatneck profile when ordering from Warmoth. The second non-traditional detail that I had in mind was to spring for stainless steel frets. I dislike the idea of the frets wearing down over the years as I play, and I wanted to build something that I'd enjoy playing for years to come. The durability of stainless frets might mean that I'll never need to refret this neck, which sounds like a win to me.

The last question was the finish. Traditionally, the early Fender guitars were finished with nitrocellulose laquer, and even today many high end instruments use this as the weatherproof coating. While in some ways inferior to modern materials, there are two aspects to this finish that I found attractive: ease of applying the finish and repairing mistakes (thanks to its ability to "burn in" to previous layers) and the way that it hardens and wears over time. The worn-in look is quite popular these days, especially on telecasters, and while I have no plans to artificially relic this guitar, I'd love to watch how the finish ages over the years. I decided to apply the finish myself, so I bought a few rattle cans of nitrocellulose laquer in butterscotch transparent and clear. I applied a few coats of clear as a sealer, then around 4 coats of butterscotch, followed by around 10 coats of clear on top. The neck of the guitar I sprayed with clear only. After waiting a couple of weeks for it to dry, I wet-sanded with a series of increasingly high grits of sandpaper. Starting from around 180 grit, I worked up slowly to 4000. It was pretty nerve-wracking at the start, seeing the shiny, but a bit orange-peel-y, finish turn dull and flat. Not until over 2000 grit did it start to shine again.

The painting all finished, it was time to put it together! For the wiring, I thought it would be cool to try a 4-way switch with positions for neck pickup only, bridge pickup only, both in parallel, and both in series (to match the multiple ways to wire each pickup). This would create a dizzying array of pickup combinations - 40, to be precise, which is probably too many, but hey, if you've got it why not! The last detail of the wiring which is somewhat unusual is the "treble bleed circuit" which consists of a capacitor + resistor on the volume potentiometer. It allows some of the high frequencies to continue to "bleed" through the volume control as it is turned down. The effect is that as the volume is turned down, the sound gets "thinner" and more bright, rather than darker and more muddy which would naturally happen on a volume pot without this added detail. I've loved this feature of my American Standard Telecaster, so I decided to duplicate it here.

Over the course of a few months, I worked on this over the weekends and vacations and finally wrapped it all up around Christmas time. Without further ado, the pictures:

Here are the specs at a glance: