Monday 1 April 2019

Guitar Nerd Post: Fitting a Seymour Duncan SH-11 Custom Custom to an EVH Wolfgang Baseplate

I've been a Van Halen fan since I was a teenager, and picking up the guitar was in no small part inspired by Mr Edward Van Halen, already a legend in the mid eighties. Imagine my delight when the EVH brand launched a range of relatively affordable lookalikes of the man's own Frankenstein guitar, called the Striped Series. Superstrat-style instruments with a single humbucker and a Floyd Rose trem, they're a one trick pony, but it's a great trick. One came up on special offer about four years ago, and I treated myself. There were a handful of quality control issues with mine that were easily sorted, but it played great, and I was generally delighted with it, apart from one thing: that import version of the Wolfgang pickup.

I understand the American-made version of the Wolfgang pickup is very good, but I have to say, the import version left me cold. To my ear, it sounded hard and sterile, lacking in the warmth and character I was looking for. No problem, I thought, I've got an old Seymour Duncan Custom Custom in my parts box, just like the one Eddie himself used through much of the 1980s. I'll just whip the Wolfgang pickup out and slap the Duncan in and ... oh. Nope.

Closer inspection revealed that the guitar was routed specifically for the proprietary design of the Wolfgang's baseplate. Almost all aftermarket humbuckers follow the general design that Seth Lover came up with for Gibson in the mid 1950s, albeit with minor variations, such as pole spacing. But for the most part, you can usually replace any given humbucker with an alternative from Duncan, DiMarzio, Bare Knuckle, or whoever. They all follow the same template. Except the Wolfgang with its rounded legs and corners. So I thought that was that, I'd just have to live with the stock pickup. But it always bugged me, and I was sure there would be a workaround. Then, just a few days ago, I chanced upon this thread over on the Seymour Duncan forums. Apparently, a standard spaced Duncan pickup's screw polepieces and bobbin screws align perfectly with the Wolfgang's baseplate. The thread included a rough guide on how to do it, so the other night, I got out my soldering iron and screwdriver.

IMPORTANT NOTES: I don't know which other pickup brands will fit the EVH baseplate; I only know that standard spaced Duncan pickups will. Be very careful about doing this in general, but give particular care to the replacement pickup's dimensions as manufacturer's "standard" spacing is anything but standard. Also, obviously, if you do this, do it at your own risk. There's every chance you could destroy your pickups if something goes wrong, so, ahem ... Fair Warning (sorry).

Here's how it's done:

1: Remove the EVH Wolfgang pickup.

Being a single pickup guitar, the wiring inside the Striped Series is simplicity itself. Just unsolder the hot and ground leads from the volume pot and remove the screws that fix the pickup to the wood. Frankly, if you don't know how to do that, then stop reading right now. The rest of this post isn't for you.

2: Unsolder the connections on the underside of the pickup.

Blimey, that's a rat's nest under there! Each of the wires needs to be unsoldered from its terminal.

3: Remove the four brass bobbin screws to release the baseplate.

These screws fasten the main body of the pickup to the baseplate, as well as holding the two clips in place. Once removed, the pickup coils may remain held to the baseplate by the wax potting. Mine came free with a little encouragement, but if it's stubborn, applying some heat with a hairdryer should soften the wax enough to let them separate. You may or may not need to remove the tape from around the outside of the coils; I didn't have to. You should end up with a deconstructed pickup, including the baseplate, which we'll put to use shortly. At this point, I put the brass bobbin screws back into their holes in the pickup, just to save them getting lost - we'll use the Duncan's bobbin screws later on.

4: Disassemble the Duncan pickup.

Unlike the EVH pickup, the Duncan's pole screws pass through the baseplate, so they will need to be unscrewed until the ends are fully inside the pickup body. You will probably need to remove the pickup tape at this point; set it aside as it can be reused, unless the adhesive has worn off.

Next, remove the four brass bobbin screws from the bottom of the baseplate and set them aside - you'll need them later. You can then carefully pull the baseplate away from the coils, revealing the guts of the pickup.

IMPORTANT: Take note of how everything's put together inside (taking a photo is a good idea), paying particular attention to where the lead travels along the baseplate, and where the magnet and spacer bar go. You're going to have to put this all back together, so make sure to know how that goes. If you've removed the pickup tape from around the coils, you'll very probably find that the whole thing falls apart. Don't panic! It's easy to put back together again. One caution, however: take special care of the hookup wires that are now exposed at one end of the coils. You really, really don't want to break those.

Unsolder the ground wire from the baseplate, and slip the lead out through the hole. That's the disassembly done.

5: Reassemble the Duncan pickup on the Wolfgang baseplate.

Thread the Duncan's lead through the appropriate hole in the Wolfgang baseplate, and run it along the side wall, mirroring how it was in its original housing. You'll need to solder the ground wire in the corresponding position. The baseplate may have a covering of wax, so remove a small patch with some fine sandpaper before applying a little solder to tin the surface, then attach the ground wire.

Reassemble the component parts of the pickup, again mirroring how they were originally arranged, paying attention to where the spacer goes. Hopefully the magnet will have stayed in place under its own power. Everything should go together pretty snugly.

Tighten the two outer pole screws at least part way, just to anchor that coil, then use the Duncan's bobbin screws - NOT the Wolfgang's bobbin screws - to fasten the coils to the baseplate. Note: Be careful not to over tighten the bobbin screws because the plastic can be easily stripped.

Screw down the polepieces to where you want them - they should finish up with their ends roughly level with the baseplate feet, but they shouldn't be lower or you'll have problems fitting the pickup back in the guitar. Very, very carefully tuck the hookup wire back between the coils, take a meter reading to make sure nothing's broken (a Custom Custom should read around 14.4k) and then reapply the tape around the outside.

And you're almost done! It's just a matter of mounting the pickup into the guitar, soldering the appropriate wires to the volume pot (check the Seymour Duncan website for how to rig the pickup for two-conductor operation), stringing up, and enjoy!

Here's how it sounds:

Thursday 14 March 2019

Blogging? Who blogs anymore? Maybe I do...

I mean, seriously, does anyone but Chuck Wendig blog these days? Chuck's blog is one of the best out there, but who else has the wit and wisdom to come up with something interesting to say every day, every week, every month?

Every day? Every thirty seconds, more like. The social media barrage has gathered such a pace, such a volume, that I can barely endure it. As the environments of Twitter and Facebook become more toxic, more frenetic, more cluttered, as the spite and bile congeals in the cracks between them, I find myself less willing to spend time there. Those platforms stole me away from blogging over the last ten years, their quick-hit-instant-fix natures seeming more alluring than Blogger's more considered approach.

But now I'm hankering for more substance, not only in what I take in, but in what I put out. I am giving serious consideration to beginning to blog again. I used to blog every day; in fact, over on my old blog - - I gave a blow-by-blow account of writing not one, but two novels, from start to finish. I shared my experience of finding a literary agent, a publisher, my debut novel's publication, my first reviews, my first award, and then ... it all fizzled out.  The sugar rush of Twitter and Facebook made Blogger obsolete.

(An aside: Clicking through those links, one can see how quickly I slipped from wide-eyed wonder to jaded hack. Like, weeks. Jesus. But also, looking back through ten-year-old blog posts reminds me of the sense of adventure there used to be in all this. Maybe I need to try to reconnect to that...)

Skip forward almost a decade--

(Wait, hang on, I just typed then deleted the phrase "fast forward" and replaced it with "skip forward". "Fast forward" seemed arcane. My God, time is cruel. Actually, I suppose it should be "scrub forward", shouldn't it?)

--and now I find myself writing my first blog post since late 2017. Before that, I'd been blogging roughly once a year. Not so long before that, I'd been blogging once a day. And I find myself missing that. It used to be I would find a kind of therapy of pouring out thoughts at the end of a day and, surprisingly, finding that a handful of people were actually interested in what I had to say. And I was interested in them. We formed a community of writers and editors and agents, some of whom I'm still friends with today, some of whose homes I've recently visited and been introduced to their new baby (Hi, Moonrat!). I've made lots of friends through Twitter and Facebook too, but it feels like the days when those platforms were any good for meeting likeminded people have long since passed.

So here I am, thinking about blogging again. What will I blog about? Whatever the hell I want, is the short answer. I suppose I might blog about the writer's life, though other people - most notably the aforementioned Chuck Wendig - have that well covered. I might blog about movies, though the internet is not short of opinions on that medium. Most probably I'll blog about my number one passion: guitars. Playing them, collecting them, customising them, repairing them. Guitars, guitars, guitars. And my band, the Fun Lovin' Crime Writers, and what a sanity-saving joy my bandfamily is to me (bandfamily is a word, don't pretend you don't know that). Yes, if I blog, there'll be a lot of that. And steak. I could talk about steak until the cows come home (eh? eh? steak? cows?), how to choose a cut, where to buy it, how to prepare it, how to season it, how to cook it.

Yep, there's lots I could blog about. You never know, I just might do it.