Ask Charlie...

How Low Can You Go?…

Hello Troubadourians! I like to experiment with my guitars. Usually that just means trying different things in my playing or more often, performing micro adjustments that only make a difference to me. Sometimes, my experiments are more overt, like a new effects device, amplifier, or pickup. But, every once in a while I just have to really make a dramatic and significant change. About ten years ago I built a guitar using major components from Warmoth and a few things from my parts bin. I was playing in a rock band at the time and I wanted to be able to play acoustic-sounding guitar parts at the same level as my electric guitar and be able to play solos as well. I decided that some sort of piezo pickup-equipped, solid body hybrid guitar was the way to go. I was playing PRS guitars at the time and I wanted my new creation to visually match my other guitars, so I selected a similarly styled body that Warmoth calls a ‘VIP’ and a neck with a blank headstock that a luthier friend carved to look like my PRS’s using one of my originals as a template.

I had purchased a Fishman piezo bridge and a Carvin-designed preamp from a friend who worked there. Assembling the guitar and wiring the electronics wasn’t as easy as I thought. It didn’t all just go together as I had expected. And even with all of the careful planning I had done there were still things that didn’t fit or didn’t work like they were supposed to. Eventually, and with some help, I worked out all of the problems and was soon using a beautiful, well-playing, good-sounding guitar on stage and in the studio. Since this instrument was initially envisioned as an acoustic/solid body hybrid guitar, I had ordered the body with no routing for conventional electric guitar pickups. As a constraint of the manufacturing process, there would be a tooling hole in the center of the area where the bridge pickup would normally be installed. Warmoth filled this hole with an abalone dot that would usually have been inlaid into a fretboard. Since I’m weird and I name my guitars, this one was immediately christened as “Dot.”

As I began to play Dot with some regularity, I found that while it sounded really good, it didn’t sound as much like an acoustic guitar as I’d expected it to. Played through my Boogie it was more like a cross between a Fender Telecaster and an early Ovation acoustic guitar. Not as brittle and plastic sounding as the Ovation nor as twangy and biting as the Tele, Dot nonetheless possessed a tonality that was both pleasing and unique. I found that I could use it for clean tones as well as more over-driven and distorted tones that maintained that uniqueness and filled a different sonic space than my regular PRS guitars. I used Dot to record my parts on the song “Let It All Fall Down” from the Wild Truth’s CD This Golden Era. On that track, the semi-overdriven tone jumps out of the mix and responds well to the finger-picked chords and double-stop lines that I played. I’m glad that Dot’s original sound and configuration was preserved for posterity on that recording because there were changes brewing in my mind and in the guitar.

The first change was that the preamp died. Since it had been purchased somewhat off-the-books and was installed into a guitar with a slightly different pickup than it was designed for, there was never any warranty nor a guarantee that it would actually work. For the price I paid, I was happy with the year or so that it did work. I also discovered that the Fishman pickup system had become damaged. Even though I liked the way the guitar sounded, I still was thinking that it could sound closer to an acoustic guitar even with the platform I was using. Right around the time that the preamp died, Graph Tech came out with their Acousti-Phonic preamp and Ghost pickup system so I decided to replace all of the electronics with the new components. The Graph Tech Ghost system was a very wise choice and was a definite improvement over the original system. I added a Stellartone ToneStyler tone control to the Acousti-Phonic preamp, which allowed me to vary the tonality from a bright and acoustic sound to dark and almost jazz archtop-like sound by rolling off a fixed amount of treble response in 16 selectable increments.

I used Dot for the remainder of my tenure in the Wild Truth, but when I joined Folding Mr. Lincoln and was playing a real acoustic guitar – my Collings – I retired it to be an around the house practice guitar. There it languished and there it would be still were it not for an off-the-cuff idea I had for a song on FML’s Two Rivers. We reprised a version of “Within My Reach” at the end of that CD and I wanted to play a baritone guitar part rather than a regular guitar part. When the time came to record my part, I said that I really had wanted to play it on a baritone but that I didn’t have a baritone guitar. Jeff Berkley, who was producing our CD, said, “I have one!” Out came a baritone Telecaster and as I tuned it to where I wanted it, Jeff set the levels in my headphones. I transposed my parts on the fly and after the second pass Jeff said, “Got it!” and I was done. Or so I thought. In the control room, Harry Mestyanek and our drummer, Jeff Stasny, had been talking; “That sounded cool. I’ll bet he’ll want one of those now…,” Harry had said. Jeff said, “Heck, I want one!” Yes, I did want one. I remembered poor, forgotten Dot and it occurred to me that I could transform it into a righteous baritone. I calculated the proper string gauges for a 25.5″ scale guitar tuned a fourth lower than standard and ordered two sets. Then I purchased a complete set of nut files from Stewart-MacDonald so that I could perform the modifications myself. Once I started, it took about 45 minutes to widen the nut slots, install the strings, and complete the conversion. Dot turned out much better than I had expected and I’ve hardly put it down since. You can hear and see the result for yourself at the next Folding Mr. Lincoln show.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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  • September 2016

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