On The Road

June Anderson, highway 97, eastern Oregon, road trip, summer, trucks, road fun

    It's summer, time for a road trip.  See you in a week or two.

Photo credit: June Anderson


At The County Fair

Eugene, Lane County Fair, merry go round, summer

    County fairs, in days past, were always in September - they were a celebration of the harvest as much as they were a chance to have some fun, go on some rides, eat cotton candy, and see your neighbors' giant tomatoes, prize pigs, and beautiful quilts.  They still are all those things, but these days, they seem to be scheduled around the availability of the traveling carney companies; the county fair here, usually held in late August, always felt like a last blast of summer fun before the coming fall drudgery - rain, school, and more rain.  This year's Lane County Fair was the earliest yet.

Here's some quick snapshots taken with an older Lumix TZ-3 pocket travel camera, which has great color right out of the box.  That's good, since I don't have, and never will have, Photoshop.  Couldn't imagine a worse way to spend my time, actually; I'd rather just go out and have fun.
Eugene, Lane County Fair, summer, Takeo Anderson Clifford, cars, fairway fun
Eugene, Lane County Fair, summer, whirling, spinning, ride, waiting for a ride
Eugene Lane County Fair, summer, monkey, colorful, fairway prize, stuffed animal
Eugene, Lane County Fair, summer, hanging chairs, spinning, whirling
Eugene, Lane County Fair, summer, fun, crowd, fairgoers, summertime, sunset
Eugene, Lane County Fair, summer, fairway, ride, attraction, fun
Eugene, Lane County Fair, summer, haunted house, ride, fun
Eugene, Lane County Fair, summer, fairway food, fun, summertime, sunset, crowd
Click or tap on any photo above for a higher resolution (larger) image

Slug Love

slug sex, warm summer night, love

    A warm evening in summer, the heady scent of the Star Gazer Lily wafting upon the soft breeze, a quiet secluded corner of the garden...  it's inevitable that thoughts and hearts turn towards love.

Crickets will sing their mating songs, nesting sparrows will snuggle a little closer, a young couple will hold hands and talk in hushed whispers about the future.  And yes, even slugs...

slug sex, warm summer night, love
Slug sex, love, warm summer night, lovers
    Slug love.

The 99 Cent Champ Amp, Part 3

home made guitar amp, project, Strat, tube, tubes, Kodak speaker cab, 6V6

In Part 2, we learned that it may be possible for someone with only a basic Neolithic skill level and a shaky grasp on electronic theory and reality (me), armed with the tools on hand in a typical cave dwelling home workshop, to assemble a guitar amp out of mostly scrap and junk components. But - does it even work? And will it sound better than it looks? This time, let's do some in-circuit voltage measurements, and do a short analysis of that data, as well as finally taking this beat up jalopy out for a spin.

Editor's note: the events depicted in this post are not in actual time sequence; in reality, we made sure the amp worked first, before reading voltages.  

Once again, here's the schematic, as built, of this particular amp, with voltage measurements annotated. I should apologize for my sloppy schematic drawing skills, but 5 minutes with a pen beats an hour+ at a CAD program:

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, 5F1, 5Z1

Running the Numbers

Okay, let's see what's going on in the output section. With an old Sylvania 6V6GTA plugged into the octal tube socket and a Sovtek 12AX7WA in the 9-pin socket, an 8 ohm speaker hooked up and the input shorted (normal condition with nothing plugged in), volume control zeroed, and almost exactly 120VAC at the wall outlet, we see 17.2VDC at the 6V6 cathode (pin 8), and 317VDC at the anode (plate, pin 3).

Let's do some simple math, using inversions of Ohm's Law: 17.2V divided by the measured actual resistance of the nominal 470 ohm cathode resistor, in this case 452 ohms, results in a calculated current draw across that resistor of .038A, or 38 milliamps. Now let's take the calculated voltage differential across this (tube) device, which is 299.8V (317V plate voltage, minus 17.2V at the cathode), and multiply that by .038A, and we come up with 11.39W, or about 11 and a half watts of plate dissipation at idle, which is roughly 80% of design rated maximum for a 6V6GTA (14W).

Plugging in a Fender Sylvania STR 6L6GC instead of a 6V6GTA results in 21.2V at pin 8, which gives us 13.9W plate dissipation, which is a lot less than that tube's 30W design max. In an ideal world, we should be able to up the output with a smaller value cathode bias resistor, but that presupposes a power transformer that would actually supply that extra juice. Although I have no spec sheet to support this, I suspect that the small-ish power transformer we have wouldn't support much higher of a current draw, no matter how much we fiddle with the cathode resistor value.

Finally, looking at the 12AX7 preamp tube, 1.4V and 1.5V at the cathodes of each triode section is pretty much right on target, well within this tube type's design operating parameters. And anything close to 200V at the plates of the 12AX7 double triode, in this case 191V, gets us to a good balance between gain, vintage tone, and headroom.

Well, simple or not, that's about enough math - time for another picture: 

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, Kodak speaker cab

It's Alive!

Sometimes, after a repair or mod, I'll flip the switch, and... nothing. After tracing through the circuit, it might turn out that the Heisenberg Compensator had been soldered to the Relative Dimensional Stabilizer - what a boneheaded move! This time though, I got lucky - it worked straight away. 

When the assembly was done, I plugged the 99 Cent Champ to AC through the handy home-made light bulb current limiter. The bulb's glowing dimly, good, and there's that nice low vibration coming from the power transformer, also good, since it means that the transformer is working. Shut it down, pop a couple tubes in, plug in a cheap test bench speaker, breathe deeply, and flip the switch again. After about 5 seconds, here comes a really faint hiss from the speaker - alright!

After letting it sit powered on for awhile to see if anything pops, explodes, or oozes, it's time to turn it off and then see how it sounds as an actual amplifier. I hooked up a '70s Oxford/Fender 12" in an open back cab, plugged in a '91 MIM Strat equipped with Classic Vibe pickups, flipped up the power switch, let the tubes warm up again, and cranked the volume pot. Not only did it work, but it worked well, and sounded... a lot like a Champ Amp. Well actually, a lot like a Champ through a 12" speaker.

In Part 1, I'd written that a Champ has a tone that is "clean, sweet and chimey at lower volumes, and progressively becomes more raw and edgy as you turn up the knob, finally topping out at a roaring overdrive, all at living room, bedroom, or studio control room levels", and that's exactly how this junkyard beast sounds. Playing a Strat with vintage style lower output pickups, the 3-way selector jiggled into a "between" switch position, and the amp volume pot cranked, gets a pretty close approximation of a Tweed Champ "Layla" kind of tone, especially if you get your ear close to the speaker cone and pretend you're one of Tom Dowd's Neumann mics.

With a guitar equipped with humbuckers or P90s, like my '77 Les Paul TV Special, the tone is every bit as clean and chimey at lower volume, but the higher pickup output results in a nice smooth singing distortion when the volume is dimed. Depending upon the speaker(s) used, it can sound Neil Young-ish or very like a Marshall - plug up to a Celestion or a "C"-clone in a closed back cab, and it's close. After all, Marshalls have the same basic preamp first gain stage, with only slight differences in component values.

Variations on a Theme

I experimented with having the feedback loop disconnected (22K resistor from the speaker output to the cathode of the 2nd triode), and although the amp was only a very slight bit louder, it was also more distorted and harsher sounding at all volume levels, so I hooked the feedback loop back up. I may eventually put in a switch to have the option of that other sound.

Some Champ-type circuits have a cathode bypass capacitor on the 2nd stage; with one in place, the 99 Cent Champ had an almost entirely different character. The range of clean tones at the lower end of the volume control's sweep was very limited; there seemed to be a lot more gain, and it went into overdrive a lot quicker, along with a noticeably higher overall output volume. The OD tone tended to be harsh and not very pleasing, although that sound may appeal to some players. Putting a sizable grid stopper resistor just before the 2nd triode would most likely sweeten things up, but I just took the cap out instead and went back to a more pleasing tone. 

As expected, when a 6L6 was substituted, the maximum volume level was higher than it was with a 6V6, but not by very much. Tone wise, it was a bit cleaner sounding, with noticeably less overdrive when dimed. There also seemed to be more of a warmer tonality, but that may be due to the sound of a Fender Sylvania STR; I'll try out other 6L6s in the near future, and see how they work out. (note: a Russian Mil-Spec 6P3S-E, known in this country as a Sovtek 5881, sounds f***ing fantastic):

In any case, a vintage 6L6GC in this circuit is running at less than half of its design maximum current, and more than 200 volts less than max plate voltage, so it's just loafing along, taking it easy, and that's the way it sounds - smooth, non-edgy, and overall more Hi-Fi than a 6V6. And, being so far from its stress point, a 6L6 should last darn near forever here.

In Conclusion

Overall, I'm pretty happy with how this junkyard Champ turned out; some circuit mods worked, others didn't. In the end, it really is a sweet sounding amp - quiet and almost noiseless at lower volumes (thanks to short wiring runs and a choke in the power section), with a rich full bodied tonality, as well as having the ability to go through various stages of overdrive with a twist of the volume knob. Alternatively, you can just turn it up all the way, and go from clean to mean right at your guitar's volume pot - nice! Of course, it's not really a loud amp, probably no more than 4 watts output, but it's nice to get some real, actual, and honest tube OD sounds at lower than face-melting volumes.

Like I said earlier, I just got lucky; the components which had unknown operating conditions (like the transformers - did they even work?) all turned out to be okay. I will take no credit for anything here: basically, all the hard thinking and heavy lifting was done a half century or more ago by tube amp circuit designers who really knew what they were doing. And I am, like everyone else these days, only following in their genius footsteps.

In the near future, hopefully within a couple of weeks, we'll get around to adapting an old Kodak 8mm film projector speaker box into a cab for the 99 Cent Champ. Also, by that time, we'll have been able to see how this amp sounds with different preamp and output tubes, as well as a variety of speakers, old and new(ish). And that's not all: in response to some requests, I've promised an exclusive interview with the little rubber lobster.

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, amplifier

And now let's do a safety disclaimer: As tube amp guru Gerald Weber is fond of saying - and here I'm just paraphrasing, it's not an actual quote: "The voltages and current levels inside even the smallest tube amplifiers can be LETHAL; take all necessary safety precautions, and if you aren't comfortable poking around inside a live circuit, then just don't do it."

Finally, I'd like to say that if anything I've written seems wrong, or if my math or even my assumptions feel like they're based on a dubious grasp on reality, let me know. I welcome your comments; as I've said, I'm only a hobbyist having fun, and I'm always willing to learn something new.

*       *       *

All photos taken with a Lumix ZS-25.  Click or tap on any picture to go to a higher resolution (larger) image. 

Crooked River Gorge

Crooked River Gorge, eastern Oregon, Redmond, Madras, Terrebone,
    A sign at Crooked River Gorge, Oregon - "Warning! Hazardous Cliff - Many Dogs Have Died Here! Put your dog back in the vehicle!"  That's incredibly sad.

When you walk up to the edge of the gorge at Peter Skene Ogden Park, you can see just how hazardous it is.  It's several hundred feet, straight down a sheer vertical cliff face, with just a low stone wall between you and eternity. 

Crooked River Gorge, Eastern Oregon, Redmond, Madras, Terrebone,

Actually, it makes you want to take the whole family back to the vehicle.

Crooked River Gorge, Eastern Oregon, Redmond, Madras, Terrebone, summer
Getting back to the sign, though - that dog looks so fearless and strong, as he vaults over the wall to his doom.  And what's up with those birds, anyway?

The 99 Cent Champ Amp, Part 2

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7

In Part 1, we looked at the classic Champ Amp circuit, and set up a project goal of putting together a guitar amp similar to a Champ, using nothing but dead junkyard parts - a hare brained scheme worthy of young Dr. Frederick Frankenstein himself. Maybe it should be called the Abby Normal Amp?

But questions remain: how does a pile of trash heap parts get turned into an amp, how will this stitched together beast sound, and what's the purpose of the little rubber lobster anyway? To find out, please read on.

An Old Piece Of Scrap

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7

The copper plated chassis came with holes pre-punched for three 9-pin tube sockets, as well as a bunch of other holes of various sizes, and a huge gaping rectangular cut out that had to be filled; I used a scrap piece of sheet aluminum and screwed it into place. Some new holes had to be drilled for the wires to and from the output transformer and choke, and one of the socket holes was enlarged to fit the octal output tube socket. I used as many of the existing holes as possible when bolting up the transformers and terminal strips, and to a certain extent that determined the component layout.

You can see that there are a couple of empty holes on the front panel; I had planned on including a tone control and make the amp closer to a 5F2A Princeton, but just a volume knob is enough, really. Eventually, there might be a pilot lamp, but so far I haven't scored one for the right price - nothing. Besides, until I can put the amp into a cab, the tubes themselves indicate when the amp is powered on; not to mention the power switch flipped up - duh.

Getting Wired

Now, a few words about the old-school wiring method I used. Here's a photo of the inside of a mid '50s Conn organ amp:

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6L6, 12AU7

Most all electronic equipment from the classic period was hooked up using what I call "true" point to point wiring. The resistors, capacitors and transformer leads themselves are used whenever possible as the direct signal paths between tube sockets, pots, and jacks, with as little additional wiring as posssible.

All Fender amps made until the early '90s used a different wiring scheme, using turret or eyelet component boards to hold the smaller parts, plus interconnecting wires running to and from the board and other components: jacks, pots, transformers, tube sockets, etc. Today, that layout method is referred to as being "point to point", although at the time those amps were being produced, it wasn't called that at all - it was known as "circuit board construction". That technique was a brilliant manufacturing expediency; amps could now be made in record time, and quality control was much easier, but it can and usually does add a lot of additional wiring length. This requires careful attention to "lead dress", which usually means keeping those wires as short as possible, and squashing it down close to the chassis, in order to avoid noise buildup in general, and sometimes weird audio artifacts and oscillations.

Interestingly, modern printed circuit (PC) board construction, which most tube amp hobbyists dislike, can have much shorter signal paths than the older Fender style circuits, and so can be a lot more quiet and hum-free, as well as keep manufacturing costs down. That's the reason why all mass produced amps manufactured today are made using PC boards; most sound just fine, and some of them sound great. However, PC board construction is a repairman's nightmare, compared to earlier point to point wiring, which is very straightforward to troubleshoot.

The art of planning out a 1940s style "true" point to point wiring scheme in advance is something that is beyond my abilities, but I do something close by using a Zen-like technique: not thinking too much, putting a few terminal strips in likely places, and just start lacing in parts and soldering it all up, while following the schematic. Sometimes, beer and loco weed help out in the process.

This results in what looks like a chaotic mess, kind of like the inside of my brain. But look inside any old radio, organ amp, or military communications set and be amazed it even works (!), compared to the well planned out, logical and easy to follow layout of the typical 1950s to '80s Fender amp with their eyelet board construction. The upside of true point to point, though, is a noticeably reduced noise floor and less AC induced hum, especially when using isolated jacks and shielded wire at the inputs, neither of which Fender bothered with.

Enough talk; here's some photos of the build in progress (no snickering in the back row about the wiring job - I'm just a hobbyist. "Dammit", Jim said, "I'm a hobbyist, not a doctor!" Apologies to the late great DeForest Kelley):

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, wiring, chassis
home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, wiring, chassis
home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, wiring, chassis
home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, wiring, chassis

That piece of 12 gauge solid copper wire (one of the conductors from a piece of 12-3 Romex cable), with the two right angle bends in it is the ground bus bar flying above and through the inside of the amp. Using a ground bus is an old grounding technique from the days when almost all electronics was true point to point wired. Attached at only one point on the chassis, in a place away from the audio input, and with as many of the circuit ground connections as possible made directly to it, the bus helps to ensure the reduction of hum caused by multiple paths to ground, and the resultant ground loops.

A New Home

Here's the funky old speaker cabinet, a Kodak film projector cab, that the 99 Cent Champ will eventually go into:

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, 99 Cent Champ

Next time in Part 3, we'll measure some in-circuit voltages and run the plate dissipation numbers, and do a subjective tone analysis, ie: how does it sound, anyway? Stay tuned.

All photos taken with either a Canon Elph SD-550, or a Lumix ZS-25
Click or tap on any photo to go to a higher resolution (larger) image


Success, Internet Style

family fun, Tayo Anderson Clifford, For Dad, apple skull, fruit

    At a party, I mentioned I was starting a blog, and someone said, "I wish you success with it!"  Success?  I hadn't thought about that.  I thought I was here to have fun; in fact, where I live, fun is a minimum daily requirement (see above).

Makes me think about those folks who can't have a hobby without turning it into work:  "Between my vocation and my avocation, I don't have time to take a vacation."  Or all the poor souls bombing past me on the river path who have to make every bike ride a workout.

What is the measure of success, in relation to a blog?  Page views?  Number of followers?  Total ad revenue from selling sidebar space?  Consider some of the most popular blogs out there: the masterfully subtle political snark of Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo; the laughably out of context conspiracy mongering at Drudge's sludge fest; the cheerfully sunny, always-summer world of Elsie Larson's Beautiful Mess - they all have one thing in common: each blog only does more or less one thing, and they each do that very well.  

Wait - forgot to mention The Blog Of Dr. John H. Watson... what?  That's not a real blog?  Oh.  Does it matter?

I can't do just one thing; I can't sit still.  It's hard for me to get on the interstate and turn on the cruise control.  I know a little about a lot of things, and a lot about some, and somewhere in there are a couple of opinions, too.  As Bob Dylan once said, "I got a head full of ideas that are drivin' me insane!"  I'm one week into this crazy little thing called blog, and it's been a blast so far.  I think I'll just keep having fun. 

The 99 Cent Champ Amp, Part 1

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, Strat, chassis, speaker

Just how cheaply could I build a useable and great sounding tube guitar amp? A good place to start would be the classic '50s Champ Amp circuit. It's simple, which is good for cheap, since the component count is low; and depending upon which speaker you run through, it can sound astoundingly good.

So, the goal for this project will be to build an amp, which hopefully works, and has a tone that is somewhat close to the legendary Champ sound, but as cheaply as possible. I guess the title of this post kind of gives away the total end cost of this project, and the photo above gives you some idea of the beauty factor, which is as low as the price.

Doing The Circuit 

Let's talk tone. I've had the good luck to have played through most of the various Champ models that Fender made over the years, as well as a few kit clones and similar amps from other makers. They each have their own flavor, but the baseline tone comes from this basic preamp design:

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 12AX7, twin triode, 99 Cent Champ
Actually, the vast majority of all guitar amps ever made, no matter what make or model, have had variations of this same basic preamp, and through countless recordings and live performances, it has come to define the sound of the electric guitar. A notable exception was the Vox AC-4, which had an EF86 pentode front end; as well as some lower power US-made amps which used 6AU6/EF94 pentode first gain stages. But by and large, the sound we associate with electric guitar is a vacuum tube triode 1st gain stage, followed by a volume control, and then into a 2nd gain stage.

One reason Champs in particular sound so darn good is because their tone is just simply that almost universal guitar tone, but without refinements, effects, or cascaded gain stages. It is clean, sweet and chimey at lower volumes, and progressively becomes more raw and edgy as you turn up the knob, finally topping out at a roaring overdrive with a guitar equipped with low output single coils, or a flat-out slamming distortion with humbuckers or higher output singles, all at living room, bedroom, or studio control room levels.

Here's the schematic for the justly famed Fender 5F1 Champ Amp:

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, 99 Cent Champ

Simple! What we have here are two gain stages, each 1/2 of a 12AX7 tube, with a volume pot between them; the 2nd triode stage is also the driver into the 6V6GT power output tube, which connects to a speaker through the output transformer, which is an impedance matching device. Along with the circuitry that provides the power necessary to operate the amplifier, that's all there is.

And now here's a schematic of that same basic circuit, but with a few changes that were made along the way while putting this project together - it's kind of an "as built" circuit diagram, to use an obscure engineering term. I used to be an obscure engineer:

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, 5Z1 amplifier

I may have been an engineer, but as you can see, I wasn't an artist - hey, it's freehand. The 5Z1 designation is just some bad humor. Moving on, here are the differences between this circuit and the Fender Tweed 5F1 Champ that it's based on:

• Only one input jack, and one
33K grid stopper resistor going into the first gain stage, which is very close to the usual two 68K in parallel = 34K.

• A 6.8uF cathode bypass capacitor on the first triode section of the 12AX7 reduces the "woof" (unneeded or unwanted low end that can make your guitar tone sound flabby, and sucks power while trying to reproduce that spectrum), relative to the response of the 25uF used in virtually all Fender amps. Also, you may have noticed that most Tweed Champ schematics show no bypass cap here at all, but if you look closely at those diagrams, you'll see two dots on either side of the 1.5K resistor, so someone in the past has erased that cap - and everyone since then has file-shared that schematic, and so it goes. No cathode bypass capacitor at the first gain stage results in less gain, less overall volume, and way less great gritty overdrive when you dime the volume pot - in other words, a Tame Champ - so, let's make sure that cap is in there.

The .02uF cap going into the grid of the driver triode has been reduced to a .01, once again to reduce the woofiness a bit, especially when running any speaker larger than an 8-incher.

• In a nod to the Blackface/Silverface era, I've added a 1.5K grid stopper going into the 6V6, a 470K on the screen grid, and subbed a choke at the top of the main power supply Pi filter, instead of a 10K resistor. The 1.5K and 470K may help out when you run a 6L6 instead of a 6V6 (good to have the choice), and the choke simply reduces hum - always a good thing.

• A 10K resistor instead of a 22K at the second Pi filter ups the voltage at the plates of the 12AX7, which may add headroom. Or it might not, but I like a little more clean before the onset of dirt, and this seems to do the trick.
The filter cap values are just what I happened to have in the bin, and the higher values may add to hum reduction; or they might not, depending on which "expert" you listen to. Those same experts also say that higher filter cap values ruin tone, but according to that logic, Bassmans and Marshalls should sound horrible, which of course they don't.

• There are two diodes for rectification instead of a 5Y3 tube - the power transformer I have doesn't have the 5V heater filament tap needed to run a tube type rectifier, such as a 5Y3. We could have used a rectifier tube with a 6V filament, but the few extra volts gained by diodes would have been nice in any case.

The 6.3VAC heater circuit is balanced, with both legs referenced to ground via 100 ohm resistors, instead of the single ended filament supply circuit in the original Champ. Per conventional wisdom, this also reduces hum; I happened to have a couple 100 ohmers on hand, so why not?

• Finally, the AC power cable is a modern 3-conducter with ground, and there is no .05uF "Death Cap" referencing one leg of the AC to the chassis (and through the cable to your guitar and through the strings to your hands, and heart).

Parts Is Parts

After some years of messing around with tube amps, I've ended up with a couple small bins of old but still useful parts - resistors and capacitors in new or good used shape, some tubes and sockets, jacks, switches, left over wire, etc. I've also been lucky in knowing a couple of like-minded tube amp nuts, and I was able to rummage through their scrap piles and slip a few things into my pocket when they weren't looking, or actively distracted: "Whoa - is that an unopened beer over there?"  "Where?!?"

home made guitar amp, project, tube, tubes, 6V6, 12AX7, amplifier

After a period of scrounging around, I ended up with a small pile of cool old junk. The copper coated chassis came from a piece of old tube powered test equipment of some kind, as did the power transformer. The paper interleaved output transformer is from a 1950s organ amp that had four 6K6 output tubes in push pull parallel. I stared at the RCA Tube Manual until I got a headache, and finally decided that, with its center tap unconnected, it could handle one single ended 6V6, or even a 6L6, just fine. 

I had some old 1/4" jacks, a fuse holder, some terminal strips and a switch laying around, and a good clean used octal socket, as well as (very important) a little rubber lobster. So far, everything's been free. Here's where the 99 cents in the title of this post comes from: Gene, Glenn, and Linda at Thompson's Electronics, the greatest used and vintage Hi-Fi store anywhere around here and maybe anywhere, had a brand new really old phenolic 9-pin socket for the 12AX7, and it cost... $.99.

In Part 2, we'll continue on, and try to make some kind of order out of this mess of old rusty parts, look at component placement and layout, and discuss how a schematic circuit diagram gets turned into a wired up amp that, hopefully, works.  Stay tuned.

 All photos in this post taken with either a Canon Elph SD-550, or a Lumix ZS-25
 Click or tap on any photo to go to a higher resolution (larger) image


1991 Fender Stratocaster, Part 1 - Vintage Style Tuner Retrofit

modified, gold anodized aluminum pickguard, Duo Sonic pickups, Gotoh tuners, MIM
    My friend David acquired a 1991 Fender Strat with a strange history - someone had covered the entire guitar in white latex house paint.  Literally every part of it: body, pickguard, pickups, neck, fingerboard, everything - maybe like a "ghost" guitar or something.  The guitar's next owner had done a good job removing most of the paint, and when I first saw it, there were only a few traces left, deep within the grain of the rosewood fingerboard and in various spots among the bridge saddles.  David is a pretty thorough kind of guy, and when he's done with any project, it's as perfect as possible; he took the Strat completely apart and really gave it a good cleaning, and now there are no traces of its former Sherwin Williams paint job.

While this MIM (made in Mexico) Stratocaster was apart, David also made a lot of improvements to it: he completely shielded the pickup cavities in copper foil, installed a toneful brass tremolo block, replaced the pickguard with a mint-colored Allparts loaded with Classic Vibe pickups, and shaped and fitted a new nut made of some modern super slippery material.  On top of that, he did a complete fingerboard setup - leveled and recrowned the frets, beveled and smoothed each fret end, and even rolled the edges of the rosewood fingerboard.  The result was nothing short of the finest playing Strat I'd ever had my hands on, and I've played more than a few.  David also shined up the original Beach Boys White body paint and buffed up the finish on the neck, so the guitar now looked as nice as it played.

I guess it's just in my nature to mess things up - soon after buying it from him a few months ago (wait, I forgot to mention that part; well, I did), I took it apart again and started changing things.  That's one of the cool things about Fenders and Fender clones - there's literally thousands of different parts and ways you can mod them to suit your own taste.  The first thing I did was to remove the original cast tuning machines (most likely made by Ping and actually quite good quality), and replace them with a set of vintage type gears.  Gotoh in Japan makes some Kluson style tuners that are probably hands down the finest ever made - smooth, stable, and with immaculate fit and finish.

This next picture shows the original tuners removed, and guide lines penciled in to mark out the placement of the holes for the screws that will hold the new tuners in place.  At this point, the pilot punches are in already, and it's ready for some careful drilling:

retrofit, vintage Gotoh tuner, mim, oversize bushing, headstock, Strat

Next step is installing the replacement bushings.  Also known as oversize, or conversion, bushings, they're made to retrofit vintage type tuners with 1/4" shafts into headstocks that have been drilled to the larger size that newer style tuners require.  They're the press-fit type, and a piece of 1" pine lath on either side of the headstock (to protect the finish on both the tuners and the headstock) and a C-clamp did the trick to press each bushing in individually, slowly and carefully.

These bushings, from Stewart MacDonald, had a sort of phoney "antique" finish on them, and before installing had to be scrubbed a bit with a scouring pad to get it down to something that looked okay.  Those antique-y finishes look really fake, and just plain nickel gets a nice patina over time anyway, so why bother?  Yeah, I hate acid-washed jeans, too.  Anyway, note the really deep divots left by the previous tuning machines' large washers - newer style cast tuners have a top nut, and they had obviously been torqued down pretty hard:

tuning machine, Gotoh, retrofit, oversize, Stewart MacDonald, headstock, mim
This Strat didn't have a height spacer for the string guide (also known as a string tree), and without one the string break-over angle past the nut was a bit severe.  The local music store had the modern black plastic spacers in stock, and I bought a couple anyway, just in case, but didn't use them - black plastic, on an old Strat?  I also picked up a good cheap $5.00 pickup there, which you can read about in Part 3.

The big-box chain music place (won't mention the name, but it rhymes with "Guitar Center") had nothing at all, as usual, waste of a trip.  Since they didn't have any Strat guide spacers, I asked whether they had any of the old-style round Tele string guides, which have a higher string height built in.  The sales guy got all huffy: "Won't work with a tremolo! Tuning problems! Doesn't look right on a Strat! Use the right part!"  What?  Jeez, I was just asking.  They didn't have the "right part" for my Strat anyway, so what's the big deal?  It's also hilarious getting lectured by a teenager - my entertainment for the day, but still no height spacer.

Not wanting to wait for mail-order, I used a component of a bicycle chain, which fits perfectly, and looks good.  This piece is called a roller, from the wider type of chain made for single speed and fixed gear bikes, and now the break-over angles of all the unwound strings are very similar, if you do the old Tele trick of winding as much string as possible on the G post (more about that later):

string tree, retrofit, bushings, Gotoh, vintage style, type, mim, Strat

In the picture above, you can see that some of the logo decal had come off when the white latex paint was peeled off; it's amazing that most of it survived.

Okay, almost done; in the next photo, the Gotoh gears are now installed.  The trick here is to get the bodies of the tuners aligned as closely as possible; it's not perfect, but as near as I can get.  These are some seriously fine looking gears!  This shot also shows one of my fetishes, which is to use slotted head screws; as everyone knows, they make your guitar sound better (just kidding):

tuning machines, Kluson style, Japan, mim, headstock, Strat, retrofit

Here's the top view; not bad looking at all, luckily it all turned out well.  Off to the right, you can see the great looking nut that David cut, shaped, installed, and filed down - nice work:

retrofit, tuning machines, Japan, headstock, mim, string guide, tree, bushings, Strat

One last shot, showing the string break-over angles past the nut, and approximately how much of the 3rd string to leave not wound around the post, in order to get that G string down low.  As you can see, another 1+ wrap would have fit around the post, but it's a guess-timate thing.  And, yeah, maybe I could have used two string guides, like the newer Strats, but doing that makes the headstock look cluttered, and adds to whammy bar related tuning problems.  In any case, now all three of the unwound strings have very similar break-over angles, and therefore about the same tension over the nut, which may be a good thing:

string breakover angle, string guide, tree, Tele G string trick, mim, Strat, headstock

It's just a preference, but since I tend to play in a quasi-blues + country chicken-picking mash-up style when I solo, these are Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinky strings, .009 to .046, for a good combo of high string bend-ability and low string fat twang and tuning stability.

Next time, messing with the paint, pickups, wiring, and more.  To be continued in Part 2, and Part 3.

All photos taken with either a Lumix ZS-25 or a Lumix TZ-3.  Click or tap on any picture above to see larger images.

Portland Oregon Japanese Garden

Portland Oregon Japanese Garden, Panasonic Lumix L1, zen, meditation

    Every visit to the Portland Japanese Garden is a special event, and if we lived in Portland I'd spend a lot more time there; maybe try to get a position as a Zen pebble raker.  On the latest trip I remembered to bring a camera, and had it hanging around my neck, walking around looking like a... well, like a Japanese tourist.  Sorry.  Awed by the serene tranquility, and the simple beauty of the meditative spaces, I forgot the camera was there for the most part, and ended up with only fourteen shots.  Here are six of them.

Portland Oregon Japanese Garden, Panasonic Lumix L1, zen, meditation
Serene Pool
Portland Oregon Japanese Garden, Panasonic Lumix L1, shelter, zen
Meditation Hut
Portland Oregon Japanese Garden, Panasonic Lumix L1, meditation
Rock And Pebble Garden
Portland Oregon Japanese Garden, Panasonic Lumix L1, Zen, meditation
Tea House
Portland Oregon Japanese Garden, Panasonic Lumix L1, Zen, meditation
Pebble Pond

All photos taken with a Lumix L1.  Click or tap on any photo in this post to view a larger, higher resolution image.

Matryoshka Dolls And Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Matryoshka Doll, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre, BBC series credits

    On the second to the last page of John Le Carre's iconic modern classic "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", George Smiley, the master espionage agent brought out of retirement to identify and hunt down the Russian mole who has risen to the top levels of the British intelligence service and succeeded in bringing it to its knees, tries to come to terms with both the motivations and the moral (and sexual) ambiguity of the unmasked double agent: a long-time colleague, generational and social-class cohort, and sometime friend. While doing so, Smiley has to confront his own ambivalence towards, and lack of outrage at, the decades' long swath of institutional destruction, misery and death that the mole has left behind him.

"Smiley shrugged it all aside, distrustful as ever of the standard shapes of human motive. He settled instead for a picture of one of those Russian wooden dolls that open up, revealing one person inside the other, and another inside him. Of all men living, only [Moscow Centre head] Karla had seen the last little doll inside Bill Haydon."

Matryoshka Doll, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre

An early hardcover edition of the book used the imagery of Russian Matryoshka dolls rather nicely on its dust jacket front cover; the 1979 BBC film presentation took it to yet another level. Or perhaps, layer. The main title sequence from that film uses a set of wooden nesting dolls to effectively set up its narrative, in a very simple yet chilling way: the first, outer doll wears a bland, non-committal expression; the second, smaller doll within that, has an irritated scowl; the third, malevolent anger. Finally, the fourth and last doll within them all, with no face whatsoever, opens to reveal... nothing.

Matryoshka Doll, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre

Director John Irvin's BBC produced adaptation of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", filmed in 1978 and first broadcast in 1979, is in many ways every bit as much a masterpiece as Le Carre's book. Without the need to distill an entire book's worth of narrative down to a sub-two hour format and make a re-imagined film that is merely based upon a novel, effective use was made of the TV mini-series' five and a half total hours in which to bring virtually all the most important parts of that book's story arc to the screen. Much of the dialogue in Arthur Hopcraft's screenplay comes directly from Le Carre's pen, and the few additional scenes newly written for the film are cinematic depictions of events which, in the book, are recounted through Smiley's investigative interviews and research through old files, or come from his own prodigious memory, and don't alter the story in any significant way.

A well chosen ensemble cast of some of the finest British actors of that time, or any time, many of them veterans of the Royal Theater, and led by the great Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley, all give well modulated, subtly pitch-perfect performances, with no hint of over acting. Filmed just five years after the time setting of the novel and shot by Tony Pierce-Roberts on grainy 16mm in England, Scotland and Portugal, with minimal use of sets and a great deal of location shooting, the effect is one that is almost cinema verite in its visual impact.

The total end result is that, instead of having the impression that we are watching film as an art form, with skilled actors emoting stylized dialogue on perfectly constructed sound stages or wrapped in CGI visual eye candy, we somehow end up feeling that we are witnesses to the events of some actual mid-20th century history, albeit in a slightly altered universe.  

I had read "Tinker Tailor" twice over the years before seeing a recent British DVD release of Irvin's adaptation, and I was floored. The film's re-creations of John Le Carre's carefully fleshed out characters were so close to how I had imagined them to be, that it took no effort on my part, no suspension of disbelief, for me to re-enter that shadowy world: not so much a world of spies, as a place where nothing is exactly as it seems, and where only the most extraordinary of events will reveal that last little doll within each of us.

Matryoshka Dolls, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre, faceless doll

Postscript: At the time I wrote the above, I had neglected to mention the late Geoffrey Burgon's intensely moody, often moving, and always very fitting sound track music for the 1979 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Burgon's score really is an integral, and vitally important, component of a production that is excellent in all its parts, and at least one portion of it has assumed a life of its own, independent of the film. In the above YouTube video, you can hear the opening credits theme music; below is the closing titles sequence, with a musical setting of the 'Nunc Dimittis' Compline (Evening) Prayer that Burgon composed for the film, sung by boy soprano Paul Phoenix:

In the years since the film's release, Geoffrey Burgon's setting of 'Nunc Dimittis' has assumed its place as part of the body of western Liturgical music, and thus gained some measure of immortality for its composer. Here is a newer version, with Aled Jones (tenor) and Ben Crawley (soprano):