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 - it was 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, however, is a very thorough kind of guy, and when he's done with any project, it's as perfect as possible; when he acquired the Strat, he tore it completely apart and really gave it a good cleaning. 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 Squier Classic Vibe alnico 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 a few months ago (wait, I forgot to mention that part; well, I did), I took it apart again and started changing things, such as installing a gold anodized pickguard with a couple Duo Sonic pickups, and nickle neck plate and jack cup. 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 zinc 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 nickle plated Kluson style tuners that are probably hands down the finest ever made - smooth, stable, and with immaculate fit and finish. 

First step is installing the replacement bushings. The factory drilled holes in this headstock are 10.5mm in diameter, and need adapter / conversion bushings, 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 pieces of 1" width, thin pine lath stock on each 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.

tuning machine, Gotoh, retrofit, oversize, Stewart MacDonald, headstock, mim
These bushings, from Stewart MacDonald, had a sort of obviously phony "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. 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.
This picture of the back of the headstock shows guide lines marking the placement of holes for the screws that will hold the new tuners in place. With a sharpened pencil and a small ruler as a straight edge, I laid out two lines on either side of the tuner holes. After measuring the distance between those lines, drew another line 1/2 way in between, and with luck, that should be the center line for laying out the new tuning machines:

What's not shown here is the next step, which was to drop the new tuners down each hole, and with their posts snuggled into the new bushings, the machines were positioned in a straight line - see the photo below to see what that looks like. While making sure all of the tuners' posts were perpendicular to the back of the headstock and free to turn smoothly without binding in the bushings, I used a small sharp scribing tool as a punch to mark the position of each of the seven mounting screws.
In the photo above, those pilot punches are done, and ready for some careful drilling with a bit the same size as the shank of the tiny mounting screws - that is, a bit smaller than the outside diameter of the threads. I also didn't take a photo of that drilling, but it may be obvious not to drill through the headstock!

In the next photo, the mounting screws have been run down barely snug (it helps to stick the threads of the screws into a bar of soap as lubricant) and 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):
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, yuk. 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") didn't have the string tree spacers either, so I asked whether they had any of the old-style round Tele string guides, which have a higher string height built in. The teenage 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 that string guide either, but at least I got entertained by a true expert in his field, who no doubt had done all of his "own research" on the internet.
I ended up using a component of a bicycle chain, which fits perfectly, looks good, and was free. 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 from the 1950s 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.
Here's the top view; not bad looking at all, and 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 with a pick plus 2 fingers, 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. *Note: since writing this post, I've gone to a slightly heavier gauge on the wound strings, for an even better balance of low-down rumble and twang: .009, .011. .016, .028, .038, .048.

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.

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