Monday, July 31, 2017


by Mark King for Proworkshop
MIJ left, MIA center, MIM right
So far I’ve updated and improved my 1986 MIJ (made in Japan) Fender Stratocaster and my 2006 MIA (made in America) USA American Standard model. The MIJ got new Seymour Duncan pickups that really made it a fabulous sounding guitar. The American Standard kept it’s original pickups but NOW utilizes a simpler single volume and tone control circuit instead of the classic Fender 3-knob design.

Now lets do a rebuild on this Made in Mexico Stratocaster, can this low cost model possibly sound as good as its Japanese and American cousins?

Much cheaper tuners on the MIM
Now it’s time to go South of the border and improve this Made-In-Mexico Fender Stratocaster. According to the serial number this instrument was made in 1995-96. In 2010 I found this guitar in the used-equipment area of a little music store in Thousand Oaks, California, total price: $150 for the guitar (no case included). 
American Standard on left, MIM on right
The maple neck and finger-board combination caught my eye because it’s a favorite of mine. I looked down the length of the neck which revealed it was not twisted or warped. The strings were old and corroded but the action was good, the frets were medium and looked unplayed. This looked like a great beater-guitar with the Fender brand name on it. I bought it, took it home and evaluated it through an amp.

The stock pickups sounded awful, they were all midrange (no highs, no lows) and very low in output level, through a cranked Marshall the resulting distorted sound was painful to my ears. The control pots were noisy and not surprisingly, the same smaller sized dirt-cheap parts Fender typically puts in their imported guitars (Made in Mexico qualifies this guitar as an import). 

Back in 2010, after testing the stock guitar I replaced the pickguard with a black 3-layer type (black-white-black) and installed a Seymour Duncan “little ’59” humbucker in the bridge position with a single volume control. It worked ok in this configuration but was never great sounding due to some odd resonance in the guitar. There was a strange sympathetic vibration on some notes that really sounded bad. I suspected a broken truss rod was responsible for the odd resonant sound, I did not have the correct wrench size in my CA shop and I had no time to diagnose the problem so the guitar was sidelined until now. 

For this 2017 update I really wanted to give this guitar a chance to sound like and be a good electric guitar. I had a really sweet pair of Seymour Duncan APS2 single coil pickups recovered from a previous guitar project and planned to use these in the middle and bridge position of the MIM rebuild. For the neck pickup I decided to order a Seymour Duncan quarter-pounder, single-coil model. This pickup is capable of much higher output than a standard Stratocaster neck pickup.
Seymour Duncan APS-2
Seymour Duncan APS-2
For the replacement pickguard I chose my favorite single layer all black model from MusicLily on Amazon. This pickguard fit perfectly on my American Standard and the MIM supposedly has the same hole pattern.
Shiny new Fender pickguard screws

I ordered a bag of chrome Fender replacement pickguard screws, the ones originally on the guitar were very rusty and dull looking.  I like the look of chrome screws on the black pickguard. The middle and bridge pickups each have black covers which accent their shiny metal pole pieces. The neck position quarter-pound pickup has Seymour Duncan printed on the face, it has oversized pole pieces, it’s finished in black and wrapped in black tape, it is too large for a Fender style cover. A new set of black Fender knobs completed the appearance upgrades. 

To destroy the ugly resonant sound I replaced the stock set of three galvanized springs with a set of chrome “noiseless springs” from MusicLily on Amazon. This reduced the problem but did not eliminate it. After more research I decided to replace the entire bridge assembly with a Fender “vintage style” replacement bridge. The difference was astounding. The new bridge assembly (including the sustain block) felt twice as heavy as the original that came on the MIM guitar. Comparing them side by side reveals some of the difference, the MIM part is cutaway, there is half the amount of metal present. The MIM part appears to be a cheap piece of cast metal where the Fender Vintage part appears to be machined. The really great news is the Fender replacement bridge was only $29.95 from Amazon. The new bridge was a HUGE improvement to the guitar and the odd resonant sound is now completely gone. 
Skinny lightweight Mexican bridge
MIM bridge (lower), MIA (upper)
Noisless chrome springs on Vintage Fender bridge
New Fender Vintage bridge installed
During the rebuild I removed the neck so I could tap on it to determine if the truss rod was broken. On the back of the neck was a printed label where the neck meets the body. The label in the neck pocket prevents the neck from fully engaging the body where the two intersect. This is a critical connection for tone and anything short of a precision shim is unacceptable. I used Naphtha to facilitate the complete removal of the label, this let the neck attach solidly to the body. Two of the neck screws were not tight when I took the guitar apart. I made sure they were tightened to perfection while reinstalling the neck.
All traces of label removed
I pulled the chrome Stratocaster output plate and found one of the worlds cheapest quarter-inch jacks along with the thinnest high capacitance shielded cable known to man. This was replaced with a vintage USA Switchcraft #11 jack soldered to cloth covered, braided-shield cable like Gibson used in their older guitars. I like this shielded wire because it stands up to the heat of the soldering iron without melting and it’s very easy to solder to the rear of a potentiometer. 

Original cheap imported output jack and wire
The replacement potentiometers came from Seymour Duncan via Amazon. I used a speed pot for the volume and a “smooth turning” model for the tone control, both are 250k parts. 
Replacement Switchcraft #11 with braided-shield-over-cloth cable
The replacement capacitor is a Sprague Orange Drop .047uf part from Amazon. 
.047 Orange Drop capacitor, Seymour Duncan pots and CRL switch
I bought the CRL 5-way replacement switch from Amazon for $20, it included the black knob and brass mounting screws. CRL switches are the best I’ve found, they last a long time and they’re noiseless when switching.

The new Seymour Duncan quarter-pounder pickup included little rubber tubes to use around the mounting screws. Unfortunately they were not long enough to let me mount the pickup far enough down inside the guitar firmly. I used them anyway and ordered more tubing to make longer tubes for a future upgrade. 

Finished wiring, note heat shrink over shielded cable to prevent shorts in control cavity
I decided to use a single tone control on this guitar. The classic Stratocaster two-tone control design has always been more than I needed so I went with a single tone control on the rebuilt guitar. I decided to remove the third control completely from the guitar rather than leaving it disconnected. To fill the empty hole I applied a little piece of shiny black electric tape to a thin piece of cardboard, then cut that out larger than the hole in the pick guard and used another little piece of tape to hold the filler in place. 
Pickguard during assembly
The guitar went back together without surprises. I was uncertain about how all the adjusting would go with the new bridge assembly but It went very fast and with minimal effort. This time I had all the correct wrenches for adjusting the neck and bridge pieces so I got the action close very quickly.
New Fender Vintage bridge installed
Tonewise this is my favorite of the three Fender Stratocasters I own, this combination of pickups is amazing. The vintage flat tops I put on my MIJ Stratocaster sound really fine but the flat top APS-2 installed in the middle and bridge on this MIM guitar are a step closer to Stratocaster tonal perfection for me (Seymour Duncan describes it as sweet and smooth). 
Quarter Pound for Strat
The big surprise to me is the Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder in the neck position, this pickup has increased sensitivity which delivers tremendous dynamic depth when playing blues. I can turn the guitar down to six and hit the strings hard to deliver dynamic crunchy bark that is totally touch sensitive. The Quarter Pounder pairs nicely with the APS-2 in the switch position between neck and middle, since my center pickup is reverse wound the guitar is humbucking in this position.
Finished wired pickguard assembly, ready to install

Can a MIM Stratocaster sound as good as an American or Japanese model? Yes, there is no question about it, a well assembled instrument with great pickups and hardware is all that really matters. In my opinion the playability of the MIA Stratocaster is only better because it has a better neck. If you like medium height frets then the MIM model may be fine for you, personally I like the medium-jumbo frets Fender used in my 2006 MIA model much better. If tone is all we’re talking about then this study of rebuilding three very different Stratocasters has yielded up some very important data. 
MIA on left, MIM on right
Pickups affect tone more than any other factor. The neck needs to be correctly mounted and the bridge hardware needs to be solid to extract the best sustain and tone. An improper bridge can totally kill the tone of a guitar.

For years I’ve thought Fender has a team of engineers that engineer pickups and parts that don’t sound good. They use these on their lower end models so they sound crappy and cause you to want to upgrade to their more expensive models.

This project started with a $150 used guitar, I invested around $300 in new parts so for $450 I got a guitar that challenges my best American Stratocaster tonally. Nothing short of a new neck is going to make the MIM model play any better and I’m not ready to invest any more into this one. It now has good action and excellent sound, it's a perfect guitar to take to open mic nights in a gig bag.
MIM Stratocaster after rebuild
I like the combination of pickups on the MIM so much that I plan to swap the pickguard between my MIM and MIA guitars. The pickguards and wiring are identical, only the pickups are different and I like the sound of the Seymour Duncans on my MIM much more than the standard pickups that came on my American Standard Stratocaster.

This final swap will leave the MIM guitar with American Standard pickups and bridge assembly while the MIA guitar will gain all the tonal bliss that comes from this very cool combo of Seymour Duncan pickups.

I’ll report back about the tone after I swap the pickguards and electronics.

MIJ, MIA, MIM (left to right)
Proworkshop Stratocaster single volume and tone schematic

I've used this schematic on three Stratocaster guitars so far, two MIA and one MIM. I think the tone is better as a result of not having the second tone control pot in the circuit like the classic Leo Fender design. 

The Fender circuit design calls for a .047 capacitor and I've used that value in all three of my recent guitar rebuilds.

The MIJ got an expensive paper in oil Emerson tone cap ($17 from StewMac). 
The MIA got a polyester film type (10-cents each in quantity of 50 from China)
The MIM got a Sprague Orange Drop ($4 from Amazon)

The capacitor in the tone control circuit allows high frequencies to be shorted to ground, the more you turn the tone control knob the less resistance to ground and this results in less high frequencies heard in the output of the guitar. The high frequencies are going to ground or they're not at various levels depending on the knob position. 

At no time is the main signal which exits the guitar flowing through the tone control capacitor so I fail to see how the construction of the capacitor has any affect on the final guitar output. 

A 500k potentiometer could be substituted in the tone network for the normal 250k value typically used in Fender electric guitars. This would allow the guitar signal to be lifted even farther from the high frequency shorting effect of the capacitor-to-ground circuit. 

I've tried using 500k pots and even 1-Meg pots for tone and volume. Higher impedance pots reduce drag on the passive output from the pickups but the resulting tone change can be increased high frequency output which may not be desirable. 

In the end, after trying lots of pot values and all sorts of built-in custom switching schemes the original component values consistently deliver predictable and desirable performance which is all that matters to me these days. 

I like simple controls that deliver a lot of tone. On some of my Gibson guitars I've removed extra controls and only have a single volume pot because I never turn the tone control down intentionally on them. Humbucking pickups always sound dark to me after playing Fender guitars for the last ten years. I think it's one of the reasons Gibson Les Pauls pair so nicely with classic Marshall amplifiers which are really bright sounding to my ears. The dark sounding guitar is made sufficiently brighter by the amp. 

On Fender guitars a tone control is much more necessary to tame the extreme high frequency response the single coil pickups can produce. When I first started playing Fender guitars I removed the tone controls and quickly learned how important they are for smoothing out the high frequencies. 

For me the second tone control on a Stratocaster is unnecessary and even confusing depending how the circuit is implemented on any given Stratocaster, they're not all the same. 

I have a lot of guitars and I'm constantly switching between them in the studio to achieve different tones for various songs. It took me a while to make up my mind on the Stratocaster tone control wiring but I've finally decided, I'm removing the second tone control physically from the guitars so there is no confusion.

It's all just my opinion, yours can be different.

Good music to you!