A Squier HM Bass

A couple of months back, I tried playing a fretless bass, and really wanted one of my own. After hunting around on Reverb for a bit, I found this gem.

In the late 80’s, Fender moved the production of its Squier line from Japan to Korea (I wrote about my Japanese-made Squier here). Together with this move, they also started producing a line of “HM” guitars and basses, meant to capitalize on the popularity of heavy metal at the time (hence, “HM”). The line lasted several years and production ended in the early 90’s.

This bass guitar is an example of one of the basses produced during this time. It has a precision bass-style split-coil pickup in the middle, as well as a jazz bass-style pickup nearer to the bridge. The previous owner added locking strap buttons (that I don’t use and will replace at some point) and lost the original knobs (the ones in the picture are replacements).

However, the biggest, most obvious modification to this guitar is that it’s fretless! The work looks really well done – the fret slots look well filled in, and the fretboard is smooth and level. However, I do find the decision to modify this particular bass an interesting one, from a purely cost perspective: The cost of removing the frets professionally probably cost half the value of the bass itself. To me, that’s a sign that the previous owner cared about the instrument, which is why I bought it.

Playing a Fender Custom Shop Strat


Earlier this month, I was back home on vacation and got to play some of my dad’s guitars. I recorded this on a (if I remember correctly) 59′ replica Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster. In the background, from left to right are: a Martin D-45, a Japanese-made Epiphone Casino, a Gibson Hummingbird, and another custom shop Telecaster Deluxe.


This was my first “real” guitar. We all have that friend who borrows something and then breaks it or doesn’t return it. Well, I was that friend, but to my dad, because this guitar looks almost nothing like how it did when he gave it to me (Google “black 57 Stratocaster reissue” – that’s what it looked like before). For starters, this guitar was black, and had a one-piece maple neck. It’s now yellow (after being all-black, white, then red), and has a rosewood neck. Having said that, I’ve owned this guitar for about 15 years now, which means it’s been this way longer than the state it was in when it left the factory (I believe late 90s).

It has a classic bell-like Stratocaster sound:

In contrast, I played the same piece (more or less), with my other guitar (above), which has “hotter” pickups. With headphones, you might be able to hear that the tone is thicker and warmer:

Five (+1) Guitars, One Solo

I recorded all the guitars with volume and tone pots set to 10, and switched to position #2 (middle+bridge; except the St. Vincent which was neck+middle+bridge, because it has its own switching).I used Reaper with the S-Gear VST.

These are the guitars:

#1: 1987 Japanese Squier

#2: Fender Player Series body, one-piece Warmoth pau ferro neck, pickups from The Creamery

#3: 57′ AVRI body, Warmoth rosewood neck, Kinman Blues pickups

#4: 1998 MIM Deluxe Super Stratocaster with Seymour Duncan humbuckers (bridge: JB Jr., middle: duckbucker, neck: lil’ ’59)

#5: Squier Hello Kitty Stratocaster Mini

#6: 2016 Music Man St. Vincent Signature (all-rosewood neck)

Hello Kitty

A few weeks ago, I found this at my local Guitar Center for $50. I also saw a small, pink Vox amp that was sold on the same day; it looked like a small child had quit his/her hobby.

This particular guitar had a set of cheap trapezoid tuners on them, which are notoriously poorly built. I had some spare Fender vintage-style gold tuners lying around, so I immediately swapped them out. True to their reputation, a few of the old tuners fell apart immediately after I removed them.

I’m also thinking of replacing the wiring/pickups, but honestly they already sound pretty good. Here’s a short clip:

A Pointy Bass

Earlier today, I bought this Jackson JS2 bass guitar. My first stringed instrument was actually a Yamaha bass that I played for a few months before switching to guitar, and sticking with that for the last 18 years.

I’d been wanting to pick up the bass again for a few months now, and had been going back and forth between a Sire V3, an Aerodyne Jazz Bass on Reverb that the owner had fitted with Nordstrand pickups (that eventually got sold anyway), but when I saw this on sale at my local Guitar Center, I thought it was perfect. I wasn’t sure how committed I’d be to learning it, so I didn’t want to spend a ton of money, and at $250 with a gig bag, this was a steal.

I don’t know enough about bass guitars to know what to look for in detail, but the workmanship on this thing is pretty great. It has a maple neck and a rosewood fingerboard with really cool “shark fin” inlays, and the fretwork looks and feels excellent. I can’t speak to the quality of the pickups and electronics, but it sounds… like a bass:

I’m sure that as I get better, I’ll know whether or not this needs an upgrade, but for now, it sounds pretty great just going straight into Reaper (my DAW), with a compressor and pre-amp VST.

The thing I love the most, though, is the pointy headstock. As I was fawning over this thing in the store, I realized, somewhat ironically after playing Strats for the last 18 years, that my tastes for guitars and bass guitars were the polar opposite: While I dislike pointy guitars (e.g., Ibanez RGs), I wasn’t a huge fan of the Jazz or P-bass shape.

Overall, I’m really pleased with it. I’ve already spent the whole afternoon learning how to mute the strings with my right hand, and I can’t wait to practice more.


I recently got a new set of guitar pickups from The Creamery, which is a one-man hand-wound operation in the UK.

They’re slightly higher output than typical Startocaster pickups, and comparable to the output from my MIJ Squier (which has ceramic pickups in them). However, unlike the Squier, these don’t get as muddy under distortion.

Here’s what the neck (rhythm part) and neck+bridge (lead) sound like:

A Player’s Player’s Stratocaster

Most guitarists are pretty habitual – we might have different guitars, but they tend to be the same “kind” of guitar.

I’m a Stratocaster “person” – while I might “want” all sort of guitars, the guitars I end up “needing” tend to be Strats. I like the prototypical sparkly tone that its single-coil pickups produce, and the “quacky” sounds from the in-between pickup positions (i.e., using the neck and the middle pickups together, or the middle and the bridge pickups). I like how the neck is bolt-on, so if I ever have to ship a guitar, I can just disassemble the entire guitar. Most of all, I like its rounded edges, and how it looks like a rocket ship – in contrast, I think the Telecaster looks like a cheese board.

However, there are a few things about the Stratocaster that annoy me (and I’m sure, other guitarists). Thus, I’ve built this guitar, that address most (if not all) of these foibles.

First, the bridge pickup on most Strats sound like someone taking an ice pick to your ear. The lower output from a single-coil (vs. a humbucker) and the position of the pickup combine to result in an extremely bright, “trebly” sound. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for Strats to come in a HSS (humbucker, single-coil, single-coil) configuration, with the bridge pickup being replaced by a fatter sounding humbucker. However, the ones on the market tend to use uncovered humbuckers (with the magnetic pole pieces exposed), which, in my opinion, look messy. Thus, I opted to put in an EMG H4 in this guitar, which stands out with its blacked-out cover.

Secondly, the bridge on vintage Stratocasters are of a classic, but obsolete design. These have six screws bolting the front of the bridge to the body directly while allowing the rear to float (for use of a “whammy” bar). However, the tuning stability of this design has always been questionable, to the point where many players such as myself opt to “deck” the bridge (tightening the balancing springs until the bridge lays flat and is immobile). For this guitar, I found the body of a new Fender Player Series Stratocaster, which uses a 2-point tremolo, on eBay.

Thirdly, a Stratocaster normally has three knobs: a master volume, and two tone knobs that traditionally adjusted how much treble bled through on the neck and middle pickups. However, I’ve never used them separately, and more importantly, having three knobs means that the one nearest to the bridge blocks my picking hand when I want to rest it there. Thus, the simple solution was to have just a master volume and master tone (controlling all three pickups), which leaves more space around the bridge.

Finally, the most important part of a guitar is probably its neck, as it’s the part that you’re in contact with the most. For this build, I used a one-piece pau ferro neck made by Warmoth. Besides having the benefit of not needing to be finished with oil or clear-coat, it also looks super cool because of its unconventionality; Strat necks tend to come in one of two flavors: all maple, or maple back with a rosewood fingerboard.

Some additional specifications for guitar nerds:

  1. The pots are 500K CTS pots, and the volume has a built in treble-bleed.
  2. The neck and middle pickups are from a late 90s Deluxe Super Strat.
  3. The neck has a thin C-shaped profile with stainless-steel 6150 frets.
  4. The string tree is a Graph-tech design from the early 2000s – they make a different version now.

A Fender Firebird

Of all the mythical creatures I don’t believe in, the phoenix is my favorite. Throughout my life, I’ve learned and grown the most following abject failure (usually after I’d said to myself “I got this, 100%”), and so the mythology of a creature that is reborn and rises from the ashes is one that really speaks to me.

In the case of this guitar, the “rebirth” analogy applies, too.

It started out life as a late 90s Fender Deluxe Super Strat, which was made in Mexico for around either years, until around 2004, before being replaced by another model, the Deluxe Players Strat. As far I as I know, the two are very similar, with the main differences being the pickups and neck radius (the latter having noiseless pickups and a flatter neck). Here’s a photo of what it looked like originally:

Fender Deluxe Super Strat

Anyway, back to the rebirth analogy: After some back and forth on Craigslist, I met the owner at a small coffee shop in the Lower Haight, and I found that it was her ex-boyfriend’s, and that he had left it as a “gift” when they broke up (which I assumed to mean he was simply too lazy to take it with him). I ended up buying it for a steal, but needless to say, I had a strong desire to wash the instrument of its sordid history.

So, I commissioned my friend Molly Michelle Smith to paint the beautiful phoenix motif that stretches across the entire guitar:

The design covers the back too:

I think it looks great.

A 1987 Japanese-made Squier Stratocaster

The electric guitar was invented in 1931 by George Beauchamp. Since then, thousands of iterations have appeared, with my favorite being the rocket-shaped Stratocaster. Produced by Fender since 1954, the Stratocaster has an illustrious history: Listen to guitar nerds talk about them long enough, and they’ll start to sound like they’re discussing wine – Stratocasters produced in 1957 and 1962, for example, are believed to be of an especially good vintage, and in 2018, can fetch anywhere between $20,000 to $30,000. In the intervening years, the Stratocaster was used by greats such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the legendary Jimi Hendrix, among countless others.

In the late 70’s, many Japanese guitar makers started making knock-offs of popular guitar shapes, including the Stratocaster. These were infamously known as “lawsuit guitars”, because of the resulting lawsuits from manufactures like Fender. Ironically, these Japanese counterfeits were often as well made as their U.S. counterparts or better, partly because Fender was struggling financially at the time and were engaging in highly unpopular cost-cutting measures such as removing the Stratocaster’s iconic jack plate.

To fend off these copycats, Fender revived the Squier brand (originally a maker of guitar strings), and started producing their own guitars in Japan. In the first few years of production, the guitars were essentially clones of American Stratocasters – to the point where it was rumored that the factories actually shared a common inventory of parts. Although these guitars were originally sold at a lower price point than their Fender counterparts, today, a Japanese Squier with a “JV” or “SQ” serial number (from the first few years of of production, up to 1984), can sell for about $1,000 to $1,500; about the same price as a new American model in 2018.

Subsequent generations of Japanese Squiers, however, would slowly start to fall victim to cost cutting as well.

The guitar pictured was manufactured in 1987 at the legendary FujiGen Gakki, and has an “E” serial number. It has pickups with ceramic magnets in them, which are cheaper than the traditional AlNiCo (aluminum, nickel, cobalt) alloy. It uses lower quality electronics, such as a plastic printed circuit board switch rather than a metal mechanical one. It also features various anachronisms, with parts mixed-and-matched from various time periods in the Stratocasters history.  For example, the white plastic pickguard is single-ply, and has 8-holes, which was standard in the 50s and early 60s. However, the tuners and string trees on the guitar are contemporary to the 80s. Most likely, they were working with whatever they had in inventory at the time.

Despite these oddities, I bought this guitar because it had soul.

Let me explain: Since the advent of C&C technology, every large guitar maker has been able to churn out a consistent stream of guitars largely because of automation. A machine cuts out the shape of the body and routes all the chambering, with no humans involved to mess things up. But there are things that humans still need to apply the finishing touches on, even today, and where humans do mess things up is in the details. As the guitar is assembled, people are still needed to dress the metal frets, solder all the electronics, tidy up the wiring, and ensure that everything has been adjusted correctly so the guitar feels playable.

It’s in these human elements that this 30-year-old guitar feel alive. The parts of the guitar that someone had to work are impeccable: The fretwork is immaculate, the fingerboard has had its edges smoothed off by hand (something that’s advertised as a “feature” in expensive guitars today), and the wiring of the cheaper electronic components is pristine.

To me, this guitar represents a story – in some ways, the end of an era: it would be a few years after this guitar was built that Fender would start to find even cheaper sources of labor in Korea, then Southeast Asia and China. But with this guitar, it’s clear that someone cared about their job, and didn’t feel like they were building an “inferior” guitar.

I don’t either.