Squier Strat Upgrade
Squier Standard Strat is my first guitar ever and I’ll never get rid of it. At the beginning it was fine because I didn’t know better, but as I got better and more informed, I started to see some of the shortcomings. After I got my second guitar (and then third) I never really got to play it because it was just much worse than the others. I wouldn’t get much money for it even if I sold it, but it’s hard to part with the first guitar anyways. So I gradually turned it into the best guitar it could be.
There are a few annoying things about my Squier Standard. The most obvious one being the pickups – low output, very muddy sounding, without any definition and clarity and also very noisy. Potentiometers turned scratchy after a while and switch was probably not the best there is. Like many other Strats, this one developed slightly twisted neck after few years. Nothing too serious, but enough to notice and to make it less comfortable to play. Finally, the tremolo is just horrid. One gentle touch of the tremolo bar makes it go completely out of tune. Tuning stability in general is not great, but tremolo, in combination with the tuners is just useless.
Over the years I did so much to the guitar to fix the issues and to take if even further, that this article grew a lot. Here’s a short recap of things I did, as a table of contents. More details are listed below.
- Feb 2008: Two pickups upgraded to Kinmans, replaced controls and added treble bleed.
- Sept 2008: Added Duncan JB Jr in bridge position.
- May 2010: Replaced JB Jr. with DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Blues, upgraded controls, replaced saddles with Graphtech.
- Nov 2013: Replaced the whole tremolo with GFS, did the Blackmore-style scallop on the fingerboard.
- Jan 2016: Moved tone control from middle to bridge pickup.
- Oct 2016: Shielded the guitar with copper tape.
- Jan 2017: Refinished the body in Sonic Blue, aged pickup covers and installed new dot inlays.
To address the biggest issue, I got a sweet deal on two used Kinman pickups: AVn-62 for bridge and AVn-56 for neck. To go with them, I also got new alpha pots and a three-position OAK switch to replace all the electronics. I left old middle pickup in just for cosmetic purposes but it’s not connected at all. First switch position selects first pickup, third position is neck pickup and middle position turns both pickups on. There are separate tone controls for bridge and neck pickups (something like Les Paul without separate volume pots). I also installed the Kinman-style treble bleed circuit across the volume pot consisting of a 130K metal film resistor in series with 1.2nF mylar capacitor. It helps even out the treble response as you turn the volume knob down. Without the treble bleed, the sound gets muddier as the pot is turned down. For more info on treble bleed circuits, click here. The Kinmans are just awesome. True Strat tone, bright and clear and zero noise. Of course, putting Kinmans on a Squier may sound like putting Ferrari engine in a Yugo, but the deal was just too sweet to pass. I would not pay full price of new Kinmans and put them in a guitar that costs less than the pickups. Any decent pickups would be a massive improvement.
To improve playability, we took out the stock narrow frets, leveled the slightly twisted surface of the neck and re-radiused it to 12″ (think Eric Johnson Strat). Flatter fingerboard makes soloing and string bending a bit easier. Then we installed larger Gibson-style frets to optimize the neck further for bending and soloing. Finally, we made a bone nut to replace the cheapo plastic nut.
To improve the tuning stability, I got auto-locking Grover Mini Rotomatic. Those auto-locking tuners are interesting little buggers. When installing new string first few turns of tuner peg will lock string in place and only after that tuner actually starts to rotate.
I left the tremolo upgrade for later as I already have two guitars with Floyd Rose, so I just tightened all 6 tremolo screws and tightened spring claw in the back to fix the tremolo tightly against the body and effectively turn it into a fixed bridge.
After I brought this guitar with me on a business trip to USA (this was supposed to be a bonding experience since it didn’t see a lot of playing before) I realized I didn’t really like single coil pickup for the bridge position. Compared to neck pickup, it tends to sound too harsh, especially when heavily overdriven. So I started looking for a single-sized humbucker and got a good deal on a used Seymour Duncan JB Jr. (older version). I moved Kinman AVn-62 moved to the middle position and installed JB Jr in bridge position.
At that time I was mostly using bridge pickup, so JB Jr. was a nice upgrade. On its own it sounded decent.
Even though I liked JB Jr. on its own, I could never got i to work well together with the Kinmans. Amp settings that are good for humbuckers tend to sound too harsh for single coils and the other way round. JB Jr. has way too high output and too different frequency response compared to Kinmans, so they are really not supposed to go in the same guitar. That’s why I decided to take a step back and get something more reasonable. I narrowed down choice to a couple of DiMarzio noiseless pickups that promise slightly pushed and warmed up Strat sound and grabbed one of them used – DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Blues.
On paper, it sounds like a perfect choice – slightly hotter and a tad fatter than the regular bridge pickup, it should complement the Kinmans well. While messing with the guitar, I grabbed the chance to swap the switch with a 5-way one, replace saddles with Graphtech (narrow model for import Strat) and swap the Alpha pots. DiMarzio site says that 500K controls work best with this pickup, so I replaced the volume pot with a 500K CTS pot. Tone controls have nothing to do with bridge pickup, but I replaced them with some CTS no-load 250K pots that I had lying around just to try them out. Also, I replaced the two 22nF caps with a single cap to match the standard Strat wiring.
DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Blues works perfectly, slightly edgier bridge pickup compared to traditional pickups but still very Strat like. It’s also calibrated well with the Kinmans which are also a tad hotter. There’s no heaven-to-hell change when switching from bridge to middle or neck pickup as it used to be. It safe to say that this is as good as it gets without changing body or neck. Tremolo could be upgraded, but since I don’t use it, saddle upgrade is sufficient…for now 🙂
One thing to note is that Kinmans have opposite phase compared to DiMarzio. If wired as suggested by each manufacturer, they will be out of phase. It only affects the second position on the Strat where we mix them together. It’s noticeably quieter and brighter than other position due to phase-cancellation that happens.
A this point I was starting to feel bad for owning a Strat for almost a decade and not being able to use the tremolo without going completely out of tune. So I decided to upgrade the whole unit and ordered a GFS 10.5mm Chrome Spaced “Import’ “Made in Mexico” tremolo with a solid brass block and vintage-correct stamped steel saddles. My Squier has 10.5mm string spacing, so this GFS is the only option that I know of that matches the narrow spacing out of the box.
The bridge is built rather well, but there are few issues. It is not a drop-in replacement for my Chinese Squier. Pickguard cutout around tremolo is a bit too narrow so I had to file the pickguard and widen it for about 2mm on both sides to ensure enough spacing. More importantly, tremolo routing on the body was too tight for the massive brass block, so I had to file some wood on both sides of the tremolo block. Luckily it’s all hidden below the bridge, so my sloppy filing job is completely covered by the bridge plate 🙂 . The final issue is more of a personal preference thing. For my taste, the tremolo arm that sits way too far from the body even when screwed all the way in. It’s like that on most Strats, but for me it makes it very uncomfortable to use as you cannot hold the bar and pick the strings at the same time.
Luckily, there’s an easy fix for that too – I bent the arm slightly to bring it closer to the body, roughly the same angle that Floyd Rose tremolos typically have. It made a world of difference, now it’s much easier to seamlessly integrate tremolo work into my playing. I didn’t have any fancy equipment at the moment, so I just stuck the pilers right between the tremolo block and the wood to fix the tremolo and pressed the tremolo arm hard towards to body until it bent to the position I like. It may be a crude way to do it, but it got the job done.
Improvement in tone was immediate. Not sure if the brass tremolo block contributed to the improvement noticeably, or it’s the vintage style bent steel saddles, but overall I enjoyed the upgrade. To take it a step further and “Blackmorize” it, my dad helped me scallop the fingerboard. We went for a gradual scallop, deeper on high-E side of the neck and very shallow on low-E side of the neck. Thinner strings are where most of the bending happens, so it’s better to have no wood underneath your fingertips while bending and doing vibrato. On the other side, it’s useful to have some wood at thicker strings. Otherwise, when playing riffs and chords, it’s easy to get the note to go slightly sharp as there’s no wood to restrict how hard you press the strings. It turned out great. Less wood under your fingers gives much more freedom for bending strings and vibrato. It’s much more comfortable to play Blackmore-style licks.
Even though it’s slightly warmer than standard Strat pickups, I often find the bridge pickup to be too bright when heavily overdriven, so I moved one wire on the switch to connect middle pickup tone control to bridge pickup instead. I never use middle pickup, so it’s much more useful wired like this. It’s a no-load pot, so there won’t be any effect on the sound unless I turn it down to 9 or less. It’s a cool mod that would benefit pretty much everyone with a Strat. Having a tone control for bridge pickup is much more useful than for the middle pickup.
After so many years, I just now realized that the pickup cavity of the Squier is not shielded at all and the pickup is very scarcely shielded with aluminum foil just around the controls. Kinman and Dimarzio pickups are very well shielded, so there’s no excessive noise, but it’s always a good idea to have the guitar shielded. So I took some copper tape with conductive adhesive and shielded pretty much the whole pickup/control cavity and most of the pickguard. It’s crucial to ground the whole surface of the tape or it will be useless as a shield from the noise. To achieve that, I made sure that the additional tape on the pickguard overlaps with the existing aluminum foil (which is presumably grounded through pot bodies). And to ground the cavity shielding, I added a piece of copper tape that connects the cavity shield with the front of the body. When the pickguard is installed, it makes contact with the copper tape on the pickguard and effectively grounds the whole cavity shield.
Another thing I did, since I started using the tremolo more is to improve the responsiveness of the tremolo arm and eliminate the play it has. Read more about it in a separate article.
I never really liked the metallic purple paint on this guitar. Growing up, I liked whatever Blackmore played – black, aged white, sunburst or natural. That’s it. But somehow the seller at a guitar store convinced the young version of me that this one was the best they had in the store, so I bought it. But I’ve hated the color all these years. The only reason I didn’t want to mess with it was that it was flawlessly finished and after 15 years I haven’t put a single mark or dent in it, so it felt wrong to strip it. But enough is enough, I wanted something that looks nice and wanted a classic Strat color from the old days. As I already own a black Ibanez, a red guitar, a sunburst guitar on it’s way and two natural acoustics, I didn’t want to repeat any of those looks, which left me with a choice between Olympic White, Surf Green and Sonic Blue. They are all nice in their own way, but I decided to go with Sonic Blue and took it to a local car paint shop and gave them the PPG code 11475 which corresponds to the ’56 Cadillac paint that Fender used back in the day.
They did a great job refinishing it and the paint looks nice. It’s a bit more vivid that I hoped, but still very nice. I’m guessing that Fender changed the paint for their reissue models to look more like a 50 years old Sonic Blue that faded in the meantime and changed the hue towards green as the clear coat yellows.
To go with the new finish, I wanted to age white plastic bits and make them look older. The pickguard has turned quite darker over the last 15 years, but the covers remained show white. I managed to stain Kinman covers with coffee, but DiMarzio cover proved to be stain-proof, so I ordered a replacement in aged white color. Knobs didn’t take the coffee either, but I managed to darken them slightly using vintage amber wood stain.
Finally, it was about time to re-install dot inlays that got sanded away few years ago while we scalloped the neck. We never got to do it before, but with the new finish it made sense to invest some time and install fresh 6mm mother-of-pearl dots.
Click on a thumbnail to play the video on YouTube.