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THE BLACK STRAT PROJECT

Article written in 2008. Last update 2/5/2010

After playing various guitars for many years it became obvious Fender Stratocasters were my favorites, and the guitars I played the most often. They have the most comfortable feel and a very versatile sound. I liked different elements from each of the Fenders I have owned over the years, but I really wanted one that had everything I liked in one guitar. I love David Gilmour's Pink Floyd tones, so I set out to assemble a guitar on my own using pickups similar to the ones David has used in his famous Black Strat. I have researched David Gilmour's guitar quite a bit over the years, and though I think it is an excellent working guitar, but I decided to assemble one with my own Strat preferences rather than just a straight copy of David's.

I always loved the look of David's Black Strat - black body and black pickguard - and my first Strat was all black, so I wanted to keep that look. I like feel of the “C” shaped strat necks better than the "V" shape. I also like the feel and the snappier tone I get from the maple neck on my Fender telecaster a bit better than the darker sounding rosewood neck on my old '80s Strat plus. I decided my new Strat would have a maple neck/fretboard. Gilmour has used both, but his Black Strat currently also has a maple fretboard with a C shaped neck. For pickups, I have used bluesy sounding SCN (Samarium Cobalt Noisless - discontinued) pickups and Gold Lace Sensors in the past, but I wanted to try some more vintage sounding neck and middle pickups, and a hotter bridge closer to what Gilmour uses. I liked the bluesy sounding SCN neck pickup in my crimson Deluxe Strat, and I achieved a similar neck tone with the Lace Sensor neck pickup in my '80s strat, but they were not dead on to the sound I like. I tried out some other vintage style pickups, including the ones Gilmour uses.

Below is how I assembled my new Strat, step-by-step, including all the tips and gear needed for you to make one. Another great resource on building your own Gilmourized Black Strat is gilmourish.com. You could also buy one of the Fender Signature Series David Gilmour Black Strat replicas Fender produced in 2008, though at the time I wrote this those were going for $3500-4000. My budget was under $1500.

DAVID GILMOUR'S BLACK STRAT


PHOTOS OF THE VARIOUS INCARNATIONS OF DAVID GILMOUR'S BLACK STRAT

First, here is a bit of history about the Black Strat. David Gilmour bought this guitar from the famous Manny's Music store in New York City in 1970 as a replacement for several guitars which were stolen just six weeks prior while touring with Pink Floyd, including David's first black Stratocaster. This replacement was a late '60s model strat with a factory black finish painted over the original sunburst factory finish, with an alder body, and 21 fret maple neck. The guitar became David's main working strat and has been extensively modified over the years. It has been fitted and altered with seven different necks, different pickups, electronics, knobs, tremolo systems, and pick guards, amongst other changes. Gilmour used this on some of Pink Floyd's most famous recordings, including: Meddle, Live at Pompei, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, David Gilmour, The Wall, the Final Cut, and About Face. In 1986 after sixteen years of hard use, David retired the Black Strat and it was loaned to the Hard Rock Cafe for display. In 1997 David recovered the guitar, which saw much abuse while on display, and had it repaired and set up to make it a playable guitar once again. He used it for the Live 8 Pink Floyd reunion in 2005 and as his main working guitar for his On an Island solo album and tour, featured in the Remember that Night and Live in Gdansk DVDs and CDs.

At the time I write this David is using one of Jimi Hendrix's famous leather guitar straps on the Black Strat, a gift from his wife Polly for his 60th birthday. The strap that held the guitar that played Voodoo Chile holding the guitar that played Comfortably Numb. How cool is that? It does not get any cooler.

A very good history of the Black Strat can be found in the excellent book "The Black Strat - A History of David Gilmour’s black Fender Stratocaster” by David's gear tech, Phil Taylor, published by Hal Leonard. Not many guitarists have a book dedicated to one of their guitars, which shows you just how special this particular Strat is to many people. It includes the complete history of the guitar and all of its modifications over the years, some history on Pink Floyd, as well as info about David's other guitars. Also check out Gilmourish.com for info on the Black Strat.

THE BASE STRAT

I tested several different Strats, including Standards, Vintage, and Classic series models, with both two and six point tremolo systems. I decided on a Fender American Standard neck and body, instead of a Classic or Vintage series Fender that is closer to Gilmour's, simply because the Standard is similar to the Deluxe Strat and Strat Plus that I have been playing for years, both with the two point bridge, similar neck, and 22 frets. I have always heard the six point tremolos (six pivot screws) sound better and more vintage than the modern two point (two pivot scews), but in testing them I really heard no difference, at least for the music I play. I also prefer the “C” shaped necks with 22 frets rather than the skinny “V” necks with 21 frets on the older guitars and re-issues. I could have used a Fender Deluxe strat with better bridge and trem parts, but it was less expensive to get a Standard and buy better replacement after-market parts. If you want more of a “vintage looking” Black Strat with a six point trem, go with a Fender Classic 50s series (Mexican or Japanese made) or a Fender American Vintage '57 Series guitar, which has a tinted coating to resemble that yellow-aged nitrocellulose finish.

Gilmour's Black Strat has a 1969 alder body with a 1983 '57 re-issue 21 fret maple neck, C-shaped with a 7.25 neck radius (as of 2008) .


CLOCKWISE - Fender Classic Series, Fender American Vintage Series, Fender American Standard, Fender David Gilmour Signature Series replica (NOS version)

 


THE REAL BLACK STRAT OWNED BY DAVID GILMOUR (photos stolen from Phil Taylor's excellent book, The Black Strat)

PICKGUARD, KNOBS, AND TIPS

I purchased a black 3 ply pickguard, back cover, and “vintage” white pickup covers, knobs, trem tip, and switch tip from Guitar Parts Resource.com. I could not find an all black pick guard and back cover in stock at the time I built this (there are several suppliers of these though, if you scour the web), so I dyed the white edges black with several passes of a permanent black Sharpie Magnum marker. The Magnum appears to be a different formula than a standard Sharpie marker. Seems tacky, but once dry it is not sticky, does not come off, and if you use even passes it looks great.

David's guitar has a 1 ply, all black acrylic pickguard with rounded and polished edges, and 11 holes. Since posting this article several websites have have popped up selling the pickguard, pickups, and other components to make a complete loaded Black Strat pickguard package. Overdrive Custom Guitar Works was one website, although the price is higher than sourcing all of the components yourself. David's knobs and switch tip are originals, so they are an aged cream color. The ink color on the knobs appears to be dark green.

TUNERS

I bought a set of current “vintage” Gotoh tuners on ebay to replace the American standard tuners, but I ended up switching back to the standards. They are very similar working tuning machines, but the modern tuning machines on an American Strat seem to be a bit smoother and stay in place better that current Gotohs. Unless you like the look of the vintage style, and the vintage style slotted tops, there is no reason to change. I also prefer the string holes in modern tuning machines versus slots. Here are pix of the Gotohs on the left and Fender American standards on the right.

The tuning machines on David's Strat headstock are vintage Gotoh machines.

BRIDGE, SADDLES, AND TREMOLO BLOCK

The standard Fender tremolo blocks are cast metal, with folded steel saddles. At the recommendation of others, I replaced the saddles and tremolo block with a Callaham made 2-point syncronized bridge and saddles (www.callahamguitars.com). Callaham also makes vintage 6-point bridges if you prefer that system. The Callaham block is cut from solid steel rather than cast, which supposedly allows the string vibration to resonate into the guitar body more. I had to drill out the wood in the trem cavity a bit (pictured in next section below) so I could press the trem arm all the way down without the Callaham block hitting wood inside. Callaham blocks are not beveled on the back side to allow this like the fender block, but they also have more dense solid metal than a Fender. If you like to be able to drop your trem arm all the way down so the strings go slack (Gilmour does this at the end of All Lovers Are Deranged and drops it in the intro to Sorrow), you may have to remove some wood here, as I have done. I used a sanding bit on my hand held Dremel to route out the wood inside the block hole.

The tremolo bars fit loosely in some Fender tremolo blocks and audibly rattle when using them. Callaham blocks have a tight fitting plastic sleeve inside to prevent this, but there is also a simple fix to prevent the Fender arm from rattling. Some people suggest wrapping it in plumbers tape, but that does not last very long. A more effective solution is to use some electrical heat shrink tubing from a hardware store. 3/32" or 3/8" diameter tubing works. Cut a piece about 1/4" to 3/8" long and slide it onto the arm just above the threads. Use a lighter or heat gun to heat and shrink the tubing around the arm to create a thin plastic sleeve, then install in the tremolo block.

The stock Fender Am. Std. saddles are made with the string holes a bit too short and (supposedly) don't carry the string vibrations as well as the Callahams, which have larger holes. Both are stainless steel, bent and folded to shape. The better Callaham saddles are supposed to improve the tone and sustain, and the saddle height and intonation screws are also machined slightly better than the stock Fenders. I think the Callaham saddles did make a slight improvement, but overall the difference was marginal.

 

David's Strat bridge is a vintage style 6-point syncronized tremolo with vintage saddles, as shown on the right, below.

SETTING UP THE TREMOLO AND SPRINGS

The setup of your Strat is a personal preference. I like my strings and tremolo bar VERY “squishy”, as in not tight, so I only use two or three tremolo springs on my strats to cut the spring tension, which in turn causes the string tension to pull the back end of the bridge plate way up. This is a “floating bridge”. According to interviews, Gilmour typically used three springs in his Strat when using it in the studio, and four springs when playing live. While his bridge setup was a medium action “floating” type in the early days up to Dark Side of the Moon, around 1976 David started tightening the bridge screws down so the front of the bridge plate rested on the guitar body, to help keep the guitar in tune. Here is how David described setting up his tremolo in 2009.

These days, I typically use three springs. I like to let the bridge plate sit onto the body completely, and then I tighten up the six bridge screws until they sit perfectly on the top of that, without actually pressing down on it. Then, I tighten the strings up to get the right tension on them, and then I sometimes screw the screws that hold the springs at the back (the spring claw screws) deeper into the body until it gets exactly right. You can have those screws slightly looser and add a fourth spring, or you can remove another spring and tighten them up a little bit. - Guitar Player interview 2009

Photos from around 2006-2007 and in the Black Strat book show it still rests fairly close to the body, with the back raised about 2mm. Most people use 3-5 springs for a non floating bridge. Gilmour stated in a the January 2009 issue of Guitar Player that his current strat bridge has three springs. If you watch him playing in the 2006 Remember That Night DVD, he does not seem to use the trem as much as he did in the '80s and '90s, but when he does it appears to be fairly tight, so he was probably still using four springs when playing live, as he had been doing since the late 1970's.In theory, you will get more sustain if the bridge plate is flat, or resting on the body, due to the increased resonance of the strings vibrating through the guitar body because of the more solid contact, but it can also make the sound thin or tinny on some strats. I say “in theory” because I get plenty of sustain and my bridge is nowhere near flat. I keep the 2-point screws that the bridge pivots on set very low, so the front of the bridge is flush with the guitar body. If your strat is a six point (six screws), you may want to raise the four inner screws a bit if you want a floating bridge. Most people will want to have the back of the bridge plate no more than 3mm (1/8“) off the guitar body for a floating bridge. Mine is around 6mm (1/4”). I have talked to many people who have serious problems with staying in tune when using a floating bridge. I have never encountered that problem, so I believe any tuning problems are probably more associated with nut binding, bad or incorrect string wrapping around the tuning pegs, bad saddles that bind or snag strings because of poor surface finishing, or simply not stretching the strings properly after restringing.

I tighten the two 2" screws that hold the spring claw deep into the wood body to tighten the springs. It is a balancing act between the string tension and the spring tension. I jack the string height up with the saddle screws to compensate for having only a few springs, and also because I like the strings set high above the fret board. Doing this I can get the saddles back parallel with the guitar body and stay in tune. When I set the strings up high, Fender saddle screws sometimes go crooked because the screw threading is not done very well. Callahams screws are slightly better.

HOW TO SET UP A NON-FLOATING BRIDGE - If you come from the fixed bridge school and do not want the trem plate to float, here are different ways to set up a non floating trem. Completely flat, or slightly raised on the pivot end. I don't recommend having the whole plate flat. Some Strats will sound better if they are up a bit on the pivot end. I think that is what makes a Strat sound stratty, but it varies from Strat to Strat.

Loosen the strings about 1 1/2 turns. Tighten the two spring claw screws in the spring cavity on the back of the guitar until the trem plate on front is flush with the guitar body. Then tune up again. If the trem plate pulls up as the string tension increases, you can tighten the claw screws more, or even add another trem spring if you only have three. After you get that balance worked out and the back of the trem is flush or touching the guitar body, bend the high E up to the low E string at the 12 fret. The plate should not lift, or barely lift. If it still lifts when bending strings, repeat the above steps until you get it relatively non floating.

Look at the the screws the bridge trem plate pivots on. If the screw pivot end of the plate is floating off the wood a bit, you can turn the screws in more to get the entire plate resting flat on the guitar, or not. I would keep it at least 0.2-0.5mm off the body on the pivot end, though the other end of the plate can be touching the body. To adjust the pivot screws, raise all the middle screws a few mm so the are not contacting the plate. Use the two outer screws to raise or lower the plate, turning the same on each so the plate is not higher on one side than the other. Then turn all the middle screws so they are the same height as the outer. Try it completely flat, or up a bit on the pivot side and see which you prefer. Keep in mind, if you adjust the pivot screw height, you will change the string height, and likely change the guitars intonation. You will need to adjust the two saddle height screws on each saddle, and recheck the guitar intonation. Recheck the intonation anyway, even if you do not adjust the pivot screw height.

TIP - If you have a flush mounted, non floating tremolo bridge, and you find your guitar tone sounds a bit thin or tinny, try raising the pivot screws just a hair or two. Actual contact of the bridge plate to the guitar body can thin out the tone on some strats. The guitar does not really need the bridge plate to have contact with the body for the strings vibrations to resonate through it. The close proximity of the bridge to the body, and the fixed contact of the pivot screws handle that job just fine, and I believe that is what makes a Strat sound like a Strat. Keep in mind the string height will be raised when you raise the bridge, so adjust the two saddle height screws on each saddle. Recheck the guitar intonation and adjust if needed.

TIP - Have you noticed the tremolo springs can become creaky and noisy, to such a degree that you can hear it through your amp? The creaking, poppy pings may sound like they are coming from the tremolo springs, but this is likely the strings sticking in the nut slot at the end of the neck. When the strings slide through the nut slot they can jam and stick over time as they move and cut deeper into the slot, creating a noise which vibrates all the way through the tremolo block and into the tremolo springs. The simple solution, and something you should do periodically anyway, is to put a dab of lubricant under the strings in the nut notches. Liquid graphite works, or try a mix of vasoline and #2 pencil lead shavings which will last much longer. There are also a wax and graphite nut lubricants available. If your tremolo springs sometimes make a reverby "ping" sound, you can deaden that noise by inserting some fish tank air tube inside the spring coil. Another option is to pull a piece of packing foam rubber through the spring coil using a guitar string as a loop to pull it through. Either of those solution dampens the resonant sound springs can produce, though some people actually prefer it and think it makes a Strat sound stratty.



CHOPPING THE TREMOLO ARM

I cut my tremolo (or whammy) arm short, about 133mm (5 1/4“), to fit in my palm when playing. My first guitar was already set up like this, so I have always shortened them, and Gilmour does this too. If it is the right length you can grasp it with your pinky and third finger while holding the pick with your other two fingers and it does not interfere with normal playing like a longer stock trem arm will. If you do this, check where your hand normally rests over the pickups when you play and measure the trem arm from the bend almost to the center of your palm to see how far to shorten it. Keep in mind the plastic tip will add some length after you re-attach it, so stick a piece of wire into the tip hole to determine how far the trem arm extends into it before you cut. Tips are usually 6mm (1/4”) longer than the trem arm.



Unscrew the plastic trem tip from the bar and mark your distance, adding to what you measured to compensate for the added plastic tip length. Lock the arm in a vice but be sure to wrap the arm in a piece of leather, rubber, or rag so the vice does not scratch it. You can cut it with a steel saw, or use a Dremel tool or similar hand held device (wear eye protection!). I used a steel disk cutter with a Dremel tool. I also ground the sharp edges down after the cut with a sanding bit. You won't have any threads to screw the plastic tip back on after cutting it short, but you can glue it back on with a good two part epoxy, or heat the end of the trem arm with a flame for a minute, then push the tip back on tight. I put a small spring in the bottom of my trem arm hole to prevent it from screwing in too low in the Callaham block. That adds to the resistance and helps keep the bar from coming loose over time (If you do this, DON'T use a spring that is too large or it can jam in the screw threads and strip them). I also bent my trem arm up slightly in a vice to keep it roughly parallel with the guitar body because my floating bridge is angled high, but most people will not need to do this. Be aware that most trem arms are hardened steel, so if you do re-bend, do it slowly or you may risk breaking the bar.



PICKUPS

I wanted to replace the weak sounding Fender standard pickups with more Gilmourish sounding pickups. Gilmour currently (as of 2007) uses original late '60s Fender pups in his neck and middle positions, and a custom wound Seymour Duncan SSL-1 pup in the bridge position. He also has used a DiMarzio FS-1 bridge pickup from 1976-1978. Both of those are very "hot" sounding pickups that sound very good with Big Muffs and fuzz pedals. I opted to use the SSL-5 because I have read it is close to the custom overwound SSL-1 Gilmour uses currently, and it is also the pickup used in the Fender Black Strat replica. I also tried Fender Fat '50s and CS'69 pickups in the bridge position, which sound great, but the SSL-5 is exactly what I was looking for and had that in-your-face intesity I liked. The SSL-5 turned out to be a fantastic pickup, and I recommend it for any Strat. The high output really helps with sustain and getting those subtle harmonics needed for good Gilmour tones.

For the neck pickup I tried Fender Fat '50s, CS '54, and CS'69 pups. They are all in the same vintage tone family, but each sounds slightly different. I liked the Fender Custom Shop '69s the best. I used one in the neck and one in the middle position. The middle pickup was not as critical to me because I only ever use in in conjunction with the neck pup in position #2 when I play clean rhythms.

The Fender Signature Series Black Strat is made with custom wound fat '50s in the neck and mid, and a Seymour Duncan SSL-5(SSL-1 Custom) in the bridge position.

...

Seymour Duncan SSL-5

I found the Fender CS '69 pickups at Musician's Friend (www.musiciansfriend.com). Other sites had them for less money, but Musicians Friend was the only place found that actually stocked them at the time. The best price I found for the Seymour Duncan SSL-5 was at Music Power (www.musicpower.com), but many sites sell them for under $55. It is hard to find single CS '69 pickups since they are always sold as sets from Fender. Check the guitar forums or ebay. CS '69 are the same pickups for all three positions, so there is no reverse wound middle pickup. The middle pickup in a Fat '50s set is reverse wound/reverse polarity (RWRP). The SSL-5 was available as a RWRP version and a standard version at the time I finished this strat. You want the non RWRP version, but if you get the RWRP version, simply reverse the red and black wires when you solder it. Since posting this article several websites have have popped up selling the pickguard, individual pickups, and other components to make a complete loaded Black Strat pickguard package. Overdrive Custom Guitar Works is one website, though the prices are higher than sourcing the individual components yourself.

GIMOUR MAGIC SWITCH - I have not decided if I will do the Gilmour toggle switch mod, which is a switch to combine the neck pickup with pickup positions 1, 2, or 3. I'm not sure I would ever use it, and Gilmour himself does not even remember if he ever used it on record. The rumor that he used it on the first Comfortably Numb solo, is just that. I have a similar switch setup on my Brian May Red Special guitar and don't care for it. For me, the standard five position pickup selector has every pickup tone I would ever want, and is more than capable of getting all of the Gilmour tones. EDIT - I did eventually add the magic switch. After the first few weeks, I found that I never use it. None of the added pickup combinations really sound any better than the tones I get form the standard 5 position pickup selector.



SHIELDING TO REDUCE HUM AND EMI/RFI NOISE

RFI AND EMI NOISE - Skip to the next part if you don't care about knowing why Strats can be noisy and just want to get to how to reduce the noise. Strats are noisy by nature. I knew these single coil pickups were going to hiss and hum with a lot more RFI (radio frequency interference) noise and 60 cycle EMI (electromagnetic interference) hum than the noiseless pickups I was used to, so I decided to shield the guitar. So what is RFI and EMI noise and what causes it? It is difficult to determine which is which by listening to the hiss, hum, and buzz you may hear, but I will try to explain.

EMI, or electromagnetic interference, also called 60 cycle or 60hz hum, is a low hum or buzzing sound you hear. It is noise intruduced by your AC current frequency. It is essentially a magentic field, and your pickups work by sensing interference into their magentic fields. The most common AC magnetic fields are 60 Hertz fields emitted by electric power equipment. It usually does not change in volume when turning up your amp or down, but it can increase or decrease in volume, when you are in closer or farther proximity from an electromagnetic source, like flourescent lights, monitors, light switches, electric motors, computers et cetera. Sometimes the sound can go away when you touch the strings, when your body your body (which is also a reciever for EMI/RFI) is grounded by the guitar. Reducing this sound involves keeping DC lines away from your audio cables, and most importantly, having a properly a grounded power supply and having true filtered and isolated power supplies for your pedals and other outboard effects. Be sure outlets are properly grounded, using three prong plugs.

RFI, or radio frequency interference is typically in the 300Hz - 300 MHz audio range, and is typically described as hiss, although it can also sound like a low hum. It changes in volume as you move your guitar, which is acting as an antenna picking up this stray radio interference. RFI is a form of EMI, which is why you may see other sources referring to EMI and RFI as the same thing. Shielding your guitar is aimed at specifically blocking this RFI part of EMI. It will NOT eliminate 60 cycle EMI hum, or other forms of EMI interference. What it can do is reduce the RFI noise, and in some cases eliminate it. For some it barely reduces the noise at all and others may notice no difference at all (my Strat shielding eliminated some noise for me, but not all). It will vary depending on how nearby transformers or other sources of EMI/RFI are to you. Some people in bad locations will find this noise unbearable to play around, no matter how much shielding is done to a guitar. If you are one of those, I strongly suggest getting a set of Noiseless Pickups. Samarium Cobalt Noisless (SCN) and EMG-DG20 noisless pickups have worked well for me.

Copper shielding around your electronic components can block some of this RFI noise when the shield is grounded. There are many forms of non magnetic shielding material, like copper foil, copper (or cunductive) spray shielding paint, and copper shielding paint. The paint and spray versions can degrade over time and become less effective, but copper foil or sheet will not. I shielded the inside body cavity of my Strat with adhesive backed copper foil and used shielded wire for the ground wires, purchased from Stewart Macdonald (www.stewmac.com). I first removed the whole pickguard and unsoldered the ground wire that was welded to the spring claw, and the two wires soldered to the jack plate (remember which goes where!). This allows working on the guitar body without worrying that it, or the pickguard, will get scratched.

You are shielding the entire pickup and electronics cavity, and the underside of the pick guard, essentially creating an enclosed cage around the electronics to block the RFI. Many pick guards already have an aluminum or copper shield applied to the underside already. If yours does not have one, add it. You can see in the photos below that my stock Fender pick guard already has a silver aluminum shield. Note that is is not advisable to shield around the actual pickups themselves. Any metal in close prominity around the pickups can affect the magentic field, which can affect your tone. There is debate as to how much affect it really has, but I suggest not doing this so as not risking even a minimal affect on the way they are intended to function.

It is not necessary to shield the trelmolo/spring cavity since there are no electronics located there, and shielding the jack plug cavity is not necessary. If you do shield the jack cavity, be sure none of the jack metal, or the jack plug itself, contact the shielding. That can short your signal to ground.

APPLYING THE SHIELDING - Applying the shielding in the guitar cavity is rather simple. All separate pieces of foil must have direct contact with each other, to create a continous ground. Some copper foil is sold with conductive adhesive backing. If you use copper with the non-conductive adhesive backing, fold a corner back when overlapping each piece, so you have a metal-to-metal contact. You can also melt a drop of solder with a soldering iron to connect each piece. The pix below show a very sloppy job, since this was my first time, but it accomplished the task. Note that I have copper wrapping out of the cavity onto the surface of the guitar body. This is to connect the cavity shielding to the shield on the underside of the pick guard. Only one point must touch it, but there must be a contact to create a continuous shield. After the elctronics are installed I will get into how the shield is actually connected to ground.

SOLDERING GEAR

I own a decent Weller Therma Boost TB100 soldering iron for repairing pedals. I bought it and my soldering supplies from Lowes and Radio Shack. You will need rosin-core solder, solder remover wick, wire clamps, and a damp sponge. Don't get a dirt cheap, low wattage iron. You need at least 30W to solder wire, but to remove the wires from the pots and spring clip, you really need 100-130W to heat up those big solder blobs, so higher wattage is better. The Weller does both wattages and it is only about $20. I had a cheap $12 gun, but it did not get hot enough to heat the pot solders in my Strat.

Learning to solder takes some practice, but it is worth it. I won't go through it here since simple lessons can be found on the web and youtube. If you have never soldered before, mess around with some scrap wire and scrap metal parts to get used to soldering before you try it on your guitar. Also, learn to desolder using the desoldering braid wick to soak up excess solder while hot, or clean up solder from parts you are going to resolder.

SOLDERING

I downloaded a standard strat wiring diagram online from Seymour Duncan's website reference in case I could not remember what wires went where (click the image below to enlarge). I had already removed the whole pickguard and unsoldered the ground wire that was welded to the spring claw and the two wires soldered to the jack plate (remember which goes where!) so I could work on the copper shielding in the previous section. I used an old towel to cover parts of the guitar and pickguard where I was soldering to prevent any solder splash onto the finish. I unsoldered everything I needed to replace, removed the old pickups, installed the new ones, and then resoldered all the wires. I kept the wires as short as possible, so they pickup up the least amount of electromagnetic interferance.

If you bought a standard Seymour Duncan SSL-5 pickup for the bridge position, it should be installed with the two wires soldered in the reverse position of the standard Fender bridge pickup. Just swap the black and white wires. If you have the reverse wound/reverse polarity Seymour Duncan SSL-5 use the reverse of what the SD diagram I have here shows for the bridge pickup wires. If you bought any standard Fender pickups, wire those using a standard Fender wiring diagram. You will know right away if you solder the leads wrong in the SSL-5, as the reverse polarity sound will be thin and and the volume will be very low in one pickup position.

As mentioned earlier, since posting this article several websites have have popped up selling complete loaded Black Strat pickguard packages. Overdrive Custom Guitar Works is one website. Prices are much higher than sourcing the components yourself, but if you don't want to fool with sourcing or soldering, this is a good option.

GROUNDING POTS AND THE GROUND LOOP MYTH - Some sources will say you need to remove the ground wire connecting all the pot cases together to prevent ground loops, implying that having more than one contact to ground from the same part is going to create a "loop" that will add noise to you guitar signal. This is actually nonsense and a misunderstanding of what a ground loop is. Ground loops only occur between two (or more) different pieces of AC powered equipment are connected together, but each different circuit is grounded by a different ground - such as connecting two amplifiers to an A/B switch box, or daisy chaning the inputs of two different amps together, but each amp is plugged into a separate grounded AC outlet. That is completely different than how your passive guitar circuit works. Everything (except the hot signal) in a passive guitar circuit like this can be grounded by as many points directly to ground as you want. It is just one circuit and all ground connections are going to the SAME ground, so you can't create a ground loop.

The foil backing under the pick guard touches the pot casings when they are attached, so they are technically already grounded. The wires that are daisy chaned to each pot, then to ground, are just an additional ground point. If, over time, oxidization between the pot case the the foil pick guard backing separates the ground connection, you will still have that extra ground wire connection on the pots. Is it necessary? Not really, but depending on the environment the guitar is in, some people may eperience more oxidization than others over time. In my 30+ years of messing with guitars, I have never had that problem, so I never bother with the additional pot connection.

GROUNDING - Note in the middle and bottom right photos you can see the black grounding wire is screwed directy through the copper shielding into the wood in the bridge pickup cavity. That ground wire goes directly to the ground connection on the jack plate, grounding your guitar. The shielding must have direct contact to the ground wire. Running a screw through it is the best way to be sure that metal-to-metal contact is there. A drop of solder connecting the two also works.

completed pick guard after soldering

Gilmour's Black Strat pickguard electronics with "magic switch" installed

SETUP, STRING HEIGHTS, AND PICKUP HEIGHTS

The pickups and string heights will vary from person to person depending on how hard or light you pick, how high you like to bend the strings, guage of strings used, and the type of gear you are using. Ideally you want the best string separation when strumming chords. Not too boomy or muddy tone on the low strings, but not too light either. Fender's suggested Strat setup instructions, below, are the best to use when starting out.

STRINGS - Gilmour uses GHS Boomers in non standard guage sets for his Strats: 0.10, 0.12, 0.16, 0.28, 0.38, 0.48. GHS sells this (as of 2008) exact set as David Gilmour Signature Blue Set Electric Guitar Strings. I use extra light guage Fender Super Bullets: 0.9, 0.11, 0.16, 0.16, 0.24, 0.32. GHS Guitar Boomers in the extra light guage are also good, set GBXL.

STRING HEIGHT AND ACTION - Using ruler, caliper, or string height guage, measure the distance between bottom (underside) of the strings down to the top of the 17th fret. Adjust bridge saddles to the height according to the chart below. If you are not sure what your neck raduis is, here is a handy neck radius guage you can print and cut out. I keep my strings set very high: 3.0mm bass side, 2.5mm treble side.

Neck Radius_____________String Height Bass Side_________String Height Treble Side
7.25"___________________5/64" (2 mm)_________________4/64" (1.6 mm)
9.5" to 12"_______________4/64" (1.6 mm)________________4/64" (1.6 mm)
15" to 17"_______________4/64" (1.6 mm)________________3/64" (1.2 mm)

PICKUP HEIGHT - In general, lower pickup heights will add more definition to your sound, but with a drop in signal output. Higher pickup heights will remove some of the dynamics, but you will have a higher signal output. Gilmour's pickups heights are pictured below. Typically the the bass side of the pickups should be lower than the treble for an even string balance. Depress all of the strings at the last fret (22nd fret on my strat). Using a capo helps. Using a caliper or ruler, measure the distance from the bottom of the 1st and 6th strings (the treble and bass strings) to top of the pole piece. Rule of thumb-the distance should be greatest at the 6th string - neck pickup position, and closest at the 1st string - bridge pickup position. Follow these measurement guidelines as starting points. The distance will vary according to the amount of magnetic pull of the pickup. I you find there is too much fret buzz, raise the strings slightly higher. Keep in mind that and string height adjustments may also affect the guitar intonation, so always check and adjust.

Pickup Type_________________________________Bass Side / Treble Side
Texas Specials: ______________________________8/64" (3.6 mm) / 6/64" (2.4 mm)
Vintage style, such as the SSL-5 or Fender CS69: ___6/64" (2.4 mm) / 5/64" (2 mm)
Noiseless™ Series: ___________________________8/64" (3.6 mm) / 6/64" (2.4 mm)
Standard Single-Coil: _________________________5/64" (2 mm) / 4/64" (1.6 mm)
Humbuckers:________________________________ 4/64"(1.6 mm) / 4/64" (1.6 mm)
Lace Sensors: _______________________________As close as desired (allowing for string vibration)

Also see the SETTING UP THE TREMOLO AND SPRINGS section above.

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The pickup heights of the DG Signature strat on left and my Strat on right. As you can see, we go beyond the Fender standards by lowering the bass-low E string side.

THE FINISHED STRAT

After reassembling the guitar I put on new strings, stretched them, and tuned up. I reset my pickup heights and corrected the twelfth fret intonation, which had changed since I adjusted the saddles and tremolo, then I was ready to go. It plays and sounds incredible, and I feel it is much more “my” guitar, having assembled it myself, rather than buying a Fender Signature Series Custom Shop replica for over double what this cost me, and having to worry if I would like the neck or setup as well as a guitar I was used to. The Black Strat was a rewarding project and this has become my favorite guitar.

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that David's guitar strap for the Black Strat was one used by Jimi Hendrix, bought for David's 60th birthday by his wife, Polly. My wife heard that story and bought a replica of that same strap for my birthday about a year after I built this. Similar straps can be found (as of 2009) in several places including Hell For Leather and Jeri Designs. It looks good and is a very comfortable strap and I highly recommend it. It may not make your guitar or playing sound any better, but I believe if you feel good about your instrument and accessories, it does affect your playing in a positive way.

The total cost for this project was around $1400 (built in 2008). Here is what it sounds like using a vintage Big Muff into a Fender Twin Reverb.

Black Strat Sound Clip 1 - Shine on Blues

Black Strat Sound Clip 2 - On the Turning Away Jam

Black Strat Sound Clip 3 - Comfortably Numb First Solo

Black Strat Sound Clip 4 - Intro to Sorrow

Photos of the finished Black Strat