DIY Workshop: Tele Renovation
It’s that age-old conundrum – do you upgrade or trade up? With its comfy played-in neck and road-worn charm, Gary Walker’s ‘Made In Mexico’ Tele felt as if it had the potential to be a great guitar.
There are so many great-looking, acoustically-resonant and affordable guitars that are crying out for some new pickups or improved hardware to bring out their full potential. Planning the upgrades, researching the parts and putting it all together can be a rewarding experience, and if you choose your parts wisely you can end up with a fantastic guitar without spending a fortune.
Gary liked the idea of keeping a humbucker in the neck position, along with a five-way selector switch, but the stock pickups were fairly nondescript. The humbucker sounded a tad dark and boomy and the bridge a bit shrill and thin. So the decision was made to go with a PAF and a Full Monty from Monty’s Guitars.
This ‘Keef’ set from Monty’s Guitars comprises a Full Monty Tele bridge pickup and a PAF replica humbucker for the neck position
As a Gretsch fan, Gary also fancied having a Bigsby to waggle. Various Bigsby and bridge options were considered before he decided on a B5 Fender Kit.
The Bigsby B5 kit for Telecasters has the ‘F’ brand and includes a replacement bridge plate and an offset-style rocking bridge
The factory pickguard had not aged gracefully. The three-ply look wasn’t great and the cut-out for the humbucker was oversized. Gary decided a thin one-ply black pickguard from Allparts would spruce things up. But before starting, there was a playability issue that needed to be sorted.
You can buy Tele pickguards with a humbucker cut-out, but Allparts UK’s ones are three-ply. The next best option was a single-ply Esquire guard, which meant cutting the hole for the Monty’s PAF
The neck had developed a fairly substantial up-bow, so there was too much relief and the action was unpleasantly high. To gauge neck relief, place two capos on the guitar – one at the first fret and the other near the body join.
Placing capos at the first and 15th frets allows you to assess the amount of neck relief
Check for the gap between the strings and the top of the seventh and eighth frets. Opinions differ as to the ideal amount of relief, but a gap of approximately a millimetre or more may indicate a problem that the truss rod can’t fix.
The wide gap between the tops of the frets and the string around the seventh fret is excessive
Truss rods are fitted to set the right amount of neck relief, so they are intended for minor adjustments rather than correcting structural issues.
Cranking up the truss rod as far as it will go is not the remedy. In fact, you may strip the truss rod thread or even snap the rod itself. I could tell that this neck’s truss rod was already very tight, so an alternative remedy was needed.
One method to cure an up-bow is to slacken off the truss rod then bend the neck to straighten it – or even introduce a slight back-bow. Then you can tighten the truss rod back up to clamp the neck in place. If you’re lucky, it may stay there. A spirit level was clamped onto the neck at each end, using cork pads for protection.
Using cork pads for protection, a spirit level is clamped along the centre line of the fingerboard. The pads create a space between the frets and the bottom of the spirit level
A metal ruler was placed onto the frets to assess the extent of the up-bow and identify the deepest point. In this case, the gap was widest around the eighth fret.
Resting a metal ruler along the frets gives you a clear indication of the neck’s straightness
A third clamp was placed with the top jaw contacting the top of the spirit level and the bottom jaw under the eighth fret. As this third clamp was tightened, the centre part of the neck bent upwards towards the spirit level and the truss rod was brought back up to snug. This technique may not work every time, but it’s easy to try it yourself. It may save you luthier fees – and save your truss rod, too.
A clamp under the eighth fret can be tightened to straighten the neck or induce a back-bow. Once this is done, you can bring the truss rod up to snug and remove the middle clamp. If you’re lucky, the neck will hold straight
Before drilling any holes, or doing anything irreversible, I needed to check that all the new parts would fit. All the hardware and electronics had to be de-soldered from the controls and removed.
Always record the wiring layout before you start taking things apart. You can draw yourself a diagram, or better still, take some pictures using your phone’s camera. Gary’s Tele had complicated five-way switching
The old-school jack cup was left in situ, because they’re a nightmare to fit. I simply coiled up the jack wires and tucked them away inside the control cavity ready for reassembly.
Never assume the centre of the body always corresponds with the centre line of the neck, because things don’t always line up quite as they should. To establish this guitar’s true centre line, I attached two strips of masking tape across the body in front and behind the bridge area.
Placing a long metal ruler tight along the bass side of the fingerboard, I drew lines across the masking tape where the ruler passed over the body.
I repeated the process for the treble side, then measured identical distances from the 12th fret to the marker lines for both sides and marked the points on the lines. To establish the centre point, simply draw lines between the marks, then use a ruler to determine the halfway point of each and join the two centre points with another line.
When fitting new hardware, it’s essential to establish the centre line of the guitar
The Allparts pickguard went on first, but before it would fit properly, I had to file away some of the plastic because the neck was a bit too wide. Once in position, the screw holes lined up fairly nicely, although the replacement pickguard required three fewer screws.
The control plate was a few millimetres off, so the easiest solution was to plug both screw holes and drill new ones after repositioning the plate.
The pickguard was a decent fit, but the control plate no longer lined up with the original screw holes
For this, I usually take a chunky matchstick and round over the square corners using a Stanley knife blade as a scraper. With some wood glue inside the screw hole, simply tap in the matchstick and snap it off, leaving a few millimetres proud of the surface. Once the glue has dried, carefully trim it flush with the top using a Stanley blade.
Matchsticks are a cheap, easy solution when you need to plug small screw holes
Unlike the original bridge, the Bigsby bridge plate is held on with three screws behind the saddles rather than four, and with two further screw holes in front of the saddles. After establishing the centre line, the middle screw hole behind the saddles was positioned over the line.
Here’s the new bridge with the centre screw over the centre line
Having the pickguard in situ allowed me to square up the bridge plate, and I found it best to have the pickup mounted in the plate. It was vital to ensure the pickup didn’t foul the sides of the pickup rout and it was free to move for setting the height.
Once I was happy, I marked the position of the centre screw, then removed the bridge and filled the old screw holes. I did this because the new screw holes would be close to the old ones, and I didn’t want cracks to occur in the body.
Filling the unwanted screw holes provided extra structural solidity. Again, I used matchsticks, but since the screw holes were countersunk, I followed up with some Milliput epoxy resin filler and set the body aside for the glue and resin to set.
Cutting the pickguard
With the pickguard attached to the body, I applied masking tape in the pickup area, established the centre line and marked out the position for the pickup.
Take your time when marking the position of the PAF cut-out. Measure thrice and cut once
A bona fide luthier would probably rout the hole using a template. Instead, I found the drill bit that best matched the corners of the cover and drilled four holes in the pickguard – one for each corner. A jeweller’s saw was used to cut out the hole, and I cut a millimetre or so inside the marked lines.
To get straight and smooth lines, I clamped the plastic to a piece of wood with a machine-cut edge. The wood lines up along the marked lines and a Stanley knife blade is used to to shave the plastic flush with the wood edge.
A straight piece of timber acts as a guide when scraping the plastic with a Stanley knife blade. This is an easy way to achieve cut lines that are straight and square
After drilling the pickup screw holes, I removed the film from the front of the pickguard, mounted the pickup and screwed down the pickguard.
Fitting the Bigsby
I began by drilling a pilot hole for the centre screw I marked earlier, then I loosely fixed the bridge plate using that single screw. This allowed me to turn the plate back and forth to get it squared up with the pickguard.
Fixing the bridge plate loosely allows it to swivel, as it’s lined up with the pickguard
Once I was happy with the positioning, I tightened the screw fully, then marked out the positions for the four remaining screws.
The rocking bridge is mounted in thimbles, which press into the body, so 9mm diameter holes must be drilled. With the bridge plate position established, I placed masking tape under the plate and marked the position of the thimbles. After the centre points had been marked, I used a bradawl bit to drill the holes.
The thimble hole locations are marked and the centre points carefully established before drilling
For the thimble holes, I used a 9mm bradawl bit. Here, you can see how close the new holes come to the original screw holes
Traditional Telecasters have a ground wire under the bridge plate, but this Mexican model had a solder tag clamped between the plate and one of the height adjustment screw springs. This bridge assembly doesn’t make contact with the plate.
The instructions suggest bending a short length of unwound G string to a right angle and using the cup to wedge it into the hole. It sits under the bridge and provides electrical continuity between the strings and ground.
A bent length of unwound ‘G’ string wedges into the thimble hole and sits under the bridge plate to form an electrical connection from strings to ground
The Bigsby kit contains a length of red twine to help position the vibrato section itself. You tie two lengths of the twine to the outer Bigsby pins, pass them under the front roller and tie them onto the E string tuner posts.
The basic idea is that the twine – and the strings – should follow the straightest path from the vibrato, over the bridge saddles and to the tuners.
The Bigsby kit comes with red string to help you align the vibrato unit
Once I was happy, I marked the screw positions, drilled the holes and attached the vibrato.
This was the first time I’d fitted a Bigsby kit to a Tele, and the instructions cover only the basics. For instance, there’s no advice on which way round to fit the bridge, and it was only at the last moment I realised it would be preferable to have the intonation screws on the pickup side. Look online and you’ll see bridges attached both ways, but if the intonation screws are on the vibrato side, it’s hard to reach them with a screwdriver.
Start by setting the intonation screws to ‘ballpark’ positions and adjust the saddle heights so the tops of the intonation screws line up with the curve of the bridge base. This gives you a radius of approximately 241mm (9.5 inches). If you set the saddles higher, the intonation screws can protrude upwards and touch the strings, or even poke into your right hand.
Two posts extend from the underside of the bridge base. Inside each post, there’s a grub screw that adjusts to set the string height. The pointed ends of the screws sit in a recess at the bottom of each thimble, which allows the whole bridge assembly to rock back and forth with minimal friction.
The saddle height screws are really for fine-tuning the string radius, and the grub screws actually set the overall string height at the bass and treble ends. The Bigsby bridge saddles ended up being slightly higher than the saddles of the stock bridge, so to get everything lined up properly.
I had to shim the neck with a piece of maple veneer. With everything lined up and the Tele playing nicely, I fine-tuned the string radius and intonation, finished off the wiring and Gary’s Tele was good to go.
Guitars don’t get much cooler than a Tele with a Bigsby. Having said that, all you’ll get from one of these B5s is a touch of Bigsby slur and some pitch wobble on chords. Even by Bigsby standards, it’s a subtle effect.
I did notice that the acoustic tone was more solid and the guitar sustained longer, but Tele snap and twang was less evident – presumably because the string vibrations pass straight into the body rather than the bridge plate.
It all works and it stays in tune, but I don’t think much of the traditional Jazzmaster/Jaguar bridge. The multi-grooved saddles are a bit of a drag, and great care must be taken to adjust saddle height without having the strings contact the bridge behind the saddles.
If this were my guitar, I’d be upgrading to a Mastery bridge as soon as funds allowed. Even so, it looks and plays better than it did before, and the pair of Monty’s pickups have improved the sound immeasurably.
How does Gary like his refurbed telecaster?
“Having fallen out of love with my old Tele, due to the fact that neither pickup alone offered desirable tones, it’s now an almost unrecognisable guitar. In all five pickup positions, the sound is glorious.”
“Huw told me to expect big things from the humbucker, describing it as the best PAF replica he’d heard, and it certainly lives up to that billing. Played through my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe with a splash of reverb, it’s the classic full-bodied, vocal Tele clean sound I’ve always wanted, while there’s sustain aplenty when driven; the Full Monty has bountiful bite and definition, too.”
“The Bigsby doesn’t seem to be affecting the tuning stability, and a vigorous band practice eased my fears about the bridge – although I’m not ruling out taking up Huw’s offer of a Mastery upgrade just yet…”