The Guitar Mod Chronicles: Re-Floyding a Strat and Sheptone Pickup Review

In April of 2017 a friend of mine passed away suddenly. He was great guitar player, and I was really saddened by his sudden absence in my life. In a lot of ways, it hasn’t been easy coming to grips with it. I’m not going into it detail, but you get the idea.

He had a YUGE guitar collection, and his family reached out to me to help them sort it all out. They decided that maintaining so many instruments wasn’t practical, and wanted to sell them all off. I suggested they keep a couple for sentimental reasons, and they picked out two instruments that really were not worth a lot, but were instruments he was well associated with.

I spent a couple of days doing inventory on his gear and getting some prices together, and it’s a pretty good list. I went to town immediately, getting a copy of the list out to my friends, and to date several people really stepped up, purchasing a lot of his gear right from the start. I’ve been able get a lot of the items off to new owners and got his family a considerable cash infusion.

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His mom has constantly asked me if I wanted any money for my efforts, and I really didn’t want to take any cash out of their pockets. I was doing this to help a friend’s family, and in some strange way, going through his guitars kind of gave me some closure. We were both gear nuts, so going through it was a fun exercise in general, as well as a therapeutic one.

I asked his mom one day if she would let me buy one of his guitars, albeit at a discount, and in her generosity, she gave it to me, knowing that I would play and enjoy this instrument. The last time I saw my buddy play this guitar was his last gig, so it’s got some cool mojo on that level.

It’s a white Strat style guitar, with a Floyd Rose tremolo and an HSS pickup configuration, and a WD aftermarket neck. The switches and pots were scratchy and noisy, more than likely from not getting use, and oxidation building up on the contact points. One of the people that stepped up was Adam Fields of AF Precision Setups here in Massachusetts. He offered his services to help me sort out my buddy’s guitars and get them in proper shape for sale (including this one).

Sheptone HSS pickup set ready for installation

During disassembly, we figured out based off of some stickers inside the body cavity that it started its life as a Mexican Strat from 2007. The fact that a box of parts my buddy had lying around contained a 2007 Fender Mexican Strat neck kind of makes sense. He had a Floyd Rose installed at some point, and whomever he had do it didn’t do a great job. It appears the pickguard was left on during the process, as the bass side of the pickguard was zipped off, and even the pickguard screw was cut!

So, after a proper setup, which included replacing the pots and switch, we put a Super Switch in that allows pretty much any pickup combination imaginable. One big mod here was making the center position engage the bridge pickup and the neck pickup, a feature lacking in stock Strat wiring. A treble bleed control was also installed.

A really simple and easy tone improvement was going from a set of .09 gauge strings to .10’s. In the ’80s shred days, .09’s were industry standard. Combine that with the Floyd Rose, the tone was a bit thinner than say a standard Strat or Les Paul strung up with .10’s. However, going up a string gauge with the Floyd makes a big difference. Also, the heaver gauge helps in tuning stability, as well.

After playing the guitar for a while the pickups were kind of MEH at best, so that would have to be addressed. But one thing that was kind of tough was even after this setup, there was a pretty noticeable buzz from the Low E string. Raising the action didn’t really help either. My buddy really liked low action on his guitars, and didn’t mind slight buzzing. Adam suggested a new nut. During removal, it was apparent that the slot for the nut was a straight cut, while the nut itself had a radius on the underside. To compensate for the space between, it was floating on a glob of superglue. Again, whoever my buddy had work on his guitars didn’t do a proper job. So, Adam got a bone nut blank and went to work re-cutting a new nut for the guitar.

Since this guitar had single coils, hum is always going to be an issue. I’ve had experience with hum-cancelling pickups, and just to be different I decided that traditional single coils would be nice to have.

To solve this hum, we decided to shield the entire pickup and electronic route with copper tape. Apparently, Stewart-MacDonald sells a shielding kit meant for Strats that costs $31. They also offer up a roll of 2” wide tape, at a length of 15 feet for $21. We went with the roll, and had plenty left over. The key is to get the tape to make contact with the shielding under the pickguard, and should reduce the hum. After applying the tape, the inside looked like a NASA spacecraft from the ’70s.

Fun times with copper shielding

During this time, we started thinking about pickups and after having a great experience with Sheptone pickups in the past, we contacted them, and told them about our situation. While Sheptone does offer individual pickups, as well as complete humbucker and single coil sets, one thing they didn’t offer up was a HSS set. So, they suggested their Upshot 53MM Humbucker and their AB single coils.

Their Upshot pickup is low profile, which is great for shallow pickup routes, and the string spacing is meant to work with a Floyd Rose. Most people forget that Humbuckers usually come with Gibson string spacing, which is slightly narrower than a Floyd Rose bridge spacing. This makes a big difference in getting the pole pieces to be under the strings, so look for “F-spaced” or “Trembucker” bridge pickups if you’re swapping out in a Floyd-equipped guitar.

After all of this, the guitar was re-assembled and wired up. But something was not happening. The output was a lot weaker than expected. After messing around with various pot and capacitor values, as well as removing the treble bleed cap, we had the same results. Finally, Adam figured out an exposed section of wire was grounding out. Applying a bit of tape to shield that area solved that solution, and it really came to life.

Remember, everything must be grounded properly, so when shielding an instrument or doing any electronics work inside a guitar, it’s best practice to make sure you’ve got the grounding right. When in doubt, consult a professional.

First off, the shielding tape mod isn’t snake oil. If anyone out there loves their Strat, but hates 60 cycle hum, but just tolerates it as a fact of life, do this mod immediately! For the money it’s well worth it, and I’m perplexed that it’s not something done by every major manufacturer. I’m seriously considering doing this to all of my guitars, including ones with humbuckers. With high gain situations, there was a bit of hum, but it was certainly reduced, and in its defense, the crazy fuzz pedal gets hummy even with humbuckers. Black shielding paint can work well, too, but the bottom line is any shielding is better than no shielding.

Sheptone really nails it with their pickups, yet again. The combo of the Upshot and the AB single coils was perfect for this guitar. The humbucker was nice and full, with no tone loss. Some players cite a Floyd Rose as a “tone suck,” as it removes so much wood from the guitar body. The Upshot gave it a really nice usable tone, and when on a clean amp, had plenty of clarity that wasn’t spiky, shrill or thin sounding. If these pickups were available in the early ’90s I doubt there would have been the mass exodus from these bridges. It still has a usable warmth that just sounds full and rich. Guitar players who have a single humbucker in the bridge but feel like they’re only good when the gain channel is engaged, should seriously consider installing these.

All wired up

Since it’s wired up with the center position engaging the neck pickup and the bridge pickup, it offers up a tone that’s not common on HSS guitars. The balance between the two positions is amazing, in clean sounds it gives so much more punch and clarity that you just don’t get from a traditionally-wired Strat. Yes, we don’t have a position that uses the middle pickup on its own, but this configuration seems to bring a much more usable option. The paring of the middle coil with the neck pickup brought some softer glassiness and warmth in position #2. With the bridge pickup, it brought in a nice quack-like response, a great country-ish option in position #4. On its own, the neck pickup is amazingly sweet, it just hits the edge of throatiness with plenty of chime to stay glassy.

One hiccup that did rear its ugly head during all this was due to the shoddy routing for the Floyd Rose, one of the bridge pins started to force its way through the wood. Adam superglued the front side, and glued the insert in with some 5-minute epoxy, but alas I fear it will have to be addressed at a future date; in the meantime, it is holding. I’m confident it can be repaired, as it’s quite amazing as to what a good repair person can do with some simple elements such as glue and wood.

One final touch was a trem-stopping device, by Stewart-MacDonald. It’s essentially an angled piece of brass, that screws into the tremolo cavity, with a threaded grub screw to stop a Floyd’s block from up pulling, essentially making it like a semi-decked Strat that can only drop the pitch. I’m still messing around with setting it, to give just enough warble. A great by-product is that if you break a string, the trem stays where it is, and during string changes it’s nice not to have to jam a battery, eraser or something else in the tremolo cavity to keep the bridge stable.

I don’t think I’m going to run out and install Floyd Rose bridges on all of my existing guitars, but something about this modded Strat captures the elements of where those factory superstrats came from.

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