Updated: Oct 2, 2019
For this blog I'll be going into detail about the latest addition to my own sonic arsenal, the Squier Contemporary Active Jazzmaster in Graphite Metallic, which I picked up for $599aud.
For anyone who's interested in my music adventures, I'm very much into playing alternative music, whether that be in the realms of grunge, shoegaze, metal or any mix of all those genres.
Usually you will catch me playing HH Jaguars and sometimes mustangs, but lately I've been craving a more modern, hardtail, full scale HH guitar that offers me a comfortable offset shape. Naturally, I knew a Jazzmaster would fit that bill. After some browsing the (fairly) new Squier Contemporary Active Jazzmaster caught my eye. Jazzmaster - tick, HH - tick, hardtail - tick. It also sports contemporary features such as a 12" fingerboard radius (as opposed to the 7.25" on the other Jazzmaster I own) and simplified controls (one 3-way toggle switch, 1 volume, 1 tone).
The reason I was going for all these features is because I was looking for a simple HH guitar that will play easily, and I wanted to forgo the trem on this Jazzmaster in favour of a hardtail in order to facilitate a tighter break angle and eliminate the pingy metallic overtones usually associated with the behind-the-bridge area of traditional Jazzy's.
I know, the traditionalists will be crying blasphemy, but rest assured, my other Jazzmaster is still firmly a 'Jazzmaster'. This short break angle is important for my music project (working title Warehouse Party) for recording tight (also hence the longer scale than my usual Jaguar), heavily distorted passages with a minimum of overtones coming from behind the bridge. Anyway, long story short I bought the Squier Contemporary Active Jazzmaster as a platform to handle these requirements.
So, the first part of this blog will go into the pros and cons of this guitar (and I mean this one in particular, as we all know quality of guitars are NOT uniform across the board for guitars, especially at this price point) stock.
- Neck feels great, I love the satin finish and 12" radius. I didn't really need to do any radical fretwork, which is in direct contrast to the Squier Classic Vibe Jaguar I also recently obtained.
- Great, simple controls. The switch and pots work flawlessly.
- The guitar is completely comfortable, and I'm sure you will agree has an amazing finish. Squier really nailed the colour palette for this guitar.
- Nut. The nut is plastic, and I don't like that. Wasn't cut particularly well either. Neither of these facts give this nut the best chance the best chance at keeping the guitar in tune.
- Pickups. I'm not saying I don't like active pickups, I really don't mind them, I even like some of them (Fishman modern Fluence sets in particular). But this set, well it's not for me. Distorted sounded fine but clean sounded completely devoid of the character i love and usually associate with passives. So wanting the characteristics of a passive pickup out of an active set certainly might not be fair, but it is what it is. Luckily pickups are about the easiest thing to change about guitars!
- Tuners. To be fair they aren't terrible, but I don't like that they aren't staggered. This is because the treble side tuners end up pulling the strings up at a harsh angle after they leave the string tree, and this is bad for tuning stability. Again tuners are an easy thing to replace so it's certainly no deal-breaker for me.
- The Bridge. Not knocking it for the usual reasons you would knock cheap hardware. For what it is it works very well. No rattle, the radius is good. I just wish it had a greater intonation range, especially since this guitar is even advertised as one which can handle drop tunings. I have this guitar set up in Drop D Flat, and there is only just enough range in intonation on this guitar to get the low E string to intonate properly. Again this is not the end of the world as this bridge could easily be replaced with a Gotoh or Tonepros bridge with greater intonation range.
So basically, this guitar is a prime candidate to modify to be a killer instrument, while still being affordable even with mods!
To address the shortcomings (for my purposes), I chose to install the following modifications:
1. Bare Knuckle Pickups Ceramic Black Hawk pickup set to replace the active pickups. I went for these in order to keep up with the contemporary aesthetic and tonality I was seeking from this guitar. What better way to address the issues I was having with the stock pickups than by installing pickups which boast the clarity of active pickups, and the characteristics and reactivity in dynamics of my favourite passive pickups. These also have the added bonus of not requiring a 9v battery, and look completely badass with their twin blade design! Although they only measure around 8.0-8.6 kΩ in DC resistance, they pack quite a punch due to their magnet and blade design.
2. Gotoh SG381 MGT Locking Tuning Key Set, improved stagger and locking ability over the stock tuners, which are average at best. I got a black set to keep in line with the overall aesthetic of the guitar.
3. Bone Nut. Improved sustain, tonality and tuning stability over stock plastic nut
4. Electronic overhaul. Full cavity shielding with conductive adhesive copper tape. New pots, including a CTS 500K volume pot, and a push/push 500K pot for partial coil spliiting using 4k7 resistors. Treble bleed comprising sprague .001 mfd cap and 120k 1/4W resistor added to volume pot. Sprague 0.022 cap used for tone pot. Wired with vintage cloth wire. I reused the existing jack and selector switch.
5. As an extra feature I tapped M3 sized threads into the bridge and tailpiece where they meet anchor points in order to secure, or lock, them firmly in place with 4mm and 6mm long grub screws respectively. This 'locks' the bridge and tailpiece in place, offering increased sustain and intonation accuracy as the bridge in particularly will not be allowed to wriggle and move and the stresses of everyday use.
You can also follow the modding process on my YouTube video:
Ok, So to begin I got the strings off and disassembled the guitar.
As you can see the guitar features a swimming pool pickup rout, so you are fairly free to use whatever pickups you like in there with a minimum of modification (so long as they are pickguard mountable). The stock electronics were fairly solid as these things go, sporting alpha pots and some fairly neat wiring. Sadly, Everything was stripped out except the switch and the jack (I kept the jack even though its a stereo jack because it looks cool and stereo jacks do a better job of 'clamping' jacks in than most cheap mono jacks anyway. If it ain't broke, don't fix it). This included removing the wiring for the active components, so the wiring was also removed between the output jack and the battery box.
To begin the electronic upgrade process, I shielded all of the cavities and the back of the pickguard with conductive adhesive copper tape, to form a faraday cage around the electronics which will help shield the guitar from excessive noise interference.
With the shielding complete, I could move onto wiring up the electronics. For the control scheme of this guitar, I wanted something basic and foolproof. So I went with the 3 way toggle for pickup selection, and 1 volume and 1 tone control, with the tone control doubling as a push/push to activate the partial coil splitting easily.
Here's the wiring diagram I came up with for this guitar:
You'll notice that I wired the neck pickup using the south finish wire as my hot, and the north finish wire as ground, operating the coil split using the north and south start wires. What this does is grounds out the bottom coil of the pickup instead of the top so that the top coil becomes my active coil for the neck pickup when the partial coil split is engaged. I do this for a couple of reasons:
1. Jazzmaster's are setup somewhat like an archtop guitar, and there is a big difference in space between the coils and the strings for the top and bottom coils. With many humbuckers, this means there is a very considerate output drop when going between full humbucker and coil split modes for the neck pickup because the usually selected bottom coil is farther away from the strings. Therefore the top coil can be a better option to use for coil splitting in these circumstances as there is less output drop than when using the bottom coil.
2. When the pickups are set on, the middle (both pickups on) position becomes hum cancelling. I first discovered this method of wiring on my Kurt Cobain Signature Jaguar and loved the tone that it produced, so why not use it here?
Apart from that the wiring is fairly standard for a HH guitar except that it uses 4k7 resistors between the coil and ground so that some output from the grounded out coils of the humbucker are bled back into the signal (hence the coil is 'partially' split) to provide a beefier sound that yields less volume drop. Think somewhere between a single coil and P-90 kind of tone. This is one of my favourite mods to do to humbuckers to provide a very useable tonal option in split coil mode.
I also make use of a treble bleed for a smoother and more useable volume rolloff. This mod is very useful for those who like to use the volume control to 'clean up' their guitar tone.
The finished electronics looked something like this:
With wiring out of the way, I moved onto replacing the tuners. I don't need to go into much detail for this as it was very easy. I simply unscrewed the old pickups and removed them, dropped in the new locking ones making sure the stagger was correct, and screwed them into place. Easy-peasy!
Next was removing the old plastic nut and replacing it with a new bone nut. The old nut came out easy, I removed it by simply gently pulling it out with my fret pulling pliers. There didn't appear to be any adhesive holding it in place. Next I got an unbleached bone nut and fashioned a new one. You can briefly see the watered down process on the video embedded above in this blog post. Basically, the process involves sanding and cutting down the blank to properly fit the nut slot, filing the nut roughly to shape, marking and cutting in the string slots, final shaping, and then polishing and gluing in place.
The final modification I made was converting the tailpiece and bridge to be locking. This was a relatively simple process, but does require a tap and die set (you can get these from your local hardware store). Using a drill press I drilled the appropriate sized holes in the anchor points of the bridge and tailpiece. I then used a thread tap to create threads to accommodate small hex grub screws to lock the hardware in place. As I stated before, this simple mod adds reliability to the intonation and adds sustain as the bridge and tailpiece cannot move and lose vibration energy.
Voila! Modifications complete!
All that was left was to string up the guitar with some Ernie Ball Beefy Slinky 11-54's and let rip! I honestly couldn't be happier with this guitar!
Hope this blog post has been interesting and maybe given you some ideas for your own projects! If you want us at Cowan Guitars to do similar modifications to your guitar, please don't hesitate to get in contact through this website, through Facebook, Instagram (search Cowan Guitars), or drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Wondering how this guitar sounds?
Check out this video!
Thanks for reading!