Updated: Oct 2, 2019
December 2018 (Blog finally posted September 2019)
I am very proud to finally reveal the first commissioned Cowan Guitars rebuild, project phantom!
Simon approached me early in November with a vox phantom inspired guitar (made by Onyx) with the radical vision of completely rebuilding the guitar to do away with the strat style tremolo, to be replaced with a vibrato system more reminiscent of a jazzmaster. Naturally, I was very excited to work on such a project as modifying guitars to match the style and personality of its user is what I love doing!
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, here is a quick overview of the specs the rebuild ended up with:
- 25.5” scaleMaple neck, rosewood fingerboard, medium jumbo frets. 12” radius. C profile poly finish
- Hand cut bone nut
- Jaguar/Jazzmaster/Mustang bridge with Allan Pascoe Brass adjustable saddles
- Trapeze vibrato system
- Orpheus by David Paul Jaguar pickups. Bridge pickup custom with coil tap option.
- CTS mini 500K pots with Russian PIO capsBourns push/pull for coil splitting
- Vintage Cloth Wiring
- CRL 3 way blade switch for pickup selection
- Original Stratocaster Tremolo System cavities completely plugged for maximum sustain, resonance, and body integrity.
- Custom Pickguard by Black Guitars
- Full cavity shielding with conductive copper tape
The first and most major task to complete after the guitar was completely disassembled was to completely plug the existing strat tremolo cavities. This would be necessary for the structural integrity of the guitar, and also an effective way of increasing the sustain and resonance of the guitar. I decided to do this I would need to make two blocks (using some very nice 40 year old cedar stored in my uncles workshop). The first block was made for the back cavity of the guitar, and was meticulously crafted for a tight fit with a lot of patient sanding and filing. Before starting the block for the front cavity of the guitar, I enlarged the front tremolo cavity with a router (I made a jig to ensure the cuts were straight ) and squared the corners to better accept a block. This routing was done with the bottom block secure in its cavity, so that the new block would fit into it like a jigsaw. After this was done a new block was cut to size, and both blocks were glued and clamped into the cavity using hide glue. Task 1 complete!
While the blocks were drying in the guitar I had the opportunity to take a look at the fretwork on the neck of the guitar. While the frets weren’t the worst I’d ever seen, they were far from the best. The fret ends were unfinished, a couple of frets were not seated properly, and an attempt was made to roll the fretboards over which resulted in a rather sharp chamfer, the angle of which was matched on the frets which made them especially sharp. So first I made sure all frets were seated correctly (and glued with CA glue where necessary), and went to work removing all the sharp edges of the frets, and then rounded them over to be more comfortable to play. After this was done all frets were polished and ready for action!
Meanwhile, the blocks had been given over 24 hours to completely set, and a sharp chisel was used to complete any levelling work to make sure the blocks were completely flush with the body. My next task involved measuring the body of the guitar with the neck to figure out where I had to drill holes in the body to accommodate the new bridge. This part of the job is very important, if the bridge isn’t in keeping with the specs of the scale of the guitar, the guitar will be next to impossible to intonate. After careful measuring, the appropriate sized holes were drilled where they needed to be, and an extra hole was drilled from one of those holes to the main cavity of the guitar to accommodate a grounding wire to the bridge.
Another problem that came up during the initial disassembly of the guitar was the neck pocket. The neck pocket of this guitar had been painted, with textured shielding paint no less. The problem with this is that the textured paint is an uneven surface, and prohibits maximum coupling between the neck and the body and will inhibits optimal vibration transference between the neck and body, Luckily, this is easily fixed with some careful chiselling to remove the paint and provide a flat wood-to-wood coupling surface for the neck.
Above: The neck pocket before and after having paint removed
While I was busy working on the body and neck of the guitar, Simon was working to procure all the necessary components he wanted in his build. This involved a nifty vibrato system reminiscent of that of moserite's mixed with bigsby, but wonderfully simplified to a more aesthetically simple and pleasing appearance. This also involved getting what would be a critical addition for making the project a success - awesome new pickups!
David Paul of Orpheus pickups was the perfect man for the job, and provided some hand wound orpheus jaguar pickups. A nice set of three, including a dual output bridge pickup.
For now, my work on the body of the guitar was complete, and Simon could then employ Black Guitars to make a new pickguard to accommodate the guitars new fittings and cover up the block work on the front of the guitar.
While only the neck was in my possession, it was decided that the headstock logo had to go, so I stripped the poly finish off the headstock of the guitar. I lucked out on buying the perfect stain for the headstock to perfectly match the amber colour of the rest of the neck. After this it was a matter of patience in applying 8 coats of wipe on glossy poly over the next few days. Finally the headstock poly got cut back, buffed and polished and looked pretty good if I do say so myself!
Above: Stripping the finish off the headstock and the finished product
The original plastic nut was removed and I noticed another problem that needed fixing - the but slot wasn’t well cut, and at some point a piece of the rosewood had chipped off, and this was repaired using way too much rosewood dust and CA glue, creating an uneven slot surface. Luckily this wasn’t too much of a problem as I carefully corrected the hump in the nut slot with an appropriate file.
After a week, Simon reunited me with the body of the guitar with a brand new custom cut pickguard! After I corrected the sizes of the pickup cavities to accommodate the pickups, and modified the fit of the neck pocket and enlarged the control holes, we were finally ready to begin the electronics!
To start with, the back of the pickguard was shielded with copper tape. And I decided on a control scheme for the guitar. Because Simon didn’t make use of the traditional strat control scheme, and did make use of separate pickup volume controls I made my own scheme up for the wiring. This involved using a 3 way switch for traditional pickup selection, but changed the other controls. Instead of 1 volume and 2 tones, this guitar was to have a master tone and an independent volume for the bridge pickup, while the neck and middle pickup shared a volume. The master tone was also to be a push/pull pot to easily select the high or low output for the dual output bridge pickup. No corners were cut with only premium parts being used for the electrical rewiring. CTS 500K mini pots, Bournes 500K push/pull pot for the master tone, switchcraft output jack, CRL 5 way blade switch, Russian Paper-in-Oil capacitor, and each volume was given a treble bleed mod for better treble frequency roll-off. All components were wired together with the pickups with vintage cloth wiring. After the pickguard was complete I decided the guitar would greatly benefit from full shielding, and proceeded to shield the cavities of the guitar with copper tape, making sure a full faraday cage was created when the pickguard was installed.
Above: Electronics and Shielding in progress!
Finally, the guitar was ready to be assembled! The vibrato system was screwed through the pickguard to the body, the new mustang bridge with Allan Pascoe brass saddles was installed, and after a 1° shim was placed in the neck pocket the neck was finally reunited with the body!
The final task before I could do the final setup of the guitar was to create the nut, which I did out of an unbleached bone nut blank.
The final setup was completed, and Simon’s vision was ready to come to life!
The first thing that I noticed when I strummed my first chord (poorly strummed given I had just burned my hand in an accident) was that the guitar had such great sustain and resonance. More than what was possible before with the strat tremolo system. My work blocking the cavities with a quality wood had paid its dividends!
The Orpheus pickups brought the guitar plenty of that jag jangle, which combined with the extra sustain the guitar has provides a unique character to its sound.
The final touch to the build was a padded leather cover (procured/made by Simon) for the back of the guitar, to complete the look and add some stylish comfort!
So there we have it, the 'Not' Vox Phantom rebuild is complete, and is ready to make it's appearance on the Melbourne and interstate gigging scenes!
Thanks for reading!