Saturday, 14 September 2013

Custom Scratchplates for the Electric Guitar

This is a tricky one. One of the easiest ways of modifying your guitar has to be the scratchplate switching job. But beware, there are many deep chasms of absurdity awaiting the unwary pickguard seeker in the candy coloured labyrinth that is the modern marketplace!

It's not too much of a problem if your a Gretsch or a Gibson aficionado - you just get that little Bakelite or Polyurethane wing and stick it on. These are fairly harmless little creatures, they're not going to drastically change the overall look or 'personality' of your axe, just a bow-tie or a nice set of cufflinks kind of thing (caveat to this: SG and Flying V pickguards are more of a fancy waistcoat!). Also, you don't have to disembowel your instrument (desoldering, unscrewing the pickups/switches) to replace the old one. Although this creates problems in other areas as can be inferred below.

I guess what I'm really wanting to talk about here is the transformative properties enabled by Leo Fender's original idea of interchangeable (disposable?) 'bolt on parts'.

Unlike one-piece guitars or glued in neck types, with a Fender you can just screw a new neck on if your old one is a bit warped, the frets are a little chewed up or there's an eight inch crack along the headstock. Unless its a really expensive vintage instrument, its often a lot cheaper and quicker than going to a luthier.

The biggest revolution with Fender's though (especially the Strat) was the innovative large scratchplate design that had all the electronic pots, switches and pickups attached to it rather than screwed into the actual guitar body itself, as happens with many other brands.

By unscrewing and flipping over this scratchplate - make sure you have enough 'loose cable' - you have unprecedented access to all the electronics, and with a few deft touches with a soldering iron all you have to do is 'release' the joins on the bridge earth wire and the jack wires and Hey Presto! The whole assembly will come away in a nice big neat chunk.

With a standard Telecaster guitar its actually a little easier in one way, you have the scratchplate for the pickups and an oval metal plate that pops out for the pots and switches. These steel plates can also be found in customized options - brushed steel, anodized black, etched and so on. But it's the larger plastic pickguards that intrigue me for the purposes of this blog.

Up until relatively recently, if you wanted to swap your scratchplate you were offered a relatively measly selection from which to choose from: mostly plain, solid colours or traditional tortoiseshell or pearlescent. Some of these can look really cool on the right guitar. Often by putting a different colored plate on a guitar that wasn't and isn't the factory spec can look surprisingly cool and interesting, giving a totally new look to an instrument. For example, for a long time I used to have an aversion to candy apple red Strats...until it dawned on me one fine day: it wasn't the red that bothered me, it was the combination of that colour with the standard spec white scratchplate. I thought the whole look was kind of cheap and tacky.

Then I saw a really beautiful Charvel Strat copy in candy apple red in a guitar mag in the late 80's...with a black scratchplate!!! Wow, what aesthetic revolutions can be triggered by the addition of a bit of plastic. Plain scratchplates can give an incredibly cool look to the most battered and common of guitar colours, 'IF' just the right plate is added. I've always thought that naturally finished or 'unfinished' guitar bodies look great with a plain plate - black or white on the grain of Ash or Alder is organic simplicity to me. I also have a kinky affection for mint green plates too. Never forget pickup and control switch colors too, a slight contrast is sometimes a good thing - although I do like black with a black plate on most Fender's.

After getting the solid colors out of the way, and maybe giving a nod of respect to the tortoiseshell's and mirror's on Jag's and Jazzmaster's (original is best here I think), we get to the more way out stuff. These plates are for the kind of folks who maybe don't want to spend a wad of cash on a custom painted body, but want to 'jazz up' their stock guitar. Maybe they're thinking of upgrading the pickups on their Mexican Strat or Tele, or they just fancy a new colour for their Epiphone/Gibson SG or Flying V.

The 'aftermarket' scratchplate can solve all these problems for as little as £10/$15 and a little bit of elbow grease with a soldering iron and a screwdriver. Skull's and crossbones, California sunsets, Gothic graveyards filled with zombies and Leopard skin prints are just some of the weird and wonderful guitar pickguard designs now available - if not at your local guitar shop - online.

Personally, they're not really my thing. I'm more a fellow traveller with the vintage retro look and sound brigade. But hey, when I was a Heavy Metal teen back in the 80's, I know I would have loved to stick one of those scary bits of plastic on my know what teenagers are like!

Each to their own I guess. If you're a Flying V or Ibanez 'Super-strat' owner, I guess you're never gonna be that shy and retiring, no matter how many grey hairs you've accumulated or got left on your head. I'll go as far as that 60's San Fran, flower power psychedelia look for my scratchplates - and no further. Well, it depends on the guitar...

~ H-Allen

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