Guitar Project #1: Fender ‘Ronald Jones’ tribute Jaguar (part 2)

At long last! The final part of my first guitar project: the Fender ‘Ronald Jones’ Jaguar. What I thought would take several weeks to complete ended up taking several months…

Quite a bit has happened since I wrote the first part on Ronald’s guitar. After diving into the extended discography of the Flaming Lips I discovered a lot more audio bootlegs and videos with Ronald in the band. Also I finally listened to the ‘Heady Nuggs: 20 Years After Clouds Taste Metallic’ album which was a pleasant aural experience while completing this guitar. Furthermore I found out Ronald continued to play music after the Lips, which was a big surprise. He recorded with Richard Davies, with whom the Lips have performed as backing band as well as touring with Richard and his own band, the Moles. Check out this Lips live performance of them playing a Moles  cover: Anyway, the album Ronald played on is called ‘Telegraph’. It’s on YouTube in its entirety so check it out. It is really good standalone album, even you factor out the whole Ronald Jones association. Richard Davies has a lot more great albums (like ‘Cardinal’) I noticed, so thanks Ronald for introducing me to his music!

Continuing with the completion of the Jaguar. In the previous installment I didn’t have all the parts and the electronics weren’t wired up yet. Anyways, soldering was a pain and at first it didn’t work and shorted out somewhere. Luckily it only took one attempt at trouble-shooting. The top rhythm controls turned out to not be properly grounded, luckily an extra wire to the bridge ground did the trick. After plugging it in an amp everything seemed to be working OK. Not to shabby for a quite complex circuit like a Jaguar! The vibrato tailpiece is a new AVRI Jaguar/Jazzmaster tremolo. It was pricey but a whole lot better than the cheap Chinese tremolo that was on this guitar before I bought it. The AVRI also has the ability to lock the vibrato spring making it more stable when not in use. The electronics and vibrato were finished a while back as I am writing this blog. A while back meaning early November… The guitar was working but I couldn’t play the damn thing! The neck was the final pieces of the puzzle.

I was going to buy a new Jaguar neck from Stratosphere on eBay. Originally I wanted to find an original Jaguar neck from the 60s or 70s but you can’t really find these locally and prices are too high on sites like eBay. But long story short, it was also quite pricey to get a new one shipped from America to the Netherlands with added shipping and import costs (the dollar is also relatively high to the euro). My quest for a neck therefore began locally. I didn’t find one for a long time which is the reason it took so long for this blog to be updated. The Universe seemed to magically disappear any neck I would find. 3 different Mustang necks from ’65/’66 all slipped through my fingers because of stupid reasons, i.e. the seller not responding to my messages after awhile. Very frustrating when you want to finish the damn guitar! Finally this ’78 Fender Mustang neck came along. Although I was hoping to get a Fender neck from the same year as the  60s pickguard and neck pickup like Ronald’s original Jag(s), I do like these slightly chunkier 70s Mustang necks. It must have been faith because the guy who sold it to me was also named Ronald!

The neck wasn’t complete though. I had to buy new tuners and string guides since both were missing from the neck. These 70s reissue Fender tuners aren’t really like the original chrome Klusons found on Jaguars but adding these meant having to drill new holes on the neck. 60s and 70s Mustang guitars had this same style of tuners but with white plastic buttons on top. At least the added chrome parts with the reissue tuners matches nicely with this Jaguar.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How does she sound? I had to adjust the Jag quite a bit to get it to play comfortable and to match the different pickup outputs. The ‘stock’ Jag neck pickup is loud enough by itself, but the Hot Rails are really high output in comparison. Finding a bit of a balance was essential. I might not go for playing both pickups on at the same time, at least when switching between both I think I have it setup pretty nice now. I haven’t had the chance to play the Jag a lot but she sounds great clean or with overdrive and a ton of effects. I get why Ronald used Jaguars with Hot Rails, you get the best of both worlds with this combination of pickups. The neck is really comfortable to play, very smooth and fast profile. I might want to change the strings to something a bit thicker but I’m satisfied at the moment.

This January I went to a Flaming Lips concert for the first time ever. I was much too young to have seen them live in the 90s, even-so Steven said during the show he didn’t remember the last time they performed in the Netherlands. Probably even before he joined in ’91 or not at all… I’m not the greatest fan of their recent album(s), the show was amazing nonetheless so it didn’t bother me. It were mostly songs from previous albums, although I disliked the Lips didn’t play any songs prior to ‘Soft Bulletin’. Speaking of concerts, Future Heart posted a little backstory of Ronald’s final concert with the band: Interesting read, more-so because they also posted a couple of songs from that last show. Great audio and the performances were stellar from a band that was about to splinter…

Lastly, someone made a ‘short’ documentary on Ronald Jones and his time with the Flaming Lips. It’s nothing officially or anything by the way. Not for everyone I guess but I certainly found it interesting:

Well, I’m so glad I got to finish this guitar after all these months. It has been almost a year since I first had the idea to build this tribute, too bizarre. Thanks Ronald!

(PS: the Billy Corgan Stratocaster is also coming along for any one who was curious what happened to that project! I have also recently acquired a chopped-up Ibanez Ripper bass. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen in awhile and that’s an understatement!)


Guitar Project #3: 90s Fender Duo-Sonic

Didn’t expect this in-between guitar project, I didn’t even know of the existence of this particular reissue. I came across this guitar when browsing the local Craigslist-variant on the look-out for a neck for my Fender Jaguar. Unfortunately, still haven’t found one but more on that later. The Duo-Sonic parts were pretty cheap, so I figured why not? If I don’t like it in the long run I could probably sell it for a nice profit.

These Duo-Sonics were introduced in 1993 by Fender Mexico and made until 1997. The color options were Arctic White, Black or Torino Red, although there was also a (very limited?) series featuring the ‘Competition’ colors with the racing stripes. The body is made from poplar like most guitars from Mexico at the time. This ‘reissue’ is a weird mix from the different years of the original run of the Duo-Sonic from the 50s and 60s. The neck is the strangest thing on this guitar. It has a scale length of 22.7 inches, 20 frets and has a rather big nut width compared to its shortscale size. I’d almost compare it to the nut width of a modern Stratocaster.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As you can see in the pictures the Duo-Sonic was missing a few parts; I only got the body, neck, pickguard and bridge. Luckily, the electronics were few and the Kluson tuners cheap. I decided to use the two Lace Sensor single coil pickups I originally intended to use in my Billy Corgan tribute Strat which is still in the works. More on that later as well.

The original 90s reissue had Stratocaster-style pickups and a matching set of Strat volume and tone knobs, as seen above on the page header. I’m really used to the black Jazz Bass-style knobs on my Fender Mustangs so I opted for these instead. The three-way toggle I bought is a more heavy-duty toggle compared to the mini toggles found on most Duo-Sonics, which are rather flimsy and small. The body rout is a bit small to accommodate some larger switches, bit of advice if someone wants to switch these out. The tuners used on these 90s Duo-Sonics are crappy and have a strange shape and size. Finding replacement tuners that fit exactly is impossible. The bushings are also very small (didn’t come with the guitar) and I had to rout the tuner holes to fit the Kluson bushings. I couldn’t find any smaller bushings, but I had to drill new holes for the tuners so I figured modding the neck for new bushings wasn’t that big of a deal.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The sound of this particular Duo-Sonic is very interesting because of its super-shortscale size and the Lace pickups. It packs quite a punch for its diminutive size and I’m really loving the neck profile. The string tension is quite low with a regular set of .010’s, I’d recommend something a bit thicker if you’re going to play in E standard. I was also worried about the intonation because of the two-strings-per-saddle bridge design and the shorter scale in general. The strings haven’t settled in perfectly but the intonation and tuning stability is definitely far better than I expected. I also really, really like the color combination of the red, white and black with the maple fretboard on this guitar!

A small update on the Ronald Jones Jaguar and Billy Corgan Stratocaster: I still haven’t found a neck for this guitar. It really bums me out as I would have liked to have finished it months ago. If I can’t find one in the area in the next month I guess I’ll have to try eBay but that’s pricey… The Stratocaster body will be refinished in the next few weeks, hoping I can get the electronics done by then. Although I just cannibalized two of these Lace Sensors for this Duo-Sonic I found an original 90s set of Red, Silver and Blue Laces like Corgan used! I’ll post some pics when I finish the body and install the new hardware.

Desert Island Pedals #2: Overdrive

Overdrive! An effect as old as rock ‘n’ roll, before the first overdrive pedals even existed. The sound of an overdriven tube amp has been the catalyst of many a musicians career and spawned a legion of genres. The overdrive pedal has tried to capture the sound of an amp on the point of breakup or beyond, some more successful than others in recreating that arm-hair-raising sound. We live in a golden age of effects pedals and this has created a plethora of overdrive pedals to choose from. Especially because overdrive can have so many (slight) nuances in sonic perception, being based on tones from famous amps or clones of (vintage) pedals or simply having different components (silicon, germanium, JFET, MOSFET, etcetera, etcetera), people have become very picky. At least this seems so based on the market for current overdrive pedals, judging by the amount of ‘new’ overdrive designs almost every week. I’ll admit this probably won’t make buying a new overdrive any easier if you’ve got this much options.

My experiences with overdrive have been pretty straightforward and I although I haven’t had/tried to much of these pedals in person I’m quite happy with my current assets on my pedalboard. Starting out as a bass player I somehow gravitated more towards modulation effects like flangers and delays before getting my first overdrive pedal. Actually, my first ever pedal I had was a Boss fuzz pedal but that didn’t get much use then. Relatively late I got my first overdrive pedal for use with my basses, which is still on my pedalboard. After starting out on electric guitar I needed a more guitar orientated pedal, which I found in the gray box described below.

My overdrive favorites at the moment are two boutique pedals: the Solid Gold FX Beta and the Gray Channel from Earthquaker Devices. I’m not really a boutique snob and have plenty run-of-the-mill, workingman’s pedals on my board, but these two just happened to do it for me. The Beta was my first real overdrive pedal. It is designed for bass but it works great for guitar just as well. This pedal can go from a slight Motown-like boost to a mild overdrive/distortion. It doesn’t mess up your low-end and while using it with a band it never gets harsh and always blends in with your live sound. I like the mellow tones from this overdrive, very vintage sounding, but I guess this wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

The Gray Channel is a recent addition to my pedalboard. Almost everything I have tried and heard from Earthquaker Devices is great, the Hummingbird tremolo is another mainstay on my board. Too bad these pedals are pretty pricey but they are certainly worth the extra cash. The Gray Channel is based on the DOD 250, a simple 2 knob overdrive from the 70s, ironing out some of its quirks and adding some more features. I love the 2 channel layout with the different clipping options which give very diverse overdrive types.With these switches you can approximate others overdrive pedals like the MXR Distortion+ or a Boss DS-1 (but much better). When you crank the pedal on the no-diode setting you get into op-amp Big Muff territory (Smashing Pumpkins!).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

An honorable mention goes to the Way Huge Angry Troll. Technically a boost pedal, this angry mofo can go from a slight clean boost to full distortion depending on the settings. I have tried out this pedal almost two years ago but I want to get one soon. I should make room on my pedalboard first though…

Next time I will (hopefully) be completing one of the Guitar Projects. I still haven’t had any luck finding a shortscale Fender neck for the Ronald Jones Jaguar… *sigh* The Stratocaster is ready to be refinished and I’ll likely be ready to assemble everything by the end of the month. I do need to buy a Strat neck but these are very easy to find compared to the Jag. Either way I can’t wait to finish and play both after all this time!

Guitar Project #2: Fender ‘Billy Corgan’ tribute Stratocaster (part 1)

Now for a guitar player most people will have heard about hahaha. Billy Corgan is known as the (lead) guitarist and vocalist of the group the Smashing Pumpkins. Emerging from the late 80s dreampop/indie scene the Pumpkins mixed 70s arena rock with shoegaze, heavy metal and psychedelic elements. Billy Corgan’s guitar sound is very easily recognizable, particularly his intense lead tone (for example: ‘Cherub Rock’ or ‘Hummer’). Which reminds me I still need a good Big Muff pedal…

Credit where credit is due, all members of the Smashing Pumpkins were talented individuals in their own right (yes, even D’arcy!). James Iha is an incredibly talented guitar player, even while he was sometimes overshadowed by Corgan in the Pumpkins. Jimmy Chamberlin is still one of my favorite drummers. His jazzy style and fills helped make the sound of band so different and unique even to this day. D’arcy Wretzky’s bass lines were sometimes unexpectedly groovy for some songs (in a positive way), her bass playing was always solid and locked in with Chamberlin. Check out this live performance from the Pumpkins at Pinkpop ’94 and witness how tight and dynamic they were as a band:

This Stratocaster is loosely based on the Strats Corgan used in the early and mid 90s with the Pumpkins. Corgan favored several 70s Strats with Lace Sensor pickups during this period. He also used a ’57 sunburst AVRI, again equipped with Lace Sensors. I will be using Lace Sensor pickups as well, but not quite what Corgan was using. Also the electronics will feature some extra bonuses to ‘upgrade’ the standard Stratocaster wiring, more on that later.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Like the ‘Ronald Jones’ Jaguar it’s missing a few crucial parts, mainly the neck. Good thing Strat necks aren’t hard to come by, at least compared to finding the right Jag neck… more on that later. The body is perfect for this project, the psychedelics just ooze from that groovy etching. It’s not an original Fender body but a homemade ash one. According to the guy who sold it it is from the 70s which would explain the whole hummingbird/floral-themed etching. At least it’s from the same period as Corgan’s Strats. The wood grain is quite beautiful so I want a nice transparent lacquer, but I haven’t gotten around to finish it yet. Plus natural lacquer is something I strongly associate with the 70s. It is also a two-piece body, normally pretty pricey on most guitars. Originally my brother bought this body and he routed an extra cavity under the pickups, which was done very crudely with a drill. Since then I have tried to clean it up by properly routing the cavity. The body was/is quite heavy for a Strat (probably because it’s ash), so the back has been sanded down quite a bit. The cavity also relieves some of the weight though.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The pickups are a ‘set’ of vintage Lace Sensors pickups from the late 80s, a ‘Dually Red-Red’ bridge, ‘Gold’ middle and ‘Blue’ neck pickup. The person who sold these pickups claimed they were from a Stratocaster Ultra, but I don’t believe this to be true. They are definitely from the late 80s but no way from the same guitar or an Ultra for that matter. Not that I care, I bought them for a fair price. Black covers were never used on Ultras, only white ones. On the front the neck and middle pickups are stamped ‘AGI’, the company who produced these for Lace, while the bridge humbucker is labelled ‘Fender Lace Sensor’. The pickups made for Fender where labelled like the latter example the AGI ones were sold directly from Lace in the late 80s. Likely the humbucker came from a Telecaster Plus and the other pickups were from a different guitar(s).

Corgan used a set of ‘Red’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Blue’ single coil Lace Sensors, so mine aren’t exactly what he used. The ‘Gold’ middle pickup is more akin to a 50s Stratocaster while a ‘Silver’ has a hotter output comparable to a 70s one. Other changes I’ll be adding is a three-way toggle for the humbucker to switch between both coils or combine them, just like on a Telecaster Plus. The second tone pots on Stratocasters have always seemed pretty useless to me. CTS makes a handy gizmo called a ‘Blender’ pot. This pot can be installed to replace the second tone pot. When it’s turned all the way up clockwise it is taken out of the circuit (no-load). If you turn it counter-clockwise it will blend in certain pickups depending on the five-way pickup selector. In position 1 and 5 it will add the neck (or bridge) pickup with the bridge (or neck) pickup like on a regular Telecaster, normally impossible on a Stratocaster. Likewise in position 2 and 4 it allows you to turn on all pickups! I have high hopes from this wiring and love to hear all the possible combinations, also with the added three-way bridge toggle.

In the coming few weeks I’ll try to finish the Stratocaster (get it?), so I’ll only be needing a neck. The electronics are a challenge but compared to the Jaguar it will likely be a breeze. Very glad all the electronics are working properly on the Ronald Jones Jag, it was a pain to wire. I am still looking for a neck for the Jaguar, haven’t given up just yet. If anyone has a (vintage) Jaguar, Mustang, Musicmaster, Bronco or even a Jag-Stang neck for sale contact me! Preferably in the Netherlands though.

Pawn shop scores: Gibson Marauder

I’d never thought I would ever be writing about both these subjects: 1. had never visited a pawn shop in my life, 2. didn’t have any real ambition of ever buying a Marauder, 3. pawn shops and guitars aren’t really the place to find quality guitars for not a lot of cash. Those days now seem long gone with the existence of the Internet and auction sites like eBay and Reverb.

There is a little backstory behind the Marauder and me, so I wasn’t being completely honest about not wanting to own one of these guitars. Maybe also rephrasing it slightly, it wasn’t that I wouldn’t want one but they suddenly were getting more expensive in the last few years. I mean I could still buy one, the price tag isn’t that ‘high’ in comparison to other vintage Gibsons, but they cost more than I would be willing to spend on a budget guitar from the 70s. A lot of people bash on Norlin-era Gibsons but the guitar hipsters who want sometime different are driving up the prices of these rare-ish oddball guitars. A term I read recently made me chuckle: the Silvertone syndrom, which boils down on people wanting some crappy/cheap vintage instrument just to be ‘different’, increasing demand and therefore prices. Although a victim of this ‘disease’ I wouldn’t call Marauders shit. Sure they’re budget guitars from that period but no way are we talking Teisco or Harmony quality, and I’m not even trying to hate on these brands either!

Before getting this guitar I’d only played one years ago, I believe several months after I started playing bass, maybe even before that. A local guitar shop had one for sale, a natural finished ’75 with a white pickguard IIRC. The price was way too high even by today’s prices, something like 1600 (!) euros. Their reasoning being it’s a Gibson and it’s vintage… so I immediately passed. Marauders and S-1’s aren’t that rare in the Netherlands, plenty have been imported at the time so that couldn’t be a reason behind their scandalous price. After that I kind of lost interest. I would see Marauders pop up on local auction sites but didn’t really care that much. Lately my interest was rekindled but after seeing what they were going for my hope of ever getting one for a decent price was slim. So I lost interest once again…

By complete coincidence I bumped into this Gibson. In the Netherlands there is a chain of pawn shops who advertise a lot on the Internet and also have an account on the Dutch ‘Craigslist’. I’d seen the guitar with a non-OHSC case advertised a couple of days earlier but no price was mentioned only bidding. This Marauder wasn’t in that good of a shape and it was sold at a pawn shop so I figured the price would be way to high anyway. Little over a day later the guitar was re-posted but this time with a price, being just under 300 euros. As you would imagine I immediately jumped at this opportunity! Luckily no one had come to pick it up yet so the next day I was at one of their shops right when they opened.

From the pictures I already knew the guitar wasn’t in great shape and not completely stock as well. My biggest concern was that the headstock had the infamous ‘kiss of death’, meaning it had snapped off at one point. Luckily the repair was done professionally as far as I could tell and it looked solid. Apart from the toggle switch and the truss rod cover everything else is original. The case was partly broken and heavy but my expectations were already low at that price point.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How does she sound? The previous owner must have been a metal head or an idiot, because the strings were likely plucked from a baritone guitar! It sounded like I was playing a Bass VI on the lower strings. After restringing the guitar with a normal set of 10s she came right to life. The overall sound is very reminiscent of a Fender Telecaster Custom, which isn’t strange since Gibson borrowed a lot of elements from these guitars. The bridge pickup is Tele-esque but has more output to match the neck humbucker. The sound seems to have a natural compression and a very even output when bending thanks to the rail design of the pickup. The neck humbucker has a little more output than the single coil resulting in a volume bump when switching. In comparison to a normal Tele Custom the humbucker has more treble and bite. With both pickups you get a really nice combined tone with plenty of sparkly top end and low/mid end presence, ideal for use with modulation and/or overdrive. My only complaint is the weight, it’s quite heavy. I own basses which weigh much less.

After researching the serial number and shipping figures I found something really interesting. Vintage Gibson serial numbers aren’t the most useful when getting an accurate date, which they fixed by creating a standardized serial code in 1977. This particular Marauder dates to November of 1977. The shipping figures from that era ( show that just 80 Marauders were shipped in that year, with a total of only 9 natural finished guitars! 4 of which were natural satin, 5 unspecified. I don’t know if these shipping figures correspond exactly with the number of manufactured Marauders that year. It could be possible since my guitar has some overlapping features.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Marauders were (slightly) changed three times in their original production run. The first ones featured a rosewood fretboard, white pickguard, alder body and a three-way toggle pickup selector. In ’76/’77 the pickguard was changed to black, the switch replaced with a blend knob at the same location, the knobs and tuners were changed and the body was now made from maple. The headstock was also painted black and maple was now the only fretboard option. The final changes came in ’78. The blend knob was moved to in between the volume and tone pots, some Marauders now had a mahogany body, the pickup covers were changed to black and the pickguard was changed to the same pickguards used on Marauder Customs. Some of these features have some overlap. Especially the later ones when new colors were introduced sometimes had older hardware, likely Gibson was cleaning shop.

Mine has the maple fretboard but without the black headstock. You do see this combination but not a lot. All these guitars I have seen date to 1976. The serial number is also the older style version, being pressed into the finish instead of a sticker. I don’t think all this adds anything to the collectability of this particular guitar but I found it interesting nonetheless.

All in all I’m quite happy with this new addition to the family. If you’ve never tried a Marauder and do come across one check them out! At least give them a chance, the tones you can get out of them are pretty unique. The purists will hate it, the hipsters will likely love the look, but I really like the sound.

The Low End: Ibanez Black Eagle

Starting out with yet another series, this being my first blog about basses. In this series I will feature a specific bass or a particular model and showcases its history, musicians who used them and maybe some personal stories relating to whatever I’m talking about. If I get some good recording software I can upload a demo of the bass on YouTube or something. Been meaning to do that for a while anyway (also for guitar/synths) but I still haven’t got around to exactly record/buy anything…

Bass guitar was the first instrument I learned to play on and will always remain my ‘first love’ musically. Bass also got me interested in the history of guitars and basses; all the different models, the amps, effects pedals. I must have spend hours and hours looking at old catalogs on the Internet, browsing through forums looking at all these photos and reading stories of instruments I’d never seen in my life. My interest sparked by general curiosity and musicians who weren’t playing the regular ol’ Stratocaster or Les Paul. The scarcer the information online the more I became obsessed with certain guitars or basses. One of my first guitar memories was craving for a white Mosrite Ventures Mk II like Johnny Ramone played in the Ramones. Still only a bass player then, my obsession with vintage, quirky basses somehow started a little later.

At the time I was in the phase of ‘I-only-want-the-instruments-my-idols-played’ so I became very interested in the various guitars and basses Nirvana played during their heyday. This was a catalyst of sort and the ‘vintage shenanigans’ really started after I bought my second bass: an almost mint ’77 Ibanez Black Eagle. Inspired by the bass player of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic, and wanting something a bit ‘Fenderish’ I bought this beauty off eBay. Novoselic had several (3-4) Black Eagles while in Nirvana. He used them extensively on Nirvana’s first album ‘Bleach’ and most of the early tours before retiring them in favor of Gibson Rippers and RD basses. One Black Eagle was reintroduced during the ‘In Utero’ tour, instantly recognizable since the maple fretboard was replaced with a rosewood one (Krist broke the neck once…). Besides Krist I haven’t seen too many musicians playing these basses. Although endorsed by Ronald LaPread of The Commodores at the time, the only other ‘famous’ people who I have seen using a Black Eagle were Pete Reichert of Rocket From The Crypt and Lee Tomlinson of Clout.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It wasn’t easy getting this bass. Intrigued by its sound and its strange look, a kind of lovechild of a Jazz Bass and a Burns Bison bass, I saved up all my money stacking shelves at the local supermarket. Getting the money was ‘easy’ since it took me almost a year to finally find one on eBay all the way out in California (I’m from the Netherlands). The day it arrived at my house I was as giddy as a 5-year-old at Christmas, maybe even more. Luckily this Black Eagle was everything I had dreamed off and more. Remember: I’d never played one in real life, let alone seen one IRL. This was my first taste of vintage and I demanded more! So it seems fitting that the Black Eagle was the subject of my first bass blog.

A little history: the Ibanez 2609B ‘Black Eagle’ was an electric bass guitar made by Ibanez in the mid to late 70s. The original Black Eagle were manufactured in Japan as part of a ‘limited’ edition series from 1975 until 1979, the peak year of production being 1977. The bass was made during the so called post-‘Lawsuit’ era in which Ibanez had to change their instruments to avoid lawsuits from Fender and Gibson. Before this Ibanez and other mainly Japanese (sister-)companies were building almost exact replicas of several established guitar models, such as those being made by the aforementioned brands. Especially Fender and Gibson were noticing a decline in sales because of the import of these copy instruments, being cheaper and a lot of the times on par with their American counterparts.

Although the Black Eagle clearly is a Fender Jazz Bass copy it differs on several areas. The body was made of mahogany, instead of the regular alder (or ash) found on Fenders. Earlier models had a three-piece hard laminated maple neck, later ones were one-piece. The neck is one of the more recognizable features of the Black Eagle. The fretboard was marked with ‘fancy intricate inlays’ as described in the ’76 Limited Models catalog of Ibanez. This pattern was borrowed from the banjos made by Ibanez, which in turn was modeled after old Gibson banjos from the 30s. The neck had a slightly smaller scale, 33 1/2”, instead of the usual 34” Fender necks. The most ‘bizarre’ feature was the F-hole cutout in the headstock. Besides companies like Travis Bean with their aluminum neck I never seen this on any other instrument. Made from wood and not too thick this cutout was prone to breaking off, leaving many Black Eagles with a sort of ‘parrots beak’. My ’77 is one of the lucky few with an intact headstock which made me a bit paranoid every time I took it out of the house.  Have since retired it from live performances. To compliment the other quirky features the body had elongated horns which made it slightly different from a standard Jazz Bass shape, again just so to avoid further future lawsuits. The pickguard was decorated with a mother-of-pearl flying eagle, hence the name Black Eagle.

The first production-made Black Eagles were made somewhere around June 1975. Since these first basses lack a serial number an exact date is unknown. It first appeared in a 1975 catalog as part of the Custom Series by Ibanez alongside some fancy wood-carved Strats and a ‘matching’ Les Paul guitar. There exists one prototype Black Eagle made by Fujigen Japan from the 4th of June that year. It has a different neck, the same as an Ibanez 2365B which was just a regular Jazz Bass copy. The fretboard has the correct inlays but made of pearloid rather than black celluloid. The body is the exact same shape as a Fender Jazz Bass, so without the extended horns that were later added. The pickguard had the same flying eagle template and it had an ashtray cover added over the bridge.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The last of the original 70s Black Eagle basses were made in early 1979. In June of 2015 these basses were (shortly) reissued by Ibanez for the 40th anniversary of the Black Eagle, which caught me completely of-guard when they first showed this at Winter NAMM ’15. Unlike the originals they were made in Indonesia instead of Japan. I have since played one at a music store, quite liked it, but decided I didn’t need (yet) another Black Eagle. If you can still find one of these reissues try them out! The price is right and they’re much cheaper than a vintage specimen.

I’ve already talked about my ’77 Black Eagle but oh no, it doesn’t end there. About 18 months later I found another Black Eagle only this time much closer to home and a lot cheaper. This beat-up ’76 Black Eagle was demoted to wall furniture for the last 10 years before I bought it. The electronics were a mess, it was missing a strap pin and the pickguard but it played great! Some set-up adjustments and soldering shortly after and it was all up and running. After I bought the second Black Eagle I immediately noticed the major differences between the basses and figured out there was at least one ‘big’ production redesign in late ’76 or early ’77.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The first thing that struck me was the neck shape and profile of both basses. The ’76 has a much slimmer neck, comparable with a 60s/modern Jazz Bass. On the other hand the ’77 has a wider neck and a U-shape neck profile like most mid 70s Jazz Basses. The shape of the body is also different, the ’77 having more contours while the ’76 has more of a slab body, almost Telecaster Bass-like. Minor cosmetic differences are the relocation of the trussrod access from the headstock to the heal of the neck. The bridge also has two extra screws compared to the ‘older’ Black Eagles.

Not that I would have minded two identical Black Eagles but I guess I lucked out getting two different versions of the same instrument. Currently I have the ’77 Black Eagle strung up with tapewound strings, giving it almost an upright sound. Love the vintage ‘oomph’ I can get with this bass but still enough brightness on tap if you really want to dig in. Before I was using Rotosound rounds, which were great but I wanted something different. Meanwhile the other Black Eagle hasn’t strayed far from the Nirvana look and sound. I tuned this bass down to C standard (CFA#D#) with some thick roundwound strings to get that real aggressive yet crunchy bass tone with some added overdrive (for example on the first few albums of QotSA). The weight difference is also pretty apparent. The ’76 bass will shatter your collarbone with the wrong strap while the ’77 is a comparatively more average weight. This tends to vary with most Black Eagles, it is not really bound to any particular year just the piece of mahogany used to construct the body.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Almost forget to mention this but in the time between finding both basses I managed to score yet another Black Eagle. Well… only half of it. This ’75/’76 neck just came across on the Dutch equivalent of Craigslist completely random. I will be using this for my next bass project after finishing both my guitar projects first, (watch out for the next installment of Guitar Projects!) so it might take a while before I get around to finishing this ‘Black Eagle’.

Guitar Project #1: Fender ‘Ronald Jones’ tribute Jaguar (part 1)

Very few people will likely be familiar with the name ‘Ronald Jones’, but for those who do: good for you, pad yourselves on the back! In all seriousness, I think he is one of the most underrated guitar players of the 90s, definitively up there with guitarists like Jonny Greenwood, Kevin Shields or Graham Coxon. In terms of creativity and style I have yet to hear someone on that level of playing, making at times such bizarre sounds and weird phrases, that still make me wonder: “How? What just happened?” His creative ways of using certain effects and techniques was completely his own. The only one I know who does even something vaguely similar is Nick Reinhart from the band Tera Melos.

For all of you (everyone?) who don’t know who I’m talking about, Ronald Jones was the guitar player for the American band the Flaming Lips from 1992 till 1996. I have never seen him play live in person (a little too young then unfortunately). Hearing the Flaming Lips for the first time didn’t leave much of an impression on me at first. I was raised with a lot of music around me at the time, back when MTV still showed mostly music videos. Hearing music from the 90s left me with a taste of things to come at an early age. ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’, the biggest hit of the Lips from that period, must have been on several times, although my memory is blurry. Fast forward years later and discovering their vast discography I was drawn to that one specific period in the history of the Flaming Lips: the “Ronald Jones era”.

The Lips only made two albums with Ronald on-board, ’93s “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” and two years later “Clouds Taste Metallic”. If you haven’t ever listened to these albums, check them out! After Ronald left the music and the band changed, I still like a lot of it but the ‘golden era’ of the Lips was definitely over, for me at least. The sound of his guitar on many live shows/recordings was the pinnacle of psychedelic noise rock weirdness, adding so much textures and covering multiple grounds with his sound; slide guitar, pick scratches, musical ring modulation, crazy synth, fuzzed-out leads, orchestral and otherworldly delays and reverb. Check out this concert from 1995 for a sample of Ronald’s guitar witchcraft (and occasional back-up vocals). Bonus: it’s got good audio too:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Coming to the instruments of the man himself: his main guitars were two nearly identical mid 60s Jaguars. Jones was mostly spotted with a ’65/’66 surf green Fender Jaguar (with neck binding and pearl dot inlays). These Jaguars were only built for a short while before switching to binding with pearl block inlays, which lasted until production ended in 1975. The most recognizable about this Jaguar was that he modded it with Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickups and a tune-o-matic bridge. Wayne Coyne, the singer/other guitarist of the Lips, had a ’67 Jazzmaster modded in the same way (much to the chagrin of Steven Drozd at first, the drummer and actual owner of the guitar). I don’t know who inspired who though, possibly modeled after Wayne’s old beat-up 70s Strat.

Anyways, at first the Jaguar only had one Hot Rails pickup in the bridge position (like the Jazzmaster) but sometime around/before early ’93 a second Hot Rails was installed in the middle position. Notice the screw holes for the middle pickup in the photos below. A custom pickup selector plate also replaced the stock triple switches of regular Jaguars, instead opting for a single five-way toggle switch as used on Stratocasters. Apparently the guitar was modded even further in 1995 sometime after their performance on David Letterman, completing the Holy Trinity of Hot Rails with a third Hot Rails installed in the neck position! Finding good pictures of this guitar was difficult. Ironically the best photos I could find were of this guitar being played by Derek Brown, who alongside Drozd is the current guitar player of the Flaming Lips, the Jaguar still remaining in the band after Ronald’s departure in 1996.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The other Jag was a ’65/’66 sunburst Fender Jaguar. The neck also had pearl inlays but no binding, making it (probably) slighter older than the other guitar. 1965 and 1966 was a transitional year for Fender after being bought by CBS. Many features like the logo and other cosmetics were used interchangeably on Fender guitars and basses, so it’s possible to get weird combinations like the newer logo on an older neck, the newly introduced neck binding on an older body, etc, etc. The sunburst one also had the same mods done to it as the surf green Jag, albeit the neck pickup was never changed to a Hot Rails (at least to my knowledge). I haven’t seen any clear pictures of this guitar so no idea if it also had the custom 5-way pickup selector plate (edit: it appears it didn’t after watching some live footage from San Francisco 1995). This Jaguar doesn’t appear to have went to the band after ’96, so I guess/hope Ronald still has it somewhere?!

Other guitars Jones used were a black Fender Stratocaster (with white pickguard), used for the very first shows with the Lips in 1992. A Yamaha SG-60T (which previously thought was a Supro guitar from the 60s) seen in the ‘Be My Head’ and alternate ‘Turn It On’ music video and also used live on many occasions such as at KC Lollapalooza ’94 and on Jon Stewart), a white/blonde Fender Telecaster, seen in various music videos (edit: the Tele was also used live at Roskilde 1996), a blue ‘Rickenbacker’ copy 12 string, seen in the ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ video. Besides the Strat, Supro and Tele, there were various guitars seen in mostly music videos and likely belonged to the band. Other examples are a 60s sunburst Fender Coronado and a Harmony Rocket H54/1 (Wayne’s guitar). Some would have been used for recording, but I haven’t found much footage or info on these particular guitars.

The tribute guitar is built according to some of the specs of Ronald’s original Jaguars, diverging only ‘slightly’. It’s a tribute remember, not a replica! I want to build a replica someday though, be patient, maybe in a couple of years or so…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As you can see it is still a work in progress, missing the neck, vibrato tailpiece and part of the electronics (edit: now all wired up!). The ash body is from Warmoth, finished in the color ‘Transparent Amber’. If you check out their website this exact Jaguar body is still used as their model for this particular finish. Instead of the tune-o-matic bridge I’ll be using a Warmoth modified Mustang bridge. Mustang bridges were/are used as a cure for the saddle problem of Jaguar and Jazzmaster bridges. TOM bridges can also be used, which is what Ronald and Wayne did, but you’d have to mod the body slightly. The Warmoth ones are drop-in replacements and even offer height adjustment that original Mustang bridges don’t.

The tortoise pickguard is an original Jaguar pickguard from 1965, same as the neck pickup and the main control plate (plus knobs). These pickguards have a much nicer look to them than the reissue tortoise guards. These are either brown tortoise or the graphics aren’t pronounced at all, so I opted getting an original 60s pickguard. It just so happened that the guy who offered one also had a spare pickup and plate which he kindly sold to me for a fair price. The bridge pickup is of course a black Seymour Duncan Hot Rails. I was thinking of adding a second one, but then I’d have to rout the body and the pickguard. The pickguard still being original would probably give me bad karma… The lower switching system will be the regular Jaguar triple selectors, at least being faithful to Ronald’s ‘Mk 1 Hot Rails’ Jaguar.

I’ll be finishing up the guitar in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for pics of the completed tribute guitar and some final words! Hopefully it will sound and play as good as it looks.