Sometimes a seemingly simple job becomes wildly complex in an instant. This kind of thing actually happens more often than you’d expect in this line of work – guitars are finicky things, and sometimes minor details conspire to thwart the efforts of the intrepid guitar tech. This week I was presented with a (normally) simple task: installing a Music Man Stingray pickup. Easy, right? Not so fast…
The original pickup had long ago been replaced with a Bartolini pickup, which just didn’t sound very good in this particular bass. Whoever had installed the pickup had screwed it down as low as it would go, and yet it was still pretty close to the strings. When I removed the pickup, I discovered that the pickup cavity was VERY shallow, and that the new EMG HZ pickup I was going to install would sit even higher in the cavity, way too close to the strings. Apparently the original Music Man pickup is very thin top to bottom, and only a direct replacement with the same dimensions would fit properly. I was going to have to deepen the pickup cavity to fit the EMG in there – so much for the quick win!
You can see here that the EMG pickup is sitting way too high out of the cavity – almost 2cm. The strings would have been resting right on top of the pickup!
To prepare for routing, I had to take the entire instrument apart: neck, bridge, pickguard, electronics – everything that could possibly get in the way of the router.
Now all I had to do was simply route the pickup cavity deeper and drop the new pickup in, right? Wrong! Music Man installed threaded brass inserts into the body, instead of just using wood screws for the pickup height adjustment screws:
These would have to come out before the router went anywhere near this bass. This was going to be tricky. Typically when I’m pulling out threaded inserts I use the existing bolts, installed into the inserts, along with my bushing puller to lift them out of the wood. The trouble was that the pickup bolts were very small – too small for my bushing puller to grab on to:
I needed a large washer with a tiny hole, which would fit under the bolt head and give the bushing puller something to grab on to. But such a washer simply doesn’t exist (or at least one that can be found at Lowe’s), so I was going to have to make one myself. After scratching my head for a bit and casting around the shop for a suitable piece of metal, I came up with my solution: do something illegal. I opted to drill a hole through a penny. I know, I know – defacing currency is against the law. Please don’t tell Obama.
I used double stick tape to secure the penny on to a scrap of wood, set it on my drill press, and punched through the dead center of the Lincoln Memorial. (Fun fact: if you look very closely, you can see an engraving of Lincoln’s statue in the middle, which is what I centered on with the drill bit.)
With my illegal activities complete, I threaded the pickup bolt through the penny, and then lifted the threaded inserts out of the bass with the puller:
NOW I could finally get the router in there. I chucked up a flush cut bit into my Festool router (my favorite tool!), which has a ball bearing collar that allowed me to follow the existing pickup route and deepen it without having to use a template. Even though this was fairly straightforward, I never take any chances when dealing with a router. I clamped the body to the bench, taped over the finish to prevent possible scratching, hooked up a vacuum to capture all the dust, and put on ear and eye protection. I spent more time preparing for the routing than it took to actually do the routing, but you can never be too careful!
Perfect! Now the pickup fits! Now I had to put the brass threaded inserts back in – but since I cut away a bunch of wood, they were too long and wouldn’t fit back in their holes, which were now too shallow for them. So I cut them to the proper depth with a Dremel and cut off wheel:
Ok – now I was in the home stretch. I hammered the threaded inserts back into the body, and painted the pickup cavity with shielding paint:
Phew! Now I could finally install the new pickup and put the bass back together. That was a lot of work for a seemingly simple job. I think the new EMG-HZ sounds better than the Bartolini, but now the owner has the opportunity to install any size humbucker he wants, instead of being limited to a shallow direct replacement. He now can also raise or lower the pickup to any height he wants, so that he can dial in the exact tonal response he wants. Pretty sweet!