The Ultimate Mongrel Strat? (with Obsessive/Compulsive Tone Control!)

Not for everybody: The sickest mongrel strat yet.

Okay, I lied.

In the previous installment of our ongoing mongrel strat series, I experimented with a version of Gibson’s oddball Vari-Tone circuit. I said it was too fussy and complex, and that I wanted to experiment with a simplified version.

So naturally, I built a “parts” Strat with a Vari-Tone twice as complicated as the original — a configuration I’ve dubbed the “Obsessive/Compulsive Tone Control.” I also deployed some of my favorite quirks and wiring tricks from previous strat experiments, plus a few new hardware discoveries. Result: a weird-ass guitar that only a geek could love a cool, one-of-a-kind instrument.

Check out the demo. Post-mortem after.

Yes, I’ve used the same Twangbanger bridge pickup in every single mongrel strat. But I just love the thing! Right now I soooo prefer the explosive, attitude-dripping tone of this Tele-inspired pickup to even the nicest vintage-style strat bridge pickup. I spent a lot of time trying to to get the Twangbanger to play nicely with a Lipstick Tube, and I like the results here, with a middle-position SSL-1 (RWRP) bridging the gap.

I’m also digging the way the Megaswitch E-Model replaces the standard position#3 setting (middle pickup alone) with the sound of the outer pickups together. It doesn’t bother me in the least that the current wiring doesn’t even let you solo the middle pickup. I’m preferring this to the seven-tone option, where a push/pull pot brings in the bridge pickup. There something attractive about having the pure, single-pickup sound on the selector switch’s outer settings, and the three blends in the middle.

Admittedly, I’m still wrapping my head around the wacky, 12-capacitor Vari-Tone. (Quick recap of the the basic Vari-Tone idea: It’s a two-knob tone circuit in which one knob rolls off treble like in a conventional tone control, while the other selects between different input capacitors, each with a different roll-off frequency. Additionally, the circuit includes an inductor, which gives the rolled-off tone settings more of a resonant, notched-wah quality. The circuit is best known for appearing in Gibson’s ES-345 model.)

Cower, mortals, before the almighty force of the Obsessive/Compulsive Tone Control!

Again, I borrowed the Vari-Tone construction technique from this terrific tutorial at DIY Guitar Mods. My procedure was exactly the same as with my first Vari-Tone strat, except that I populated an entire 12-position rotary pot with capacitors in ascending sizes. (My final choices, from small to large: 102, 222, 332, 472, 682, 103, 223, 333, 473, 683, 104, 154.)

There’s definitely enough complexity here to get you into trouble onstage! But I imagine using this guitar more as a studio tool, especially for overdubbing guitar tracks. I think it’ll be quite useful to adjust the tone filtering to suit the mix. Ask me again in a few months, but for now at least, I feel inspired.

FYI, the neck and body are from All Parts, and I’m delighted with the quality. I also incorporated some recent hardware discoveries, like the cool Planet Waves Auto-Trim Tuners I wrote about here, and the nifty Wilkinson/Gotoh VS100N tremolo, which I’m trying for the first time (though I don’t really demo it in the video). I usually go for more vintage-type trems (if I use them at all), but this sleek, modern model boasts brilliant tone, unbeatable sustain, and a clever design with a single set-screw per string to lock in both saddle height and string intonation. I also went for these crazy-expensive high-tech strap locks. They may be overkill, but bear in mind that my guitar has crashed to the stage more times than I can remember when a strap lock fails during a bout of aggressive playing. (Most memorable incident: In from of 12,000 people during a Bruce Springsteen/R.E.M./Tracy Chapman show.)

BTW, this is my first-ever self-assembled guitar, and I had a blast putting it together. The scariest job was drilling the big holes in the body for the tremolo bushings. The most labor-intensive part, as detailed here, was carving a decent nut. I’m 100% happy with how the current nut feels and sounds — but it looks like crap. I’m going to try replacing it with a prettier one.

Every step of the process went better than it otherwise would have were it not for the guidance of the ever-reliable Dan Erlewine via his books The Guitar Player Repair Guide and How to Make Your Guitar Play Great, both of which reside permanently on my workbench iPad.

Okay, now it’s a good time to take a break from strats and ruin upgrade some Les Pauls for The Pagey Project!


22 comments to The Ultimate Mongrel Strat? (with Obsessive/Compulsive Tone Control!)

  • Bear

    A Varitone in a pedal is a Varitone for all your guitars. Pretty much what THD did with their Quintet. It’s a damn nice pedal, but unless they’re giving them away, DIY is the way to go here.

    • joe

      I’m sort of enjoying the Vari-Tone on the guitar just for realtime ergonomics. But I’ve been thinking about the stompbox application as well. The big design question would be: Whether or not to include a makeup gain stage, and if so, what. And since so many of the Vari-Tone colors sound best right before distortion, would it be more fun to include a distortion circuit, or just combine it with other dirt pedals? Meanwhile, I’ve always wanted to do a cool update of the semi-legendary Systech Harmonic Energizer, a fuzz/filter specializing at notched-wah-type sounds. My gears are spinning. Though it could just be the meds.

      • Bear

        I actually also have the Snarling Dogs Very Tone Dog, which is essentially a VariTone with active boost. Meh, but it’s been a long while. Maybe I need to give it another run, but the passive L-C eq is awesome because you can use it in front of your finicky fuzzes, keeping their weirdo reactions intact while allowing critical sculpting of what sort of mids will hit the fuzz.

        On ergonomics, I’d probably “play” the rotary switch more if it was on the guitar, but I’m okay with that.

        • joe

          Sounds pretty cool, actually. I’m going to check that out!

        • Bear

          I’m sorry, I don’t think I was clear. I use my THD, a passive Vari Tone pedal, as described. If your fave boost circuit plays well with fuzz, having make-up gain or more, go for it. Me, I’d make the boost separately switchable. I sometimes like things a bit lossy and un-hifi.

  • Oinkus

    Would love to see that with 3 humbuckers , what a fun project wow ! Very impressed Joe ! For your first build you got some pretty great sounds out of a guitar.So many different textures that has to be a ton of fun to play. Now about those straplocks wth is that all about ? 44 bucks really why ? Never had a Dunlop fail on me but have heard  people that had failures? Varitone pedal Bear man o man !

    • joe

      The straplocks? Morbid curiosity more than anything. I don’t blame my many strap failures on Dunlop or anyone else but me. Sometimes it’s a crappy strap. Sometimes I did a lousy job installing a strap button. The only self-imposed disaster I encounter more frequently is stepping on my cable and unplugging myself, inevitably when I step into the stoplight for the first note of a solo. Yes, I know all the cable-fastening tricks. But I still screw up several times a year. I must have done something very cruel to a stap-lock merchant in a previous life.

  • Jeff

    Joe – love the variations available with this mongrel. But – what strikes even more is your ability to play guitar! Damn!

  • Derick

    Dude. Inspiring. 

  • Bill

    Wow! What a flexible tone monster guitar! Cool. I’ve used a TwangBanger in my Strat for about a year now. It’s got more punch and power than a standard Strat pickup but still is bright enough for my taste. I really like it! I’ve also used an old mod on mine where the bottom tone control works as a fader to fade in the middle pickup in series with the bridge or the neck pickup, depending on where your 5-way switch is at. Thickens the sound up a bit.

    • joe

      Yeah, I’m so with you on the Twangbanger. I swear, it’s pretty much spoiled conventional strat bridge pickups for me. I think my next “parts” guitar will be a three-pickup Tele with the middle-pickup fader. Are your other two Strat pickups vintage-style ones? How are the blends with the Twangbanger?

  • Don

    I have ,what I refer toas my “bastard child” guitar,a Washburn with a GFS preamp tone control in it and a pick-up I swapped out from an Epi SG(I put a Dimebucker in it,the SG) It souns cool,but not like yours…great tones!!!!!

  • dave

    Joe are you familiar with the Tonestyler from Stellartone?  I’m just wondering how that might compare to the varitone.  I’d like to do a Strat someday with the Tonestyler and Deaf Eddie’s Chromacaster.  To paraphrase Malcolm Young; all of those switching options might interfere with my drinking!

    • joe

      Nope, I didn’t know of it. I’ll check it out.

      FYI, I never drink while I play. Only before and after, in-between songs, or in the face of emergencies, such as bass solos. 


      • joe

        Ooh — looks cool! And quite similar to what I made. It doesn’t seem to have the inductor option, but you can’t argue with the small footprint. I’m going to get one and check it out! Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  • Oinkus

    You should have  Jackson RR V Joe, the jack is in the upper bout which makes it immune to wrapping the cord behind the strap. I have gone to a full circle around the strap and the straplock its a total cluster!#$@#. Still impressed with the Strat build after the second listen even more so. I will go back to wishing for a ES 345!

  • Coslar

    I had an idea for a strat wiring scheme, though I’ve never had the time/courage/know-how to give it a try. It would be a 4 way switch, with 2 push pulls. The 4 way would only control the middle and and neck pickups only. The rear position would be just the bridge, the next position would be neck and bridge in parallel, the third position would be just the neck, and the frontmost position would be the neck and bridge in series. One push pull would engage the bridge pickup, and the other would turn off the two pickups connected to the switch. Alternatively, a 5 way switch with the same positions described, with the fifth position turning off the middle and neck pickups instead of the push pull. I don’t know how you would go about that one though. Add in one of your varitone variants and you’d have a really interesting project. Of course, I’m usually a 2-humbucker guy and I have little experience modding strats, so there could be a reason this wouldn’t work that I’m not seeing.

  • Rod

    Hope Im not too late to this post/forum but I cant see any mention of how many henries the inductor has and what style it is.

    the varitone one on the other link is 1.5 and these appear to be massive expensive things.

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