Shergold Masquerader SM02

 

 

About a year and a half ago, I was scouting interwebs like a lonesome space cowboy, trying to find a backup to my 1985/1986 MIJ Fender Stratocaster. Heavily modded with years of abuse behind its back. HSS pickup configuration with impressive Lollar Imperial single coil (don’t ask me) in the neck and Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB in the bridge  – in short a beast of a guitar. I have a soft spot in my heart for this one, maybe because of its age, maybe because of the mods multiple people before me must have done to it, or simply because of some great gigs, we have been through together. It is a guitar, that have got me back to loving Fenders and their scale lengths after a few years of using Gibsons.

 

Gigging the 1985/86 MIJ Fender Strat

 

So here I was, trying to find a closest thing ever to serve as a backup of my no. 1. At first, it seemed as a simple task – Strat style alder body, maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, HSS config or easy to be modded to HSS. Preferably Duncan pickup in the bridge position. But I have tried a thing or two and it just was not right. Something was missing.

Weeks went by and I was still quite preoccupied by the backup guitar issue (don’t be hard on me, I guess I’ll get easily frustrated with these kinds of things). Here in Czech Republic it is not that easy to be a picky lil bastard of a guitar player as I am. Despite I was working fulltime at the local music shop, permanently searching Central European second hand market, there was simply nothing interesting to fulfil the strat shaped hole in my heart LOL.

 

I can’t quite picture the moment I came across the Shergold Guitars. It may have been via Andertons YouTube channel or maybe thanks to the wonderful Rabea Massaad, that had done some demos of the brand, but I have become intrigued by them. In particular by the SM02 model. I have to be honest. The first thing that struck me was the color and the finish. I know, how boring! But oh man, that Battleship Grey is exactly my thing! Plus the spec sheet said, it should actually be a lacquer rather than a polyurethane!

 

 

Then there were of course the more important specs. Particularly the all rosewood neck. At this time the CITES International Treaty (which had restricted the rosewood production and distribution greatly) has been kind of a big deal in the music industry, since no one has yet quite figured out what to make of it and how to react. And I have never tried a full blown rosewood neck before and I was curious. What If this was my only chance to try it?

 

 

The third thing was the shape. When I saw it, it was a simple WTF?! moment. Followed by a considerable amount of time spent staring at the pictures taken from multiple angles and trying to cope with the emotions, that had flown through my brain. It looked like some giant has taken a strat shaped guitar and squeezed it in its hands. But it looked quite right as well. Man, it was weird!

And that was the thing, that got me. I love weird guitars, but the right kind of weird in particular. Like the Jerry Cantrell “Blue Dress” G&L kind of weird.

 

Original „Blue Dress“ – Jerry’s 1984 G&L Rampage

 

Also I love Telecasters. And I like the sound of all mahogany bodied guitars (e.g. Gibson SG) as well. And there it was. All in one place, everything in one guitar.

I have to admit, I was a bit concerned about the sound qualities of an all rosewood neck. Internet was full of contradictory reviews on how dark or how bright it actually sounds. But what the heck, one has to try it to know. And so I went on a limb and purchased it new from Andertons (based on previous good experiences with this store of “YouTube legends”).

The guitar has arrived safely few weeks later and it was in a good working order. I was very happy with the buy. The body shape is extremely comfortable. The neck is like nothing I have tried before – flat radius on the top of the fingerboard with quite chunky, asymmetrically curved back side. Reminds me of a thinner version of a ‘52 Telecaster and I love it!

 

Date of the photo: 10/1/2018

 

But there were issues. Not regarding a construction nor a design. They were simply a taste issues.

After years of trying almost every brand possible, I stop being fond of locking tuners in general. For me they are a tone alteration, that I do not like. Of course, they are very convenient, but that is all. The other thing is a Treble Bleed circuit (capacitor coupled with a resistor in parallel) soldered onto a volume pot to prevent a high frequency roll off when you turn down a volume of your guitar. To be honest, I like my roll off! For my style of playing it is a very useful feature. While using a Treble Bleed mod, you have only one sound on tap on your volume pot and that sound can be louder or quieter. Without a treble bleed, you have, in a way, plenty of sounds to use.

 

 

So the tuners went bye-bye as well as the Treble Bleed circuit. The tuners of my choice for the last few years are a Gotoh SG381. They are very stable, smooth to the turn, you can get them almost in every possible configuration of the mounting screw position and low and behold, they are not so expensive either! I have them on 5 of my guitars as of today.

There was one additional issue with the tuning machines. The original Schaller ones have staggered posts to assure a good break angle over the zero fret. The Gotohs are straight and with a regular height posts. So the break angle would not been enough. But there was quite an easy fix to this. One that does not seem to be so common, but that works miracles. I just went and bought a basic cheap Gotoh string retainer used on Floyd Rose equipped guitars, measured the break angle of my favourite HSS Strat, and carefully drilled out the holes to install the retainer onto the Shergold’s headstock. After a few screw height tweaks and finding the tall enough screws (the included ones were too short for this) – for which I am forever thankful to my bro and colleague Dude, the break angle was perfect.

 

 

The another thing was the bridge. While the stock, I guess Wilkinson brass saddles are good, they are not particularly groundbreaking. In other words, you can upgrade them. The telecaster style three saddle bridge is a beast in its own right. If you are not careful, it can eat your intonation alive. So – be careful! The stock saddles are compensated for a pair to pair string intonation, but they are a bit too sharp and whimsy for my taste. There are plenty of options to upgrade this, but the ones I was able to get here in the Central Europe for a reasonable price were again Gotoh branded (Gotoh InTune compensated brass saddles). There is one important thing to keep in mind with these kinds of mods though – measure everything. Every bridge is different, every saddle set from every manufacturer can be different. Measure it to be sure, that the part you are about to purchase, will fit well.

 

Gotoh InTune brass saddle set

 

The Gotoh saddles as well as the new tuning machines were a huge upgrade in acoustic qualities of the guitar. The saddles added a bit more bass to the note and the tuners plus the retainer made it snappier with a longer sustain. Oh yes, and I did sanded down the neck lacquer a tiny bit around this time too, just to make it even smoother… But it was not the end. Something was not still quite right.

 

The things, I was hearing acoustically, were way different, then the sound it was producing plugged into the amp. What a shame! (At this time I was using an Orange Rockerverb 50 MKI with matching 212 cab.)

I think about the Masquerader as a cross between the Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul Special or something like that. It is a mean and raw sounding guitar, which can do rock very well, but is capable of much more. But the sounds I got while plugged in were too high gain, to screamy and not much focused. Even compared to my favourite HSS Strat, which was supposed to have the same exact pickup in the bridge.

Or was it?

I reminded myself of the great Paul Reed Smith theory, that everything on the guitar matters. Now the guitar played great acoustically, but it just was not translating down the chain. I’ve started to think and compare things further and further. Then I figured it out. Well, I kind of knew it before, but It has stuck me again. The Seymour Duncan JB Trembucker (stock on the Shergold) and JB Humbucker (on my HSS Strat) are simply not the same. They seem like the same pickup and they are often marketed like the same exact pickup only for different bridge spacings (therefore the different names). But there is more to it. The coil spread over the differently spaced magnets simply sounds different. Searching the Duncan official website even shows, that they have a different DCR (DC resistance) – HB version – 16.6, TB version – 17.4. This, coupled with the fact, that the pickup on my Strat is mismatched with the guitar’s bridge spacing, and that Trembucker in the Shergold is housed inside a giant metal bridge with brass saddles, it has all added up to quite a considerable output difference. One disclaimer, I was not trying to get these guitars to sound the same. I was rather trying to find an ideal voice for my beloved Shergold.

 

The difference between a Duncan SH and TB pickups is indeed minimal.

 

I went and bought a second Duncan JB in “G spaced” – Humbucker configuration. And at the same time, I decided to split the bridge itself and the pickup mount to two separate parts. So the pickup on the Shergold would be mounted in a plastic housing as in my other guitars, instead in the metal one. I got a black Wilkinson WTBS short tele bridge, which has the same screw locations as the Shergold one, coupled it with Gotoh InTune saddles and added a plastic ring to the humbucker. It took drilling a few new holes for the ring, but it was fine. And the result of these two mods has made an enormous difference to the sound of the bridge pickup position! It was less gainy, more focused, closer to how the Shergold sounded when not plugged in.

 

 

At this time, I have also tried to upgrade the stock Duncan single coil pickups to a local boutique brand Tůma Pickups with staggered pole pieces and vintage 50s specs. It involved additional routing of the pickup cavities, but unfortunately, it was not the right choice for this guitar. And in all fairness I was starting to doubt, if the HSS config was the right choice for this guitar at all.

And here it went. The dark period of the guitar’s life…

 

Date of the photo: 18/10/2018

 

I dismantled it, ripped its guts open and left it to be a home “throw around” guitar with only one humbucker in the bridge. I almost sold it at one point in time as well. She was crying inside I guess, and so was I in a way.

I really like this guitar. I have bonded with it over the time and I like its natural spanky and focused tones. But I had no idea how to fix the issues. Not yet.

After at least another 6 months or more, I have started to really long to play this guitar in full force again. Aware of the issues, I have carefully begun planning its mighty return!

Meanwhile I have changed my main amp, pedalboard, and reconsidered my foolish idea, that I need to play mostly instruments with similar layout and pickup configuration. Yeah, it is very useful for live performance, but at the same time, it is very boring for a studio uses and recording purposes. The result of my thought process was definite – this guitar is simply not intended to be a HSS model. Not for me, not now, not with this particular pieces of wood and its specific resonance. It needs to be a two humbucker or a HB – P90 guitar instead.

With this thought on my mind, I have contacted the fine folks over at the Shergold headquarters and ask them, if I could purchase a spare pickguard – with a SM04 (HB in the neck) configuration. After a few exchanged messages, they have very kindly provided exactly what I needed. Such legends! – Thank you very much guys!

 

Snippet of the original SM04 pickguard with humbucker in the neck position

 

I was closer and closer to my goal and the guitar was closer and closer to unleashing its full potential. There were only few problems left to solve. Firstly, I was not really happy with the Wilkinson short bridge. It is quite a cheap piece of kit – considerably thinner than the stock Shergold bridge, and with quite a poorly done plating in the case of the black color.

I have changed it to the Crazyparts.de vintage telecaster half bridge with nickel plating. This was hell of an upgrade visually and even tonally! Of course, I have mounted the Gotoh compensated saddles to it as well.

 

Crazyparts Telecaster Half Bridge in nickel

 

Secondly, I have decided to go the vintage route even further and started to search for a low output PAF style pickups. There are plenty of options regarding those and most of the really great ones aren’t exactly cheap. I wanted to do this right, but it is not easy to compare every single set, when you are not able to buy them all.

For me, shopping for parts second hand is a big one. Of course, you need to know how to approach it, and again, you need to be careful about various part’s dimensions, specs details and so forth. With pickups it is a bit easier, because they mostly come in a few typical sizes. But even here are some basic things to consider: Is it a “G spaced” or “F spaced” pickup? Is it a two conductor or a four conductor configuration? How tall they are including the mounting legs? Will they fit into your pickup cavity and or in your pickguard?

After listening multiple comparisons on YouTube and scouting Reverb.com and Ebay.com for weeks, I have found an interesting listing – a second hand set of Gibson 57 Classic PAF pickups with brushed nickel covers, taken from some kind of 2013 SG reissue. The price was right, so I went and bought them, hoping for a miracle.

 

 

And here I was, few days ago, drilling into my guitar again. Enlarging the pickup cavity of the neck pickup, sanding off the SM04 spare pickguard (by hand) to fit the covered humbucker instead of the uncovered one, changing the original 5-way pickup switch to more suitable 3-way. It was quite a nerve-wracking process this time. But it needed to be done.

 

And then!

After almost two years of changing things up and down. After a long and sometimes quite a tough journey, at least for my brain and my wallet. I’ve finally plugged the Masquerader into my amp (now boutique AC30 style Czech made Hot Amps – “The Thirty”) and it has truly and unprecedentedly blown me away! Miles and miles away! To be exact, the sound has rather took me to a completely different dimension… I have played it for a few solid hours straight and I have not been able to stop since.

The guitar is both sonically and construction-wise in a very good place now. It went from the weirdo underdog I have seen on the interweb to one of the favourites of my collection. It is an instrument, that is as much great sounding as it is unique.

 

I must admit, I was emotionally taken by this experience. I have been modding guitars for a long time, but this was something I have never felt before. This was like bringing something to life. Something that was there in the first place, but at the same time was not.

I am looking forward to play the Shergold as much, as I can, and have a good long run with it. I hope we will do plenty of great music together in the future. Because that is all, that matters in the end.

Author: Murky