Tale of Two Maple Fretboard Kramers

I’ve always been a maple fretboard kind of guy. If you know the Kramer collecting market, you know how hard they are to come by, at least in the “pointy” era (1986-1990). In years of collecting these, I have never been able to get my hands on one - the neck I lusted after the most, even more than the coveted “claw” neck; a maple fretboard pointy with the Kramer inlay on the 12th fret. Thanks to a wild stroke of luck, I now have two of them in the span of a week.

The Pacer Custom I

If you have read any of my previous entries, you might remember a project I started to a build - a white Sustainer body that I was able to find a maple neck with dots for on craigslist. The owner of that neck and I talked at length about our projects and guitars, so I knew he had a late Pacer Custom I with a maple fretboard. I’d been thinking about asking about it for several months, but never followed through. While on my way to the UPS center to pick up another guitar, I received a text message out of nowhere:

“I was wondering if you’d be interested in my transparent blue pacer custom?”

As you can imagine, I freaked out. I’d be thinking about that guitar for so long, and I even had a picture of it saved to my phone so I wouldn’t forget who had it. Of course I went for it, so not long after it arrived on my doorstep, original case and pickups included.

Not quite transparent blue - it’s more of a teal color. Even better!

I have another Pacer Custom from this era (only a few hundred away by SN#) with the stock JB/SSL-1/SSL-1 combination, and with the thin body and single volume control, I found it to be painfully bright, even after converting the JB to an Alnico II magnet. I eventually settled on a PATB-1 for that guitar which helped fill it out nicely while retaining bite - so I wanted something completely different for this guitar. I installed a Dimarzio Breed, recently discontinued, which I found at a musicgoround for $30. I’ve had this pickup for a while but never installed it - and after hearing it in this guitar I’ve already bought another. It is dark, smooth, and thick - even played through my aggressive sounding Mesa Mark IV. I can see why someone wouldn’t want this as their only pickup, but for a change of pace it is excellent. It really makes lead lines sound amazing, and with the treble adjusted on the amp itself, it cuts through nicely. I’m looking forward to installing some single coils, but for now those slots are empty. I’m thinking about the Dimarzio SDS-1’s, a true single with a darker character and more output, which sounds like it will pair nicely with the Breed.

An amazing neck, finally found after years of hunting.

An amazing neck, finally found after years of hunting.

The Sustainer

This one was a harder call. Another member of kramerforumz.com posted about this guitar, listed at a Guitar Center in Chicago, along with a few shoddy pictures. I couldn’t really tell what the color of the body was, didn’t know if it had a case, and had no way of knowing if the Sustainer circuitry actually worked. However, I saw the maple fretboard and 12th inlay in a blurry image of the front and figured I would take the risk - worst case scenario I could return it to my local Guitar Center within 45 days (thank goodness for this policy, GC used gear is roughly a 50/50 crapshoot).

I’m happy to say that it was well worth the risk. The body and neck are both in impeccable shape, the Sustainer unit works wonderfully, and tonally it sounds nice and thick even with the stock JBJ installed (which I don’t plan on replacing after having a look at that electronics cavity). I did snip the capacitor off of the volume pot, I’m not sure what value but it made the tone extremely thin when rolling back the volume. I was also glad to see it was flip flop red when it arrived, it appeared as more of a flat red in the pictures and that would not have been as cool.

Apparently these are quite fragile in working condition, so I will have to take very good care of it.

The first thing I noticed after my initial setup was just how much better this Sustain unit functions as compared to my ‘88 Hamer Chaparral sustainiac. It really hangs on to fundamental notes with more strength, and the harmonic functions are easier to control and less “screechy.” It also has an additional control that my Hamer does not that is really unique: a knob to control the intensity and strength of the Sustain unit. This really adds some cool dynamics to the sound, aside from the usual master volume and tone knobs. With this knob at minimum, notes are still sustained indefinitely but they vibrate very softly - nice for letting a note trail off naturally but not disappear completely. When at full power, the entire body of the guitar vibrates with force and the strings generate voltage as if they are being picked hard and constantly. For example, with the amp set to crunch, I can softly pick a note for a slight breakup then roll up the sustain knob and it will smoothly go into a thick overdrive, taking advantage of the dynamics of that channel on the amp. Of course the real fun is turning all of the knobs to full and using it on an improvised solo at the end of a song, and flipping the harmonic mode switch at the same time to make some really unique sounds with a seamless transition between all of them.

A great color combination.

Another pleasant surprise is the Schaller made Sustain Unit when used as a neck humbucker. Again compared to my Hamer Chaparral, that guitar has a single coil stuffed right underneath the sustain driver unit, which does not work as a pickup on its own. However this guitar’s sustain unit is a fully functional humbucker, which sounds pretty great to boot. It’s a bit higher output and darker sounding than something like a Jazz or ‘59, maybe more similar to the SH-7 Seymourizer II or something with more output than the usual PAF spec neck humbuckers.

The real reason I went for this guitar was the neck though, and it does not disappoint. It has the thickest slab of maple for the board I’ve seen, and it is noticeably thicker than even the other neck with the same inlays from the Pacer Custom above. It has a comfortable profile, almost no fret wear, and the bound headstock is a nice touch. This may be “new guitar brain” talking, but this is my favorite neck on any guitar I own right now.

Now to fix that chrome volume knob…

Double NGD: Charvel Model 5 and G&L Invader Plus

Well, I’ve done it again. While cruising the web, I found two guitars I just couldn’t pass up for their relative prices, so after some light talks with the sellers, both arrived at my home this Thursday.

First up, the Charvel Model 5. I originally purchased this mainly as a flipping opportunity, due to it’s great condition coupled with an irresistible price. Additionally, I’ve always wanted a neck-through guitar and a Charvel model 5, 550, 6, or 650 is right at the top of that list - with the added benefit of trying out some pickups I’ve never had before, the Jackson J80C. I did hope that the bridge pickup was a J90C or J95, but I wasn’t quite that lucky, both neck and bridge pickups are J80C’s.

The guitar interestingly has a 5-way switch despite having two pickups, and I just learned about this feature. It’s the Jackson JE-0005 “super switch.” Essentially, a standard 5-way switch has a few terminals and the way it switches sounds is by combining the outputs from each pickup in different ways, while this “super switch” has individual terminals for each possible switch position, so in theory you could wire it a multitude of ways impossible on a standard switch. There is a helpful write-up here on the JCF forum: https://www.jcfonline.com/threads/90074-Jackon-Special-5-Way-wiring-tutorial.

This guitar is stock, so the switch goes from neck (series humbucking), neck single coil, both pickups series (all four coils), bridge single coil, and bridge (series humbucking). It takes a little while to get used to it, but I think I prefer this arrangement more than the usual selector + coil tap mini switch. It’s certainly much quicker to use and requires a bit less fiddling when making quick transitions between humbucking and single coil sounds. This switch was also available on the Model 3A and 3DR of the same era, as well as the Predator later on.

It also comes equipped with a JE-1200 mid-boost circuit, which offers up to +6db of boost at around 650hz. On my Model 4’s and 475 Deluxe, I considered this boost an “always on” item that was required to avoid overly bright/shrill tones with the J50BC pickup. However, the J80C’s on this guitar have much thicker mids, and the boost is not as obvious - and certainly not required. That’s great, because I can leave it rolled off for rhythm or clean tones, then roll it up - though a clean amp I get a nice volume and edge-of-breakup sound, fantastic for soloing, and through a distorted amp I get just a little bit more saturation and push. This is a big advantage for me, as with the Model 4’s I’ve always felt like the mid boost feature was kind of worthless because it didn’t give me any extra options - it had to be on all the time. Next I need to get my hands on a J90 or J95 humbucker to try out, since those should have a little bit more output and thicker mids based on the specifications.

More details here: https://www.bretmcgonigle.com/guitars#/1986-charvel-model-5/

The G&L Invader Plus was a lucky acquisition, as I don’t usually look for guitars made past about 1990. I didn’t know much about this model, so I did a lot of digging and research on features, specifications, and values prior to purchasing. Everything came back looking like exactly my type of guitar, so I went for it. The quality of wood on this guitar is truly impeccable, and with quality hardware it’s truly an elite instrument. The figuring of the top is really nice, and a bit more interesting than some of the more common quilt or flame tops that look to me a bit too perfect. The grain gives a sensation of depth even though this top is not that thick, and the natural binding around the edges gives a nice separation between the cap and the mahogany body. The neck is really where it ramps up though, with some strong flame figuring on the player’s side of the neck that' is really nice to look at. The fretboard and neck is constructed entirely from a single piece, so the fretboard also possesses much of the same figuring. The flame is accompanied by a strong birds-eye figuring as well, so the neck really has a lot to appreciate.

I was hoping for a different bridge pickup (this has a Duncan JB, of which I have 7 or 8 at this point), but it sounds very thick and warm in this guitar so it’s hard to deny it’s a great sounding guitar. The JB can be a bit touchy depending on the guitar - for example, my ‘89 Pacer Custom I had a JB originally and it was so frustrating to have such a nice guitar sound so thin and harsh on almost all of my amps. The ‘59 is a neck pickup I’ve never had the chance to own before, so it’s nice to be able to play one of the bread and butter pickups so commonly discussed among guitar players. It has a great sparkle through a clean amp that none of my other guitars can quite match.

That said, the neck on this one is quite thick in comparison to my other guitars and I’m a bit surprised myself that I’m reaching for the Charvel above more than this instrument. Part of that is the G&L is in impeccable shape, with not even a visible scratch on it - it arrived with the original case, hang tags, certificate of authenticity, and even the plastic film still present over the plastic cavity covers. I’m almost afraid to play it for fear of marring its perfect form. Still, it has one of the most toneful clean sounds I’ve ever heard from an electric and I expect to be using it for those styles - perhaps this would be a good guitar to try some lower output pickups in (perhaps a Pearly Gates, or ‘59 Bridge?).

More details here: https://www.bretmcgonigle.com/guitars#/2002-gl-invader-plus/

A few Kramer guitar project updates

It’s been a while since the last update, but I’ve been traveling a lot for work and have had little time to work on my guitars. I was able to take a few evenings this week and I finally have completed one - and made a few changes to my others. The exciting news is that all three are fully playable - I may make a few minor changes moving forward, but I’m very happy to be playing them instead of staring at a pile of parts.

On the left, the transparent red Pacer C1 body from late 1989 - this body has some unique cutouts, despite sharing the 7/8 sharp-radius shape like the others. It has the recessed floyd cavity and lower horn scoop, but also has beveled scoops on both upper and lower horns on the rear side, similar to a Proaxe body. I’m not sure how it ended up this way - my speculation is that this is the final evolution of Kramer bodies, but based on the serial number this was one of the last ones out the door before bankruptcy so there is not a lot of information about.

This guitar was always very brittle sounding, so I removed the JB A2 and put in a PATB-1 Parallel Axis. I thought it would be funny to put the PATB into a guitar with the slanted humbucker mount, and it does sound great. I also wired up a tiny tone pot which sits fully open inside the control cavity to help tame some of the highs associated with having only a single volume knob.

The trans red pacer previously had the “claw” neck, which I moved to the FF Red sustainer body in the center. The action on the FF Red sustainer is as perfect as I’ve ever seen, really a fantastic player. This has a TB-4 JBJ that I removed from a ‘94 or so ESP Mirage, and the neck is a regular SH-4 JBJ, set much lower to keep the volume in check. This is a surprisingly great combination, and the JB is really fun in the neck position. The body was NOS, so it did not have holes drilled for pickup rings - so I mounted them directly to the wood since this would be the only opportunity to do so on a body like this. For now, there are only volume/tone and a selector, but I plan on wiring up some type of electronics to make use of the extra holes drilled in the body.

The white Sustainer finally has a neck pickup, a Dimarzio PAF Pro which I really enjoy - I think I’m growing to be a big fan of high output neck pickups. The Dirty Fingers in the bridge sounds awesome as always, but to occupy the extra holes in the body, I’ve installed a wah/midboost circuit from GuitarFetish. When it is turned off, I have access to volume, tone, a 3-way selector, and a 3-way coil tap switch towards the neck. The next switch is a two-way, which turns off or on the circuit, and the last switch changes the mode of the circuit, either Wah or Mid-boost. The third knob controls the active electronics - for example, I can preset a cocked wah sound with that knob, leave the effect off while playing rhythm, then flip it on with just the toggle for an instant solo tone, especially useful when covering songs with synth lead parts. Alternatively, I can set a boost amount, then flip on the mid boost with the switch for more gain. It’s a lot of fun, and I may use the same electronics on the FF Red project as well.