If you are reading this post, I suspect there’s a good chance you are like me in at least this way: I spend a decent amount of time in guitar stores drooling over cool new toys (even though I build much of what I play these days). It has been true for a long time that there are loads of great options for guitar players on a tight budget. What’s still rare for me is that one of those lower-budget guitars presses my “wow, that’s cool!” button. That happened recently when I picked up a Fender Pawn Shop ’51 at my favorite local music store (Chicago Music Exchange – if you haven’t visited and you like guitars, you owe it to yourself to block out an afternoon and spend some time in their incredible show room!) Anyway, I loved the look of the thing but wasn’t thrilled about how the controls were laid out – one volume (push-pull to split the coils on the bridge humbucker), no tone control, and rotary pickup selector switch. In my estimation, the rotary switch isn’t practical for quick pickup switching. And since I am not Eddie Van Halen, I don’t subscribe to the notion that the volume knob is the tone knob! I also wasn’t a fan of the butterscotch color of the instrument in the store. But it felt and sounded great.
Still, the different-but-familiar aesthetic of the guitar just stuck with me…a great blend of Strat, Tele, and PBass visual elements. I did some homework (read: intrepid googling) and learned that the Fender Pawn Shop version of the instrument, made from 2011 to 2013 actually followed the original Squier incarnation of the instrument, made from 2004 – 2006 (it has also been sold as a re-issue of sorts from 2013 to the present under the Squier badge). I also learned that Squier 51 mods are fairly common – the low price, high quality, and hip look of the stock guitar apparently inspires lots of folks to buy one just to trick it out. So, when I stumbled across the chance to pick up a Squier ’51 after Thanksgiving for $179 online, I decided to pick one up. I wanted to size up the Squier version and, for a change, I wanted to play with a pure mod project, rather than building something from scratch.
Out of the box, the Squier was surprisingly decent.
After a quick setup, the guitar felt great. The Squier has a comfortable C-profile on the neck, familiar to anyone who has played a non-vintage Fender instrument in recent years. The pickups (a ceramic magnet equipped strat neck pickup and a ceramic “hot” humbucker in the bridge position) were surprisingly toneful – especially for the price. On a guitar this cheap, my operating assumption is that the pickups will need to go immediately, but after noodling around for 30 minutes or so through my Vox AC15, I decided to keep the stock pickups and to treat this mod project as an exercise in making a great gigging instrument out of a really cheap guitar while trying to minimize the total investment to a minimum.
After assessing the instrument, I decided to make the following modifications. I’ve included the “cost” of each modification – mostly just as a way for me to estimate the cost to me of the finished instrument. If you do something like this yourself and don’t have the materials and tools laying around, you’ll obviously spend more. I haven’t included shipping for certain items, since I had them laying around already or because I don’t just buy one thing at a time to minimize the impact of shipping costs. I also haven’t included the cost of the finishes I used, since I had them already and it’s difficult to estimate the cost of the small amounts I used on this project. Where I bought something specifically for this project, I have included shipping in the cost shown.
1. Refinish (in something close to daphne blue) to get rid of the stock blonde finish (hideous, IMHO – almost a greenish hue to it). No cost, since I had white and clear lacquer and blue dye in my shop already.
2. Cut a new pickguard to go with the new finish – quick research didn’t reveal a source for a reasonably-priced replacement to recommend to any of you. I made a template from the stock guard and cut my own from a tortoise shell blank. You can pick up a blank here (or many other places). The price is $14.95 for a blank large enough to make 2 guards, so we’ll call the cost of this step $7.50 (shipping not included, since I had one laying around).
3. Replace neck and tuners. I decided to do this simply because I prefer a chunkier neck profile and because I wanted to improve the looks of the instrument a bit by adding a figured wood neck with a rosewood board. I sold the Squier neck and tuners on eBay for about $70 to offset the cost of the new items. I purchased a new, unfinished, 22-fret tele neck from Warmoth, made from flame maple cut to Warmoth’s “boatneck” profile with a rosewood fretboard.
Total cost for the neck was $215, including shipping. I finished the neck with Tru Oil, which I had laying around and cut my own bone nut from a blank I also had laying around. I also picked up a set of Wilkinson 6-on-a-plate tuners for $25. Like these. We’ll call the total cost of this step (reduced by the money I got for the original neck and tuners) $165.
4. Replace rotary selector with toggle and add tone knob. Since I didn’t like the stock rotary switch, I decided to replace it with a switchcraft-style toggle switch (I have lots of switches in my parts bin – a Switchcraft toggle will run you anywhere from 8 to 15 bucks – or you can buy a knock off on eBay for less. I used a knock-off, which is clearly made from cheaper materials than the Switchcraft switches, but is perfectly functional.). I also rewired to add a tone control (I have lots of pots and caps laying around for this purpose). The cost of the switch and new tone pot (I re-used the stock push-pull volume pot) was approximately $6. The rub about this step is that the stock control plate is small enough that fitting the toggle switch into a newly drilled hole would have been difficult if not impossible. And the stock plate is not the same size as blank plates available for the PBass. And I am not equipped to make my own metal control plates. But a little digging around on the interwebs led me to a great solution. Joe, at Rock Rabbit Guitars in Valparaiso, IN, makes a bunch of cool stuff. Including a control plate for the Squier ’51 made from aircraft aluminum and specifically designed to do exactly what I wanted to do!
And, he’s good enough to sell the (larger than stock) control plate with a routing template to make enlarging the control cavity a snap!
Could I have purchased just the plate and made my own template? Sure. But I like supporting other makers/builders and I hate making templates, so buying both things from Rock Rabbit was a no-brainer. $38 on Rock Rabbit’s Reverb.com store. That brought the total cost of this step to $44.
After painting the body, replacing the neck and tuners (and finishing the new neck), cutting the new pickguard, routing out the body to accommodate the new control plate, replacing the control plate, and rewiring the new controls, I wound up with this:
With the addition of the Warmoth boat neck, it now plays and feels exactly as I like. Keeping the stock pickups was a good call. As I already noted above, they really do sound pretty good. And the option to split the bridge humbucker allows for a decent variety of tones. The bridge ‘bucker is definitely hot enough to use as a boost, of sorts. Dialing in a clean tone on the neck pickup that’s just on the edge of breakup allows you to use the bridge humbucker to drive a tube amp right into breakup at the flick of the selector switch. And with the bridge humbucker split, you can even get a little quack going in the middle position. The stock Squier is a great value. At an all-in cost of approximately $395, modding one this extensively is a questionable proposition if you ever intend to sell the guitar. But it’s at least debatable whether the finished product is more desirable than the Fender version that sells for about $700. Most importantly, I had fun with a relatively simple project and have a new instrument for under $400 that I am more than happy to gig with. I can certainly see why Squier 51 mods have become so popular.