The Workbench

Now I am Agile AND Fluent.

1

I'm now three months into the Agile Chiral Parallax 82528 headless multi-scale fan-fret 8-string, which is getting hours of play most days.

Agile's proprietary high-output Cepheus blade-buckers were good under gain, and smooth and creamy - I mean dark and muddy - clean. They could be EQ'd into submission, but they just weren't satisfying.

After extensive comparison-shopping, forum-suffering, and vendor-emailing, I decided on Fishman Fluence Open Core Classic Humbuckers. Despite their need for battery power, descriptions on the Fishman site promised more "vintage" humbucker tone, as opposed to "modern" tone (meaning death-shred-and-djent).

(My first choice was actually Lace Alumatones - which look at least 112 times cooler - if they had been 1/4" narrower to fit in the 'bucker routs on the guitar. I couldn't figure a method of opening up the holes a bit that I'd trust myself to try.)

The pickups come with four pots (I only need two), hookup wires with multi-pin connectors that slide onto pins on the bottoms of the pickups (2 per pickup, for various switching functions), mounting screws, and foam rubber pads (in case they're needed under the pups) - all in a rigid box with plastic molded insert, gold-foil stamped logos, and a pretty rigid clear plastic sleeve over the box. It could be overkill retail presentation for the guitar biz, but the pickups are on the pricey side, so might as well go all Apple on the package.

I procrastinated for a week or more because I wasn't looking forward to enlarging the control cavity to accommodate a battery, nor to lots of soldering.

All that procrastination was completely justified: I have probably 8 hours, maybe more, in the install. Not that anything went horribly wrong (just a little wrong), more that I test fit over and over, double-triple checked every connection before soldering it, and obsessed a little over wire lengths and routing in the cavities.

My eyes are also shot (it's amazing what a guy can get done without ever clearly seeing what he's doing) and I've never invested in third-hand helps for soldering. So there's a lot of improv and eventually some soldering in mid-air, chasing wires with the soldering iron in one hand, the end of the solder with the other, trying to stabilize the target with extra fingers. While raving. There are always some minor finger burns.

First thing was to remove 3/16" or so of cavity sidewall so I could slip the battery between the wall and the cheap 3-way switch that came in the guitar - which at least has the virtue of being in a closed rectilinear metal case, making a better battery-butt-up barrier than an open switch would have.

Careful and gradual with a .5" sanding drum on a Dremel worked just fine. A few test-fits till it was good enough.

Then I drilled holes in a short length of tubafore to stick the new mini-pots and the old switch in, about as far apart as the holes in the guitar, to hold the parts steady while I did as much wirin'-n-solderin' as possible outside the guitar. (You guys who build amps are either way more Zen than I am, or you're nuts.)

2

Had Fishman not supplied a color-coded wiring diagram for exactly the control configuration I was using, I wouldn't have had a chance. (And in fact, their structions suggest more than once that installation should be done by an experienced professional. You can get hurt or dead doing this, you damage anything and it's your tough luck bud, and don't even have your lawyers call - stuff like that.)

Nonetheless, I forged ahead. (I had a backup plan to send it to Glaser in Nashville if I balled it up.)

Maybe I should have taken pics of progress along the way, but it's nothing compared to a guitar or amp build, and I would have had to hold the camera with my teeth anyway.

In any case, there was something like 20 wires and 28 - 32 solder joints (depending on how you count points where multiple wires come together)...which seems like a lot for two pots, a switch, and a jack!

3

I know it doesn't look like much (most of the solder points on the pots are hidden and the pic is small and dark) - but it was a lot to stuff into the small control cavity (so I'm glad Fishman supplied mini-pots) - and there's a good bit of wire stuffed under the pickups as well.

Ain't sayin' I'm proud of the way it looks, but's it all in there. I'd rather there wasn't so much excess wire, but I needed slack to connect the multi-pin looms to the pickups - and if there's anything I hate when soldering, it's wires that come up short.

The only mysteries along the way were Agile's switch and output jack, whose solder tabs were arrayed nothing like those in Fishman's diagram. I deployed my (rudimentary) circuit logic, figuring what connection had to do what, then tested continuity and function with a multi-tester. When the results matched my hypotheses, I had enough confidence to proceed.

I had little expectation that everything would work first time. Nonetheless, with the soldering complete, the pickups sitting loose in the cavities, and a new 9-volt harnessed up, I connected the guitar to my Josh-modded blackfaced silverface Deluxe Reverb (because vintage tone is crucial for such tests) and commenced the pickup-tapping test with my favorite screwdriver.

Waddaya know! No nasty ground hum, good thumps from both coils of both pickups, slightly different thumps with "Voice 2" activated, and notably brighter thumps from just one coil of each with coil-tap enabled.

I had the hots reversed from the pickups to the 3-way switch (guessing wrong as to which end was which), and as I hadn't stripped enough jacket from one to make the swap, there was some unsoldering, hot-solder-blowing (out of the holes in the tabs), cutting, stripping, and re-soldering to do - but not nearly the problems I'd feared.

Pretty happy with all that.

4

The old pickups mounted with woodscrews directly into the body, and rubber pads for height adjustment. I'd done a lot of test-fitting and geometric visualization to be as sure as possible that those pads wouldn't interfere with the multi-pin connectors on the bottoms of the pickups, and that I could route the wires (4 to each, in two sets) around the pads to keep them from being directly squished by the pickups.

I think I got all that right enough.

Then I found the Fluences were intended to be English-mounted, coming with long skinny bolts to screw into the threaded inserts press-fit into the holes in the mounting ears.

The woodscrews from the Agile pickups wouldn't fit through those threaded inserts. I thought of knocking them out of the holes, but couldn't be sure I wouldn't break the plastic circuit board which comprises the bottom of the Fishman pickups before the little insert popped out. So I drilled'em out with a bit just slightly larger than my woodscrews. Slow and easy, a bit at a time. Two of the inserts actually spun out with the drill, but thankfully didn't fly away, and I was able to vise them up and finish drilling them, then superglue them back into the holes in the pickup ears (where they don't have to bear any stress). If the inserts hadn't also served as spacers, again to keep the pickup from squashing the wires on the bottom, I wouldn't have bothered.

Ah. Forgot to mention: while I had the pickups out, I painted the insides of the pickup cavities with flat black Tempura (which my wife had for craft purposes). The new pickups are slightly smaller than the originals, and the stark naked light mahogany around the perimeter and at the ends of the cavities looked pretty unfinished. The black is much better.

5

Got the pickups mounted, and after chasing three of the string-lock screws from the end of the neck (which had fallen out during the wrestling), I put on a new set of D'Addarios and tuned it up.

Some of those barrel tuning nuts down at the butt of the guitar get painfully resistant to finger-twisting (the only way to do it, as putting pliers on them would booger'em all up), but I got there. Also, once this thing is tuned, it stays tuned indefinitely, requiring only occasional tiny tweaks as the strings stretch and age. (Since they're locked at both ends, there's far less of that than with conventional tuners.)

The Fluences are three-voice pickups: two voices using both coils (what changes under the hood to create the difference, I don't know - I don't think it's series-parallel), plus true coil-tapping for a single-coil tone. The humbucking voices are switched via push-pull under the single volume knob, and the coil tap is push-pulled under the tone knob.

The guitar sounds very different now. It's not as hot (meaning no more prematurely-overdriven preamps), and overall it's a more balanced (and thus brighter) tone. I wouldn't describe it as especially rich or characterful, but it's much clearer and more articulate. Lots of detail, even in the two humbucker voices.

And they differ substantially. If this was an amp instead of a guitar, I'd say Voice 1 is a black-face Fender, and Voice 2 is a Vox. (And I don't mean those voices would respectively work best with those amps.) Voice 1 sounds and feels balanced and even through all registers - but by comparison to Voice 2, which is much middier, Voice 1 sounds "scooped." Voice 2 doesn't have, like, Tube Screamer mid hump; it's smoother than than. But it's definitely rounded off on both ends. Good for contrast clean, but it really comes into its own with dirt, where it's warmer and more focused.

The single-coil mode doesn't sound as wimpy as most tapped 'buckers. It's somewhere between a Tele and a Ric at the bridge, maybe Strat-like...and, I suppose, Stratty at the neck (as opposed to Dyna-like or P90-ish). The middle position, however, is VERY Stratlike. Maybe even disconcertingly so.

The tone pot has an excellent taper, gradual down to about half-knob, then more rapid to a Gretsch-on-full-mud darkness.

I haven't had much play time with it yet, and I'll be tweaking EQ throughout the signal chain now that the guitar is more balanced - but I'm certainly pleased with the variety of tone available, and the crisp articulation. It's not at all strident or dynamically compressed - which used to be the slam against active pickups - so whatever Fishman has done here, it's progress in pickup-land.

The mahogany-bodied guitar doesn't have as much character as a Gretsch - and I still wish I could talk TV into making at least 8-string 'Trons, if not T-Armonds) - but it's a more satisfying and diverse sonic platform than it was with the original Cepheus pickups. I'll be able to do more with it.

Also - since it's all working as advertised - there's no way I'm going through the process again.

6

So why does that middle single-coil position sound so Stratty?

Couple things. For one, the Agile has a 24-fret neck, which pushes the neck pickup toward the bridge and away from that fat harmonic under the 24-fret location.

Also, as the pickups ship, they use the inner coils of both pickups when the pickups are coil-tapped - meaning the bridge-side coil of the neck pickup and the neck-side coil of the bridge pickup. Those coils are 2.75" apart, much closer together than either Filter'Trons or Dynas in a typical Gretsch installation - or in any other guitars I measure - where there's more like 4 to 4.5" between the pickups.

But I'm not stuck with that configuration; the Fluences make it pretty easy to change it by unsoldering a connection on a "solder pad" on the bottom of the pickup, and soldering to a different adjacent pad.

The pickup's behavior can be changed in other ways with similar tweaks, all accessible on the bottom of the pickup.

Here's how Fishman splains it:

• 1. HFT (High Frequency Tilt) - This feature is for players who prefer a darker top end, similar to the effect of using passive pickups loaded by a long instrument cable. To activate, connect the HFT contact pad to ground either wired through a switch or permanently by creating a solder bridge to the GND pad next to it.

• 2. Voice-2 Select Wire - To select Voice-2, connect this pin to ground through a switch contact or permanently by soldering it to any ground or by using one of the included jumpers across the pins. Note: the Single Coil / Voice-3 select pin (3) over rides Voice-2 select. Therefore, the Voice-3 pin must be disconnected (not grounded) to allow Voice-2 selection.

• 3. Single Coil / Voice-3 Select Wire - To select Voice-3, connect this pin to ground through a switch contact.

In Single Coil mode, the default active coils are the inner ones when used as a Bridge/ Neck pair. (i.e. neck side coil active on Bridge pickup and bridge side coil active on Neck). When selected, Single Coil / Voice-3 mode over rides the status of Voice-1 or 2.

• 4. Single Coil Mode Select - A row of three solder pads is used to select the active coil in Single Coil / Voice-3 mode. The active coil is selected by a solder bridge connecting the corresponding outer pad to the center one.

The pickups ship from the factory with the inner coils (when used as a Bridge/Neck pair) set as the default. To change the active coils to the outer ones, remove the solder bridge and create a new one from the other outer pad to the center.

• 5. SCO (South Coil Out) - This solder pad is used to conveniently access the south coil output on each pickup for HSH (Humbucker, Single, Humbucker) and HSS pickup com- binations using the Fluence SSA Single width pickup. The south coil is on the neck side of each pickup. The SSA pickup is a north coil, allow- ing hum cancelling combinations in the 2&4 positions on a 5-way pickup switch.


I'll probably swap the active coil at least on the neck pickup, to get it to sound a little richer in single-coil mode (and diminish the Stratness of the middle position). As I'd like a bit more boom from the neck pup, I may also add some pad underneath it to raise it closer to the strings.

Both pickups are presently about .25" under the strings. If the Fluences work like normal pickups, cranking them up some should fatten the tone, and possibly darken it a little. I think I could use that. But I'll play with it for a week or so before deciding. I'm frankly not looking forward to slacking the strings enough to fish the pickups out, then get it tuned up again.

THE END

7

Quite an adventure! Thank ya bud!

8

i admire your persistence, but should i ever have to do that much soldering on anything smaller than those cute, teensy, rather useless Harmony 8138 amps i hope someone will slap some sense into me and tell me that it's worth paying someone else so i don't have to go through that. converting the TV Pro Jet has been awful enough, and that's using a pre-wired harness. i really don't enjoy working on guitars at all due to my lack of competence and necessary tools, but can't afford to have 10 electrics and 4 acoustics tuned up twice yearly or have expensive mods done expertly on guitars which are barely worth the cost of the work, so here we are.

9

If I had a remotely local guy, I wouldn’t have done it. For me to get a guitar worked on, add shipping both directions to/from New Jersey or Tennessee to the cost of the work (and parts).

It’s motivation to do what I think I can.

But wiring is the worst, and this was the densest I’ve done, in both connection count and space.

10

And I thought I had it tough soldering a potentiometer regulated voltage controller inline so as to slow the RPM of the teeny AC motor in the base of my color changing, fiber optic Christmas artificial mini-tree.

Yeesh.

11

And I thought I had it tough soldering a potentiometer regulated voltage controller inline so as to slow the RPM of the teeny AC motor in the base of my color changing, fiber optic Christmas artificial mini-tree.

Yeah, but that was a hack.

I was just following instructions.

12

i'm agile for someone about to turn 64, and used to be fluent in Ebonics due to growing up in a Black neighborhood.


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