Break’s Over, Part 3: The Makeover

There is an intimate connection between a musician and his instrument. Few things annoy me more than an obnoxious novice declaring “a guitar is a guitar.” If you play, then you know better.

A thousand years ago (okay, 20-plus years ago), I bought a 1996 American made Fender Stratocaster.* I saw him hanging in my favorite guitar shop (J Gravity Strings in St. Louis) and was drawn to him instantly. One strum of an open E major chord and I KNEW I had found MY guitar.

To know me is to know that Adrian Belew is my musical hero. At the time, he was playing a pair of custom-made Strats. They had been modified with silent pickups (as opposed to the stock models that produced the dreaded 60 cycle hum), locking tuners, and a Kahler tremolo system (aka “whammy bar”). It was a highly versatile instrument that looked like it would fit my needs perfectly. Naturally, I sought to emulate what Adrian had. **

I found a set of Sperzel locking tuners and a Kahler system on eBay (a serious addiction at the time). Then I found a set of EMG active pickups, which are actually used by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Adrian uses Fender Lace Sensors on his Strat, but the guys in my shop talked me down, telling me I’d be much happier with the EMGs. They were right.

By the time Mike Newman (a tremendous guitarist and one of Gravity’s guitar repair wizards) Strings finished, he had presented me with a brand new guitar. And it was PERFECT. Everything felt just the way I wanted and responded to all my commands. I was in love.

I’ve had a ton of other guitars come in and out of my life, but that guitar never left my side. I put a Larks Tongues in Aspic sticker from King Crimson (one of my favorite albums) on the body. In ‘99 (I think), I went to an Adrian Belew solo concert. He met with fans afterward, and he happily signed my guitar’s pickgaurd, right under the strings. I’ve rarely been so happy. I took to calling the guitar Sunshine Belew. We had a lot of good times together.

Then, life got in the way.

My last attempt at forming and maintaining a band all but collapsed in 2007. I pretty much gave up playing to focus on other things. The third stupidest thing I ever did was to sell Sunshine Belew. I regretted it almost from the instant I walked away from another guitar shop with a relatively tiny bit of cash in hand.

Within this site, I tell the story of wanting to play again on more affordable guitars. It was an okay experience, but not as inspirational as I’d hoped. Then you’ll see the tale of how I found a 1988 American made Strat in almost the same color (which is considered blonde). More importantly, it had the same feel as my ‘96! I was BACK, baby!

But once again, the “new” guitar needed to be modified. I bought the exact same gear and sought out someone in Chicago to perform the makeover. Then, there was a change. Naturally, Adrian was involved.

For the last several years, Adrian has played a custom made Adrian Belew signature Parker Fly as his main guitar. I lusted badly after one, but I could never raise the $8,000 it took to buy one. Then, a year or so ago, Ade needed another more basic guitar to handle a gig he had with Jerry Harrison, where they played Talking Heads music. Just like that, he had a new custom Strat.*** The specs on that guitar are different than mine, which is okay. With one exception: Adrian had a new tremolo unit.

Ade’s new whammy bar came from a Spanish company called Vega, and he RAVED about it. A guitar playing friend said the same things: the Kahler is outdated. Time to roll with the new. After much wailing and gnashing, I ordered a VegaTrem. It arrived a couple of days ago. I had also ordered a fresh set of EMG pickups and Sperzel locking tuners. I had all I needed for a quality makeover.

Now all I needed was a new Mike Newman.

I went to a cool show featuring vocalist Typhanie Monique. It was a cool gig. Afterward, I spoke to her and her bassist, Tim Seisser, who also plays with a local up and coming progressive rock band called District 97. We got to talking and he mentioned that he built bass guitars. I took a flyer and asked him if he could modify a Strat. As it turned out, he could! So on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, I took my Strat to his home, where he had his workshop.

We chatted for a while, then I turned my as-yet-unnamed guitar to him. He asked for a week to get the job done. Five days later, I got a text telling me the job was done. Tingling with excitement, I told him I’d be there the next day.

My biggest concern was the VegaTrem. I knew what the Kahler could do. Its range was glorious, and coupled with the Sperzels, it stayed in tune. What was I getting myself into? I’m the end, I had one thought: trust Adrian.

I got to Tim’s house. After a little chit-chat, he handed me my Number One axe. It was BEAUTIFUL! Wonderful to look at, not only because of the parts Tim installed, but I loved the replacement pickguard and knobs I put on myself. It was just different enough from Sunshine Belew to maintain a fresh mindset.

I sat down and Tim plugged me in to one of his amplifiers. The first thing I heard was nothing, which is EXACTLY what I was supposed to hear. No 60-cycle him. Wonderful! I strummed a few chords (Tim had also done a fresh setup and added fresh strings) and it sounded great. I was happy.

Then came the big test: how would I respond to the VegaTrem. I played a couple of single-note runs, then worked the bar.

WOW!!! If felt AMAZING!

The bar seemed just a bit longer than what I was used to, but I adjusted quickly. I was over the moon! I couldn’t help but hug Tim. He did a terrific job!

Here’s the funny part: even with the makeover, I couldn’t come up with a name for my Number One guitar. Turns out it was right in front of me.

I’m a Star Trek fan, and I’ve really been enjoying the new series Strange New Worlds. Captain Christopher Pike — rapidly becoming my favorite commander — calls his first officer Number One. The character’s name is Una Chin-Riley.

When I mentioned my naming dilemma on Facebook, one of my friends suggested the name Una. At first I didn’t see it. It took a little decoration to drive the point home.

I had no intention of putting a sticker on this guitar. Suddenly, it seemed necessary. I ordered a Starfleet delta. While I waited to receive it, I looked up the name Una. Turns out it’s Latin for “One.” The nickname made sense. When the sticker arrived and I put it on my Number One, I had no choice but to adopt the name. My number one guitar is called Una.

The stars have aligned (if you’ll pardon the expression). I can’t put this guitar down. Everything is just as it should be.

Thanks, Tim!

* More affordable Stratocasters are made in Mexico and Asia. They’re decent instruments, but you can tell the difference between those and the American-made Strats.

** Adrian’s Strats were also fitted with a Roland Guitar synthesizer pickup, Fernandes sustainer pickup in the neck position, and a 13-pin MIDI connector. My budget wouldn’t allow me to go that far. I jokingly asked Ade to sell me one of his. He laughed and politely declined.

*** When Ade came to Chicago, he let it slip that Fender was going to market his custom Strat. If the price is reasonable, I’m THERE!


Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.

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