Donnerstag, 29. Oktober 2020

Headless 7-string from Aliexpress

Since in the 1980es the Steinberger guitars came out I have always wanted a headless guitar. And I kept returning to Aliexpress where there were seemingly affordable and at the same time attractive Chinese-made guitars on display. In the end I decided to risk it and buy this thing, and since I guess others, like myself before, would love some more detailed informationon what you get for your money, here's my journey with this thing. First of all, this is it:


I bought a Fender HN148638 guitar stand for it, it has individually adjustable arms and fits perfectly.

Now let's get to the details.  

Shipping and costs

The instrument took very long to get here, almost two months. I don't blame the seller, on its way it was stuck at Beijing airport for several weeks, and when I asked the seller I got a prompt reply, it seems like flights were suspended for a while, probably due to Corona virus. OK. Bad luck. 

The instrument including gig bag cost 650 US-$, which was about 555 Euro when I ordered it. On top came 112 Euro German customs, so overall the instrument cost 667 Euro.
 

What I got

The instrument in its gig bag arrived in a polystyrol box which seemed well secure enough. It is a solid body and hence quite heavy.

The quality I'd call still OK, no terrible flaws, but a few smaller ones:
 

As we can see in the picture in two locations the nicely grained top layer is damaged in two locations, this is purely cosmetic, but still...

Almost absurd: the box for the tremolo's springs on the back was made so wide that two of the cover's screws had nowhere to go. So they just glued some small pieces of wood in - and set one of the screws excactly between both sides right into the glue layer, so that the piece went off right away. Not a big deal and easy to repair, but nevertheless...

The instrument was not very well adjusted. The neck needed some correction, and the action was set far too low. No sharp fret ends, but some dead frets. This got better after some time - the wood "settled", some truss rod adjusting and bridge fine tuning resulted in a quite playable instrument without needing to correct any individual frets.

Once set up properly the neck is nice. The fret board is flat, almost like on a classical guitar, and it's pretty wide which will take some getting used to, in particular with small hands like mine. The neck is asymmetric from the back. I love this, it feels great. The fanned frets take some getting used to, in particular in the lower regions (did I mention my small hands?).

It took me some while to find out how to adjust the action: The height is configured from the top using two very small socket screws. However, achtung!, first the each saddle needs to be loosened using another socket screw facing the pickup (hardly visible in the picture). This construction avoids losing any of those small parts when changing strings, but it makes adjustments tedious. 

The tremolo arm is supposed to be held in position by another socket screw, but this isn't a very smart construction, because it is metal on metal. The arm never stays in position, hence I replaced it by a Schaller part for Floyd Rose trems. It fits like a glove and works much better. With a 009 set of D'Addario strings I need all 3 springs in the back to hold the bridge in a low position (which is what I prefer). 



The pickups are not world class, but surprisingly good. They're pretty much mutli-purpose, not the kind you'd use for heavy metal. I had hoped they'd be splittable, but, no, only a simple three way switch, no push-push or push-pull toggles, everything stock simple - but, interestingly, the middle position combines the two pickups out of phase which is kind of nice (I've never seen the point in combining a bridge and neck humbucker, hence this turns out to be a really nice addon).

While using the trem only for modest vibrato or not using it at allo the instrument stays in tune just fine. When tremoloing gets more intensive I usually need to use the arm to put things back where they should be. Might be a case for installing a Tremol-No.

The headless tuners work OK, I'll get along with them.

Update

I had it on eBay - for one night. Next morning I took the auction down again. I ordered some parts from Rockinger - the same guys from which I had bought all I needed for my Aria project back in 1985 (-ish), so I was back at modding my guitar, a true deja vu after 35 years!

I decided to fix the three things that bothered me most: tuning stability because of the trem, lack of coil splitting switch (though the pickups would have allowed this) and lack of shielding (and hence humming).

Tuning stability and trem setup

The tremolo system was probably the biggest challenge. Whenever I used it my tuning would drop a bit and needed to be fixed with the tremolo arm or - even worse - using the tuners. I decided to use a Rockinger Black Box rather than a Tremol-No:

  • After setup it's practically no maintenance, your tremolo is still "floating" though you'll feel a little resistance when pulling up which is OK for me, and there's no need to switch between modes.
  • It costs considerably less.
  • I had a guitar with a Floyd Rose and a Black Box in the 1980es, and it worked very well.

However there was a problem: there was a wide gap between the tremolo's sustain block and the guitar body, so basically not enough to support the device. Hence I needed to glue (and screw) in a block to "extend" the body where needed. In the end it looked like this:


But there was more work waiting. The three springs needed more stretching to keep the bridge where it needs to be (you need to adjust the tremolo in a way that the Black Box is in touch with the block and slightly shifts its position), and there was no space in the box left to adjust the spring claw any more, meaning I had to get a smaller claw and extend the box a bit:

Now the guitar stays in tune, the action is fine, and I can even tighten the springs still a bit more if it becomes necessary.

Coil splitting

This was relatively easy. I ordered a Push/Push poti to replace the stock volume poti. I decided to use it for splitting both pickups, so either it's HB/HB or SC/SC, I like it simple. 

Shielding

This part was straightforward but tedious. I got the Rockinger Shielding Kit and removed all the electronics in order to install the copper foil. Before I made sure I did not forget how everything would need to connect afterwards. OmniGraffle came in handy (though it might be a slightly exotic choice, but it was at hand). 


The result looks like this:

What's next?

For now: play it ;)

Later: maybe optimise the action a bit more, but that would require some fret work. The pickups are getting an extended test drive for now, I'll decide later whether I keep or eventually replace them.


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