At the corner of Clarksville and Blues…

29 11 2014

As you can imagine, life sometimes throws you curves. We’re out slaying dragons and rescuing damsels in distress, mostly the ones that have found their way backstage, but… 🙂

We’ve talked about some pals of ours, The Secret Strat Project guys, before. We recently learned that they are busy building  more incredible guitars to send overseas  to soldiers. Their custom guitars are quickly becoming legendary. They’re literally recreating some of History’s “lost guitars” and putting their own spin on them.

In a time where custom shops are building “custom handbuilt guitars” on tightly controlled schedules in assembly line conditions, it’s “a lesson in old school” for these guys. They literally breathe life back into Swamp Ash and Maple, Alder and Rosewood. We’ve played some of the guitars they’ve crafted. The Stratocasters and Telecasters coming out of The Secret Strat Project rival Masterbuilt axes coming out of the most well-known custom shops in America.

Capt America2-webThe recipients are very lucky guitarists, indeed.

When I spoke with them last, they told me about their new project, “The Crossroads Guitars”.

The guys at TSSP are going to build (12) Blues guitars in the “Crossroads” flavor. They’re going to build Resonators, Strats, Telecasters and even a hollowbody or three.

As I listened, I understood exactly why they were doing it. Anyone who is caught firmly in the grasp of the Blues would. As I thought about their new project, I wondered how many young guitarists know the “Crossroads” tale, so I thought I’d acquaint you with it. It’s  a tale told many times that described how a very famous guitarist named Robert Johnson, found his way to fame as one of the most beloved Blues guitarists of all time.

It was in the dark of a moonless night, deep in the bowels of the South…

Robert JohnsonIn the Mississippi River delta where Robert Johnson was born, the locals said that if an aspiring bluesman waited by the side of a deserted crossroads in the dark of a moonless night… the Devil himself might come and tune his guitar, sealing a pact for the bluesman’s soul and guaranteeing a lifetime of easy money, women, and fame.

As many watched the rise of Robert Johnson, they claimed Johnson must have waited by the crossroads and gotten his guitar fine-tuned for the price of a silver coin and his soul.

Robert Johnson was a Mississippi blues singer and songwriter, who according to legend, sold his soul to Satan “at the crossroads” in exchange for his remarkable talent on the guitar.

Born and raised in Mississippi, Robert Johnson started playing blues guitar in the late 1920s. His wife and child died in childbirth around 1930 and the event tore him apart emotionally. In his grief, he withdrew and is said to have devoted himself to the guitar. Part of the “evidence” supporting the Crossroads tale comes from reports that he dropped out of sight for a while in the early 1930s and returned a much-improved guitarist.

It is said that at the stroke of midnight, he walked down to the windswept crossroads at the junction of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Reciting an ancient incantation, he called upon the Devil to make his deal. In exchange for Johnson’s immortal soul and a coin, the devil tuned his guitar, thereby giving him the abilities which he so desired. From then on, the young bluesman played his instrument with an unearthly style, his fingers dancing over the strings. His voice moaned and wailed, expressing the deepest sorrows of a condemned sinner.

In 1936-37 he recorded at least 29 songs in Texas (San Antonio and Dallas) and then returned to Mississippi to play and sing in clubs and bars. His mysterious death at the age of 27 added to the legend: He died in 1938, falling ill after playing a party and dying four days later.

Some people said that Robert’s deal with the devil came due and as evidence gave the fact that they had seen him on all fours, howling at the moon the night he died……

Undisputed facts about Johnson’s life are few and far between. More often than not, his legend has obscured the few grains of truth that can be discerned. According to the myth, the young bluesman desperately longed for fame and fortune.

Whatever the reason, Johnson died at the young age of twenty-seven, and left a legacy of Delta Blues music that has influenced guitar players like Muddy Waters, and his songs have been covered by several rock stars, including Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. In 1986 Robert Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His songs include “Crossroad Blues,” “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Terraplane Blues.”


Does your Telecaster measure up?

21 04 2014

We know these guys in Montana who build guitars for “US Soldiers far afield”. They call themselves “The Secret Strat Project”. Since 2009, they’ve been eating Macaroni and Cheese and building guitars for the boys… and (gasp!) girls… out there flapping from the handlebars in harm’s way.

We KNOW these guys.

They were studio cats when making music was far more important than making money. These guys made their bones when Classic Rock was King.  They played for the sport of it.  They placed for the scars. They never really learned how to “understand” money.

They’re still proving it to this day, pouring their hearts and souls into Alder and Ash, Tolex and capacitors, so that they can give the products of all that labor away for free.

Capt America3-webThey don’t play “pointy necked guitars” and they don’t wear make-up or grow their hair long.

They aren’t “Boulevard Pretty Boys” or “Starbucks Babies”. They’re the guys that you walk quickly past in dimly lit parking lots. They moved to “places farflung” about the  time that “Hair Bands” and “front men covered in wild make-up” started moving into the limelight.  They figured that it was just safer for all those young guys. No “Young Turk” wants to have to admit to getting his butt kicked by an “Old Lion”…

They’re kinda scary if the truth be told. These are “serious guys”. When they “Maple Up”, They can make you cry. For all the bars, scars and wars, they just connect to that Alder and Ash like “Bees to Honey”. What happens when they put the headphones on is almost magic.

But don’t let that fool you… these are also the kind of guys that came back from hard places and then venture out into the night with a knife to return the next day with a deer or an elk thrown over the hood of their truck.

Speaking of knives, they’re the kind of guys that will look you in the eye, laugh in your face and then say stuff like;

“That ain’t a knife… THIS is a knife. And it’s girlfriend is a ’52 Tele…”

Case in point;

NIghtcrawler gets a GFApparently, if you don’t fit the axe they’re building, they just use one to carve you down, until you do. 🙂

They mock up guitars for construction using inspirations from a lot of different places. Apparently one of them is from watching too many “slasher” movies. 🙂

Oh yeah, they’re also Vets covered in scars and bad dreams – trying to insure that kids out there on the rim of the world don’t have bad dreams. You see, they give these kids “Maple Mistresses” to help them get through the long nights, waiting until dawn.

Black BettyIf you have a guitar, an amp, pedals, or other gear burning a hole in your closet and you ‘d like to see it get to a good home, please contact “The Secret Strat Project” Guys by leaving your information here. We’ll see to it that the message gets there ASAP. These guys are doing something great and we’re proud to be a part of it.

Swampcaster 02


There are those who can raise guitars up from the dead.

14 04 2014

We’ve talked to you about some guys we know, who call themselves “The Secret Strat Project” (TSSP).

It’s a small group of US Military Veterans who “heroed up” to start building and then giving Fender and Gibson guitars to US Military Soldiers serving overseas out of their own pockets.

We’ve been contributors to this wonderful operation ourselves.

The guys at TSSP are actually sending axes (for FREE) to “strange and exotic places”… places like a land they call “The Sandbox” – that’s  Afghanistan to you and me.

They’ve turned out some incredible gear… gear that most guitarists would literally kill for. Some of us might even give up (gasp!) BEER to play these awesome guitars. WE just showed you this Custom Telecaster, but we’re going to show it to you again. It’s just THAT cool.

Green Dragon - web
We were talking to them recently about HOW they do what they  do and they reminded us that fine guitars  often get built by “teams” and not by a single luthier slaving over a bench into the wee hours of the night.

They started telling me about a cat in Texas that is becoming one of their “go-to guys” when they need something sweet… like pickups (pups) that no longer exist.

When they started telling us about how this cat can raise pups from the dead, we asked if his name was “Lazarus”… 😉

Instead, they explained that this cat can BUILD BY HAND pickups that we’ve only heard about in legends and whispers.

He sounded so cool, we thought that we’d introduce you to him;

Mike Daugherty runs an operation called CMDaughtery Handwound Pickups, located in  Leonard, Texas. Leonard is located about 60 miles from Dallas, TX.

A US Military Veteran himself, Mike builds pickups by hand that rival anything you’ve seen in the “boutique pickup” industry.

He uses the best materials and he insures  that  these custom pups are affordable. That means that “up and coming” players can afford to build axes to carry them to the next threshold. That says something about Mike’s dedication to guitars and music in general.

Rather than talk smack about Mike, let’s just take a look at what he does;

CMD Handwound CS 59 Neck pup for SRV Stratocaster
This is Mike’s custom built ’59 Stratocaster neck pickup. Built from the ground up in Texas – with parts made only in the USA, Mike uses years of experience and vintage techniques to build scatter wound pups around Alnico 5 magnets, cloth pushback wire and the best bobbin material available. Then, he pots those pups in bees wax.

CMD Handwound CS 59 Neck pup for SRV Stratocaster2
A tremendous amount of technical and historical research goes into crafting these highly sought after pickups. Mike’s pups sound even BETTER than they look.

This ’59 pup is based on the exact same pickup specs that the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan used. Those in the know will tell you that Texas Specials are not even close to SRVs tone. Mike builds a ’59 set that just crushes SRV tone.

(Editor’s note: I’m probably going to get a set of these for my own SRV Strat. They’re that good. I just have to see if I can crowbar an order into his stack of “pups waiting to be built”…)

DCR +/- 5%

Neck: 5.9

Magnetic poles North up,
Heavy Formvar Wire,
Vulcanized Fiber Bobbins,
A5 Magnets,
Potted in Beeswax

And, Mike stands by his work. If you’re not happy with your new custom pickup the first time you hear them… that path is clear. He says to send them back and he will refund your money!

If you’re looking for a set of pickups that will give your axe that tone,  that “character” that everyone searches for… you can find it by putting your axe into Mike’s capable hands.

And… Mike guarantees it!

If you’re looking for a custom-built set email him and he will build a set to your specs or to one of his own, based on his experience and deep knowledge base. Your search may lead you to an opened door that you never imagined even existed.

And, he’s not a “one trick pony”.  Mike  doesn’t just speak “single coil”. Need Buckers, Tele sets, P90’s or Bass pups? He can hook you up.

But wait there’s more…

Great pickups are just the beginning of the chain. The WRONG wiring harness can kill your tone. The RIGHT wiring harness can really bring  your axe to life (or even resurrect it from the dead). We called him “Lazarus”, remember?

Mike can build you a harness built to support and compliment those custom pups he builds  you. In fact, it’s kind of ridiculous to drop custom pups into a stock pickguard. That stock harness just isn’t going to take advantage of all the capabilities of your new pickups. It’s like owning a Ferrari without a motor. Just shoot him an email and let him know what you’re looking for.

There’ a rumor circulating that he’s going to start building The Secret Strat Project’s highly coveted “Captain America” Stratocaster pickguard sets, based on the ’82 Fender “Red Bottom 57/62” sets and custom harnesses. The guys at TSSP have promised us a “First Look” as soon as they receive the prototype and you can bet you’re going to read about it and put it through it’s paces here.

Now, for the “fine print”;

Mike includes the covers and hardware in the price of his pups. Send him a message with your order specifying color and he’ll hook you right up. Unlike some other boutique builder, it’s all included.

He ships for FREE. Free. If you live in the “Lower 48” he’s gonna get those pups to you without a shipping cost. If you live “way out there beyond the “48”… shipping is calculated and affordable.

You can reach him using the information below, but be patient. As you can probably imagine, a cat in high demand is hip deep in back-orders as his pups fly out the door:

CMDaugherty Hand Wound Pickups
411 Northwest HWY. 69 #25
Leonard, TX. 75452 USA
Phone: (903)449-3826(903)449-3826

Fender Custom Shop “Time Machine” Stratocaster – John Cruz

9 04 2014

We’re in “crunch mode” as we prepare axes for shipment overseas. “The Secret Strat Project” has never been busier. The guys over there purchase and then rebuild guitars that find their way into the hands of our brothers and sisters serving overseas in harms way. We help them every way that we can. We’re just helping them to spread the “Maple and Rosewood Love…”

We’re up to our tuners in work too. I currently have (8) axes under construction on my benches and I’ve taken on an apprentice. Even so, my personal workload looks like a landslide of Alder and Ash. If not for the “time stress” it’d be bliss. These axes are turning out wonderfully.

So, rather than go off on one of my rants about capacitors, circuits or neck preferences…

I’m gonna share some email with you. Now, you guys know that I hate  it when guys send  me email letting me know about their latest scores.

I don’t hate it because they’re bragging. Some of these guys are at the top of their game. They have gear that “mere mortals” can only dream about. But sometimes I hate it because I moved my tribe to a remote part of Montana and there are some REALLY nice axes floating around out there (in the rest of the civilized world) and somehow these guys seem to keep finding them before I do. 😉

Case in point. A buddy of mine (we call him “Retroverbial” when we’re talking kindly about him – the rest of the time, his “call-sign” is unprintable,) sent me this  email and it was so cool, I just have to share it with you;

“I happened to stop in at the Guitar Shop (Name/Location deleted by editor) this afternoon to try and get some definitive answers about the rumored-as-soon-to-be-released Silverface Vibrolux Reverb re-issue but…

…this damn thing kept yelling to me from the display rack.

Normally the shop’s owner orders these Custom Shop Strat re-issues with 9.5” radius boards and 6105 frets but upon close examination I discovered that this guitar was built to full “Leo” specs – 7.25” radius and vintage fretwire.  I was also surprised to learn it was one of a small number of closet-classic “Time Machine” relics built by John Cruz, with lightly-checkered nitro lacquer finish and minimally-aged hardware.

The pickups are specifically-voiced Custom Shop 1960 coils wound by none other than Abigail Ybarra.

I mean, what’s not to love?

The fretboard has gently-rolled edges and the set-up is spot on.  The guitar is a medium/light weight, tipping the scales at 7 lbs, 8.5 oz.

After playing it for an hour and a half, I spent another forty minutes negotiating (successfully) for a deal I was comfortable with.  I know I’ve said many times that I’d never buy another off-the-rack Fender guitar but the truth is, I could not build a better guitar than this.  I could beat the price but not the quality.

Simply put, the guitar is a personification of Fender at its very best.  The case candy inventory is impressive as well – super duper chamois-type polishing cloth, Custom Shop strap and cable, a comprehensive John Cruz designed tool kit that has everything imaginable for performing string changes and routine maintenance.

So how does it sound?

Frankly, it flat-out honks.  Into my dimed Fender Pro or Spankmaster Reverb with the guitar’s volume rolled off, it’s simply melodic with robustly articulate highs and lows plus a nice fat bump in the middle.

When I crack the volume all the way open it develops a spectacular, nasty growl.  “Nuanced grit”.

With my Fulltone OCD to overload the amp’s front end, hard-picked harmonics just leap from the pickups and the additional outboard gain makes sustained-and-controlled feedback a snap.

As I mentioned, it’s Fender at its very best.

I guess I was finally “ready”.”


Me too. I’m just hoping that when “I’m ready” I can find a lefty like this lil hunk of heaven… I’m getting tired of having to hand-build all of my own gear.

Way to go, buddy! You scored… once again!

Mumble, grumble, snort! 🙂



All Image Credits go to “Retroverbial” along with ownership of this wonderful piece of Fender Heaven. All I can say is “WOW!”


WeWikipedia: We is the first-person, plural personal pronoun (nominative case) in Modern English.