The Burnt Offering: A Guitar Resurrection

My 1989-90 Peavey Tracer.  I bought it in the late summer-early fall of 1990 at MusicMaker’s on South Lamar in Austin, TX. It was a replacement for another Peavey, a Strat copy that I LOVED and that was stolen from my East Riverside apartment one afternoon. Like all Peaveys of the era, she’s American-made and originally had a reverse-headstock neck with a rosewood fingerboard, a black finish with gold sparkles embedded, and a Kahler Spyder tremolo system.  After completely falling apart under the strain of 6+ years of very heavy use – it was my only guitar – it ended up in pieces in a box.  I took some time off from music and when I started playing again I also started collecting guitars. But I never thought of getting rid of the Tracer for a moment. At the same time I never really thought about playing her again; my idea was to build a shadowbox in which to display her and the rest of my Ultimate Something memorabilia.

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Me with the Tracer in her original metaliciousness, circa 1992.

When The Ultimate Something decided to reunite for the 2012 Steamboat Reunion Show it seemed  a requirement that I should rebuild her (or have her rebuilt). The plan was to get her back together and repaint her with The Ultimate Something logo. First I unpacked the pieces and took stock: The original neck was super worn and I honestly hated the awkward-to-tune reverse headstock (talk about a perfect illustration of the term ‘fashion victim’). Happily I found a normal-headstock neck with my preferred plain maple fretboard on eBay for a reasonable cost.

Less easy was dealing with the bridge.  The original Kahler Spyder tremolo had rusted and fallen to bits. I found a website called Wammi World that was the ultimate source for 1980’s era Kahler whammy tech, but after pricing out all the replacement parts I would need I remembered that I almost never used the goddamn whammy bar even when it worked. Instead I purchased a mounting plate to cover the gaping hole left by the Spyder and had a Kahler hardtail bridge installed.

The electronics were also a complete mess. I had replaced the original bridge humbucker with a Seymour Duncan Invader, the highest-output pickup made by Duncan and probably by anyone.  It’s kind of a ridiculous machine. The pole pieces are the size of pencil erasers, and I swear when I had the tremolo bridge you could actually see the strings getting sucked down by the force of the magnets. It was probably twice as loud as the stock single-coils in the middle and neck positions. Also a lot of the solders had failed and a mini-toggle switch that originally tapped the humbucker into a single coil had disappeared, leaving a small hole in the body that I covered with electrical tape.

I was able to strip the parts off myself and the obvious next step was the paint. I tried using paint thinner and the paint and clear-coat on the guitar was just so fucking thick and smooth it did almost nothing. My friend and musical coconspirator Mike B had a heat gun that he thought might work so I hauled the neckless body over there and fired it up.

It worked… sort of. I was able to get most of the paint off the front of the guitar, less so on the back and sides. There were just some areas that seemed to be atomically bonded to the wood. Initially I planned to go back to the chemical route and see if I could find some substance even more poisonous and chemically active than the shit I’d already used.  But then I started really looking at the guitar and…. it looked cool. I’m seriously opposed to the whole ‘distressed’ look on new guitars and  part of me felt like this was the same thing. But then my wife saw it and thought it looked cool too (she’s an interior designer and has better taste than normal humans). And this wasn’t a new guitar.  It was 20+ years old. So I kiboshed the repainting plan to try and repaint it, screwed the “new” neck on and yeah… looked very cool. Now on to the hard parts…

Mike B is a patient man and a good friend and he volunteered to help me try to install the electronics. I was keeping the Invader of course; it was about the one piece of (semi) original hardware that looked brand new. I shopped around to try and find some high output single coils that could maybe compete with the Invader and landed on the Brighton Rock model pickup from Guitar Fetish. They’re designed to replicate the pickups in Brian May’s Red Special, and I have always been a huge fan of his tone. I also bought a new mini-toggle which, instead of acting as a coil-tap, would be a killswitch that would cut the sound completely. Mike and I (mostly Mike) cobbled and soldered all these bits together and got confirmed that everything worked, but we didn’t feel confident about installing the mounting plate and bridge. Time to bring in a professional.

I made an appointment with Ethan at Subway Guitars in Berkeley, CA and brought her in for the final stages of resurrection. Fat Dawg was there when I arrived and when I pulled her out of the case he said something like “That thing been in a fire or something? Anyway it looks pretty cool.” Knowing Mr. Dawg’s contempt for 80’s metal machines that felt like high praise indeed. Ethan was patient and thorough as we went through all the stuff that still needed to be done, and within a week or so I picked her up, plugged her in and got to know the Burnt Offering.

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Reborn

Obviously there was a different feel to her now, as one would expect with a new neck and a fixed bridge. I had asked Ethan to keep the action low and boy did he oblige. Unplugged there was a real “rubber band-y” sound to the strings, and I actually took it back in and had the action slightly tweaked before I declared the project complete. It turned out exactly as I had hoped – a fast, high-output rock machine. The Brighton Rock pickups match up really well with the Invader, with very little volume drop-off when switching from one to the other. The neck is quite fast and even though the sound is still extremely buzzy and rubbery when unplugged, with the proper application of override and volume I can coax fantastic tone and sustain from her.

In fact I was so happy that she was the only guitar I took with me to Austin for the Ultimate Something reunion shows. Unfortunately Nick was unable to bring his old BC Rich Mockingbird, but he did bring his own frankenstein Strat for the shows, giving us a hip Sonic Youth kind of look at least as far as our equipment went.  I ran the guitar through a Vox Tonelab multi effects unit and into a rented Vox AC15 2×12 combo amp (Nick and I both used these for the show) and goddamn, it sounded good. Although I do think a good, original guitarist’s personality and style can and will come through regardless of what particular equipment they’re playing through, I also think that finding the right equipment for the artist and the music being played can make a huge difference in the performance. In this case I played better than I had in years at those shows. A lot of that was the excitement and enjoyment of being on stage with the best group of musicians I had ever played with (and the 6+ months of intensive, daily practice leading up to the show), but having MY guitar back, the guitar on which all of those songs were composed and rehearsed and completed, made a positive difference too.

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So, so fittingly onstage at the Phoenix Saloon in New Braunfels, TX, along with a Voc AC15 2×12 rented (of course) from Rock n Roll Rentals in ATX.

The Burnt Offering isn’t just a nostalgia machine, either. You can hear her on The Moscow Rules’ “Flames of Rome” single, where I use her on the solo. I did the same on our newest song, the soon-to-be-released “Crushing Coal (Pressure).”

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