Turn it into active!

Actually, that was a routine job, although my first attempt to replace passive pickups with actives. Maybe some of you could use the infomation and learn from my mistakes. ūüôā

The other day my luthier instructor DJ Parsons gave me a lefty Dean VXL (I call it Flying Dean because it’s a Flying V-style). It has an awesome “soft case”, that is actually a thick, rigid foam covered by ballistic nylon. I like that kind of SKB cases,¬†feels very sturdy yet lightweight.

Dean VLX - a budget lefty Flying V

Dean VLX – a budget lefty Flying V

SKB soft case for FLying V

SKB soft case for FLying V

The Dean VXL is based on the Gibson Flying V with a V shaped head. This example was all black (finish & hardware) except the maple neck. Since it’s lefty and I’ve never played on lefty guitars (moreover I got it with no strings) I couldn’t try it. All I can say – just like all V-shaped guitars – it can’t be played seated.
It’s a budget-line model of Dean made in China, with obvious signs of that sort of job quality: the fret ends are painfully sharp.
The body made of basswood, the neck is 22 fret (Gibson-scale length), rosewood fingerboard, Tune-o-Matic bridge with string-through-the-body. It has pretty basic configuration: two humbuckers, two volumes and one master tone and a 3-way switch.
I’ve found it surprisingly heavy.

Zakk Wylde EMG active pickups My task was to replace the original pickups with EMG Zakk Wylde set (that’s actually a model 81 & a 85 with long shaft pots). Of course, all electronics should be replaced (except the switch) and a battery box installed. The recent step¬†used to be the worst part of such modifications. To do it on the Flying Dean¬† I’ve¬†found¬†a less painfull¬†and more lazy way then usual, without routing the body.

Here’s a factory video about installing the set in a Les Paul.

Measuring pickup height for string clearance

Measuring pickup height for rough string clearance

First I measured the height of the pickups from the mounting ring with a caliper, rather as a reference of rough string clearance than¬†a tone settings. The EMG active pickups obviously need higher¬†settings for the “sweet spot” of sound, but at least I can adjust their height¬†to have¬†roughly enough string clearance.

Original wiring of Dean VXL

Original wiring of Dean VXL

I laid¬†¬†the guitar “face down” and removed the control cavity cover and took a picture of the original wiring (just in case).

Next step was to unsolder the pickup wires. Then I turned the Dean “face up” again and removed the pickups with mounting rings and unmounted the factory pickups.

To mount the EMGs I used a little trick. Probably everyone who tried to mount a standard type humbucker faced to the problem how annoying is while you push down the spring on the screw and try to attach the pickup but suddenly you loose the¬†grip and the spring jumps like a crazy grasshopper right into the darkest corner of the room and you may never find it again…

Using alligator clip to hold the spring

Using alligator clip to hold the spring

You can easily avoid it by attaching a tiny alligator clips to the screw right next to the compressed ring (you can get a bag of these in Radio Shack for a few bucks) as you can see on the photo.

I guided the cables through the hole into the control cavity and fixed the pickups with the mounting rings into their place and restored the measured pickup height for sting clearance (should be adjusted properly later, the EMG active pickups have weaker magnets then usual passive pickups, so they should be lifted closer to the strings).

EMG solderless wiring

EMG solderless wiring

Solderless wiring set of EMG promises a smooth ride to connect the components. You just need to attach the color coded wires/connectors. Even for the switch they provided a small screw-in Terminal Block.

I’ve cut the wires of the pots and the jack and removed them from the guitar. The wiring printout hanged on my DIY document reader stand and I selected the one that fits to the Dean.

EMG active pickup wiring for Dean VX

EMG active pickup wiring for Dean VX

Connecting the pickups to the Terminal Block was a breeze, so I proceeded to the output jack and the battery.

And then I got behind the eight ball….
Those wires aren’t too long that is good if you have a crowded control cavity. The length is just enough for a Les Paul or PRS.
Not for a Flying V!

The output jack is right at the end of the wing – that’s 6+ inches from the cavity. The output cable and the battery ground wasn’t long enough. (I was a bit surprised that EMG isn’t prepared for such guitars. Okay, Flying V is not the most popular type of axe, but we can’t say it’s a rarity. The ZW sett is 230 bucks, they surely could include a longer cable or extension for the price.)

I had two options: cut the special connectors and extend the cables myself or contact EMG to ask for a longer one. In case of an urgent job I would do it myself but our deadline was far enough to choose the second way.
I sent an email to EMG support describing the situation on Thursday night. The next morning I’ve got their reply asking for my address where to send . I received the longer cable on next Tuesday, kudos to EMG for the great and fast support!

EMG sent the replacement cable in 3 business days from California to Boston! Wow!

EMG sent the replacement cable in 3 business days from California to Boston! Wow!

It was time to complete the job. I connected the cables to the output and the battery, as well to the switch (that was the only one without the solderless connector). I tested the system by knocking the pickups with a ferrous metal and checked all control functions. All worked!
I didn’t want to cut the long cables shorter to keep the easy connectivity so I’ve just folded¬†and secured them with tiny cable ties in the cavity.
I tested it again  Рand I realized that something went wrong. It was dead silent.

New wiring of the active pickup set

New wiring of the active pickup set

I removed the cover again and spotted a broken soldering on the center contact of the switch (it was the original factory soldering) and fixed it. Tested again and was alright.

That was a smooth sailing, huh? ūüôā

But it wasn’t over yet. I needed to install a the battery holder. Usually an extra cavity is routed to receive it but I was lucky with the Dean to have an easier option.
As you can see on the pictures above, the control cavity has enough room for the battery. EMG pots are fortunately mini size, they don’t take too much space. The simplest solution would be to just place the battery in and leave it, if replacement needed, it could be done by removing 3 screws. But the customer preferred to have an easy to open battery holder.

Gotoh battery box - narrow and deep

Gotoh battery box – narrow and deep

"Noname" battery box - wide and shallow

“Noname” battery box – wide and shallow

The Master¬†asked¬†me to install a¬†“Noname” (wide and shallow) type of battery box. I researched the size on Google and created a design sketch on my Macbook to check the available space. It was too tight for it. I dug up an another type of battery holder from my “treasury box”, it was a Gotoh (narrow and deep type). Bingo!

The Gotoh battery holder fits well in control cavity

The Gotoh battery holder fits well in control cavity

I started  the final steps on Sunday.
First I placed the battery box into the control cavity, it fitted well. Double sided adhesive tape pressed on the top of the box and I put the cover back to its place.

Double-sided tape on the battery box

Double-sided tape on the battery box

The box then stuck to the cover by the adhesive.
I marked the outline and the screw holes. However, it was the outline of the top of the box but I needed the size of its body to cut the proper size opening into the cover.

The outlines of the battery box on the control cavity cover

The outlines of the battery box on the control cavity cover

Caliper used to measure the size. I marked the cut line and drilled small holes at the corners.

I used a coping saw to cut it and after 6-8 minutes of filing and sanding the battery box was in. (Well, it doesn’t look exactly like I wanted, one of the holes was a bit out – fortunately the top of the box covered it).

The opening on the cover for battery box and the shortened screws

The opening on the cover for battery box and the shortened screws

Then screw holes marked and drilled. There were no screws included with the box but I’ve found some in my inventory, although they were 2 inches longer than needed. I cut them to proper size and fixed the box to the cover.

All I needed was to solder the battery cables.
It used to be¬†easy, but…

It seemed to my soldering iron was too hot for that job because it melted the plastic around the contact. I have never experienced such issue before, since I used my standard temperature settings and it’s a Gotoh box, so I relied on it. For the second soldering I reduced the temp settings and tried to be pretty quick but the plastic has slightly deformed again around the contact. The box is also difficult to open: you need a coin, it’s¬†really tough to open with nails. I’m a bit disappointed with that Gotoh battery box, the Japanese company used to produce high quality and well designed hardware. That box just isn’t up to their standards.

Anyway, mission completed!

Well, I’m not proud of it. Next time I want to make a more clean and precise cut and to add two additional screws to fix the control cavity cover. Originally, there are 3 screws only holding it, but with the battery box installed and the folded longer cables inside the cavity, the inner “pressure” became stronger so the cover just became a bit “bumped”. It isn’t all¬†flush with the back. Actually, I didn’t want to do drill extra holes and drive screws without the confirmation of the customer – and he was fine with it “as is”.

Battery box installed

Battery box installed

Summary: the EMG wireless system is great and easy to use, but you should prepare for a Flying V by asking for a longer cable.

 

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