Electrifying a 1973 Stella With an $11 Pickup
In my last Guitar World article, “Flea Market Guitar Review–the 1963 Stella Acoustic,” I went over the awesome midrange acoustic sounds these cheap birch-body acoustics produce. After reading the article, the sick minds over at CBGitty.com sent me their $10.99 pre-wired 6-pole pickup and dared me to try it out on a birch-bodied Stella acoustic.
I just happened to have another Stella in my guitar hoard that I picked up for $15 at a yard sale. The stamping on the inside of the soundhole says F-73, revealing that it was built in the first half of 1973 at the Harmony factory in Chicago. There were very few design changes from the ’63 model, with the exception of an unbranded headstock, simpler, block-shaped painted fret markers and a tobacco-burst paint job without the fake tiger stripes.
The C. B. Gitty 6-String Pre-Wired Pickup is a common single-coil pickup with one volume, one tone and a jack. Unlike other soundhole pickups that are easily inserted and removed, this harness is permanently mounted into an acoustic guitar. It’s not the type of thing you’d want in your Martin or Taylor, but a 1973 Harmony Stella? Why the hell not! Here’s how I installed the pickup, along with some tips I figured out along the way.
After removing the strings and floating bridge from the guitar, I placed the pickup on the top of the guitar to see how long the wires were. I wanted to make sure the volume and tone knobs would reach the holes that would be drilled for them. The pickup came with enough wiring to place the knobs close to the edge of the butt. Perfect.
I reached inside the acoustic guitar body to feel for bracing. (I didn’t want to drill holes in areas that had the internal ladder bracing.) I found clear locations for the volume, tone and jack and then drilled them. The volume knobs required an 11/32” drill bit and the jack needed a 3/8” bit.
I added a “poor man’s ground wire” by taking a small section of 24 gauge wire and wrapped it around the jack sleeve. I then connected the other side to the metal of the trapeze tailpiece. This whole operation could have been done with a cleaner look by actually wiring the groundwire to the jack before installing and then drilling a hole under the tailpiece. I’m not a fine luthier, I’m a tinkerer.
Once I got the knobs and jack installed, I strung up the guitar with the Low E and High E strings and put the floating bridge back in place. These two strings served as a guide for installing the magnetic pickup to the soundhole and helped me line it up straight.
Nickel strings, not phosphor bronze: The guitar was then strung with Shane Speal Signature Strings, a heavy gauge nickel set of strings with a wound G. Because the pickup is a standard Strat-style magnetic pickup, phosphor bronze acoustic strings just don’t work as well. Yes, they’ll come through, but the High B and High E strings are a lot louder. The heavy gauge nickel strings have the same feel as acoustic strings, but they drive a pickup a lot better. (I put my Ernie Ball PowerPeg Standard string winder in the picture simply because this tool has become essential to me. As a cigar box guitar builder and professional musician, I wind a lot of strings and the PowerPeg gets the job done fast. These winders sell for around $24 and save me a lot of time stringing.)
Because the guitar has slightly high action, I decided to set it up for slide guitar. (You shredders out there may laugh at slide guitarists, but we have three times the amount of vintage guitars to choose from than you. If the neck is warped, it’s just broken in for us sliders!) I tuned this one to Open D (D-A-D-F#-A-D, low to high).
Here’s a demo I did as part of a Cigar Box Nation TV broadcast:
The verdict: The tone was unexpected. I thought the mix of a birch body acoustic and simple single coil would give me thin, squonky tones. The outcome was the exact opposite, with a massive bottom end driving the amp. Unlike the midrange biting tones of Elmore James or Muddy Waters’ early electrified stuff, this C. B. Gitty pickup gives me a punk blues sound. It makes you want to chug rhythm guitar, bashing at the instrument like a madman.
This electrified Stella reminds me of the Great Punk Blues Scare of the early 2000’s, when performers like Bob Log III and Reverend Deadeye showed up on the scene with nasty-ass acoustic guitars with screwed up pickups. Deadeye’s acoustic even had a homemade resonator cone made from a wok. See video proof below.
One final photo: Both of my Stella acoustics together. I love these guitars. If I stumble across one at a flea market for under $30, I guarantee you that I’ll be walking home with it!
Musician and author, Shane Speal is responsible for the resurgence of cigar box guitars in modern music. He fronts the DIY-instrument band, Shane Speal and the Snakes, curates the Cigar Box Guitar Museum inside Speal’s Tavern in New Alexandria, PA, and has made 2,000 cigar box guitars to date. His latest book, Making a Poor Man’s Guitar, (Fox Chapel Publishing, August 2018) combines DIY instrument projects with their deep blues history.