1. First try

2. Albertron

3. Stand mod

4. J Bass

5. Strat

6. Tele

7. Mandocaster

My first real attempt to modify an instrument probably came when I was in my early teens. My first drum set was used and consisted of a 26” single lug Ludwig bass drum, a Slingerland radio king snare drum, an 8” hi hat and a 14” ride cymbal about 1/4” thick. It cost $60 and I paid for it installments of $10 a month for 6 months. After it was paid off I bought Zildjian cymbals new, an 18” crash ride and 13” hi hats and threw the other cymbals in the St. Lawrence River. Because the bass drum was so big you could barely see me behind it so eventually I bought a 20” Ludwig kick drum and added a used 14” Ludwig floor tom and a 12” Kent rack tom.
The drums were all different colors and I saw an ad in Downbeat magazine that offered plastic covering to recover your drums. I bought enough gold sparkle material to cover all my drums and for most of the years I was in high school and college I played that gold sparkle kit. The material was fairly thick and by the time Soft White Underbelly was playing in the New York City area the material was warping and trying to come off.
One night when we played at Steve Paul’s Scene in midtown Manhattan Jimi Hendrix and Ringo Starr came to our show. Jimi wanted to jam and I told Ringo he could use my kit. He politely declined and eventually Jimi just jammed with Jeremy Steig, a flute player. After the show the house manager came up to me and said, “You really should get a better kit. Ringo might have played if your kit wasn’t so bad.”
When Soft White Underbelly got their first record contract with Elektra records I bought a Black oyster-pearl drum kit (which I used for every BOC recording and still have) and gave the gold sparkle kit away. All I have left from that adventure is the cardboard tube that the gold sparkle came in and the black oyster-pearl covering that used to be on the Kent drum which I put together to make a stick holder and still use with my practice kit.

The next major project for me didn’t come until many years later when I was working on the Imaginos album and Sandy Pearlman, my manager, suggest I check out this avant-garde artist named Glenn Branca. He had these instruments made out of two by fours and guitar strings and pickups and made an awful but impressive racket. I wanted to try my hand at this idea and had some ideas on how to make this instrument better. I bought the two by fours, got some steel pipe, and guitar tuning pegs and my roommate, Tommy Morrongiello, gave me some old pickups he had lying around. I wired it up and attempted to use it on the Imaginos record. Everybody liked how it sounded acoustically but plugged in it made the racket as bad as Branca’s original. We never used the takes and the Albertron went to storage. A few years later I decided to try to make the instrument more viable. I took the original two by fours and put tuning pegs at both ends, made the strings half the length, put only single coil pickups beneath them inserted a volume and tone pot, painted it black, put some front legs on it so it would stand up and added some pretentious lettering. This instrument has a sweet and haunting tone and has been used on almost every Brain Surgeons album. Check out the intro to Stones in My Passway on the Trepanation album to hear it in its glory.

In the past few years my gear mod lust has raged. I used a Harmony Central mod that my brother, Jim, gave me to give my Boss SD-1 a smoother tone. I modified my microphone stand with a drumstick stuck in the third leg (all singing drummers should know this one) to give it more stability when extending the boom arm so I can get clearance for my left arm when I’m playing loud. I added a Hipshot tuner, Seymour Duncan Lightning Rod J bass pickups and a Gotoh string-through bridge to Deborah’s Fender Jazz bass. We also took the pickgard off and Deborah added an old New York City token in the original router hole, turning a stock Mexican J bass into a luxury sedan of basses. Deborah’s stock Fender Strat has gone through 4 sets of pickups with the current combination consisting of 2 Fender noiseless pickups and one Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickup in the bridge position. My Stock Fender Tele has been routed out to accommodate a Gibson P-90 in the middle position and another Hipshot tuning peg added.

Drummers check this out

My latest mod is to my Fender Mandocaster. I have played this five string electric mandolin for several years now and have been frustrated with how it doesn’t sound enough like a real mandolin. I have put it through all kinds of chorus pedals and it still sounded like very high pitched and out of tune guitar. I’d been thinking that what made it not work was the sound of the two unwound high strings. If only those two were in the traditional pairing it would sound more authentic. I tried it out by tuning the top two strings to the same note and it did sound better. I decided then that my five string needed to be a seven string to give me a truer mandolin tone. I found similar Kahler tuning keys with white plastic buttons online and also found plastic amber buttons. I heated up the white plastic buttons over the kitchen stove, pulled them off and melted the amber buttons onto the tuning keys. I then had to make a tough decision because the most logical position for the extra tuning pegs was in the middle of the attractive abalone-inlaid Fender logo. Art had to make way for science. In a way the logo still looks good it just doesn’t say Fender anymore, maybe Feodero or Feolero. Hey that’s how Randall Smith, of Mesa Boogie, got his start, chopping up Fenders. I also had to modify the bridge saddles to accommodate the dual string pairs for the two top strings. I ended up using the bridge saddles from a Fender Jazzmaster and put a couple together to properly intonate the strings. The next mod to this instrument will probably be the pickups because I am still not completely happy with the tone and it does get noisy when turned up loud. Stay tuned for more adventures.