Dad’s Gear Spotlight: Univox Hi-Flier Phase 4, Part 2

Univox Hi-Flier Guitar

Here’s the guitar today. Note the new pickguard with the knobs in a line and the Bigsby handle on the XTrem vibrato.

In the last entry, I recounted how I completed the Xtrem vibrato conversion on my vintage phase-4 Univox Hi-Flier. I’ve had a chance to live/work with the vibrato-equipped guitar for a few months now and have also used it at a couple of gigs with my surf-rock band, The Aquatudes.

I have a few electric guitars that I’ve collected over the years. I’ve found that each of them inspires me in different ways as far as what I play on them and what new ideas come to mind while I’m playing them. Aside from band night (once a week), a lot of my playing time takes place on unplugged electric guitars (since I live with others in my house). This brings into play how each guitar sounds acoustically. Some of them sound kind of dead; some are more resonant and alive-sounding. The Univox is an example of the latter. It has a very thin body of unknown wood (some folks seem to have Univox guitars with plywood bodies, mine is solid wood) and it sounds kind of nice unplugged. There’s just something about this guitar that I like. It’s not the slickest player in my collection, but I like the look of it and I like the way it feels to play, warts and all.

Now about the Xtrem vibrato…
There are plusses and minuses here. This is the second Xtrem I’ve installed on one of my guitars. The first one was the archtop model that replaces the trapeze tailpiece on such a guitar. I put that one on my old Eko 100, which greatly improved the acoustic tone of that guitar. I also liked the vibrato action with the stock whammy arm. However, with the surface-mount version used on the Univox, I think the handle sits a bit too flat, which makes it trickier to grab while playing and can get in the way of the volume and tone knobs. I’m using 10-46 strings, so nothing too heavy there. I’m also using the stiffer of the two springs furnished with the vibrato. I replaced the factory arm with a Bigsby unit to see if that made a difference. Nope. I tried gently bending the original factory arm and it immediately snapped – so much for that. The guitar doesn’t stay in tune quite as well as my Fender Jaguar floating trem or my Electra with a strat-style trem. To be honest, the guitar was never the best for staying in tune in the first place. I’ll continue to futz with it here and there as I just play it and enjoy it. The Univox is strung with round-wound 10’s, while both of the other guitars have flatwound strings.

Use in the Real World
I used the Univox at an Aquatudes gig for a set. I have to say I didn’t detect any obvious tuning issues and I liked the sound of the humbuckers for a set. I used three guitars on that gig, one for each set we played. I had to contend with three different scale lengths (24 on the Jaguar, 25.5 on the Electra and 24.75 on the Univox) and three different pickup styles (regular single-coils on the Jag, Jazzmaster pickups on the Electra, and humbuckers on the Univox). Like I said before, there’s just something that I like about this guitar, so I’ll definitely use it in future gigs – with backups.

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Dad’s Gear Spotlight: Univox Hi-Flier Phase 4

Here I am playing a gig with the unmodified Hi Flier.

Here I am playing a gig with the unmodified Hi Flier.

According to the fine folks at Wikipedia, “The Univox Hi-Flier was an electric guitar manufactured by Univox and Unicord from 1968 to 1978. It had a very similar appearance to the Mosrite Ventures guitar, though was somewhat different (and much cheaper).” As Univox fans have traced the production evolution of the design, they have identified four distinct “phases” of feature-sets of the guitar. My guitar falls under what is called “Phase 4,” which marked both a simplificaton of the instrument and, as it turned out, the end of the line.

Found One – Dang, No Vibrato?!
Whereas earlier-phase Hi-Fliers all included a floating vibrato system with a roller bridge, the Phase 4 did away with this and instead featured a simple, fixed Melody-Maker-style wrap-around bridge/tailpiece. This is how my Hi-Flier was equipped when I found it at a little guitar shop in Westerly, Rhode Island in 2004. I had been looking on eBay and elsewhere for one of these guitars and was quite surprised to find a very clean, unmolested example sitting among a rack of used instruments. In fact it was so clean and new-looking that I nearly walked right by it. It did ultimately catch my eye and I picked it up to test it out. Twenty minutes later, money was exchanged I walked out of the store with my new prize in its original shape-fitting chipboard case. While I had really wanted the version with the vibrato, I decided I’d be a fool to leave the store without it.

Image of Guitar

My Hi-Flier, when I first acquired it.

When purchased, the guitar had the original 3-ply black/white/black pickguard. This was another hallmark of Phase 4, as earlier models came mostly with white or tortoiseshell pickguards. I replaced the pickguard with a white one, which I decided looked better – and more Mosrite-ish.

Offbeat Humbuckers
I believe it was in the earlier Phase 3 models that the original black-covered single-coil pickups were replaced with humbuckers, which were carried through to the Phase 4 series instruments. Univox humbuckers are unique-looking in that there is a translucent, cream-colored plastic insert on top of the coils, with the adjustment screws poking through. I’ve always liked the sound of the pickups, although this is the only guitar I presently own with humbuckers. The neck pickup is slanted, in keeping with the Mosrite reference. The butt end of the fingerboard is slanted where it meets the top of the pickup ring.

Controls
Another change for Phase 4 was the layout of the volume and tone knobs. While the earlier phases had the knobs in a straight line between the output jack and the pickup selector switch, the Phase 4 had the knobs offset to the left and right of this imaginary line. I suppose this could have been an attempt to turn the design into sort of a poor man’s Les Paul Junior or Melody Maker.

I used the guitar in my band-at-the-time for a few years and it held its own quite well. There was an issue with string breakage at the bridge, as the lower-grade metal of the molded-in compensating ridge wore and became ragged at the string contact points.

To Mod or Not to Mod
So, time passed and I stopped using the guitar for several years after I formed my present band, The Aquatudes in 2007. We play a lot of original and classic surf-rock instrumentals, which would typically be characterized by more of a single-coil pickup sound and definitely a whammy bar for those surfy dips. I would occasionally pull out the Univox, play it for a while, and remember that I really did like how it played. Still, with no vibrato, I really couldn’t use it for many songs in the band.

More time passed and I started to research what it would take to put a Bigsby tailpiece and roller bridge on the guitar. However, I could not get past spending more on a tailpiece and bridge than I had spent on the guitar itself, while in the process negating any possible vintage “value” of the guitar by drilling holes in it to mount the Bigsby.

A New Option for Vibrato
Yet more time passed and I became familiar with GuitarFetish.com and their Xtrem products. That got me thinking: less than half the price of the Bigsby for what seems to be a reasonable substitute. It was not a simple swap, though – I’d have to figure out how to adapt a separate bridge and to mount it where the combo bridge/tailpiece had gone. AND I still had to drill holes in my vintage guitar! One rule I set down for myself was that the finished conversion had to look like it came that way from the factory. What to do about a bridge…? As it turns out, GuitarFetish.com sells a nice roller bridge for archtop guitars with a wood base. I figured I could use just the bridge portion of this and mount it somehow to the body of the guitar. Some detective work was in order.

Creative Parts Sourcing
I did a web search for “Univox bridge” and perused the images that came up. I saw a vintage part that was exactly what I had envisioned: a flat metal plate with mounting studs and thumbwheels for a similar bridge. The plate mounted to the guitar body with two counter-sunk screws, as used on the earlier Hi-Fliers with roller bridges and vibratos. Okay! Well, being as this was not a new, readily-available part, it was off to eBay to search for one – one with the exact same distance between the mounting studs as my new bridge – simple, right?

Actually, it took me only a couple of days of watching auction posts to find what seemed to be the appropriate part. I “bought it now” and waited for it to arrive. When I received it and trial-fitted it to the guitar and bridge, I was relieved and jazzed: not only did it have the correct stud spacing and size for my bridge, the base itself completely covered the holes in the guitar body where the old tailpiece studs had mounted!

Pre-Drill Parts Layout
I soon had all the necessary parts sitting on my work table: The Xtrem, roller bridge, and bridge-mounting plate with studs and thumbwheels. I assembled the bridge to the mounting plate and put it loosely in place. Then, taking a cue from the directions for installing a Bigsby, I laid the Xtrem in place on the guitar body and threaded some string through it at the outside string (E and E) locations. I ran the strings over the nut and secured them to the appropriate tuners. When I stretched the strings taut, I moved the Xtrem into position on the body and marked the screw locations on blue tape I had applied before-hand. Everything seemed to be in the right place.

Photo

The alignment process in place prior to drilling any holes.

Drill Baby, Drill
The moment of truth had arrived. I loaded my drill with the correct-sized bit for the installation screws and measured and applied blue tape to the bit so I wouldn’t drill right through the body. This is one operation where the adage, “Measure twice, cut (or in this case, DRILL) once,” really hits home. You cannot un-drill a hole in your guitar! Believe it or not, I paused and opened a PBR before I finally drilled the three mounting holes in my now “formerly-unmolested” guitar body. I got over the trauma, removed the blue tape, and screwed the Xtrem in place. Then I fitted the bridge and put the strings back on (I figured I’d reuse old strings for now in case I needed to remove them for adjustments). A little intonating work later and the guitar was whole again!

The finished (at least at first) conversion.

The finished (at least at first) conversion.

Next time, I’ll move on to how the modified guitar plays and additional adjustments I’ve made.

Live Performance: The Dirt Salon, 1/20/14

dnb_dirtsalon1
So, it was the January 2014 third-Monday “Monday Markets” on Bartholomew Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut. The Hartford Denim Company organizes this monthly event, which takes place in their space, downstairs from street level at number 30. There are various vendors selling their hipster-friendly wares, as well as a musical act or two. One or more trendy food trucks also set up outside the space.

The Dirt Salon at 50 Bartholomew is also open on these evenings, with retail tenant Blaze and Bloom enjoying some good foot traffic through their collection of antiques, odd collectibles, and interesting recycled and up-cycled furniture. Being as my wife, Cynthia, is also the owner of the Dirt Salon, I have had the pleasure of performing my “Dad’s Noisy Basement Live!” solo bit during a couple of these evening events. Not to mention that my “real” band, The Aquatudes, has also played at a third-Monday evening.

This particular Monday found me with son Max (serving as roadie), unloading my music rig and setting up on the stage in the main hall of the Dirt Salon. After getting all the pieces of my PA in place and wired, I fired up the mixer and power amp and proceeded to sound-check my backup tracks – loaded on my iPad Mini. I also set up my old mini-DV video camera across the way to capture the sets. After tuning up my Fender Jaguar and checking the microphone, I launched into the first tune of the night, my original song, “C’Mon Back to Me.”

The evening went well and I got three (well, two really) usable videos that I posted on youtube.
“Up in the Air” (my original song) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-jMSfhlqOA
“Green Tambourine” (by the Lemon Pipers) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vs4WOuzEF4Y

The backing tracks worked fine and I think I’m getting the hang of performing with them. The trick is to get the levels right – my live vocal and guitar have to mesh well with the recorded bits to achieve the desired illusion.

A bunch of people came through The Dirt Salon while I was playing. Some stopped to listen a bit (all I could really ask for) and then went about their business. One guy asked me if I could perform at an event for his organization. Nothing actually came of that, but it was encouraging to be asked at all! So, for the next time, hopefully in May, I’ll work to refine the act and see how it goes in the nicer weather.