Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Buzz Stop Stops Here: A Rant

Hate is a strong word, and one I normally don’t like to use unless the subject is foods called “salad” which do not contain lettuce (the only exception being Fruit Salad, but why call it that when ‘Cup of Fruit’ would suffice). While I can’t call my feelings for the Buzz Stop ‘pure hatred,’ I have to admit that removing them from guitars is one of my favorite jobs.

For the uninitiated, the Buzz Stop is an aftermarket bracket for Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars which acts as a tension bar, much like the roller bar on a Bigsby B7 vibrato. Affixed to the guitar via the forward-facing vibrato mounting screws, the Buzz Stop forces the strings against the bridge, keeping the them in place while also stopping the saddles from buzzing. Hence the name; it stops the buzz.

In theory it’s a fine idea that attempts to solve the problems so many have with the original Fender design, but it’s ultimately completely unnecessary and in many ways a detriment to your guitar’s sound and functionality. Below, you’ll find the reasons I elect to do away with the Buzz Stop, and why I find guitars without them to be better instruments for it.

1) The Buzz Stop Introduces New Points of Contact

The whole point of the Buzz Stop is to force the strings down, and in doing so invariably creates additional points of friction. The Buzz Stop’s roller bar is one of those points, and while it is intended to rotate as the vibrato arm is depressed, I’ve never encountered one that actually does so in a smooth manner. Most seem to require a bit of force to turn, more than the strings can dish out. As a result, many of the Stops I’ve removed have had grooves worn in them, which means the strings are just grinding against an immobile roller.

The second point of contact is the back of the bridge itself, a problem that Jazzmasters and Jaguars shouldn’t have to begin with. Under normal circumstances the strings flow from vibrato to bridge uninhibited; the sharp angle of the Buzz Stop causes them to dig into the back edge of the bridge, leading to tuning or even breakage issues. The less metal in the string’s path, the better.

2) Buzz Stops Decrease the Stability of the Vibrato

With its nearly unparalleled stability and smooth feel, the offset vibrato really is one of the biggest selling points of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. But with the increased friction of a Buzz Stop, it’s a miracle when the thing returns to pitch. Anything that messes with the functionality of the vibrato is a liability, not an asset.

3) It Forces the E Strings onto the Dreaded Pivot Plate Screws

The vibrato pivot plate mounting screws which sit directly beneath the two E strings have long been a problem on reissue guitars, causing string breaks and tuning issues which can normally be cured with a proper setup and increased bridge height, or by simply turning them upside down as shown in one of the early Demystifying articles.

With a Buzz Stop installed, there simply is no hope for the strings (See above). Pulled down toward the vibrato plate, the Es are forced against those pesky domed screws. As they’re bent, tuned, or warbled with the vibrato, the screws eventually saw through the string’s finish wrap leading to sharp detuning, and eventually, breakage.

4) The Buzz Stop Alters the Guitar’s Unique Vibe

Part of the unique sound of Jaguars and Jazzmasters is the length of string behind the bridge. Like an archtop acoustic, every bit of vibration counts. There’s a fullness and a pluckiness to the tone that comes from the added string length, and the slight decrease in sustain and tension makes these guitars feel and respond unlike other solidbody electrics. It should be no surprise that I also wholly endorse vigorous picking behind the bridge for atonal, noisy fun.

With a Buzz Stop installed, you may as well have a stop tail. It effectively cancels out the length of string behind the bridge, sterilizing some of the three-dimensional resonance that make these guitars sing. And honestly, if you’re looking for more sustain or ‘better tone’ there are far better options available to you in the form of Mastery and Staytrem hardware.

5) It’s a Half Measure Response

The Buzz Stop is a product of a time when these guitars were thought of as toys rather than fully-playable instruments. Without the readily-available, conversational sources for setup and modification that we have today (including this blog and my recent Premier Guitar article) the Buzz Stop was perhaps a once-legitimate option for taming this misunderstood, often neglected offset design. Though its premise was flawed, it served its purpose.

The Buzz Stop, by its very nature, doesn’t really “fix” anything; it’s a stopgap which fails to address core issues, applying force instead of correcting an inadequate setup. All of the common complaints, from bridge buzz and string jumping, tuning stability, and unwanted string resonance are easily solved with an attentive eye, a couple of screwdrivers, and a few hex keys. Neck angle, bridge height, string gauge––all of these things are integral to the design of the guitar, some of which the Buzz Stop website actively recommends against.

With advent of the internet, players now know how to care for the Jazzmaster and Jaguar better than they ever have. Communities like Offset Guitar Forum and Shortscale.org popped up and thrived, surrounding the Jazzmaster and Jaguar with that perfect, geeky love that reminiscent of my fellow Star Trek fans, excitedly swapping tips and parts, digging into manuals and other documents to discover the proper way to work on them.

6) It’s Ugly

It is. Don’t @ me.

The Long Walk into the Sunset

Call me a pedant, call me a purist, even call me ol’ Henry’s favorite, “luddite”––I just think we have so many better options for modifying or ‘fixing’ these instruments, all of which leave the original sound and intent largely intact. And honestly, in every instance where I’ve removed a Buzz Stop and then properly set up the guitar, it just sounds better to me.

We used to joke at the old shop about a cardboard box tucked away in the back that was filled with forty discarded Buzz Stops. We’d always say “forty” for some reason––We have forty of them in a box!––but thinking back that number has to be low. Literally every time we took in a new Jaguar or Jazzmaster bearing one, off it would come, fate sealed, tossed with prejudice into said box never to be seen or thought of again. And that’s just the way we like it.

It's always a good day when I get to do this. #guitar #fender #jazzmaster #offsetguitars #guitartech

A post shared by Michael James Adams (@puisheen) on

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Trem Tips: Treating Troubled Tuning

You know, I’ve heard it a million times: “Trems don’t stay in tune.” It’s a claim frequently repeated on forums and accepted as gospel among the masses. And these wards of warble, these princes of pitch, bear the brunt of that blame with a practiced stoicism, never asking that the judgement be revisited.

Flatly, the reputation is undeserved––it just isn’t true! When I’m told a guitar won’t hold pitch, the true culprit is almost always something else in the string’s path wreaking havoc on the guitar’s stability. Many players, enthusiasts, and techs don’t seem to realize that literally anything the string touches from tuner to trem can cause the very offenses placed squarely upon the shoulders of the Bigsby, Jazzmaster, Vibrola, and Strat-style vibrato systems, among others.

It’s high time the humble vibrato was vindicated, so I’m going to clue you in to a few key areas of difficulty and how to address them.

Tuners

As I’ve discussed in my previous article entitled “String Theory,” the first, best preventative maintenance you can perform on a trem-equipped guitar is to make sure you’ve strung the instrument correctly. And by “correctly” I mean clean winds down the post, no overlapping, and it’s vital that you have a healthy amount of winds around the tuning post. Too few and the string won’t be able to grip the post and pitch will constantly drift. Too many, however, and the string can overlap instead of holding tight to the post itself. Check out “String Theory” for more in-depth info and some helpful GIFs as well!

It’s also important to adequately stretch the strings to help them settle in around the tuning post. I like to grip the string between the pickups and gently pull away from the body a few times, listening for a drop in pitch each time. After four or five repetitions, the strings should hold pitch perfectly.

String Trees

String trees get a lot of flak for being bad for tuning, but much of it is misplaced. Oftentimes, they’re doing far more good than bad up there, increasing downward force on the nut. However, like any part that experiences metal-on-metal friction, they can wear in or become dirty over time, so check in every once in a while to make sure they’re clean and free of sharp edges.

Nut

The nut is one of the most important parts of your instrument, and one that is poorly-cut or worn can be the source of a whole host of headaches. Pinging, popping, and unpredictable changes in pitch are all symptoms of a nut in need of renewal.

Ensure that the nut slots are sized appropriately for the gauge of string being used, otherwise they could bind in the slots. Most guitars come with strings gauged .009”-.042” from the factory, but if you decide to step up even a little, the nut slots will have to be widened. If not, the nut will grip the string tightly, causing it to catch any time you bend or turn a tuning key. This is one of the major reasons for tuning problems on most guitars, let alone those with vibratos. It’s best to keep a few files on hand in gauges which correspond to your preferred string set, like the ones offered by Stewart Macdonald.

Nut slots can also become dirty after a lot of play, so it’s worth de-gunking as necessary during a string change. A slightly damp, clean cloth or even a Q-Tip run through the slots will usually do the trick, but in extreme cases it’s beneficial to use something a bit more heavy-duty such as Mitchell’s Abrasive Cord, which is available in a number of widths perfect for each gauge of string and will also smooth out any rough edges.


Bridge

Just like the nut, you’re going to want to keep the slots clean but it’s also worth having a look at the saddles for wear, particularly grooves left from the winds of a string, which should be smoothed out to prevent the string from catching. In the case of bridges of the Tune-O-Matic style, the saddles often have a lightly roughed-in channel much smaller than the string itself, which can lead to breakage or tuning problems as you use the trem. Enjoy this poorly-drawn diagram of what I mean:

I spent the whole of four minutes shopping this I bet you can’t tell

 

If this is the case, it’s best to file the saddle slot to the proper size. As long as the slot is smooth, you’re golden.

And perhaps the most important tip on this list:

Lubrication

Yes, friends, lubrication. If you haven’t considered that, remember that any point of contact on the string’s path means friction, and friction benefits from a bit of extra slip.

The best lubricant I’ve ever used for guitars is Chap-Stick, believe it or not. For one, it’s conveniently-sized so it fits in every case ever made, but it’s also thick enough to stay put as well as being hydrophobic, so there’s no chance of moisture getting under your strings and corroding them from the inside out. With a toothpick, Q-Tip, or even a bit at the end of a flat head screwdriver, smear a little bit of it in the nut slots, the bridge saddles, and even in the string tree.

Trust me, it works perfectly. I swear by the stuff, and if I’ve set your guitar up then there’s a better-than-good chance you’ve already got Chap Stick on your instrument. Well actually, Burt’s Bees; I’m all about that all-natch balm.

https://i0.wp.com/demandware.edgesuite.net/aapa_prd/on/demandware.static/-/Sites-burtsbees-master-catalog/default/dw1f65b0b5/images/large/Lip_Balm_Beeswax_nocap.jpg

This stuff is worth its weight in gold.

All Original… To A Fault?

There’s no experience quite like that of a well-kept, totally original vintage guitar. It’s like opening a rift in the time-space continuum, a direct passageway to an era of craftsmanship that many claim is far behind us. The feel of an old finish or the smell of an old case is enough to drudge up memories of timeless tunes and the players that made them.

As a shop, it’s crucially important we know our stuff and that we’re able to confirm the originality of a piece. This builds trust with potential buyers, and trust is something we value greatly around here. We take pride in the stock we offer, and when something isn’t original we make sure to say so.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that “all original” is synonymous with “better” though. Let’s be realistic: any thing that comes into contact with human beings will wear and deteriorate with use, no matter how precious or well-maintained. Some parts simply must be changed as they fail, whether by age or use, and as many of our most hallowed vintage instruments reach the age of 70 and beyond, it may be time to accept the finite nature of wood, metal, and plastic. At least, those of us without infinite cash at hand.

Over the many years I’ve spent repairing, restoring, and dealing in vintage guitars, I’ve seen many examples of parts that were original but kept a vintage instrument from being fully playable, which is kind of the point of the thing in the first place. If it’s come to that, why not replace the malfunctioning part?

My personal mantra is this: Functionality over Originality.

Disclaimer: I’m about to list some parts on vintage guitars that are prone to wear or failure, and as I list them I want you to keep the Hippocratic Oath of “Do no harm” in mind. I’m suggesting that these parts be changed, but not at the expense of damaging the instrument in the process.

Disclaimer 2: Also, these opinions are those of Michael Adams alone, not necessarily of Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar.

Disclaimer the third: except for a single case, all of these parts should be saved and kept close to the instrument in the event of future sale. A guitar with a changed part and the original included will always do far better on the market than without.

Disclaimer 4: Disclaim Harder: I still love an all-original vintage guitar.

Surgical Tubing

Early Strats and Teles often used surgical tubing to mount pickups instead of the springs commonly used now. This tubing is squishy yet firm and provides adequate resistance between the bobbin and the pickguard, enabling height adjustment. After many decades, that tubing dries out and crumbles, becoming brittle and plasticky rather than the pleasantly gummy texture of its youth.

Obviously, this is no good and renders pickup height adjustment impossible. I’ve opened up too many vintage instruments to find the pickups rattling around in their mounts, the telltale yellow crumbs of tubing still in the cavities.

It’s best the replace these wholesale, either for springs or new tubing. Many aftermarket pickup makers include tubing with their wares, even. Originality be damned, there’s really not a good argument for keeping them in there.

Just look at this sickening mess.

Pickup Foam (Also Fender Mute Foam)

In my latest Demystifying article, I briefly discuss the tendency of old mute foam to degrade into a hard, sticky goop. The same is true for the foam stuffed under the pickups on old Jazzmasters and Jaguars – that stuff is disgusting. Once the foam turns to tar, it no longer allows the pickups to be adjusted, and it leaves residue everywhere, including your hands. If left in its place, it can damage the other parts it’s stuck to, so it really is best to toss this stuff the moment it’s discovered.

When your original foam turns to a gummy blob, it’s time to forget about being original and replace that stuff. Don’t even bother keeping it. Nobody’s going to be excited to find a bag of guitar jerky in their case.

A srtripped pickup screw (L) and a rusty pickguard screw (R) that I had to remove because it fused with hardware.

Rusty or Stripped Screws

I don’t know about you, but I have a soft spot for the patina of an old guitar, especially when hardware takes on a dulled nature. I find nickel and gold hardware especially alluring as the plating wears and oxidizes.

All of this stuff looks great, but once rust takes hold of screws they become more of a nuisance than anything. Stripped pickup screws take the fun out of functional, while rusty, frozen saddle height screws defeat the whole purpose of them being there in the first place. If a pickguard screw turns to ground cinnamon when you try to remove it, it’s best to simply replace it.

If you’re concerned about gleaming new screws looking out of place on your guitar, there are plenty of places to find aged hardware these days. Keep the old parts in a bag, tuck them in the case, and move on with your life.

Frets

Folks make a big deal about original frets, and I get that; In many cases, such a thing speaks to the quality of care the guitar experienced over the years. To contrast, a sloppy refret is a good indicator that the guitar’s been mucked with in some other way.

Original frets are a nice thing to have, but that doesn’t mean the guitar will play any better. Like anything else, frets wear over time, and at the very least they’ll need a good dressing. Too often guitars are advertised as having “plenty of life left” when they’re actually on the deck with deep grooves from a chord masher.

Personally, I don’t balk at a good refret except in cases where I don’t like the fret size used, like putting Dunlop 6000 on a Musicmaster or something. I count a quality fret job as a good thing, one that ensures my guitar will be playable for years to come. Even Pancake, my beloved ’61 Jazzmaster is at a point in its life where those original frets are just too low, and I’m a guy that likes them low to begin with. I’m loathe to make changes, but even I have to admit that new frets are the one thing that will make this guitar even better than it already is now. And so, that’s exactly what’s going to happen this summer.

Pots, Etc.

Going back to the idea that a guitar should be functional, electronic parts can and will fail with age and use, they were never designed to last forever.

Now, a crackling, dirty pot can––and I’d argue should––be first be addressed with some contact cleaner. However, if the pot’s sweep is nonexistent or it just won’t pass signal any more, replace it. Don’t even trip, just get it out of there!

With so many options for high-quality components like Emerson, Bourns, and even tighter tolerance CTS pots, this is one decision that’s easy to make. 

And as I’ve said before, keep those components if you sell. Sometimes a pot can be salvaged by dismantling and repairing it, but that’s a lot of work for a relatively small payout.

To Re- or Not To Re-

It’s a hard thing for non-guitar oriented folks to understand, but a worn finish doesn’t mean it needs to be redone. I remember the first time my parents saw my beat to hell ’73 Precision Bass, my dad cried out, “That needs new paint!” It took the better part of the afternoon to explain that no, the finish is fine and even desirable to some just as it is, and no, I’m not going to touch it.

Still, there are cases where a refinish is a perfectly acceptable and possibly necessary thing to do. If the guitar in question had a previous owner that just didn’t know better and decided it would look great in his favorite color of latex paint, that’s a good candidate for a refin. Has contact with a reactive strap or cable in the case left worm-like marks all over the face of your guitar? Is your instrument a casualty of the 1970s brown stain and brass nut fad? Friend, you’ve got yourself a ticket to any color you want.

A finish that’s simply worn, I’d leave that alone, but one that’s been intentionally ruined deserves restoration. If you’re currently considering a refinish, I’d urge you to have the work done by a qualified professional, and preferably in the style of the guitar’s era of manufacture for the sake of resale value.

Tuners

It all comes back to functionality, doesn’t it? Old tuners are no exception.

If your original tuners just aren’t holding tune, or if they’ve become hard to turn or locked up, it may be time for replacement. Obviously, lubrication goes a long way, so try that first. Barring maintenance, there are many modern tuners to chose from, most of which come in aged finishes and won’t require modification to your instrument.

On a side note, I can’t stress that last bit enough: don’t modify the headstock of your vintage guitar to install new tuners. If your guitar uses push-in bushings, stick with the same for the new set.

***

A changed part can be controversial for sure, but if the swap is done carefully and the original part is tucked away, then it shouldn’t negatively impact value. It will, however, positively affect the instrument’s usability. And in the end, that’s what matters to a player. Let the collectors have the pristine examples!

bfvc (My dog typed this accidentally, but I thought that was cute so I left it)

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