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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