Category Archives: Guitar Repairs

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween from all of us at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar. This is the scariest costume I could come up with. Very specific audience, mind.

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Guitars with Issues: Where to Draw The Line? [Spoiler: I Have No Idea]

Falling in love with a Fender Mustang is a shockingly rare occurrence for me. Not that I don’t like the model at all, I really do enjoy its smaller shape and the 24” scale that it shares with the Jaguar. The Dynamic vibrato is smooth but more immediate than that found on the Jazzmaster. Plus, the ability to run both pickups out of phase is really fun, something I’d definitely use if I had the option at the ready.

If pressed, I couldn’t tell you exactly what the missing element is that keeps me from them, only that I can think of only a handful that really stood out to me, just never in that “OMG-I-have-to-buy-this” sort of way.

Until recently, that is.

I found it weeks ago while wasting time at the Hollywood Guitar Center and have been stalking it ever since. On three separate occasions I’ve stared long but chickened out at the thought of playing it, happily transfixed by its grisled appearance. It’s finished in that galvanizing shade of Mocha, way outside of my normal preferences –– I always told myself I’d own a Competition color someday –– but preferences often turn to proclivity, and then complacency. Not content to leave mine unchallenged, I finally picked it up.

This particular guitar has been played hard, absent bits of finish and pitted chrome attesting to an owner who gave little thought to condition. The frets are deeply grooved and completely lack a crown in the higher registers; some were even popping out of their slots. The electronics were noisy, scratchy, and barely worked, while tapping my finger on its hardware revealed a missing bridge ground. Even strung with 9s, the neck was horribly out of adjustment and the nut was a goner. Among everything else, it was in dire need of a good setup.

In spite of all of these major concerns, the guitar sounded flat-out amazing, like no other ‘Stang I’d played before. Plugged into a used JCM900, it was loud, throaty, and had this vibe that complimented my playing style perfectly. I could hardly believe that I had found the ‘perfect’ Mustang, let alone that it was this one. I remember telling my wife later that night, “That guitar has songs in it.”

Am I crazy for falling in love with such a problem child of a guitar? Should I have written it off completely? Is it a bad guitar or a good one with some issues? And if I love it so much, why didn’t I buy it?

***

We musicians are a picky bunch, each of them with a different set of tastes and experiences. In gear-centric circles, players share their experiences from a wide array of perspectives, some more informed than others. As such, it’s not uncommon to hear them claim something to the effect of, “I had one of those and it played like crap. What a bad guitar!” As a tech, I’d like to gently point out that statements like this should be taken with a grain of salt.

When I hear that kind of assertion, my tech-addled brain kicks in to high gear because there are a lot of variables contained within, most of them fully addressable. Does the guitar have a design flaw? Is there some kind of problem from the factory? Is the neck warped? Were the electronics non-functional? Or did the guitar simply need a setup?

Usually, I find the truth is often somewhere close to the latter.

A bad setup can certainly make a guitar unplayable, or at the very least, not fun to play at all. It does not, however, automatically make the instrument ‘bad.’ Most of the time, how a guitar plays is easy to correct, and if you have the skill or experience, you should be able to anticipate what minor adjustments an instrument needs.

About six months ago, I discovered a Candy Apple Red late 1966 Jaguar in a shop, and one of the other customers who saw my longing gaze told me, “Don’t bother, man, it’s a piece of shit.” Always in for a challenge, I ignored the advice. When I picked it up, it was clear that the bridge and its saddles were unnecessarily jacked up to their maximum adjustment, rendering the instrument nearly unplayable with mile-high action.

Was the other customer wrong? Yes and no. From his perspective, the guitar played poorly, and thus, wasn’t a viable choice. The only real problem this guitar had was a careless setup, or total lack thereof. Far from a lost cause, all it would have taken to make that Jaguar a killer player was one Allen key, a Phillips screwdriver, and less than five minutes.

At the same time, I recognize that how a thing plays is often the only metric most guitarists have to judge whether or not a guitar is worthwhile, and hey, that’s valid. Playing as many guitars as I possibly could as a youngster was how I figured out what kind of guitar worked for me, a tradition that continues well into my very adult life. “Try Everything,” as Shakira’s Zootopia theme song goes.

Looking back, I’m sure I wrote off some instruments too quickly all because they weren’t properly adjusted. For a player, a bad setup can make a guitar unpalatable at best, and for a shop, a lost potential sale. Being able to tell the difference between a bad guitar and a bad setup requires a bit of experience with guitar repair, just enough that think most musicians can acquire it without much effort.

All you need to do is find an instrument that feels good to you, and then pay attention to the reasons why it feels that way. Compare it with other instruments you encounter, and think about things like string height or if the guitar plays in tune with itself. Does the instrument stay in tune, and if not, why is that? Ask questions if the answer isn’t immediately apparent to you, visit some forums and see if the question’s been asked before. Think critically about the guitar you’re inspecting, don’t allow the sexy gleam of a shiny thing to sway you.

***

When it comes to greater ailments than simple setup tweaks, a sober mindset is key. Let’s take that Mustang I mentioned in the introduction: riddled with issues, likely to be a huge pain in the ass to whip back into shape, and the kind of guitar you buy only if you have the skill or cash to take on a project. Every one of the detractors of this guitar is a thing I can fix, I know it. There’s nothing so wrong with the guitar that it should be consigned to the trash heap, nothing so egregious that it can’t be saved. But the cost…

One rule I have for myself in these kinds of cases is, “If you have doubts, walk.” So even as I write about not writing guitars off because of issues, I’m sitting here in my chair wondering if I really want to spend the time, money, and energy nursing another guitar back to good health. At the moment, I’m about 50/50.

I guess what I’m getting at is there’s no clear line to draw on this issue, no right and wrong, no true good and bad to be named. It feels like the line constantly moves to fit the buyer and the guitar, according to their means and the severity of the issues in play, and really, that’s the only line that matters.

Personally, I’m not bothered by a refin, a requisite refret, or minor routing under a pickguard. I’m turned off by non-original hardware, enlarged tuner holes, and in most cases, replaced pickups. And then again, all of the above goes right out the window if the price is just too good to pass up. So even for me, the line often changes position.

My best advice: let the line be wherever you need it to be, but allow some wiggle room. An instrument with a few more issues than you’d normally consider may surprise you.

I’m still thinking about it. I name guitars after Star Wars characters, so this would be Wicket.

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Kinman “Nasty 90” Noiseless Jazzmaster Pickups: Make Noise without the Noise

Recently I was tasked with installing two Kinman “Nasty 90” P90 pickups into this Fender ’62 AVRI Jazzmaster. Already a great guitar, I was excited to hear how the Kinman pickups changed the sound compared with the stock Fender pickups I know so well. I spent time with Kinman pickups at some convention hall guitar gathering a few years back, and although I remember liking them I think we can all agree that guitar shows are among the worst places to actually hear how a thing sounds. The prospect of demoing them in the quiet comfort of my own home was alluring, to say the least.

Before you ask, yes, I totally forgot to take more pictures

Generally speaking, I come away from other noiseless pickups feeling like I was given a raw deal; it seems that the trade-off for hum-free operation is the loss of some pleasant frequencies as casualties of the noise cancellation process. Yet Kinman are widely praised for their ability to retain the tonality of classic single-coil pickups while eradicating 60 cycle hum in their trademark elegant and complex manner––the Nasty 90 pickups have over 200 parts!

Hype, hearsay, or honesty? The real question is, how’d they fare?

Pretty damn well, I’d say.

Installation

Installation of the pickups went smoothly, but was a bigger job than most simple pickup swaps. While Kinman’s proper Jazzmaster pickup is a drop-in replacement, the Nasty 90 pickup has a rather tall assembly, far too tall to install without routing. I removed about 5/8” of wood from the neck pickup rout and a little less in the bridge position. The Kinman website recommends removing 10mm from each cavity, but I wanted a little more room for hard foam so height adjustment was easier down the line. Anyway, I’d rather take a little too much than to have to do the job over again.

Additionally, the dimensions of these pickups also meant that I had to remove the big brass shielding tub present on this stock Fender Jazzmaster. The deeper pickups couldn’t be installed with the tub overhanging into the pickup routs, where it normally meets up with the brass plates found beneath the pickups. I also had to remove those plates, which I made up for with some foil tape as described in my previous article. This proved only to be a minor setback.

Once placed in their respective positions, the pickups were just as easy to connect to the wiring harness as any other pickup. The fit of those lovely black covers in the pickguard was snug but not too tight. I did note, however, that the pole piece spacing was a bit slim for the Mustang bridge installed on this guitar, so the pole pieces never quite lined up with the strings. Kinman offers multiple spacing options and I suspect that the spacing here would line up perfectly with a Mastery or Staytrem bridge.

Even with the very simple installation process, the Kinman website refers you to installation guides which I did not consult, locked away in the “members area” for which I did not register on principle. It’s puzzling that information deemed to be crucial is kept out of reach of a simple internet search; in any case, nothing untoward popped up during this job.

Implementation 

Let me say that these pickups sounded good. As is my test for good, growly P90s, I fired up my ’79 Marshall, cranked the gain, and chugged out the rhythm part from Weezer’s “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” which I contend has some of the most massive sounds ever committed to tape. As I’d hoped, the Kinman Nasty 90s handled those tight inversions beautifully, exhibiting all of the colossal midrange I expect––nay, demand––from P90s.

The neck offered woolier tones while the bridge felt punchy and loud. As a guy who purposely runs bright guitars into dark amps, I did find the Nasty 90s to be a tad dark for my tastes. Even with the brightness of my ’65 Bassman piggyback, the pickups seemed to slightly favor midrange honk over treble clarity. This is the conceit of the Nasty 90 model, which the Kinman website calls “dark and syrupy” so I wouldn’t say I’m surprised or disappointed. I suspect that, were I to order a set, I’d be much happier with the standard Jazzmaster set or even the Clear or Sweet 90s models. If brightness is your bane, the Nasty may be just the right tincture.

And indeed, they were Q-U-I-E-T. So quiet, so noiseless were they that I found them a bit unnerving, as if my living room had become a vacuum. At first I even wondered if my amp was on, and it wasn’t until I slapped the strings did I realize that yes, it was on, and yes, I needed to turn down before the neighbors complained.

Impressions

I would wholeheartedly recommend these pickups to anyone frustrated by the excessive noise of their favorite single coil pickups. I think that Kinman’s done a remarkable job harnessing some of the magic of classic pickups while forging their own path on the quest for tone. After playing these pickups for the better part of a morning, I quite liked their sound and response, and at one point I totally forgot that I was playing a noiseless pickup.

The extra routing required for the P90 set is off-putting both from the extra work involved, and if you can’t do it yourself, the added expense of hiring a tech. Again, this isn’t an issue with the Kinman Jazzmaster set, yet worth noting for Jazzmaster owners looking for an easy P90 swap. And at $189USD each plus shipping from the Philippines, they aren’t the cheapest pickups around. But hey, you’re not here for cheap; if Kinman’s in your sights, then you’re after something special and you’ve likely factored in a premium price already.

If you’re in the market, the Kinman set should definitely be on your list. In future, I hope to get my hands on the Jazzmaster set for a direct comparison with my other guitars.

https://kinman.com/index.php

Just One More Thing…

And if you’ll indulge me one Columbo reference, the Kinman Jazzzmaster page makes the following claim:“Kinman transforms Jazzmaster into THE BEST Fender guitar.” These pickups are great, mind you, but lemme let you in on a little secret…
Come close.
Closer.
C L O S E R .
 

 

 

 

 

 

(it already is)
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Agents of Shield…ing: A Guide to Guitar Shielding

Single coil pickups are the source of some of my favorite sounds on the planet. As a player who cut his teeth on humbucker-equipped instruments, I thought I had it all figured out until I stumbled upon my first good Telecaster. And when I found the Jazzmaster––rather, when it found me––I finally knew how to get that sound that I’ve had in my head since I started playing.

As good as they sound, the problem of 60 cycle hum has been and will always be persistent, though many of us who swear by single coil pickups have either simply gotten used to it. Some have even developed tricks to mitigating unwanted noise, like finding that magically noiseless spot on stage and staying put, using a volume pedal to kill your signal when you’re not playing, or adding a hum eliminator of some kind to your signal chain.

Those are all fine ideas, but in the war against noise, the best, first line of defense is shielding.

The Front Lines

Shielding the guitar entails lining the control and pickup cavities with a layer of electrically conductive material in order to reject as much outside RF (Radio Frequency) interference as possible. I say “as much… as possible” because shielding alone won’t kill 100% of the interference, but the difference between ‘with’ and ‘without’ it is staggering.

This is a must-have modification for all of my personal guitars and one that I recommend wholeheartedly to customers and friends alike.

Which Material?

I prefer to use foil tape over shielding paint for a few reasons, the main ones being that paint requires more than a few coats to work properly, as well as being much more difficult to test for continuity using conventional methods. After all, paint is paint; graphite particles suspended in paint have much greater resistance than one layer of foil. Plus, I just like working with foil; as Data might say, “I have become accustomed to its sensory input patterns.”

Copper tape is generally considered to be superior to aluminum, but I’ve had good results with both. While there’s no contest that copper is indeed the better conductor, I haven’t found it to be so much better that it’s worth the additional price. I plan on revisiting this in the future, but for the purposes of this blog we’ll be using aluminum.

Doing the Deed

Now, I’ve removed enough balled-up foil over the years to know that just because I find something easy to work with, that doesn’t make it so. The truth is, shielding a guitar yourself for the first time––even the first few times––isn’t an easy thing to do. Trying to cleanly line a cavity while simultaneously ensuring that all of your pieces have continuity with each other can be a maddening exercise. Here’s how I do the job cleanly and efficiently:

What You Need

-Foil tape

-A razor blade of some description

-A multimeter to test continuity

I prefer to use a roll of adhesive-backed foil for this job, easily obtained from the hardware store of your choosing. You can also order aluminum or copper tape from most guitar parts suppliers but they normally sell it in lesser quantities and at a premium. Be sure that the foil tape you use has conductive adhesive, as many brands use a non-conductive backing that makes this job much trickier and more labor-intensive. It’s incredibly frustrating to do a nice, clean job only to discover that none of it works.

And honestly, don’t bother with spray adhesive and plain foil. It’s messy and easy to ruin.

I use the same box cutter blades I always have, but any good blade will do the trick. An X-Acto knife would be an asset here, its long handle allowing for more fine control and a better view of what you’re cutting.

Tracing

I begin by unspooling an appropriate length of tape for the rout in question. I trace the shape of the rout onto the foil by firmly pressing my index finger along its edges. At this stage it’s crucial to remember that you’re tracing a two-dimensional version of a three-dimensional cavity. Take care to anticipate the way depths might change and how wires are routed through the body. Each rout will need its own tracing, and it’s important to know how they’ll all fit together.

Cutting

After I’ve traced the shape onto the tape, I use my razor blade to cut it out, making sure to press hard enough to cut through the backing paper. Once satisfied with the cutout, I’ll peel off the backing and line the bottom of the cavity with it. Because the top of a rout is generally the same shape as the bottom, it’s usually a good fit.

Lining the Cavity

When it comes to lining the sides of the cavity, I prefer to use a single piece of tape if I can help it; one continuous piece of foil is always more reliable than a few pieces spliced together. I crudely measure the length of the cavity walls, then cut slightly more foil from the roll than I need. Backing removed, it’s a simple job to line the sides of the rout. I’ll then trim down the excess material for a clean look.

Leave an Overhang

Be sure to leave a bit of an overhang, preferably in the vicinity of a screw hole. Doing so ensures contact between the foil on the body and the foil that we’ll be installing on the pickguard, something which many folks seem to forget.

Don’t Forget the Pickguard

Shielding works best when it’s comprehensive, so to really get the job done, you absolutely must line the pickguard as well. Shielding the guard is a much simpler, almost thoughtless enterprise, requiring only a few strips of foil to completely cover the cavities hidden by the scratch plate. I like to completely cover the surface of the guard and then cut out the control and pickup routs.

Checking continuity

Before you button up the guitar, it’s a good idea to double-check continuity between all of those bits of foil using a multimeter. Most have a function for conductivity, such as the unit shown here. When the probes are electrically connected to each other, the unit emits a beep, removing the guesswork and ensuring that you’ve adequately lined your guitar cavities.

Here I am, checking continuity on a single strip of foil for some reason

Troubleshooting 

If you find that two pieces of foil tape aren’t properly connected, or if you used foil with non-conductive adhesive, you can fix that by making a little bridge from one piece to the other. Cut a small strip of foil and mate it face-down to the back of a much wider piece of tape, then simply stick it across the seam between the non-conductive areas. Bam! Connection.

Once you’re satisfied with your work, reinstall the electronic components and screw the guard back into place. When you plug in again, you will be greeted with a much quieter instrument.

UPDATED: 9/27/17

Speak of the devil, check this out: loose foil stapled into the control cavity. That’s a new one for me. Don’t do this either.

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Squier-O-Practor: A Misaligned Neck Could be Painful

When you think of a decent guitar setup, what comes to mind? Lowering action, correcting intonation, maybe giving the truss rod a good turn? They’re all components of a good setup for sure, but is that really the long and short of it? No, there’s more to it than that!

I’ve always believed that a thorough setup has to go beyond just the basics. You’ve got to take into account the whole instrument, from dressing the nut slots for the player’s preferred string gauge to even giving the tuners a quick twist just to make sure they aren’t sticking. De-gunking a fretboard, polishing frets, spraying out dirty pots, and even removing some problematic rust are often essential to making a guitar fully playable as well as functional.

Case in point, something I’ve often seen slip past the sensors is neck alignment, where the neck is tilted on the body in favor of one E string or the other. With a misaligned neck, the strings closest to the edge of the board are prone to slipping off and intonation can suffer greatly. Almost every bolt-on guitar on the market exhibits this issue in some form or another, which is commonly caused by the extra bit of play in the neck pocket that comes with mass-production. It’s an issue found on high-dollar guitars too, not just imports and affordable models like the guitar I’ll use below as an example.

Have a look at this Squier J.Mascis:

Misalignment on the left, corrected on the right

When I got my hands on this one, the high E had a tendency to slip off the fret ends, and intonation on the plain strings was nearly impossible, especially with the reduced saddle travel of the TOM bridge installed on the model. This kind of thing can even muck with string bending, as the string can be choked off as it crosses the fretboard at an angle. Also note that the strings do not line up with the pole pieces of the neck pickup!

Luckily, this is an easy thing to correct. The most basic solution is to simply pull the neck back into place. In this case, all that was needed was holding the guitar with the upper bout against my body and giving the neck a quick pull towards me, then tightening the neck bolts to ensure it stays put.

Fig. 1

In more extreme cases, shimming around the perimeter of the neck pocket may be necessary for a tight fit. Where there’s only a little extra space, I’ll insert a shim where the neck touches the pocket when tilted. Using this J.Mascis as an example, this could mean shimming the treble side of the heel and along the bass side of the pocket to keep it in place. [See Fig. 1]

As for materials, wood veneer, cut-up baseball cards, or even discarded picks made to fit will work just fine if you’re more of a DIY fan. In the case of an oversized neck pocket, like those often found on some CBS Fender guitars, a qualified tech or luthier should be able to add material if necessary, even going so far as to add a shaped, painted shim along the bass side of the neck. Really, whatever keeps things stable is good enough in most cases.

Next time you’re cleaning or restringing your guitar, have a look at the neck and check to make sure it is properly aligned. If not, you could be missing out on a better setup and truer intonation as a result. All it takes is a little attention and experimentation to correct an issue like this one.

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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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Demystifying Part 5: The Fender Mute

After a years-long hiatus, the Demystifying series is back!

First, I need to say thanks to all of you that have checked out the blog, and in particular the many that have shared and reposted these articles. Because of their popularity, Premier Guitar recently asked me to write an offset guitar setup guide for publication, which you can find in the May 2017 issue. AVAILABLE NOW IN STORES AND ONLINE!

So thanks to all of our readers, customers, and friends––without your support, this never would have happened.
The one bit of hardware I’ve not discussed previously is often thought of as a vestigial, an hold-over from a different time fit for the bin. Ultimately, it’s up to you if you’re ever going to use the thing, and to be honest, it seems like many don’t. However, if you’ve ever been curious about it, or if you use it but find it problematic, then friend, I come bearing glad tidings. I am of course talking about the Fender Mute.

A feature shared by both the Jaguar and Bass VI – though not across all models or years of production – this curious metal plate was originally intended to be a surrogate for palm muting. Couldn’t be a simpler mechanism, really: the mute is secured to the body by two screws, and the long bolt in the middle pivots on a spring-loaded plunger sunk into the guitar body. The mute can be engaged by pressing on the plate, shifting it back and forth in place, causing the foam pad to make contact with the underside of the strings.

The Fender Mute leaves the player’s picking hand totally free for strumming or sustain-less leads. This gives the device a sound distinct from traditional palm muting techniques, one widely used on instrumental surf recordings of the 1960s. What’s it sound like? I just happen to have an example for you here:

Like the Fender offset bridge, the mute requires some extra thought to set up correctly. Really, the whole procedure comes down to balance; the mute has to be set to engage smoothly while allowing the bridge to be lowered enough for playable action. If the mute sits too high, the bridge will rest on its mounting screws. Too low, and the mute won’t engage at all.

It’s best to begin with the mute installed on its own––leave the bridge for later. Remember those two mounting screws I mentioned earlier? You’ll need to find the lowest possible setting for them where the mute still pivots. Try screwing them in all the way, then backing off until the foam side of the mute pops up and stays put. Then, install the bridge and make sure it doesn’t sit on top of the mute mounting screws.

It may take a few tries, but you’ll soon find that balance. When pressing on the plate, the foam side should rise up to meet the strings but not push them up, then stay firmly in place. Pushing down on that side should disengage the mute, again with a firm action. If the mute doesn’t stay in place, or is difficult to move, take the bridge off and keep adjusting those mounting screws.

Top: disengaged. Bottom: engaged

It’s worth noting that, In order to get the mute set up correctly, your guitar will need to be shimmed as described in part two of the Demystifying series. A sufficient amount of neck angle is crucial, otherwise there may not be enough room under the bridge for the mute to be functional.

One problem that can crop up with the mute is that it pulls the strings sharp when it’s engaged. Often, this can be due to the mute sitting too high, which effectively shortens the scale length of the instrument. If that’s the case, cranking down the mounting screws should solve this issue for most players. Too-hard foam can also be the culprit, pushing up on the strings and raising pitch. Substituting a softer piece of foam here can work wonders (more on that later). Alternatively, one can easily shave off the bit of foam that touches the strings.

If you have a vintage Jaguar or Bass VI, you’re likely familiar with a problem that arises when the original foam on vintage instruments, due to age or contact with sweat: deterioration. This happens to pickup foam as well, where it hardens and compresses, rendering pickup height adjustment difficult or even impossible.

Hardened, sticky mute foam on a refinished ’63 Jaguar. You can see the gooey residue on the low E side of the mute.

If this happens to your mute foam, I have to tell you there’s no point in trying to salvage it. Touching or removing the stuff, you’ll notice that what was once foam is now a slightly gooey, sticky mess. Even on a totally original ‘60s guitar, leaving foam in this state is at the very least off-putting and potentially problematic, what with the black residue left behind on contact with skin or strings. Seriously, that stuff is disgusting.

Do yourself a favor and replace that foam. I’ll admit, it’s often the only part we’d even thing of replacing on a perfect vintage Jaguar. Replacement Fender foam can be found on eBay, but it seems that every parts supplier is out of stock right now. In a pinch, we use this. The link will take you to some weather stripping foam that’s just slightly taller than the 3/8” by 1/4” Jaguars have from the factory, but it should work like a charm. If the extra height concerns you, the same brand has a version with a height of 3/16″ as well.

Interestingly, this Mute wasn’t Fender’s first shot at string-dampening technology. Earlier, there was foam stuffed under the bridge covers of ‘50s Precision basses. The first Jazz Basses featured stiff pads for each individual string, while the later Mustang Bass  bridge had similar devices. Muting may make a bit more sense on bass than guitar, but give this mute system a shot and see if you can’t make it work for your brand of music. To the author, it’s a fun sound that makes some rhythm parts more interesting, and with effects added, it can bloom into something totally unique. And weird. Definitely weird.

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American Whoa: The American Pro Jazzmaster’s Peculiar Pickups

An American Pro Jazzmaster came into my life recently and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’m loving the light weight and solid feel of the guitar, and for a guy that’s not such a huge fan of maple fretboards I’m delighted to have one close at hand. Those same concerns I had in my December review are still present, mainly the selector switch placement and the proximity of the E strings to the edges of the fretboard. I’ll be posting more of my long-term impressions down the road, but do go back and read that review if you’d like the full scoop.

After the last week of ownership, I have to admit that I’m not entirely thrilled with the sound of the guitar. The pickups leave me a bit cold, lacking some of depth of sound and dynamic range of other Jazzmaster pickups. They exhibit an almost Strat-like quality which I initially attributed to the new design, or perhaps the use of 500K pots and a treble bleed network, both of which can have an effect on the sound.

It wasn’t until I popped off the covers that I discovered the shocking reason for my dissatisfaction: these are not Jazzmaster pickups at all – they’re Strat-like coils in oversized bobbins.

As we’ve described previously, traditional Jazzmaster pickups have wide, flat, relatively hot coils wound right to the edges of the bobbin, which is why they possess such a wide range of bright highs, present low-mids, and round bass. Because of their size, Jazzmaster pickups sense a wider aperture of the string’s vibrational length than most, producing the dynamic, three-dimensional sound that makes Jazzmasters so damn sonically spectacular as well as unusually versatile.

Fender sells the sound of the newly-designed V-Mod pickups as “hot, vintage-inspired tone with plenty of punch and definition.” Vintage-inspired or not, the pickups found in the AM-PRO are a far cry from the sound and construction of traditional Jazzmaster pickups, which is kind of the reason folks buy a Jazzmaster in the first place. Wound tall and dense, the V-Mod pickups have much more in common with overwound Strat pickups or even P90s, minus the bar magnets and adjustable poles.

While I won’t go so far as to say they’re bad-sounding pickups I do feel vindicated in suspecting that I wasn’t getting the full experience. The sound is, to my ears, more narrow in scope and toward the sterile side comparatively; lows are there but rigid, and while highs aren’t biting, they also aren’t as sparkly. Again, they’re not bad, just not Jazzmasters.

Puzzlingly, this new pickup design isn’t new at all; these pickups are eerily similar if not virtually identical to those found on Japanese Jazzmasters since the mid-1980s. This Strat-in-a-Jazzmaster-cover construction is a hallmark of MIJ/CIJ guitars, generally considered the weak link of those models. In fact, swapping out for better pickups is always my first suggestion to players looking for more out of their import Jazzmaster. Check out this comparison shot of a Japanese pickup (left) next to a Lollar: (right)

I took this photo years ago, and the brand-new V-Mod pickups look just like the MIJ

It’s perplexing, then, that Fender would double down on such a design for their new, more modern take on the guitar. Along with the omission of the Rhythm Circuit, I suspect that this was an attempt to broaden the appeal of the instrument, to homogenize the new line so that none of the models stray far from each other. From that corporate perspective it almost makes sense to stuff a Strat pickup into a Jazzmaster, but in doing so they’ve undermined one of the most fundamental and desirable aspects of the guitar: the sound.

Look, I’m a reasonable if not opinionated guy, and I’m sure there are plenty of folks who like these pickups. Who am I to dissuade them! One of my Instagram followers was just telling me how much he loves his MIJ pickups, and I wouldn’t dream of shaming him for enjoying his guitar. I may personally find them lacking and if asked I’ll quickly suggest a replacement of superior quality. Otherwise, my motto is “Chase your bliss.”

But for those looking to spend their hard-earned money chasing Jazzmaster tones in an affordable and updated package, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. Bluntly, this guitar won’t sound like a proper Jazzmaster without modification, and at $1500, having to spend more for the ‘correct’ tone may be a mark against the American Pro series to some. To others like myself, for whom changing pickups is as routine as brushing teeth, same as it ever was.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual player to decide whether or not this is a dealbreaker. And really, I’m not so sure it should be, the guitar’s great fun all around. However, I also won’t pretend I’m not disappointed; perhaps it wouldn’t be so if the specs were a little more forthcoming, letting potential buyers know what they’re getting. Fender’s been vague on this issue in the past – just look at the “special design hot single coil Jazzmaster pickups” of the Classic Player line which are actually P90s through and through.

To simply call them “Jazzmaster pickups” is misleading, when in reality they are not. Beneath those big, white covers isn’t just a combination, it’s a compromise; the guitar sounds good enough, yet lacks the signature tone and feel you’d expect from such an instrument. And while there’s nothing wrong with a good Stratocaster pickup, like many other “crossovers” that aim to straddle two very different traditions, I can’t help but feel the end result is only half as effective as either.

As for me, I’ll be swapping pickups on this one sooner than later.

MIJ on top, V-MOD on bottom.

Shelton Electric: A Very Special Valentine’s Review

img_1870Valentines Day came and went this week, a day filled with heart emoji, chocolates and stomach-turning cuteness from couples telling the stories of how they met. Love at first sight gets a lot of play in tales of romance, but it is most definitely a thing with musicians as well. It can even lead to trouble sometimes.

You’ve heard the stories of chance encounters and missed connections, I’m sure:

“I walked into the store, and there it was, just hanging on that wall. I had to make it mine.”

“Begged my friend to sell it to me for three years, and then one day he asked me if I still wanted it. I went to the bank right then and there!”

“I came back later that day with the money and it was gone! Wish I would have put it on layaway.”

For this piece, I want to tell you how Shelton Electric Instruments turned the longing gaze of this furtive lover into a two-week whirlwind romance with the GalaxyFlite model. Like the flickering light of a candle, our passion danced and then suffocated quickly, leaving behind only wisps of smoke and memories that won’t soon fade.

I Swiped Right on the Flite

img_1886The first time I saw Shelton Breeden’s work, I was intrigued. Shelton Electric Instruments offers up instruments based on familiar shapes but with a few modern twists that set them apart from a room filled with suitors. Such twists range from back-painted pickguards and racing stripe finishes, to electronic tweaks and non-standard pickup configurations. From the photos posted on Instagram, Shelton’s manifest commitment to quality shined in a frankly oversaturated social media landscape. I was hooked.

I skulked about on the app for some time, liking and commenting away but careful never to draw too much attention to myself. Just an admirer, this fellow. To my surprise, a direct message from Shelton soon appeared in my inbox, asking if I’d like to give some of his guitars a thorough once-over and offer some suggestions. I accepted without hesitation; any builder that wants to send me gear so I can blab about it on the internet knows how to push all of my buttons.

Red Dress and a Pearl Neck…lace

This case really gets the imagination going.

This case really gets the imagination going.

Quick to arrive at my door was this GalaxyFlite Super III model, which uses the classic offset shape as a basis for customization. Opening the very classy-looking case, that familiar candy smell of new finish rose from it and greeted me like a handshake. Immediately apparent is Shelton’s eye for detail, the nitro finish being flawless in both hue and sheen. Fiesta Red is one of those colors that just exudes cool, and Shelton certainly nailed the shade, rich and alluring as it should be. A bound-and-blocked rosewood fretboard was perfectly accessorized to the ensemble.

Speaking of visuals, let’s talk about that two-tone headstock. Some folks don’t seem to be on board with it, and I understand that it’s a deviation from the norm. Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder, yet this beholder loves it. It would seem that many builders prefer to stay in the well-tread peghead wheelhouse and only slightly tweak the shape so it’s not legally actionable. Instead, Shelton went for a design that’s half plank and half aircraft nose, evoking the image of a scimitar slicing through the air. Is it a success as unique and identifiable designs go? I’d say so. For those with less adventurous tastes, a new, sleeker version is already on its way.

img_1936Though the neck shares the 1 11/16” nut width of Fender reissues, Shelton’s shape is slightly more substantial than what you’d find on AVRI 62 models. The more modern 9.5” radius felt as comfortable as it did familiar, so players used to flatter or rounder necks should find something to love here.

The fretwork on this Galaxy Flite is perhaps the best I’ve seen on any custom instrument, and I’m not just being kind here – this work is superior to my own. Notes ring out clear in all positions, fret ends are meticulously sculpted, and the crowns are so perfectly rounded that you barely register them whilst sliding your hand up the neck. All of this is thanks to Rachel Quinn, who handles final setup duties for the company.

I Used “Pickup Lines” in a Previous Article So I Can’t Here

img_2023Equipped as standard are a few of my favorite brands, namely Mastery Bridge hardware, Porter pickups, and Emerson Custom electronics. Using such high-quality components means these instruments are guaranteed be fully functional and dependable right out of the box. Aside from matters of taste, there won’t be any need for round after round of upgrades here, setting Shelton apart from the few high-end builders that use cheap hardware and electronics.

Three Porter Jazzmaster-style pickups occupy a swimming pool body rout, a modern-wound J-90 for the neck, a standard Jazzmaster in the middle, and a WRJM in the bridge. I really love what Porter’s doing in the pickup world, but the selection here may be the only aspect of the guitar that may need some re-thinking. On their own, each pickup sounded great and well-suited to its position, but there was a disparity in volume between them that couldn’t readily be corrected with height adjustments. Really, it came down to the J-90 being louder than the other two, so perhaps a vintage wind on that one would settle in a bit better.

Something Cliché Involving the Word ‘Curves’

The control scheme on this one could be somewhat confusing if you’re expecting the normal layout of a Jazzmaster. Instead of the lead/rhythm circuits commonly found on the guitars, Shelton opts to use the on/off switch on the upper bass side horn to split the bridge pickup and add in the middle pickup via the rollers repurposed as volumes for the neck and middle pickups. Somewhat cumbersome the first time you use it, the array becomes second nature with a little persistence – and useful as well!

Even with the learning curve, there are some potent sounds on display here. Rather than shoehorn the same old descriptors for tones, why not just listen to the thing? Click the videos below for sound samples, including one that runs through all of the available pickup selections.

I rarely ever play totally clean, so you're in for a treat. Here's a quick run-through of all of the available pickup selections on the amazing @sheltonelectricinstruments GalaxyFlite III. The middle pickup and Wide Range in split mode are controlled via the typical Rhythm Circuit switch and roller pots, with the neck volume being the front roller and middle being the back one. RC switch UP: -> Middle -> Neck & Middle -> All -> WRJM Split! RC switch DOWN: -> Bridge (normal) -> Bridge & Neck -> Neck Sorry I rushed at the end there, I realized I was running out of time. Also, that ringing out you're hearing? That's coming from my acoustic, which I absent-minded li left on the chair right beside the camera. That's a good acoustic, though! So sympathetic. #guitar #demo #clean #cleantone #sheltonguitars #sheltonelectricinstruments #galaxyflite #jazzmaster #custom #customguitar #porterpickups #widerange #wrhb #p90 #offsetguitars #fiestared #music #musician #guitarist

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Hands-On Experience

From the moment I unboxed the guitar, it played magnificently. Shipped with 10 gauge strings, the action was low and comfortable and intonation was spot-on. Clean or distorted, the guitar had much to offer in harmonic complexity, never sounding dull or flat. Again, Rachel’s expert fret and nut work played a huge part in this.

img_2017With Mastery Bridge involved, it’s no wonder that the guitar felt solid and took all that my heavy right hand could give it. I’ve oft praised the Mastery Vibrato for finding a perfect balance of tension and smoothness, and here is no exception. With every wild stab of the arm, the guitar always returned to pitch and reacted tit-for-tat with any change in attack.

At home or a loud rehearsal, this instrument covered all of my tonal needs without sacrificing the integral, forward-facing characteristics of the guitar it’s based upon. Jazzmaster fans looking for more options should find their home in the Shelton. And, if wacky features aren’t your thing, Shelton does indeed offer more simplified and classic interpretations of the offset guitar.

Love Connection

I am in no way employing hyperbole when I tell you that this may be one of the most exciting and well-built guitars I’ve ever played out of the boutique market. The quality of this instrument is just superb, and you can tell that at the end of the day Shelton Electric care about making great instruments over statements. He lets the instruments do the talking rather than making bold claims about how his work will change your life.

Modesty aside, it just very well may.

img_1932

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