Category Archives: tips and tricks

String Theory

IMG_3263-imp

by Michael James Adams

You know what I love about my job? Well, maybe I should clarify that question a bit, for there are many upsides to this line of work. For example, I love having the privilege of seeing gorgeous guitars of all makes, models and condition. I also love being able to refine instruments for the individual player that’s using them. I like that I can watch Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Star Trek: TNG and COSMOS while I’m working. I like that we get super geeky about things like Star Wars, Doctor Who and Weezer. I like working with my friends.

The thing I love most is helping my friends and customers become more self-sufficient. Sure, this is a move widely regarded to be bad for business, but I don’t see the point in hoarding trade secrets especially when it comes to musical instruments. No matter my level of involvement, there is absolutely no reason that every guitar shouldn’t play and sound its best. In that spirit, I’d like to address the most important, most simple fix for guitars that won’t stay in tune once and for all: how to properly string your damn guitar.

Post Secrets

When a customer tells me their guitar won’t stay in tune,  the problem could be caused by a number of things: the string could be binding up in nut slots that aren’t appropriately cut, strings might need to be stretched or are worn out, or maybe the tuners just aren’t up to the task. All valid!

However, the first thing I’ll check is how the strings are spun around the tuning post, and believe it or not, I’d estimate that with 60% of the guitars I see, the solution for unstable tuning is a proper restring. Seriously.

IMG_3267-impWhat do I mean by ‘proper’? Well, I’m referring to a few general rules when it comes to standard, non-locking tuners:

-it’s best to have 2-5 wraps around the post for stability, though at least three is preferred
-those wraps should not overlap, but wind down the post cleanly
-strings should be wrapped with their placement in mind (i.e. obtaining enough downward force on the nut with respect to their position on the headstock so more wraps may be necessary)
-‘locking winds’ are preferred but not always necessary (or possible)

Let’s dig in!

I’m wrapping to the beat and I wrap it up tight

My first point may seem obvious to some, but I’ve been surprised as of late just how often this one seems to elude some players: too few or too many wraps will have negative consequences on tuning stability. Too few, and the string won’t grab onto the tuning post, continually loosening. Too many, and the string will overlap itself, causing it to shift around on the shaft. This is bad for stability when you’re playing, but even the act of turning the post will make for inconsistent tuning between notes.

Take, for instance, this before-and-after photo of a guitar I recently worked on. This Jazzmaster came in for help because it wasn’t staying in tune, and the problem was the way it was strung. You’ll see that the wraps around the post are sloppy, so when the tuner is turned, the string doesn’t just get tighter, it moves around its bed of windings, jumping from place to place. Not gonna work.

On the bottom is my more meticulous stringing job, cleanly wound and tuning smoothly. Having good number of wraps ensures the string won’t pull itself free from the tuner as well as enhancing the range of available with each turn. As I mentioned before, 3-5 wraps around the post is ideal, but of course, some tuners won’t allow for that many, especially on the low strings. On my ’64 Gibson J-50, two is the most I can get on the low E and A strings, but plain strings should always have at least three.

IMG_4578-impAnd how do I make certain I have 3-5 wraps? On Fender guitars, I’ll pull the string so that it’s semi-taut, then measure three tuners farther than the one I’m stringing. If I’m stringing the low E, I’ll cut the string at the G tuner. For the plain strings, simply pull the string to its respective tuner, then pull it back three tuners; if you’re stringing the G, pull it back to the low E and cut at the G tuner. Simple? I think so.

The above tip also works for basses with all of the tuners on one side, but depending on the diameter of the tuning post you’ll only need to measure out 2 or 2 1/2 tuner lengths away from the one you’re stringing!

For Gibson guitars, or those with the tuners spaced out on both sides of the headstock, I’ll measure in this way: I’ll thread the string through its tuner, then grasp it with my right hand. Extending my middle finger, I’ll touch the 12th fret and pull up just slightly, giving me exactly as much string as I need. Try it!

IMG_4577-impWinding the string in this manner also allows you to vary the number of winds to increase downward pressure on the nut. For instance, if you have strings that jump out of their slots, try a few more wraps first. This won’t work for every instance, but many times it does the trick. Additionally, some ringing out behind the nut can be solved with an extra turn or two, specifically with the G string on a Fender guitar. That string has the longest length of string behind the nut without a string tree, so it’s important to have enough break angle on the nut.

Note: Fender guitars with vintage or Kluson-style tuners, you’ll want to place the end of the string in the hole, then start cranking. That way, the string locks in more positively with the tuner. You wouldn’t believe the number of Fenders I’ve had in the shop lately with the strings just fed through the split shaft, then loosely wrapped around it. Just stick it in there just about as far as it’ll go, bend the string to one side, then go for it.

Pop-and-Lock

Locking winds are good for those of us who require some extra assurance that our strings won’t slip. This works best on any tuner that has a solid shaft, unlike those usually found on Fenders. All of my Gibson guitars get this kind of wrap, which is essentially just wrapping the string around itself on the post.

There are a few ways to do this, with one popular method being threading the string through the post, then the first wrap goes over the and all others go under. This isn’t difficult to master, but if my words elude you, I’ve made a handy gif to go along with them:

output_9Pbqof

It the above gif, you’ll note that I’ve used the aforementioned middle finger trick, except that I’m not pulling up. The tuners on this guitar made by our friend Stephen only allow for two wraps at the most, so pulling up would have surely given me more wraps than I needed.

The second method (and my preferred) is a little bit more tricky, but it goes like this: thread the string through the post, bend it in toward the inside of the headstock, then back under itself and up and over toward the headstock again. If a picture’s worth 1,000 words, then this gif should be considered my first published short story:

output_4vOuRf

See? Easy. This is the way I string guitars, and they don’t go out of tune when I’m done with them. Simply reverse the procedure for the plain strings, and for 6-on-a-side headstocks, all of them will be done as pictured.

It is my sincere hope that this helps those of you with nebulous tuning problems. As I said before, check the nut, lubricate properly and make sure your tuners are up to task, but start here first; your problem could simply be a few turns away!

We’ll be doing a separate post on locking tuners. It’ll probably be a short one.

MJA

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Part 3: Free your mind and your [tailpiece] will follow.

IMG_3126-imp
By Michael James Adams

We’ve been talking about some of the more widely misunderstood features of our favorite Fender Offsets, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. Seemingly innocuous but often blamed for tuning problems, the humble offset vibrato lies in wait at the butt-end of your guitar just hoping that one day it will be taken seriously. 

Thing is, that day has likely come; with players ranging from Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Thurston and Lee from Sonic Youth, and Wilco’s Nels Cline – amongst others – wringing every lush, wiggly note they can out of the ‘wang bar’, it’s as if a fog has lifted and the guitar-playing populace is more willing to accept this brilliant, but somewhat confusing, design.

Design


Leo Fender couldn’t have designed a simpler mechanism for his new, top-of-the-line instruments: the strings anchor on a plate which has both the trem arm and spring attached to it, with a screw threading through the middle of the spring to adjust tension. When you’re pressing down or lifting up on the bar, you are directly moving that plate, which the spring counteracts with just the right amount of resistance, lowering or raising the pitch of the strings. Voila.

trem1

Image taken from The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars

Easy, right? One would think, but like I mentioned, this design carries with it the undeserved stigma of ruining everyone’s good time. But why?


I think one part of the general problem with this system is that it needs to work in tandem with the bridge to achieve any kind of stability. The stock bridge is meant to rock back and forth with the actuation of the arm, and in a perfect world it returns to its zero point, no problem. However, we don’t live in a perfect world, and because of the great confusion surrounding these guitars they often aren’t properly maintained. The tremelo (ha, Leo) gets blamed for tuning maladies aplenty but it’s really the bridge that’s at fault.*



The other big problem with this seemingly easy-to-understand system is the fact that it’s not visible in the way that a Stratocaster bridge or a Bigsby might be – those systems are easy to work on, and if problematic, even easier to diagnose. Guitar players tend to be an uneasy bunch when it comes to guitar maintenance, and many of my customers come in to the shop telling me, “I didn’t want to mess it up!” In many cases, their fears are justified, but to be honest there’s usually nothing to worry about when removing a screw or tweaking the truss rod lightly. I’ve gotten an ear full more than a few times about the near-hallowed nature of the bolt-on neck joint, that the sacred bond of neck, screw and body should never be broken. (I think that’s bollocks, personally)

The point I’m trying to make is, guitars aren’t so fragile as some might think! Yet, because of the secretive nature of this body-mount system, many players are hesitant to take the strings off just to access the vibrato, worried that something about their guitars will change the moment the final screw is loosened. This is simply not the case, so no need to be hesitant!

Staying in Tune

I’ve previously touched on the most common offset objection is that they just don’t stay in tune, but this really isn’t the case once these guitars are properly set up and understood. What’s more is that, since it seems like everyone and their brother is using a Jazzmaster or Jaguar these days, it’s hard to make sense of all of this popularity for a guitar that isn’t pitch-stable. So, what gives?

In our last Demystifying article, we gave you some history and pertinent information about the offset bridge, and even a few tips and tricks to keep it in perfect working order. Much of the tuning instability folks complain about comes from the bridge, but the vibrato certainly can contribute.

The first, best advice I would give to those that have caught the Jazzmaster/Jaguar bug is to use a heavier gauge of string. 10s will work fine, but these guitars are made with 11s and 12s in mind, which is why we so often have problems with strings jumping out of their slots. The key with the offset bridge is downward pressure. With the vibrato, it’s all about finding the right amount of tension for the gauge of string in use, so that when the vibrato is actuated there’s an appropriate amount of resistance. I usually use the Trem-Lock as a guide, especially if the player intends to use it. 

There’s an amazingly in-depth article on setting up the JM/Jag trem over at The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars, an amazing resource for all things Offset.

String Breakage

Though I’m very much an offset activist, I’ll concede to this complaint! Strings sometimes just flat-out break on these guitars, and it sometimes seems a futile effort to continually string the thing up when your high E is just going to snap in ten minutes. If fact, this happens so often that when I stroll into Guitar Center and see used Jazzmasters on the wall, they’re almost always missing the high e string, which leads me to believe that this problem was just that frustrating for its former owner. I’m jumping to conclusions, I know, but it’s really not that far-fetched.

IMG_2063-impOne of the main reasons that strings break on these guitars – especially new ones – is that the strings aren’t given the proper amount of clearance over the two outer screws near the anchor on the plate. These Phillips screws were lower and flatter on older units, and the anchor itself was negligibly higher, so strings were afforded more room to freely pass over them. 

On current models, the screws are more rounded and a little taller, providing a sharp edge for your strings to rub against when you’re playing even if you don’t use the arm all that much. If you bend a string, use alternate tunings or retune your guitar, you’re basically sawing through the string. Add to it, the place the stings rub is exactly the worst spot for this kind of contact: the closing wrap at the ball end. That’s why I’m never surprised when one of these guitars come in without an e string; this is almost always the culprit.

To solve this problem, I’ll recall one of my favorite axioms: “Flip ‘em over!” I’ll elaborate:

If you remove the six bolts affixing the trem to the body, you can see that the offending screws poke through the little pivot plate that keeps the anchor in line. Remove the screws under both E strings and thread them upside-down with the Phillips head facing the inside of the cavity instead of toward the string. Don’t worry, if you tighten them down they shouldn’t move, and the threaded end of the screw is just short enough to avoid the strings entirely.

  Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 2.29.57 PM

The second source of frustration would be the anchor plate itself. After months or even years of heavy arm usage, those little holes that hold the ball end of the string are likely to develop burrs, little sharp bits of metal that love to eat through string ends. Some light filing will almost always do the trick here, either with a small round file, or my favorite, Mitchell’s Abrasive Cord, which is like the Soap on a Rope of sand paper. It can be found in many woodworking shops or at Stew Mac, and boy, is it a lifesaver! Just thread it through the eyelet as you would a string, then floss away!

Those afflicted with chronic breakage would even do well to keep a roll of the larger diameter cord in the accessories pocket of the guitar case for emergencies; on the road or at a show, that stuff can make all the difference.

One more trick to prevent premature string death: solder the string’s ball ends through the wrap! I do this religiously to my e, b and g strings, and since I’ve started I have yet to break any of them. BONUS TIP: Don’t do this with the strings at tension; they’ll simply unravel, and then you’ll turn blue phrases the likes of which haven’t been heard since George Carlin’s untimely passing.

Bar-ectile Dysfunction
Wow. That one was a bit of a stretch.

If you’re like me, having the vibrato arm stay in place is a huge plus; when I’m on stage absolutely losing my musical mind, it’s nice to have the arm stay in a dependable spot. For some, this spot is against their output jack, especially if the arm is loose in its socket. This does not fly with me. I like it to be mobile but stiff, so that with my eyes closed there’s no question of its whereabouts. I can’t stand playing a brand-new guitar with the arm swinging wildly about like the tail of an excitable puppy.

This problem isn’t usually as persistent with vintage guitars, but on newer models the collet and arm aren’t exactly the same size or shape as the old ones, so more often than not there will be extreme amounts of play on the arm. Some people wrap tape around the end of the arm (which can be messy and sticky) and others will try to ‘gunk them up’, squirting some glue or something in there to cause more friction. I say nay to the above solutions, and instead point to a trick I first learned about on Offset Guitar Forum, a haven for the offset-obsessed.

Forum member theworkoffire suggests clamping the arm in a vice, with the collet-end exposed. Tapping that end gently with a hammer, it’s quite easy to put a nearly imperceptible bend in the tip at the end of the bar, causing it to rub up against the walls of the socket, and thus, stay in place. This is the method I’ve used time and time again, and I couldn’t be happier. Lasts forever, too!

There are also replacement arms and collets offered by a company called StayTrem, and their work is stunning! Completely solves this problem.

What the Hell is that Little Button?
IMG_4062-imp

That’s called the “Trem Lock”, and it’s awesome. That little bit of machined metal is your ticket to easy street, my friend, especially in the event of string breakage.

Because this system is what’s known as a ‘floating’ vibrato –  which refers to the trem’s ability to vary pitch up and down because it isn’t resting against the body – the string tension is balanced against that of the spring in the vibrato unit. The downside is that when a string breaks, this offsets the balance between spring and string, causing your guitar to go out of tune, pulling sharp. That’s where that tiny, unassuming button on the front of the Fender plate comes in handy.

Also taken from The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars

Also taken from The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars

If the unit is properly setup, that little button simply slides between the anchor plate and the Fender plate, stopping the anchor plate from raising, which in turn puts everything back in tune when engaged. Effectively, it ‘remembers’ how your guitar was tuned before you lost a string. When the proper tension on the spring is reached, you’ll be able to slide that little button back with no resistance.

Said button is also VERY useful when using alternate tunings. Unless you’re Thurston Moore, you may not be able to afford a fleet of Jazzmasters to handle every tuning you’re likely to use, but with the Trem Lock you may not need them. Slide that button in and tune at your leisure. Use drop-D, open G or C-minor? Pushing that button back turns the trem into a kind of hard-tail! You can still use the trem, but only to lower pitch.

On Vintage Units

My personal preference is mainly for the units found on vintage guitars. Reason being, the springs used on the old ones were more heavy-duty than those found on reissue instruments, especially imports. This makes for a tighter feel and greater touch-sensitivity.

Vintage Jazzmasters and Jaguars also had different springs! When the Jaguar came out, Fender quickly realized that because the shortened scale length of a Jaguar meant lower string tension, the vibrato felt far too stiff. Consequently, they started cutting one coil off the spring, resulting in better tension.

On my ’07 Sonic Blue Thin Skin Fender Jazzmaster, I’ve installed a Jaguar vibrato from 1963. When I compared the feel with that of my 1960 Jazzmaster, the difference was really pronounced, with the older unit feeling much more stiff, requiring more work to gliss notes. I love that, don’t get me wrong, but the trem on that blue Jazzmaster is heavenly!

So there you have it! I know I’m long-winded and probably providing too much info at once, but I really do hope this little series helped! Feel free to contact us if you have any questions!

And hey, if you need your Jazzmaster or Jaguar expertly set up, look no further!

*If you want proof, drop a Mastery Bridge in your Jazzmaster or Jaguar and see for yourself how stable that thing is! Because that bridge doesn’t rock in its thimbles, it provides a far better tuning experience.

-MJA

%d bloggers like this: