Tag Archives: luthier

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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To Mod or Not To Mod…

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…that is the question
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous guitar tone
Or to take arms against percieved troubles
And by opposing end them.

In the opening phrase of Act III of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character weighs in on death and suicide, the unfairness of life, and whether one is any better than the other. Likely the most quoted phrase in existence, The Bard’s universally famous question has been repeated, adapted, chopped up, parodied, and revered in innumerable ways since the great tragedy was written in or around the year 1600.

And so, in a flash of utter predictability, I’ve tweaked those first six lines to fit today’s musings, and to be honest, I think it works. The despondent prince was, in essence, comparing life and death, wondering if one had merit over the other. And when we’re modding guitars, it sometimes feels so dire, does it not?

The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks That Flesh is heir to

When customers write, call, or visit me to ask what I think of their proposed modifications, it’s an exciting prospect no matter what we end up deciding. Instruments are an intensely personal thing for musicians, so the idea that we can easily take a guitar you like and turn it into one you’ll love is why this world is so fun. Like all things, mods have their place, and can be just the thing to rejuvenate your creativity.

True, guitarists are fickle, and what works on Tuesday may be the complete wrong thing come Friday. You may have a friend that tried out a new pickup over the weekend, and blazed through the honeymoon phase and went straight on into divorce. Or take my friend, who bought that expensive boutique speaker for his Princeton and later told me, “I tried to convince myself that I liked that thing.”

I actually really like the mods done to this '70s Les Paul Recording. Many players hated the low-impedance pickups, and those brass plates look particularly good, says I.

I actually really like the mods done to this ’70s Les Paul Recording. Many players hated the low-impedance pickups, and those brass plates look particularly good, says I.

Another good friend toured with a big-time act as tech and tells the story of a night when the guitarist decided that his fuzz pedal didn’t sound right, so he asked for the spare to be put in its place. He played it for sound check, decided he didn’t like it, and had the tech replace it with the third spare, only there was never a third, so the tech put the original back in line. Immediately the response was, “Oh yeah, YEAH, that’s the one!”

And that’s how we are, including myself. From my extensive and incredibly scientific studies, I know that it takes me exactly 0.00359 seconds after performing a mod to start researching other options, even if I love what I’ve come up with. Is this due to the quest for tone we often talk about, or perhaps an inner dissatisfaction that lurks within my being? Perhaps it boils down to musicians being such staunch individualists. No matter the cause, it’s not so surprising that we’re looking for the next new thing as soon as the old new thing is, well, old.

So, when it comes to mods, whether the concept is a passing phase or a long-held belief, it’s good to have a measure of sobriety when considering chopping up your main squeeze. Here are a few things I like to consider before modding:

To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub

So you have a killer idea to finally achieve that sound in your head. Great! Sleep on it, do some research, seek out demos or schematics, should they apply. Consult a friend, a tech, or the internet. Gather as much information as you possibly can so you’re making an informed decision.

Like all projects worth undertaking, it’s a good idea to slum around forums and the like to get a feel for the kind of work you’re in for. Has someone done this mod before? With billions of people on planet Earth, chances are, yes, someone has. And though it may fly in the face of individuality, checking up on the errant post to glean insight into your desired modification is encouraged if for no other reason than learning what NOT to do!

There have been a few times when I’ve taken on a project that I’ve never done before where checking out one of my favorite forums lead me to a thread simply entitled “HELP!” that gave me all of the information I needed to ensure a fool-proof installation. From wiring a four-conductor humbucker to routing a new cavity for that fancy tremolo you bought at the guitar show, there’s a lot to learn from folks that learned the hard way.

Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all

Just like your favorite poncho, it’s good to ask, “Is this reversible?” While it’s not a make-or-break kind of question in most cases, this is a great thing to mull over before you pick up your screwdriver or Dremel. There’s no sense in utterly ruining your favorite guitar just because you wanted something different, especially with the glut of aftermarket parts out there these days.

In most cases, things like pickups are totally reversible and really only mean resoldering some connections. No big deal. Swapping necks, similar parts, bridges, all of that is totally fine and you should do it. There are a few cases where I’d caution against such things, and usually that’s when we get into the pristine vintage guitar realm.

Or take this old Gibson SG-1 that I modified for a neck pickup for a customer. Neither desirable nor rare, these guitars are ripe for mods.

Or take this old Gibson SG-1 that I modified for a neck pickup for a customer. Neither desirable nor rare, these guitars are ripe for mods.

If you’re modding, say, a Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster, go for it! There are so many of those guitars out there that routing for Wide Range pickups or adding one behind the bridge isn’t going to matter or affect the value in any appreciable way. For a $200 guitar, they’re perfect for this application, and I can tell you that they’re solid testbeds, having worked on more than a few. I also have very little problem doing the above to Fender AVRI guitars, again, because they’re plentiful. Unless you’re thinking of selling your black ’62 Jaguar reissue, don’t feel too bad about omitting the rhythm circuit or slamming some lipstick pickups in there.

If, however, you have a 100% original 1958 Jazzmaster but you really think it needs humbuckers and a Floyd Rose, I’ll probably champion the cause of the unspoiled instrument in front of me rather than simply agreeing and getting out my router.

I’m reminded of a customer we had last year that owned an absolutely mint ’65 Fender Mustang in Sonic Blue. I mean, this was an absolutely untouched, beautiful instrument in every respect. The customer, however, didn’t like blue, and asked if I would refinish it in red. That was one of the few jobs I flat-out declined, and instead suggested we should sell the instrument and acquire either a red one in like condition (for about the same price, too) or buy a guitar that had been mucked with, and refinish that one to the desired color. Eventually, we did the latter, and as far as I know, he ended up being really happy with the new guitar.

In my view, there’s no reason to carve up an immaculate instrument when there are literally thousands of already modded and refinished vintage guitars out there. Sure, things like sound, feel, and playability come into play here, but those things can usually be addressed rather easily. When it comes to devaluing an aged instrument, I try to think a few decades ahead and wonder what I’d think of myself for doing so. That solves more than a few problems.

Of course, if your old friend has been refinished, routed for humbuckers, missing its original guard and decal… then it’s either a good candidate for restoration, or you should do all of those mods you’ve been thinking of! Me, I’m always on the lookout for a cheap, routed-out, refinished ’63 Jaguar that I can do my own thing with.

Also worth mentioning: sometimes you don’t have to do anything drastic to your guitar, what with pickup makers like Curtis Novak putting Mosrite pickups, PAFs, Wide Range humbuckers and Gold Foils in more familiar bobbins.

How about this poor '60s Mustang we adopted last year?

How about this poor ’60s Mustang we adopted last year?

The insolence of Office

When I hear someone say, “It works for ____ so it’s good enough for me,” I tend to worry just a little bit. Not because the proposed mod is a bad idea, but that statement has a lot more going on than the speaker may realize.

Big-name guitarists can get what they want, generally speaking. When you have connections at your favorite guitar company, a dedicated tech or two, and the money to back up your whims, a lot of mods inevitably start to happen. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with swapping pickups in favor of something that suits your needs, but I’ve seen enough modified instruments to know that not every idea is a good one.

A modded '70s Telecaster bass used by studio musician Buell Neidlinger.

A modded ’70s Telecaster bass used by studio musician Buell Neidlinger.

One of the things that often separates the average musician and the touring pro is that they have an army of techs at their disposal, paid well (I hope) to swap those pickups, change out bridges, and glue splintered wood back together on the quick so the show can go on. Some things work, and some things don’t, while others require a lot of attention to keep in check.

I know of one such touring pro that had his tech quickly install a brass nut on his instrument, searching for that brighter sound he craved. When I worked on the guitar some time later, I discovered that the nut slots weren’t cut properly, so the strings were binding up, causing tuning problems. Obviously, this wasn’t ideal. 

The thing is, the player never noticed it, because he never played solos or bent strings, only big chords. He didn’t know about the problem his guitar had because he had a tech to tune it between songs!

The Undiscovered [Flavor] Country

That kind of sounds like a Shakespearean cigarette ad, doesn’t it?

Though this article may sound cautious, please don’t take it as a strict warning against figuring out that sound in your head. At most, I’m just offering a few thoughts to help the potential guitar modder some guidance. What matters most is that you’re happy with the instrument you’re using, and if a cool mod gets you there, then it’s a good one. Some mods might be more effective and less intrusive than others, but there is merit in tweaking a design to work for you.

The old adage “You won’t know until you try” certainly applies. So I say, go for it! But maybe have a good think about it first.

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1969 Gibson SG Restoration

IMG_8037 - Version 2-impOver the summer, I picked up this 1969 Gibson SG Standard husk, totally stripped and poorly refinished in natural. The neck was cracked, some wood at the bridge area was replaced and filled, the contours were sanded away and altered, and before the finish was applied it seems like the body was sanded with nothing greater than 120 grit. Super rough, really disappointing!
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I paid about $400 for the wood, and decided that this would be a worthy candidate for total restoration. With all I’ve learned over the years (beginning in my dad’s woodshop as a kid – I was listening!) I felt as though I was finally able to tackle this kind of thing. I’ve been working on guitars for years now, and in the past few I’ve really focused on finishing techniques, but on a much smaller scale; fill-ins and color matching are more my specialty, but I thought, ‘Hey, why not dive in? What’s the worst that could happen?’ At the very least, I might end up with a vintage guitar that I’d enjoy playing.

Although I discussed this project openly, I didn’t advertise it for sale or anything because, to be perfectly frank, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d end up with. I trusted in my abilities and my aptitude for learning quickly and adjusting my process on the fly, but this was my first total refinish, so I wanted to make sure it was good before I went spouting off about how we offer full restorations as one of our many services.IMG_6017-impWith all of the work that needed to be done, I absolutely had to strip the body again. I mean, I’d have to rework the carves on the body anyway, and the finish was really thick and the wood didn’t have the proper SG look. You see, one of the things that sets 1960s SGs apart from those made in the 1970s and beyond is those deep, gorgeous body bevels that make them look so much meaner and tougher than the others.

Given my obsessive-compulsive wiring, I set to work with sandpaper and a block with the mission of restoring the depth, sharpness and allure of the carves.

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Soon, I had the body stripped and sanded from 120-320 while I reshaped absolutely everything, from the horns to the backside bevels, to the neck joint and even the slightly sharper late ’60s bottom carves behind the tailpiece. The hardest part was the interior curves of the neck, for which I studied some hi-res photos as Mike Ball’s original 1968 SG for reference.

After sanding to 400 grit, the next step was grain filler, which is really important to getting the right look to that old Gibson Cherry. See, I searched the internet like crazy for examples of good refinished SGs to pattern my work after, and I couldn’t find anything. I saw a ton of refins, but few that looked quite right. I took it as a challenge to really dig into what makes these guitars look the way they do, and ebony grain filler is a big, big part of that late ’60s look. (everyone else seemed to either skip this step entirely or use a neutral color of filler that didn’t show off the grain of the mahogany.)
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Always up for a challenge, I decided that instead of purchasing proper spray equipment or building a spray booth, I was going to do this in true D.I.Y. fashion: I would only use only amateur finishing supplies to really get the feel for the pros and cons of what’s available to the first-time restorer. This meant rattle can finishes (I used Stew-Mac products entirely) and power tool buffing pads.

IMG_7075I was a little concerned when I sprayed the first coat of cherry. I expected it to be bright as the first run was a tack coat, laying down some color so the next coat sticks. But it was RED, not cherry. When spraying, I usually spray a coat, then wait 30 minutes and spray another. Two hours later, I’ll do another and let it go overnight. After two bright red coats, I started to get really worried, but I put it out of my mind on a Saturday night and came back on Tuesday to discover that the color had darkened considerably. That made me happy.

After the red, I sprayed some amber laquer to gently age the finish. As you know, nitro finishes ‘fade’ over timeIMG_7323, so the clear coat takes on a yellowish hue, which contributes to the softened look of older colors. This step really made all of the difference! The color just got more rich from then on, and after that, clear coats!

With some elbow grease and 1000-1500 grit wet sanding, as well as buffing on my wheel with various grades of compound, I ended up with a shiny finish far beyond what I expected.

Seriously, I still can’t believe that I did this with rattle cans and elbow grease! IMG_8036-imp

I sourced vintage parts all around (save for the tuners, electronics, Lollar imperial pickups and pickguard) and I couldn’t be happier with the results. It looks right, plays beautifully, and sounds freaking amazing.

Oh! And a note on the spot of wear on the horn: that’s fully intentional. I lightly aged this guitar, but the one rally cry against relic guitars that I hear more than any other is that the wear doesn’t have a story. Well, this one does: when I had all of the parts collected, I took a long, hard look at the guitar and thought about what fictional character may have used it before I came along. So, the story with that wear is, the previous owner stashed his picks right between the guard and the body, and when you’re in the heat of a hot solo, you don’t have time to be careful. IMG_8035-imp

If you’re on Tumblr you may recognize this same guitar from the many, many happy photographs of DeeBeeUs, one of the kindest souls on the web. He owns this one now, and from what I can tell, he’s very, very happy with it. -MJA

 

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Fret Reflections (Double Meanings = Double points!)

Pre-polish

See that? That’s gross. It looks bad and it can rob your tone. Think about it: frets are the only thing other than your hands that strings touch during play. Of course you don’t want your shiny new strings grinding up on corrosion and rust! That’s nasty!

This isn’t the worst build-up I’ve ever seen, but I should be embarrassed; this was the condition of the frets on my 1973 Fender Precision Bass earlier today. which I set about cleaning up. How could I–a handsome, witty and gainfully-employed guitar technician–let it get that far? Well, Dear Reader, I’ll tell you.

Over the last year, I found myself playing more bass than ever: I was holding down the low end in a female-fronted dance rock outfit, tracking bass for my then-main gig, picking up the occasional bass part in an Alt-Country band when the bass player would switch to Dobro, and I was starting to sit in with a few friends that were performing live and tracking an album. I was pretty busy for a guy that doesn’t call himself a bassist!

During that time, it became clear to me that my bass was due for a fret dressing. Buzzing on my most-used frets became a constant problem, and fretting my low E on the 8th fret nearly choked off the note. I’d used the bass quite a lot, so I wasn’t all that surprised. Trouble was, my friends doing the album tracking needed me in the studio over the weekend, but they didn’t let me know until Tuesday. I wasn’t about to go to a studio with an instrument that frets out, so later in the week I found time to squeeze in a quick fret job.

And I mean quick; if this were a customer’s instrument, I would have taken the time to perfectly crown and polish each fret to a mirror shine, but because I was in a rush I decided I could live with just kissing the tops of the frets and leaving them rough with just a spit-shine for looks. (Not literally) I planned on getting around to finishing, but as life sometimes goes I never found the time. At this point it’s been months since I picked up my bass, so when I opened its case this morning and found the frets in this condition my OCD kicked in immediately. Today was the day.

Much better.

That’s what it should look like: smoothed-out and round with a mirror shine. Wonderful, right? After I re-rounded few frets, I used Micro-Mesh Soft Touch Finishing Pads, available at Stew-Mac.com. Easier to use than the usual sandpaper steps and cleaner than steel wool, these pads have become a daily staple in my guitar repair diet. I use them on everything from finishes to frets, and they’re great for polishing a freshly-cut bone nut or blending drop fills on finishes. Hate the way your hand sticks to a nitro-finished neck? They’re great for that, too!

I strung the bass back up with the old set (I like ’em worn-in) after I cleaned the strings with some denatured alcohol. Immediately my bass felt better, and notes sounded cleaner with reduced string noise. This made for a more lively playing experience, and I didn’t feel like I had to wash my hands after playing. There’s nothing like smooth, shiny frets. My bass is happy.

This makes an even bigger difference on guitar, where whole note bends and plain strings are the norm. Next time you change strings, take a moment to polish your frets. You’ll be able to bend and gliss to your heart’s content without getting caught up on corrosion and you may even find that your strings last longer.

Caution: If you’re going to use steel wool, make sure to mask off your pickups. Steel wool fibers can easily work their way into your pickups, shorting them out and completely ruining your day.

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