Strung-out — Nightmares for Guitarists

Danelectro guitar

The “Ooops” factor

You’ve all heard the expression “If it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it”. Nothing could be truer and yet ignored by so many people.

This article gives you a quick overview of just some of the repairs, setups and general guitar fixing that I’ve been asked to perform over the years that could have been avoided. I am by no means a professional in this area, merely a keen amateur that generally does all this stuff for free – which is possibly the only reason I get asked to undertake operations such as the ones that follow….

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

There are, broadly speaking, two main reasons why guitars get “messed-up” to the point that they require some serious attention:

Swings in temperature and humidity

This almost always causes instability in the neck, including forward/backward bowing and warping, as the wood will try to equalize to the surrounding air temperature and humidity. In a nutshell, if wood gets too wet it swells and if wood gets too dry it shrinks.

A relative humidity between 45% and 55% and a constant room temperature of around 75⁰F (22⁰C) is “just right” and will keep the risk of damage to a minimum. Think about it – if you have a $3000 guitar, then a further $100 investment in a humidity controller isn’t such a bad idea. Obviously, if you store your precious guitar or bass in your attic, the trunk of your car, garage or garden shed, you’re going to have problems with it – and sooner rather than later.

Repairs should also be prioritized according to the level of stupidity demonstrated by the owner that caused the damage in the first place.

The idiot factor

This should never, ever, be underestimated and there are well-known expressions such as “If you try to make something idiot-proof, they just invent a bigger idiot” and “You can’t fix stupid”. There are so many levels on the idiot factor scale that it would be almost impossible to list them here, but the top three include:



“I didn’t think it would be that difficult”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time”

“I thought it would be a really cool idea to try”



The idiot factor also applies to those that ignore temperature and humidity. More of this to follow…

The “classics”

In the beginning…

My very first guitar project was back in the early 70’s when I was 12 or 13 years old. Flower Power was getting passé by then and a friend’s older brother had an old Danelectro guitar (a very bad rip-off of the Gibson Les Paul design) which he’d previously hand-painted in random psychedelic colors – including the fingerboard – that he very kindly gave to me instead of putting it in the trash.

I knew absolutely nothing about guitars back then, and this was back in the Stone Age before the Internet and Google, so finding information meant going to a library and seeing what books (do you remember those?) they had about guitar setup and repairs. You could be almost certain that they’d have nothing whatsoever on the topic. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from doing a complete refurbishment.
 
I soon discovered that Danelectro guitars are made from the cheapest materials on the planet, which was just as well considering what had been done to it and what I was about to do to it.
 
Thankfully, and somewhat to my amazement, all the hardware and electrics worked perfectly. This meant that after spending many hours scraping and sanding off the paint I only had to prime and re-spray the body, put a light coat of spray varnish on the back of the neck and headstock, re-assemble all the bits and pieces, put on a new set of strings and then learn how to play it. Needless to say, the last bit was the most difficult and I’m still working on it!
 
In the end, it turned out to be both an excellent learning experience and a fairly decent first guitar – which my friend’s brother actually offered to buy back once I’d finished, “fixing it up”. I kept it for a while before eventually giving it away. The guitar turned out to be a 1960-something Silvertone model, which are now worth anywhere between $400 to over $2500 in good condition (and I honestly have no idea why – I mean, seriously, look at it!).

Lesson to be learned;
Invest in a crystal ball, look for future classic and collectable guitars and don’t mess with them or give them away for free.

You did what, now?

One quiet, sunny Saturday afternoon, I heard the doorbell ring and opened the door to find a very good friend on the doorstep with a woeful look on his face and a guitar case in his hand. Actually, the look on his face made me think that the puppy he’d bought for his kids had just been run over by a Mac Truck in front of the entire family.

Once I’d cleared the dining room table, calmed him down and asked what was wrong, I heard the immortal words “I was just giving my guitar a really good clean and wanted to polish it under the pickups too, but I pulled the pickup out too hard and broke the wires and now it doesn’t work”. A true “Hey – y’all hold my beer while I try this” moment… I tried not to laugh, offered him a drink and asked with what I hoped was a straight face – “That must’ve taken some doing – and why the hell did you do it?”. The look of woe turned to shame and I could only do my best to try and help.

Now the guitar in question and in front of me wasn’t an inexpensive instrument, oh no, it’s was a beautiful and previously immaculate Gibson Les Paul CustomGibson Les Paul Custom with a high-gloss black finish that even a visible fingerprint would devalue. Originally worth around $3000, it was now something that you couldn’t even give to a pawn shop.

All I could think to say – and knowing that it’s a fairly easy fix but with a huge potential risk – was “I’ll do my best but won’t promise anything” and then sent my friend home to suffer while I tried to put it back into working order.

lp wiringSeveral hours later, after giving the guitar a complete strip down to access the parts and looking up the Gibson wiring diagrams, I covered the guitar in a blanket (which was potentially a shroud) to avoid any solder splashes completely ruining the finish, scraped back enough wire to solder the broken pickup connections back whilst adding insulating tape over the wounds, re-assembled and setup the guitar, then enjoyed playing it for a week before I gave it back in perfect working order.

Happiness all ‘round, but the question “Why the hell did you do it?” will stay with me to my dying day. I’d never had to do this type of repair on such a beautiful guitar previously and hope I’ll never have to again.

Lesson to be learned:
Never EVER rip parts out of or off of your guitar to clean under them. Clean AROUND them, by all means, and if your OCD is that excessive that you feel compelled to do things like this, look for medical attention before you look for a screw driver.

Bass slapping

“Want to try out my Jazz Bass?” “Well, of course I do!” I love Fender basses and they remain the most stable plug-and-play instruments of all time. The “Standard” models have no active electronics to worry about, are every bass players dream because of the reliability and stability of the design, and they have been used, owned and loved by almost every top-level bassist the world has known ever since 1951. Having said that…

A friend of mine – a drummer, which I’m not even going to attempt to make any jokes about – has a wonderfully furnished garden shed, which is better equipped than several music shops I’ve visited. Whilst having a jam session with him, I noticed a Fender Jazz BassFender Jazz Bass hanging on the wall amongst several other fine examples of musical instruments he’d purchased over the years. Unable to resist the temptation, I asked if I could try it out. “I was hoping that you would” came the reply.

bad neckI picked it up, plugged it in, and instantly discovered that it was totally unplayable. Not being one to hold such a wonderful, but messed-up, instrument in my hands and not “put it right”, I asked my friend if I could take it home with me and do a proper setup to make it, at the very least, playable again. “I was hoping that you would” came the reply….

Now, the action was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was as if the strings and the neck were at polar opposites and trying to avoid each other upon penalty of death. When they were able to make contact, the fret-buzz was astonishingly bad – in fact it was worse than that… In theory, the excessive neck-bow should’ve been easily fixable with some serious truss rod adjustment.

Most truss rod adjustments are done by turning them an eighth or one quarter of a turn at a time. Depending on the direction of the neck bow, the “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey” approach is always the rule of thumb to follow. On this particular bass, four or five complete righty-tighty turns were required over a two-week period. I left each truss rod turn for a couple of days to settle before the next one was done. I also had to bend the neck over my knee several times after each turn and rest period to encourage the wood to settle a little before the next step, in the hope of not snapping the truss rod and completely destroying the neck.

Eventually, and after a complete setup with intonation, action, pickup height adjustments, strap locks and new strings included, this wonderful instrument played like it was brand new. Happiness all ‘round, but the question “Why the hell did you leave it in a shed with no temperature or humidity controls, knowing that it was getting screwed slowly (and not in a good way) and pay no attention to those factors?” will stay with me to my dying day.

Lesson to be learned:
If you don’t treat your instrument with the care and respect it deserves, even the best quality guitar or bass will rapidly become a worthless and unplayable piece of junk.

My nut’s not right

guitar string retainersFender StratocasterFender Stratocaster, and almost all of the copies and hybrids, have tremolo arms or – as the cool kids have been calling them since the ‘80’s – whammy bars. Great, cool, yes, yawn, whatever.

The Strat models also have stationary string guides (and, no, they’re not made out of paper!) on the headstocks, which means that if you even look at the tremolo arm the wrong way the guitar will go out of tune.

Once most guitarists realize this, they will either (A) upgrade to a Floyd-RoseFloyd-Rose, Super-VeeSuper Vee, Bladerunner, GotahGotah and so on system or (B) be a cheapskate and start messing around trying to raise the nut and remove the string guides. Option A almost always works really well, option B usually ends in a complete disaster.

roller string retainers for GuitarOption C, which for some strange reason most guitarists don’t seem to know about, also works quite well. They’re called “Roller String Retainers” and should appeal to all cheapskates because they only cost about $5.50 a pair, are a direct replacement for the original string guides, look cool and take about two minutes to replace the originals with. Basically, they allow the strings to move in accordance with the varying tension and return to pitch afterwards.

A friend of mine told me he was having real problems with “his nut not being right”. I was tempted to tell him to try wearing different underpants or visit a doctor, until I realized he was referring to his Fender USA Custom Strat. I asked him to let me borrow the guitar to have a look and, when I did, I found that the nut was original, in perfect order and that the guitar had both a great action and near perfect intonation. The source of the problem was that the guitar was fitted with standard string guides, which were causing the tuning problems he was having. As the nuts on all fender guitars and basses can be a real pain to replace, I was more than a little relieved that this procedure wasn’t required. Anyway…

strap locksBeing a no brainer, I went on eBay and purchased both the roller string retainers and some Schaller strap locksSchaller strap locks (which I cannot recommend highly enough), fitted them and enjoyed playing the wonderful and stays-in-tune guitar for a week before giving it back. And, yes, I do have a habit of keeping instruments for a few extra days to enjoy the fruits of my labors but, as I said earlier, I’ve never charged anyone for the work so it’s a fair swap.

Lesson to be learned:
None really, and questions are only easy if you already know the answers. The only thing that did make me laugh was that when I next met my guitarist friend he’d put the U-shaped strap lock buttons I’d given him on his guitar strap upside down. They still worked, but even so…

Casting the first stone

I’m guilty of almost as many, if not more, screw-ups than all my friends put together. I’ve outlined just a couple of examples that I’m prepared to publicly admit to below.

Trace-Elliot-Series-6 amp

Without a trace

My Trace Elliot bass amp had given me over 20 years of loyal service, but the controls were becoming increasingly noisy and the amp would cut out for several seconds for no apparent reason – usually in the middle of a gig. I didn’t have any proper switch cleaner in hand, so I gave it the WD-40 treatment instead – which made it 100 times worse. I spoke to my brother-in-law, an absolute genius with things like this, who informed me that I should’ve just sprayed the controls with varnish and watched it blow up. Thankfully, he also very kindly offered to help (he personally knows the guy that designed the amps in the first place, his son is a hell of a good bass player, and all three of us simply love Trace Elliot ampsTrace Elliot bass amp – now, how lucky is that?).

His solution – which he thankfully told me about after I got the amp back and possibly saved me from having a major heart attack – was to:

  • Strip the amp down to its basic components
  • Put all of the numerous bits and pieces in the dishwasher for a couple of cycles (yes, seriously)
  • Put said numerous bits and pieces, as “appropriate”, in the kitchen oven on a low heat for a couple of hours to completely dry them out (I’m not kidding!)
  • Reassemble all the bits and pieces into a completely clean and functional bass amp
  • Test the amp with both 4 and 8 ohm dummy loads until it exploded (think of a dummy load as the most quiet speaker in the universe and then think of Spinal Tap turning the volume up to “11”)
  • Upgrade the power transistors to just under the level where the speaker would’ve also exploded
  • Send me the charts, statistics and test results – both before and after the “Big Bang” and upgrade
  • Return it to me looking better, sounding better and with more power than when it was brand new

After thanking him from the bottom of my heart, I went online, ordered two cans of switch cleanerswitch cleaner and gave the can of WD-40 to a friend to help her start her car on damp mornings (which I now know is the only other thing, apart from loosening stuck nuts and bolts, a person should ever use it for!).

the Hernia Maker

You know how many strings you want on your bass – right?

Many years ago I embarked on yet another bass building project. To make life “simple”, I ordered a through-body bass neck from StewMac.com. If you’re in the USA and looking for anything in the guitar-parts range, or don’t mind paying the import taxes if you live abroad, they’re certainly a great place to start and provide a wonderful service with great advice.

We were living in the UK at the time and when the neck finally got through customs my grubby hands carefully opened the box to find a 5-string neck with a pre-cut nut. The design was for a 4-string bass, but I’ve never owned or played a 5-string bass before so I thought “what the hell – I’m not sending it back”.

I re-designed the body, but didn’t take into account the extra weight and left the walnut/maple/walnut body wings solid. Once the project was completed I soon realized that the instrument was so heavy I’d have to play it sitting down or not at all. I may as well have used reinforced concrete! Like I said earlier, you can’t fix stupid and that applies to yours truly too. Nice bass, though, even if I do affectionately refer to “her” as the “5-String Hernia Maker”…