Pickups / Electronics
Q: My guitar tech installed a switch for my humbucking pickups that turns the pickup from humbucking to single coil. It’s OK, it gives sort of a Strat sound but it really doesn’t sound like a Strat pickup. I understand the difference between the Strat and the L.P., but if my humbucker is switched to a single coil why doesn’t it sound like a Strat?
A: When a humbucking pickup is converted to a single coil through a switch, what’s really happening is one of the coils of the humbucker is being turned off. Now most single coil Strat pickups are basically (only basically) a coil of fine wire wrapped around six magnets, with all the magnets literally running up through the middle of the pick up. A humbucking pick-up has two coils of wire, but instead of the magnets being in the center of the bobbin (or coil) the two single bobbins are attached together and they sit on a common magnet underneath the bobbins. Also, the two coils of the humbucker are wired so they oppose each other and, by being wound in reverse of each other and sharing a common magnet, they create a “humbucking” (to buck the hum) pickup. Get it?
Q: I read that if you use paper-oil capacitors they will sound better in your guitar. Another friend says he will use nothing but ceramic capacitors and they sound the best. Who’s right?
A: The capacitors you’re concerned with are the ones always used for the tone controls in your electric guitar. These ceramic or paper-oil capacitors (generally from .001 to .020) take a bit of your pickup signal and through the potentiometer, feed the signal through the cap. (The cap is basically a little coil of fine wire). The pickup signal zaps around inside the cap, building up heat that gets dissipated, and in the bargain filters out certain high-end-frequencies. Some professional guitarists can spend months of experimentation finding the right combination of tone values to get their special tone. I always recommend experimentation until the guitarist is happy with the pickup-pot-tone-value relationship.
Q: I just bought a new very hi-gain amp with a 4×12 cabinet and I love the new hotter power I have, but when I turn my new amp up past a certain point, my guitar has a real rude high-end squeal that I can’t get rid of. I tried different stuff, but when I crank it up, that awful squeal keeps me from rocking. I had my amp checked out and they say nothing is wrong. What’s up?
A: What you are experiencing could be microphone feedback. When your string breaks across the guitars pickup, a little charge goes zapping through the coils of wire that make up your pickups. The wire that’s inside your pickups is VERY FINE … finer that your hair. As this charge moves around through your pickup’s coils, it can make the fine wire “wiggle and move microscopically”. This microscopic movement leads to the pickup being unstable. When this signal is fed to a high gain amp, you get that rude feedback. Higher quality pickup makers insist on having their pick-ups “potted” or dipped in hot wax so it flows all the way through to the inside of the coils and stops the problem. I suggest you get some new potted pickups. Your problem should disappear.
Q: When I turn the volume potentiometers (the pots) down on my guitar, it seems like all the volume drops quickly from 10 to about 7, and it’s hard to control the volume because the pots go down in volume real quickly. Someone told me that I needed a linear pot if I wanted the volume pots to work more like the pots on my amp. What’s up?
A: The real way to solve this problem of your guitars volume pots not having an even taper is not touse linear pots, but to adjust the way the pot works. Try this: solder a .02 capacitor along with a Ω watt, 150k resistor between the middle leg and the 1:00 o’clock leg of your volume pots. This will make a huge difference in two ways, first your taper will smooth out big time, and secondly, your tone won’t go to hell so much as you slowly turn the volume down. If this is too gradual, you can reduce the size of the resistor to Ω watt-100k. Another thing is, every pot you use (I always use CTS) will have a slightly different taper. Anyway, if you try 10 different pots, you will have 10 different tapers. This trick has been around forever and really helps!
Q: My friend installed a new humbucking pickup in my Strat but it sounds choked, and doesn’t seem to be putting out the kind of output I was expecting. Any idea?
A: Strats generally (always) come stock with a 250k ohm potentiometer and if you change out the stock pickup with a humbucker without also changing out the 250k pot to a 500k pot, your pickup will have this wimpy sound. What’s happening is the 250k pot is not letting all the “juice” get through. We’ve seen this problem a million times. Change the 250k to a 500k … big difference!
Q: No matter what I do my guitar seems to have a loud buzz. It seems like if I put my hand on the bridge or some other metal part of the guitar or hold the strings, most of the buzzing goes away. If I’m playing near a neon sign (like in a bar) the buzz is awful. Can this noise be permanently fixed?
A: Few if any factory guitars have the proper shielding inside the control cavity. Shielding occurs when one attempts toseal off or “shield” off the extraneous and bothersome noise that sneaks in behind and through your instrument pickups. This can be accomplished by having a copper lining (NOT ALUMINUM!) carefully installed inside your guitars guts and around your actual pickups then having all the joints soldered together.I have done this for a zillion professional musicians and, when done correctly, a guitarist can stand right in front of a Marshall 10000 Watt stack, have his hands off the strings, and the guitar will be nearly silent. Have it done … it’s well worth it!
Q: I have a P-bass (jazz bass, anything with a pick guard) and I want to do an active pick up thing. Where can I hide the battery?
A: Any electric solid body can be carefully fit with a stashed battery compartment.That way one doesn’t have to disassemble the guitar to change the battery. This is just one idea, but one of the least expensive ways to do it.
Q: I heard a rock star say his pickups are screwed and mounted into the body of his guitar instead of being suspended on a pickguard or mounted in a pickup ring. Have you tried this and does it make a difference?
A: I have experimented with this idea and, for musicians who play at a very loud volume, having the pickups screwed directly into the wood will give the guitar / pickups a more solid tone. It can work, but again, mostly it is worth the trouble if you are playing thru a couple of Marshall stacks.
Q: My customer was going to buy a new stratocaster and under the pickguard it had a universal routing (otherwise known as “salad bowl” routing). He was worried that the salad bowl routing would cause the guitar to warp or twist. Have you ever seen this happen?
A: I have handled hundreds and hundreds of strat bodies when I worked at Wormoth Guitar Products and have sold guitar bodies all over the globe. I have never seen any guitar body twist due to excessive routing or the salad bowl routing. It just makes it easier for people to experiment with different pickup configuratoins without having to do extra routing themselves.
Q: I looked inside my newer strat and the wiring was just your basic thin plastic-coated wire. I was shown an early 1959 original stratocaster and it had black and white cloth covered wiring which appeared to be thicker. Does this make a difference in sound?
A: Absolutely! The older strats have cloth covered heavier wiring and when we rewire any guitar, we always recommend using the authentic style cloth covered wiring. It just sounds fuller.
Frets / Neck
Q: My guitar used to play in tune, now the frets look like they are flattened out and my guitar had lost it’s sustain and it’s intonation is bad no matter what. Could this have something to do with my frets?
A: The common fret problem: Example A: This is an example of a flattened (worn) fret. This is also what many frets look like after coming out of the major guitar factories. The frets have been pounded into place with a hammer and seated into the fret slots with a hydraulic press. This results in a flattened fret which will cause poor intonation and lack of sustain. Notice the flattened area on top of the fret. This where the string touches the fret itself. The shape of this fret results in fret buzz, an inability to intonate your guitar and a lack of sustain. Example B: This is an example of a Richard Beck custom crowned fret. When refretting your guitar, Richard will carefully and painstakingly remove the inconsistencies from your fretboard. Richard will also level and crown your frets which will significantly improve your guitar’s intonation and insure proper intonation throughout the fretboard. Notice the crowned area on top of the fret. This expertly shaped fret assures that the string will make contact only with the center of the fret crown. Ensuring the string makes contact with the center of the fret mathematically assures proper intonation. Also, properly crowned frets will insure that the strings make contact with only the intended frets and not the fretboard or other frets.
Q: My guitar plays pretty good until I get up to the higher area (about the 10th or 12 fret); then when I bend, it just frets out and the sound dies out. Have you seen this problem? My guitar is only 3 months old.
A: After working on guitars for 26 years, I have found the most common problem is the one you ask about. If you sight down the fretboard, you will see a hump or a lumped area at the high end of the fretboard (where the neck meets the body). This is the area that your strings are grinding across when you bend up. Depending how bad the hump in the fretboard is, you may have to have fret or fretboard work done to straighten this area out. The reason for this is because each and every factory sands the fretboard with a machine and never calculates or predicts what effect string tension will have on the end of the fretboard. Some factories even install frets in the fretboard before the fretboard is attached to the neck. Very stupid idea! Out of the several thousand guitars I have re-fretted by hand, about 60% need re-fretting because of this problem. Another 30% need fretting because the frets are just worn down too low to re-crown.
Q: My guitar buzzes in the lower register. Why?
A: Generally it means that the neck has an overbow or a back bow. A change of string guage and a neck adjustment can usually solve this problem. Contrary to popular belief, the neck needs to have a tiny bit of relief or bow in order to play buzz free.
Q: Just the first several frets are worn. Can they be replaced without refretting the entire neck?
A: Generally when the first frets are worn some luthiers will replace them. The problem occurs if you don’t use the exact replacement fretwire and also all the frets need to be leveled and crowned; so generally I don’t choose to do it. It is a matter of quality of the instrument.
Q: Will the type of wood my guitar is made of make a big difference in the sound?
A: Absolutely. Strats, L.P.’s, you name it … are made of just a few types of wood. Almost exclusively, the electric guitar bodies are made from mahogany, maple, ash, alder, walnut, and a few other exotic woods. Necks on electric guitars are almost exclusively made of Hard Rock maple or mahogany, and again a few builders offer exotic woods or laminates of two or more kinds upon request.
Q: I’ve seen tons of Strats and Tele’s and many seem to have a blond neck on the back, and the fretboard is a dark wood or it’s a light wood on the fretboard. What wood is this?
A: Many Strats and Tele’s made in the past 50 years have had the actual neck made of Rock Maple, and the fretboards are a thin laminate of rosewood or maple. Without a doubt, Rock Maple is one of the strongest woods used. That’s because of several reasons:
- It’s waaaay strong.
- It can be obtained domestically (grows all over the USA) and is cheap.
- It produces a good musical tone.
- It stays reasonably straight.
- It is easy to machine.
Q: Nearly all the Gibson guitars I’ve seen don’t have a light wood on their bodies and especially their necks. What wood is this, and why is it different than Fenders?
A: Gibson guitars have traditionally used African Mahogany for their electric guitars. Mahogany is a dark, heavy, open grained wood not from this part of the world. Furniture and instrument builders have used it in great abundance for the past 100 years (and longer) due to the cheap supply and ease in machining. It also is a good tone wood and generally has a darker, deeper sound than its common rival – Maple. This in itself is at least part of the reason Gibson guitars have a totally different sound than your basic Fender guitar.
Q: Does the electric guitar sound different if it has, say, a rosewood fretboard on a maple neck as opposed to a neck that is all maple?
A: Definitely. The electric guitar neck makes a big difference in the way the whole thing sounds. Generally the more experienced players will agree and say how a Strat with a maple neck and fretboard has a cleaner, smoother, lighter, sound than a Strat maple neck with a rosewood board, which as a darker, thicker sound. Have you noticed that Clapton for the past 20 odd years has always played on maple boards? Its part of his sound!
Q: Will the color of finish on my guitar make a difference in the way it sounds?
A: Only if you think it does!
Q: Does the kind of finish on my guitar make a difference in the way it sounds now or in the future? I heard a friend say that the older guitars sound better ’cause the finish is better.
A: If we’re talking about finishes on guitars, what we’re really talking about is coatings. The basic coatings used for electric guitars over the past 50 years have been Nitro-cellulose lacquer, acrylic lacquer, polyesters of one type or another, epoxy resins and catalyzed varnishes. All these types of finishes protect the wood and allow the electric guitar to be colored and polished to a high gloss. The older finishes are nitro-cellulose; both Fender and Gibson used them. The real advantage is, as they age, they continue to shrink into the pores of the wood and over the years the solvents evaporate, leaving a rather thin finish. The basic polyester resin or catalyzed finish dry basically through a chemical reaction rather than evaporation and the finish never really settles into the wood. This really does leave a thicker finish on the guitar and some people feel that a thinner overall finish will affect the tone. I truly believe that there are many other variables that will have as much affect on the tone. The debate over coatings is mostly just that … an ongoing debate.
Q: The nut on my Les Paul cracked and broke off. I thought it was bone, but the tech I talked to said it was a plastic. He also said replacing it with a material like bone, brass, ivory, graphite, Micarta, or Tusq, would all have a difference on the tone. What’s up?
A: Newer Les Pauls in fact have a nut made from a material considered Micarta, which is a synthesized bone material. It is, in my opinion, sorta like hard chalk. I prefer using actual bone, which is usually sanitized bleached cow bone cut up in nice little pieces. Actual bone gives great tone and, if properly fabricated, will last about 10 to 50 years, ages nice, and is fairly strong. Ivory is, in my opinion, the best looking, sounding, and wearing material. Unfortunately, too many elephants have died for their tusks and most large importers of Luthier supplies won’t stock it because it is now banned and what is available through pre-ban is expensive. Still, I legally purchase it whenever available and it is the premium material. Brass was very popular about 20 years ago and guitarists were convinced that it created better and longer sustain of their guitars. Unfortunately, what many people later decided, was that even though it has more sustain, it also murdered the sound of a nice sounding guitar. What was mistaken for sustain was actually just a harsher, tinny sound. Still there are some professionals who do prefer it and, for bass guitar, it really is the best. Graphite is a material being used to help whammy-bar guitarists keep their guitars in tune. It’s fairly soft and will change your sound slightly, but is fairly slippery. Although it wears out relatively quickly, it does help keep your guitar in tune when using the tremolo arm.
Bridge / Tailpiece
Q: My Les Paul is starting to buzz badly, it seems like it’s mostly in the middle of the fretboard on the middle strings. I took my guitar to my repairman and he said my bridge is dipping in the middle and that’s making the buzz.
A: Your fretboard has an arch across it; its not flat like a classical guitar. It’s like a cross section out of a pie shape and because it’s got an arch (which helps with bar cords, and feel), it is critical that the bridge has the same amount of arch as your fretboard for your guitar to play and feel correctly. If you look down the side of your Les Paul bridge, you may see it dipping in the middle. That means the middle, the “D” and “G” strings are likely lower than the outside “E” strings, and this is were your are picking up a lot of buzzing. Generally, a quality Gibson bridge should last several years, but I do have customers like Curt Kirkwood of the Meatpuppets who plays Les Pauls with a quarter, and I have likely put on 10 or more new bridges over the past 15 years. Some guys just wear them out! If you play hard, a lot or both, you will need a lot of bridge maintenance.
Q: When I took my Les Paul into a repair shop, the stock tailpiece was screwed all the way down to the body. When I got it back, the tech raised the stop tailpiece way up. Now my guitar seems to lack sustain and has a wimpier feel on the strings. What’s up?
A: When the stop tailpiece is screwed all the way down to the body on a Les Paul, the strings will have more sustain and will have a tauter, tighter feel. This is caused by more downward pressure being placed on the bridge when the tailpiece is closer to the body.
Q: Does changing the gauge of strings make a difference in the feel, the sound, the tuning?
A: Yes, heavier strings will put more tension on the neck which generally means the truss needs to be adjusted for the new string tension. Additionally, the intonation will need to be re-set for the new thickness of the strings. Unquestionably, the thicker the strings get, the better and fatter they will sound.
Q: My friend’s guitar is just like mine, but his sounds better. I mentioned it to him he said he just changes his strings every week. I thought strings should last 6 or 7 months, don’t they?
A: Wrong. Strings should be changed before they break and before they start sounding awful. On an electric guitar, the strings drive the electronic pickups, and when the strings have been played for a few weeks they get real dead due to grime and just the normal stretching of the metal (metal fatigue). Change them often … you’ll be glad!
Q: I bought a new electric guitar. I paid a lot for it but it doesn’t play nearly as nice as my friends cheaper guitar. What’s up?
A: All guitars in any price range need to be “set-up” by a professional guitar repairman. “Set-up” means the careful and related adjustments of the bridge height, the string distance as it runs across the nut, the bow in the neck, and several other small but important adjustments.
Q: If I paid a lot for my guitar, shouldn’t it play great right out of the box?
A: Most all guitar factories don’t have a true repair/set-up/luthier expert at the end of the line. When the guitar gets finally assembled, the last person responsible for setting-up the guitar may have limited skills and be just your basic hourly-paid factory worker.
Q: My guitar will not play in tune. I took it to a repair guy and he said there’s nothing wrong with it, but I still can’t get it in tune. What’s up?
A: Often we see guitars that have been worked on and are still completely out of adjustment. It’s no wonder some guitars won’t play in tune. Just because some repair guy told you there’s nothing wrong, this may just reflect his actual experience about your guitar. At my shop, we GUARANTEE your guitar will play great, and in tune.
Q: I bashed my 1951 “No Caster” and now I’m sorry. I wonder … can you fix-it?
A: Yes … We can fix it. And our work is guaranteed!
Q: My guitar fell over and there seems to be a small crack in the back of the headstock. I just squeezed some super-glue in there and figured it would be ok. Then a few weeks later, it fell over in its stand again and this time the head broke almost completely off. My friend says once it’s been broke like that it can never be fixed right, and will never sound right. Is there special glue? Have you ever fixed broken necks? Do the repairs hold? Will the guitar ever sound and play the same as it did before?
A: I have professionally and successfully re-glued over 1000 broken head stocks, some just slightly cracked, some completely broken off with several jagged pieces. First, do not; I repeat DO NOT have this done by an amateur. I get badly repaired headstock cracks in everyday and if it’s done right the first time, it can be done perfectly. But if you just squeeze some wrong glue in there, you may screw it up forever. I have literally dozens of specialty tools, and special fixtures for these types of delicate repairs. You name it … we can repair it both structurally and cosmetically and make it appear as if it NEVER HAPPENED, no matter how bad it seems. WE GUARANTEE IT. When a broken headstock is repaired correctly and reinforced properly, it will not change a guitars tone at all. If done correctly, it will play and sound GREAT!
Types of Electric Guitars
Q: What’s the best guitar for me to purchase? Do I want a Strat style, or a Les Paul style? Do I need to spend a lot of money to get a good guitar?
A: Because I have been repairing guitars for over 30 years full-time, I answer this question everyday! There are several things to consider: Price will dictate the degree of quality you will be purchasing, but this is not totally the rule! Of course, you can’t expect to get a great playing and sounding guitar for $99, but you should expect to get a excellent playing and sounding guitar for $1000. Because my shop is primarily a repair and service-oriented facility, we have been able to draw some generalizations. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will know that everybody discounts from retail. This used to be called a “sale,” now it’s just “real world discount prices”. What will you get for your money? $99.00 – In this price-range you will generally find electric and acoustic guitars that are the basic beginners instruments. These are the bottom end of the bottom end of the guitar food-chain, and we have had a gazillion of these guitars come through for repairs. The playability of these guitars is generally terrible, and the real crime is parents purchase these guitars for their kids (mostly to shut them up) and the user (adult or child) can’t play them: (spend the $$$ if you get one of these, bring it into my shop!!!!) Learning guitar is hard enough, having a awful playing guitar just makes it worse. Too many brands to list, and sometimes these student (read toy) instruments can benefit from a pro set-up. Always imported from China or India. Very cheesy parts, woods (mystery woods), cheesy electronics. Had 2 of them in today!!!!! Hunt and you may find a useable one. Up to $300 – (or there-abouts) Acoustic and electrics in this range can be useable instruments. Most certainly in need of basic set-up work, many guitars in this price range can be made to play surprisingly well. Depending on the manufacturer, with careful shopping, YOU CAN find a guitar that will look snazzy, sound acceptable, and actually allow a student to progress and even excel. Stay away from off-brands. Some acoustics in this price range can have solid spruce bookmatched tops, real bone nuts and saddles, and surprisingly good tone. $300 to $600.00 – In this price range, you’re starting to get into real fun, nice sounding, utility instruments. In acoustics, you can find features like higher quality woods, cutaways, and active pickups with a 9-volt battery supplying power to a pre-amp-eq. As for electric’s, you’ll find higher quality pickups and switches, more useable tremolo systems, better feeling necks, better tuners and a larger selection of styles and body shapes. Smart shoppers can find nice instruments with quality tone and power. These guitars will likely not appear very fancy, but still have high-end features. Remember, a guitar may look elaborate, but have cheesy components. (This is the trend, look at the “photo flame” used by some … it’s just a thin photo of real flame maple. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not wood!!) Take time to study your pending guitar purchase. Know what’s up with the construction, the woods and the electronics. Know more than the sales person who’s pitching the guitar to you. Ask if he (or she) is working on commission (they get a cut only if you purchase from them). If you know more than they do, you will get a better deal! $600 to $1200.00 – (yes, I know it’s a big jump) This is where the real stuff begins. In the high-end, you get acoustic guitars with cutaways, professional electronics, possibly solid wood tops and back/sides (very important), quality fretwork, good and useable intonation, fancy rosette, maybe a nitrocellulose finish, scalloped braces, nicer binding, etc. In the high-end electrics you can purchase guitars with genuine tremolo systems that WILL WORK! (AMAZING) PICK-UPS that can sound pro, electronics that are true professional quality, excellent fretwork, pretty and durable finishes … Congratulations!, likely an instrument to be proud of! $1200 and UP – In this range you’re getting the cream of the crop of the American (including Canadian and Spanish) acoustic and electric guitars. At these prices, you should expect nice stuff even if the list-retail price is several thousand dollars. Remember, everybody discounts from retail as much as 50%! So, that $2995.00 incredible ax may only cost $1499.00 to $1995.00 and be worth every penny of it. Again, all guitars, no matter how nice, always need a check-up with-in the first few months of use.
Q: The salesperson at the guitar store told me my new electric guitar is handmade. Does that mean it was all carved and assembled by one or two people with their hands and hand tools?
A: Sales people like to use the phrase “hand-made”. In fact, if you ask most of them the question “Have you ever been to a guitar building factory, large or small?” or “Have you ever built a guitar?” the answer will be NO. If they had, they would know that nearly all production guitar factories are heavily automated, using mostly (if not totally) computer generated routers, benders, saws, and shapers. Likely the only time true craftsmanship (by hand) steps in, is when the guitar is finally placed in its case.
Electric Guitar Construction
Q: My friend told me his Strat has a “1 piece body”. You could see it through the finish. The whole body was made from just a single slab of wood. Does this make a difference in the tone? He said he paid extra for this feature.
A: I have heard many excellent electric guitars – some 50 years old, some brand new. I’ve made some 1 piece bodies and some 4 piece bodies. When I was the sales manager of a large Pacific-Northwest neck and body manufacturer, we had this debate going on and one of the guys in the shop made a Tele out of about 35 thin strips of swamp ash. I mean it looked worse than any cutting board I had ever seen. But when he finished all the woodworking and routing and we assembled the sucker and put a neck on it and all the parts – it sounded great. You could never tell in a million years it wasn’t one piece of wood or 30. Some guitars just sound good, and some never will.
Q: No matter what I have done to my fender, it doesn’t feel like my Gibson. I have the same pickups in both, and have had the same repairman work on both. As far as the setup is concerned, they’ve had the same adjustments but the Strat just doesn’t feel like the Les Paul. What’s up?
A: Many pro players don’t understand the main significant difference between a Strat and a Les Paul (besides the wood, besides the pick ups, besides the bolt-on neck vs the glue-on neck, etc.). All that aside, the real differences the guitarist will always feel is the difference between the two scale lengths. The Strat is 25 1/2 inches; the les Paul is 24 3/4 inches. This doesn’t seem like a lot but believe me, it makes all the difference in the world in the feel and sound. And let’s not forget, most-many Strats have a fretboard radius of 7.25 inches, (very ovaled) and Gibsons generally have a 12 inch radius (quite a bit flatter).
Q: My Strat has a humbucker in the bridge position and it still doesn’t sound like the one in my Les Paul. Both guitars have the same pickup, but they still don’t sound the same.
A: Again, the main difference is that old scale length difference. There is more string on a Strat for the pickup to “hear”. Additionally, the distance of the string from the bridge to the actual pickup will likely be different. All else being equal, unless you have a special humbucker, the strings on a normal humbucker won’t line up with the Strat string spacing and the strings wont pass over to the pole pieces.
Acoustic Guitar Setup
A: If your guitar hasn’t been to a qualified guitar repairman/Luthier, it’s likely you’re in need of basic adjustments. Most, if not all, guitars (especially acoustic) need to have the neck, truss rod, nut, and saddle all adjusted together to make for the best playing action. Nearly all the guitars that come in to my shop are in need of a SET-UP, regardless of their price/quality. We simply say, we can make your instrument play better – we GUARANTEE IT!
Q: My acoustic guitar won’t play in tune. I tune it so it sounds good in a G cord but when I play an E, it sounds awful! I don’t get it, it’s a quality solid top guitar and it wasn’t cheep. How do I get it in tune?
A: The first thing to determine is has the important SET-UP ADJUSTMENTS been made by a qualified repairman/luthier??? If this hasn’t been done, an accurate assessment cannot be made. After a quality SET-UP, the next thing to do would be to temporarily attach a transducer to the guitar’s bridge or top, and plug the guitar in to a strobe tuner. I have used the CONN STROBESCOPE, as I feel an analog machine works best for accurate diagnostics of the true problem. With this in place, one can test string by string at the 12th fret and show which strings aren’t in tune with the octave harmonic. If you notice, all steel string guitars have a bridge saddle that is slotted. That favors and adds extra length on the bass side of the saddle. Also, if your strings are old, it will be impossible for your guitar to play in tune.
Q: My guitar teacher says that my guitar’s action is too low and when it’s played hard, it buzzes. When I play my guitar it feels just fine and I never get any buzzing. Should I have my guitar adjusted?
A: Guitar teachers can be very helpful in assessing your guitar’s action and make the proper recommendations to you. The important thing to remember is, if your guitar feels comfortable to you and it is not buzzing when you play, it may be just fine. Your teacher’s touch and attack may be different from yours (which is likely, especially if he (or she) has been playing for years) and his action requirements are certainly different from yours. In other words, what’s right for you will likely not be what’s right for your teacher. When in doubt, always consult a trusted guitar repairman/luthier.
A: Your guitar’s quality will somewhat determine what gauge strings to use on your acoustic guitar. Generally (but not always) a less expensive student grade guitar will not be able to withstand the tension of a string heavier that a light or an extra light gauge. If you look, you will find out that the string manufacturers call a light gauge electric string set “010 to 046”, while the same manufacturer may call “11 to 50” a light gauge set for acoustic. Does this matter? You bet is does. First, heavier strings will always “drive” the spruce top better; a fatter string will give more tension and sound better and louder. But if you have a cheaper guitar, it may not be happy with this higher tension and cause structural problems. Generally, bronze or brass (that golden-brown color) strings will give the fattest, fullest tone for an acoustic guitar. They are designed to ring-out more, and every string maker has his own metal formula for tone. The silver-nickel strings that are used for electric can be used on acoustic guitar, but they will certainly have a softer, less twangy tone and are generally not used. When In doubt, show your instrument to a qualified repairman.
A: There are a couple of basic kinds of pickups for acoustic guitars. One of the oldest styles of pickup is the kind that fits in the soundhole and just plugs straight into an amp. This kind of pickup works fine, but really doesn’t sound like a true acoustic guitar because the pickup (being very much like a pick up in a standard electric guitar) just picks up what the strings are doing. The second most popular style is the transducer, which generally fits carefully under the guitars saddle. As the saddle is pushed down on the pickup, the pressure creates a little electric charge. This charge is fed into some simple preamp (either internally or externally) and then this signal goes to the sound system. The transducer generally sounds very much like your acoustic guitar and is generally preferred by professional and enthusiast guitarists. It can sound exactly like your acoustic guitar, only louder.
Solid Wood Top
A: The main distinction between quality professional guitars and student instruments is this important difference. The top of the guitar (other names are the face, table, soundboard – it’s the front part with the sound hole and the pickguard) when made of solid spruce (or in some classicals, cedar) has the best tone. It can be hard to tell, but solid spruce means that one thick piece, about 1/4 inch thick, is split down the middle (see fig. 1). These 2 pieces of spruce are then joined in the middle (see fig.2) and this virtually makes one symmetrical vibrating plate. It’s like when you throw a stone in a pond. The waves (or sound vibrations) move evenly from the middle out to the edges. This type of top is what is used in ALL quality guitars. Additionally all guitars made with solid spruce will always and forever improve in tone with regular playing. Student guitars have tops made of laminate woods (a polite way of saying plywood, kind of like what’s used to roof your house). No, they don’t actually use roofing woods (I hope), but this is the style of construction that is cheaper, easier, and will never sound good. One reason is because the TOP (or FACE) is one of the major sound-producing elements of a quality acoustic guitar.
A: I have refinished several acoustic guitars for customers and some of my personal Martins. I was afraid, like you, that it would alter the sound in a bad way. After I had refinished the tops with lacquer that I got from Martin guitars, the Martins did sound a bit duller, not as bright as they once were. It didn’t sound bad, just a bit muffled. I played them all the time, and after about one year, I’m certain the guitars came back to exactly where they once were before I refinished them. I once refinished an Ovation face, which is polyester, and since lacquer is much more flexible, the Ovation sounded much, much better with lacquer on the top instead of polyester.
Humidity / Moisture / Heat
A: To paraphrase the late, venerable Irving Sloan’s quote from his book Steel String Guitar Construction, “a guitar built in an atmosphere where the relativity humidity level is about 65% most of the time, will survive well in that atmosphere. If it is removed abruptly to a relative humidity of 20%, it will surely crack after enough moisture has been lost”. “Ideally, a guitar should be built in an atmosphere containing less moisture than the atmosphere in which it will most commonly be used because swelling (the absorption of atmospheric moisture) is a less serious hazard than shrinkage.”
Q: After a few months, my new guitar’s frets started feeling sharp along the edges of the fretboard. At first I thought it was my imagination, but when I let my friend play my guitar, he mentioned it too. Did the factory put in frets that are too long along the fretboard’s edges? Why do the frets seem to be sticking out?
A: Again, this question deals with moisture, humidity, and the drying of wood before the guitar is constructed. Years ago American guitar manufacturers had the ability to make their new guitars out of wood that was likely air-dried. This means that the wood was set out and left to dry to its own equilibrium. When drying and aging wood this way, there will be much less shrinkage in the finished product. When the American production guitar manufacturers started increasing their quantity of guitars due to the big new demand of the early 1960’s, they relied more and more on wood kiln-dried, a process which speeds up the drying process (hopefully). Consider this: all violin makers who sell their contemporary works for thousands of dollars will not use wood that has not been air-dried for at least 10 years. Your new production guitar is likely made with kiln-dried wood and to take the best care of it you may need additional humidity. Always have your guitar examined by a professional repairman/luthier.
Q: I was playing my guitar around a campfire, as it was pretty cold outside. The next morning I noticed a lot of little lines on the face of my guitar. They don’t look like cracks, but the finish is all messed up! I’m really unhappy. Could this have happened from getting too close to the fire?
A: Yes. Getting too close to a campfire (or any serious heat source) can cause the face of your guitar to get hot enough to bubble the lacquer or cause cracking or crazing of the finish. This is caused as the spruce top expands more than the actual coating (lacquer) will allow.
Acoustic Guitar Construction
A: Inside of your quality guitar’s top is a super-structure of spruce braces that generally keep the guitar’s top from collapsing and add to tone of the guitar. Scalloping involves removing wood from specific areas to lighten up the weight and strength of the top, making it more flexible. Prior to the mid 1940’s, Martin used scalloped braces on its’ guitars. For many years production guitar makers did not scallop the braces on their guitars due to excessive top distortion and warrantee work. When I build my custom acoustic guitars, I carefully examine the requirements of the customer and his power and tone needs before I decide whether or not to scallop the braces.
Q: On my acoustic guitar I was wondering what type of glue it is built with.
A: Almost all electric and acoustic guitars are assembled with aliphatic resin (Titebond) or epoxy. Titebond generally sounds more acoustically transparent.
Q: I saw a guitar with a lot of inlay on the fretboard, on the body, and the headstock. It looks real fancy. My friend says it makes the guitar sound better. Is this true?
A: I have made several guitars with fancy inlays all over the front, back, neck, sides, you name it. From experience, the amount of inlays has nothing to do with the sound of the guitar.
Q: My friend said his guitar has the new stainless steel frets. He said the guitar sounds brighter and the frets will last forever. Should I have this done to my guitar?
A: I have refretted several guitars and basses both acoustics and electrics and, other than being somewhat harder on my tools, I can’t tell any difference in sound or wear. Mostly, it is just another issue to debate. Nickel silver fretwire is pretty hard!
A: A rosewood or ebony bridge glued to the spruce top can separate as time goes by. This in itself is not serious, but should be repaired promptly. If left unrepaired, the separation will get worse, causing your guitar to lose tone and volume as well as possible distorting of the top. Additionally, I have noticed that many acoustic guitars have the saddle in the wrong spot, and for it to be correct, the bridge actually has to be moved further back (when the intonation is off, moving it back is the most common). As the bridge comes loose from the top, the bridge no longer acts effectively as a transducer of energy and will help to distort the top. Since the bridge on an acoustic guitar does a major vibration thing to the spruce top, separation at this point needs to be repaired. There are thousands of older Gibson L-G-1’s & L-G-O’s out there with actual PLACTIC BRIDGES (not just the saddle, the entire bridge). When these are replaced with real ebony bridges, A MAJOR IMPROVEMENT IN TONE WILL OCCUR! Did this for Robin Wilson (of the GIN BLOSSOMS). He regularly records with this ax.
Q: My older Gibson acoustic guitar has a fancy style bridge with inlays, and it’s a shape that is unlike most I’ve seen. Trouble is that the bridge has split in half and is coming off the guitar. I’ve gone to different shops but they don’t know what to do. Everybody says it can’t be fixed. I called the factory and they said they may not have the correct bridge for my specific instrument and I need a custom-made one. Do you have any experience with this?
A: The trick is to have the proper tools to make an exact replica of whatever style bridge that was on your guitar. At Beck’s, we specialize in fabricating unusual bridge shapes, like most of the ones seen on Gibson Doves and Gibson Heritage models. We will make you an exact replica with the correct mother-of-pearl-inlays, glue it on, and it will be better than new and retain your instruments value.
High-end / Vintage
Q: After owning several inexpensive guitars over the years, I have saved the money for a high-end American solid wood acoustic guitar. Can I expect my new purchase to go up in value? Should I buy a vintage guitar? What is considered a vintage guitar? How old does a guitar have to be to be vintage?
A: If you examine the retail price of quality acoustic guitars over the past 25 years, you’ll find the price of a basic guitar to be significantly higher today. I’m often asked about the quality of today’s new guitars. Many vintage guitars have gone way up in value and would have been better than “money in the bank”. Years ago when I first started repairing acoustic and electric guitars for professionals, many of the repairs I performed were general maintenance, wear and tear, fixing worn frets etc. The guitars from the ’50’s, ’60’s and into the ’70’s were being made well and performed to the standards in which they were intended. Quite simply, they were better made with more attention to detail. Unquestionably the wood that was available was older and of higher quality. This certainly can be seen in the reflection of the vintage guitar market where rarity, utility, and quality drive the market. As more people entered the guitar playing arena, guitarists started to notice that the newer guitars didn’t look, sound or play as good as the older models. To top that, the older guitars could be purchased for less money. It was supply and demand that helped drive the price of old Les Pauls and Strats up. I can clearly remember selling a 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul in 1985 for $8,500.00. Today the same guitar on e-bay could fetch $50,000. I still have the receipt from buying a 1959 Gibson dot neck ES335 from a pawnshop for $200. I was working the kitchen-help circuit making $40 bucks a week, so $200 was a good chunk of change for a kid. I must confess, I’m old enough to recall when gasoline was 27.9 cents a gallon and Marlboros were only about 40 cents a pack. Even though this information about myself dates me, I have been collecting, disassembling, reassembling, photographing, researching, documenting, dating, and last but not least, professionally repairing, servicing, and just fixing guitars for a long time (well over 25 years as my business). Twenty-five years ago, there were no books or videotapes on the subject of guitar repair. I feel proud to have helped pioneer many currently used repairing and refretting techniques. I’m proud of my customers and the talented guitarists who continue to use me. If you’re searching for a repairman with integrity, skill, knowledge, and the right tools, please visit me!