Louis Electric

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more... GearHow-TosJuly 2008

New Sound, Old Guitar

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New Sound, Old Guitar
A near-mint
Gibson B-45 12-string.
A bad bridge.
Lots of potential.


John Southern embarks on a grand project to save a classic.


This adventure started out innocently enough. I had always wanted a Gibson 12-string with a Cherry Sunburst finish. I had cruised eBay for months, looking for the best combination of color, condition and the dubious option of an adjustable bridge. I found a nice pin bridge model, but the owner wanted $2500 for it and wouldn’t budge on the price. A price guide said maybe $2200 at the top-end and an inquiry to a well known authority on vintage guitars said that the value was, in fact, diminishing annually on vintage Gibson 12-strings. This gave me cause for concern, but I persevered.

Finally I came across a trapeze tailpiece model that had literally been under a guy’s bed for 35 years. The color was primo and the guitar had no major issues except for the dreaded, original adjustable bridge. I had read the book Gibson’s Fabulous Flat-Top Guitars by Eldon Whitford, David Vinopal and Dan Erlewine; in the section on the B-45 12-string they go into detail about how the early-sixties pin bridge models had the light top bracing of the late-fifties designs. This lighter bracing allowed for more top “flutter,” providing more projection and tone, but with the dainty bracing came the problem of structural instability. Most of the early pin bridge models selfdestructed, especially when tuned to standard pitch. They alluded to a few hardcore fans who had converted trapeze tailpiece models to the pin bridge versions – this was possible because the interior bracing was still the same as Gibson’s previous pin bridge model.

Not to be dissuaded from a Cherry Sunburst 12-string, I made a deal with “Jimmy the sound guy,” with each of us agreeing to drive 400 miles and meet in the middle in Saint Louis, Missouri to do the deal – $1500 for his rare Gibson B-45 12-string.

Not surprisingly, the sound of a guitar played over a cell phone is not a good representation of the actual box. After six hours of driving, when Jimmy proudly pulled the little jewel out of its case, my eyes lit up. Unfortunately, after the first strum, my heart sank. I had never heard such a pathetic sounding guitar in my life – a cigar box with strings stretched across it would have had better tone! But Jimmy drove four hours and I drove six and the darned thing was pretty. I had some experience in voicing the bracing under guitar tops, as I had put a solid bone saddle on my 1967 J-45 with good results. So reluctantly, with a good-sport-smile on my face and a sense of dread in my heart, I headed home with possibly the worst sounding guitar I had ever heard, much less purchased.

After arriving home, I called my friend and fellow luthier, Greg Krochman at Classic Axe in Nashville to regroup and appraise my situation. He advised me that if he were repairing the guitar he would make a pin bridge and add a “Bridge Doctor.” The JLD Bridge Doctor is made in Roswell, New Mexico, by my new best friend Don Kendall. It is essentially a threaded dowel through a wooden base that has two contact points under the bridge of a guitar; one contact point is under the saddle and the other is screwed into the underside of the ebony or rosewood bridge top and covered with a pearl dot or wooden plug. Once in place the dowel is threaded up against the block at the bottom inside of the guitar.

When Don learned of my plight, he was more than helpful. We tossed ideas back and forth and he sent me a Bridge Doctor which unfortunately didn’t fit under the cluster of 12 bridge pins. I must say his design has merit and is simple and easy to apply in most situations.

If my guitar hadn’t produced a promising “thump” on the top when I hit it with the side of my thumb, I likely would have just given up and sold it. It wasn’t until my friend Mark Hanna said, “You are the only hope this guitar will ever have,” that I became determined to save it.


Preparations
New Sound, Old Guitar
Photo 1: A look at the original bracing pattern
I first needed to see what I was up against. To see the bracing inside, I came up with a small lightbulb on the end of a power cord. I placed it on a piece of tinfoil on top of a wash cloth and set it inside the guitar in the center of the bout with a CD taped over the hole. Voila! I could now see the bracing pattern lit from inside. I took a 30 second time-exposure photo with the camera on a tripod, inside an almost dark room [Photo 1].

New Sound, Old Guitar
Photo 2: The footprint of the new pin bridge
I also needed a new bridge. I called Heritage Guitars in Kalamazoo, who just happened to have a 1960s bridge which I bought sight unseen for $35 plus shipping. The bridge turned out to be made of mahogany (not rosewood like the original) and about 3/4” too short on either side to cover the footprint of my original bridge [Photo 2].

The next step was to make a new bridge out of rosewood. Since I had decided to keep the adjustable bridge option, I needed a template for the exact shape and measurement of the adjustable bridge saddle, too. For this template I turned to an old friend: Silly Putty. After removing the adjustable ebony saddle, I placed the Silly Putty inside the hole and pressed down, working it into the hole [Photo 3]. After carefully removing the putty I could measure the length and width of the cavity.

I then went in search of a large piece of solid bone for the saddle. After making a trip to my local butcher, I returned home with my trophy. I carefully boiled the bone in salt water, then baked it in the oven at 350 degrees for the better part of an hour. Unfortunately the inner and outer layer of bone separated while cooling, so I called my buddy Greg at Classic Axe again and gave him my needed dimensions. He then sent me the biggest piece he had, along with some laminated material to fill in the inner curve.
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