Taking preliminary measurements before starting the mod project.

It’s exciting when an unusual project lands on my workbench, and I always welcome the challenge to solve the unexpected problems that inevitably accompany ambitious rebuilds or upgrades. When a guitar has sentimental value to a client—as was the case with this ’74 Epiphone ET-290 Crestwood—I derive extra satisfaction from a successful outcome.

Some background: Our project guitar is a mid-1970s Japanese Epiphone that was given to the owner by his father, who worked for Norlin Music Corp. at the time. Norlin owned Gibson back then and the Crestwood was one of the models Norlin imported from Japan to round out the Gibson and Epiphone lines. A double-cutaway slab solidbody with dual humbuckers and a bolt-on maple neck, the Crestwood blends elements of an SG and a Strat.

My client played this guitar in his first band, but since then it had languished in the closet for decades. It was time, the owner felt, to bring the Epi back into service, and he was willing to invest in the requisite electronics and hardware to make it stage- and studio-worthy.

A double-cutaway slab solidbody with dual humbuckers and a bolt-on maple neck, the Crestwood blends elements
of an SG and a Strat.

He also had a crazy idea: Add a Bigsby. Until recently, this would have meant drilling holes into the body—a permanent mod I wasn’t keen on doing. But a new product called the Vibramate ($65 street) seemed like it might allow me to install a B5 Bigsby ($168 street) on this Crestwood without drilling any new holes. I was intrigued and we decided to give it a shot. More on this in a moment.

Other planned upgrades included swapping out the stock pickups for a pair of Seymour Duncan Seth Lovers (each $104 street), installing new volume and tone pots, making a new bone nut, and replacing the Tune-o-matic-style bridge, 3-way switch, and output jack.

The owner also wanted to upgrade the tuners, which were not original. The budget keys on the headstock wouldn’t hold their tune and had to be replaced for the guitar to be playable. However, I knew installing pro-quality tuners would require drilling new screw holes and reaming out the post holes. Although the owner wanted to avoid mods that couldn’t be reversed, he felt this was one exception he’d be willing to make.

In the past someone had redrilled the back of the headstock to install the cheap replacement tuners—meaning there were multiple screw holes—so in a sense, the damage had already been done. And as the owner pointed out, it’s not like this Crestwood was a ’59 Les Paul—a sacred relic that couldn’t be touched. So we agreed that since our goal was to bring the guitar back into service, we’d do whatever was required to install better tuners.

Fig. 1. Checking the fit: The aluminum Vibramate mounts to the original stop-tailpiece stud bushings.

Betting on the Bigsby. First I wanted to answer a burning question: Could we install a B5 Bigsby on this guitar? A sturdy aircraft-grade aluminum plate that replaces the stop tailpiece, the Vibramate sits on the face of the guitar and attaches with studs that thread into the existing bushings. The Crestwood’s large pickguard curves almost behind the stop tailpiece, and because we didn’t want to alter the pickguard, I wasn’t sure we’d have enough room to accommodate the Vibramate plate. Amazing! It fit just fine (Fig. 1). So far, so good.

Fig. 2. Confirming the string-break angle before installing the Vibramate and Bigsby.

But before I declared victory and actually installed the B5 Bigsby, I needed to set it on the Vibramate and observe the strings’ break angle as they passed under the rollerbar and up to the bridge saddles. This break angle is important because if it’s too shallow, the strings rattle and lift off the saddles when they’re plucked. Using a 6" precision metal ruler as a guide, I determined the angle was sufficiently steep (Fig. 2). Had it been too shallow, I would have had to reset the neck angle using a full-pocket shim—a big job.