Photo 1 — By elongating the screw holes (right) on this modern Waverly tuner, it can be used to replace a set of old gears with a different screw-hole spacing. This makes drilling new holes into the headstock of an old Martin an unnecessary evil.

“But is it original?”

This question is raised about everything in, on, and around a vintage guitar, from tuners to tailpieces to all parts in between. For those who play their vintage guitar only casually, acquiring the exact match for a missing tuner can be a fun treasure hunt. For guitarists who want their older instrument to play as well as a new one, the quest is often more problematic. How can you improve the function of your vintage guitar without compromising its originality, and thus its value? Just because those lightweight WWII-era tuners are original doesn’t mean they allow you to tune effectively, and you can’t plead originality when your jam mates are always waiting on you. There are some solutions that involve only a small compromise, but sometimes the very best solutions for the serious player require some real “play or preserve” decisions.

It’s unfortunate that some of the most desirable guitars come from periods when the metal parts on those instruments—tuners and tailpieces, for example—were not of the same quality as the woodworking. During the 1930s, this was often due to an attempt to keep prices down on lower models during the Great Depression. A few years after that, war-time restrictions meant higher-model Gibsons and Martins were often equipped with flimsy parts that wouldn’t be found on even the cheapest imports today.

The conflict between originality and function often goes beyond the instruments themselves. Demand for original cases (and the importance of keeping one, no matter how flimsy) brings up an interesting dilemma for those whose living accommodations do not include lots of unused square footage. Sure, you were delighted the original chipboard case came with your vintage J-45, but you’re probably not going to carry your $5,000 guitar around in it. And when you buy a real hardshell case, you then have to store the old one. In many climates, storage in a basement or garage won’t do that cute and old cardboard case any favors. If you have two or three (or more) vintage guitars with original cases, even a modest guitar collection can take up a lot of space. So what do you do? Only collect guitars that are all the same size so you just need one modern case that actually gets used?

“War-time restrictions meant higher-model Gibsons and Martins were often equipped with flimsy parts that wouldn’t be found on even the cheapest imports today.”

The tuners on old acoustics are the component that is most likely to prompt vintage-guitar enthusiasts—at least those who are also players—to “go modern.” That said, adding extra screw holes to the back of a headstock can be a major turn-off to future buyers, so it’s a wise move to save the original gears and add better ones without leaving a trace. Thankfully, you can do just that with a little extra effort. Waverly, Gotoh, and other tuner manufacturers produce excellent 12:1 ratio open-back tuners that are essentially contemporary knockoffs of the iconic Grover G-98s—the tuners gracing the headstocks of some of Martin’s and Gibson’s best models during the “golden age” of American steel-string guitar production.

Alas, not all Grover tuners that look like G-98s are of the same high quality. Early Grover versions used on 16" Gibson L-5 models and on Martin’s 1932/’33 OMs have only a 6:1 ratio, and often have cogs that are soldered in place and can’t be adjusted. Such tuners can frustrate anyone who’s grown accustomed to smooth-turning sealed tuners with a 12:1 ratio, such as Schallers and similar modern-guitar gears.

Many of the single-unit tuners Martin used on its lower models do not have the same spacing for the mounting screws as newer tuners, but as you can see in Photo 1, there is a modification to the new tuner plates that will allow you to use the new gears without adding more holes to the back of your vintage guitar’s headstock. While the elongated holes on the new tuner plates are visible when the gears are installed, the screwhead still tightly grips the modified gear and you have modern functionality for your vintage guitar (Photo 2). On top of that, you still have the option to remove the new tuners and re-install the originals should you wind up selling the instrument to a “gotta be original” buyer.

Photo 2 — Shown here is the altered Waverly tuner alongside the original tuners which no longer function smoothly.
Waverly offers this same gear with oval-celluloid buttons, making a full set an authentic-looking solution for this
vintage Martin 000-18.

By slightly relieving the edges of the backing plates of the new gears as well (where they come in contact with the headstock), there’s little chance there will be any telltale scars. Similar slotted mounting holes can be used for tailpieces on archtops. Especially during WWII, some archtops were shipped with cheesy lightweight-steel tailpieces that have often succumbed to rust, or pot-metal castings that weren’t up to the job. While you may be able to eventually find the right tailpiece in good condition, you might as well enjoy your guitar during the search by using a new, modified version.

Whether an old guitar in need of improvement is an acoustic or an electric, this is now the formula that the vintage-guitar market’s obsession with originality requires: Improve if you must, but be sure the instrument can be returned to stock specifications with no sign of previous upgrades. As for the question of whether that original, moldy cardboard case is worth keeping, however, you’re on your own.