Whether you want to tech for a touring band, open a repair shop, or simply maintain your own instruments, there are important things to consider before stepping into the world of 6-string repair.
Okay, you love guitar ... some folks might claim you're obsessed with it. Maybe you're a weekend warrior or even play in a touring band. When you're not gigging, however, the big question arises: How do I parlay my passion for the instrument into an activity that can support me? Of course, one option is to teach guitar independently or through a local music store or institution. Or you can work in music retail. But for those with the requisite skills and determination, there is another path: become a professional guitar tech.
As with any serious undertaking, this takes study, patience, and a lot of experience and expertise. But if you consider how many millions of guitars are out there and the legions of owners who need their instruments set up, repaired, or restored, there's plenty of work for the qualified tech. Whether you hit the road to tech with a band or decide to open up your own shop, caring for guitars and basses can provide you with a way to stay involved with the world of music while making ends meet. And even if you don't want to turn pro, guitar repair can make a great hobby—a way to tend your own instruments and help out your friends.
If you consider how many millions of guitars are out there and the legions of owners who need their instruments set up, repaired, or restored, there's plenty of work for the qualified tech.
Is this right for you? Let's explore 12 things you'll need to understand and master as a guitar tech. After absorbing this overview, you'll be able to answer that question for yourself. I'll describe what to expect if you have a shop where customers come to you for everything from small jobs to major repairs. If you decide to tour as a tech, the basic principles remain the same, though your workbench and tools will have to be streamlined by necessity. On the road, you'd be primarily doing setups backstage before each show, rather than the repairs, mods, and restorations that are the bread-and-butter of a shop.
The Value of Training
Advancing your career as a professional guitar technician requires many different elements, but it begins with having the proper training. For many years, I've taught guitar repair and restoration classes at the Guitar Services Workshop near Nashville, with an emphasis on preparing students for the demands of professional customer service. Some technical two-year colleges offer degree and certificate programs in guitar repair, and there are a handful of private schools across the country—including the Galloup School of Guitar Building and Repair, run by PG's Acoustic Soundboard columnist Bryan Galloup—that provide valuable training. Working as a luthier's apprentice is another time-honored means of acquiring essential skills, but the shortest path to a guitar-tech career is to successfully complete a course offered by a school or workshop that focuses on repair, and in the process earn some type of recognized certification.
Keep in mind that developing your physical skills is just one part of the training: Guitar repair also requires strong analytical abilities. For example, it's critical to know what procedure to do first, based on the construction and physics of the guitar, and how this first step will affect each subsequent one. Correctly evaluating the condition of the guitar involves tuning it, taking measurements, and inspecting it for any damage or defects. For acoustic and hollowbody guitars, you must always examine the braces and other interior components, looking for cracks, separations, and other types of damage. If you find any structural problems, they must be repaired first. Again, understanding how to evaluate a guitar before you begin any work is a fundamental part of your training. A skilled instructor can show you how to do this based on decades of hands-on experience.
Essential Tools and Materials
I always encourage students to write out a "plan of action" before they begin any procedure. Once you've done this, it's time to gather the tools, materials, and supplies necessary to complete the project. Here's a list of what you'll need to have available before starting a repair:
- As you can see, that's a lot of tools, supplies, and materials. One final word of advice: Always be sure you have what you need before jumping into a project. This gives you a much better chance of success than just winging it.
Doing excellent repair work is only part of our job. Providing great customer service is one of the primary keys to success, and a top repair tech also has solid customer service skills. This requires honesty, diplomacy, and having "the heart of a teacher." It's not about scoring a sale just for the sake of a few dollars. Rather, it's about educating your customers and suggesting what is best for them and their instruments. For example, you need to explain the importance of temperature and humidity control to your clients, because they are two of the leading causes of damage to any guitar.
You don't need a big shop to do great work, but you need enough room to accommodate workbenches, equipment, storage, and your customers. Over the years, I've had shops sized from 80 up to 1,000 square feet, but 400 square feet is ample for a repair shop. It may sound small, but you can configure it to handle almost any project. A smaller space gives you the ability to easily control the temperature and humidity. I cannot emphasize enough how critical temperature and humidity control are to doing excellent repairs. If you ignore this in your shop, your work will suffer.
A professional guitar tech uses many tools—some common, others highly specialized. This is one of the biggest expenses associated with diving into guitar repair.
A pro setup consists of a series of adjustments to make an instrument play its best for your customer. There are five key elements to a setup:
- Adjusting the truss rod.
- Adjusting the action at the bridge.
- Adjusting the action at the string nut.
- Adjusting the pickups on electric guitars and basses.
- Adjusting the intonation.
If you decide to open up a repair shop, you don't need a huge space. But a mastery of organization and workflow is crucial for success.
This is the order for setting up a guitar correctly. If you make these adjustments in the wrong order, you'll probably have to start over—and perhaps even replace some components.
A guitarist's playing style determines how you adjust the above elements. We all play differently and not all guitars are designed to play the same. To assess our customers' needs, we have to ask them many questions; their answers help us optimize each setup. Here are some of the questions to ask:
- What tuning do you play in?
- What gauge strings do you use?
- What style of music do you play?
- Do you use picks or fingers? What size pick? Fingernails or fingertips?
- Do you use a capo? What kind and how far up the fretboard?
- How do you strum?
- Do you play lead, rhythm, or both?
- Do you use a slide?
- How would you describe your touch?
- Do you control the humidity and temperature where you keep your instrument?
The more you know about an individual's playing style, the easier it is to set up or repair the guitar to match it. And it's worth the extra effort: Once you've mastered bespoke setups, your customers are likely to bring you more guitars to work on.
Whether you deal with the public or tour with a band, you need to be personable. No one wants to hand over their beloved instrument to a grouch.
Excellent fretwork demands quality tools, steady hands, and attention to detail. Much like professional musicians rely on ear training, we guitar techs rely on "eye training." Every aspect of refretting a neck requires training your eyes to recognize fine details. A mistake of as little as 1/1000" can sour a great refret.
The first step is to identify any defects in the fretboard. I recommend evaluating the guitar both with and without string tension. Look for inconsistencies along the fretboard, such as:
- Excessive forward bow with the truss rod tightened.
- Excessive backward bow with the truss rod loose.
- A twisted fretboard with the truss rod both tight and loose.
- Separation between the fretboard and neck, especially near the string nut.
- Kick-up at the end of the fretboard, which is typically caused by the pickguard, exposure to extreme temperatures or humidity, an incorrect shim, or a manufacturing defect.
An excellent refret always begins with a true fretboard. When the fretboard is sanded correctly, it will be straight and consistent, and its radius will be accurate. If you skip this stage of the process, chances are the frets will be inconsistent.
If you know how to expertly refret a guitar and make it play like butter, you'll soon have a loyal customer base.
Installing the new frets correctly will also save time and materials. Always measure the tang and barbs on the new and old frets to avoid forcing a backward bow or installing loose frets. Whether you press or hammer in the frets, make sure they're seated flush to the 'board. Watch for any part of the fret popping up, either at the ends or in the middle. This will happen if the fret slots are not cut deep enough or if the tang on the new frets is too narrow. Consider sealing in the frets with ultra-thin super glue, especially if the guitar will be exposed to fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
Dressing the frets is the final stage of a refret. This is where eye training is critical: The goal is to remove the least amount of fretwire while making the frets smooth, polished, and perfectly level. Here's the process:
- Bevel the fret ends to keep them tight and flush to the end of the fretboard or binding.
- Round and corner the fret ends to eliminate any sharp edges.
- Level the frets to each other by sanding or filing them to prevent any high or low spots.
- Recrown the frets with a special file to create a very narrow point of contact between the top of the fretwire and the strings.
- Scrape the fretboard to remove any excess glue and tool marks in the wood.
- Polish the frets to remove any tool marks and make them shine.
One of the most common tasks a guitar tech will be expected to execute: correctly shaping string slots in the nut to control the height of open strings and avoid binding and buzzing.
The goal is to have frets that feel smooth and provide accurate intonation with no string rattle or dead spots. For a detailed description of fret dressing, read " Squeezing More Life Out of Worn Frets."
Wiring guitars is an essential guitar-tech service. To qualify as a pro, you must:
- Understand how all types of pickups work, including under-saddle piezos, passive and active magnetic single-coils and humbuckers, soundboard transducers, and onboard microphone systems.
- Know the color codes for each brand of pickup and how to handle 2-, 3-, and 4-lead harnesses.
- Learn various wiring configurations for magnetic single-coil and humbucker pickups, such as coil-tap, reverse wind/reverse polarity (RWRP), in/out of phase, and series/parallel.
- Anticipate potential problems when mixing different brands of pickups, and know how to solve them.
- Be able to identify output jacks—mono, stereo, switching, and TRS.
- Know how switches work—toggle, blade, push/pull, push/push, rotary, and slide.
- Understand potentiometer types and the appropriate values for volume and tone controls.
- Know capacitor types, values, and applications.
- Have professional soldering skills and the ability to neatly organize and secure wires to prevent them from being damaged or interfering with other components.
Tip: Never blow on a hot solder joint. It's always tempting to speed up the cooling process, but the moisture in your breath can enter the joint and cause it to fail. For more details on soldering, read "Tips for Replacing a Strat-Style 5-Way Switch" and "Soldering 101: A Step-by-Step Guide."
Knowing what types of glues are available—and when to use each one—is a fundamental guitar-tech skill.
Neck joints are under constant pressure, compression, and draw. As a result, eventually the angle of the neck needs to be reset for the guitar to play well. This can be as easy as changing shims on a bolt-on or as complex as removing a set neck and re-carving its heel and tenon. Understanding the physics of the guitar you're working on is the key to planning the project. There are different categories of neck joints. Here are six types you'll typically encounter:
- Bolt-on, no glue.
- Bolt-on with glued mortise and tenon.
- Glued mortise and tenon without bolts.
- Dovetail with shims and glue.
- Bayoneted with glue.
- Neck through body.
Neck resets are a common repair that all professional guitar techs should learn and master. Not only is it part of restoring a guitar, but it's a critical factor that determines whether the guitar will be playable or merely a wall hanger. To get a sense of what's involved in a basic reset, check out my Guitar Shop 101 column " How to Shim a Bolt-On Neck."
To assess our customers' needs, we have to ask them many questions; their answers help us optimize each setup.
Repairing Body Cracks
In an acoustic, body cracks are typically caused by low humidity or impact. Unfortunately, body cracks diminish an instrument's value. However, you can limit the amount it's devalued if you treat the crack correctly.
To repair top cracks, techs use deep throat clamps and specialized cauls to ensure the crack closes flush when glued. Repairing side cracks involves powerful rare-earth magnets, spool clamps, and cauls. Back cracks are little more complicated because you can't use any clamps. In this case, you'd use rare-earth magnets and cauls to close up the crack.
Mastering soldering is an essential skill, as is knowing how to interpret a wiring schematic.
When repairing top and back cracks, you need to be aware of the braces. If the crack crosses a brace, it's best to reglue the brace at the same time. You'll need some custom cauls to do this, especially for the back.
Tip: Never rub a bare finger on a crack. This will allow dirt, oil, and sweat to discolor the wood, which can result in poor glue joints and an ugly stain.
Bridges and Bridge Plates
Bridge repairs are another bread-and-butter job for the qualified tech. Often you can address a playability issue with a good setup, but in some cases a bridge has to be replaced. With electric guitars, this typically involves putting new saddles on a fixed or tremolo-style bridge, or replacing a Tune-o-matic-style bridge that has collapsed from years of downward pressure. I describe the latter in " How to Install a New Tune-o-matic Bridge."
For acoustic instruments, you either reglue the original bridge—if it's not cracked or warped—or carve a new one. Carving a bridge is complicated because it involves matching the height, outline, and string spacing of the original, and matching the new bridge's base to the contours of the top. This process takes several hours when you begin with a raw piece of wood. For details on this operation, read John Brown's " Replacing the Bridge on a '74 Gibson Flattop."
The bridge plate plays an important role in the structural integrity of the guitar's top. Over time it wears out and eventually cracks. If the plate is simply worn out, there are ways to restore it. However, if the plate is cracked, it must be replaced. Otherwise, it will eventually crack the bridge and cause braces to fail.
Many repairs, such as regluing a bridge that has lifted on a flattop, requires an intimate knowledge of the guitar's interior, the principles of intonation, and advanced woodworking techniques.
Replacing the bridge plate can take hours, and just removing it requires several specialized tools, cauls, and equipment. Bridges and bridge plate repairs are fairly common in vintage guitars. I recommend you practice these repairs on several inexpensive guitars to develop your skills before attempting to work on a customer's prized instrument.
When a brace fails in an acoustic guitar, it can cause significant damage. Loose or cracked braces can create body cracks, bridge and bridge plate failure, and a dramatic change in the action. In many cases, this can give the false impression that the guitar has a poor neck angle, when the real issue is brace failure that's causing the top to either collapse or belly up. A loose brace can be reglued, but a cracked brace may have to be replaced. Repairing top braces requires deep throat clamps with brace and top cauls. Never over-clamp a brace. This can damage both it and the soundboard.
Broken headstocks are a sad reality. Usually they can be repaired, but occasionally it's a lost cause. If there's enough wood to reglue the headstock, it can be a very successful project. But if the break is too shear, the project may not be cost-effective. When repairing a broken headstock, you need to have enough wood on both the headstock and the neck to hold them together.
Guitarists have a knack for breaking headstocks. If you know how to undo the damage done, word will travel.
At my shop, we first saturate the wood with a 50/50 mix of TiteBond II and water. After cleaning up any excess, we then apply full-strength TiteBond II and clamp the two pieces together. This repair requires custom cauls to prevent damaging the finish and to ensure a solid glue joint. To let the glue completely dry, you'll need to wait 24 to 72 hours before stringing up the guitar.
Build or Repair?
I'll leave you with one final thought. In the world of lutherie, there are two directions you can follow: guitar building and guitar repair. I can tell you from personal experience that it's very difficult to do both. Building requires a lot of equipment, tools, materials, and money. Repair and restoration doesn't require nearly as much to get started. Building guitars can be very satisfying, but it's tough to make a living, especially given the competition. However, as I mentioned at the start of this article, repair and restoration are always in demand. Well-trained professional guitar technicians can make a great living if they work efficiently, effectively, and intelligently. If the idea of becoming a guitar tech resonates with you, your first step is to acquire hands-on training. Tools and materials will flow from there. Good luck!
The silky smooth slide man may raise a few eyebrows with his gear—a hollow, steel-bodied baritone and .017s on a Jazzmaster—but every note and tone he plays sounds just right.
KingTone’s The Duellist is currently Ariel Posen’s most-used pedal. One side of the dual drive (the Bluesbreaker voicing) is always on. But there’s another duality at play when Posen plugs in—the balance between songwriter and guitarist.
“These days, I like listening to songs and the story and the total package,” Posen told PG back in 2019, when talking about his solo debut, How Long, after departing from his sideman slot for the Bros. Landreth. “Obviously, I’m known as a guitar player, but my music and the music I write is not guitar music. It’s songs, and it goes back to the Beatles. I love songs, and I love story and melody and singing, and there was a lot of detail and attention put into the guitar sound and the playing and the parts—almost more than I’ve ever done.”
And in 2021, he found himself equally expressing his yin-and-yang artistry by releasing two albums that represented both sides of his musicality. First, Headway continued the sultry sizzle of songwriting featured on How Long. Then he surprised everyone, especially guitarists, by dropping Mile End, which is a 6-string buffet of solo dishes with nothing but Ariel and his instrument of choice.
But what should fans expect when they see him perform live? “I just trust my gut. I can reach more people by playing songs, and I get moved more by a story and lyrics and harmony, so that’s where I naturally go. The live show is a lot more guitar centric. If you want to hear me stretch out on some solos, come see a show. I want the record and the live show to be two separate things.”
The afternoon ahead of Posen’s headlining performance at Nashville’s Basement East, the guitar-playing musical force invited PG’s Chris Kies on stage for a robust chat about gear. The 30-minute conversation covers Posen’s potent pair of moody blue bombshells—a hollow, metal-bodied Mule Resophonic and a Fender Custom Shop Jazzmaster—and why any Two-Rock is his go-to amp. He also shares his reasoning behind avoiding effects loops and volume pedals.
Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard.
Blue the Mule III
If you’ve spent any time with Ariel Posen’s first solo record, How Long, you know that the ripping, raunchy slide solo packed within “Get You Back” is an aural high mark. As explained in a 2019 PG interview, Posen’s pairing for that song were two cheapos: a $50 Teisco Del Rey into a Kay combo. However, when he took the pawnshop prize onstage, the magic was gone. “It wouldn’t stay in tune and wouldn’t stop feeding back—it was unbearable [laughs].”
Posen was familiar with Matt Eich of Mule Resophonic—who specializes in building metal-body resonators—so he approached the luthier to construct him a steel-bodied, Strat-style baritone. Eich was reluctant at first (he typically builds roundneck resos and T-style baritones), but after seeing a clip of Posen playing live, the partnership was started.
The above steel-bodied Strat-style guitar is Posen’s third custom 25"-scale baritone. (On Mule Resophonic’s website, it’s affectionately named the “Posencaster.”) The gold-foil-looking pickups are handwound by Eich, and are actually mini humbuckers. He employs a custom Stringjoy set (.017–.064 with a wound G) and typically tunes to B standard. The massive strings allow the shorter-scale baritone to maintain a regular-tension feel. And when he gigs, he tours light (usually with two guitars), so he’ll use a capo to morph into D or E standard.
Another one that saw recording time for Headway and Mile End was the above Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt ’60s Jazzmaster, made by Carlos Lopez. To make it work better for him, he had the treble-bleed circuit removed, so that when the guitar’s volume is lowered it actually gets warmer.
"Clean and Loud"
Last time we spoke with Posen, he plugged into a Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature. It’s typically his live amp. However, since this winter’s U.S. run was a batch of fly dates, he packed light and rented backlines. Being in Music City, he didn’t need to go too deep into his phone’s contacts to find a guitar-playing friend that owned a Two-Rock. This Bloomfield Drive was loaned to Ariel by occasional PG contributor Corey Congilio. On the brand’s consistent tone monsters, Posen said, “To be honest, put a blindfold on me and make one of Two-Rock’s amps clean and loud—I don’t care what one it is.”
The loaner vertical 2x12 cab was stocked with a pair of Two-Rock 12-65B speakers made by Warehouse Guitar Speakers.
Ariel Posen’s Pedalboard
There are a handful of carryovers from Ariel’s previous pedalboard that was featured in our 2021 tone talk: a TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Noir, a Morningstar MC3 MIDI Controller, an Eventide H9, a Mythos Pedals Argonaut Mini Octave Up, and a KingTone miniFUZZ Ge. His additions include a custom edition Keeley Hydra Stereo Reverb & Tremolo (featuring Headway artwork), an Old Blood Noise Endeavors Black Fountain oil can delay, Chase Bliss Audio Thermae Analog Delay and Pitch Shifter, and a KingTone The Duellist overdrive.
Another big piece of the tonal pie for Posen is his signature brass Rock Slide. He worked alongside Rock Slide’s Danny Songhurst to develop his namesake slide that features a round-tip end that helps Posen avoid dead spots or unwanted scratching. While he prefers polished brass, you can see above that it’s also available in a nickel-plated finish and an aged brass.
After replacing or upgrading a nut, finish the job with fast-acting cyanoacrylate adhesive.
In my previous column (“Using Super Glue in Guitar Repair”), we explored techniques for using fast-acting adhesive to seat frets and secure a string nut. We’re not quite done with this topic, but before we put super glue to work on another project, please take a moment to review the safety tips I outlined last time around. As I mentioned before, super glue can be your best friend or worst enemy, so before you start slinging the cyano, it’s important to refresh your memory of these crucial dos and don’ts. Right? Thought so.
String nut touch-up.
Super glue is handy for making small repairs to a guitar’s finish. Here’s an example: Most guitars have a little finish at either end of the string nut to create a smooth transition between the edge of the fretboard or binding and the nut itself. But after replacing the string nut—let’s say you’ve upgraded from a plastic nut to one made of bone—there’s usually a small edge or drop off where the nut meets the fretboard (Photo 1). As you may recall from our prior column, super glue is available in a variety of thicknesses. To smooth out the transition between the nut and where it joins the fretboard, you can fill that area using a few drops of medium viscosity or gel-formula super glue.
Make sure the area around the edge of the string nut and binding is absolutely level, because you don’t want the glue to pool on one side of the nut edge and create more work for you later.
But wait, there’s more! It’s common for the binding on older guitars to turn yellow over time. Stewart-MacDonald sells an amber-tinted formula that matches this aged look nicely. (Stew-Mac also offers tinted super glues in white and black, which can come in handy for other finish touch-up projects.) If your guitar has binding, using tinted medium super glue will accomplish two goals: You’ll fill the edges around the ends of the replacement nut and help it blend in with the binding.
Assume the position.
First, place the guitar on its side so the neck is horizontal to the workbench and one end of the nut faces up, the other down. To prevent an electric guitar or bass from tipping over, I use a quick release clamp on the body to stabilize it. Because acoustics have a thicker body, they’ll typically stay in place without a clamp. Balance the guitar on its tuner keys, not the neck, and use books or small boxes to support the guitar as it rests on it side. (In our shop, we use leather bags filled with buckshot for this and other stabilizing tasks.)
Make sure the area around the edge of the string nut and binding is absolutely level, because you don’t want the glue to pool on one side of the nut edge and create more work for you later. A bubble gauge comes in handy here.
Apply the glue.
This is where you don your safety glasses. Once the guitar is stable, put a few drops of super glue on the end of the nut and let it dry (Photo 2). You only need to apply enough glue to cover the side of the nut and binding to build a smooth surface where they join together. A medium formula of glue, which is what we recommend, will take several minutes to dry. If you want to speed up the drying process, you can spray super glue accelerant on it. We’ve used GluBoost and NCF Quick brands in our shop, and they both work great.
Having a well-ventilated workspace will reduce accelerant fumes and minimize eye irritation. At the shop, we run a small fan to keep the air circulating when using super glues and accelerants.
Tip: Accelerants can cause what we call the “Swiss cheese effect.” This happens when you prematurely spray the accelerant on the glue. It causes a chemical reaction that results in the glue bubbling up into a white foam, which forces you to scrape away all the glue and start over. To avoid this, wait several minutes before blasting the glue with an accelerator. A little patience will save you a lot of time.
File it down.
When the glue is dry, use a miniature file to gently file away any excess (Photo 3). Do this carefully to avoid damaging the original finish around the nut and binding. The object of the exercise is to file the glue flush with the nut and binding without disturbing the surrounding surfaces.
Sand and buff.
Next, lightly sand the glue-covered area with 600 grit paper to feather it to the edge of the fretboard or binding (Photo 4). Now gently sand it with 1500 grit paper to smooth out any scratch marks.
Finish this job using extra-fine buffing compound and a polishing cloth (Photo 5). I use Planet Waves Restore for this last stage, but you can find other buffing compounds at auto stores or online.
Now step back and admire your work, which should look similar to Photo 6.
After flipping the guitar over on its opposite side, position and secure it (remember to keep the neck perfectly level), and then repeat the process for the other end of the nut.
And that’s it—another task completed, thanks to super glue.
The fast-acting adhesive can work wonders ... if you know how to handle it safely.
Super glue plays an important role in many types of guitar repair. At our shop, we use it in dozens of ways, but unless you understand its properties and know how to handle it safely, you can wind up in trouble in a matter of seconds. Let’s spend some time exploring super glue and ways to use it effectively in common projects.
Super glue is cyanoacrylate, a fast-acting adhesive commonly referred to as CA glue. You’ll find it marketed under various names—Super Glue, Krazy Glue, Gorilla Glue, Hot Stuff, etc.—and it’s widely used in manufacturing, woodworking, medical, dental, forensic, and automotive fields. Super glue is basically an acrylic resin that dries quickly.
Super glue is sold in various thicknesses that range from “water thin” to a thick gel. It’s important to choose the correct thickness for a given project. For example, thin and ultra-thin formulas flow into tiny spaces and dry instantly, which makes them useful for gluing in a string nut or seating loose frets—two applications we’ll examine in a moment.
A medium formula is great for repairing fretboard cracks. Because it’s thicker, it dries a little slower and this gives you a bit more time to work when you’re fixing split wood.
With the consistency of honey, the thick gel formula works as a gap filler. We also use it to repair chips in polyurethane or UV-cured finishes. Thick super glue can take up to five minutes to dry.
Typically super glue is clear, but Stewart-MacDonald also offers it in both black and transparent amber. We often use these colored super glues in the shop for touch-up projects.
Most super glue manufacturers also sell a spray accelerant that makes drying time nearly instantaneous. Photo 1 shows different types of super glue, as well as spray accelerant and applicator whip tips—small, flexible, hollow extensions that attach to the glue bottle’s nozzle.
When working on a guitar, super glue can be your best friend or worst enemy.
So before we go any further, let’s review the basic rules.
Always wear safety glasses when using super glue. Early in my career I learned the importance of eye protection: After splashing glue in my eyes, I had to dash to the emergency room. Don’t make that mistake.
Never touch your face when you have glue on your fingers. You can remove glue from your fingers using super glue solvent or fingernail polish remover.
Like water, super glue—especially the thin formulas—will accumulate at the lowest elevation, so always position the guitar to prevent the glue from moving away from where you apply it. For example, when touching up the finish on a guitar, make sure that area of the guitar is level. If it’s tilted, the glue will run to the lowest spot and create a mess.
Always have a cotton swab in your hand, ready to remove excess glue. But remember, you have to do this quickly or otherwise the swab can stick to the glue.
A clean applicator tip can make the difference between a job well done and a big mess. Applicator tips make it easy to apply the glue precisely where you want, instead of splashing it all over the guitar, and you can use them as they come or trim them down to whatever size you need. Suppliers like Stewart-MacDonald and All Parts sell applicator tips with their glues. Keep a pack or two on hand so you don’t run out in the middle of a project.
Finally, slow down and pay attention to what you’re gluing. Rushing through a super glue project is a recipe for disaster.
Okay, clear on the rules? Cool—we’re now ready to tackle two projects.
Securing a string nut.
This is one of the most common uses for super glue. Many manufacturers put glue on the bottom of the string nut before setting it in the slot, but I use a different technique. I apply a small amount of ultra-thin or thin formula to the “face” of the nut—the area where it meets the end of the fretboard.
Here’s why: When it’s time to replace the nut, you can more easily remove it and avoid damaging the slot. It’s a way to think ahead to make this project easier for the next tech that has to work on the guitar. If a nut has been glued in from the bottom, removing it can rip pieces of wood out of the slot. Use the 1st and 6th strings to hold down the nut and align it with the fretboard. Then apply one drop of ultra-thin or thin super glue to the face of the nut between the 3rd and 4th strings (Photo 2).
The glue will run along the nut and penetrate the small space between it and the edge of the fretboard. Use a cotton swab to clean up the excess (Photo 3).
Seating a fret.
Drastic changes in temperature and humidity can cause frets to become unseated in rosewood or ebony fretboards. When a fret pops up, I gently tap it down with a fretting hammer, and then seal it with ultra-thin super glue (Photo 4).
Quickly clean up the excess glue with a cotton swab (Photo 5).
And if that doesn’t do the trick, use a razor blade to gently scrape the dried glue off the fretboard (Photo 6).
You can use super glue for many other guitar repairs, so stay tuned for more projects in an upcoming column.
Do the open strings buzz or sound wimpy on your Fender-style guitar? Maybe the problem lies at the headstock.
String trees are tiny and often go unnoticed, but they play a vital role on flat, Fender-style headstocks. Also called string retainers or guides, they secure the first two (or sometimes four) strings between the nut and tuners. Photo 1 shows a guitar configured with two “butterfly" string trees holding down the top four strings.
On both guitar and bass, a string tree's primary function is to provide the correct amount of downward pressure on a string so it doesn't rattle and buzz within its nut slot. This downward pressure also ensures that a string will sustain properly when played open. If an open string isn't securely seated in its slot—essentially pinned down the way you'd press a string against a fret—it won't sound as loud or clear as it should.
Whether or not a guitar or bass requires string retainers is determined by how its headstock is constructed. For example, Gibson headstocks tilt back at an angle from the fretboard, and this angle is sufficient to create the necessary downward pressure to keep strings firmly seated in their slots en route to the tuner posts. By contrast, Strats, Teles, and most other guitars with six-in-a-row tuners have flat headstocks that run parallel to the fretboard. On these headstocks, the strings that have to travel the longest distance from the nut to the tuner posts need hardware to create this essential downward pressure.
A string tree's primary function is to provide the correct amount of downward pressure on a string so it doesn't rattle and buzz within its nut slot.
A string tree's primary function is to provide the correct amount of downward pressure on a string so it doesn't rattle and buzz within its nut slot.
Most of us never think twice about string trees until there's a problem. I've already described one—the rattle or sitar-like buzz that results from insufficient downward pressure behind the nut. But if a string tree creates excessive pressure, this can cause premature wear in the affected nut slots and also create tuning issues. And here's another consideration: If you have a whammy bar, certain types of string trees can interfere with the string returning to pitch after you release the bar.
To summarize, string trees can help or hinder your guitar's performance. Let's take a closer look and discuss ways to deal with potential problems.
Design and construction. String trees come in a variety of materials and styles. Most are metal, like the butterfly, disk, and barrel types found on Fender guitars. The metal trees will work, but if you do a lot of bending or use a whammy bar, you'll probably experience tuning problems. Why? Every time the string changes tension against the tree, the metal-to-metal contact creates friction that can cause the string to hang slightly at this point of contact.
To reduce friction—and thus improve tuning stability—you have two options: use a string tree made from a slippery material such as graphite (Photo 2), or install a string tree with built-in rollers that turn with the string as you bend or use the whammy bar (Photo 3).
Both types of retainers accomplish the goal of reducing metal-to-metal friction. I've had great success with Graph Tech string trees, which are made from a synthetic material impregnated with a Teflon-like lubricant, and roller string trees from All Parts.
What's your angle, man? The amount of downward pressure a string tree creates is determined by its location and how high it sits off the headstock. Assuming an identical location, a lower retainer—one that's close to the headstock—will create a steeper angle between it and the nut than a retainer that sits higher off the headstock. Getting the correct angle is critical for avoiding wear (too steep an angle) or sonic artifacts (too shallow an angle).
For a guitar equipped with a single string tree to hold the 1st and 2nd strings, the angle between the retainer and nut should be about the same as the angle between the nut and 6th-string tuner (Photo 4). For guitars that require a second string tree for the 3rd and 4th strings, the angle should approximate that of the 5th string.
Many string trees sit on a separate post or standoff spacer that determines the retainer's height. The attachment screw passes through this washer-like cylinder and goes into the headstock (Photo 5). When the post is a separate piece from the section that actually holds the strings, you can adjust the retainer's height—thereby controlling the string angle—by inserting a shorter or taller spacer.
If the string angle is too shallow and you have a removable metal or plastic spacer, you can increase the angle buy sanding or filing the spacer to reduce its height. Alternatively, you can substitute a shorter spacer: Electronic supply companies sell standoffs for PC boards, and some enterprising guitarists adapt the ball-ends of bass strings for this purpose. Stacking small washers can work too. Whether you need to go up or down, it shouldn't be too hard to adjust the height of your string tree by either modifying it or swapping it out.
Replacing the string tree. If you opt to upgrade to a roller or graphite retainer, it's a very simple project. All you need is a small or medium tip Philips head screwdriver. Lift the strings out from the retainer, remove it, screw the new one in place, and you're done. You might encounter small variations in screw size and threading, but most manufacturers use a consistent size. You can use your original screw if it's in good condition and fits the new retainer.
First-time installation. If you're installing a string tree on a headstock that's never had one—on a replacement neck, for example—string up the guitar and lay the new tree on the corresponding strings, midway between the nut and closest tuner. Confirm the strings are lined up evenly and then, with the screw in place, press down on the tree so the screw makes a small indentation in the headstock. This indentation should lie exactly between the two strings. Use it as a guide for drilling the mounting screw hole.
Start with a pilot hole, using a very small bit. For the screw hole proper, be sure to choose the correct drill bit—it should be slightly smaller than the screw. Measure everything twice, go slowly, and be careful how deep you drill—you don't want to drill completely through the headstock! Before installing the screw, lubricate its threads with a bar of soap or candle wax.
Inserting a delicate screw into a hard maple headstock requires skill, so don't attempt to install a new string tree unless you have the right tools and experience. If you're unsure about your abilities, take the guitar to a qualified repair tech or luthier.
Goodbye string trees. Some manufacturers offer locking tuners with staggered posts. Intended to create the required string angle on a six-in-line headstock without using string trees, staggered posts start out at a normal height for the 6th string and then gradually reduce height, which puts the shortest post furthest from the nut. Depending on the geometry of your headstock, you may be able to eliminate string trees altogether by using these tuners, but the only way to know for sure is to install them and see if you experience any of the sitar sounds or sustain issues that come from having too shallow an angle on your top strings. In most cases, you probably won't need string trees if you have staggered tuners.