Does Factory Fresh Mean Ready to Play?
Top techs share their tips, tweaks, and onstage product development for brand-spankin’-new guitars.
Music styles have changed over the decades, and have generally intensified to a point where the rigors of performing live have become a contact sport. The hallmark of rock music has always been its over-the-top, live-presentation muscle, but as concert and club shows gained theatric power, sometimes the instruments weren’t up to the task. So, I decided to ask a couple high-profile techs about the state of the guitar on the road.
Mike Hickey is a veteran of decades of rock ’n’ roll, both as a performer and a technician. Most recently, he’s been Joe Bonamassa’s right-hand man onstage. Known for keeping Bonamassa’s arsenal of vintage guitars in shape, I asked him about his experience with newer guitars on the road. Hickey said, “I find they often need more truss-rod adjustments on a regular basis. This is most likely due to the newer wood used, which hasn’t had the last 50-plus-years to stabilize like the old-growth wood of the vintage guitars.” This is an interesting point that doesn’t get discussed much, as the emphasis on “old wood” is its supposedly superior tone qualities. When pushed about the quality of modern hardware, Hickey pointed out that vintage instruments are worn in and less likely to have problems. “Another generalized repair that comes up with new instruments is needing to file the bridge saddles to prevent string breakage,” he said.
Tuning stability is always important, both live and in the studio. In fact, it might be the tech’s most important job. So how does Hickey make certain his boss gets a guitar that’s in tune when he hands it off? “Lately, I have noticed with split-shaft posts on Fender-type instruments that I am getting some slipping on the 2nd and 1st strings,” he said. “This happens when I do the traditional loading of the strings into the center hole of the split shaft. To combat this, I thread the 2nd and 1st strings around the post as if it was a standard-style non-split shaft.” In the same way that new tuners and bridges might present problems with sharp edges, Hickey reasons that new nut slots need filing and smoothing since they’re not always fully tested at the factory. “We also lubricate the passage of the strings at that point,” he says.
When I asked if there’s a weak link on guitars in general, Hickey pointed to the break angle of strings on wraparound bridges and tailpieces. “I add an additional ball end on the strings to keep the main part of the string at the break point on the back of the tailpiece,” he revealed.
According to Hickey, the control pots are one place where new guitars can outshine an old one. “Sometimes we need to spray some cleaner into the potentiometers if we have a vintage guitar that has been sitting for a while. Not much can be done except to soldier on and get through the song with a bit of crackle! Sometimes you may see Joe whacking the knobs on his ES-335 while looking over to me laughing during a show!”
Drew Foppe’s resume is as varied as they come. He’s provided his services for artists as diverse as the Smashing Pumpkins, the Deftones, and Shakira. I posed the same question about new guitars to him, and he revealed similar thoughts to Hickey’s. “I usually end up improving on guitars right off the store wall or shipped out directly from a factory,” he says. “Most of the time, all that is required is a simple truss-rod and intonation adjustment.”
Although frets are one of the most important contributions to a guitar’s feel, Foppe isn’t always impressed. “I’ve been finding more and more guitars needing fretwork right out of the box.” Tuning issues are also a point of contention for Foppe. “First thing is you need a guitar that stays in tune. There are some companies that use garbage hardware that makes it hard to keep their guitars in tune, but it also helps keep their price point down. So, I get it, but some of it just isn’t made to last more than a couple shows.”
Like Hickey, Foppe isn’t a fan of factory spec nuts. “Second thing I check is the nut,” he says. “If a guitar ships with a plastic nut, I like to replace it immediately with a bone nut.” One bonus about a new factory-made guitar is that modifications aren’t going to necessarily devalue it. “Of course, you are never going to get a Les Paul to sound like a Strat, and vice-versa,” Foppe concludes, “but people still try. If you are limited to only having one or two guitars on stage, you can coil-tap humbuckers, wire pickups in series/parallel, or even create different pickup combinations.” In the end, Foppe concedes that the boss is always right. “Either way, you have to make any and all necessary adjustments to every instrument to the exact specs of what the artist wants.”