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Jol Dantzig's Esoterica Electrica: Guitar Stuff that Works

Jol Dantzig's Esoterica Electrica: Guitar Stuff that Works
Tuning machines that utilize threaded bushings—like this set of Sperzels—help couple string vibrations solidly to the headstock.

In this age of landfill-bound goods, it’s refreshing that guitars still continue to buck that trend.

Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall
Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel

The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall

Stuff that Works”—Guy Clark/Rodney Crowell

Every time I hear this song, I think about wonderful stuff that keeps on ticking and bringing joy and utility to those who are fortunate enough to have it. Things like an old Telecaster that can prop up a window and still play a gig, or my 72-year-old Northfield bandsaw with a cast-iron frame that is superior to almost anything you can buy today.

Conversely, I also think about the endless stream of low-quality merchandise that has been pouring into landfills for decades. According to the most recent figures from the EPA, Americans landfill over 93 million tons of material waste (plastic, metal, wood, etc.) each year—and that figure is growing steadily. In fact, over 20 percent of what homes and businesses throw out is made up of durable goods like furniture and appliances. The saddest part is that most of us will never miss these things. I wonder how much of what gets tossed are guitars and amps?

A quick scan of the vintage-instrument classifieds might shed some light on the question. It seems as though every electric guitar ever made is still out there. (The joke is that of the approximately 1,400 Les Paul sunbursts made in the 1950s, there are still over 2,000 left.) Jokes aside, the robust used-guitar market stands in stark contrast to society’s disposable, single-serving, planned obsolescence mindset. While a three-year-old cell phone is practically worthless, decades-old guitars have long been transacting at prices that are well above their original cost, even after adjusting for inflation. It makes you wonder if guitarists are crazy, or if we’re onto something.

The joke is that of the approximately 1,400 Les Paul sunbursts made in the 1950s, there are still over 2,000 left.

Despite the well-meaning efforts of a few tech-driven companies, the guitar archetype is basically set in stone. Like the trombone, violin, and timpani, our favorite wooden implement reached its zenith a long time ago, and we builders are relegated to fidgeting around the edges of the form, refining either the fine details or the visual styling of the guitar. Jimi Hendrix or Django Reinhardt might be stumped when confronted with a DAW, but they’d be right at home with any 6-string presented at NAMM 2020. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. It’s actually a more interesting challenge, because now it’s all about chasing those last few percentage points.

Everything is a sum of its parts, and development is a process of eliminating the weakest link. It’s a matter of refining all the little things that add up to make a guitar work even better. I look for the places where wood meets wood, metal meets metal, and metal meets wood—anywhere that vibration and connectivity can be lost. I like the highest amount of contact between the strings and the body, with the tightest threads I can find. I also prefer bridges with the fewest number of parts. And if they can be locked down, even better. Little gaps rob your guitar of resonance, so hunt those down and eliminate them. Even the tuners should be anchored to the headstock, which is why I prefer the types that screw down on the headplate instead of press-in bushings. If you are willing to chase tone with high-dollar cables, you might also consider fastening one end of your instrument’s strings to the neck with more than a little friction and a post held by a single, tiny screw.

Taking this sort of thing to extremes in the 1980s, guitarists were fascinated by the idea of fastening pickups down tight to the body, as opposed to hanging them on surrounds or pickguards with springs. (I imagine this practice rose from EVH worship.) The question of whether it improves the sound remains unanswered but for anecdotal evidence, yet I don’t discount it. Conversely, Les Paul owners may feel that the plastic bezel/spring arrangement contributes to their instrument’s classic sound, which is hard to argue against. So, let’s call it a draw.

Which brings us back to the original idea of stuff that works. Above all, that’s what a guitar is. Just like a piano, it’s hard to improve on something that’s already close to perfect. If an old Strat or vintage Les Paul produces drool-worthy sounds and soul-touching music, wouldn’t that be considered stuff that works? Even better, you can hang it on your wall.