may 2010

Replacing original Tortoiseshell binding that''s decayed naturally over time.

Greetings, “Restoring an Original” readers. Each month I strive to bring you something new and refreshing, with a hands-on look into the restorations on our benches at BGF. This month, we’re taking a closer look at a Gibson J-50 that came out of Gibson’s Kalamazoo, Michigan, factory in 1974. Our client was very concerned about the body binding decay that was prevalent for some time and wanted to get a better understanding of the mystery behind it all.

Clearly, this was not a classic case of celluloid binding shrinkage finally cracking to relieve the immense amount of tension it had come under. Visually, this body binding had a decaying rash of self-destruction from the inside out. One might think that it came from those elements that are very bad for your guitar: extreme heat or cold, high humidity (wetness), low humidity (dryness), harsh cleaning agents, bug sprays, heavy body oil, and acid. Other elements, like smoke and sunlight, will change the appearance of some finishes as well.

The above elements may have contributed to promoting the inevitable, but in fact it’s all about the chemical makeup of this binding. Perhaps you may have already guessed it. We were dealing with original tortoise binding, which self-destructs as the plastic binders start to age. Some know it as binding rot. Do not mistake this as an issue of environmental surroundings—though it is true that warm temperatures may speed up the decaying process, while coldness slows it down. The back and top body binding clearly could not be saved. It needed to be removed and rebuilt with a more reliable and stable material. I have seen tortoise pickguards on archtop guitars begin to decay right where the support block was glued. Solvents give off gases, which leach out and cause destruction. Clearly, original tortoise does not like acetone or any other gluing solvents that were used during that period.

Binding Removal
Fortunately, this guitar was already scheduled for a neck reset, as it measured very high in playing action even with the neck straight and the saddle bottomed out. So the neck was removed not only for the reset, but also for rebinding the top and back correctly. Tools I used for the binding removal were a hair dryer, a channel spatula, a Sloane Purfling Cutter (StewMac # 0354), and the ShopStand and Guitar Repair Vise (StewMac # 5391).

When removing binding, it’s important to do so in a controlled manner. The body was not going to be stripped and given a full re-spray, so I wanted to keep things looking really clean and crisp—because there was only going to be a thin layer of nitrocellulose airbrushed over the replaced binding once everything was trimmed and groomed.

Using the Sloane Purfling Cutter.

Using a hair dryer and channel spatula to remove the binding.
I used my Sloane Purfling Cutter to lightly score the sides of the ribs at the outside edge of the tortoise binding from one end to the other. The same was done on the top and back of the outside edge of the white/ black/white purfling. Even though the Sloane Purfling Cutter is marketed as a violin tool, it becomes the perfect tool for removing defective binding on guitars after a slight modification with a longer hex head screw.

I used the hair dryer to lightly warm up the binding and glues while I cautiously pulled on one end of the binding. Running a channel spatula against the ledge works well whenever the binding to body joint gets hung up—I trimmed down a previously purchased spatula to the size of the binding and purfling channels. I progressed slowly, inch by inch, at times going back and repeating the first step by re-scoring small sections using the Sloane Purfling Cutter. Doing it this way helped avoid any tear-out of precious wood and kept the lacquered finish line looking very clean.

Some of my go-to places for binding and other plastic resources are Stewart- MacDonald ( and Luthiers Mercantile International ( If you’re looking for specialty and hard-to-find materials or shapes, also check out Pickguard Heaven ( Stay tuned for next month, when we’ll be sizing, bending, and gluing the laminated purfling and binding into the pre-existing routed channels on this ’74 Gibson J-50.

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Tiny, low-wattage amps as affordable, customizable studio tools

You may have heard the saying, “bigger isn’t always better.” This certainly holds true for guitar amps, especially in the studio! Just because an amp is small, with low wattage, doesn’t mean you can’t get a screaming huge tone out of it. These days, little tube amps seem to be popping up everywhere and are rapidly gaining popularity. Why? It’s the combination of being able to get quality tube saturation at low volume in a compact package and at an appealing price point. Most small amps also seem to handle guitar pedals and effects well.

Low-power tube amps such as these models from Fender, Randall, and Vox can be lifesavers in the studio.

Collect Them All
Some of the most popular of these little buggers include the Orange Tiny Terror, Vox Night Train and AC4, Fender ’57 Champ and Champion 600, Marshall Haze and Class 5, and the Epiphone Valve Junior and new Valve Junior Hot Rod. The recently announced Mesa/Boogie TransAtlantic also has a huge buzz going. However, there are many more. Small amps are available in head-and-cabinet or combo formats, and their street prices range from $130 to $1000. Each model provides its own unique tone and features, and some even have selectable output-power levels for more volume control when you’re going for maximum breakup.

What’s the Big Deal?
As most of us know, tube amps like to be pushed. But try getting those classic, cranked tube tones with a big, powerful amp and your ears will be ringing for days! With a tiny amp (in the 5-watt or so range), you can open the amp wide up to take advantage of overdriving the power tube(s) for that massive, dynamic tube tone we all love—without shredding your ears or annoying your neighbors. Plus, the price and size are right. I’ve started collecting these like guitar pedals due to their portability and reasonable cost. They’re also easy to hide from my fiancée!

Head vs. Combo
Should you go with a petite head or combo? This can be a tough decision, because they both have advantages. A head is great to have because you can combine it with different types of cabs, which allows you to customize the tone quite a bit. On the other hand, a compact combo with a small speaker yields interesting tones that cut through in the upper midrange. (This sounds great on leads, by the way.) And you can’t argue with the portability of a tiny combo. It’s all about what works best for you.

Let’s Have Some Fun!
I recommend trying different new old stock (NOS) and new tubes in your petite amp(s) to customize the tone and response. I also like to plug into two different tiny amps at once using an ABY pedal and blend the two for new tones, great stereo effects, and recording a full sound without having to track overdubs. Just place a mic in front of each amp and pan one hard left and one hard right to achieve a nice, wide tone. And to make things larger than life, mix in some stereo delay.

In Session
A few months back, I was recording a local band in my studio. The plan was to track live, which I had done in the past with great results. When the lead guitarist arrived, he was carrying a Vox AC30—a great amp, but extremely loud. I knew this would be a problem, especially if he wanted the thing to break up. Sure enough, he turned it way up and the earth shook…ouch! There was no way we were going to isolate that amp from the other instrument mics. Fortunately, he trusts my engineering skills and took my suggestion to try a different amp. Breathing a sigh of relief, I reached for my secret weapon, the 4-watt, 1x10 Vox AC4TV combo. I cranked it, slapped a Sennheiser e609 mic on the grille, and we got to work. A few hours later, we had layers of big, present guitars with killer tone. The band was happy, the neighbors weren’t disturbed, and my ears weren’t ringing! Even though it’s a tiny amp, the AC4TV produces that classic Vox class-A tone, but it breaks up at a very reasonable volume that’s ideal for most studio situations. This is just one example of how small amps can be great tools. No matter what genre or tone you’re after, there’s a compact amp that can crank it out for you!

I encourage you to get your hands on one or more of these amazing, petite-sized tube amps to increase your tonal diversity, achieve greater portability, and make recording a lot easier and more practical. I’ll warn you that they’re addictive, though. Once you try one, you’ll want them all. Fortunately, most are reasonably affordable, and having a bunch of them scattered around your jam room looks cool!

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How Project Runway can guide your approach to gear.

I’ve recently been inspired by two very disparate sources: punk rock and Project Runway. This, I know, puts me in clear and present danger of being flamed by the gear bloggeratti but it makes sense, I swear. Allow me to explain. First, I recently did a bunch of work on an article about the gear of the punk rockers. Second, my wife is a seamstress and she watches the TV show Project Runway incessantly. Aside from sharing the same initials, these two cultural phenomenons would seem to have nothing in common— runty rock revolution from snot-nosed kids versus leggy runway models wearing the latest creations from aspiring designers? What could possibly tie these two together?

Make It Work
“Make it work” is the signature line of the host of Project Runway, a guy named Tim Gunn. Whatever the situation, this is what Gunn says. You hear it so much, you begin to believe it—at least I have. It’s given me a whole new attitude toward the gear I have and what I want to do with it.

For those of you who haven’t thought about punk rock for a while, or ever, one takeaway on the movement was that it was driven largely by kids with no money but a desperate will to have their voices heard. That means very few custom shop or boutique axes. Any vintage guitar involved was purely there by mistake. Gear shortage was the norm. There’s a great line in the Clash song “Garageland” that goes: “Twenty-two singers, one microphone / five guitar players, one guitar.” It’s illustrative of the scene. Nobody had much, but they wanted to do something. They had to take what they had and make it work.

The inspiration I got from both sources was similar. In the case of the punks, making it work meant making their axes sound suitably unique. Not just loud or raw or whatever other tonal quality pros conjure, but unique. Punk was about being different, showing a point of view, making a statement, having vision. For designers, unique vision is everything. Who needs a designer who can design a pair of Levi’s? It’s been done! What the world is looking for is something new, something fresh, something that touches on the past but brings it squarely into the future.

That’s called innovation. One definition of innovation is taking something that already exists and making it better. Sound like anyone we know? I would put forward Leo Fender as one of the best innovators of the 20th century. Fender never really purely invented anything. He wasn’t the first at solidbody guitars or guitar amps or multi-necked steels. But he was the guy who perfected it all, made it eminently popular and saleable—which is another definition of innovation. That is, to take an idea and find a practical application for it. Fender did this in spades (and tweed and tolex). He knew that there was a right combination of design, sound, and materials that would allow his products to stand ahead of the others. Leo Fender didn’t invent the stuff, but he took what he had and he made it work.

Both musicians and designers have a unique judgment arena. The musician is judged live, onstage. People either dig or they don’t; they vote with their feet. Plenty of us know the sinking feeling of watching a good crowd dwindle as we get further into our set. The designer has a somewhat different baptism by fire. They get one gig to strut their stuff— literally—as their designs are walked down the runway in front of a thousand cheering (if they’re lucky) people. At the highest levels, both guitarists and designers are reviewed in the newspapers and online and stand the chance to make a decent living.

What’s the point, Wallace? The point here is that every guitar player has the opportunity to share his or her unique vision: “This is who I am, this is how I play, and this is what I sound like.” The key is that, whatever gear you have, whatever level you’re at, whatever kind of doubts you have in your mind, just make it work.

Believe it or not, you can communicate your vision with sound. Mick Jones of The Clash has always said that he believes that the sound of someone’s guitar, the way they play, is a direct reflection of who they are inside. (It’s kind of scary when you think about it. I mean, there have been some nasty tones in guitar history, both nasty good and nasty bad... makes you wonder what some people have going on inside.) Jones himself played a Les Paul through a Roland Space echo into a Boogie MK II driving a 4x12 Marshall cab. The sound was huge, swirling, powerful, sometimes muddy. Not your ordinary rig, but it was distinctly Mick Jones. He made it work.

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