(Originally published 4/2/2020)
Got a guitar with a Tune-o-matic-style bridge and three strings on each side of the headstock? Here's a fast, easy video demo of how to get it ready for stable-tuned action.
Sponsored by Strings by Mail.
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.”
Dirk Wacker shares what the last six months have been like for him and his guitar-tech business in Germany.
Hello and welcome back to Mod Garage. This month's column is a very special one for me. Since I started writing for Premier Guitar back in 2005 (heck, it's really 15 years now), it's the first time I'm writing something personal instead of talking about mods and technical stuff. But don't worry, I won't get political or bore you with another COVID-19 complaint. Lay down your soldering iron and relax, and next month we'll get back to business as usual.
I'm happy to say that I receive a lot of emails from readers all over the world, with all kinds of suggestions, questions, comments, and the like. Much of this correspondence was the reason for columns in the past and will also inspire topics for future columns. Soon after the lockdown, I noticed the tenor of many emails changed from guitar-related stuff to more personal inquiries, like how the pandemic situation in Europe and especially inside Germany is, if everyone at the shop is well, etc. I also received messages with questions like: How is it going inside the workshop? What do I have on my desk? What am I doing during lockdown? After discussing this with my editor, we decided I should write about it. So, here is my personal COVID-19 experience.
I never thought something like the pandemic could really happen in our modern world, so in early February we still made plans for the Musikmesse trade fair in Frankfurt, Germany, in April. I also saw no reason to cancel my stay in Switzerland for the middle of March. I have to ask myself now, in retrospect, how could someone be so careless and ignorant? I will never forget the conversation between two friends and myself, talking about the Musikmesse show. One of them wondered what we should do because traditionally there are many Asian exhibitors there, and in early February COVID-19 still seemed to be a problem only affecting China. My other friend and I didn't waste any thought about this, being sure that in three months the problem would be solved … how wrong we were!
Unsuspecting as I was, I booked our tickets for Musikmesse, including railroad tickets. I also went to Switzerland in March to visit some friends to go hiking and mountaineering. On March 16, the lockdown hit me like a hammer when Switzerland closed all borders. Within a New York minute, I was stranded in a foreign country that isn't a member of the European Union. It took me some time and effort to leave Switzerland, but thankfully I have friends there, so I had a roof over my head and no bigger problems of any kind. Lesson learned!
Being back in Germany, I had to face that COVID-19 was definitely not just Asia's problem and that it would affect all facets of life in Germany. Shops, bars, clubs, restaurants, schools, universities, cinemas, theaters, gyms, barbers, churches, and all stages closed. Most companies established reduced working times, countless people had to work from home, public authorities closed their doors, and every day there were new COVID-19 calamities on all news channels.
The situation in Germany was strange, at least for me. Suddenly everyone had to wear a face mask, most stores had closed, people started to hoard toilet paper and yeast, for weeks you couldn't see anyone on the streets, traffic was reduced to almost empty streets even on the highways, and for weeks I hadn't seen a single jet trail in the blue and sunny sky. Within a few weeks, guitar project orders went down to almost zero, which wasn't a real problem because it gave us time to work on everything that was still in the workshop on a waiting list. After this was done and the workshop was empty, I started to make plans on how to keep myself busy: spending more time with the dog and the two horses, doing extended rides with them in the woods, restoring some old vintage wristwatches—something I really love to do when I have time for it. I decided to take additional shifts as a volunteer paramedic in the EMS of my neighbor county, something I also really love to do. I made plans to watch all episodes of Star Trek: Picard on Netflix again, read some new crime thrillers, and to do some aesthetic repairs in the shop and in the house.
I was sure there would be no boredom in any way, and this time I was totally right, but in a very different way than I thought. Before I could even dismantle the first watch to see what the problem was, guitar jobs suddenly went from zero to over the top. We began receiving several guitars each day to repair, to restore, or to modify, and within two weeks our storage area was more than filled with guitars, waiting for their treatment.
After thinking about this and talking to some customers it was clear what caused this new situation: Everyone had unexpected time on their hands now and virtually no one really needed all of their guitars because it was impossible to gig, rehearse, or play, and no teacher could give any guitar lessons. So why not send in guitars that need work done that was long overdue? Instead of restoring vintage watches, I found myself restoring vintage guitars—also something I really love to do. Suddenly we had plenty of work and still do, now operating with a waiting list. The DIY caucus also had some time on their hands, and we received lots of parts orders again, and much more than ever before. But this was a real problem for our international customers. While shipping inside Germany and most other European countries was no real problem, DHL immediately raised prices on deliveries abroad. We always choose the best, fastest, and cheapest way of shipping parts to any country. Normally sending some parts like pots, caps, wires, hardware, etc. to the U.S. is around $14, including insurance and online tracking. Suddenly the cheapest (!) way to send anything out to the U.S. with DHL was $64.
This lasted from early April until September, and then DHL switched from shipping by plane to sea cargo, so shipping times raised from the usual 6-8 days up to six weeks and longer, for the same price as before.
I was surprised again by orders from a lot of international customers, many of them being first-time buyers. Usually people expect their parts to be shipped out immediately. Most customers were not keen on paying $64 for shipping on some parts that cost less than half of that, and most of them were totally relaxed about the situation and agreed that we should send out their parts when shipping prices returned to normal. I think the worldwide pandemic slowed down most of us to a certain degree, but I was really honored that so many people trusted us in such a way. Our storage room started to fill up with packages that couldn't be shipped yet. For weeks we were creative in storing away and piling shipping boxes, but this “Guitar Parts Tetris" game couldn't last. At the end of August, we had to face that we were out of storage room. Since some of the orders were from late March, we decided to look for an alternative shipping solution, and UPS offered us a very fair deal if we shipped out all the boxes at the same time. We took the lemon and pulled the trigger, and within 10 days all orders reached their destination without any problems.
As I write this, we're in the middle of what's being called a “second wave" over here, with rising COVID-19 infections daily. DHL is offering shipping with extended arrival times, but for a reasonable price again, our guitar storage room is staying full, and our local DHL driver is going in and out several times a day.
So, is everything bad about the pandemic? Mostly yes. But it was a good lesson for many people to slow down in such a way to be able to think about the important things in life. My impression is that humanity and good will are more natural again. I hope you could get a little insight into the situation over here. Please stay well and mighty, and we will try and do the same.
Next month we'll discuss what I like to call “Alien Tasks in Lutherie," which refers to a typical task where two arms and two hands are not enough. This time it's about installing humbuckers in a plastic frame or a pickguard, so stay tuned.
Until then ... keep on modding!