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When Bad Things Happen to Good Guitars, Part 1

Commonly-seen causes of damage at the repair shop

Our latest “angry girlfriend/boyfriend” tragedy—with gruesome hammer wounds.
This is a cautionary tale about some of the horrible things that we do to our guitars— and how we might avoid them. Perhaps we’ll make this part one, with these being my stories, and part two will feature the stories you send us. We all have these “I got a buddy whose guitar got…” stories, and they are always fun. I will break mine down into a few categories: shipping damage, bad repairs damage, accidental damage, and intentional damage. I must caution you, though—these are rated PG-13 for graphic violence.

Shipping Damage
Let me start by saying that we ship guitars every day, all over the world, and we very seldom have any problem. For the most part, the big shipping companies do a very good job of delivering the goods in good order. There are many ways to damage a guitar during shipping, but I’ll start with two of the most common injuries. If you need to ship a guitar, always de-tune the strings and put plenty of packing behind the peghead in order to avoid what we call “whiplash peghead injury.” This happens when the guitar is handled roughly in its case and box, and the weight of the tuners, along with the tension of the strings, causes the neck to crack. You can usually identify this injury by a small crack that starts in the nut slot and angles back into the meat of the neck. These are very repairable, but needless to say could and should be avoided.

The second most-common shipping injury is what we refer to as the “atomic wedgie.” This is when the guitar gets dropped while in or out of its case—sometimes even in a case and a shipping box—straight down on the tail end, causing the wedge-shaped endpin to jam up into the guitar and split the tail block. This one usually cracks the end block but not the sides, and it can be repaired invisibly by re-gluing the block. But then you have the “atomic wedgie from hell,” which is the same injury but more severe—with the endpin being driven in until the shoulder on the pin breaks and allows the pin to go in much deeper. These usually break the sides at the tail block as well, making for a stickier and more expensive repair. Both types of wedgie can be avoided by removing the endpin before shipping and overstuffing the bottom of the shipping box.

Bad Repairs Damage
I won’t go into this too deeply here for lack of space, as well as the fact that I will probably step on some toes. But there are a lot of bad repairs going on out in the world. That being said, there are a lot of extremely talented repair people, also. Your task as guitar owner is to sort them out and find one you trust. If you have been playing and owning guitars for a while, you probably already have someone who has done good work for you in the past, and at a reasonable rate. If so, stay with them, and don’t go seeking the advice of the latest self-appointed Internet guru. There is a ton of bad advice being dispensed out there, most notably in the area of hot-rodding. Most of these alterations are ill-advised at best, and potentially ruinous to your guitar at worst. My take, for what it’s worth, is that if you took the time you might spend trying to gouge the “tongue depressor” brace out of your guitar and used it to practice, you’d notice a significant improvement in the sound coming out of all your guitars—without setting them up for what could be a catastrophic structural failure. There I said it, and I’m sticking to it!

Accidental Damage
These stories always make guitar lovers cringe. You have the “Leaned ’er up against the couch and the dog knocked ’er over” tale. Then there’s the “Leaned ’er against the wall and my buddy’s chair broke, propelling him backward through the top,” one. (This one happened to Jeff Huss on one of his early self-built guitars. Oh well, he didn’t like the top on that one anyway.) You also get the “Put ’er in the case at our local jam, but didn’t latch the case and someone came along and picked up my case, tumbling ’er out onto the floor” story. I did this to my uncle’s Martin when I was a kid, and the ensuing fallout caused me to never do it again. Another version of this one is the ever-popular “Laid ’er in the case but didn’t close the lid and something fell on ’er.” We had this one at my house years ago, and it involved my brother’s guitar. I can’t really describe the sound of five leaded wine glasses falling six feet down onto the top of a D-35, but you can imagine. We probably all know someone who “Set ’er down, forgot ’er, and backed over ’er with the car.” Oh my God! What’s worse than that one? The only thing that comes to mind is when my friend, the great bluegrass fiddler Les Woodie, told me he had backed over a case containing not one, but two of his best fiddles! Enough on this topic. I think we’re all in a cold sweat by now.

Intentional Damage
OK, for anyone who didn’t slam the magazine down and curse my name over in the repairs section, wait until you get a load of this soapbox rant. Hey, big music star, stop busting up guitars in your stage show! This is not—and never has been—cool. I don’t care if you are Garth Brooks or Pete Townshend, the next time you bust up a perfectly good guitar instead of, say, donating it to a charity for kids who can’t afford instruments, somebody ought to pick you up by your neck and smash you on the stage until you’re in pieces.

Lastly, we have the “angry girlfriend/boyfriend” tragedy. We had one of these in the shop recently with obvious hammer wounds resulting in several huge holes in the top of a new guitar. As they say, “Hell hath no fury….” I would add that, if your spousal affiliate has stooped this low, it may be time to move on. As they say where I come from, “A woman that’ll do that to you’ll cut you.”

Mark Dalton
Mark Dalton is a founding partner of Huss and Dalton Guitar Co. When not building guitars, Mark and his wife, Kimberly, tend to the draft horses and mules that inhabit their farm in the Piedmont region of Virginia.