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Archive for October, 2011

A Close Shave

Today I did something I would never dream of doing to my other guitars – I took a razor blade to the fingerboard.  Yep, I gave my guitar a shave today.  There are a few reasons to scrape the fretboard with a razor.  The most common reason is to get rid of years of build-up.  I had a different problem.  One of the biggest problems with my eBay guitar, as I mentioned before, is the build quality leaves something to be desired.  Specifically, the mother-of-pearl inlays in the fingerboard weren’t flush with the wood.

Before I go any further, I have to admit I owe a huge debt of thanks to Roman Rist over on the mylespaul.com forums.  He wrote a beautiful article in the Epiphone forum about how to really set up a guitar.  One of the steps he takes is shaving the fingerboard with a razor and rolling the binding.  He even posted pics and a YouTube video.  I wouldn’t have known where to start or how to do it without his insightful contribution.  Thanks, Roman.

I didn’t need to roll the binding, but, man, did I ever need to scrape the fretboard.  Some of the inlays were so far off it made bending almost impossible on some frets.

First, I set the guitar up on my work table and removed the strings.  Since I’ll be adjusting the neck, too, I made sure the neck was supported down most of it’s length.  I found that an old bath towel folded over several times makes a great rest.

With the strings off, we need to drop the neck pickup out of harms way.  I do this by taking the bracket off and letting the pup fall into the cavity.  Then I cover it with paper and tape everything in place.  Some people put tape right on the pup and don’t cover the it with paper, but I’ve found using the paper  saves me from having to clean tape goo off it when I’m done.  Also, I’m a big fan of using yellow Frog Tape.  You can find it most places that sell painting supplies.  It costs more, but again, it saves me from having to clean goo off the guitar when I’m done.

Now that the guitar is prepped, we’re ready to shave.  Hold the razor blade with both hands perpendicular to the fingerboard and move it back and forth between the frets.  Use only light pressure.  Anything more and the blade will “skip” causing marks in the wood.  Once you are done with a fret, blow the dust away and use the tip of the blade to clean along the edges of the fret.  Again, use only light pressure to avoid gouging the wood or the frets.  It took me about an hour and 3 razor blades to do the entire fretboard.  If your only cleaning out gunk, you probably only need one new blade (always use a new blade).  Since I was also shaving the MOP inlays, it took me a while to work everything down until it was even, and was probably the reason I needed 3 blades.  Once you get the feel for it, you can tell when the blade is getting dull and you should start using a new one.
(* Remember to use both hands to hold the blade.  I’m only using one in the picture because I’m holding the camera with my other hand.  Notice the supply of new blades on the table.)

I ran my finger over the newly shaved fingerboard.  Where before I could feel the difference in height between the wood and the inlays, now I only felt a difference in texture.  I had to go over a few frets more than once until I achieved a nice even feel.  Once I finished shaving the fretboard and I made sure the wood was clear of debris, especially next to the frets themselves, I cleaned the frets.  I like to use cowhide (another trick from Roman).  Some people may use steel wool or 8000 grit emery cloth.  Whatever works for you, but if the strings are off, it’s always a good idea to make the frets shine.

Now, I thought, the hard fretboard work is done, we just have to oil it up.  Oil is essential on all non-sealed fingerboards.  Some people use straight lemon oil, but I prefer Dunlop 02 fingerboard deep conditioner.  I like the way it feels, and it seems to last longer for me.  It’s doubtful that any oil at all had ever been applied to this fingerboard.  After I applied the first round of oil, the places where the razor blade had skipped became very noticeable, so I went back and re-did those frets.  I didn’t get them perfect, but they are much better than when I started, and the skip marks are barely noticeable now.  It took 3 rounds of applying the oil, waiting 30 minutes, and wiping it off before the it stopped sucking up oil like a sieve.   Here’s a pic where you can see a huge difference between the oiled and non-oiled frets during the first round.  The difference was barely noticeable during the second and third rounds.

After the shaving the fingerboard most people would make sure the truss rod is adjusted correctly and check for high frets.  I don’t have the tools yet to work the frets, so I started putting things back together.  Next, I took off the protective tape and reseated the pup.  I used a set of Ernie 10’s lying around for restringing the guitar.  After a quick adjustment of the pup height with the strings on, I decided to check the neck with a straight edge and check the intonation.  Both were way out, so I adjusted the truss rod and reset the intonation.  I’m not going to go into detail about how to adjust the truss rod or set the intonation.  There are hundreds of sites and YouTube videos that do a better job explaining that I can.

So, how did I do?  Did I totally screw it up? Nope! Wow is all I can say.  It plays like a completely different guitar.  The action is nice, and I can easily bend notes on any fret.  It’s starting to play and feel like something more than a cheap guitar.  I think I’m going to take it to my local shop (Heights Guitars) and have them check and level the frets.  Then the action should be fantastic!

On a final note, I’m happy I had my cheap guitar to practice on.  Considering a new neck for my strat costs more than this entire guitar, I felt I could practice on it without doing too much damage to my wallet.  Now that I have experience and confidence, I won’t be so shy about doing this to my other guitars when they need it.

Until next time, have another drink.  The more you drink, the better I sound.  🙂

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It’s here!  After waiting all day yesterday and peering out the window countless times (my neighbors must think I’m becoming a reverse peeping Tom) to see if a big brown truck is in the driveway , my eBay prize arrived around 7 PM.  Ok, that may be a bit of an overstatement.  I mean, really, how much of a prize can a $135 guitar be?  Well, in a nutshell, not much.  I was hoping for a good deal by paying only $135 for a guitar, instead what I got was barely a $135 guitar.  This feels more suited for playing Guitar Hero than serious playing guitar.  I stayed up until 2 AM looking, playing, and dissecting the guitar, and at every step I became more and more dejected.  The body was too light, meaning the quality of the wood was only slightly above balsa (oh, how I was wrong).  The truss rod was covered over by a block of wood to mount the truss rod cover meaning very shoddy workmanship.
Here are some pictures of the eBay guitar:
 
* Notice the hole cut into the body leaving nothing but the balsa wood veneer between the pot and the knob

After carefully evaluating the pieces of the guitar that would be left intact after my conversion, I decided the quality of what would be left just wasn’t worth it.  I felt like a kid at Christmas who for months has asked for a Han Solo action figure only to unwrap the deluxe version of Jar Jar Binks.  In the midst of my depression I realized I was too tired to commit hari kari, so I went to bed instead.

This morning I awoke with a fresh perspective.  So I was out $135; it’s not the end of the world.  I could get some of that back by selling the guitar on Craigslist.  After I do a little work on it like replacing the nut and setting it up right, it would make a great first guitar for some kid whose parents didn’t want to spend a lot of money.  I figure either it will be played to death, or end up in the closet like most guitars owned by 12 year olds, but I will make sure it’s a playable instrument before I sell it.  Also, in the process of making it playable, it will fulfill some of its initial purpose, which is to help me hone the skills I need to maintain my other axes.  Whew, I don’t feel so bad now.

So now I was stuck in the same situation as before.  I needed a guitar as the base for my project, but I didn’t possess anything suitable that I wanted to use.  I decided to not make the same mistake twice, and concluded I would see and play the guitar first hand before I bought it.  As a side note, I never understood people who made the same mistake twice.  There are so many new and wonderful mistakes for us to make in our lives, why waste time making the same mistakes?  I tell these people to expand their horizons and start making new and exciting mistakes.  It makes my life seem less chaotic.
“Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgement” – Unknown
Anyway, I digress.  I searched Craigslist for a suitable guitar.  Nothing.  I tried the eBay route before and it didn’t work out well, so I skipped that option.  Oh what to do!  I remembered that Guitar Center sold used gear.  I would probably pay a little more than I wanted, but at least I would know what I’m buying.  Heaven smiled upon me as my local GC had an ’08 Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plain Top for $250, and it included a hard shell case to boot!  After dropping my son off at daycare, and before my afternoon of non-stop conference calls began, I hurried over to GC to check out the axe.  I’m not a big fan of burst styling on guitars, but this one was a very nice Heritage Sunburst with a great grain.

Here it is, the base for what I’m now calling my Gibsophone Faux Paul project.

Now that I have a decent guitar to start with, it’s time to play the guitar a little and figure out what modification I should make first.  Stay tuned and I’ll let you know what I decide.  Until then, I have a “new” guitar to play.  Woo hoo!

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So I picked up a Les Paul copy from eBay for $135 the other night.  I’m not entirely sure what make or model it is, and neither was the seller.  When he got the guitar the headstock was blank, so he added a Gibson diamond logo and the Gibson script name (for aesthetics).  The seller was up front about the fact the guitar was not a Gibson, and he was kind enough to post a YouTube video of him playing the guitar, so at least I have a rough idea of what it sounds like, not that it matters, though.  At this point any guitar player is saying “What?  You bought a guitar and you don’t care what it sounds like?  Either this guy is doesn’t know what he doing, or he’s simply off his rocker.”  Well, I may not be able to argue the second half of that statement, but I do have some idea what I’m doing.

I’ve been wanting a “project guitar” for a while.  Something I can work on, fuss with, and generally modify without worrying about screwing it up too much.  I’ve been wanting a Gibson Les Paul, too.  I figured I’d try my hand at seeing if I could come close to recreating a vintage Les Paul using an inexpensive body and replacing pretty much everything else with authentic Gibson parts.  Now you can see why I’m not overly concerned about how the guitar I bought on eBay sounds.

As I sit eagerly awaiting the arrival of my eBay prize, I figured it would be a good idea to put together a plan of what I’m going to do to the guitar.  Here’s my list in order of priority:

  1. Swap out pickups for a pair of Gibson Burstbucker 1/2, Gibson 490R/498T, or a matched set of Gibson ’57 Classics.
  2. Replace the electronics.  Probably with Bumblebee PIO caps and either CTS or Gibson pots.
  3. Replace the TOM tailpiece/bridge with a rolling bridge and Bigsby tremolo.
  4. Replace the tuners with either Kluson or Grover tuners.

* I may have to swap items 1 and 2 because the description of the guitar on eBay mentioned there’s a problem with bridge pickup volume pot.  We’ll have to see what kind of condition it’s in once the guitar gets here.

So that’s the plan.  I’ll post pickup specs, wiring diagrams, pictures, and any other bits of information as I research the parts to make my “Faux Paul”.

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I have GAS

My wife says I have GAS.  I think she’s right.  No, she doesn’t mean I overly produce mass quantities of the smelly stuff that can clear a room.  If not that, then what exactly is GAS, you may ask?  It’s Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (full disclosure – A guy at work came up with the term GAS.  I can’t take credit for it.)  Anyway, I’m addicted to guitars.  I had 8; now I have 9.  I just acquired what I think is an Epiphone Les Paul off of eBay.  I’m not entirely sure what it is, and neither was the seller.  More on that later…

While my collection may seem modest by some standards, I can assure you my wife would consider it to be more than adequate, possibly verging on the extreme.  I think the same of her shoe collection, but we love each other in spite of our little eccentricities, so it’s all good.  Anyway, I’m not a professional musician.  Far from it, in fact.  I’m just a guy who’s been playing bass on and off for 25 years in assorted bar bands, and only started seriously playing guitar two and half years ago.  By seriously, I mean I joined a band who plays for free once a month, 5 months a year.  Not exactly what you’d call a “working musician.”  🙂

Here’s what I’ve got at the moment:

  • Washburn Raven – This originally was my sister’s guitar.  Somehow over the course of time it migrated from her room to mine, and eventually became “my guitar.”
  • Kramer Striker Bass – My first bass.  It served me well all through high school and my first 6 bands.
  • Fender Precision Bass – I got this right after band #7 broke up because we all graduated college and I moved to Atlanta.  Haven’t played bass in a working band since.  Go figure.
  • Yamaha Classical – My loving wife got this for me when I told her I wanted an acoustic guitar to take to the boat.  She’s not into guitars so she didn’t know the difference.  Still, she’s a wonderful woman for buying me one.
  • Fender California Acoustic – I picked this up to take to the boat.  I love my wife dearly, but trying to play a classical guitar in a folk style just doesn’t work, so the Yamaha became decoration.
  • Fender “Fat” Stratocaster – After joining my current band as the rhythm guitar player and using the Washburn for the first couple of gigs, I thought it was time to get myself a decent electric.  This is my favorite guitar right now.
  • Stewart Stow-Away – I travel for my job.  The Stewart is the perfect travel guitar for me.  If you’ve never seen one, head over to http://www.stewartguitars.com.  It looks like a Strat, plays like a Strat, and sounds like a Strat.  It’s an awesome guitar that fits inside a standard roll-aboard suitcase.  Very cool.
  • Martin Acoustic – The Fender acoustic is nice, but the tone of the Martin is spectacular.  What an amazing full, warm, rich sound.  My current band had been together for 2 years, so I figured it was a safe bet that I would be gigging with this axe.
  • The Les Paul I bought on eBay – The reason I decided to start this blog.

So, what’s the deal with the Les Paul from eBay?  Well, I wanted a project guitar.  Something I could tweak and play with without worrying about screwing up a “good” guitar.  I didn’t want to do major surgery on any of my existing guitars for various reasons ranging from sentimental (my wife bought it, or it’s been in the family for 30 years) to rational (it’s the main axe when I play out).

Thus begins my winter project – turning a $135 guitar from eBay into of a copy of a 1960 Les Paul custom with a Bigsby tremolo.  The end result is what I’m calling my “Faux Paul.”

Stay tuned for updates, pictures, and sound clips as I do my best modifying the guitar.

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