Here’s a guest blog from my dear ol’ dad, Tom Williams. It’s his fault that I play guitar at all, and he’s also quite the teacher (taught high school History among other things) and story teller, so I asked him to do a write up for yall on a subject that is dear to his heart, rehabilitating stray guitars. Note that all irregular spellings are done on purpose – just pretend you’re reading a mix between Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac and William Faulkner. Take it away, Daddy!
So, you saw that old, funky, messed up guitar in the garage sale, pawn shop, flea market or trash bin. Now what to do wid it?
The following info is not for folks seekin’ room décor, it’s for “players”, “pickers” or guitar lovers without a bunch of spare money. Maybe you got it cheap, trashed or given to you! That’s good stuff! There are no axes without utility. Save any and all busted axes or parts, They are FREE! They might be just what you need to make sompin play again.
Store those junky articles in a safe, dry place that yer “main squeeze” won’t trip over or complain about! Lean your treasure against the sofa, then sit and slowly sip sompin cold and DIG yer guitar. What is rite, and what is wrong? What is needed? Pick up yer find and evaluate it. Future project? Junk (parts) stash? Holy cow, I gotta get this workin’!
First, clean that thing up. you’ll feel better, ‘so will the axe. ‘neck fried? if it’s got an adjustible neck and is too awful to play with comfort, tinker wid it. if it has weird backbow and such, do the flea market setup cure. take all the pressure off and let the neck RELAX ’till the morrow (and I know that ain’t easy!) some well meanin’ pilgrim probably over-tightened the trussrod instead of taking down the saddle.
Check for cracks, loose braces, loose bindings and sech. is the bridge pulling up? fix it! it kin only get worse. it will NOT heal up and hair over. use elmers wood glue. DO NOT use white school glue (chewing gum is about as suitable) and DO NOT use epoxy (that ends all hope of future repair). yep, you are thinkin’ SUPER GLUE. you’ll stick yer fingers together, mess up the finish and make you live with yer mistakes. and, you’ll see ’em every time you pick up that axe!
Now, DO NOT let yer uncle, the handy guy, refin yer axe. if it’s a fine guitar you’ll cut the value mucho, if not a fine guitar, think “old blues man”, maybe BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON played this! the refined types might consider black, red or brown permanent markers for minor nicks. I think a damp rag, although I’ve actually used spray cleaner , should work. if you must have it shiny, just a verrrrrrry small dab of lemon oil on an oooooold tee shirt!
Now, if you need to glue that bridge down, gently prise the whole shebang off and use wood blocks, C-clamps…..oh, you don’t got ’em, caint afford ’em and all that? you can run stove bolts through the bridgepin holes and dog ’em down and — I swear I have a bud who did this — brace broomsticks between the ceiling! and wood blocks on the wings of the bridge! and, if you must put screws though the bridge, DRILL holes and use SMALL nuts and bolts, BRASS nuts and bolts that run about 20 cents per at most any hardware store. old timers say the brass IMPROVES the sound. I once saw a GUILD D40 with FOUR bolts. it really sounded good. ‘course that wuz 1967, so I dunno.
Ahem, now, I hope you took off those old strings. I don’t give a rat’s ass, change ’em. but not yet! now that yer beast is clean, cracks healed, and bridge secure, check the machine heads. use a LITTLE oil, use a screwdriver on the set screws, replace ’em via the junk stash or — horror — buy some new ones.
Ah, the neck. the trussrod is loose about 90% of the time. dealers love to get $40 for a very easy job. if you don’t have one by now, beg or buy a trussrod wrench. ebay has ’em. they cost only a few bucks, and now people will think you are a qualified guitar tech! imports use an allen (hex) wrench, newer MARTINS too, most other USA stuff is GIBSON or GUILD size. ‘member, RIGHTY TIGHTY, LEFTY LOOSEY! either look down the neck for top load trussrods, or hold the thing in yer lap and push AWAY to tighten a “through the hole” adjustment nut. do this slooooowly. check by lookin’ down the neck often. you want a tiny bit of relief, not totally straight.
If you have an adjustible saddle, lower the action via the screws. if you have a drop -in saddle, don’t be afraid to take it out of the slot and use a combination of BUCK KNIFE and file to trim it down. if you get too low, shim it back up with strips of playing cards. use the adverts and jokers for this, unless you play poker wid wild cards. I like “fours, whores and mustache men”! but I digress.
now,string it up. only bluegrass people should use medium gauge strings. they wont let you do steven stills licks down the neck, and they are hard on old guitars. if you must use ’em, do like bobby zimmerman in the old daze. tune down one or two frets and capo up. it sounds good on blues, funky! use extra-lite(10’s) or mid-lites(12’s). the latter give you volume, tone and good action. the former, just good action.
time for the secret stuff. the nut is often overlooked or abused. you oughta invest three bucks in a cheap set of small files. check the cheapy bin tools. a stewmac 1st string file would be nice, but….. anyway, about a credit card height is OK at the first fret. for steel strings, mebbe two quarters, three at the most at the 12th fret is acceptable. most serious players like the 1st string lower than the rest. the rest should be level with each other.
got the slots too low? gently use a wood block to tap out the nut. now you’ll use a slothead screwdriver between the 3d and 4th strings tapped wid yer phillips head! shim that rascal up.
one slot too low? tape the slot front and back, put in baking soda, level, add two drops of SUPERGLUE, and file it even with yer needle files and recut. hey, LET IT DRY! 30 min to an hour. you kin wait! watch the news, that’ll make you play the blues! the secret……….RAMP the slots slightly toward the peghead. most “wolf tones” or “buzzes ” relate to the lack of this tip.
for a drastic bowed neck, if you don’t have big C-clamps (2X4, fulcrum block, and sech), use a bunggie chord to secure the guitar to a table or chair, use a chair back as a fulcrum, wrap the neck (san strings!) in tinfoil, hang a brick off the headstock! yipe! and place an iron set to medium on the fingerboard for, say, 10 to 20 min. changing position ever min. or so. the glue under the fingerboard will soften, in theory the neck will slip forward, and, kapow! now, take off the heat source. the iron will attempt to burn you, and the telephone will ring, and yer eye will itch, so be careful like mom told you. but, did you listen? let it alone until the next day. OK, OK, I know you won’t do that, leave it at least a couple of hours!
now, get several windings on the stringposts, goin’ DOWN, not UP. ‘makes way better tone. DO NOT cut off the strings until you are dangged sure it’ll tune up without slippin’ the strings.
now, string it up and play. make minor adjustments. also, I have found that adding a BANANA sticker to the headstock face will improve the tone/action/vibe. Donovan told us about that in ’67. also, feather fetishes hanging on tuners and rattlesnake rattles in the body will all add to the utility of the piece. finally, sit in a beat up chair lookin’ at the rain through a smudged window while you mess about on the strings. that will be the payoff!