Les Paul

Sketchy Setups — Four New Setup Guides

Gather 'round for a story…

When I started my own setups, a looooong time ago, things weren’t always easy. 

Information was thin on the ground. In the pre-internet age, you had to rely on gleaning snippets of advice from musicians you knew or met. Amazing results weren’t guaranteed.

Then the internet came along (yes, I’m that old, you damn kids). That was interesting. At first, you could read the whole thing in a day but gradually, you’d find sites with little nuggets of guitar information. Of course, many of these nuggets were from guys like the ones I’d met locally—now, they just happened to be guys from different places. Similar results. 

The amount of information on the internet grew. Forum sites shared heaps of tips and tricks and you could often find massively usefully stuff there. As is often the way with public forums, though, a lot of their content was parroted myths and half-truths, personal opinion masquerading as fact, or just plain wrong… 

“You should always do X. You should never do Y. If you touch the truss-rod, it will spell the end of existence.”

So what do you do if you want to get reliable, useful, simple information on guitar or bass setup?

Well (ahem), I may be able to help…

New Sketchy Setups Guides Launch Tomorrow

I can't wait. 

I promised more Sketchy Setups and here they are. Available from Tuesday, 19th July you'll now be able to get the setup skinny on four instrument types. 

  • Sketchy Setups #1: The Fender Stratocaster
  • Sketchy Setups #2: The Fender Telecaster
  • Sketchy Setups #3: The Gibson Les Paul, SG, 335, etc.
  • Sketchy Setups #4: The Fender Precision and Jazz Bass

Each of these setup guides is focussed on just one instrument or instrument 'type'. Why would you want to read about a Strat tremolo when you're setting up a Les Paul? Is it useful to learn about a Gibson tailpiece when you're working on your P-Bass? Just the right information for your guitar or bass. 

Hand-drawn setup guides

Every one of these guides started out with paper, pencil, and ink. They are hand-drawn and hand-written. Even the setup information that's common to all instruments was re-drawn each time (so each guide is a unique snowflake). 

Illustrating like this let me show things that would have been impossible or less clear in a photograph. And it has the added benefit of giving a laid-back and friendly feel to the guides. 

More information will follow…

All new Sketchy Setups available from Tuesday, July 19th. More information will follow between now and then.

Upgrade from early versions

Anyone who bought a copy of Sketchy Setups #1: The Fender Stratocaster will get a free upgrade to the new version. If you haven't received an email from me already, you'll get one soon (check your spam folders and contact me if you haven't heard by launch-day on the 19th July). Thank you to all the buyers of version 1 — I really appreciate your trust.

 

 

Les Paul Neck Removal and Repair

les paul broken neck heel

Yikes. If you've been reading my stuff for a while, you've probably spotted a few different examples of neck breaks. Most of these have been up at the headstock end as that's the more likely place for a break.

It can happen down the other end too, though. This Les Paul took a tumble and broke in a nasty way. The exterior damage is obvious but it's pretty certain that crack extends into the neck tenon too (the tenon's the bit that gets glued into the neck pocket in the body).

This neck needs to come out to be properly repaired.

It's not too often that I need to remove a Les Paul neck, which is lucky as it's a relatively involved job. With a strong cup of tea to steel myself, I set to work.

les paul heel repair frets
les paul neck removal

First up, a few frets need to come out. To remove this neck, I need to soak and steam the glue out and that means getting access to the internals of the neck joint. I do this by drilling small 'access' holes. These are drilled in the fret slots. When it's all done, I'll fill the holes with rosewood plugs and re-cut the slots. All of this is hidden by the refitted frets.

Your eagle-eyes will have noticed a little dot on each (numbered) fret. These frets will be refitted and the dot tells me which is the bass end.

Keeping fingers crossed, I take a look under the neck pickup, hoping for a long tenon. No luck. If I could have seen the end of the tenon, I'd know exactly what size it was so I could position my holes to accurately access the sides of the neck joint  (if it's not clear what I mean here, a photo later on might clarify things).

Since all of this tenon is hidden, I have to measure out the usual Gibson size and position for this guitar and hope that it's built properly to spec.

In the photo, above on the right, you can see the pencil marks I've used to plot out the tenon and the holes I've drilled to get access to the joint.

gibson neck removal
steaming off gibson neck

This one's a bit weird-looking, I'll admit.

In the left image, I'm using a syringe to insert boiling water into the holes I've drilled. I give it a few seconds and then suck it back up again. What comes out is cooler water with some manky-looking dissolved glue. I repeat this process a lot over the course of a couple of days. A Les Paul neck joint is a hell of a strong joint and doing this gives me a little bit of a head start before I hit it with the steam.

Which is what's happening on the right. That nozzle lets me get piping hot steam deep into the joint. The heat and moisture helps to dissolve more glue and, after some time and work, the glue eventually lets go…

les paul neck tenon
les paul neck joint repair

…Leaving most of the bloody tenon still in the pocket. D'oh!

The heel crack extended into the tenon as we thought. Now I have to keep working to get this piece out with pretty much no leverage.

More tea required, I think.

Some steamy swearing later and it's out. Now, in the side of that neck tenon, you can see the tracks of those holes I drilled earlier. We were right on the money with the positions too—nice.

gibson guitar neck tenon repair
les paul neck joint fix

And here's the jigsaw we need to get back together. You'll notice a small shim in the neck pocket. This was installed at the factory (it's not uncommon) and I'll reuse it for this repair.

All of the old glue is cleaned from the mortice and the tenon and then, the two bits of neck are glued back together. Again, the tracks of those access holes are clear in the photo on the right.

gibson neck tenon repair
les paul repair touch-up

Once it's sound again, the neck is reattached to the body. Those frets are reinstalled and all the frets are levelled to ensure clean playability.

Then, it's just some touch-up to hide the evidence. As the rear and neck of this Les Paul are black, the opaque colour easily disguises the repair.

It took a bit of thought, a lot of work and twelve buckets of tea but this job's a good 'un.


Refinishing Gibson Les Paul Custom

Refinish Gibson Les Paul Custom

You know when you paint your sitting room and you break out the masking tape to stick around all the bits you want to prevent getting covered in that weird green colour that's going on your walls?

Yeah?

Well, I'm certain you know the wonderful curvaceous ins and outs of a Gibson Les Paul.

Imagine having to fiddle about, awkwardly trying to mask off all that beautiful, curvy, binding on the top before you spray it? How much effort and time must that take in the Gibson finishing department every day?

Well, none really. Gibson don't bother masking the binding here before spraying that sunburst or that Black Beauty. It's just too much work. It's far easier to spray over the binding and then scrape it off again.

This Les Paul is being refinished with a black top. I spray solid colour (after some surface prep and sealing coats) over the whole top, let it dry a little (not too much, though) and then scrape the new finish off along the binding. It's actually pretty easy to use a blade, with a knuckle as a depth-stop, to remove the finish cleanly.

Custom refinish on Les Paul guitar
Binding on guitar refinish

With that done, I'll let some of the solvents evaporate a day or two before starting on the clear lacquer top-coats (including a little 'antiquing' for the binding). This bundle of top-coats then needs to cure before being sanded and buffed out to a gloss—a gloss that I'll actually knock back with some gentle relicing to get things in keeping with the rest of the guitar.

None more black. None more beautiful.

By the way, you'll notice that the sides are masked. It's a lot easier to mask here than on the top and, often (as in this case), you'll want to keep the top colours off the side.

Cross-posted to Guitarless

What To Do If You Break Your Guitar's Neck

I've written a little about specific headstock repairs and it occurred to me that might be a good idea to give you an overview with some tips  and considerations on how to prevent broken necks and what to do if the worst happens.  It's a little long but could well prove useful to know…

The worst thing in the world?

You're finished the gig and you're enjoying a well-earned beer at the bar. You're careful to keep an eye on your pride and joy, propped up against your amp on stage, to make sure nobody swipes it. It's safe though, the drummer's up there packing up his gear.

Wait! The drummer's knocked against your amp with his fat arse*. Your guitar tips, slowly, very slowly, it's going, it's going… And it's gone. It hits the ground and the headstock keeps going. You can hear the crack over the noise of the crowd.

Is there anything worse?

Of course there is, but for a guitarist this is one of life's grimmer moments. A broken neck. You fall to your knees, hands imploring the heavens, and bellow, "Noooooooooo!" The security guy eyes you suspiciously.

Why? Why? For Clapton's sake, why?

Gibson_Headstock-thumb.jpg

How could this have happened? Well, you could possibly go so far as to call it a design flaw. On any guitar with an angled-back headstock, the area where it angles is naturally weak. This is because of a number of factors but primarily to do with the timber's grain direction and the fact that the area is pretty thin - the thinnest part of the neck. Add to this the fact that many instruments have a truss-rod access channel here, effectively removing even more wood from an already weak area, and you have a recipe for breaks.

The image on the left shows a Les Paul neck/headstock. I've added a dotted line to indicate, approximately, the depth that the truss-rod access cavity is cut. You can see there's not a lot left.

Many guitar makers try to alleviate the potential for trouble in this area with a variety of means; multi-ply 'sandwich' necks, truss rod-access moved elsewhere or reduced, scarfed headstocks, and the most common, a volute. A volute is simply a shaped/carved 'bulge' that's left in the weak area to strengthen it (although it might be more accurate to say 'not to weaken it').

Gibson are frequent stop-outs on this though. Although a volute was introduced on many Gibsons in the late '60s, it was phased out again and it's appearance on modern Gibsons is hit-or-miss. Most don't have one. Indeed, while all instruments with angled headstocks have breakage potential, Gibsons (SGs and Les Pauls in particular) top the charts in the headstock repairs I perform. If Gibson ever start strengthening this area, guitar repair guys all over the world are going to see their incomes drop.

My guitar neck is broken. What do I do?

If you do manage to break or crack your guitar's neck or peghead, don't panic. Almost anything is repairable. Here are the immediate steps to take.

  1. If the headstock is still attached to the neck (the headstock veneer often keeps it attached), gently - very, very gently - slacken off the strings. Pop it in it's case and get yourself to a good repair guy.
  2. If the headstock is just cracked, do the same - slacken off and get it repaired.
  3. If the headstock is completely detached, carefully wrap it up in something (a bag, newspaper, etc.) and try not to knock, damage or disturb those jagged splinters of wood poking out.
  4. Don't try to fit the headstock back to the neck as the joint should usually be examined and cleared of any misaligned splinters or loose timber before this is attempted.
  5. Check for any splinters that have come loose and if you find any, pop them in a bag - they'll help complete the jigsaw and assist in getting a good, clean repair.

Repairing a broken guitar neck

The first repair is the important one. If it's not done well, then you've got a reasonable chance of the guitar breaking along that fault again. Sometimes string tension alone can be enough to pull a badly repaired break apart. And, repairing along a previous repair is much more difficult, time-consuming and often more invasive. Not to mention more expensive.

The lesson? Don't break your guitar neck but, if you do, get it repaired properly first time around.

Talk to your repair guy and ask him/her to discuss the repair. A good repair guy will be happy to chat about their plans. What glue will be used is important for example. For most repairs either hot hide glue or aliphatic resin is the right choice. If your repair-guy decides immediately to slap in a load of epoxy, you might want to ask them why. While epoxy certainly has a place in headstock repair, it's generally a limited one. Epoxy is incredibly strong if used properly but its nature makes it difficult to penetrate cracks and it's not usually a first choice adhesive for most of these jobs.

Headstock_repair_-_backstrap_overlay-thumb.jpg

The majority of broken necks tend to be relatively straightforward. Some, however, require a bit more effort. 'Short' breaks across the neck or the headstock that allow very little 'glueing' surface will often need to be reinforced. Reinforcement may involve glueing in new pieces of wood, called splines, that extend beyond the break and provide additional strength.

Other reinforcement methods include the use of 'overlays'. A back-strap or front-strap overlay is a veneer of wood that gets glued on to the back or front of the headstock and will often extend down into the neck area (as shown in the diagram). It's necessary to remove existing wood from these areas to fit the overlay and the newly-glued overlays must be drilled for tuners and so on. Refinishing the area is also necessary. Overlays take a lot of work but can often be a relatively discrete way of reinforcing a break.

This sort of reinforcement is often necessary for repairing previously-repaired breaks (i.e. second repairs) too, as it's often not possible to get a clean joint on on a break that's been glued before - that's why it's important to get it right first time.

Prevention is better than cure.

Almost all headstock cracks and breaks are caused by the instrument falling. If everyone put their guitars into their cases after they were finished playing or gigging, I'd be able to afford less beer every month.

Cases are not a guarantee - I've seen a headstock break after a fall in a case - but they certainly get you most of the way there. A good-fitting, hard case will protect your guitar from most things. If you wanted to be a bit anally-retentive about it, you could slacken the strings off before stowing your guitar but that's probably overkill for most people (although you should definitely do so if you ever have to ship your guitar anywhere).

If it's too much of a pain to put your guitar away, get a decent stand or locking hanger. There are even hangers that can attach to your amp combo or cabinet now. Stands and hangers obviously won't give you the same protection as a hard case but they're better than just leaning your guitar against your amp (no matter how cool that might look).

The upshot

Protect your guitar and you might never have to get its neck repaired. If the worst happens though, don't panic - things can be put right again. Make sure you trust whoever is repairing the broken neck though - the only thing worse than having to get your neck repaired is having to get it done twice.

If you've any questions, feel free to drop me a line. I'll do my best to answer them.

*With apologies to drummers everywhere - I'm a bad person, going for the easy laughs. ;-)