Zen and the art of guitar maintenance

My experience maintaining my guitars has been minimal, at best. I’ve done nothing more complicated than changing strings and polishing them. So what I just did, for me, is nothing short of miraculous.

Over the last several weeks, I took my corroded Ibanez Les Paul and transformed it into a working beauty.

Most of the issue was metallic. All the hardware needed replacing and I was fortunate that the original dark wood finish was still in great condition. So there was no sanding or refinishing involved, just electronic replacement.

If you want to see what a hot mess it was (and I apologize, I don’t know how that term slipped into my vocabulary), check out yesterday’s blog post, Waiting for the luthier or someone like him.

Over several weeks, I ordered all the new parts I thought I’d need and when the last one finally arrived, I got down to work.

Never having undertaken such a task, of course I consulted all the YouTube experts, but I also acquired information the old-fashioned way: I checked out a few books from the library, including the “Haynes Gibson SG” book, which provided a lot of help.

I won’t bore you with the step-by-step process (and I could do that very easily since I used to be a tech writer before the economy went south in 2009), but basically, I removed all the screws, put them in order so I wouldn’t get them confused (in reality, they all ended up in a jar to soak in WD-40, on the off chance it would remove some of the corrosion). This actually turned out to be unnecessary, because all the replacement pieces came with shiny new screws.

I pried out the huge metal anchors that held in the bridge and tail piece. Then I pounded in the new anchors with a rubber mallet. The tail piece fit perfectly, however, this is when I learned that tune-o-matic bridges are not universal! The new one wasn’t wide enough to span both posts. That’s when I measured the two and found out the new one was a couple millimeters shorter. Frustrated at myself for not figuring this out in the first place, I ordered another one.

The new tune-o-matic fit without even having to use its supplied anchor posts. And personally, I think it’s much snazzier looking. Instead if the traditional wedge-shaped strong guides, this one has little rollers, lime so:

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Next, I removed the humbucker. First the bridge one, tugging on the wire to see which pot it was connected to.

I do not know if it’s the nature of the braided wire Ibanez used originally and the metal acted as a natural heat sink, or if Ibanez used some special heat-resistant solder, or if the soldering iron just wouldn’t get hot enough (but it worked like a charm on all the other soldier joints), but I had a helluva hard time unsoldering those braided ground wires.

Here’s a picture of the rat’s nest prior to my attacking it:

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I had to take a hooked tool and tug while I applied the iron to the solder.  Eventually, they came loose and I was able to feed through the wires for the new humbucker and solder it in. I repeated the procedure with the neck pickup.

Then I replaced the output jack. This was fun because it not only was difficult getting the braided wire unsoldered, it was just as hard getting it soldered into place on the new one. I eventually cheated by taking some bare wire strands from a piece of speaker wire, wrapping it around the post and the braided ground wire, and liberally applying solder to the whole damned thing.

I ended up doing something similar to wire in the new three-position switch because it had three braided grounding wires coming in. I wrapped them together and soldered them to the grounding prong on the switch. Then, my ADHD kicked in and I jumped the gun by screwing in the switch’s cover and the neck humbucker before I tested them to see if they worked.

I plugged in my Smokey amp then out a tuning fork near each pickup. The bridge pickup worked fine. The neck pickup didn’t work.

I unscrewed the switch’s cover, carefully removed the ring bolt, pulled it out, bent back some prongs and made sure no wires were touching, did some solder touch-up, then before putting it back together, tested the humbuckers. Yay! They worked. I put everything back together and tested again. Double yay! They still worked.

I was almost home free. All I had to do was press in the replacement tuner bushings and I’d be done. Turns out, the bushings, although they fit onto the tuning machine pegs, were too wide for the original hole in the headstock. (Having learned my lesson with the wrong sized bridge, I had, in fact, measured these. Unfortunately, the measurement was of the inside diameter of the bushings, not the diameter of the hole it was to go into.

So I got out my drill and a round file and went to work widening each hole. That done, I pressed in the bushings, screwed in the original machine heads, and now I was ready to restring.

I put on the two E strings, then I pressed the low E string at the first fret and at around the 20th fret. I sighted along the neck and realized it touched every fret. That meant I had to adjust the truss rod to put a slight curve in the neck or I’d be suffering from string buzz.

That done, I finished stringing, tuned each string, then played its harmonic at the 12th fret. It was in tune. (I had duplicated where my original tune-o-matic had each string guide set, and must have hit it perfectly).

I played a few tunes on her and was very pleased with her unamplified sound, but the real test would be plugging her in. I had bought a cheap pair of humbuckers off of eBay fully intending to replace them somewhere down the road with higher quality ones, but when I plugged in and played her…

Wow. The sound was rich and warm, with some nice bottom, unlike the thin, trebly-sounding original pickups that I was never happy with.

So now I essentially have a new, nice sounding Les Paul. I had replaced everything, even the strap pegs, except for the volume/tone pots, their knobs, and the tuning machines.

And now, the reveal:

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I’m happy with the results. I also have a feeling of satisfaction having done the work myself. In fact, now I want to buy one of those unfinished wood guitar kits and finish and assemble it.

Until then, my next project is to refinish this stool I found in the trash:

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I would like to give it a piano gloss-like finish. I figure that will give me some experience before I tackle a guitar body.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

-30-

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