Sunday, March 13, 2011


I replaced the busted barrel-jack on my Yamaha bass the other week (a relatively simple but very fiddly bit of wiring) and that reignited my urge to tinker with guitars. I can't begin round three of Ben vs. Refinishing (see these posts) until the weather improves, so the other day I took the opportunity to abduct Ed's guitar (the Stratobastard) for a quick bit of maintenance.

It's been more than three years since I made the alterations described here. Surprisingly, the electrics in the guitar seem to be holding up well—there aren't any settings that make it go dead, nor any that crackle or hiss. The only electrical issue worthy of mention is the fact that the pickup housing on the neck pickup becomes live when the pickups are switched into series. I know how to fix this, but I don't have the tools, nor the balls to do it just yet (It involves cutting the pickup casing open with a dremel-like  tool and creating separate ground wires for the casing and the signal ground). I'll sort that out one day, but it's not a pressing issue right now.

The main reason I wanted to get this guitar back on the workbench (it's a figurative workbench, obviously, as I do most of my tech work sitting on the floor in the attic) was because of a fretwork issue I noticed during its overhaul. I didn't have time to fix this problem back then, so the action has always been far too high for my tastes. Ed has never had a problem with this, but it has always bothered me. If he wants high action because he likes it that way, then that's fine, but I don't want the stratobastard to have high action because it's impossible to play otherwise.

I spent a few minutes raising and lowering the action, playing scales, and staring down the neck until I went cross eyed. Some day, I'll buy a set of relief measuring tools, but for now I'm more comfortable assessing the state of a guitar by eye and ear. What I figured out was that the guitar was suffering from a condition I call "the hump," where the fretboard has warped slightly around the neck join. It's something that happens as guitars age, and as the neck-wood settles into the join. It's another one of the reasons that I'm going off the idea of ever buying guitars that are less that 5 years old.

Ed's guitar didn't have the worst case I've ever seen, but it was bad enough to make the guitar unplayable beyond the 12th fret. The 15th fret, in particular, stood 2-3mm proud of its neighbors on the treble side. Extreme cases of the hump (the likes of which I've only ever seen on old mandolins) can only be treated by defretting the neck and planing down the fretboard, but this one was mild enough to be treated be re-profiling and re-crowning the frets (using techniques broadly similar to the ones outlined here)

While I was doing this I made a few very minor adjustments to the truss rod, to straighten out the neck a little, and fiddled around with the intonation on the tremolo. The end result is a dramatic lowering of the action, with none of the buzzing or dead notes that caused problems before, and once again, I managed to do the whole thing without injuring myself. Huzzah.