Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bus Repellent

I, like most people, think of myself as a rational, sensible person. I don't believe in fairies, gods, or ghosts and I consider it extremely unlikely (like ‘struck by lighting on the toilet’ unlikely) that we'll ever be visited by aliens. Nonetheless, like all people who think of themselves as sensible and rational, I find odd little superstitions and irrational beliefs creeping into my thinking from time to time. I don't resent these things, or consider them to be failings (they're a normal part of being human, after all), but it is a little alarming the way that they insidiously work their way into your thinking.

A good example of this is my relationship with buses. I don't own a car, and I can't drive, so I tend to spend a lot of time on public transport. The ineffable chaos theory that governs urban traffic makes a mockery of any attempt to impose a train-style timetable on bus services. The frequency and timing of buses is, for all intents and purposes, random. I remember reading a few years ago about an experiment where animals were placed in cages with a machine that dispensed food pellets at random intervals. In almost every case, within a few days the animals had become convinced that some action of theirs was making food pellets come out; they'd do strange dances and movements that they thought made the pellets appear, and didn't seem to notice that they appeared even when they were still.

Like the animals in the cages, when presented with something that was essentially random (in my case, buses), I started to develop an odd and superstitious way of thinking. At first, these superstitions were just a sort of in-joke between me and Kristen, something to talk about while waiting for a bus to appear. But as time went on I increasingly found myself seriously considering these ideas. When waiting for buses, for example, we'd sometimes dramatically turn and walk away from the bus stop, muttering about how we were going to walk home, in the hope of ‘summoning’ a bus. This was just a bit of harmless silliness until the day I found myself doing this when I was on my own. On an empty street. At about 1am.

I felt a bit stupid after that.

The most insidious of these weird superstitions, however, was the belief that Kristen was afflicted with some sort of curse that drove buses away. Again – this started as a joke – me talking about how she shouldn't have desecrated the high altar of the secretive Bus Cult, or something like that, while we were waiting for a bus in the rain. Like the others though, this soon crossed the line from the shelves in my mind marked ‘silly fictions’ to the shelves marked ‘real things’, with me subconsciously looking for proof of its existence.

The world was happy to oblige my weird superstitions at this point: Kristen seemed to be singularly unlucky with buses, and when I was with her, so was I. It wasn't just buses either. I remember there was one particular week when she had a gig up in London and got the train in with me a few times, each time there was some kind of catastrophic railway implosion; delays, cancellations, and long periods of sitting in stationary trains. The rest of the time I got into work just fine.

There was one day when I realized that I was seriously taking Kristen's ‘Bus Repellent’ – as I'd come to think of it – into account while planning our route to the pub. Allowing a more than generous amount of time to get there and trying to come up with a route that minimized the possibility of interference from the bus gods. This entirely imagined problem actually made me resent Kristen for a while – I started getting a later train into work (although admittedly this was mostly motivated by laziness) to ensure that I was not troubled by her influence.

I'm not sure what caused this odd superstition to eventually ebb away. I'd like to think that it was me being sensible and rational, but I don't think it was. I think it was just basic probabilities – Kristen's luck got better, mine got worse; things felt like they were leveling out. Our lives got a lot less stressful as well, which certainly helped me care less about minor inconveniences.

I think this superstition was dealt a final death-blow a few months ago when TFL unveiled their live bus updates system. It's taken the random and mysterious element out of public transport, like scientists figuring out lightning did for the thunder gods...


As a little postscript for this strange ramble (which I started intending for it to be about something else entirely, something that I'll have to write about another day) I'd like to briefly outline my attitude to the universe as pertains to things other than buses. Like I mentioned further up, I'm not a believer in gods, nor do I wistfully believe that ‘there has to be something out there’. I do, however, believe firmly in the fundamental malevolence of all things. I have found that if there's two ways something can happen, and both are as likely as the other, then the shittier option will be the one that takes place.

A case in point – and the incident that led me to formulate this philosophy in the first place –  a few years ago, when I was working on a guitar, I found myself faced with a dilemma. The pickup I was trying to install was an old and strange one (a late-1980s DiMarzio Jazz, as I recall) with no obvious logic to the color coding of its output wires. It was a humbucker, so, four wires coming out. I was able to identify two of them, but the other two were a mystery.

I realized that I had a 50/50 choice. If I wired them one way, the pickup would work fine. If I wired them up the other way, the pickup would be out of phase. I would have no way of knowing whether I'd gotten it right or not until after I'd completed the wiring, reattached the bridge, and restrung the instrument. I had a nasty suspicion that whichever way I chose to do it, it would turn out to be the wrong way and I was right. The damn thing was out of phase and I had to spent about an hour taking off the strings and rewiring it.

A few months later I found myself faced with the exact same problem in a different guitar. Once again, I made my choice and once again I was wrong. I've come up against many variations on this basic conundrum over the years (usually as a result of me dropping some extremely complicated switch I'd just finished pre-wiring and forgetting which end was which) and only once have I ever gotten it right.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, Part the First

About two years ago, while walking back from the shops near my house, I saw a guitar headstock sticking out of a bin. Curious, I walked over and had a look. I saw a slightly battered looking 90s Ibanez, with an RG-shape body, very worn and battered looking hardware, and a snapped neck. I didn't recognize the model name on the headstock, but it was clearly a fairly low-end guitar. If it wasn't for the fact that I could see ‘Seymour Duncan’ written on the bridge pickup (SD are a maker of nice aftermarket pickups that cost about £70 each) I would have left it where it was. The neck didn't look that badly broken and I figured that, if nothing else, the electronics were worth salvaging, so I pulled it out of the bin and took it home, much to Kristen's annoyance.
The poor thing when it first arrived

 It had suffered an accident, possibly guitar flip related.

Top half is sheared along the neck join, bottom half is ragged.

When I got back to the house I cleaned it up a bit and gave it a closer examination. The break was worse than it had initially appeared; the neck and fingerboard were sheared through and the strings were the only thing holding the headstock in place. Some material had split off and been lost from the back of the neck, exposing the truss rod. The rest of the guitar was in a similarly poor state. The neck pickup was covered with a layer of gaffa tape that disguised a gaping hole in the front. The hair-thin wire of the coils had clearly been damaged, rendering the pickup useless. When I tried to dismantle the Floyd Rose tremolo I found that several of the machine screws holding the saddles in place had been cross-threaded. It took some vice-grips and a great deal of effort to get them out, and, once removed, they would not go back in.

For a guitar that probably cost no more than £200 to begin with, it was clearly too badly damaged to be worth the effort of repairing. Nonetheless, I decided to try. I'd been doing minor repairs to guitars for years and was excited by the opportunity to try my hand at the woodworking and fretting side of things.

Things didn't start well. In fact, they started pretty terribly. I'm not sure if this was entirely down to my incompetence (it was a cheap instrument, designed without much consideration for how it could be repaired), but I'm pretty sure my incompetence was the main contributing factor.

I decided that the first thing I needed to do was remove the fretboard so that I could remove the truss rod. I used lots of water and a heated palette-knife to try and ease apart the glue-join, but it would not cooperate. I had to use increasing amounts of force which eventually resulted in the fretboard disintegrating. This was probably unavoidable – to save costs, the fretboards on these instruments are very thin, with barely 1mm of clearance between the bottom of the fretwire and the underside of the board – but in retrospect I'm not sure if I actually *had* to take the fretboard off. It may have been possible to reattach the neck without doing any of that.

So, after round one I had a shredded fretboard which I would have to replace and re-fret. I wanted to teach myself how to do fretting anyway, however, so I wasn't overly bothered. Moreover, not only do I rarely every play electric guitars, I also already have one. So I wasn't in any rush. I bought two pre-cut fretboards from Stewart MacDonald (one just in case I fucked up the first one) and a few metres of fretwire.

While waiting for the fretboards to arrive, I decided to get on with the business of attaching the headstock. My plan was sound – reglue the bits I had, then square off the ragged hole in the back of the neck and plug it – but my execution was lacking. Having never really done any woodworking before, and not having any of the proper tools, I struggled to make the hole square. Each attempt to make the gap a more regular shape just made the hole bigger, until I had carved out a section that was so deep it critically weakened the neck join. After a great deal of practice with scrap wood I was able to carve out a half-decent plug for this hole, but it was never going to hold.

Gluing the neck back together.

The plug. I got a lot of practice carving wood before I scrounged a chunk of scrap maple from a guitar workshop on Denmark street. That large vertical glue join would undoubtedly fail the second strings were put on. Seeing as I buggered up the Fretwork, however, this never actually happened.

I decided to plow on anyway, however, because I figured I may as well get practice making the whole neck, even if it was never going to be usable. I glued the fretboard on (with gorilla glue – a bad choice) and had a go at fretting. Again, this wasn't something I'd ever attempted before, and I didn't have any of the right tools. I had no consistent way of bending the fretwire before I pushed it in, so the ends tended to spring out of their slots the second I turned my back. Also, as the fretwire wasn't curved to a consistent radius, it tended to be all lumpy and odd even when it was seated properly.

It didn't help, of course, that I was essentially just trying to mash the stuff into place with a clawhammer. Each fret was traumatisingly battered by the time I've managed to get it seated halfway right.

I declared the neck to be soundly and completely fucked up, and gave up.