I've encountered all types of customers in the 16 years my shop has been open.Some guitar players seem incredibly informed, others can barely string their instrument up. Knowledge is usually based on experience, and some players have been lucky, needing few repairs over the years, while others have been plagued with fussy yet wonderful instruments; requiring many trips to see the doctor. They often seem to learn a lot about good and bad repair work.
This article will discuss some common guitar ailments, and the right and wrong ways of dealing with them. Some players ask me to take shortcuts to save money, or time. Others may want a quick turn-around to sell a guitar, and want the bill to be as low as possible, yet still have the guitar be easy to sell. A repairman can do the wrong thing easily in these situations to make their customer happy, but the wrong thing is always the wrong thing. Below are a few common examples that players and luthiers often deal with.
Neck angle issues:
Many of you may be familiar with the term "neck reset". This is needed when the guitar compresses inward over time, or the neck joint slips a bit in the neck block, causing the angle to become very acute, and the action very high as you get further up the frets. Sometimes lowering the saddle helps a bit, but often, the saddle would need to be so low as to severely reduce the break angle of the strings down into the pinholes. This alters tone dramatically in a guitar, and wise dealers, buyers and players will spot this shortcut a mile away. The saddle needs to be high enough for downward break into the pin holes in order for the energy of the vibrating strings to make the soundboard move correctly. In essence, too low of a saddle will kill tone and volume. Since this lowering can happen several times over years, the player may not even notice the deterioration of tone. A responsible luthier will tell a client when the neck needs to be removed and reset (an expensive and major job). Some repairmen are not skilled enough for this job, so they don't say anything, taking shortcuts. Sometimes, the bridge itself will be planed down, so that the saddle will be higher again. This is really wrong to do on a valuable guitar folks. I've seen more than a fair share of vintage instruments like pre-war Martins and Gibsons, where somebody did this. It is a crime, and devalues the guitar greatly. Players, ALWAYS take the high road, and reset a neck on an important guitar. I know it is expensive, but you wouldn't take shortcuts on a brake job for your car would you? Yes, I have on occasion shaved down a bridge for a customer with an inexpensive guitar where the reset would cost more than the guitar did. This is fine, as it allows the guitar to still be used when it would be otherwise unplayable. Just don't allow this to happen to a fine instrument!
Obviously, the above mentioned shaving issue is important, but there is another; regluing a loose bridge. There are right and wrong ways to do this as well. Most commonly is the practice of slipping glue under the loose bridge and clamping it back down. This is not the best idea, as there is old glue on the surface of the wood, which blocks the glue from getting into the pores of the wood for solid adhesion. The bridge can pop loose again pretty easily this way. A correct bridge reglue requires the removal of the bridge, the cleaning of old glue footprints from both the top and the bridge underside, and then regluing. Here there is more room for error: Some people will try to correct for the bellying of the top by forcing the belly flat while clamping the bridge back on. This changes all the settling in and tone the guitar has grown into. A clamping block called a "caul" is used inside the guitar under the bridgeplate to aid in solid clamping. This caul should ideally match the inner contour of the top, to preserve the sound and structure of the guitar. I have recently begun to use vacuum clamping whenever possible. This technique uses negative air pressure to gently stretch rubber across the bridge to form it to the top with no clamps or cauls at all. It evenly glues the bridge on with controllable pressure, no distortion of wood, and perfect even tone across the bridge when done! Some older guitars can't hold vacuum due to finish checking, old repaired cracks, etc. In this case, the proper caul can be used for a traditional claming method.
This is a touchy subject, as there are so many schools of thought. Is a partial refret acceptable, or should all the frets be replaced when doing a fret job? I personally feel that you should replace all the frets. The wire may differ in many ways even though it look the same as the original wire, causing tone and neck stiffness issues if a partial refret is done. I also am not fond of the practice of planing the fingerboard. Many techs do this when they refret. Removing wood removes stiffness and tone, period. There are often other ways to straighten a tricky fingerboard than removing wood. Fret tangs (the teeth that squeeze into the slots) can be compressed or widened to reshape the neck's relief issues as they are being installed. I've fixed many highly curved necks simply by this technique of compression fretting, with no removal of precious wood from the fingerboard. There always are however, exceptions to the rules when drastic measures need to be taken to keep an instrument playable. Another issue is glue verses no glue when installing frets. The best of us differ on this, and I've seen stunning work with both techniques, so I'll leave this up to you guys to decide for yourselves. My main concern with glue or epoxy in fret work is simply that it not be excessive so that the frets can easily be removed for future refretting. A good tech knows how to do this and will use appropriate glues or epoxies. I prefer dry fret installation, using the bite of the tang to do the job of holding, but there are times when slots are too fragile or wide for this and the glue in method is required.
Do your research; ask friends and guitar companies who they reccommend as a repairman. Once you decide on them, believe and trust them. You're there for a reason, don't challenge, argue price, and hover around the bench nervously as they assess the situation. This stuff drives us crazy and starts the job off on the wrong foot. You should always feel free to ask questions, learn what will be done and why, and inquire how to avoid future issues. A responsible luthier will enjoy sharing this information, as an informed customer is a good customer. I sense at times that some customers have had bad experiences in the past, hence the hovering and paranoia. That is why I suggest the above-mentioned research.