The Guitar Whisperers: Staying True to a Gibson L-00
I have been building and repairing instruments in Nashville, Tennessee, for 35 years, slowly gathering chops and experience. With that has come more than the deserved praise and the occasional colicky customer who is determined to be miserable. I aim to make every person happy, but making myself happy and doing the right thing for the instrument is really behind all that. Ultimately, I am in an unending competition with myself. While I am interested in tips and techniques and constantly do surveillance on my peers and pals, I am far more interested in the inner approach of these master craftsmen, these guitar whisperers.
Maybe even more than in the pre-digital world, today’s public has mythologized the skills that they only partially understand. Some want to see you as a god or a dog and then spread the word. Really, the truth lies in between. Nonetheless, combine that expectation with a fully developed respect for the greatness of instruments, and the pressure is on to please. The artisans who work endlessly to please and impress themselves are the ones who impress me. At that level technique is philosophy and vice versa. I too used to just think technique was technique, but one moment changed that.
About 2000, at one of Bryan Galloup’s North Woods Guitar Seminars, a gathering of a dozen or so of Bryan’s students got two days of demonstrations from a great collection of obsessed repair people, including Bryan, Dan Erlewine, Frank Ford, Tom Murphy, Abe Wechter, Jim Rolf, Tim Scheerhorn, T.J. Thompson, Seymour Duncan, Lindy Fralin, and others.
Like most, I had prepared some thoughts and brought tooling, not wanting to look like an impostor to my peers, most of whom I then knew slightly. I talked about my obsessions – fret placement, string movement, tuning solutions, staggered nuts – and then sat back and soaked up specialties, techniques and insights. All of the pros were top-notch problem solvers, but none had the mystique of T.J. Thompson, so his turn was the most highly anticipated, especially by the other presenters.
“Make a silent deal with that guitar and with its owner, a pledge to work together, to be sensitive to the little messages.”
Unlike the rest of us, T.J. brought no props and no plan, but asked if there were any questions. Frank Ford, taking the opportunity to dig into a legend, asked T.J. how he would approach patching and hiding a hole in a spruce top, a difficult if not impossible task and something we only hear can be done. T.J. launched into a dreamy rambling explanation of the approach, talking about turning the instrument over in his hands, getting the feel of it and making a deal with it to work together to success. He never did get down to details and ended up talking excitedly about his stash of wood scraps. The room felt like it had been denied the tricks of a magic act.
Not knowing T.J. then, I wanted to take this as a slippery side step, but it hit me deeper than any of the master info I had heard all weekend. Even in my much less advanced world, it released an unexpressed truth. This truth has since gone on to help me to put into thoughts and words an important part of what I do every day and what I try to teach to employees and anyone with potential. Here it is: Make a silent deal with that guitar and with its owner, a pledge to work together, to be sensitive to the little messages that are there, since the guitar can’t tell you where it hurts or who did what and when. This might sound like old hippie zen, but it’s more than that because it becomes the breath control that steadies your hand, the peripheral vision that tips you off to hidden structure problems, the elevated sense of smell that confesses to epoxy or cyano, or the brail that helps you feel a tiny crack or see in your mind the size of the object that must be loose to sound like that mysterious noise that no one has been able to silence so far.
I hope that our ongoing Guitar Whisperer series will be a shared forum for the exceptional experiences that we have had, the ones that can be retold and shown in photos. By breaking down this intangible magic into tips and techniques, it can be shared or at least witnessed. Hopefully we will offer a view to the almost mystical problem solving, a process that may not ever be used that same way but is a lesson in itself. Besides offering inspiration, this is about learning a way to see, to think, and even to persevere as things go bad. This will be for and about the well-known repair person, the up-and-coming genius, the tinkerer, the owner/player needing special repair, and the instrument lover who just wants to hear good stories the way I watch the Tour de France or Iron Chefs. Hopefully, it will help us all continue to do the best work and make the best decisions – together.
Debut column: Tonight I went to look at some guitars in the collection of a man who was primarily a great gun builder. He was reportedly one of the two or three premier guys in the U.S., a machinist, engraver, inlay artist and woodworker whose skills and output were daunting. He had a few lovely 1920s Martins, including a OO-45 to which he had added more expertly engraved pearl, albeit expertly engraved.
When I mentioned the downside of the added artwork, his son showed me a series of rare 100-year-old revolvers his father had polished out of their case-hardened patina and then engraved to the max – at a value drop of almost half.
Obviously, collectors value originality and discourage redecorating vintage classics and have become wishful users of the phrase “make it go away.” Carried to its logical extreme, we end up having a day like mine – not the visit to the gun maker but what I did before that.
There was a cool black Gibson L-00 in the shop with a badly bent “D” tuner that had hit something hard enough to also chip a considerable chunk off of the black button of Bakelite or some similar non-plastic material. I have rarely managed to un-bend a tuner shaft without it breaking just as it gets straight, but I decided to remove it, pull the button and attempt to heat it to red hot and gently undo the kink. Note: I could use some insight here as there is probably some magic I don’t know!
As I feared, the brass shaft broke right at the worm gear just as it was looking good. Unwilling to resort to a set of semi-plausible replacement tuners and always up for an adventure, I concocted Plan B. I put the 0.500″ long worm into the lathe, center bored a starting divot and then drilled a 0.107 diameter x 0.187 deep hole in the worm. I picked a diameter that was enough smaller than the core of the worm so it would not shatter in use. I then turned down a brass rod to have a 0.105 stud that fit into the worm just up to its shoulder and then turned the rest down to 0.139 to match the original shaft size.
The original tuner shaft was grooved with nine splines to keep it from spinning where it was press fit into the tuner button. To fake this, I clamped the shaft in a vise and broached a groove with the tail end of a ¼” square file that I turned into an engraving chisel on the disc sander. I drew nine lines around the end and used the vise jaws to guide the file to make straight grooves.
I used the mini crack torch we ordinarily use to heat a tuner shaft hot enough to soften plastic as we slide on replacement buttons. But in this case, the heat was necessary to sweat solder the shaft into the worm.
The button was granular, so I made up some phenolic dust on the belt sander to use as a patching material. I experimented with a drop of cyano. The resulting clump looked a bit gray, so I added a touch of black stain to the phenolic dust. After piling powder where the chunk of tuner was missing and hitting it with a few drops of glue, the button was ready to be sculpted to its original shape. I smooth sanded it and then wiped on a thin coat of cyano, and it looked perfect.
The splined shaft pushed nicely into the restored button and all that remained was to oxidize the bright brass with a Q-tip dipped in oxidizing solution. After showing it off to my guys and a couple of customers, I put the tuner shaft and gear into the strip tuner. I put it in the “A” position since it will be more protected. It tuned up and held fine.
Like the gun maker, I am sure that part of my motivation is self-entertainment and a need to leave my mark. But the fact is, other than taking some pics to show the process, the object really is to leave no visible mark. That sounds contradictory – and it is – but that may be the point of this page, to have a place to briefly show things that, if done well, will never be seen again. It may be a place to illustrate things that make no economic sense, to show problem solving where the smart solution would have been the easy way out, where no matter how pleased the instrument owner may be, the real kick was in doing the job well and doing the instrument right.