Frets About Frets June 2011

As usual, I get subject suggestions from my customers in my shop… and this month is no different.

On a recent Monday, One of my regular customers came in and mentioned that I have quite and “eclectic” mix of pre-loved instruments on the wall.

“That’s just how things go here. I get what ever my customers are willing to sell. Some are upgrading… some are just “thinning the herd””, I answered. “Want a cup of coffee?”

The man took the beverage and he began to play EVERY instrument in the shop. He played the Gibson 137, the Rickenbacker 230, the Fender Cordoba 12 string, the Godin Radiator, the Fender Jerry Donahue Tele, the Dan Electro Dead-on ’67, the Schecter Hellraiser, the PRS Tremonti, the G&L Legacy Strat, the Gibson Studio Les Paul, the1935 Dobro Model 46, the DBZ Bolero, the hand-made Northwood acoustic, the Morgan, the Taylor 110, even the Martin Alternative X Aluminum guitar…

Then he turned to me and said “Thank you… I don’t know of any other place where I could see and play such a variety of instruments”. He finished his cup of coffee and bid his farewells.

This is a regular occurrence at Little Rock Frets. People come in have a cup O’ Joe and enjoy playing whatever I have hangin’ on the wall. I like that.

A couple of days later I noticed that more and more people started coming into my little shop and playing the consignment instruments… then, on Saturday, the Customer came back in. He went straight to the coffee and helped himself. He proceeded to peruse the showroom again. “I sold a few instruments… and, as you can see, I’ve gotten a few more in”, I called out. “I see…” He responded. He began playing the new arrivals.

“ I told some friends about your shop” the customer said.

I was please “Great!” I said. “I think some of them might have come in to see you”… I think you are right” the conversation continued.

While my main business (and love) is to provide stringed instrument repair, I also enjoy having a place where musicians can come in, sit down and enjoy instruments… I believe that’s why it’s call PLAYING music… for the sheer pleasure of it.

If you need an instrument repaired… or you just want to come in and play what’s on the wall, you are always welcome at my little shop.

To suggest topic for this article, email me at or Call: 501-223-FRET (3738)

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Frets About Frets Dec. 2010

Through the years, I have fielded many o’ question about guitars and other fretted instruments. I have always maintained the philosophy that “If I don’t know the answer, I will find out”… Now… I may Bull$#!+ about Football, TV Programs and  Women (Seriously, who actually KNOWS about women?) but I will NOT just “make up” an answer about the maintenance of guitars… I gotta’ have my priorities, right?

By far, the most questions were with relation to humidity and how changes affect fretted instruments.

In Arkansas, we are cursed AND blessed with humidity. In the summertime, when the livin’ is easy, we may have a humidity of 80%… and in winter, the temperature drops, and if you have live in an older house or do not have a humidifier installed in your HVAC system, our furnaces kick on and relative humidity can drop as low as 20%.

This swing in relative humidity can wreak havoc with our fretted friends.

First, lets make clear what REALATIVE HUMIDITY actually means.

Technically Speaking

I’ll try to explain Relative Humidity (RH) as simply as I can. The word “relative” is used because it changes as temperature changes. If, for example, on a cold winter day it’s 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside with an RH of 50%, and that air enters your home and is heated to 70 degrees, the humidity drops relative to the temperature. In short, the amount of moisture in the room is the same, but since the warmer air is capable of transporting more water vapor, the “relative” humidity drops.

Now, to confuse that matter even more, there is a common misconception concerning water vapor and air.

Please notice that I stated that air TRANSPORTS more water vapor… I purposely did not say “HOLD” more water vapor. Here’s why:

Often the notion of air holding water vapor is presented to describe the concept of relative humidity. However, air simply acts as a transporter of water vapor and is not a holder of it. Water vapor does NOT BOND to air or the gasses that make up breathable air… For this reason, relative humidity is generally understood in terms of the physical properties of water alone and therefore is unrelated to the concept of absorption of water vapor in air. In fact, water vapor can be present in an airless volume and therefore the relative humidity of this volume can be readily calculated.

The misconception that air holds water is likely the result of the use of the word saturation, which is often misused in descriptions of relative humidity. In the present context the word “Saturation” refers to the state of water vapor, not the solubility of one material in another.

The thermo-physical properties of water-air mixtures encountered at atmospheric conditions are reasonably approximated by assuming they behave as a mixture of ideal gases. For many practical purposes the assumption that both components (air and water) behave independently of each other is reasonable. Therefore the physical properties of an air-water mixture can be estimated by considering the physical properties of each component separately.

Got it?

Well, if you’re scientifically oriented, then this probably makes sense. If you’re not, just understand this:

When you heat air, the humidity drops. And by drops, I mean it plummets. It’s easy to lower the RH in your house to 10% just by heating it.

Now that you are all Ed-U-cated… Let’s get to those question:

How does relative humidity affect guitars?

Wood will try to equalize to it’s surrounding air, in temperature and humidity. If wood becomes too moist it will swell; on the other hand, if wood gives up it’s moisture, it will shrink. All are physical characteristics of wood.

What is the desired level of humidity?

45%-55% relative humidity is optimum. If this is obtained, you minimize the risk of damage. This is the relative humidity the Martin Guitar factory maintains.

What if my guitar has been subject to excessive humidity?

If your guitar has been exposed to excessive humidity seams may separate, bridges may become loose and your action may become unplayable. A dehumidifier is recommended if your guitar has seen these changes.

What if my guitar has been stored in a dry environment?

Low humidity seems to be more of an issue. As your guitar dries, the wood actually shrinks. This results in the top lowering and the strings come with it. All of this stress results in the wood cracking. To solve this problem you should invest in a humidifier. Be sure to also get a hygrometer to measure how much humidity you bring into the air.

What happens to my guitar at 60% humidity?

At 60% relative humidity or above symptoms may include tarnished frets and strings, corrosion to nickel, chrome or gold plating on tuning machines, swelling of the top, high action and loose braces and bridges.

What happens to my guitar at 50% humidity?

At 50% relative humidity your guitar is in good condition.

What happens to my guitar at 40% humidity?

At 40% relative humidity you may see sharp fret ends. This is the area of the fingerboard that extends over the body that may begin to crack slightly from the 12th or 14th fret toward the soundhole.

What happens to my guitar at 35% humidity?

At 35% relative humidity your top will begin to shrink. The soundboard may look and feel rippled or dried in. The sharp fret ends seen in 40% relative humidity will become more evident.

What happens to my guitar at 30% humidity?

At 30% relative humidity you may see cracks in your guitar. Even if you do not see a crack in the guitar, it has still lost moisture and the top has begun to sink. To make your guitar playable you may need a higher saddle.

What happens to my guitar at 25% humidity?

At 25% relative humidity more cracks are seen. Fret filing may be needed.

How can I maintain that magic number of 45-50% humidity?

First… Have your guitar checked out by your trusted guitar technician or Luthier for any damage or dangers. If they are “worth their salt”, they can usually look at your instrument, maybe take a few measurements, feel around and mumble “Hmmmm” a lot… and determine the condition of your instrument. THIS SHOULD NOT COST YOU A PENNY!

If the tech finds an anomaly, they will offer a suitable solution… THAT might cost just a little but when it comes to your “baby”… are you really gonna’ “cheap out”?


Here are some simple steps you can take to protect your guitar from the ravages of low humidity, and to keep your guitar in optimal condition for a lifetime of great playing.

1. Store your guitar in its case… Make that a HARD case. Not a gig bag or one of those nifty hard foam, canvas covered, lightweight thingys… A wood, plastic or composite formed case will shelter your guitar through many extreme conditions. I realize that guitars are beautiful. You want them readily at hand but a stand or wall hanger is not the best place for them to live unless you are humidifying the whole house… or you have your own private “Man Cave”… or, to be PC about it…“Woman Cave”. In Arkansas we are luckier than most. We can get away with hanging our instruments in the open during the humid summer months… but make no mistake… when fall comes and the furnace kicks on, put your beloved axe in the case along with one of the popular humidification devices.

2. Use a simple humidifier in your guitar case during cold winter months or at all times if you live in a dry climate. You don’t have to overdo it. It is possible to cram too much water down the throat of your guitar, so easy does it. If your humidifier goes bone dry, give it a drink and put it back in. In the end, you might not need to re-wet it more than once or twice a month.

3. Keep a digital hygrometer enclosed in your case and look for 45–50% readings. I have them in my shop for $20. Only use digital; the analog ones that come with a barometer are not accurate.

4. Learn to “read” your guitar by noticing sharp frets on any guitar—electric or acoustic. On an acoustic guitar, low action can indicate either a dry or a wet guitar – Depending upon, which is distance of the strings from the frets. When the humidity gets very low, small ridges and valleys appear on the solid wood surfaces. This is sometimes called scalloping. These are signs of drying wood. When you see this, put the guitar in its case and give it a dose of humidity. Usually, the sharp frets and scalloping will go away.

5. If you choose not to store your guitar in its case, at least put it there for one week per month with a humidifier. Think of it as a week at the spa. Your guitar will thank you.

My Take on it-

Ya’ know, I love to see wear and tear on guitars from PLAYING. Believe me I do. My favorite thing to see is a guitar that’s been played to death—sporting holes, scratched-off finish and other evidence of miles and miles of good use. But the damage done by dryness breaks this poor guitar tech’s heart. So, know that with just a little care on the player’s part can mean the difference between an instrument’s long musical life or a short one.

If you have Frets about Frets or a general fretted instrument question to which you need the answer, please email your inquiry to I’ll answer it and maybe include your inquiry in next month’s “Frets About Frets” column, I look forward to hearing from you.

Bryon Knight owns Little Rock Frets, Fretted Instrument repair, sales and service – (501)681-5712.

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Frets About Frets August 2011

I have had several customers come into my shop this month asking advice about purchasing Acoustic/Electric guitars. Some have been beginners who have played for less than 6 months. Some are just looking for a “gigging” axe. Some are under the impression that an Acoustic/Electric is the “next step” up the evolutionary ladder from “just and acoustic”.

To the beginners, I gently remind them that the reason to buy an Acoustic/Electric Guitar is to have the capability to plug into a sound system and allow more people to HEAR them… Now, If you’ve only been playing for a couple of months… you have to ask yourself…

Do you really want MORE people to hear you?

To the pickers who are looking to gig… well… to these folks I can only HELP advise them as they sift through a myriad of choices. It all boils down to “the right tool for the job”… And the jobs range from the fingerpicker who is looking for a fine guitar that they can plug in and play at performances with the same clarity and depth of sound that the guitar can produce acoustically… To the working musician who needs a “work horse” laminated instrument that can take the rigors of the road and still perform every night without fail. There are plenty of offerings from nearly EVERY manufacturer… for a wide variety of prices.

The “Next steppers” are the most challenging. Many have done some research and their monologue goes something like this:

“I’m looking for an acoustic electric guitar… I want a good one… a name brand… As much solid wood as possible… The electronics need to truly reproduce the instruments natural sound… An exotic wood is cool. I’ve seen those… It needs to have low action… AND… I don’t want to spend over $400…”


WHOA… Whoa… whoa… There’s the rub!

While there ARE several acoustic guitars with electronics that are priced under $400… the quality of the guitar AND /OR the quality of the electronics will, in most cases, be compromised.

An Acoustic/Electric guitar has two major components to reproduce an amplified acoustic sound:

First – The guitar… Preferably one with a solid wood body, although finding one for under $600 or so can be challenging. There are some “not-so-name-brand” instruments (Asian made) out there that sound quite good and are reasonably priced. The Luthiers in Asian countries have been producing guitars for western markets for over 35 years, now, and have pretty much mastered the art of building a quality instrument. One of these would be the imported offerings from Blue Ridge… They are great sounding acoustics!

Some large manufacturers like Martin, Taylor, Larrivee and others pride themselves in making the fine acoustic instruments that have an electronic pickup option.

Other manufacturers such as Gibson, Fender, Yamaha, Ibanez, Alvarez… and others… offer “entry level” Acoustic/Electric models that range from $200 to $600.

When shopping these instruments, the buyer must pay close attention. One has to remember that manufacturers are trying to make a product within a particular price range that can have a sufficient profit margin to justify the continuation of the line. In other words, they have to balance how well the acoustic instrument is built with the quality and reliability of the electronics on board… and make it cheap enough to make money.

These will start with all laminate bodies with little or no detail/binding, inexpensive tuning keys, basic electronics with an LED tuner for “bling”. Sometimes they even throw in a strap and some picks… probably because they feel guilty about the quality of the instrument.

Now, I’ve mentioned “laminate” several times so far and if you are still a little fuzzy on this guitar building material, here’s a quick rundown.

Laminate is, basically, a 3-layer plywood. The inside layer and outside layer is a thin veneer, usually of the same wood so as to “fool” the buyer into thinking it is made of solid wood.

Now, Not all laminate is bad… It is very strong and holds its shape well. While it may not resonate like solid wood, it still vibrates and can sound surprisingly good when properly braced.

Another cool application is that builders will layer an exotic wood with a cheaper “strength” wood in the middle to produce a strikingly smart looking instrument. Alvarez does this with one of their lines and while the guitars are pretty “dead” sounding acoustically, they make up for it by putting in decent electronics for a darn good sound when amplified. It looks pretty “flashy” on stage!

Acoustic/Electrics that have solid wood tops and solid wood backs with laminate sides make for a good sound acoustically but unless a decent preamp and pickup is installed, the package CAN miss the mark.

This is why I will usually recommend that a buyer find the best ACOUSTIC guitar that they can get within their price range… A player needs to “love” the way the instrument feels and sounds first… THEN have a good pickup installed.

I also advise them to have their guitar tech do the least invasive installation as possible. This is to not disturb the intended acoustics of the instrument. There is no need to cut a big hole in the side of the guitar for a control panel… no need for an on-board tuner (get a clip-on!)… Also… when installing the jack to allow for connection to an amplifier, make the hole through a part of the guitar that can support some pulling and tugging. I promise… at some point, the cord WILL get stepped upon. The end block is usually a good site for jack installation.

Above all pick an Acoustic/Electric instrument that SOUNDS good… After all… you want more people to hear you, right?

If you have questions or would like to recommend topics for discussion in this column, email

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Frets About Frets April 2011

I’ve written, in my column, about many forms of damage to stringed instrument… well, I have great news… Most damage can be repaired!

Broken headstocks… can be repaired!

Split wooden tops… can be repaired!

Misshapen necks… can be repaired!

Divoted Frets… you guessed it… can be repaired!

One of the most common issues that I see is the guitar with a “belly”. Now this has nothing to do with eating at fast food joints… the guitar has a bulging top around the bridge. Belly is the result of such conditions as hyper-humidification, exposure to excessive heat, very old strings or a combination of any of these.

The most common symptom is high action. This is because the bridge is elevated about the normally flat plane of the guitar top.

The traditional repair involved attaching a “plate” directly to the inside of the top of the guitar. This usually reduced the outward bow of the guitar top but it also would effectively DEADEN the resonance of the instrument. The added mass glued or bolted tight to the top of a guitar will slow the ability of the wood to move as string vibrations are picked up.

The other most common solution is… to get another guitar and relegate the miss-formed instrument to a “wall hanging” or, heaven forbid, the dumpster.

Over the past few months, I have developed a solution that uses an alteration to the installation of the “plate” method.

I install what I call a Spanner Brace. This is a piece of aluminum “spanning” from each “X” brace directly below the bridge with two small bolts installed through the bridge and bolted to the metal spanner. The small heads of the bolts are recessed and covered by Black, white or MOP dots.

This allows tension to pull the bow out of the top while NOT deadening the resonance of the wood. Unlike the plate attached to the top, the spanner only makes contact on the tips of the “X” bracing and the two bolts, therefore not slowing the vibrations and allowing the top to reproduce more of the full sound of the instrument.

The musical life of the guitar is significantly lengthened and it still sounds good. This is great for inexpensive instruments because it can be done for around $80.00. For a guitar that may have only cost $200.00, it makes more sense to have the Spanner Brace installed, especially when there is sentimental value to consider.

I have had great success with the Spanner Brace and feel that I have allowed many inexpensive and even expensive guitars to get a “tummy tuck” and makes for a much more playable instrument.

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Frets About Frets – November 2009

As posted in Nightflying magazine – Nov. 2009

Frets About Frets

‘Tis the season when you or someone you know begins the task of shopping for a gift. If that gift includes something special for a musician… and the decision is made that a guitar might be the perfect present…

Oh… you don’t play guitar? What? You’ve never HELD one in your hands?  Well, fear not! Here are some things to look for… from a guitar Technician’s point of view.

Even experienced players can “forget” what to look for when purchasing an instrument. They seem to get caught up in the “magic” of the moment uttering phrases like “It plays like butter” and “I hear angels”… not realizing that it plays that way because the frets are worn nearly to the fretboard and that angelic sound comes from the dehydrated top that could crack at any moment.

In this article, I will provide an opinion on several things:

I will discuss the proper way to evaluate a guitar with nothing more than your 5, senses.

I will cover the choices and benefits in materials of which a guitar is built.

I will also (briefly) touch on price ranges verses quality and features.

Remember… This is an opinion…. It is drawn from some 30 years of learning the intricacies of repairing guitars, 36 years of playing music and several years of working in guitar retail… but it’s STILL and opinion.

Common Sense-

When choosing a guitar for your self or someone else, no special equipment or skills are required… Use what you have… Sight, Sound, Touch, Smell and even Taste. OK, You can use your 6th sense if you just HAVE to.

Purists will tell you “it doesn’t matter what an instrument looks like, it’s how it sounds that counts”. Well, if that were the case, I would never get the great sounding USED guitars that come through my shop.

A guitar is a personal item that the player will, presumably, keep for a very long time. With that in mind, when making that initial selection, pick one that appeals to the taste of the PLAYER… visually. For beginners, this can be more important, at first, because the novice has no sound reference from which to base so the look matters most. This is especially true for youngsters although adults are not immune to the “cool-ness” of a particular guitar. Grown-ups just realize that since they are going to learn to play and stick with it, they might as well invest in a quality instrument.


As with any purchase, buyer needs to inspect the guitar closely for flaws in the finish. Nicks and dings are common in used instruments and even in new ones in certain stores. Don’t mistake a feature in the wood for a flaw. As a player, myself, I actually LOOK for interesting wood grains or marks. I feel that it contributes to the originality of the instrument.

A musical instrument must be structurally sound and it must be MADE correctly. On a used guitar, finish checking or small finish cracks are not a structural problem but cracks in the wood are not a good thing. Look at all the seams and joints to make sure that no glue joints are separating. This is most important where the neck joins the body.  If the guitar is of a neck-through design, then there’s not much worry on this point. A competent technician can adjust electric guitars, with bolt-on necks.

The scale must be true, the neck has to have proper pitch, it must have a truss rod (unless it is a classical guitar) and it absolutely has to have DECENT action.

If this is not familiar language to you, keep reading… and maybe refer to last month’s Article of the same name in this esteemed publication.

Scale can be easily checked. Pluck a string and listen to the note. Then press the string at the twelfth fret (double markers) and pluck it again. The note should be a perfect octave above the first.  Another way is to fret the instrument at the twelfth fret and pluck the string, then move your finger to the thirteenth fret and ABOVE your hand, near the headstock, pluck the string again. The volume will be drastically less but the note should be identical in pitch to the first one. Yet another way is to pull out that measuring tape that you always carry with you and measure from the nut to the saddle. The twelfth fret should be located exactly half way. Even with the intonation out of adjustment, the notes should be relatively close.

Neck pitch is just as easy to check. Look down the neck, from the headstock, and see if the neck aligns with the base of the saddle. You can also use a straight edge along the neck and frets and, again, see if it aligns with the bottom of the saddle.

Action can be appraised at the same time as neck pitch. Look for bow (relief) in the neck as well as alignment with the strings. Also look at the instrument from the side and see how far the strings are from the fretboard. Up to1/8th of an inch is acceptable at the point closest to the body of the guitar. Remember, action is adjustable with a good setup on the guitar.


Strum the guitar. It doesn’t matter whether you can play or not. You are listening for sustain as well as buzzes or rattles as the strings are vibrating. A buzz can be as simple as old strings or low action. It can also indicate a loose brace, a mis-filed nut or a loose part.


Slide you hand up and down the edge of the fretboard and feel for any sharp edges. Sometimes the wood of a fretboard can get dry and shrink leaving the frets sticking out slightly. This, too, can be easily repaired. Run your hand over the top of the guitar. On acoustics, there should be no noticeable “belly” or dip in the top. The bridge should not make the top “pull out” from string tension. Look at he top in good lighting and if you see ripples or “scalloping” in the wood, this means the guitar is dehydrated. Humidification does wonders.

Smell of the guitar.

If it is new, there’s nothin’ like that new guitar smell. If it’s used, then smell for any musty odors signifying mildew. This may be a result of too much moisture. I saw a couple of “Katrina” guitars a few years back that had been under water and recovered only to be sold to unsuspecting players who were wondering if their guitars were “sweating”.

Smell for smoke. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a “hot’ playing guitar. It might have had a life in a smokey environment like bars or the home of a chain smoker. It could also have some level of smoke damage from a fire… you never know.

And finally… Taste.

… you’ve been waiting for this, I’m sure of it… Well… If the guitar has an active pickup system… taste the battery to see if it is still good.

Hah! Gotcha!

Seriously, check out the battery compartment for any signs of corrosion. Sometimes battery compartments can get damaged. Make sure that doors or lids open and close smoothly.


A guitar can sell for as little as $100 and for as much as… well… As much as you are willing to pay. Used guitars are generally less expensive but typically have no warranty. I setup the used guitars in my shop and will stand behind that adjustment for a minimum of 30 days.

New electric guitars can sell for as little as $100 and still be a decent beginning instrument. Used electrics that would sell for $100 new are worth what ever you are willing to pay for them. Preferably not the new price! The resale value is heavily dependent on the condition of the instrument. If it plays fine but looks as if it was dragged behind a truck… then the value is deeply depreciated. It’s hard to justify refinishing a $100 guitar.

New acoustic guitars are a bit more for the same relative quality. Plan on a minimum of $200 for a guitar that can be setup properly. Used acoustic instruments need to be scrutinized thoroughly due to the likelihood of shortcuts in the original construction. Again, condition is paramount in the evaluation of price.


Electric vs. Acoustic… This is always a dilemma that beginners (and shoppers for beginners) ponder… Well, consider that most inexpensive acoustic guitars (>$400) will need adjustments to play decently.  This is not a real problem because guitars are DESIGNED to be adjusted. That’s not to say that you may “luck up” on a $250 guitar that plays like a Taylor and sounds like a 1942 Martin… but it’s not likely. In general, instruments from a big-named MART or Toy store are likely to be just that – Toys… and not real musical instruments. This goes for all instruments.

A big benefit is an acoustic guitar is easier to transport. No amp is needed just to play and get sound from the guitar. Pickin’ on the porch is easy!

An acoustic guitar’s sound relies on how well it was manufactured and the materials from which it was made. For a beginner, try your best to get a guitar with a solid wood top. This provides for a much more resonate sound to be produced from the instrument. A laminate (very thin plywood) is used on the back and sides of a guitar >$400 because of the relative ease of bending the ply with out breakage. One positive of a laminate back and sides is the strength and toughness. The instrument can take some pretty hard bumps without cracking the wood. A laminate top is not as resonate but, for a very young player, the toughness could be an asset as well.

An electric guitar with better action is easier to find in the less-than-$400 range. The sound is mostly governed by the type of pickups that the instrument has. You will need an amp of some kind to take full advantage of the instrument and this can be cumbersome for portability. Electrics are generally thinner and therefore better for smaller players. Many youngsters think that it’s “Cooler” to play an electric… but try to avoid some of the more exotic shapes. They tend to be harder to hold while the student is seated.

It boils down to this: If you’re buying for a youngster, ask yourself this: what will keep their interest? What kind of music do they like? This will dictate whether to get an acoustic or an electric guitar. The last thing that you want to do is to dampen enthusiasm right off the bat! For an adult, think about getting as much quality as you can afford. They will be more appreciative.

Acoustic vs. Acoustic-electric… Yet another decision that beginners wrestle with…. But this time for no good reason!

Think about this – The whole reason that an acoustic guitar would have a pickup installed is to let more people, beyond your living room, hear what you are playing…. Ask yourself this question: Do I REALLY want more people hearing how I play right now? You’re a novice guitar player… and, unless you are some sort of prodigy, you’re probably not ready to be gigin’ just yet.

If the player is experienced, there are a couple of options to the acoustic-electric question. If they have an acoustic guitar that they love to play, think about getting a good pickup to install in their instrument. If you are shopping for a pickup, make sure that you know the make and model of the instrument. This information is crucial to the selection of the RIGHT pickup for their guitar.

If the experienced player is ready for a new instrument, prepare yourself… this could get expensive. However, there are many good used (pre-loved) instruments out there. Just be careful to check the instrument thoroughly…use your senses… and if possible, get a tech to look at the instrument for evaluation.

Check List-

Here is a quick guide that you can clip and take with you on your next guitar shopping trip

1 – Ask the Salesperson if they play. A player usually can answer your questions better and they can demonstrate the guitar if you do not play. Quiz them on their preferred style of music and their years of experience. Get to know them a little. Remember you may be relying heavily on this person’s experience and knowledge to help you make a purchase of an item that could cost several hundred dollars. If you don’t feel comfortable, ask for a manager. I feel that customer service is very important.

2 – Look for a guitar that appeals to the player. You wouldn’t want to buy a pair of shoes that were comfortable but Reeeaallly ugly, would you? Remember that some guitar players like “Funky” too… I do!

3 – Hey, look it over… lend it your ear. Inspect the guitar carefully. Check the neck pitch (the angle of the neck in relation to the body), Check the action (the distance of the strings from the fretboard) Feel the guitar neck and body… Strum it… Smell it… Taste it!  (If you’re comfortable with that)

4 – Ask about a warranty. On new guitars, a warranty can range from 1 year to a lifetime. On used guitars, ask about the return policy. If you have questions once you made the purchase, take the instrument to a qualified technician for evaluation. Most don’t charge for this… I don’t.

5 – Remember, a good setup is essential for a satisfying guitar playing experience. New or used guitars need to be setup for the individual player. A few extra dollars can be the difference between a beginner sticking with it or not. A setup makes a great gift for ANY player… anytime!

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Frets About Frets – Oct. 2009

As published in Nightflying Magazine October, 2009

Frets About Frets

So… You’ve got your guitar, or other fretted instrument, properly humidified… but, STILL, there is a buzz when the strings are strummed in the open position. Very “Sitar like”… OR… You have to press so hard to make a chord you get a hand cramp. As the kids say “What’sup wit Dat?”

Well, here’s the buzz on da’ “Buzz”:

As I have told many of my customers: “A fretted instrument, whether it’s a guitar, mandolin, Banjo or Baakzooki, is a study in compromise.”  If it has strings, there is, usually, a method for adjustment. Tuning, intonation and action can all be changed. While not all fretted instruments are EASILY adjusted they all can be altered in some way. Fretted instruments are really a feat of engineering.

Ponder this: Most fretted instruments are devises that are, generally, made of wood, a relatively pliable, imperfect material, quite susceptible to environmental conditions. Now add a number of metal or metal-wound strings stretched from nearly on end to the other. A guitar equipped with a set of .12 gauge, steel strings has over 150 pounds of pressure torqued between the headstock and the bridge. These strings are not all the same diameter and some are wound with more metal. Now for giggles, lets offer some varying gauges in strings for the same instrument. Now lets put on metal frets at a spacing that is definitely a compromise. Pepper in the allowance of playing styles ranging from finger picking to heavy metal thrashing and… well, you get the idea.

A well setup Guitar or other fretted instrument should be a pleasure to play. If you are struggling to make clean chords or properly pitched notes on your instrument, there’s something wrong.

I’ve had many customers tell me that they didn’t even know that their guitar, banjo or mandolin could be adjusted to play better. They thought that if the action was high, they just had to “live with it”. The mindset was that the playability was inherent to each individual instrument.  For many, it was only after I convinced them to let me work on their prized possessions, that they truly began to enjoy playing their fretted instrument and started, in earnest, to realize more of their full musical potential.

So… Why do instruments get so “outta whack”?

Well, as I described last month, Humidity can have a drastic effect on your axe… but that’s just ONE cause.

Strings, neck bow, neck pitch, saddle height and intonation make up the playability of a fretted instrument.

String Theory

Not the folding of space and time upon it self to allow for time travel… I’m talking about guitar strings!

Old strings are a big culprit of poor setup. Keeping fresh strings on your guitar is more than just a matter of tone. While it’s true that your instrument will not sound as bright and resonate with old strings, there are other consequences too.

As a metal string stretches, it’s tinsel strength decreases so you tune up to reach the desired pitch. There will come a time when the string has stretched so far that it will fail at some fault in the string. This can be from some anomaly of metallurgy or the failure can be due to some insult to the string. IF there is an absence of sufficient fault, the string will go “dead”. This means the metal string has begun to reach its limit of elasticity. Once that happens, watch out! If you keep tuning up, the pressure increases on the nut, saddle, wood and hardware of the instrument. Somethin’s gotta give.

I’ve seen crushed nuts (no laughing), crushed saddles, detached bridges, bent and broken tuners and, the inevitable, pitched or bowed neck among a multitude of other symptoms of old and/or over-tightened strings.

If you do change strings on a regular basis, you might be experimenting with varying string brands and gauges. This too can be a source of mal-adjustment.

If your instrument is properly setup for a particular gauge of string and you decide to change to a heavier or lighter gauge, then this can have an adverse affect on your “gitfiddle”

The neck-ed truth

Necks are another adjustment point that can make or break the success of a good setup.

The neck of any fretted instrument is a marvel of mechanical engineering. In the past, necks were constructed of wood… period! No metal rods or other bracing materials. As a matter of consequence, they were more susceptible to warping and bowing.

As a rule, the necks of many modern fretted instruments are re-enforced by metal, carbon fiber or some other strengthening material. To allow for a larger variety of playing techniques, there needs to be a point of adjustment. Enter, the truss rod.

The truss rod is a metal rod that runs along the inside of the neck. It is used to correct changes to the neck’s curvature caused by the neck timbers aging, changes in humidity or to compensate for changes in the tension of strings. The tension of the rod and neck assembly is adjusted by a hex nut or an allen-key bolt on the rod, usually located either at the headstock, sometimes under a cover, or just inside the body of an acoustic instrument and accessible through the sound hole or some other access. On electric instruments, the adjustment is located underneath the fretboard, (hopefully) above the pickguard at the “body” end of the neck. Some truss rods can only be accessed by removing the neck and a few guitar necks have an adjustment located on the SIDE of the neck. This can be particularly confounding for the unsuspecting technician.

The truss rod counteracts the immense amount of tension that the strings place on the neck, bringing the neck back to a straighter position. Turning the truss rod clockwise will tighten it, counteracting the tension of the strings and straightening the neck or creating a backward bow. Turning the truss rod counter-clockwise will loosen it, allowing string tension to act on the neck and creating a forward bow. Adjusting the truss rod affects the intonation of an instrument as well as the height of the strings from the fingerboard, called the action. Some truss rod systems, called “double action” truss systems, tighten both ways, allowing the neck to be pushed both forward and backward (standard truss rods can only be released to a point beyond which the neck will no longer be compressed and pulled backward).

There are always exceptions to any rule. The short scale of the mandolin or the nylon stringed classical guitar do not require truss rods. The strings of these instruments exert a lower tensile force with lesser potential to cause structural problems. However the necks of these instruments are often reinforced with a strip of harder wood, such as an Ebony strip running down the back of a Cedar neck. There is no tension adjustment on this form of reinforcement.

One of the most common fretted instrument issues that I see, as a technician, is the unfortunate classical guitar that is brought in with steel strings on it. Someone unknowingly fitted an instrument made for Nylon strings with these high-tension strings and now the neck has pulled forward, the bridge is ripping from the body and taking the top with it as it bellies outward.

Sometimes these poor guitars are repairable, depending upon the length of time they were strung with steel, but as often as not, they are relegated to a showcase in the living room… or even worse, the hands of a youngster with the desire to see how hard he has to bash a guitar in order to see every piece of the insides explode on the pavement.

Fret Not!

The most important part of a fretted instrument is… you guessed it… the fret. The fretboard, along with the string gauge, dictates the intonation of the instrument.

Did you ever wonder why frets spacing gets smaller up the neck? Well, lets start with a few of the basics ‘bout fretboard construction.

Also called the fingerboard, the fretboard on western instruments is a piece of wood embedded with metal frets that comprises the top of the neck. It is flat on classical guitars, dulcimers and banjos. Fretboards are slightly curved crosswise on mandolins, acoustic and electric guitars. The curvature of the fretboard is measured by the fretboard radius. The radius is a hypothetical circle of which the fretboard’s surface constitutes a segment. The smaller the fretboard radius, the more noticeably curved the fretboard is. Most modern guitars feature a 12″ neck radius, while older guitars from the 1960s and 1970s usually feature a 6-8″ neck radius. Pinching a string against the fretboard effectively shortens the vibrating length of the string, producing a higher pitch. Fretboards are most commonly made of Rosewood, Ebony, Maple and sometimes manufactured of composite materials such as resin or even alloys such as Aluminum.

Fret Tech

Frets are laid out to a mathematical ratio that results in equal tempered division of the octave. The ratio of the spacing of two consecutive frets is the twelfth root of two. The twelfth fret divides the scale length in two exact halves and the 24th fret position divides the scale length in half yet again. Every twelve frets represent one octave. Each fret represents one semitone in the standard western system where one octave is divided into twelve semitones.

In practice, Luthiers determine fret positions using the constant 17.817, which is derived from the twelfth root of two (21/12). The scale length divided by this value yields the distance from the nut to the first fret. That distance is subtracted from the scale length and the result is divided in two sections by the constant to yield the distance from the first fret to the second fret. Positions for the remainder of the frets are calculated in like manner. Actual fret spacing does not use this exact value; the fret spacing on the fretboard was also done by trial and error (testing) method over the ages.

Many western instruments’ frets are not spaced according to the semitones of equal temperament, including the Appalachian dulcimer with frets in a diatonic scale.

There are several different fret gauges, which can be fitted according to player preference. Among these are “jumbo” frets, which have much thicker gauge, allowing for use of a slight vibrato technique from pushing the string down harder and softer. “Scalloped” Fretboards, where the wood of the fretboard itself is “scooped out” between the frets allows a dramatic vibrato effect. If you have ever been to my shop, you may have seen the Chinese Pei Po which has a wood fret board that is constructed by cutting deep “V” shapes from the neck providing a near infinite range of notes.

Fine frets, much flatter, allow a very low string-action but require other conditions such as curvature of the neck to be well maintained in order to prevent buzz.

This is why you should give proper homage to anyone who can build a fretted instrument neck from scratch. It ain’t easy!

Diagnosing your setup

So back to that buzzing your hearing from you instrument or the high action that’s causing those hand cramps.

A few things could be happening. First sight the neck, that is look down the neck from the headstock and see if the fretboard runs parallel with the strings… Well, of course, it does to a large degree, but if you see the fretboard bows up in the middle of the length of the neck, there’s a large part of your problem. Most of the time a delicate adjustment of the truss rod is all that is needed. If you’ve never done this, then easy does it. As a rule, I will tell my customers to not turn the truss rod more than one quarter of a turn at any one time. Remember – Your guitar is made of wood and wood can take a little time to respond to bending adjustments. In this case you will be loosening the truss rod ever so slightly as to allow for more relief in the neck. This will allow for the strings to vibrate without striking frets on the neck when strummed in the open position. A properly adjusted neck should have a slight bit of relief in the neck but if you are adjusting DOWN, then adjust to a flat position and let the guitar naturally relax over the next few days. If you feel justifiably uncomfortable in making this adjustment, then take it to a qualified tech.

Lets talk about that suspension bridge you call a guitar. The action is so high that it that you could shoot arrows from it.

OK, so it’s not THAT bad, but the action feels a bit high. In most cases, here’s what’s going on:

The instrument’s neck is experiencing a higher string tension than for what the neck is setup. The usual cause is from changing to a heavier gauge string set. Going from a set of .10s to a set of .11s, on a guitar, shouldn’t cause much of a change in your action, but going from .10s to a set of .12s or .13s will, definitely, cause this symptom. The good news is the guitar just needs to be adjusted for the heaver strings using the method described above. One caveat is, if the instrument has been left in this condition for a very long time, the neck may have become warped and can be difficult, if not darn well impossible to adjust out.

If you make a properly pitched  “E” chord then make a “G” chord and it sounds like a train wreck… your intonation is out of adjustment.

This can be remedied by adjusting the saddle on the instrument with thumbscrews, a screwdriver, an allen wrench or a file, depending on the instrument.

The sequence of adjustment is important as well. A proper setup must be preformed in this order to be effective: the restring, the truss rod, the saddle height and intonation. If the sequence is altered, or a step is omitted, efficiency will be sacrificed.

So you can see how having a qualified Guitar Tech perform a proper setup on your guitar is a must for the seasoned professional as well as the novice player. I have had customers tell me that having their instrument setup is like taking it to a “Spa”. When they get it back, their axe feels fresh, well adjusted and easy to play.

Now please keep in mind that I have made some general statements and this information should, in no way, take the place of having your instrument professionally setup by a qualified technician.

If you have questions or concerns about fretted instruments that you would like addressed in this column, or if you have questions about setups, in general, please drop me an email or call me and I will be happy to help in any way that I can. Here’s how you can reach me:

(501) 681-5712

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