The FretTech Chronicles

"Emergency Truss Rod Tweaks"
Premier Guitar Magazine, columnist Rich Tozzoli & Rob DiStefano

"Meet My Tele Choir"
Premier Guitar Magazine, columnist Rich Tozzoli & Rob DiStefano

Nut Making Tutorial

Refret Tutorial
(also includes nut making)

'52 Tele Refret

Jeff W's MIM Strat Level & Crown

K&K Pure Western Mini Acoustic Guitar Installation

Dummy Coils for Single Coil Powered Guitars

Acoustic Flat Top Guitar String Action

Assorted Guitar Related Ramblings

Solid Body Electric Guitar "Tone"

I get asked questions and advice about this subject on at least a weekly basis, and finally got off my duff and figured it's time to just add my very personal opinions ... so, here she goes ...

Basically, I don't have any sage advice when it comes to that most subjective of areas - guitar tone - and I'm surely not an expert of tone (then again, who really is a bona-fide "tone guru"?). None of this "subjective sonic tone" stuff is rocket science when applied to a frying pan/canoe paddle/slab body guitar. IMO, the final solid electric guitar tone will always be heavily influenced in this prioritized order: your brain and fingers, the pickups, the pickup support electronics, and the amalgam of the guitar's parts. Outboard of the guitar there'll be audio cables and modulation FX (if any), and of course the amp(s)/speaker(s).

Side note: As you can perhaps surmise by now, I'm not a fan or proponent of all that "vintage" nonsense, particularly Fender guitars - I started playing Teles and Strats in '54 and they were loaded as much hit-or-miss crap then as they are today ... heck, we all wanted Gibsons, Guilds, Gretsches and Rics, but they were too damn expensive. Funny - today those revered "expensive" guitars are just so much hit or miss crap, too. The Pacific Rim ate the USA's guitar lunch ... in a world economic way, this is a good thing, IMO ... no question, this is the Golden Age of Guitars that won't last forever as world economics merge.

In dayze long gone past, I could build 3 or 4 solid body guitars of the same style, using the exact same woods (in lotsa cases, even from the same tree) and same hardware and pups, and all three would just sound SO different ... in essence, guitar mojo IS some kinda undefined magic that simply "occurs" to a large part because wood is SO personalized - if any manufacturer could figure out and bottle up the mojo, they'd own the guitar world. Ain't happened yet, and I'm not holding my breath.

Wood genus does affect the final solid body guitar tone, but not to a precisely huge degree, and that degree will vary from guitar to guitar. Yes, wood density and porosity play some defining role, but how do you know for sure what those parameters are in the wood you've chosen? I've seen (and used) "hard rock maple" that was way softer than "Brazilian rosewood" - AND vice versa. And they all "tap toned" quite differently to my ears.

Here's what I consider the important thing about electric tone - at gigging and recording volumes, you're hearing the pickups and support electronics to the larger degree. If you use lots of modulation, forget "pickup tone" as the signal is bent and twisted by the FX boxes. However, at bedroom/living room volumes into a relatively clean amp, you will hear some amount of the amalgam of the guitar's parts, not just the pickups.

So, pick out the wood flavor that's most aesthetically pleasing to your eyes and fingers, consider the *possible* importance of wood density and hardware to the sonics yer looking to achieve, and hope for the best.

A Stock Guitar or a "Partscaster"?

Having the means and ability to roll my own, my answer is obvious.

I guess it's a matter of semantics, but most of us assemble a partscaster, not build one - "build" (to me) means rout out the body and neck from raw wood blanks. Been there, done that, and it's SO much easier/cheaper to buy pre-shaped bodies and necks. Also, do consider that custom shop Tele IS an assembled partscaster! Yep, bins of unfinished CNC machined bodies and necks in different styles and woods, ready to be picked and matched to yer order! :)

If you spend some serious time looking and asking and looking around some more, you'll find that most of the parts to assemble a good partscaster can cost you less than you'd think.

Assembling yer own does require understanding some assembly processes (attaching the neck, cutting the nut, soldering electronics, final setup) and some specific tooling (nut files). Getting a good looking, durable finish is almost a no-brainer, these dayze. Getting a pro mirror gloss finish is typically beyond the scope of the average builder.

You can *easily* get in trouble, dollar-wise, if you *absolutely* require pricey hardware, finish and pups.

Also, there are lotsa cheap g'tars to be had, new and used, that can be tweaked for best playability (usually a neck issue) and tone (usually a pup issue) for lots cheaper than either a stockcaster or a partscaster.

A large part of the "what's the best g'tar for me" equation is in understanding the differences between what you need and what you want. This can be the toughest nut to crack.

Sometimes the quest itself (for tone and playability and aethetics) is actually the subconscious real goal ... and sometimes the answer, the g'tar that's the best tool for you, is already in yer hands and is patiently awaiting your re-discovery ... :-)

Guitar Finishes

After decades of spraying lacquer I quit in favor of wipe on finishes, Min Wax Wipe On Gloss polyU. This can be both an easier and tougher finishing process.

Nitrocelulose lacquer will age, discolor, shrink, check, orange peel, be least resistant to liquids and chemicals - and beer and blood. Nitro shouldn't even be considered a "finish", it's really *that* bad.

Wiped on polyU goes on really thin, and with ultra fine steel wool light buffing between coats, it can build up a nice sheen that will not age, discolor, shrink or check, and be pretty really easy to touch up.

I don't use "geetar polishes" on my git wood. There's no need for that crap on a fine wood finish, IMO. I clean with water, and for worst cases I use a dab of naphtha (lighter fluid). A clean soft cloth is all that's needed to buff up a wood finish. "Polishes" typically contain waxes and resins - these will inhibit, to some degree, a finish repair touch up, unless you strip them off beforehand.

Any finish can be gobbed on - I don't like that. As I don't like solid opaque finishes that require lots of grain and surface filling to level prep, and subsequent thick built up layers of medium required for that "mirror gloss finish". Just an aesthetic thing - my opinions and tastes. A half dozen to dozen thin coats of polyU will protect and serve for a lifetime. As always, YMMV - and will.

Okay, here's some tips ...

* first off, from start to finish (pun not intended) you can easily do a body in 3 days, if you can make a wipe coat every 3-4 hours each day (total of 4 wipe coats each day - I generally do between 5 and 8 coats on a body, and 3 to 5 coats on a maple neck), Applying a finish in high humidity or really cold air temps will lead to finishing problems!

* take yer new body or neck and wipe it down with a clean cloth or paper towel - sometimes I also use a paper towel with a bit of naptha (lighter fluid) to make sure any finger grease gets taken off

* make "finishing sticks" for the body or neck - for the body I use a 1" x 1" x 9" (or so) piece of wood with pre-drilled holes that line up with two of the neck pocket holes on the body - I use dry wall screws to secure form the back of the body - it's important to use some kinda handle! For the neck, I use a 1/4" x 1-1/2" x 6" slat of plywood for a handle and drill through it into the neck heel (off center - don't wanna hit the truss rod!) and use very small pan head screws to attach - again, you NEED a good handle. With both handles, I drill a hole in one end and loop on a piece of copper wire as hanger

* make sure the 100% cotton T-shirt has been washed and is clean and free of any sizing (meaning, that it's been thoroughly rinsed)

* fold up a swatch of T-shirt into a 2" square pad - fold the cut edges INSIDE, so you don't get any threads into the wiping

* lightly wipe on each THIN coat - don't rub, just sorta "brush" it on with the pad in the direction of the grain

* remember - each wipe should be a very THIN coating, NEVER thick

* between coats, and after a light buffing with 0000 steel wool, run a magnet over the wood to pick up any loose steel "hairs" ... yes, it's preferable to use an AlNiCo V bar magnet if you want to do a "vintage correct" job. ;)

* buff the finish (after the steel wool between coat buffing) by hand rubbing with a cheap, coarse paper towel

* after each body or neck wipe, hold the swatch in yer gloved hand and peel off the glove and capture the smelly pad - tie a knot in the glove end and toss it away

* watch the humidity! my shop is regulated at no more than 50% humidity (typically it's 45%) - more than 60% humidity and you may get any kinda finish to "blush"

* when closing up the polyU can, first put a square of regular plastic baggie (I just cut up old ones into 3" squares) over the can mouth, then screw on the cap tight - this will seal it very effectively and keep the polyU's thinners from evaporating

* NEVER USE OLD POLYU THAT'S GOTTEN A BIT THICK FROM LOSING IT'S THINNERS! - you can add a smidge (1 oz per quart can of polyU) of mineral spirits to "rejuvenate" really old polyU, but it will never be as good as a fresh can, so better yet, chuck the old stuff and buy new.

* NEVER touch the wood with yer bare hands - body oil and any finish don't mix!

* Min Wax Wipe On PolyU is resin based and will be a bit smelly, but it's really the BEST for wipe on finishes - avoid the water based variety.

* Use only water based dyes/stains on yer bare wood, to color it, using a swatch of T-shirt to apply (make sure to wear a rubber glove!!!) - DON'T use resin based stains as they are not easy to wipe on evenly! Guitar ReRanch has really good water based aniline dyes - I use them all the time - DON'T get the dye on yer skin!!!

* If you wish to color the wood, ALWAYS apply the stain/dye to the raw wood first. This way, scratches and dings will typically only affect the clear coat, not the color impregnated wood. Here's a tip - after staining the raw wood, spray on one or two sealer coats of Min Wax fast drying spray polyU (with light 0000 steel wool buffing between coats) - this will act as a "fixer" and keep the stain/dye from blending in with the clear Wipe On coats.

Quick Synopsis - I give each wiped coat a good three hours to "cure", then VERY LIGHTLY buff with 0000 steel wool, wipe off the wood, run a magnet over the wood's nooks 'n' crannies (body rout cavities, neck tuner holes, etc.) to pull out any missed steel wool hairs, re-buff with a stiff paper towel (or any ol' paper towel) - last coat is left clean, or use the 0000 wooling for a satin finish (nice for the back of a neck)

All this rap may seem intimidating and daunting - it ain't! Just plunge right in! You can always fairly easily strip off the finish if yer not happy!

From Start to FINISH!

The body wood finishing process outlined below is extremely easy and foolproof, and will produce very good results. Use the same finish technique for a neck.

All of the following also assumes a transparent "see through" finish where the wood is stained, then clear coated - this is NOT about solid, opaque finishes.

Don't apply the clear coats if the humidity is too high! This is important! If you can feel the humidity in the air, it's too wet - wait 'til it drops. This is important for any kinda wood finishing. This generally doesn't apply to staining the wood.

Attach a wood "handle" (i.e. - 1"x1"x8" hardwood or hi-lam plywood) through the body neck holes with a pair of large screws. NEVER touch the bare wood with yer hands - ALWAYS hold the guitar body by the handle.

Clean off the wood with naphtha (lighter fluid), DON'T touch the wood with yer bare hands. Buff out the wood with a paper towel to knock down any wood grain fuzzies.

At this point, should you like, you can apply a grain filler to level out the wood pores - I don't ever do this, it's totally optional. If yer trying to achieve a very glossy clear final finish, you need to apply STAINABLE wood grain filler.

Apply stain directly to the wood, allow to dry off thoroughly, if it needs one or more coats to achieve the depth of color yer looking for then restain. That color will change slightly, and make the grain "pop out" when you apply clear coats later. Apply the stain with a cotton cloth, or spray can stain. Whenever possible, I prefer using water based stains because it's easier to get a more even stain. I typically use ReRanch water based aniline stains - it comes as a powder that's mixed with water, I usually mix it up concentrated, in a half liter water/soda bottle. I also use resin based wipe on stains, such as those from MinWax.

When the stain color looks right, lightly buff out the entire guitar with 0000 steel wool. Use a magnet to pick up any stray wool hairs, then buff out the entire guitar with a paper towel - you'll pull off some stain onto the paper towel, no worries. Go over the entire body again with the magnet.

Using a good quality polyU clear gloss spray (i.e. - MinWax Fast Drying PolyU), spray a very LIGHT coat of clear over all the wood. Allow to dry. Do it again. Allow to dry. Do it again.

The reason for the clear spray is to "fix" the stain, seal it. If you don't, and immediately begin wiping on clear coats, the clear will mix with the stain forming a "shader" coat where there's an intermediate layer of colored clear between the stained raw wood and the top completely clear coats. The shader coat may inhibit fixing scratches and dings that occur over time. If only the wood is stained, then only the clear gets scratched and can easily be fixed by wiping on some more clear over the scratched area (even clear nail polish works well).

Lightly buff out the entire guitar with 0000 steel wool. Use a magnet to pick up any stray wool hairs, then buff out the entire guitar with a paper towel - there may be some stain showing on the paper towel, no worries. Go over the entire body again with the magnet. Buff out again with a paper towel.

Now you have a choice: continue the spraying routine as outlined above, or begin the wipe on process, using a compatible brand of polyU (i.e. - MinWax Wipe On PolyU, gloss). If you spray, do a bit heavier coat than before. If you wipe, load the 100% cotton pad with clear, then squeeze out the excess.

If yer trying to achieve a very glossy finish, it may take upwards of 20 to 30 (or more) clear coats - then allow it to gas off and cure for about a week, then buff out with polishing compounds.

On the very other end of the spectrum, if you want a more "woody" natural satin finish, you'll only need apply 5 or 6 clear coats, tops - then optionally buff out the last coat with 0000 steel wool, and clean it up as before.

There's nothing tricky or difficult about any of the above finishing process, and the results are quite pleasing.

Finishing a Neck

For a non-maple fingerboard neck, the same wipe on finish schedule as for bodies applies. For an all maple neck, you really must spray the entire neck and NOT do wipe on a finish. The reason for this is twofold ...

1. Almost all production necks these dayze use CYA during the fret installation and any dribble of that glue on the fingerboard will not take up a stain - so, you must spray on the stain (called a "shader coat"), and I use Guitar ReRanch nitro based Butterscotch or Fender Amber ... you can then spray on clear nitro or polyU coats directly over the nitro stain.

2. It's difficult to get an even wipe on finish to a maple fingerboard because the clear will want to dam up around the frets, so spraying clear coats is the better way to go rather than wiping.

No sanding sealer required. Just wipe down the wood with naphtha (lighter fluid), allow to flash off dry, spray on a stain (if you choose to stain) and then spray on the clear coats. You can buff out between each cured clear coat with 4/0 steel wool - use a magnet to pick up loose steel fibers, clean with naphtha, dry down wit a clean paper towel, spray on another clear coat. If you build up LOTS of clear coats, the finish can be buffed out to a mirror gloss (LOTS of work and time!).

Attaching a Bolt-On Neck

Get the tuners on the neck, the pickups in place, and the bridge on the body.

I use a small piece of popsicle stick as dummy nut (or, if you have real nut, use that) and cut both "E" string slots (not to depth, just to hold the strings.

Get yerself some scrap wood - a pair 1/4" thick small patch of plywood sheet about 1" x 2" is fine. Get a nice larger "C" clamp.

Put the neck in the body neck pocket. Protect the fingerboard/frets and the back of the body neck pocket with the ply patches. "C" clamp the neck to the body, a tad loose at first, but firm enuf to keep the neck from falling off.

Slip the dummy nut into the neck's nut slot. String up both "E" strings. Line up the strings with the sides of the neck and the pickup pole pieces. When all looks right, tighten the "C" clamp. All should be nicely lined up - that's all we're looking to do.

Now, drill yer neck holes - MAKE SURE TO USE A PIECE OF TAPE ON THE DRILL BIT TO MARK THE DEPTH! I use a simple variable speed hand held electric drill to make the holes - no need for a drill press. Drill at what appears to be 90 degrees to the back of the body - the body neck holes will guide you. The simple wood/metal bit I use is 1/8" diameter.

At this point, with the neck heel holes drilled, here is an option to consider - hardening the neck heel screw holes. Put the neck into the body pocket, align the neck plate and slowly screw in each neck screw - screw in a little bit, back it out, screw it in a bit deeper, etc, until each of the four neck screws are homed tight. Remove all screws and remove the neck out of the body neck pocket. Using quality, water thin CYA (cyanoacrylate) super glue, wick in a few drops into each neck heel screw hole. Though the glue should cure within minutes, I allow a good hour or more to fully cure. In essence, this hardens the wood "threads", makes them very strong, and allows taking the neck on/off a hundred times without concern of compromising the wood threads.

I use a bit of beeswax on the tips of the neck screws for lubrication (hard rock maple is HARD) but candle wax or soap works as well.

Guitar Setup

The following is the schedule I go through whenever I assemble a new solid body git (after bolting together a neck and body, setting all the hardware - and cutting a new nut for the correct string height at the first fret). Always begin a setup with fresh, good strings.

Before beginning the setup, I make sure that the nut relief is acceptable. Nut relief is the distance between the bottom of each string and the top of the first fret as measure when you fret a string at the second fret. If there is no nut relief (i.e. - a string touches the first fret when fretted at the second fret), you need a new nut. There should be between .001" and .010" (depending on many factors, some personal) of nut relief.

Caveat - lots depends on how you pluck, strike or beat a string, in terms of force. If you play lightly, you can get away with lower action than if you really beat those wires.

[1] With no string tension, I adjust the truss rod so that the neck is dead level: that is, a steel straight edge laid along the frets will touch all frets (you can also use a guitar's string, held taught between the 1st and last frets). IF you can NOT get the neck dead level and ANY fret is too high or low, in relation to the other frets (you'll know that right away!) the frets (and/or fretboard!) require leveling - a job for a competent luthier - don't try this one on yer own, kids! This problem will cause you *TONS* of grief until it's rectified! If all is level, I *might* initially tighten the truss to allow for .001" to .006" of relief (bow) at the 9th fret. Maybe.

[2] I tune the strings up to pitch and check the 3rd or 4th string's relief at the 9th fret by holding down the string at the 1st and 17th frets (stick a capo - or a popsicle stick and rubber band!- on the 1st fret, finger the 17th fret and use an automotive feeler gauge set to measure the distance between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string). There should be between .002" and .012" (maybe more, but you'll have a higher overall action when you use lotsa relief). You need neck relief to allow for the string's oscillation - if there is no relief you will have tons of buzzing, unless you set the action HIGH! I slack the strings and adjust the truss rod to get the right neck relief at the 9th fret.

The job of the truss rod is to set neck relief, NOT TO ADJUST STRING ACTION!

[3] Next I'll rough in the string length by adjusting the bridge and/or saddles: a 25-1/2" (Fender, etc.) scale neck will have a 12-3/4" distance between the nut and the 12th fret, and between the 12th fret and the bridge; a 24-3/4" scale neck (Gibson, etc.) will have a 12-3/8" distance between the nut and the 12th fret, and between the 12th fret and the bridge. Set the string height by adjusting the bridge/saddles. Initially, I go as low as I can with a minimum of buzz - depending on the angle between your git's neck and body (hopefully, dead level! - but maybe not!) this can be mighty low to higher than you'd like! If too high, a bolt-on neck has the advantage of being shimmed at the back of the neck pocket to increase -or make- the neck "fall away" from the body. It takes a TINY, THIN shim to make a BIG difference.

[4] When satisfied with the initial action, I set the intonation - which WILL change the action! This is a "dog chasing it's tail" kinda thing, where you'll get the action to your liking but hafta touch it up again after re-setting the intonation. I take my time. I prefer a medium low action, as that gives me the best clear tone I prefer - too low an action will almost always give you some kinda string buzzing, specially if you go banging the strings (as I do, at times).

When shooting for as low a string action as possible, the usual suspects for string buzzing at particular frets are ...

* either that string is just oscillating a LOT (remedy - make sure you're tuned to concert pitch, get a new set of strings or try a heavier gauge of string or try a different string brand)

* or there's too little neck relief (remedy - carefully adjust the truss rod, in 1/4 turn increments and allow the rod to settle down with some playing and at least waiting overnight)

* or the frets and/or fingerboard are not level - this is common, particularly on well used guitars that have seen little or no fret dressing (remedy - see a competent luthier, OR, use a large wood plane and some wet/dry 600 grit and "polish" the frets ~ practice this on a beater git!)

* your strings are way too light for the guitar scale and tuning - .009-.042 strings on a 24-3/4" scale neck at Eb or D tuning will almost guarantee string rattling and buzzing.

* the fretboard radius is too small and bending strings mid-board "fret out" as they are pushed toward the center of the fretboard and come in contact with the fret below the fret you are fretting. Remedy - raise the string action or change the neck to much larger radius.

"What Amp Should I Get?"

Most of my daily playing - practice and composition - is done without any amplification, using a Tele.

For travel or quiet plugged in practice, I use a small headphone FX box. For recording and jamming I use a Li'l Dawg Prince 5 watt combo tube amp (based on the Fender 5F2A), with a 12" AlNiCo speaker. If I was back into gigging (gawd forbid!) I'd just mic that amp, as almost all venues require going through a sound board anyway (there is NO need for large wattage amps these dayze).

What is your preferred style of music and playing? Who are your listeners? If it's almost always just you, then I'd consider getting an amp modeling and/or FX gizmo such as an RP100, J-Station, Pandora PX, SansAmp, Pod, etc. (used units are fine) - and get a decent set of stereo headphones - then you can wail away at un-godly volumes without disturbing anyone but you. BTW, those gizmos will usually make you sound *awesome* through headphones. ;=]

If it's for local practice jams with yer buds, get something in the 5-15 watt range - tube or s/s, that's your decision and not mine or others. I tend to favor real tube amps for blues, jazz and rock, no matter whether driven by single or double coiled pickup guitars. Real tube amps have a warm and harmonic tone that has yet to be replicated by solid state technology. Your Mileage May Vary, and probably will.

For small venue gigs like bars and sociables, and depending on the amp deign, 5-15 watts will do just fine - sometimes un-mic'd, too. 20-35 tube amp watts should be enough to cut through the drums and smokey bar chatter. But there are lotsa dependencies to consider. It's a gas to gig with a mic'd 5 watt single ended tube amp!

IMO, there is *great* value in old tube amps, particularly small Fenders such as the 5 watt Champ, 12 watt MusicMaster Bass (really a guitar amp), 12 watt Princeton or Princeton Reverb, 22 watt Deluxe or Deluxe Reverb. They're proven designs, point-to-point wired (which is found only on custom boutique amps these dayze), will cost lots less than a new amp that uses printed circuit boards, and will only increase in value.

Still don't know just what amp to get? Take your time and check'em all out at yer local geetar store. Anyone can give you advice, but the rubber meets the road when you've paid yer bucks and have to live with your decision. Let yer ears and wallet do the selecting. Good luck.