Homegrown Music: Guitar Repair

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Marc Bristol and other Washington State homegrown music makers wail away on a gutbucket bass, washboard, and jug (the axe is a gag)

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That’s what this column is about. Homegrown music… and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on. 

You say the bridge just popped off your guitar–or maybe the instrument has a crack in the back that you’ve been meaning to get fixed–but there’s not a qualified repairperson in the neighborhood? Relax. The guitar has grown so popular that a whole library of literature on guitar repair and care has sprung up. And if you’re a serious guitar picker or collector–or even thinking of making some money by starting a “musical” repair business–you’ll want to own at least a couple of the better manuals.

I managed to locate a number of volumes–covering both repair and construction of guitars–by using mail-order catalogs as my guide. So, in this column, I’ll review those that I believe provide the best information about instrument repair, a couple of books on construction, and one tome that offers general information on electric instruments.

The Acoustic Guitar: Adjustment, Care, Maintenance and Repair by Don Teeter (University of Oklahoma). Don Teeter was a guitar-playing machinist before he went into business repairing guitars, and I suspect his practical background helps him write in plain language and provide simple but detailed explanations. The Acoustic Guitar is primarily for people who make a living fixing guitars. It also provides complete details of the design and construction of special “git-box” repair tools, including some that were invented by Teeter. Furthermore, the book can tell you how to use this homemade equipment, and discover techniques for working more efficiently with standard workshop tools.

The only specific acoustic “axe” not accounted for in The Acoustic Guitar is the arch-top, or plectrum guitar. Happily, it’s covered in my second “pick of the pack” volume, Complete Guitar Repair by Hideo Karnimoto (Oak Publications). Mr. Kamimoto covers the basic designs of (and particular repair problems for) all of the different styles of guitar, from classic and flamenco through folk and flat-top–even including both arch-top and solid-bodied electric instruments. He does assume that his readers have some knowledge of the subject, however, and the tone of his work is rather intellectual especially when compared to Teeter’s down-home style.

Complete Guitar Repair‘s section on equal tempered tuning as it relates to the repair shop is particularly interesting, on the other hand, and provides in-depth information not offered anywhere else. In addition, there’s a table of fret spacing calculations for guitars with scale lengths from 23 1/2 inches to 26 1/2 inches (in 1/8-inch intervals) and for electric basses with scale lengths from 30 1/2 inches to 34 1/2 inches (at 1/4-inch intervals). You’ll also find the usual chapter on each of the common repair jobs, such as warped necks (yes, Virginia, there is such a device as a neck straightener! ), broken pegheads, fingerboard replacements, bridges, cracks and patches, touchups, and refinishing. The electric guitar is also discussed, in a section that includes the electronic aspects of such instruments as well as their mechanical functions.

I would recommend that you make this book and Teeter’s volume part of your repair shop library. Certain techniques (such as refretting) are described differently in each book. However, that variance gives you a chance to choose the method that suits you best. 

Guitar Repair by Irving Sloane (E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.). The primary appeal of Guitar Repair is in the excellent photography of repair work being done at the Martin Guitar Factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The book’s verbal content, however. is disappointing. 

Fix Your Axe compiled by the editors of Guitar Player Books. The cover says it all: a photo of some poor fellow leaning out of his car window to discover that he’s just run over his guitar case. You can bet that repair job isn’t covered in this book!

One theme that’s stressed in Fix Your Axe is that some repairs are better left in professional hands, and I agree if you’re going to attempt such work while relying only on the sketchy information presented in this volume. It’s true that you can create a more serious repair job from a lesser one through error, but such a disaster isn’t likely to happen if you can also refer to the clearer and more thorough instructions presented in the first two books I’ve reviewed.

By the way, the term “axe” as used in the book’s title may be a mystery to some of you. It’s musician’s slang and can refer to any instrument, but is now most commonly used to mean a guitar. I’m not sure I care for the metaphor, but it does make for a good joke.

The Guitar Book by Tom Wheeler (Harper and Row, Dept). More than just a book, this work is a monument to the guitar. I feel that the chapters about adjustment and repair are too short, but they’re not the reasons why I recommend this volume, anyway. I was more impressed by the fascinating information about guitars: their origin and history, photos of rare and significant models, portraits of famous players, chapters on how to choose a guitar and strings, a hearty section on amplifiers and speakers, special effects, and so forth.

Over half the book is devoted to electric guitars and related technology, so it’s not for those of you who aren’t into electronics. But I can wholeheartedly recommend that everyone else go buy it or pester his or her local library to purchase it. It’s worth the somewhat steep price.

The Steel String Guitar: Its Construction, Origin and Design by Donald Brosnac (Panjandrum Books, Dept.). Although it’s hardly complete in the treatment of its subject, this book may be of use to some of you because it contains blueprints and instructions for building two different styles of acoustic steel string guitars. Both the Gibson B-25 and the standard Dreadnought model are presented in blueprint form (1/2 scale). Brosnac favors the Spanish-style neck joint (with a slotted-integral headblock), which is somewhat unorthodox but completely serviceable. He treats the standard dovetail joint, briefly, at the end of the book’s construction section.

Of course, you’ll develop questions while making your instrument–even if you have some experience and skill in woodworking–and many of those questions won’t be answered in this or any book’s pages. Actually, if you’re going to construct a guitar, you’ll learn as much and probably lots more from simply doing it as you will from reading about the subject.

To get started, you just need a basic design, a list of tools and materials, and an outline of the steps of construction. The Steel String Guitar provides these essentials, though the steps are not as detailed as you might like. If you’re looking to have someone hold your hand throughout the building of your first guitar, this probably isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re confident that you can handle precision woodworking, or if you’re willing to make some mistakes and learn, go ahead and try out The Steel String Guitar.

The Electric Guitar: Its History and Construction by Donald Brosnac. Here again we have two sets of blueprints for electric guitars: a Fender Stratocaster-style solid body and a thinline double cutaway hollow body, both at 1/2-inch scale.

This volume is a little shorter than Brosnac’s other book, but the construction of an electric guitar is simpler than that of the acoustic variety. The details of making the instruments are presented in outline form rather than as a complete description. All of the steps are listed, but particular problems or techniques in woodworking are not specifically covered. However. electric pickup design is described in enough detail to allow most folks to build their own.

The Steel String Guitar: Construction and Repair by David Russell Young (Chilton Book Co.). There’s only one set of plans in this manual and the section on repairs is even shorter than is the equivalent chapter in The Guitar Book, but Young’s volume contains comprehensive instructions on how to build a guitar.

Young, like Brosnac, advocates an unorthodox method of attaching the instruments’ necks to their bodies. He just flat epoxies ’em on there! This is simpler than most other methods to be sure, and permanent as hell … so be certain your work is right the first time! The author also uses a nonadjustable reinforcing rod in the neck. making the matter of setting action for different string gauges difficult. He recommends matching the gauge to the guitar as is (and, if that doesn’t work, you’ll have to replane the fret board to get the sound you want).

Such design idiosyncracies do amount to simplifications for the person who is just starting to build or repair guitars. The descriptions of each step (including, in some cases, the building of jigs and forms) are fairly complete and well-illustrated. The Chilton tome is a well-written book, beautifully designed and illustrated, arid I recommend it to anyone who aspires to build steel string guitars.

I think the above list just about covers the most worthwhile guitar repair manuals available. As I said, I suggest that anyone who’s seriously considering setting up a repair shop purchase both Teeter’s The Acoustic Guitar and Kamimoto’s Complete Guitar Repair Supplement these with Wheeler’s book, or another volume of your choice that deals with the history of instruments. The three should provide you with all the basic information you’ll need. There are three or four other works (which I’ve not yet seen) on the topic of guitar evolution and history. These, as well as the books reviewed here (with the exception of Fix Your Axe) are available from International Luthier’s Supply. You can also get just about everything you’ll need to build an instrument from scratch, including tools (except for large power tools) from Luthier’s supply.

You might want to write and ask for a free catalog: You’ll find that the listings include a number of volumes on classic guitar construction, plus “readymade” dulcimers, violins. and other instruments that may interest you.

Some of the books I’ve mentioned may also be available at discount prices through Elderly Instruments, Guitar’s Friend, and Musician’s Supply. (It’s possible to buy through one of those suppliers and save enough on one of the more costly books to pay for several less expensive volumes!)

Of course, I plan to provide continual coverage on instrument repair manuals, as well as on all the other subjects mentioned in my column. So, if you good folks know of other books, products, festivals, and so on, I’d like to hear about ’em. The information that you send along will be interspersed with articles on building instruments and with other projects and topics that are of interest to the homegrown musician.