Luthier? I hardly know her! Part 1

Okay, so the blog has been inactive for a bit, but let’s be real: the people who read this are probably also the people I’ve seen in the last month or so. I now return, to begin a series of posts about my latest project: restoring a shitty old bass, all by myself. I apologize to my predominantly non-bassist audience, who may be quite bored by all this, but this is where my head is at at the moment.

Setting up an instrument is intimidating. Even after around 15 years of playing, I still prefer to delegate certain tasks to the pros. I can change strings, and set intonation, and make crude adjustments to action via the truss rod. Anything involving electronics, or the nut, or replacing any of the hardware, I am happy to pay someone to not fuck up on my behalf. My setup guy did such a great job on my G&L when I bought it that I haven’t needed to mess with it since. But philosophically, I think it’s important to be able to maintain your own gear. So with this goal in mind, on my last US tour, I found the perfect test case. A junker with potential: the Sorina Telecaster Deluxe.

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I bought this bass at a pawn shop in Austin, while waiting for the van to get repaired a half mile or so down the road. The juxtaposition of the Gibson logo and the word “Telecaster” caught my eye, as did the sub-$100 price tag. It is neither a Telecaster nor deluxe. It shares no particular visual features with either a Fender or a Gibson, but does have some oddly fancy design touches, like the brass nut and the rectangular inlays on the neck. It also has a much more flexible circuit than most basses this cheap, having separate volume and tone controls for each pickup as well as a 3-way pickup selector. The creators of this thing were not sure how hard they wanted to try with it. It is a tangled web of priorities.

The raw sound of the instrument is perfect, but it has been treated poorly for the last thirty-odd years and was not particularly good to begin with; it needs some love. At very least:

  • The tuners need to be replaced. The keys rattle, which both sounds unpleasant in itself and dissipates a little bit of the kinetic energy you want to be resonating throughout the body. Their looseness makes tuning harder and less precise. One of the screw heads holding the tuners on was snapped clean off. Another is quite visibly the wrong size. Good tuners would go a long way here.
  • The neck is a bit too heavy, so you have to support it a bit with your left hand to play. A lot of instruments suffer from this problem, and some people don’t care, but I do, dammit. The easiest way to address this is to get lighter tuners. So since I had to replace them anyway, I got a set of Hipshot Ultralites, which cost nearly as much as the whole instrument but are worth it. The point is to make this thing not just unique but legit nice.
  • The brass nut. It is technically considered a premium feature, but it sucks. The slots are too wide, causing the open strings to rattle. The nut itself is too high, making the strings harder to press down. I have to get a plastic or perhaps even a bone nut, file the slots to the correct width and depths, and install it in place of the brass one.
  • The action is a bit too high, and the truss rod won’t turn. A better nut will probably help a bit, but this truss rod thing worries me. The hole at the base of the neck you use to access it is too narrow to be much use, so I have to take the neck off and see what’s up.
  • I may have to shim the neck, which just means sticking a little sliver of wood or light cardboard under it to change its angle slightly.
  • The underside of the string tree is sharp, which inhibits the movement of the strings under it when you tune. This messes with your tuning and also probably damages the strings. I need to file those edges a bit to round them off.
  • All the volume and tone pots need to be replaced. One of the tone knobs won’t turn at all because it’s so dirty, and all of them are scratchy. The sound will be cleaner with some fresh ones.
  • The input jack is loose, and will need to be replaced.
  • Although the pickup switch works, it’s loose and janky and the tip broke off. Since I’m gutting the whole thing anyway I might as well replace that too.
  • The finish on the back of the neck and the fingerboard has a little too much friction. I need to sand it off and refinish the neck with something extra smooth. It’s also kind of ugly. Matte would look nicer and be more functional.
  • The bridge is basically the shittiest possible one, and I can tell from the screw holes that it’s not the original. I have to find a better bridge and swap it in. I haven’t decided yet what kind.
  • I wouldn’t mind doing something with the finish on the body, too. It looks chintzy.
  • I want to reshape the body and headstock in some sort of aesthetically appealing way to be determined later. I think I want to round out the pointy bits, and maybe come up with a cool pattern to put between the pickups, and maybe dig out an integrated thumb rest like on my headless. I’ll also want to widen the truss rod access hole so I can adjust it without taking the neck off.
  • The screws holding the pickups in need to be replaced, as does whatever foam or spring that sits under them to push them up. At the moment they are not at all adjustable.

 

This is a lot of stuff! It will keep me busy for some time. But you have to start somewhere, and I was in a good mood when I awoke, and I wanted to do something productive that wasn’t going to the gym. Today was the day. I decided to start with the tuning pegs. I figured I could do the job with tools I had in the house, just a wrench and a drill. I could sit on the balcony in the sun for an hour or so and come out of it with a markedly better bass.

My first act was the relatively simple operation of filing down the string tree. The strings had huge dents in them where they hit the tree, and I could tell it was cutting into them and potentially compromising their integrity. Like a lot of things I’ll be doing, this process would have been greatly simplified by owning a legit workbench with a vise, but I made do and it didn’t take long.

When I tried to replace the tuners, I immediately ran into a problem: the holes in the headstock were too wide. The old tuners were the kind that screw onto the back of the headstock, and there were bushings to keep the post right in the center of the hole, which made the width less important. But Hipshot Ultralites have a different design. The whole peg clamps the headstock on either side, with only one screw in the back to stop it from rotating in response to the pressure of the string. My gut feeling was that the tuner should be snug before I assembled it, or else there might be too much pressure on the screw, and less vibration transferred from the string. I had to make the hole smaller. It was time to go to Home Depot, which I am very fortunate to be able to get to on foot.

Long story short, I got a little carried away at Home Depot. I got a lot of stuff I’ll need for the project, like an assortment of files, and a lot of stuff I just thought was cool and wanted to have, like a Dremel. My first thought was to just fill the gap with wood filler. But this wouldn’t do. I wasn’t sure about the acoustic properties, or how it would fare under pressure. Plus I couldn’t be sure it would dry evenly if it was just filling all the space between the headstock and the peg. Wood filler was a bad option.

My next thought was to cut a piece of light cardboard to size and glue it inside the hole. I liked the idea of using a wood product instead of a bunch of chemicals, and I figured the material would hold up a lot better than filler. But as I perused the aisles, a better option presented itself: veneer edgebanding.

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This thing is perfect. It’s a roll of really thin wood with adhesive on the back. I could cut the veneer to the correct size, use the steam from a humidifier to bend it into the proper curvature, stick it in the hole, and use a hair dryer to heat the glue while pressing it to the sides with a screwdriver. So what was this:

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became this:

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Granted, the veneer was slightly too rigid to conform exactly to the hole, but if I heat it up while the bushing is inside it I’m confident it will take. It wasn’t long before another hurdle presented itself. In my enthusiasm to secure the tuning pegs to their newly-snug holes, I stripped the threads on one. It is now useless, and I just have to buy another. Closer inspection after the fact revealed that the hole itself is slightly off-center, which prevents the peg from sitting flush. I have since sanded down the edges of the hole a bit to correct this error. The fact that this headstock is rather a bit thicker than the standard Fender doesn’t help either – I can tell that not all the threads on the tuner are engaged. But since the others work fine, I’m going to give it another shot, as trying to make the headstock thinner is pretty far above my pay grade right now and would definitely fuck with the sound of the instrument even more than the lighter tuning pegs already are. The stripped peg will work totally fine on a normal headstock, because more of the threads will be usable.

In our next installment, to be written whenever I get this new part I need, we’ll be installing the tuners for real. I’ll also begin the terrifying process of taking the neck off to fix the truss rod, and probably take the opportunity to sand down the back as well. Will I break this thing and render it even more useless than it already is? Stay tuned.

5 responses on Luthier? I hardly know her! Part 1

  1. Awesome undertaking. Time will tell if you are an intrepid luthier or a mad alchemist. As the wise man said to the dog, “the truth is in the digging, not the bone.” (I think that was a New Yorker cartoon.) Have fun and, at the end of the day, don’t scrimp on strings.

    1. Hi Ira! I thought from your locution you might be my own dad. Have you guys ever met? I feel like you’d get along.

  2. I am v. interested in your exploits. I want to mod and generally improve this Squier Jag i bought recently. Nice thinking with that edgebanding. It’s awesome that a thin roll of wood with adhesive on the back exists as a thing in life. Look forward to reading more! P. S. Hey Ira!

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