Weekend Mod Project: D-28 Open-Gear Tuner Upgrade

I’ve made an effort to play more acoustic guitar in 2014, which has partly entailed overhauling my Martin D-28. Now a decade old, the spruce and rosewood dreadnought has matured both acoustically and aesthetically; it has also endured some normal wear and tear. Several months ago, I performed overdue maintenance on a worn mammoth ivory saddle. More recently, I set out to replace the stock Gotoh tuners (right) — at least one of which was showing symptoms of a stripped gear. The Martin-labeled enclosed machines are unfortunately not available through retailers (either singly or as a set), which means owners must navigate the myriad aftermarket options.

A generic, Gotoh labeled drop-in replacement is available, but for several years I had been eyeing vintage-inspired, open-gear tuners. Open-gear tuners are stock on most high-end Martin vintage reproductions, and boutique manufacturers like Collings and Bourgeois also opt for the classic look. The problem is that open-gear tuners have a very different overall design footprint (including set screws and and peghead bushings) than most enclosed tuners — which is to say this is no trivial mod.

After extensive research, I opted for a well-reviewed and reasonably priced set of Gotoh open-gear tuners available from Luthiers Mercantile International. Acoustic Guitar and Martin Guitar Forum users routinely compare these favorably to pricier, American-made models by Waverly. Installation can be daunting for the uninitiated, especially if it entails drilling and reaming holes in an expensive instrument. Needless to say, it’s a job worth taking to your luthier if you feel the least bit uncomfortable with the mod. For those who take the DIY route, I hope this post can serve as a helpful guide (this page and this page are also extremely helpful).

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You did what to that guitar?!

There’s a 1968 Telecaster currently for sale on reverb.com that, at first glance, exhibits serious mojo. The instrument is well-worn, Springsteen-style, with an aftermarket Charlie Christian-style neck pickup. CC pickups are hip, and ’68 teles aren’t all that rare, so I’m inclined to forgive the modding of a vintage piece. However, a glance through the photos accompanying the listing turns up a cringe-worthy pic of the routing job — the body was absolutely mangled to accommodate the pickup. They did what to that guitar?!

Fellow pickers, let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone. I submit to you Exhibit A, my American Special Tele.

Three years ago I decided to install a PAF-style neck humbucker for jazz work, which the guitar was theoretically routed to accommodate. Upon receiving the pickup (a Duncan Seth Lover) in the mail, I was troubled to find that the factory route could not accommodate the pickup’s vintage-correct elevated mounting tabs. A wiser man would have returned the pickup and sought out a pickup with non-elevated tabs — or taken the guitar to a professional with the right tools for additional routing. But I want my jazz tone nooow. So out comes my electric drill and a wood chisel. Ouch. The job (consisting of two less-than-symmetrical routes on either side of the pickup cavity) isn’t nearly as ugly as the ’68, but I’m still not proud of the hasty workmanship. That said, the pickup fits now and everything is neatly hidden under the pickguard. A guitar without scars is a guitar that hasn’t been loved. Who am I to judge?

Weekend Mod Project: BillM Blues Jr Mods, Part 2

Last week I posted about my decision to jump headfirst into the world of amp mods, performing some simple tweaks to my Fender Blues Jr using a popular kit from online Jr guru Bill Machrone. This included the “TwinStack” mod, replacement orange drop tone capacitors, power supply stiffening capacitor, and adjustable bias trim pot, as well as a presence control and more robust input jack. Sounds complicated, but in reality the mods involve only a handful of components. What could go wrong?

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Weekend Mod Project: BillM Blues Jr Mods, Part 1

I worked in guitar shops throughout high school and college, and began tinkering with guitar electronics soon after coworkers taught me to wield a soldering iron. After more than a decade of DIY jobs, I feel comfortable toying with the innards of most control cavities. That said, passive guitar circuits are relatively simple. Amps are another matter entirely; even the simplest designs put a guitar circuit to shame, and most amps can store a lethal electrical charge in their capacitors — even when unplugged. So I’ve generally left amp repair and mods to the experts.

As readers know, it can be hard to suppress the DIY instinct, especially when other pickers are raving about a particular mod. Recently, the itch to tinker with my Fender Blues Jr finally reached critical mass. For several years, I had read rave reviews of the so-called “BillM mods” — circuit modifications from the mind of Jr guru Bill Machrone that most players seem to agree yield a dramatic improvement in the little amp’s tone.

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Back in the Saddle (100th Post!!!)

I’ve resolved to play more acoustic guitar in the New Year — both because I have a lovely instrument that deserves attention, and because it’s a great way to build up strength and dexterity. There’s no reason most of what I’m learning jazz-wise can’t be picked on my Martin. Moreover, after long hours of practice on a set of acoustic 0.013s, I’ll be that much more fleet-fingered on my electric at band practice.

The ol’ D-28 was overdue for a new set of bronzewounds. With the old strings off, it also made sense to do some long-neglected saddle maintenance. As the pic above shows, years of heavy strings had worn some pretty deep grooves. Ideally, the strings on an acoustic should break cleanly across the ridge of the saddle; grooves are inevitable over time, but if they get too deep, tone and intonation can be effected.

I installed my Martin’s current saddle back in college; it’s made of fossil mammoth ivory, a material prized for strength, consistency, and (most importantly) tone. Mammoth ivory saddles are pricey, so I wanted to keep this one intact if at all possible. That meant pulling it from the bridge slot and carefully taking it down from the top with my trusty mill file. I was also aiming to lower the action a shade, which gave me some wiggle room to really get below the grooves. Slow and steady wins the race — I filed a little bit at a time, making sure to maintain the original radius and curvature (most good saddles are carefully shaped to compensate for intonation).

And voila! I was quite pleased with the final product; the saddle looks great and my guitar plays better than I can remember in a long time. You can see the saddle is getting low, which suggests this guitar probably has a neck reset in its not-too-distant future (an eventual requirement for every steel-string).


Frequent Flyer-caster Redux, Part 2

In Part 1 of Frequent Flyer-caster Redux, I wrote about my search for a more substantial neck for my travel tele. I eventually settled on an Allparts TMO-FAT model, which merges a vintage 1.625″ nut width with a beefy 1″ U-shape neck profile. The neck arrived unfinished and undrilled for hardware, providing me with an opportunity to once again test my novice lutherie skills.

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Frequent Flyer-caster Redux, Part 1

A few weeks ago I mentioned completing a new partscaster, a successor to the travel tele I modded a year ago. I got some good mileage out of that instrument, toting it around the United States and even across the Atlantic. The concept of disassembly in my checked bag worked well enough, and I even experimented with a few different modes of amplification. For the amount of money I paid, it was a great proof-of-concept guitar — but unfortunately it came up lacking in a few regards.

First and foremost was playability. I didn’t mention this in my original posts, but the Squier Affinity Telecaster has a narrower-than-usual nut — 1.6″ to be exact (as opposed to 1.625″ on a vintage spec tele and 1.685″ on a modern American Standard Fender). The difference may seem trivial to a non-player, and I didn’t think it would be a big deal on a pinch-hitter guitar. But I had been hoping this would be a gig-worthy instrument that I would want to pick up and play, and at the end of the day I felt like I had a toy in my hands. So my first inclination was to try swapping out the neck.

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New Partscaster

Just finished assembling a new(ish) Telecaster. After a lot of effort trying to get the Frequent Flyer-caster to work for me, I just couldn’t get used to a few of its build and playability quirks — especially the narrow nut width. I initially set out to just replace the neck with an Allparts model of more conventional dimensions. That eventually led to the search for a new body to match, and ultimately the assembly of a whole new guitar. I’m sure my fellow gearheads out there can sympathize with the tendency for scope-creep on these projects. In any case, I’ll post again soon with more details on the project.

Noise Boxes

My friend and former acoustic collaborator Jana Pochop has been on the road recently with Susan Gibson. Jana recently picked up an uber-cool Epiphone Riviera and has been brushing up on her electric chops. That includes dusting off her collection of effects pedals, which inspired me to do the same. As discussed in a previous post, I went through a slightly unhealthy effects acquisition phase in college. I’ve been studying jazz mostly for the past couple years, which means my pedals haven’t seen much action.

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Weekend Mod Project: Frequent Flyer-caster, Part 3

Now we come to the end of my travel Tele odyssey. In Part 2, I provided an overview of the the mods I envisioned for this guitar, including crucial changes to the electronics, bridge, and general look of the instrument. The electronics and hardware were fairly simple changes, given my past experience working on guitars. However, the cosmetic changes — including a vintage-tinted neck and body finish “relicing” — were new territory for me as an amateur luthier.

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