Expert guitarists who have been playing for quite a while have aced the specialty of repairing the guitar all alone. Here is a guide which will demonstrate supportive to complete minor running repairs or counteract assist harm before an expert assumes control.
Experts always know their instruments very well. This is the only reason guitarists are able to repair their axes on their own. Guitar repair is not exactly a very difficult or impossible task to manage. Constant handling of the instrument, improvisation of the stringing, tuning and playing greatly help in completing the task. Before we begin, I’ll give you a quick list of the more important tools to have to perform the repairs.
A guitarist always keeps a kit full of everything that he needs to maintain and patch up his instrument with. Here are a couple of things that you need to include in your repair kit. Most of them apply to the electric guitar; a lot of things can be done without these tools on an acoustic.
Allen wrenches of the appropriate sizes : They are usually standardized and always come with the electric guitar you buy. Never lose them; they are very important in doing most kind of repairs.
Chromatic tuner : As a rule, when working on the guitars that require the strings to be on, always keep the strings tuned before you start the work. The tuner is a necessity; even if you develop an ear for the notes, the tuner makes for an invaluable reference.
Truss rod wrench : A good tool to have once you know how to use it.
A steel ruler : Just something to help measure the action. After a while of playing, you can decide just how much action you want, so you don’t really need the ruler.
The intonation key : It is the accessory that makes setting the intonation easier on floating bridges. You can still do it without this key. (Both methods explained later)
Tri-Flow® : A quality lube with a needle-point dispenser that makes it easy to apply the lube in small spaces.
You can also get some superglue, polish and oils for maintenance. These things are mostly subjective and can be used once you figure your guitar out from the inside out.
This job comes every 6 months on normal conditions and maintained guitars, if you’re a casual/aspiring guitarist (3 months if you play gigs every night). The difficulty in changing the strings is a direct result of the type of bridge that you use. Most acoustic ones use a non-tailed (fixed) bridge, so they are easy to re-string once you know the basics. Good ones can come with adjustable saddles, which are useful for fine tuning and setting the intonation. I’ve detailed the re-stringing of electric guitars, from which you can associate the logical parallels to the acoustic.
Here’s a list of things you need to be careful about while re-stringing any guitar:
- Gently straighten out each string between your thumb and index finger when you take it out of its cover. It helps reduce the elasticity of the strings so they don’t pose too much of a problem while tuning.
- Re-stringing is the perfect time to clean out the places previously difficult to reach. This includes the lower part of the headstock and the spot between the bridge and the pickup/sound hole. Use a clean, lint-free cloth over wider areas and a Q-tip to get to the smaller places, especially the string inserts and the fine-tuning pegs on Floyd Rose trems. Use an old toothbrush to get to the spaces where each fret post meets the neck.
- The perfect way to wrap the string around the tuning peg on the headstock is by having not more than 2 coils per string. Having more than 2 coils pressures the peg, making it slip. Also, make sure the second coil is inside the first one. This allows the inner (second) coil that leads out to the fretboard to be pressured, thereby catching the outer (first) coil and keeping the string wound tightly over the peg.
- After re-stringing comes the more important part – stretching the strings. This is an absolute must because it’s the best way to keep the strings from de-tuning in between bends. To stretch them (this is always done after re-stringing and before setting the intonation), all you have to do is pull each string up from the fretboard gently, then letting it rest back on the fretboard. Repeat this until the string feels stressed and less elastic.
- To be thorough, do this at the 5th, 7th, 12th and 17th frets. Be careful though, you may easily break the strings or cause them to slip out of the bridge.
It is the easier type to re-string; a fixed bridge will take less than 10 minutes once you develop a hand for it (excluding the stretching, which takes 10-15 minutes by itself). Align the string into the groove on the saddle and the nut. Poke the headstock end of the string through the hole in the tuning peg, put a sharp bend on the outer side of the string, right on the hole. Start turning the peg to tighten the string. Tune it to the relative note and cut off the excess string on the tuning peg. Remember to leave about an inch or two in case the string slips. Then stretch the string and re-tune.
This bridge is tougher to re-string than fixed bridges, because it’s not attached directly to the body. The tremolo allows the string to slack easily, creating a major headache to re-string and tune. I’m going to explain the process on a Floyd Rose. Others, like the Edge and ZR trems have almost the same method.
- Loosen the tuning clamps on the nut.
- Loosen the string locks on the bridge. Be careful because the stress can launch them out of their grooves.
- Take the string out from under the tuning clamps on the nut. Avoid scratching the fretboard and the underside of the clamps.
- Clean off the part where the string enters the bridge. This is a good habit that helps avoid any dirt that might cause the string to lose its grip.
- The balled-up end on the new string usually goes into the tuning pegs. You can choose to cut it off too; it’s not really needed.
- Gently slide the strings under the tuning clamps and keep them as straight as possible.
- Cut off the string that goes beyond the fine tuners.
- Then ease the open end through the string insert and tighten the lock. Never tighten it more than one rotation. Actually, if you can do that, it means the string hasn’t gone completely into the lock. In that case, take it out and redo.
- Start turning the peg once you’re sure the locks are on tight. If the other end has been cut off at the proper distance, the string shouldn’t need more than two coils around the peg. After you reach the relative note, stretch the strings and re-tune.
Adjusting the Truss Rod
You’ll need to do this when your fretboard starts arching. The bend on the neck will cause the strings to rise away from the fretboard and become a pain to play properly. As long as you don’t own a classic acoustic, you will have a truss rod inside the fretboard to straighten the neck. (classical acoustics do not have a truss rod installed, but they usually don’t bend because they use nylon strings that don’t stress the neck too much)
The bend can go either way – it can cause the strings to go to close to the frets or to move away from them. Either case is bad; the former will create fret buzz (discussed in detail in the next section) while the latter just makes it harder to play. A simple way to check for the bend is to clamp down the strings on the first fret (using a capo) and then on the last fret with one hand (or have a friend help you out). Slide a piece of paper of some thickness (like a card) through the middle of the fretboard, underneath the strings. If it won’t pass easily, the neck is bent outward (the neck bulges towards the strings). If you can pass the paper through with still some extra space left, the neck is bent inwards (away from the strings). Both can be repaired with the truss rod as shown below.
Remove the cover that lies just above the nut, on the headstock. You need to keep the strings on to check if the adjustment is enough. The truss rod’s nut is underneath this cover. Take the truss rod wrench and turn the nut as follows:
- If you are looking directly at the truss rod’s nut, you will turn it clockwise to tighten the nut in. This pushes the neck towards the strings and reduces the action.
- Turning the nut anti-clockwise will loosen the truss rod, causing the neck to move away from the strings.
You must be very careful with this. The truss rod is very sensitive to changes. Rotate the nut as slowly as possible, checking the bend every second. Never turn the nut more than one full rotation in either direction. This is quite a delicate operation and if you are not too confident about it, you should take the guitar to a professional or a luthier who can help you out for the first time. Too much stress on the truss rod will warp the neck beyond repair or even crack and break it.
Locating Fret Buzz
This is an annoying part in guitar repair, mostly because locating the problem can be tougher than the solution. This is to be done if you get an audible (and distracting) buzz when you pluck the string. The solution depends on the location of the buzz.
- If it buzzes on a single fret, the solution could be anything from resetting the intonation to replacing the individual fret. If the frets are really old and worn out, or have deep dents due to hard play or an accident, you may have to replace them.
- If you have one or many strings that buzz when played open (on most/all frets), the problem is mostly in the nut. The strings can cut into the nut, lowering their height so they touch the frets. It could also be because the guitar is new and hasn’t been set up properly. If the nut is old, consider replacing it. If the guitar is new, you will have to adjust the truss rod and the intonation.
- A buzz on all strings in only the upper part of the fretboard means the wood is reacting to the moisture (or lack of it) in the air, creating a bulge closer to the nut due to stress from the strings. You will need to keep the fretboard in optimum humidity to remove the bulge. Worst case scenario would be the upper part gets warped and you need to replace the fretboard.
To adjust the pickup height, simply turn the two screws on each side of the pickup. Turning them anti-clockwise will lower them into the guitar, increasing their distance from the strings. Turning them clockwise will increase the pickup height. Always make sure that the stings are perfectly tuned before you do this, as each string sends different reactions out of the pickup for different tunings. This is the easiest job, but very important to get right.
There are two things you need to know before you can successfully adjust the pickups on your guitar. One is the type of pickups that you are using, which helps in figuring out how you can adjust them and how much of a difference it would make to raise or lower them. The other is your own playing style. It has a major influence on the exact distance of the pickup from the strings.
Simply put, rhythm players need a softer tone with more sustain. A pickup set further away from the strings (relatively speaking) gives you both. The perfect distance would be where the sound is soft enough without compromising on the amplification, while maintaining a good sustain. If the pickup is too far, it won’t catch the vibrations of the string. If it is too close, the magnetic pull won’t let the strings vibrate enough, therefore reducing sustain.
Playing leads and riffs requires a stronger, punchy tone that doesn’t garble up when playing half a step ahead or behind one note. This calls for a pickup that’s set closer to the strings.
The middle point is where blues and sliding fits in. Slides need a decent amount of sustain as well as a clear, strong tone.
Setting the Intonation
You can read ahead and opt to perform this task yourself, but trust me when I say you need a mountain of patience to get it right. Resetting the intonation is an absolute nightmare for even experienced guitar players. Bad intonations are the burden of all fretted instruments tuned with equal temperament. Anyone who has already tried doing this on a Floyd Rose will know what I’m talking about. Anyway, on to the details.
Just like re-stringing, the type of bridge will be the biggest influence on the way the intonation is to be done. The basic job is to make sure each string plays the right note on each fret as it is supposed to. Having the 1st and the 12th frets at the same relative note usually sets things right. You can use a good chromatic tuner to check the notes in between. Always remember to keep the string as closely tuned to the proper note before you begin. Also have the string as stretched out as you can, so it won’t de-tune while you’re setting the intonation.
The process is important if not mandatory, especially if you’re performing with other musicians. By yourself, you can ignore the problem (to a limit). But when you’re playing with others, you will immediately figure out the differences in tuning, making this task as necessary as it is painful.
The whole thing basically goes like this:
- If we are checking the high E, an E on open and an E flat on the 12th fret, it means the octave on the string is shorter than the same on the fretboard. Push the saddle closer to the neck to shorten the string length.
- If the E on the 12th fret is sharp, it means the string is too short to fit the octave. So you have to pull the saddle away from the neck to increase string length.
The saddles are usually preset on acoustic guitars (each brand has a rigid saddle at factory settings), so there’s nothing to do on them. To change the intonation, you have to change the action. If the saddles are adjustable, use the screws on the bottom side of the bridge to change the saddle position.
Tremolo bridges are where the pain is, especially the Floyd Rose. There are two reasons for this:
Since the bridge is floating, if it is not set to perfect zero, you’ll never get the right intonation.
The intonation lock (small black screw under each string) needs to be set loose, which if done while the string is tight, launches the string lock clamp off its base.
Therefore, the usual way to set the intonation is as follows:
- Tune string to relative note.
- Check 12th fret. You now know which way to adjust the saddle using the fine-tuning screw (behind the saddle) and by how much.
- Completely slacken the string. Loosen the intonation screw.
- Adjust the saddle. Tighten the intonation screw.
- Re-tune the string and check for the note on 12th again.
- Rinse and repeat for each string.
The easy way out is using the intonation key (aka ‘The Key’). There is one for the OFR, then another for a few Edge trems. The problem is, the tremolos aren’t all the same, so the key will also change. If you’re not careful with them, you’ll end up scratching the coat on the bridge. But they do make the job very easy, like so:
- Clamp the key in as shown in its manual.
- Check the note on the 12th fret.
- Tighten or loosen the knob on the key to effectively pull or push the saddle.
- Set the saddle to the right place and move to next string.
A tool like this does belong in your maintenance kit, provided you got the right one (and a good one; the threading on some pieces can be clumsy, letting the knob slip while you’re turning it). OFR keys are fairly easy to get. The other tremolos with string-locking saddles may or may not have one (ZR trems come with their own intonation adjustment screw).
As you learn more about the hardware, you will be able to do all of this with precision. Not only that, there’s also the whole realm of custom fittings, changing or creating your own inlays, re-polishing the fretboard and body, and so on. After a while, it you will start to realize why a lot of professionals talk about their guitars like their girlfriends!