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Guitar Repairs – Top 5 Questions & Answers

One of the most important branches of the Chicago Music Exchange is the Gear Repair Shop.  Many of our customers bring extremely rare and vintage guitars and amps to us – items that are incredible but need a bit of refreshing. Consequently, we get a lot of questions about gear repairs.

guitar repairs
Bone and nut saddle fabrication done here at the CME Repair Shop.

Here are the answers to the Top 5 Guitar Repair Questions we get on a regular basis:

1. WHY WON’T MY GUITAR STAY IN TUNE?
Could be your strings binding, a string snagged by a bur, or a damaged truss rod.

Even the simplest of guitar designs have multiple factors that affect the playability, tone, and structural stability of a guitar. Any one of these factors can also play a part in the lack of these three qualities.

When it comes to tuning stability a lot of people immediately zero in on the tuners themselves. While tuners can definitely go bad (or just be low-quality to begin) it is much more common for the guitar strings to be binding at either the nut or the bridge. “Binding” simply means that the guitar string is getting stuck and making the string slightly sharp or flat. Have you ever been tuning your guitar and heard a high-pitched “ping” that seemed to be coming from the strings? If so, chances are the strings are binding.

Any guitar can develop this problem regardless of how expensive, nice, or cheap it is. The most common reason for binding is using a heavier gauge string than the guitar was originally setup for. The solution is usually to widen the nut slots. Sometimes the string can get snagged by a bur (a rough, sharp piece) in the saddle. Filing the bur off with a fine file is typically the cure for such a problem.

In rare cases the guitar’s truss rod can be damaged and unstable. The truss rod is a metal rod built inside the neck to fight the constant pull of the guitar strings and keep the neck straight. Sometimes the truss rod can shift inside the neck under enough tension and change the position of the neck just enough to mess with the guitar’s tuning and intonation. The solution for this problem can be a much more invasive one. In some situations the fretboard needs to be removed completely and the truss rod must be replaced. This isn’t as common as string binding and it would take an experienced technician or Luthier to truly diagnose a complex problem like a shifting truss rod. The best way to deal with a guitar that won’t hold its tuning is to take it in to your local guitar tech to get a professional opinion.

2. WHAT IS A SETUP AND WHEN SHOULD I BRING MY GUITAR IN FOR ONE?
Whenever your guitar isn’t doing what you want it to do, OR is doing things you don’t want it to do.

When guitars are built they are usually done with specific settings in mind for optimal playability. Some guitars are setup this way before they even leave the factory, but external factors such as the weather, a rocky ride in a shipping truck, or simply time can knock the guitar’s setup out of wack.

When we use the word “setup” what we are referring to are things like the guitar’s action (string height), the position of the truss rod, the height of the pickups, the intonation, and in some cases the angle of the neck. All of these things affect the way a guitar feels and sounds. The term does not, however, take in to account that no two people are alike and that the feel of a guitar is very subjective.

Some people prefer super low-action and a super straight neck. This makes the guitar very loose feeling, which could possibly introduce some string buzz for a player that hits the strings hard. Some people prefer a medium high action with a bit of relief in the neck. This kind of setup makes the guitar stiff and forces the player to fight for the notes, which could become a problem for players with a very light touch. Once you have your guitar feeling the way you need it to feel and then that feeling seems to have vanished, it is time for a setup.

The intonation of a guitar is measured by how close the tuning of the open strings match the tuning of the notes played at higher frets. When a guitar’s intonation is off the guitar’s fretted notes will be out of tune with the other strings or open strings. When your guitar seems to have a hard time playing in tune it is definitely time for a setup. Most guitars have a lot of moving parts. Electric guitars can have lots of knobs and switches that can become loose or intermittent. Pickups can work themselves down too far from, or up too close to, the strings. Output jacks can become loose and potentiometers can become scratchy. These problems definitely mean it is time for a setup.

We are often asked, “How often do I need a setup?” The simplest way to answer that question would be “whenever your guitar isn’t doing what you want it to do, or whenever your guitar is doing things you don’t want it to do.”

3. SHOULD I FIX THIS GUITAR OR JUST BUY ANOTHER ONE?
Fix it…if it has sentimental value or other unique value.

An unfortunate reality for guitars is that they all will need some sort of repair work at some point. The price of a guitar can span an incredible range these days, and the truth is that some guitars can be worth less than what it might cost to repair (depending on the repair, of course).

“Is this worth fixing?” is a question we get asked frequently. There are several factors to consider when deciding if an inexpensive guitar is worth the cost of repair. The first would be if there is any sentimental value to you. A guitar may not be particularly worth a lot of money in the open market, but if the instrument belonged to a loved one or relative it might be worth the investment to keep it alive and playing.

Also consider that wood ages like wine. Older woods can produce tones that younger wood simply cannot. Even a cheap guitar from the 60′s may look and sound interesting enough to be worth fixing.

Another factor to consider is the environment. In an age where most people simply throw away something that is broken, we can often repair guitars that would normally end up in a dumpster. Saving a guitar can sometimes mean saving a tree! There are times when repairing a guitar just doesn’t make economic sense at all. One way to find out for sure is to bring the guitar in to an experience guitar technician or Luthier.

4. WHAT GAUGE STRINGS SHOULD I USE?
It depends on your playing style and the sound you are looking for.

Heavy gauge, light gauge, hybrid gauge…which one do you pick?  There are several things to consider when deciding on a string gauge to have your guitar setup with. The first would be your playing style.

Some players have a light touch while others have a very heavy handed approach to the instrument.  The lighter the gauge of string you use, the easier it will be to fret and bend the strings. If the gauge is too light you will feel as if there isn’t enough tension on the string and you might find yourself fretting too hard and inadvertently bending the string sharp.

Another point to consider is tone. A heavier string will be louder. On electric guitars this can mean that other parts of your rig will be affected, too. Your amp might distort and breakup a little easier. Your overdrive pedals might exhibit a little more gain.

A lighter string can be a bit “twangier.” This could be a good or bad thing depending on the kind of music you play. Heavier gauge strings will also put more tension on your instrument. This ultimately will affect the life of your neck, especially for acoustic guitars. More tension will put more stress on your neck if you aren’t drop-tuning to compensate.

There are people who swear by the idea that the only way to get a good tone is to use a heavier string. This is still more opinion than fact. A good example would be comparing the guitar tone of Stevie Ray Vaughn to that of Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top). Both players have achieved amazing guitar tones, live and in the studio. SRV was known to use a set of 13-gauge strings while Billy Gibbons uses 7-gauge strings on most of his axes. I don’t think anyone out there would suggest that either of them had a bad guitar tone. The best thing to do when deciding on a string gauge would be to just experiment. It is probably one of the cheapest and most effective mods you can do to your guitar!

5. HOW DO I MAKE MY GUITAR SOUND BETTER?
With so many options, start with the guitar parts that the strings actually touch.

Many of us guitar players spend a lot of time looking for ways to capture the sound that we hear in our heads. We mod, tweak, and experiment until we get the sound that we want (or close to it). A frequently asked question when setting out to change the sound of a guitar is, “Where do I start?”

While there are various schools of thought on the matter, we tend to believe that the first couple of things to upgrade should be the things that the strings actually touch. The nut and the bridge are SUPER important when it comes to the way a guitar sounds. They are the first and last things the string touches when it is actually making sound. The different materials that these components can be constructed of impact the sound and characteristics of the string greatly. Many guitars are manufactured with plastic nuts. The plastic is relatively soft and can dampen the vibration of the string causing it to lose sustain and clarity.

We prefer to use bone (or synthetic bone) for both acoustic and electric guitar nuts. Bone is very dense and hard, which increases sustain and clarity. Bone also can reduce binding and slipping of the strings. Upgrading the bridge or saddle of a guitar will also impact the sound greatly.

Electric guitars have quite a bit more to factor in than acoustic guitars. Some electric guitars sound better with cold rolled steel bridges and saddles, some sound better with brass saddles, and some benefit from softer metals like aluminum and nickel. Electric guitars can have their electronics upgraded for a better tone and more reliability. Pickups can also change the sound of an electric guitar quite a bit.

With so many options out there, a good place to start is finding out what some of your favorite guitar players have done to their guitars to get their sound. Product reviews and YouTube demo videos can also give you a good idea of how certain products can improve your tone.


Darryl Chabot
Darryl Chabot

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