Big Numbers and a Bloody Thumb

Guitar maintenance and repair can be intimidating at first.  I can remember when even the process of changing strings felt like something to approach with caution.  I would only change one at a time so I could use the remaining strings as an example of how to wind the new one properly.  Now I just rip them all off when replacing the entire set.  My first attempts at adjusting the action, or string height, were also approached with apprehension.  Each eighth of a turn of the truss rod was documented so I could return it to its original position if it became unplayable.  Over time, though, I have learned that it is an art that involves a little trial and error.   

I picked up another acoustic guitar to replace my old workhorse that I use for most of my rock and roll shows.  It had flaws that required attention, though, and once again, I would have to leave my guitar maintenance comfort zone.  I think most guitarists are as cautious as I am when it comes to attempting advanced repair to their instruments, especially when experience and specialized knowledge are required for a task.  After all, no one wants to look foolish, become embarrassed by failure, or, through ignorance and inexperience, ruin an otherwise perfectly good guitar. 

These feelings of doubt often protect guitars from undergoing irreparable harm, but experience has to start somewhere, whether it’s for guitar maintenance or any other endeavor.  After all, the truss rods of life also require attention.  Pushing through uncertainty and doubt will usually reap more rewards than inaction, even if the result is considered a failure.  Short of taking stupid risks with you or your guitar’s wellbeing, action takes you past the doubt that keeps you from being the happiest, most successful guitarist you can be.  The need for action was the challenge that was before me. 

The frets on my new instrument were not properly leveled and finished.  This is a process that involves removing metal with a file.  I was apprehensive because if you file away to much there is no going back.  Usually, these repairs are left to experienced luthiers, but I wanted to try this myself.  I had talked to experts, read up on the subject, and watched hours of you tube videos featuring luthiers of a wide range of ability and experience profess how it should be done.  The only thing left was to give it a try, but I was still uncertain about the mysterious and consequential process I was learning about.  The push I needed was when I realized that my inaction was the only thing holding me back.  That, and a bloody thumb. 

I had searched for this guitar for months.  I was in need of one that wasn’t so expensive that I would be terribly upset if it were damaged or stolen at a performance.  I refer to this type of guitar as a “beater,” but it still has to sound great and be playable.  It needed to have a thin body that could deliver a punchy sound with a lot of low end at higher volumes.  This style is also more suited to a level of amplification that would drive most full size acoustic guitars into feedback.  A “beater” also needs to have attitude.  It should be a little edgy, especially when delivering single note lines.  

This new guitar had all of these ingredients.  The more I was sure that this was an instrument I would want to play for years to come, the more my apprehension about making the necessary repairs grew.  My apprehension turned into procrastination as I used it for a couple of shows, but the unfinished frets that hung over the fretboard reminded me with each position change that I couldn’t delay the repairs much longer.  I used it for one more show.  During the first set, the frets had finally started to cut into my hand.  I was in need of a bandage to finish the night.  A bloody thumb was the final push I needed.  It was time to take action. 

My first venture into the mysterious world of fret finishing was about to begin…right after a trip to Home Depot.  Surprisingly, they had everything I would need.  There are some specialty tools that luthiers use that you will not find at a hardware store, but I was able to make do without them.  The most important among these is a file that shapes the frets after they are leveled, but some improvisation with a standard file delivered the results this tool would have provided.  I used a small microphone stand as a level to compare the fret heights and an old television remote that seemed destined to become my perfectly straight sanding block. 

After removing the strings, the first step of the fret dressing process is to tape off the wood of the fret board with regular masking tape leaving only the frets exposed.  This is a fairly easy step, but is also a little time consuming.  I got to thinking about the stakes during this procedure.  This guitar was only a $400 instrument.  When compared to an average professional guitar, it is much less than half priced.  Additionally, I have other really nice guitars that would hold me over should I have to replace it.  What was more at stake for me would be admitting failure and the possibility of sending this guitar to the trash heap of shame.  Actually, the alternative of another gig with a saber toothed fret board would be a worse fate, so I forgot my doubt and started to think instead about my old “beater” that this one was intended to replace. 

The retiring workhorse had been my main performing instrument for over 19 years.  I use other instruments depending on the performance and style of music, but this was my go to axe for most of my acoustic rock shows.  I estimate that I used this one for 100 shows each year. At each of these shows, I would perform at least 50 songs.  The average rock song has 4 chords.  Each chord is played perhaps 35 times in the course of the song.   For each of those occurrences the chord is strummed a minimum of 4 times in most cases. 

Let me get my calculator… 

Performances                                         1900 

Songs performed                                      X  50 

Total                                                   =  95,000     

                            (yes, I repeated some tunes) 

Chords per song                                       X  4 

Total chords                                       =   380,000 

Occurrence of each chord in a song        X  35 

Total occurrence                                =  13,300,000 

4 strums per occurrence                           X  4 

Total                                                   =   53,200,000 

53 million strums.  That’s only counting down strokes.  Let say that at least half the time, a chord is strummed on the upbeat (usually it’s more).  I’m being conservative in this estimation: 

                            53,200,000 + (53,200,000 / 2) = 79,800,000 

Keep in mind, I’m not counting easily three times this number for rehearsal and just strumming some songs at the end of a long day. 

More than half the songs I play contain single note passages like arpeggiated chords, riffs, and solos.  Keeping the numbers conservative once again, I estimate that these passages contain 300 notes per song. 

Single notes per song                             300 

Occurring in half the songs per show      X 25 

                                                           =  7,500 

Single notes per show                            7,500 

Total shows                                             X 1,900 

Total                                                    =  14,250,000 

Combine the total single note number (14,250,000) with the chord number (79,800,000) and there were 94,050,000 unique musical events that this old guitar and I shared.  

          …94 million.   

If this new guitar and I are going to be spending this much time together, it’s worth taking a chance to make it as playable as possible.  Here goes.   

Using a small file, I removed the sharp edges at the ends of the frets that had caused most of the trouble.  Then, with my trusty television remote securing progressively different grades of sandpaper, I began the process of sanding the frets level after marking the frets with a sharpie to see where material was being removed.  There were a few gasps as I realized just how much material can be removed with a few strokes of sandpaper, but after a long process of checking the fret height and moving through the different grades of sandpaper, I got them to where they needed to be.  I shaped the frets and polished them with some wire wool.  It was done.   

I sanded down the saddle before reinstalling it to further improve the playability and then replaced the strings.  I set the truss rod to lower the action, then I played a few chords.  It was remarkable!  The guitar felt like it cost 4 times more than I paid for it. 

I had been putting this off for weeks due to fear of the unknown.  That’s not how I go about most things.  As with a lot of things in life, mistakes will be made, but the greater mistake is often to avoid the things that will help you grow.  There are a few file marks on some frets that a professional luthier wouldn’t have left, but it is done, and done remarkably well.  I took on the challenge and didn’t just drop it off at the shop to be done for me.  I will call the experts when it’s time to replace a clutch in a 1985 Chevy S-10, but this was something I felt I wanted to conquer.  I’m glad I did.  By the standards of a lot of well finished instruments I have played over the years, this guitar is easily in their league.  By the measure of overcoming doubt and procrastination, it’s was a home run.  It’s time to go play another show.

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