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THE SMARTER GUITAR NUT #3: Strap Buttons – Part 1

Hey, fellow Guitar Nuts, consider your humble strap buttons. Where would we be without them? Well, for one thing, we’d probably all be playing our guitars and basses while sitting down rather than leaping about while wildly wind-milling power chords. In summary, while some incredible guitar playing can be performed while seated, to (almost) quote Dires Straits’ song The Sultans of Swing: “It ain’t what we call rock and roll!”  

As with so many other things, the best way to show the importance of strap buttons is to look at what happens if they simply aren’t there, or if they don’t work correctly, or when they aren’t where they should be. The consequences include dropped guitars and resulting damage to headstocks, necks, bodies and wallets.  Conclusion: strap buttons are pretty darned important.

In future articles, I’ll spend more time on guitar design theory and how to best position a strap button from the start to maximize playability, comfort and balance. Right now, although the issue of positioning or re-positioning a strap button will come up, I’m going to focus on strap button issues in the context of collectible guitars. This is important because strap button-related issues are among the most common concerns when it comes to what should or should not be done to a collectible instrument.

First and foremost, you have to know what to look for as to whether an instrument has its original strap buttons in their original places. If you’re not sure, my usual recommendation (for just about anything) is that you deal with a reputable and knowledgeable seller and keep your trusted guitar tech in the loop. In addition, because we want to make you a Smarter Guitar Nut, you can educate yourself on this subject pretty quickly since there is abundant information on-line including pictures of almost any instrument and numerous other resources such as scans of original ads and vintage manufacturers’ catalogues.

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The most common type of strap button, found on many brands including Gibson and Fender. These are easy to obtain including reliced versions like the one on the right.

 

You’ll notice there’s a pretty limited range of strap button types. Indeed, the most common type is used on the majority of electric guitars including Fenders and Gibsons. If these need to be replaced, they are readily available, including reasonably priced reliced versions. Just to keep life interesting, there are also, of course, a few very unusual types strap buttons and related hardware which, if missing, can be very hard to replace.

 

Once you’re sure what to look for, you can recognize whether a strap button has been replaced, added or re-positioned. An appropriate, well-installed replacement should- I suggest – not be a concern in terms of collectability and value. The big problems are:

  • If a strap button has been added, it means there’s a hole in the guitar that wasn’t there originally. While the strap button is left in place, you can’t see that hole, but it means the button has to stay put regardless of where it is. Worse, if the installation wasn’t done neatly, there might be some additional cosmetic or even structural damage.
  • If a strap button has been repositioned, this is a bit more serious because it means there’s now an extra hole in the guitar that might or might not be able to be touched up.
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The strap loop on an old Kay Pro bass. If it’s missing, it will be tough to find a replacement.

Serious issues about added or repositioned strap buttons will be addressed in a future column. For now, you need to know two things:

  1. As a buyer, this is something you need to ask about and as an owner/potential seller it’s something you need to stop and consider before making any changes yourself; and,
  2. Strap button issues can affect the value of a collectible guitar, whether or not that alteration makes perfectly good sense in terms of improved balance and playability.

If changes or repairs have been or have to be made, you can decide if that’s a deal breaker.

Once you’ve got any issues resolved, if all that’s left is that a strap button is a bit loose, the fix is simple (that is: it’s simple if you’re dealing with a solid body guitar, hollow bodies will be dealt with in the next article):

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A small piece of dowel, marked to show to show the depth of the screw hole.

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Always wipe off any excess glue.

1) Remove the loose screw and the strap button;

2) Insert a piece of 1/8” dowel (or the traditional piece of match stick) into the hole and mark it to that depth;

3) Remove the dowel and cut it at the mark so it is the same length as the depth of the hole;

4) Coat the dowel with a thin, even layer of glue (white or, preferably yellow…not epoxy or super glue) and push it back into the hole;

5) Then, re-install the strap button.

6) If any excess glue squeezes out of the hole, remove the screw, wipe off the excess glue so none remains on the surface of the guitar and re-install.

An important note here about the term “tighten up”. This always means to turn something just until it stops. It does ­not mean turning it until it stops and then trying to turn it more with all your might. When tightening any component on a guitar with any tool, the rule is: Don’t force it! There are (almost) no guitar-repair situations where it is a good idea to try to force something to go more than it seems to want to go. If you ignore that warning, things can turn out very badly. How badly? Well, let’s just say there will be a future column dedicated to dealing with broken or stripped screws that remain stuck in places where you do not want them to be stuck.

If you manage to tighten up both strap buttons, congratulate yourself. You’ve just repaired one of the most common issues to be dealt with on almost any guitar. This fix should not affect the value of almost any instrument.

If, after going through the steps above two or three times, a screw still doesn’t tighten up, its hole has to be doweled and re-drilled.

Dowelling and re-drilling a hole is a much more complicated procedure and the typical Smarter Guitar Nut would be indeed smarter to pass it over to his trusted tech. The Smarter Guitar Nut who is a bit more experienced with basic repair work should practice dowelling and re-drilling only on very expendable guitars or on scrap wood. We’ll deal with this procedure in a subsequent instalment of the Smarter Guitar Nut.

Mike Zimmerman
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THE SMARTER GUITAR NUT #2: Good Questions = Good Answers

 

In my first article, I told you about my background and what I hope to accomplish with this series of articles. Like the title says: I want to help make you a Smarter Guitar Nut. The first thing to know about being a Smarter Guitar Nut is: how to ask the right questions about the guitar you might be buying. I won’t get into the potential issues around a guitar’s cosmetic condition in this article. For now, here’s what you need to ask: Is the guitar in good cosmetic condition and is the finish original or is it a “re-fin”.

What we’ll focus on in this article is the guitar’s functionality; its mechanical and electronic components and, if those are not fully functional, what you then need to consider. Here we go…

Hey, I know the feeling. That first sight of a really cool guitar and that moment when you know (and sometimes even say out loud) “I must have it!” To that, I say: Slow down…let’s have a look…and let’s ask some questions. Asking the right questions can save you hundreds, or even thousands of dollars…and a lot of heartache. Here are some questions to ask, whether you are inspecting the guitar in person or on line:

 

1 – Questions about the structural condition of the instrument

  • Does the guitar have any cracks, broken or missing pieces or other damage?
  • Has anything structural been damaged or modified such as extra routing for pickups or a broken or reshaped body, head-stock or neck?

NOTES:

  • As you might expect, this is a biggie. A bad crack can mean an instrument is potentially un-fixable. On the upside, sometimes even an awful looking crack can be fixed so it is completely structurally sound.

 

2 – Questions about the truss rod

  • Does the truss rod work properly?
  • Is the truss rod nut in good shape, or is it worn or stripped?

NOTES:

  • This is another big one. The truss rod must be working properly for the guitar to play correctly and truss rod repairs can be extremely expensive. Basically, a guitar that needs work on its truss rod has either got to be an incredible bargain or something you really, really want almost regardless of the added cost to fix it. The only silver lining on truss rods is that sometimes what seems to be a very serious problem can be fixed by a good repairman.
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The cost of truss rod repairs can turn a bargain into a problem …and a broken truss rod can turn a guitar into a “GSO” (see my first article in this series about GSOs). This photo shows the truss rod adjustment nut is in good shape.

 

3 – Questions about the trueness of the neck.

  • Does the neck take its proper shape under string tension once the truss rod is adjusted?
  • If not, is the neck still over-bowed even with the truss rod tightened? Or, is it still back-bowed even with the truss rod loosened off?
  • Is the neck twisted? (i.e. does one side of the neck – either treble or bass – have significantly more or less bow than the other)

NOTES:

  • The “trueness” of a neck refers to whether it can be adjusted into proper shape by adjusting the truss rod with the strings up to tension. As will be fully explained in a future article about truss rods, the “proper shape” of a neck is actually very slightly bowed rather than perfectly straight. A problem with the neck’s trueness can be fixed, sometimes with a heat press to give the neck a new starting point, sometimes – if the situation is more serious or the neck is twisted – by removing the frets, planing the fingerboard, topped off by a re-fret. That’s very expensive!

 

4 – Questions about the frets

  • Are the frets original or replaced? If replaced, what size are they?
  • How much fret wear is there? Are there gouges in the frets?
  • Have the frets been dressed and re-crowned recently? Is there enough fret left to dress now?

NOTES:

  • Everything about frets can be measured to determine what size they are and precisely how much fret life is left. Most cellphone cameras are now good enough to take pictures of fret wear and gouges. A good repairman can (almost) always tell whether frets have been replaced.

 

5 – Questions about the electronics

  • Do all the electronics work and work as they should?
  • Are the electronics (pickups, switches, controls, capacitors etc.) original or have any been replaced?
  • Have any components been obviously repaired?

NOTES:

  • This can be a huge issue, especially if you want the guitar specifically for its pickups. Any serious purchase should be made only after an inspection or photo of the guitar’s inner workings. Rewiring a guitar can be expensive and rewiring a hollow or semi-hollow instrument can be very expensive.
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A good photo of the electronics can help determine whether components are original.

6 – Questions about the hardware

  • Is all the hardware original or have some parts been replaced?
  • If replaced, is the new part the same or different than the original?
  • Have any modifications been done to the guitar to accept replacement hardware or for any other reason? Are those modifications reversible?

NOTES:

  • This is the area where you can often catch a break because of all the excellent replacement parts available these days. Be careful, though, if the missing or broken part is unique to the instrument, a replacement can be either hard to find, expensive or both.
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All kinds of hard-to-find vintage parts have now been reproduced and are reasonably priced.

Once you’ve determined whether an instrument is fixable and how much it will cost to fix, just remember to add that amount to your actual total cost to obtain the guitar and re-do the math. Now, is it still a good deal?

There are two ways to deal with the cost of bringing a guitar up to good playing condition. One way is to simply say: “I’ll pass”, the other is to see if you can get the price of the instrument reduced enough to cover that additional cost, or at least a portion of it. With all these smart questions to ask, now all you need is a trustworthy seller who answers all your questions knowledgeably and honestly, and your trusted guitar tech to back you up the next time a “must have it” guitar comes along. So, get ready ‘cause you know there’s always gonna be a next time!

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Zimmerman

THE SMARTER GUITAR NUT #1: So, You Want to be a Smarter Guitar Nut

Hi there, my name is Mike Zimmerman and welcome to my series of articles about guitars and guitar collecting from the techie’s point of view. I’ve been collecting guitars for many years and have accumulated quite an interesting collection. I also have the usual, accompanying collection of sad tales of “the one that got away” or “the one I sold when I needed the money” etc.

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Strange but true, reissues can become collectables too (on the left an early ‘60s Danelectro Longhorn, on the right its late ‘90s reissue).

Sound familiar?

While I’ve been a long-time happy member of the Guitar Nut fraternity, I’ve also had a little advantage: I’m also a trained and accomplished guitar tech, and that means I can buy an instrument that needs work and do the work myself, whether I intend to keep it or re-sell it. Often, that’s not just a cost saving, it can also mean the difference between snapping up a bargain on a decent guitar (for fun or profit!) or getting stuck with an unplayable and unsellable pile of wood and metal.

About that “pile of wood and metal”, I’ll mention here that a repair client of mine who is a piano technician once referred to any piano that needs more work than it’s worth as a Piano-Shaped Object or PSO for short. I liked that and have since referred to any guitar as a Guitar-Shaped Object (or GSO) if it is so far gone that its restoration would take much more time, effort and money than it’s worth. GSO…remember that term. It will come up from time to time.

Anyway, that’s the angle I’d like to take in this series of articles for Eastwood: the happy marriage between technical knowledge and smart guitar collecting. For me, it’s a marriage that has worked for more than forty years.  For you, I want it to be an introduction to what you need to know to become a Smarter Guitar Nut too, with a special focus on oddball and unusual instruments. This is, after all, written for Eastwood!

The subjects I’ll cover include:

  • Generally, what to look for (and look out for) in a guitar
  • How to recognize whether the instrument is in original condition
  • What parts can be replaced to improve playability without hurting its collectable value
  • What types of repair work or improvements are usually required in most guitars and how to do those repairs without affecting a guitar’s collectable value
  • Originals vs. reissues: which is better for you and how a re-issue can become a collectable itself
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Probably the most common modification to vintage instruments: New tuners. When should this be done? How should it be done ? And, when should it not be done?

For each of these subjects, I’ll be getting into how you can do these things yourself and when to know that a pro should become involved. Ultimately, the goal is to make you a more knowledgeable guitar owner and collector.

First, here’s a little relevant personal history. I started repairing instruments when I was a teenager. I’d brought my prized Rickenbacker bass to a local shop to have it set up. I don’t think I even knew what “set up” meant…all I knew was it ought to get done. I must have read it somewhere.

When the bass was ready, the shop charged me only $6 rather than the expected $8 (remember, this was a long time ago!) because, as they explained, they couldn’t intonate the E string; the bridge saddle had been pulled back as far as it would go and the string was still slightly sharp when played up the neck. I was happy enough to save $2 (like I said, this was a long time ago) but, as well, my interest was tweaked. I asked what “intonation” meant and the explanation I got inspired me to pursue the issue.

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The modern solution for Riks with intonation problems: The Hipshot Bridge. There are many modern parts that can improve vintage instruments without modiufication.

I went home and filed the E string saddle slot to enable a bit more backwards adjustment and the operation was a complete success. From that moment on, I was both able to set up my own instruments and do favours for my musical friends. Most important, I’d learned two important basic principles about guitar repair that I’d like to impart to you now:

  • If you understand why and how something is supposed to work on a guitar, you will more likely be able to figure out what needs to be done when it isn’t working as it should; and,
  • If you inspect the situation, plan and carry out the work carefully, you can be successful.
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Should you install side position dots on a vintage neck that doesn’t have them? We’ll discuss.

All that, of course, has to be considered in the context of your skill level with basic repair techniques and tools. At the very least, applying the principles above will help you recognize when you need professional help. It will also make you a much more knowledgeable repair customer. That’s a real head start for you and, again, a potential cost savings.

So, to conclude my own story, I eventually got a job with Fender’s Canadian distributor doing warranty repairs, set-ups and even some custom work on new instruments. I went on to become one of the early partners in The Twelfth Fret, Toronto’s premier guitarists’ pro shop that’s still going strong almost 40 years later. I then formed the Amazing Musical Instrument Company, which manufactured innovative acoustic-electric instruments, primarily violins. For the past 30 years I’ve maintained a shop in my basement to do various repairs for a number of local guitarists and on the guitars that I buy, sell and keep.

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In the foreground, this Longhorn has had a metal strap button installed on the horn rather than the heel to improve balance and stability. Ideally, a modification to a vintage instrument should be reversible, like this one.

At each phase of my work I acquired new skills, experience and knowledge that I think will be useful to you and anyone interested in guitars and guitar collecting.

In my next article, we’ll start that process by looking at what you should look for in any guitar to make sure you don’t end up with – as you now know it’s called – a GSO.

Mike Zimmerman