Oh man, I’m sure to catch hell for this one – it’s not every day that somebody does a massive modification to one of the rarest of vintage guitars out there. Yes, I’ll admit it: I just completed a neck reset on a 1952 Gibson Les Paul.
First, a little history: Gibson introduced the Les Paul in 1952, with a really funky tailpiece/bridge system, where the strings wrapped UNDER the bridge. This was a rather unweildy design, as it was impossible to rest your hand on the bridge or do any palm muting. You can see in the picture below what I’m talking about:
Many guitarists didn’t dig this design, which is why the 1952 Les Paul is not nearly as valuable as the 1958s and 1959s, which can sell for astronomical sums. Some people thought to swap out the bridge for a more modern Tune-o-matic style, but because the neck angle as it joins the body was designed for the underslung bridge, the action would be super high. I was brought a highly modified ’52 Les Paul this week with this exact problem, and the owner (who is only the second owner, by the way) wanted to turn this unplayable instrument into a serious player. A neck reset was in order!
Now, while I do neck resets on acoustic guitars all the time (which is something almost every acoustic will need during it’s lifetime), I must admit I’d never reset the neck on a Les Paul before. This shouldn’t be surprising – it’s an incredibly uncommon job, and I’d be willing to bet that most techs never even get asked to do such a thing, much less actually take the job on. I ain’t skeered of nuthin’ – so I gladly accepted this rather daunting task.
The bridge on this guitar was set as low as it would go, and the action was still extremely high. A straight edge set on the neck should come to rest on top of the bridge, and this one was about 3mm south of that:
This neck angle was going to have to come WAY back if it were to align with a bridge raised to a more typical height off the body. But first it was going to have to come off. Fortunately for me, the original finish had been painted over with a bizarre green burst, and was pretty beat up, and the owner planned on refinishing it later anyway, so I didn’t have to worry too much about damaging the finish. That said, I wasn’t going to just start hacking away at it – I was still going to be super careful and try to make it look as good as possible. So, to prevent unnecessary finish chipping, I first scored all sides of the neck/body joint with a razor blade:
Les Paul necks aren’t designed to come off – they use a mortise and tenon joint that’s about 10cm deep, which is a HUGE amount of glue surface. I thought this was going to be tough, but I severely underestimated how truly difficult getting this neck off was going to be.
The tenon is visible under the neck pickup route (which has been inelegantly cut to fit a full size humbucker), so that helped me locate the joint under the fretboard. I drilled 14 holes through the fret slots down into the neck, so that I could insert my steaming needle and melt the glue in there.
I fired up my customized steam machine and got to work. I would get steam going in a hole for a minute or two, then move on to the next hole, wiping away excess moisture and gently massaging the neck back and forth to loosen the glue joint. After a few minutes I eased a palette knife under the fretboard edges to separate it from the body.
The fretboard came away fairly easily, so I was confident that I’d get the neck off just as easily. Boy, was I wrong. After an hour of constant work, the neck hadn’t budged. Absolutely no sign of movement. Normally when I’m removing an acoustic neck, it starts moving in about 5 minutes, and it’s completely off in 10. What was I doing wrong here? I figured that I must not be getting steam in the right place, right between the neck joint and the body – so I decided to cut the fingerboard off, so I could see what was going on under there. I peeled away the binding, and cut the board right through a fret slot:
Well, it looked like my drill holes where in exactly the right place, so steam was definitely getting where I wanted it. In fact, I was able to slide a palette knife in there pretty easily:
So now I knew what I was up against: the glue on the bottom of the neck/body joint. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no way to directly inject steam into that part of the glue joint – there’s no place to drill into it that’s not going to be visible later. I just had to keep the steam going and hope that enough was getting into the bottom to get this thing apart.
It took another hour before I began to see signs of movement – and it came apart only 5 minutes later. I was beginning to think I’d never get this thing off. Phew! Gibson was NOT messing around.
Ok – now that I had taken in apart, it was time to put it back together. First, the easy part: gluing the fretboard tongue back in place and regluing the binding:
Next was the tricky part: reshaping the neck’s heel to kick the angle back a few degrees. This is definitely one of those cases of “measure twice, cut once” – but in my case I must have measured and calculated five or six times. Resetting a neck requires exactness, and it had to be dead on. I determined that I needed to take off just under 2mm off the heel, so I made a perfectly square sanding block and started by taking off 1mm and then slowly taking off a little bit at a time, constantly checking the fit and angle until I had it perfect. I ended up taking off 1.98mm off, which doesn’t sound like much, but in guitar tech terms that’s HUGE!
Now that I was happy with the neck angle, I had to fill in all the gaps the new angle would create, first under the tenon inside the body. I shaped a mahogany shim to fit perfectly inside the neck joint, then glued that into the body:
Once the glue had cured, I double checked to make sure the mahogany wedge hadn’t thrown off the neck angle. Satisfied with this, I then made similar wedges to fit under the fretboard edges over the body. I had actually gone out of my way to find a similar funky green color to paint these rosewood pieces, to match the body, but the owner later informed me that he was going to have the whole guitar refinished anyway, and told me not to bother. Oh well – next time I get a greenburst guitar I’m all set…
I again double checked the neck angle to make sure these new pieces weren’t throwing the neck angle off. Everything was a go, so I coated all three sides of the neck’s tenon and the fingerboard with glue, and clamped the whole thing up. I was super careful to make sure that nothing slipped out of place during the gluing process – I sure didn’t want to have to try to take this thing apart again! I let it sit for three days, then refretted it, made a new nut, and gave it a complete setup. Now, with the neck angle set properly, the action dropped from an unplayable 4mm to 1.5mm! Huzzah!
Here’s the rosewood wedges in place:
And here you can see how high I had to raise the bridge pickup to come up to the new string height in relation to the body:
Here’s at shot of the neck body joint. If the finish hadn’t been so fragile here, it would appear completely seamless. (The camera isn’t terribly forgiving in this shot.) Once it’s refinished, none will be the wiser:
And here it is completed, in all it’s funky green splendor:
I have to admit, this was really tough, and I hope I never have to do this again! (Of course, I will if asked.) Due to the owner wanting to retain as much mojo as possible, I had to make some compromises regarding some cosmetic aspects of the job, which was tough for me – I want things to be as perfect as possible! But all in all I think this came out pretty awesome. This guitar wasn’t remotely playable when it arrived, and now it plays like butter. Hooray!