Serious blues aficionados know the name Big Bill Broonzy. Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and countless others cite him as a major influence. He wrote a ton of songs that have become blues classics, such as “Hey Hey”, which Eric Clapton famously covered during his Unplugged performance. Simply put, Big Bill Broonzy is a legendary dude – and his guitar, a 1920s Gibson Style O, made it’s way into my shop this week.
This guitar is owned by my good friend John Lisi (of Deltafunk fame), a monstrous guitar slinger around New Orleans. He’s a very busy musician about town and a serious guitar collector, and has been looking for a Gibson Style O for a long, long time. When he found this one, and discovered that it had been owned by none other than Big Bill Broonzy, he jumped at the chance to snatch it up. Now, this guitar is almost 100 years old, and has seen a LOT of action. Big Bill must have played the hell out of it: the original frets were completely worn out, the original tuners were practically useless, and the neck had bowed forward significantly. All in all, though, the guitar was in really good shape considering it’s age, but it was at this point more of a collector’s piece than a player’s guitar – and John Lisi is a player. John and I discussed at length what to do with this historically significant instrument, and we decided to fix it up, with new tuners, a refret, new nut, setup, and acoustic pickup.
Most of the type of work I completed on this guitar I’ve covered in detail elsewhere on this blog, and I don’t think it bears repeating here. What I’d like to address is the ethics of working on a historically significant instrument, and the rationale for proceeding with this kind of work. When I’m presented with a vintage instrument like this, I generally have two thoughts on my mind: 1) Can this guitar be made to play well?, and 2) Can we do this without ruining it? Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that this object is a guitar, and should function like one. I can understand why some would want to pull a Nigel Tufnel with their prized guitars (“It’s never to be played. Never.”), but I personally feel that the best way to respect the instrument is to play it. Big Bill Broonzy played the hell out of this guitar – so why not John Lisi? Besides, all those prized pre-CBS Stratocasters and 1950s Les Pauls wouldn’t be so valuable today if it weren’t for the players that made them famous in the first place. So I say: play on!
Now, as a guitar tech it’s not my place to tell people what to do with their instruments. I’m happy to advise and to help people understand the work that’s going to happen to their guitar and what that will do for it’s future potential value, but ultimately I’m here to fulfill your vision for your instrument. While some might consider it sacrilegious to modify a vintage instrument, I don’t hold to those kind of reservations. Eric Claption’s “Blackie” Strat sold at auction for almost a million bucks, and that was just a bunch of mis-matched Strat parts that he slapped together. Who am I to say that the modification I do today won’t end up becoming worth a million dollars later? John really wanted this guitar to play, and he intends on taking it to gigs, but he also wanted to respect it’s historical significance, both as a very old Gibson and as Big Bill Broonzy’s guitar. Here’s how we chose to proceed:
We decided to refret the guitar with stainless steel fretwire, using the same size wire as the original (1.09mm x 2.03mm). I suggested stainless steel fretwire mostly for the simple reason that it doesn’t wear like traditional nickel/silver wire, and will practically last forever. This actually will make it so that guitar needs LESS work over the course of it’s lifetime, which I felt was the smart thing to do. I pulled all the original frets, and kept them in a plastic bag, so that if for some reason somebody wanted to put the original frets back in, a skilled tech could do so. Considering this possibility, I opted not to glue the frets in – glueing would make removing them VERY difficult, and would cause a great deal of chipping in the ebony fingerboard. Instead, I went for a mechanical approach, by crimping the fret tang on the ends, to ensure a strong seating for the fret without using glue:
This was amongst the most difficult of fret jobs I’ve ever done. First of all, the ebony fingerboard was prone to chipping like crazy, both while pulling the frets and while working the board. Some of the frets had been glued down over the years, which made pulling them very difficult. I must have spent at least an hour just filling chips on this job – extremely tedious work, and very hard to make it look good. The other difficulty was that this guitar doesn’t have a truss rod, which required a lot of mental gymnastics in figuring out how to level the fingerboard to where it would have the proper amount of relief when the strings went back on. This is a pretty convoluted process that involves using a lot of intuition: setting the guitar up on the neck jig, measuring how much the strings pull the neck forward, and then setting the neck up in opposite direction to cut out a few hundredths of a millimeter of wood in the center of the neck. If done properly, the strings will pull the neck into the proper amount of relief – but it’s impossible to know if it’s accurate until the entire job is almost done! Fortunately, this ain’t my first rodeo, and it came out beautifully the first time.
Almost every refret requires a new nut, so I made one for this guitar out of bone. Of course, I kept the original safe in the plastic bag along with the original frets.
The original tuners were almost non-functional, and I wasn’t sure that we were going to be able to find anything new that would fit. As luck would have it, Stewart-McDonald recently released some tuners that were specifically designed for old Gibsons like this one, and they fit perfectly. The even look old, too!
Finally, the one concession we made to modernity was to install a pickup. Since the original endpin hole was large enough to accommodate an endpin jack without routing, I suggested a K&K Pure Mini pickup (my favorite acoustic pickups), which would install without any invasive holes. I carefully placed the three small sensors under the bridge on the soundboard inside the guitar, removed the original ebony endpin, and installed the output jack. It sounds great!
There are countless other seemingIy insignificant details that went into this job, which I won’t bore you with. I spent the better part of two long days working on this, and my body was totally worn out and sore afterwards – and it was completely worth it. After the final setup, I sat back and play tested this one for a long time. This guitar is a real pleasure to play – it’s so played in, it feels like an old friend. This is certainly one of the coolest instruments I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on, and I’m thrilled to have been part of the history of this instrument. John Lisi approves, and I’m sure that Big Bill Broonzy would as well.
And now I’ll let pictures tell the rest of the story: