The perfect guitar?

It’s a common misconception that just because a guitar is brand new it should be perfect. Unfortunately, that’s not the case: most guitar manufacturers pump out hundreds, if not thousands of guitars every day. Just one of Gibson’s many factories can complete upwards of 800 guitars a day! As much as we’d like to think (as as much as their marketing departments want you to believe), your guitar is not a handcrafted work of art: it’s just another unit to be sold, not unlike toasters, shoes, or cars. Sure, some are better than others, but for the most part it’s not really in a guitar builder’s best financial interest to spend the time making each instrument perfect.

I think it’s better to think of your guitar like a suit. You can spend $100 on a suit, and look terrible in it, or you could spend $5000 on a suit… and still look terrible. The key to a good looking suit is having it tailored to fit you. The same logic applies to your guitar: no matter how much it cost, you need to have it set up and have the frets leveled in order to make it play the way it suits you.

Case in point: yesterday I worked on a relatively new Gibson Les Paul. This was not one of their most expensive models – I believe these run around $700 or so. This guitar played ok… just ok. The notes didn’t speak with authority, and they would choke out in some spots when string bending. Uneven frets is the most common issue that plagues guitars, and it’s not uncommon to need a fret level even on brand new guitars.

high fret

I do all my fretwork on a custom neck jig that I designed and built myself. This contraption allows me to accurately analyze the neck to ensure perfect fretwork every time. The basic gist is this: the guitar is strapped in, the neck is straightened and measured, the strings are removed, and then the neck is set back to it’s original position, ready for fretwork. Here’s a quick pictorial of the process:

The guitar is strapped in and rotated into playing position.

The neck is straightened, checked against a straightedge, and the dial indicators are zeroed.

The guitar is rotated into working position, the strings are removed, and the neck is raised back to it’s original position.

Once the above process is completed, a leveling beam is fanned across the neck, which files down the higher frets and brings them level with the lower frets. Once all the frets have been hit by the beam, the fret tops are all perfectly level with each other.

Here’s a couple of shots that reveal how far from perfect this guitar was:

After just a few passes, fret dust is accumulating around the 5th fret, and the last few upper frets. Yet the other frets haven’t even been touched!

The inner two frets have been cut down by the beam, but the outer two frets haven’t been touched.

You can easily see that in the above pictures where the frets weren’t even close to being level with each other. The frets need to be even within a tolerance of about .01mm in order for the strings to not buzz with a relatively low action. It’s obvious that this wasn’t a major concern when this guitar was built. If you think your brand new guitar is perfect, think again!

The point here is not to slag these manufacturers. I think many of them make a reasonably decent instrument, but almost all of them need some detail work after they leave the factory. So next time you buy a new instrument, you should just assume it’s going to need a little bit of extra work to become the perfect guitar.

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