Friday, May 6, 2016

Where angels fear to tread

Spring is sprung, school is out, and a young man’s thoughts lightly turn to thoughts of guitar surgery.

A couple of years ago, I undertook a wildly overambitious project to re-fret a solidbody electric guitar in 31-tone equal temperament. I failed miserably, and was ready to swear off any and all such radical modifications. But then a funny thing happened on the way to abject surrender ...

A few weeks ago, it dawned on me that, yes, I had failed miserably, but not utterly. No, I don't have the skills to saw new fret slots and hammer in new fretwire ... but I did succeed in removing the old frets, and I almost succeeded in filling the old fret slots and making the fingerboard fretless. So although I can’t realistically plan to refret a guitar, I could convert one into a fretless instruement, and then play it microtonally with a slide, and/or tie gut frets (or something gut-like) onto the fingerboard. (Which, indeed, some older, wiser voices encouraged me to do with the previous guitar —but I was too headstrong to listen, as a callow youth of 50.)

So, here we go again ...

... this time with a nifty little gem of an inexpensive Les Paul copy that I stumbled onto in Rockin’ Bobs Guitars, Davis Square, Somerville. Here's the “before” photo:

It's an ESP LTD EC-256. Highlights include a carved maple top and the ability to split the pickup coils; alas, there’s only one tone knob, but at $225 used, this instrument was practically a steal. (The covered humbuckers aren’t my first choice, but if all goes well, I’ll swap them out for some Seymour Duncan open-coil models, and replace the ordinary nut with a compensated one by Earvana.)

After removing the strings (and stashing away the stopbar tailpiece and Tune-O-Matic-style bridge for safekeeping), I removed the cover plate to access the truss rod:

Next, I adjusted the truss rod, reversing the fore-bow (a.k.a. “relief,” which prevents strings from buzzing against frets during play) to achieve a slight backbow. This is a pro tip I didn’t know two years ago; this step should reduce damage to the fingerboard when removing the frets. (If the fingerboard is under compression, then it tends to grip the fretwire; if it’s under tension, then it’ll more readily release the fretwire.)

Okay, that’s enough fun for today. Nest week, I’ll apply painter’s tape on either side of each fret (to protect the fingerboard), and then extract them, with the aid of a soldering iron to melt any glue holding them in place. Wish me luck!


  1. Hi Brian - interesting adventure you have set upon. A few years ago I bought a BYO guitar kit from, you guessed it, BYO guitars in NH. The results were surprisingly pleasant. I had the final setup done at the Guitar Doctor in Whitman MA, and it plays like a dream. Maybe BYO or The Guitar Doctor can set you up with a custom fretboard for the 31 tone equal temperament?

    By the way, I used to work with your brother, Keith. And as if that isn't a small enough world, I was in the audience at Carnegie hall for the Zappa/American Composers Orchestra performance where they played your piece. That day was one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I have had.

  2. Hi, John—

    Delighted to "meet" you (virtually, at least). Thanks for the tip about BYO Guitars; it will be hard for me to resist buying their (Les Paul) Custom kit. Thanks also for the tip about The Guitar Doctor; yes, I'll have to ask them how much it would run me for them to build a custom fingerboard if I were to supply the measurements (the latter are easily calculated in a spreadsheet).

    Thanks also for your kind words about that ACO concert! Yes, it was an honor for me, as one of my former housemates pointed out to me, to "open for Zappa." :-)

    All best,