Thanks to Mike Papciak of Berkeley, California, for suggesting this column!

Frequently Asked Questions
Just the FAQs, Ma'am
©Frank Ford, 1998 - 2002

As you scroll down the actual Q&A, the most recent ones are at the top.

Here's a "jump list" to speed you to individual questions:

Action raising on a new Martin D-16
Alternate tuning setup

Best frets for barre chords
Beginner guitar recommendation

Career in Lutherie?
Crackling noise when truss rod is first adjusted

Flying with your guita
Frets - how long do they last?

How did you get the domain name "FRETS.COM"?

Intonation - steel string acoustic guitar
Intonation - 12 string guitar
Intonation - classical guitar
Intonation - guitar playing sharp at third fret

Lacquer Finishes - Sensitive to body chemistry?
"Lutherie" or "Luthiery" - which is the correct spelling?

Martin Guitars and the "popsicle" or "tongue depressor" brace
Martin Polish made by Guardsman - leaves streaky film
Musty Odor: What can be done?

Neck Joints: dovetail vs. bolt-on
Neck resetting - Is it permanent?

Nylon String Guitars - easier for learning than steel?

Resale value of instruments

Scalloping braces on vintage Martin guitars
Scale Length - How do you measure it?
Staying in Tune
Strap placement at peghead - will it warp my neck?
String cutters
Strings: change 'em one at a time?
Strings: should I use lighter gauge to avoid need for neck resetting?
Strings breaking at tuner post
Strings: What brand is best?

Taylor "14" size guitar - what strings are best?
Tone - can it deteriorate suddenly?
Top Bulging Behind the Bridge

Truss rods - adjusting

Truss rods - how often to adjust?

Twelve String Guitar Tuning
Vintage Martin guitar buying advice

"Warehouse" stores: will I get a better deal there?
Where should I keep my instrument: in the case, on a stand, or. . .?

I have heard the removing the popsicle brace will "dramatically" improve the tone. What is your knowledge about this? Does the removal compromise the integrity of the guitar?

Some modifications are difficult and expensive enough that once a person has done or paid for the job, there's a strong tendency to want to hear the expected outcome. With that big cloud in the way, it's really difficult to be objective in judging the result.

Many of us "old-timers" feel that the area above the soundhole is not particularly significant in resonating, but instead is more important to the structural integrity of the instrument. After all, there's that huge brace right above the soundhole and the big fat fingerboard glued on there, and they certainly would have more effect than that thin little flat brace. Besides, just look at all the great sounding prewar guitars with the braces intact!

Too many folks presume that because some of the "golden era" Martins were made without the brace, that removing it in the modern ones would be a good idea to capture that old sound. Really, the brace was simply left out for a while after the switch in 1930 from 12 to 14 frets clear of the body. At that time, the upper part of the body was shortened by two frets, so they just left the brace out. I'd bet that they reintroduced the brace after noticing the tendency for the top to crack along the edge of the fingerboard.

As a repairman, I've sometimes added an extra wide version of that brace on an instrument that was made without one, to stabilize a cracked top. I've not heard a comment about the change in tone, and have noticed none myself.

- - - FF, 8/22/02

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There's an ongoing, recurring debate over the issue of guitar straps --not only the best place to attach them, but most importantly to my question, the potential for damage to the guitar if attached to the head stock. One school -- one side of the "argument" -- insists that attaching the strap to the headstock leads to undue stress on the neck, resulting in "sideways" curvature (i.e. the neck bending to the left, upwards toward the player). From MY perspective, to have any chance of that being likely, it would seem that guitar would have to be hung around your neck, completely freely (i.e. unsupported by the player) 24 hours a day, probably for years at a stretch. Needless to say, that's NOT the way any guitar would be hung.

The reality is that the guitar, when played, is partially supported -- NOT free-hanging -- by the player, at least part of the time. Sometimes just by being held, sometimes -- if seated -- by the players' leg upon which the guitar body rests. And rarely for any longer than 45 minutes at a time (the length of a typical set). Then, it's on a stand during the 15 minute break -- with NO sideways stress. Sometimes, the player even alternates guitars (another acoustic, maybe an electric), so the alleged strain takes place for even less time overall, and for even shorter individual durations. Etc. Etc. Etc.

As further argument, I'd refer anyone to professional players -- the big name people you see on stages across the world. What percentage of them attach the strap to the headstock, right behind the nut (or, ocassionally, a bit higher -- towards the very top of the headstock)? I'd guess at least 95% (exclusive of those who play seated, classical players, etc.). Finally, this particular discussion is on the Lowden list. I'd argue that, due to the 5 piece lamination of Lowden necks (which also have truss rods), that brand would be even less likely to suffer from such bending. Not that I think that ANY brand is likely, based on the normal way it'd be used.

Any comments? Unless you tell me otherwise, I'll assume that it's permissible to post or quote any response from you.

Carey, Spring Valley, CA

This particular discussion comes up so frequently it seems to be a continuous one.

I think I can say without fear of contradiction (from the experienced luthier community) that it is impossible to warp a guitar neck by hanging the instrument on the wall for permanent storage, or by using a strap tied at the peghead end. Just another "old husband's tale." Even a heavyweight Les Paul electric only tips the scale at about 11 pounds, so the extra load on the peghead can't compare to the load of string tension. Yes it's at an angle when pulled on by the strap, but still, it's not much force. My only solid body electric guitar hangs by its strap on my kitchen wall, in playing position, secured at the end pin and peghead. It's been hanging there continuously for more than ten years, and I'm dead certain there's no chance of damage to the neck as a result, so there it stays!

Necks warp for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is exposure to excess heat such as that encountered in parked cars. Other factors include poor design or manufacture for a particular string tension, unseasoned or unstable species of wood, humidity problems, loose frets, etc. Some necks appear to warp in the direction of the pull of the strings, but are not actually warped, but simply flexible because they are quite thin. That's where the truss rod comes in handy.

I believe that strap placement should be a matter of personal style, comfort and utility.

If you look at old photographs of musicians playing while standing, you'll see that they all tied the straps to the peghead. In the early days, until around 1920, Martin often placed a strap button permanently in the top center of the back of the peghead. Gibson introduced the famous J-200 in the late 1930s and it came with a brass strap attachment loop on the back of the pehgead. You can find examples of both these styles in the Museum section of FRETS.COM.

Check out the early photos of the Grand Ole Opry. There, players stood on stage, and all of them used straps tied to the peghead. Even Bill Monroe, whose mandolin had a perfect strap attachment point in the form of the upper body scroll, tied his strap to the peghead.

In fact, I'll bet that it was the advent of the solid body electric in the 1950s that's responsible for the change. Gibson Les Pauls and Fender electrics came with strap buttons already installed in the bodies. I'm thinking that acoustic players got the notion of attaching straps to the neck heel or body when they experienced the convenience of playing electric guitars that way. The instrument balances well, and the strap doesn't get in your line of sight or in the way of microphones and things.

- - - FF, 3/24/02

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I have a Yamaha FG-331 that I am told is about 20 years old - it's an acoustic steel string guitar. I just restrung it, but this problem was occurring before I did that.

I have read that when guitars are made in factory, they basically set the intonation on the high-E and B strings near-perfect, the next 3 decently, and the low-E the worst. At this time, I find that the 12-th fret on that low-E string is distinctly sharper than the open string, but the A is a vast improvement - casual listening has the 12th fret of the A being the same as the open string. Also, as I notice that when I use my digital tuner on the low-E string, and the tuner says it is correctly in tune, it's always sharp in comparison to the other strings

Alan - - -9/25/01


Alan -

Your Yamaha isn't unique. I doubt that factories actually have a policy to make the high strings more accurately in tune than the low ones, but certainly when there's an intonation problem, our ears are much more sensitive to those strings that play sharp rather than flat. If the instrument has really high action, the strings are stretched out of tune as they are played up the neck, and lowering the action may correct the intonation sufficiently.

Very light gauge strings are not as tight when tuned to pitch and they react more to stretching as they are fretted than heavier strings. Likewise, if you use "dropped D" or other tunings that loosen the strings, you'll have more problem with sharping of the notes up the neck.

Most of the time, the best correction for strings that play sharp at the 12th fret is to move the contact point at the saddle, recutting the top of the saddle if the problem isn't too severe. Unfortunately, that often means some surgery on the bridge, such as filling the saddle slot and relocating the entire saddle. It is not unusual for the low E string to need quite a lot of compensation at the saddle, which, of course, is why the saddle is set at an angle in the first place. Measure the distance from the "leading edge" of the nut to the center of the 12th fret accurately, and then measure the distance from the center of the 12 fret to the string's contact point at the top of the saddle. Subtract the first measurement, and you get the "compensation." The low E can need as much as about 1/4" compensation for standard tuning, depending on string choice and action height.

Now, if you want to be even more accurate, you can, if you have a good electronic tuner, measure the intonation correction needed at the 12th fret by checking the 12th fret harmonic and the fretted note, reading the difference in "cents." For more on the subject, check out the article, "Calculating Intonation Correction".

FF - 9/25/01


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I have a question. I have a couple of Martin's (D-18V and HD-28). I understand over the years with guitars that the stress of string tension can affect the playability of the guitar, in essence necessitating lowering of the saddle etc. and eventually performing a neck reset to get things line up correctly again. I also realize this is something that happens over several years. My question is this, do you feel that use of medium gauge strings accelerates this process more than light gauge strings? I am starting to get into bluegrass and thinking of moving up to mediums or even bluegrass (medium/light mix) and don't want to do anything to cause me accelerated problems down the road.

Thanks, Mark

Yes, indeed, light strings cause less body/neck stress, and make it somewhat less likely that the neck will need resetting at a given time. BUT, the fact is that if you used no strings at all the neck would never need resetting, and you'd be left with a completely useless wooden dreadnought "sculpture." Better, I think, to use the strings you like, so you actually get the most enjoyment out of your guitar! I suppose you COULD simply slack the strings completely after each playing session and achieve ultimate utility and longevity without resetting the neck, although you'd spend a LOT of time tuning and money buying new strings. That would be a bit like changing the oil in your car every day. Maybe the engine would last forever, but you'd go broke and/or crazy with the effort.

FF, 9/26/10

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I recently traded for a 1981 Gibson F-5L. It's a great mandolin, but it smells of must and/or mildew. I've tried a couple of liquid odor killers, but they don't seem to be doing the job as well as I would like. As I'm playing the instrument the smell wafts up into my nostrils and is rather unpleasant. I called Stewart MacDonald and they didn't have a product to counteract and eliminate the odor. Their technical assistance person said that bleach would probably take the smell away, but getting the bleach inside the instrument's endpin or f-holes in a fine enough spray may be difficult and they were not aware of any sprayers or methods/procedures for application that I could follow.

Any suggestions?

Oh, yes, I know that smell! And, I think, bleach is the stuff that kills it. So far I haven't had nerve enough to toss liquid bleach into an instrument. Conventional wisdom around our shop is that the smell dissipates after a while (long while, sometimes) if the instrument is kept nice and dry, and if it never goes back into that case. In fact, the smell may reside more in the case than the mandolin. Best advice then, is to hang the mandolin on the wall when you're not actually traveling with it, and get rid of the case, or at least open it up and store it in the attic for a few years.

FF, 4/18/01

Here's a suggestion from a FRETS.COM reader:

I was reading your FAQ list and I have a suggestion regarding the musty odor question. I had a guitar that had this problem. I solved it by storing some baking soda in the case. It absorbed all the odor and kept everything smelling fresh. Maybe you can pass this along.

Andy - Arlington Heights, IL

And another:

Here's how I solved a problem with an older Harmony Sovereign which came from a pawn shop near a military base a few years ago. It smelled of hard liquor and tobacco smoke so bad that it couldn't be kept uncased in the house. Even the dog found it repulsive. Several attempts to deodourize the instrument failed.

First I cleaned the exterior of the guitar thoroughly with an all-purpose household cleanser, rinsing any residue off with clear water and a clean cloth. Then I fumed the odour out by hanging the guitar, unstrung and facing down, just over the bathtub filled with a strong bleach and hot water mixture for a couple of days. I kept the shower curtain closed to keep the steam close to the guitar as long as possible, and kept the water hot as much as I could, to generate lots of steam.

It worked well, and without directly wetting the inside of the guitar. I figured the humidity issue would correct itself slowly over the following few days without damaging anything, and it did. I suspect that the instrument was too dry to start with, so maybe the extra moisture wasn't a bad thing.

This should work for mildew too, though I'm not anxious to try.

Mike Crocker

And, another:

This works:
Get some ground coffee. It does not have to be expensive (I suppose some Martin owners would select the Starbucks product) but it does have to be ground. Next, get some decent coffee filters; the ones with the frilly edges are the best for reasons that will soon be evident.Pput some of the ground coffee -- dry, of course -- in each of the filters, then take string and tie the filters closed. make several of them. Put them in the case with the instrument -- I don't think contact would harm the instrument, but it doesn't hurt to avoid direct contact -- and close the case. Leave it for a few days. The odor will go away. Okay, the whole proceedings may smell a little like coffee for awhile, but that odor will eventually go away, too.

Dennis Powell

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OK, so which is better, a traditional glued dovetail like a Martin, or a bolted neck like a Taylor?

I’m amazed that any builder, whether an individual or a large factory, would make flat top guitars without considering the eventuality of needing or desiring to remove the neck. It’s a little like the cigarette industry and cancer. How much evidence do we need before everyone admits it?

I hope by now it’s obvious that virtually all steel string guitars (including lightly built archtops, too) undergo a body shape change that results in a neck angle problem. These days, we correct the neck angle by removing the neck and resetting it to approximate the original angle with respect to the top and the bridge. How many solid top imported guitars will be thrown away because the necks cannot be removed? How many “high end” guitars will need really serious and expensive modification because they were made with a Spanish heel, epoxied dovetail, or other nonremovable system.

A glued dovetail neck is a removable neck, as long as the glue can be softened reasonably easily. But, in what way is it superior to a bolted mortise? It is traditional, to be sure, and I do respect tradition. In fact, I really like tradition. So, how long did those old time builders think we’d try to keep their instruments “on the road?” Especially for the early builders and gut stringing, how significant was “low action” up the neck?

Today’s players are far more sophisticated in their needs for good playability and intonation, and we need to take that into account. When I first started in lutherie, more than 30 years ago, it was commonly held that necks needed to be reset only on really old instruments and/or poorly built ones. Now, we accept that it’s only a matter of time before any flat top guitar will need the operation, and many of them will need that job repeated at regular intervals. With that in mind, why not simply go with the flow? Why not make a guitar with a neck that can come off with minimal damage to the finish or structure of the instrument?

If there’s one piece of “reasoning” I don’t trust it’s that bit about the neck joint contributing to the tone. Particularly on Internet forums, I've heard any number of folks state that the neck joint is the logical reason that Taylor guitars sound bright, and Martins tend to be more full in their bass response. That's a real case of comparing apples and oranges. In the dreadnought size, for example, Taylor instruments have different, and heavier top bracing, which clearly makes for a stiffer top, emphasizing treble response, while Martins have lighter bracing, and similar thickness tops and backs, so they are more flexible, allowing for a fuller bass.

As a further illustration, I offer this little scene:

Not long ago I was visiting a guitar factory, where thousands of guitars have been made over the last few decades. One member of our little tour group asked the guide a question.

“As we went through the factory, I noticed that some of the workers were out to lunch and I didn't see how you attach the neck to the body. What kind of joint do you use?”

“We've always used a glued tapered dovetail joint because it’s important for our special tone. Other kinds of joints would not transmit vibrations as well.”

Another member of the group asked, “Have you ever tried another kind of joint, even as an experiment?”


What I heard was a defense of the “way we do things” rather than even a tiny bit of reasoning on the subject. Meanwhile, others build guitars that consistently sound GREAT using a joint that this sort of fellow disparages as “not transmitting vibrations.”

From time to time, I've been called upon to convert a guitar from a solid, nonremovable neck to a bolted construction. In no case have either I or the owner of the guitar experienced a loss of tone.

Now, it seems that classical and flamenco builders often aim for a rather low bridge and saddle height. It’s a matter of tone, and that’s all well and good. BUT, wouldn't we have a much easier time if those guys also made their instruments with removable necks? I've met a number of really angry owners of high end Spanish classical guitars who were disappointed by the fact that their necks couldn't be removed and reset like many steel string guitar necks.

As a guitar mechanic, I've gotten good at disassembling Martin and other dovetail neck joints. The process involves steam, and some risk, especially to the finish. Personally, I have enough work to keep me really busy, so I wouldn't mind a bit if Martin would switch to a bolted mortise. My customers would like it, too, because neck resetting would cost less. With Bob Taylor’s help, the “stigma” of a bolt-on neck is now pretty much a thing of the past, so, why not let the dovetail be a thing of the past, too? FF, 2/11/01

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I am having a tuning problem with my guitar. I use a digital Chromatic
digital tuner on my Martin guitar. I can tune the guitar easily with open
strings, but when fretting the guitar at the third fret, it is sharp. For
example...the "E" string is tuned to pitch open, but when going to the 3rd
fret it registers to the sharp side of "G". What can be done to correct

You are not alone. All of us who play instruments with fixed notes, such as a piano or a fretted instrument (in contrast to a fretless instrument such as a violin or steel guitar) have to suffer with what's generally known as a "tempered scale." Due to the nature of the vibrating string and its environment, its harmonics are not actually "in tune" with the fundamental. That, along with other inaccuracies, causes us to battle our own ears, particularly at certain intervals. I have neither the space or expertise to explain it in depth, but suffice it to say that the goal of a tempered scale is to create a series of notes that are more or less equally "out of tune" so that the whole is pleasant to the ear.

Guitars present special problems, including the effect of stretching the strings to fret them at different intervals. On most guitars, the saddle position is adjusted to compensate for this stretch by effectively lengthening vibrating length of the strings differentially to allow for the unique stretching effect of each diameter or type of string. Please check out the FRETS.COM Illustrated Glossary item "Compensation," and the article "Calculating Compensation Correction" in the Luthier section for more detail.

The stretching action of the string as it is fretted near the nut presents a special problem in the low positions. Until recently, this problem was not addressed by guitar factories, and, in fact, it is largely ignored even now. Although it is by no means a "new discovery" this low fret intonation problem is receiving some attention particularly among studio musicians who are increasingly under pressure to play in tune with pianos and other tempered instruments.

Now that most of us have electronic tuning devices, we can "see" intonation problems we were unsure whether we heard before, too. Some individual builders, repairers and customizers actually cut the end of the fingerboard short, reducing the nut-to-first-fret distance by .020" to .040" to compensate for the sharping quality of fretting in the low positions. This particular move is often accompanied by moving the bridge or saddle, and is sometimes combined with special systems of tuning to produce a guitar with a different tempering.

Most of us do the best we can by gritting our teeth just a little, and trying for the best compromise tuning. Remember, those perfect recordings you hear have often been "doctored" to improve the intonation of nasty notes, and performers often retune a trifle for certain pieces where they expect a particular problem. . .

FF, 9/27/00

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My guitar won't stay in tune - what can I do?

First you must determine whether your strings actually change in pitch, or whether you have intonation problems "up the neck" making it difficult to tune in the first place. Bear in mind that old strings often play out of tune, so it's wise to restring if you're in doubt.

Check the harmonic over the twelfth fret, and play the fretted note in that position. They should coincide. If the fretted note is seriously sharp or flat, the bridge may need adjustment in order to correct intonation.

Now, if the tuning problem is a matter of one or more strings going flat in a short while, you need to check out the mounting at both ends. On most instruments, the strings are fastened at the bridge or tailpiece in a secure manner. If there's any chance of slippage at that end, the strings will certainly lose tune. This is hardly ever a problem with electric guitars or acoustics with tailpieces. On an acoustic, the strings can snag as they pull up alongside the bridge pins, and may slowly creep flat as the do so.

Most of the time, strings that lose tune are simply loose at the tuning post. If you're not familiar with the "standard" technique of locking the strings in place as you install them, please refer to the stringing guide articles in the "Owners Manual" section of FRETS.COM ( I cannot emphasize enough the significance of this technique. It truly does eliminate string slippage, and in most cases, cures the tuning problem.

The tuners themselves are hardly ever the problem. Open gears need a bit of oil on all their moving parts. Lack of lubrication is almost always the only problem with open gears, no matter how cheaply made they may be.

Lastly, you need to be certain ALWAYS to tune the string UP to the note, not down to it. That means if you "overshoot" and tune too high, you MUST tune back down and then up again. Tuning in this manner automatically takes up the ‘backlash" in the worm gear drive, so even cheap tuners will hold very well.

There is one classic circumstance in tuning where the string can actually go sharp a little as you play. That's where the friction at the nut is so great that the string is pinched there allowing a greater tension between the tuner post and the nut as the string is brought up to pitch. As the string is played, the tension resolves itself across the nut, and the string jumps a bit higher in pitch. In any case, if you hear a "ping" as you tune the string, you can presume that it is a result of excessive friction or pinching at the nut. This occurs most often with plastic nuts, and is about the only reason to consider plastic nuts inferior from the standpoint of performance. Sometimes you can relieve this excess friction by striking a sharp pencil through the slot, depositing some graphite as a lubricant. If that doesn't do the trick, it may be time for a trip to your local luthier.

FF, 9/27/00

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What brand of strings is best?

When I hear the topic of string brand preference discussed, I can't resist the temptation to toss this out:

I have a little nasty trick I play on my opinionated friends. You know, the ones who are vocal about the brand of string they really hate or really love. When I work on their instruments, I'll sometimes restring it with the hated brand, and not tell them. (I don't try to switch gauge or winding material.)

If brand were truly significant in tone, you'd think that after 30 years, one of them would have noticed and would have said SOMETHING.

But, never a word. . .

Now, the fact is that we're usually changing strings from really old dead ones to nice new bright ones, so you expect that the new ones would sound so different that it would be hard to compare with the sound of the previous set when new. Even if you change strings immediately after trying a new set, the changeover time is too long.

I went to buy some new stereo speakers and the audio shop guy said, "You can see 'em but you can't try 'em out, because we're rewiring our switching board. If I plug one set in and then have to unplug and plug in a new set, the time delay would be too long for you to have an accurate memory of fine detail." He told me that tests proved our memory for the finest tone discrimination is a matter of a few seconds!

What about longevity? Well, that's difficult to gauge, too. After all, how do you take into account the various time intervals, hand cleanliness, and actual playing hours?

I'm not saying it's impossible to tell anything. I'm just trying to illustrate the difficulty in handling all the variables.

And, I'm talking brand here, not gauging, materials, or construction. Naturally, if one kind of string appears to last many times longer than another, there probably is a reason for it. I use nickel wound mandolin strings for that very reason. Maybe not so bright when new, but they appear to last forever

FF, 6/30/00

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Someone recently told me about a beloved Guild flamenco guitar they'd owned. It had a cedar top, and an incredible tone, but one day he took it from its case and it was dead -- it just didn't resonate anymore. . Has anyone ever heard of anything like this before?

After better than 30 continuous years dealing with the public, I've heard hundreds of such complaints from musicians who brought in the offensive guitar, which ALWAYS sounded just about as it should. Now, there have been times when that complaint was accompanied by an instrument that had suffered obvious damage, or had incredibly dead strings, but I'm not talking about that sort of thing.

Here's an anecdote:

Some years ago we had a customer try out and be thrilled by a "boutique factory" guitar. ( I won't name the maker or the customer -- for my own protection.)

He went home to Missouri, and called us a few days later, gave a credit card number, and had us send out the instrument. On its arrival, he called us in a bit of a frenzy about the tone having dropped out. He tried to convince us that it just didn't sound the same. We offered a refund, but he insisted that the tone could be restored, so he sent it on to the maker.

A few days later, he called us to say that the maker had been "horrified" about the tone degradation, and suggested it might be a humidity problem. He assured us that the maker was as adamant as he.

So, what could I do? I called the maker personally. I told him of my conversation with the owner, and he immediately replied, "That SOB is flat out lying! I told him it was perfectly fine, but after we argued a while I agreed to 'dry it out' just to shut him up. I never suggested that any of us at the factory had noticed it having an inferior tone."

The final upshot, of course, was that he eventually got the guitar back, and sent it to us for his refund.

What happened?

Could be:

1. Buyer's remorse. He didn't want to admit he'd changed his mind, and thought he'd save face by getting corroboration.

2. He really liked the sound in our shop, but when he had it around the house for a little while, it didn't seem so special.

I vote #2. It is really difficult to assess the sound of an instrument in a strange room, acoustics being what they are. That's why I always suggest you bring your own guitar along on a guitar shopping trip so you'll have a reference standard. That's also why my first suggestion was that he simply return the instrument.

FF, 6/20/00

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What would you suggest for someone just starting to learn. I would like to get an acoustic around $200?

In a way it doesn't matter what brand of guitar you start with. The main reason a beginner needs to keep the cost down is a matter of confidence. Will you enjoy it and continue playing and learning? Nobody can answer that one, so it's reasonable to keep the cost to the bare minimum as a beginner.

Rather than thinking about brands of guitars, I encourage beginners to think about WHERE they get the guitar. Buy a beginning guitar from a reputable service-oriented shop, and you should be in good hands. The guitar tech there can adjust it to play easily for you. That's the key. At first, you are concentrating on tying your fingers into knots to form chords, and trying to work the rhythm section with the right hand.

Whatever you do, don't let anybody hand you that old line about cheap guitars not playing easily. If it is a healthy inexpensive guitar, it can be made to play well for a beginner. After all, it's the beginner who needs the help! A pro can play anything!

In other words, as a beginner, you're naturally not able to make coherent guitar music for a while. SO, I say go for a cheap guitar that plays easily. (That's where the service department comes in - don't think you'll be able to do without that initial adjustment!!) Later, when you begin to find the sound limiting, you'll also be getting a handle on why it is that so many of us are ready to pay quite a lot for a fine instrument.

Then, make the jump to a "professional" quality guitar. Don't go out and get one for $350, then $500, then $700. Once you're committed to playing more seriously, I advise that you skip those intermediate steps.

And, above all, playing guitar is supposed to be FUN, so you should always work within your own comfort range and trust your own judgment

FF, 6/21/00

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I own a 1997 Martin Dreadnought... I play regularly, but not professionally.
How long can I expect my frets to last? I rarely use a capo.

- - -Joseph Jacobs, Twinsburg, Ohio

Hi, Joseph -

That's a very good question. In fact, frets are sort of like the tires on a car. If you drive a taxicab, you'll grind through a lot of tires, compared to the usual family driver. Same thing with frets.

Like tires, frets will continue to function as they wear out. Eventually, the "handling" deteriorates to the point of being noticeable. Buzzing and difficulty playing are the most common symptoms, but because the wear proceeds so slowly, the symptoms of fret wear may not be obvious for a long time.

OK, so how long. Well, that depends on how you play. If you play your guitar one hour a year, you could never wear out the frets, but if you play one hour a day, you probably will. It's not uncommon for a professional who plays a nightly job to wear out a full set of frets in a year.

Just as you notice the great handling when you get new tires on your car, you'll notice your guitar playing much better when worn frets are replaced. Some musicians prize the feel of new frets that they replace them more frequently than others who aren't so sensitive.

Unless you are a heavy capo user, you'll only notice fret wear under the plain steel first and second string of a regular guitar. That's fairly obvious because the steel is so much harder than the nickel frets. (Brass or bronze windings are softer than the frets.)

If you have high action and a hard grip, you'll wear frets a bit faster. If you "choke" or "bend" notes, you'll scrape the skinny steel strings across the frets and wear them much faster.

For most of us, fret wear is a ten-year kind of thing. As a "weekend warrior" picker that's about how long mine last, anyway.

FF, 6/18/00

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I've had a hard time trying to find information regarding top warp (behind the bridge). From what I understand acoustic tops are never flat, but I've noticed on my guitar that it is warping behind the low E & A and not behind the High E and B area
behind the bridge. I use light gauge strings and I was wondering if this was normal warpage, and if this will worsen in time.
- - - Scott Blanchard, Harrisburg, PA

Hi, Scott.

Well, it is possible that you have some real trouble there. In a healthy guitar, the "bulge" behind the bridge usually takes the form of an overall "dome" rather than having a lumpy appearance when viewed in reflected light. Now, sometimes the bracing inside simply "translates" through the top to reveal the location of brace ends, where there's no damage or difficulty. Where there is a pronounced "wrinkle" in the top behind the bridge, it's often a sign that the top has become loose from the X-brace in that area. As far as I know, there is only one cause of this looseness: excessive heat. In a hot car, the temperature can get to about 175 degrees Fahrenheit, and most guitars are made with glue that loses strength at 120, failing completely around 150 degrees. If you'd like to see some detail on this subject, I have an article posted here on FRETS.COM entitled "The Loose Cross Brace Top Wrinkle."

Lots of musicians bring me their guitars, fearful of the top bulging too much. Most of the time I can assure them that their guitar has a normal appearance. But these things can be subtle, so I suggest that you get in to see a competent luthier for an examination and opinion.

FF, 12/3/99

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I've had someone ask me about tuning their 12 string guitar. Not being a 12 string player but having played a few I figured it was a fairly simple E - A - D - G - B- E with doubled strings tuned to octaves on the lower notes, and tuned in unison on the higher notes. My friend told me that she was recommended to tune each string down a half step to relieve tension on the neck caused by the additional strings and capo to the first fret.

This seems a little ridiculous to have to do. It would create a lot of confusion and some problems. I reckon any half decent guitar should be tuned at normal pitch. Any truth to this half step down shift thing?

- - - J. Dumler

Well, you're both right, I suppose.

Most of us agree that the lower the tension the better, but then that could ultimately lead to us not putting on any strings at all. For practical purposes, I figure that a light gauge set (for 12-strings, that's .010 to .047) or lighter will be just fine tuned to concert pitch. A heavier set (say, starting with .012) should be detuned at least one step.

String manufacturers are not consistent in their naming of string gauges, so it's important to recognize the numerical diameter of the first string as a better indicator of tension.

Of course, a lot depends on the playability of a given guitar, so the lower tension of the lower tuning may be desirable to some players. Fact is, though, that modern players usually want their 12-strings to be in tune with their sixes.

FF, 11/1/99

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I hope this is not too easy a question but I have a classical guitar which seems to need bridge adjustment. The intonation seems to be slightly out when I check to see is the note at the 12th fret the same as the 12th harmonic. So I imagine I have to raise or lower the bridge. How do I do this?Sanding? or wedging a piece of wood in there? If harmonic is higher should I raise or lower?

- - - Marty

As a rule, intonation is not adjusted by raising or lowering the bridge. Intonation correction is a matter of adjusting the vibrating length of the string, meaning you have to move the top contact point of the saddle "fore and aft." Check the Big Index Page for articles on intonation and setup. Also, look at the Illustrated Glossary items. For intonation problems on a classical guitar, you should first suspect the strings themselves. They have a tendency to stretch differentially and become fatter at one end. They are also more likely than steel strings to be made with more mass at one end than another. As a result, they won't play in tune as accurately as steel strings. So, try some new high quality strings first.

FF, 9/2/99

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I have just begun playing and was talked into a classical acoustic by a salesman who said it would be the "best to learn on". I am not thrilled with the dark sound of the nylon strings. Can I put steel strings on this guitar? Maybe a light gauge steel string?

- - - Scott

Generally, you should not use steel strings on a classical guitar, because even "extra-light" steel strings exert much more tension than a classical guitar can handle. (There is a specialty imported set made by Dr. Thomastic with very low tension designed for this sort of use. These are very expensive strings, and quite unusual, having very light steel treble strings which are over wrapped with nylon. The trebles are so delicate that they have a short useful life.)

We've been fighting a piece of misinformation for almost 30 years now!


Sure, the strings have lower tension and "hurt your fingers less" at first. But that's only the first couple of weeks, as you build up callus on your fingertips.

Most nylon string guitars have much wider necks than steel, so chord positions are harder to reach unless you're into strict classical technique.

You should start out on the kind of guitar that's used for the music you'll be playing. Then, as you learn, you'll be making the sounds that you enjoy. You'll be getting the reinforcement that helps you enjoy the learning process.

A healthy steel string guitar can be "set up" with VERY easy, low action and extra-light steel strings. In my opinion, a guitar set up like this will be easier to play than the nylon, and, of course, will give you the sound you're looking for.

FF, 8/11/99

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OK, so which is it? -- "lutherie" or "luthiery"

Today we use the word "luthier" to mean a maker of stringed instruments. Surely, it's a direct descendent of the word for lute maker. Now, we're using it as a generic because we like to have a label. Makers of the violin family seem content to call themselves "violin" makers, even if they specialize in 'cellos. But, mandolin makers don't much like to call themselves "guitar makers," so it seems reasonable to settle on "luthier" as a general term for maker of stringed instruments, including pretty much anything but piano type keyboards. That way, we have room for everyone from the violin family to banjos and hammer dulcimers.

For most of us, "lutherie" is the craft of instrument making, where "luthiery" is the place in which it's done. At this point, I know of only one exception, namely the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. They chose that spelling before we all entered the current renaissance of instrument building and before the dust settled on the spelling of lutherie. "Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery" is a trademarked name, and not something they could or should change.

FF, 7/22/99

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I recently bought a Simon and Patrick Luthier acoustic guitar. The frets were buzzing so I adjusted the truss rod. The first time I changed it there was a very loud cracking noise as the adjustment was made. After this the rod turned quite easily. The action got higher as the amount of relief increased. I went to adjust it again and the Allen key nut on the truss rod seemed quite loose and wobbly. By this time the relief was far too much. I tried tightening it back up and the looseness of the nut disappeared as the truss rod screwed back into place. The relief on the neck decreased again. I was surprised to see how little I had to turn it before the truss rod thread ended. Can I forget about the whole thing now, or might I have caused some permanent damage?

- - -Simon Keats, U.K.

Hi, Simon! Not to worry - that cracking noise you heard is quite common the first time a truss rod is adjusted. It's just the glue used in assembling the neck releasing itself from around the rod as it's first pulled or turned (depending on the style of the rod.) Glue doesn't really stick to metal, so the manufacturers usually don't insulate the rod from fingerboard glue during assembly. You can safely forget it. You might want to read my article on truss rods, and the Buzz Diagnosis pages.

FF, 2/11/99

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When measuring the scale of a guitar, do you measure from the nut to the saddle? If so, what part of the saddle do you measure to since the saddle is slanted?

- - - Sondra Lewis, Princeton, Indiana

I'm glad you asked this one, Sondra!

I've been a full time guitar mechanic for 30 years now, and I still don't know the "right" way, if there is one. As far as I can tell, most luthiers measure from the nut to the center of the 12th fret and double that measurement for the "scale length." The only thing is that it doesn't seem to fit a lot of manufacturers' stated specifications if you do it that way. I like to measure to the 12th, double that distance, and call that the scale length, just to be consistent. Then, adding compensation for various strings, I'll call each of those lengths "compensated scale length." That way, at least I don't go crazy right off.

Now, just to keep us off balance, a lot of makers cut about .020" from the nut end to improve the intonation in lower ranges. This really does work, and it's been done for as long as I can remember by various technicians as a repair technique.

So, on one of these guitars, how in h--- do you ever get it measured right? Maybe you don't.

For the practical purposes of comparing instruments for their tone and performance, approximate measure is just fine. I don't think 1/8" one way or the other will have much effect.

For the work on an individual instrument, measurements are critical, and I take those quite seriously. For laying out a scale, I'd use the conventional calculations for fret positions, doubling the nut to 12th fret distance to describe the scale length. Then I'd cut around .020" off the nut end to improve intonation, and I'd plot my compensation for each string experimentally, using the formula I've illustrated in my article on Calculating Intonation Compensation Correction.

In the shop, I'm often asked if a particular guitar (usually a Martin) is a long (25.4") or short (24.9") scale. I'll just reach for a yardstick and measure nut to saddle to see if the distance is around 25 (possibly a little under) or around 25-1/2 inches.

FF, 1/4/99

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Last month ,my wife bought me a new Martin 000-28 as an anniversary present. When I got it home and got down to some serious playing, I noticed a tendency for my inner right arm to "stick" to the top and sides. It is a kind of "tackiness" (if you follow me) not real bad but certainly annoying. I have contacted Martin but their response has not been particularly helpful so far.

So in desperation..........can you help?

The surface looks OK until viewed under good light at a very low angle......there appears to be a "fog" on the surface where my arm has been. This can be eased by using a furniture cleaner by reappears after only a short time. At first,I thought that Martin's new polish by "Guardsman" may help.....but if anything ,it makes it worse.

- - - Eric Carswell, Glasgow, Scotland

Hello, Eric

Yep, I've seen that problem. Have it myself. The area of finish under the arm becomes softened by my body chemistry and dulls with exposure to my arm. Not a particularly bad problem because I'm a mandolin guy, and play my guitar only very occasionally. I've learned to hold the mandolin with my arm touching only the tailpiece, but for guitar playing I either wear long sleeve, or lay a tea towel over the area. That's the only real solution I know.

It is not possible to polish a softened finish. It is probable that buffing and polishing will scuff off more finish and cause premature wear.

I have seen a number of folks whose body chemistry is such that they turn the neck finish to a black, sticky, tar-like substance. It is really disgusting, and feels terrible to play. In a few cases I've actually cured the problem by refinishing the neck with acrylic lacquer or shellac to avoid the chemical reaction. If you look at a lot of old guitars, you'll see the dulled or worn area in top finish where the playing arm touches it.

Traditional nitrocellulose lacquer, as used by Martin, Gibson and many others, is sensitive to a variety of chemical agents, such as vinyl, rubber, and us humans to a greater or lesser extent. Catalyzed finishes such as those used by Taylor and most Asian factories, are not affected at all by the same chemicals, and are much more durable than nitrocellulose lacquer. The tradeoff is that nitrocellulose lacquer polishes to a more "elegant" shine, and is more easily repaired if scratched.

Please bear in mind that this finish "problem" is not unique to Martin, and is not the sort of thing that varies from one example to another. Martin DOES make some instruments with a different finish, namely the economy models such as the D-1. These have a "cross-linked" finish which is not reactive, but also not as attractive.

So, the bad news is that I really don't have a "cure" for you except to suggest that you learn to live with a sensitive finish. Those of us who want to keep our instruments looking their best frequently have to work at it. On the other hand, remember that the finish has mostly "cosmetic value," and your instrument will not suffer any loss of tone or longevity if you allow the finish to wear off completely.

FF, 12/29/98

Please read on. . .


Saw that you had published a slightly "edited" version of the note on the didn't give the whole story...

I am disappointed but I guess as Martin are a long standing source of income, it perhaps wouldn't be the "done thing" to publish the entire saga.

However, the story had a happy ending, and, I hope, one that you CAN use without upsetting anyone.

As I said,Martin undertook to take the guitar back AND instruct the U.K. wholesaler to make a refund in full which they did. I, for my part, said that if they resolved the problem, then I would consider taking the instrument back.....well, they DID resolve the problem and I DID buy it back (at the same price of course).....the guitar is playing as beautifully as ever and DOES NOT STICK TO ME....and guess what, I have the same body (mores the pity) and the same body chemistry.

The repair guy who solved the problem verified that there was a "patchy" waxlike condition which he resolved by recutting the lacquer and rebuffing.

Will you publish this...? Go on .....This makes Martin out to be honest brokers and I am delighted with them and the guitar.

- - - Eric, 2/15/99

Well, Eric, it's a "fair cop." You caught me. . . I printed this business before all the results were in.

First, I'd like to say I'm leaving my previous reply intact, because it does answer a very frequently asked question around our shop. Lacquer does react dramatically to some of my customers, many of whom would like to blame the problem on Martin (or other manufacturer), their cases, polishes, etc. So, once again, sorry I didn't believe that the polish could be the culprit. That's the reason, not my relationship with Martin, for my failing to report the problem you had with the polish. I guess I am an Old Fart, after all!

I really wish I'd had the opportunity to see your guitar, because that would have saved me some embarrassment, for sure.

I'm printing your note as a rebuttal to my reply, because I'd like to keep my original comments, which have a bearing on the lacquer softening problem. I must admit I had difficulty believing that Guardsman polish could cause this sticky situation. After all, Guardsman has been making instrument lacquer for a long time, and you'd think they would test their stuff.

So, not long after our discussions, I had the opportunity to try some of the polish myself, and I must admit it's really not the stuff for Martin finishes. We sent our supply right back! Now I've heard from a few other dealers and they all agree. A couple of weeks ago a customer brought in a new D-45 with a "cloudy" finish. He had polished it and stuck it back in the case. Then the fuzz from the case lining pressed into the film of polish and make the guitar look dull and strange. It only took a small amount of buffing and polishing to get that stuff off, but he had to drive 3 hours to our shop to have it diagnosed and done. I hope Martin describes the problem in an issue of their "Sounding Board" magazine. . .

I'm very pleased to hear that you are keeping the same guitar, rather than letting the difficulty with Guardsman polish (and me) to put you off.

FF, 2/15/99

Update, 3/10/01:

I presume that Guardsman has taken care of the problem because it has been two years now since I've heard complaints of this type. . .

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G'day Frank and thanks for taking the time to read this.....

I have owned an Ibanez M312 12 string "Blonde Beauty" for about 18 years (I bought it second hand). I have never had it reset or serviced in any way.

It seems to play quite well, no buzzing or whatever, but lately I seem to be chasing the tuning all over the place. That is, it's in tune in basic E chord but slightly out of tune in G and vice versa. I realize it's not an expensive guitar, but it has the most beautiful mellow tone and I can't part with it.

Is it possible that the frets need shaving or re setting or maybe truss rod adjustment? The action is marginally high but after checking the relief by pressing the string down at the first & 14th fret there is just a hairs clearance over the 6th fret.

I use D'Addario light acoustic strings incidentally.

- - - Pat Robinson, Sydney, Australia

Hi, Pat;

I'll have to start by saying that I talk to lots of guitarists who find they have the same intonation problems you're describing. Virtually all the time it's not a matter of the guitar changing, but more the musician becoming more critical. That's true as we get to be better players, play more sophisticated music, but nothing points up intonation problems like recording does. SO, it's really common for me to hear that "my guitar has always played in tune, but I was just doing some recording and the intonation went bad on my guitar," or, "I'm playing with a band now, and they say my intonation is out."

Bottom line is that if you have decent action and the guitar plays well, the only way for the intonation to change is for something major to be moving at the bridge or peghead end. I'm talking about 1/8" sort of movement, like a collapsing saddle, or sliding bridge. Pretty unlikely without being obvious.

Now, add to that the fact that 12 string guitars pair up skinny strings with fat ones right next to each other on the saddle when they really should be "compensated" with individually different vibrating lengths you have the reasons I presume your guitar has always played with the intonation it has now.

What to do about it? A heavily compensated, wide saddle usually does the trick for most players. That will give you an instrument with accurate intonation when comparing the octave harmonic with the fretted note, the usual test for intonation.

Speaking of that, you might give your guitar that simple test. Play the harmonic over the twelfth fret, then the fretted note. They should coincide. If the fretted note is sharp, then the saddle needs to be moved to lengthen the vibrating string.

You might want to check out my little compensation formula, if you'd like to convert the inaccuracy you read in your electronic tuner to a distance measurement.

FF, 11/8/98
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I purchased a Martin D-16T about 7 months ago new; I think the action is getting a bit high.

When I first bought this beauty it had a clean, smooth, very easy action. The tone is clear, warm and resonate--very nice with my fingerstyle work. I measured the action from the body fret to the high and low E strings (I've set the action on other guitars) and got this when new: Low E=3/32 inches; high E=2/32 inches. I got a bit of a buzz on the B and E strings in the upper registers back then.

Now the action is a bit tougher: I measure Low E=4/32nd inches, and high E=almost 3/32nd inches. NO More Buzzing at the upper fingerboard level, and a slighter clearer, sweeter tone to boot! But I'm worried about the rise in action; the table of the top of the guitar just behind the bridge seems to bulge a bit, especially behind the lower, bass, strings. Is this baby gonna blow? Should I worry or be happy with the better volume and tone?

I use D'Addario EJ-16 light gauge phosphor-bronze acoustic guitar strings only.

Well, it's hard to diagnose anything at long distance, but here are a couple of thoughts. Sure enough, acoustic guitars settle and change a bit when new. The top may pull up, and the neck may appear to pull forward under the tension of the strings. A change of 1/32" at the 12th fret is not all that unusual. It sounds like the top bulge you notice is perfectly normal. After all, the top must be light and thin to respond with a full tone.

First, I'd check the neck relief and truss rod adjustment. If you mash the G string down at the first and 15th frets, you should see about 0.010" clearance between the string and the 7th fret. Lots more clearance may indicate at truss rod adjustment is needed, and that may result in lower action.

Heat is a big factor. IF your guitar was exposed to the heat of a parked car, you may have experienced a few years aging in just a few hours.

Humidity plays a part, too. In high humidity, the top will bulge upward, raising the action. Overuse (in my area, any use) of an instrument humidifier will produce such a result. Seasonal humidity changes can easily make this kind of action change in a sensitive guitar.

Best to have your local Martin repairman take a look at this one for you. You can call Martin at 800-345-3103 to get a referral in your area. Martin instruments carry a lifetime warranty and the factory will help you maintain the action on the guitar at the original factory specification of 7/64" at the 12th fret, sixth string and 5/64" for the first string.

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Frank, I'm considering having the braces scalloped on my '57 D-18. I'm in Seattle and could ship the guitar to you or possibly wait until I'm going that way. I'd like your opinion of the pros and cons, what you would charge for the work, how long I'd have to leave it with you in case I can come down and deliver it personally, sound improvements...anything you have to say would be appreciated.

- - -Doug Gottshall, Seattle, WA

Well, 25 to 30 years ago we recontoured a lot of braces inside Martin guitars, "scalloping" them to the prewar specifications. We did that to improve bass response and overall volume, and the procedure was safe and effective. I've never heard of an original 1930s scalloped brace guitar or one that we scalloped ever having a top failure except from abuse (heat, mechanical damage, etc.)

The reason we scalloped the braces on these instruments was because we were aware that the prewar instruments sounded stronger, and that everyone knew you couldn't get a new Martin with scalloped braces. As of 1977, though, Martin has offered an increasing number of their new models with scalloped braces. Add that to the "collectibility factor" associated with vintage guitars, and we start to question the practice.

If your 1957 D-18 is in reasonable condition, then scalloping the braces will definitely reduce its value, even if it "improves" the sound. I'm not suggesting that cash value should be your only motivation, but it is a question that comes up more often ever year in our shop.

Because the times have changed and we have such a variety of truly great new instruments available, we hardly ever scallop the braces on Martin guitars any more.

By the way, there are lots of players who prefer the "tight" sound of the straight braces used during the 1950s and 1960s.

If you really want to keep your guitar and make the modification, I'd be glad to take a look at it and help evaluate the possibilities. Any 40 year old instrument is likely to have undergone the typical aging process and may also have seen some damage along the way. It's important to evaluate the neck angle, bridge height and other structural considerations before recommending scalloping the braces.

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I recently purchased a Taylor 514 CE It came with light gauge strings, however I am interested in putting medium strings on. Are there any issues I should be aware of. I don't want to damage my new Taylor. Thanks in advance.

- - - Chris Dunn

Chris, I asked Bob Taylor to respond to this one:

All of the "14" or Grand Auditorium models come with light gauge strings. Its an issue of tone more than strength. So, simply put, you could safely string your guitar with mediums. Adjustments may become necessary and you may see more pulling of the top, but it will survive the tension.

You may find the sound more robust, or possibly even louder, but in trade, it may sound more pinched due to the extra tension on the top. The lights allow the guitar's top to vibrate more freely.

- - - Bob Taylor, Taylor Guitars

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Once an acoustic guitar has had its neck reset, is that the end? Will it need to be reset in the future? I've heard that once a neck is reset that it will never need to be adjusted. My local repairman tells me different. Who's right?

Indeed, I've seen LOTS of flat top guitars in need of a second reset.

In fact, some of them have been Martins I worked on many years ago.

It's important to take note of how soon (or often) this occurs. If a 1973 Martin gets its neck reset this year, it seems likely that it's on a 25 year schedule before it gets bad enough for a second job, presuming it doesn't get cooked in a hot car. THEN it could need a second reset immediately. (I have seen that happen.)

Now, presuming that it took 25 years for the need for the first reset, and the same owner plays it. As the action goes up with time, he is far more likely to notice it happen, and also is more likely, in my experience, to request another reset operation to correct the action than to cut the bridge lower. Once he's acquainted with the benefits and logic of keeping the neck and body geometry in good order, the cost of resetting may not bother him as much. In that case the reset may happen sooner, before the action gets ridiculous.

I do agree that some settling occurs when the instrument is newer, but I really don't have any way to gauge how that affects the reset "cycle." Please realize that I'm only giving a "for instance." There is no real "cycle," just a general predictability that once reset, it's only a matter of time and tension before the body changes again and the job will need to be repeated.

Here's a poser: If resets don't need to be done a second time, how come you hear so many complaints from luthiers about "how the neck was put in when it was reset last time," or "why did somebody epoxy that Martin neck back in?"

The various elements of the guitar body work together to hold the neck in alignment. If the guitar is very lightly built, poorly designed, heated or over stressed (e.g. converted to a 12-string) then you can expect the cycle of neck resetting to be much shorter.

There are lots of guitars that fit the lightly built category, and need resetting more often, I think:

Early Martins with steel strings: 1930s OM models, 1920s, and earlier ones which may have been built with gut in mind but which are used with steel.

Early Gibsons from the 1920s & 30s, L-1, Nick Lucas, etc.

Some of the modern "hot rod" style builders.

I know a number of folks who have lightly built modern guitars that have had as many as three neck resets done on instruments less than 20 years old.

How long before it's not possible to reset the neck angle on a guitar? Nobody knows, because the steel string guitar just hasn't been around long enough yet. Certainly I've seen heat damaged ones and poorly built ones that can't support their necks any longer, but that's a mighty rare situation. I've seen guitars that have had new tops made by their manufacturers in order to correct a chronic reset problem that had to do with top stability.

With all of this, please remember that I'm the hospital, and naturally I see the sick ones!

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I'm working on a deal to buy a 1930s D-18. It's had numerous repairs and the back and sides have been refinished. The owner assures me that the top finish is original.

To make sure I'm getting the real McCoy and that it hasn't been reworked too heavily or poorly over the years, what significant things would you check for?

Obvious things that I think of are: scalloped bracing, ebony fingerboard and bridge, Adirondack spruce.

Well, I really don't know what to say. Assessing originality of a D-18 like this one is certainly a job for someone who's seen lots of them and who really knows old Martins.

As a musician, if you're prepared to buy this guitar as a tool for the purpose of making music, perhaps you can convince yourself that resale is unimportant. In other words, if you get the sound and playability that you want, and don't ever sell it, the actual "value" shouldn't matter. So many of us spend a lot of time talking to others about the resale of guitars that we lose track of what they're really for! We're ready to spend $3500 for a new computer that we KNOW will be worthless in a short while, yet we worry like crazy about what the potential cash value of an instrument will be after we've played it for years. In my opinion, the real value of a guitar is its ability to inspire us to play good music. So if you like it, buy it!

Now, by all means, get hold of an inspection mirror from an auto parts or tool dealer. Armed with that and a flashlight, you can peer around inside the guitar in question. Practice on different guitars so you get the hang of looking around. If possible, look at a lot of Martins, especially prewar ones.

Looking inside under the top, if you see ANY sloppy glue work, small cleats, or damage around the bridge plate, you can be certain that they were not the work of the Martin factory. Not to say all of them are bad, just not original. The bracing and bridge plate should look essentially the same as a 1950s or early 1960s D-18, but of course, the braces will be scalloped. Take special care to look at the neck block and serial number for signs of tampering. Check the serial number with Martin's list to verify age. Any unevenness in the neck block surface or indistinct lettering are big fat warning signs.

I met a fellow recently who paid a HUGE price for an "original" prewar Martin that had the model and serial number crudely stamped on a piece of mahogany that was sloppily glued right over the neck block. The person selling the guitar assured him that Martin sometimes made them that way. They did not. The entire instrument was bogus!

I really can't give you any information that will make you an instant expert, but simply checking to see that the inside of the guitar is clean and unmodified is a really important step. I've seen hundreds of guitars change hands for big bucks at vintage guitar shows and NEVER seen an inspection mirror used in the process! Naturally, I've seen lots of bad things inside some of these guitars after the purchaser brought them to my shop.

PLEASE don't even CONSIDER whether the top is Adirondack. Sure, Martin used Adirondack spruce then, but the reality is that no one can verify it precisely by simply looking at it. Species determination of spruce must be made at the microscopic level and it is not possible outside the laboratory. It's also not too relevant, because we're interested in the sound, and the guitar is already made, so we simply judge it as it is.

Originality of finish, even originality of factory-replaced body parts, can be really difficult for a seasoned expert to determine, especially on worn or reworked instruments. Since you already have a fine old D-18, I think you'll be able to hear the proof of originality. A 1937 D-18 should be able to speak for itself!

The safer way to buy such a guitar is to get one through an honest reputable dealer who you trust to know and tell the truth. Most vintage instrument dealers try to do the best they can to provide good service and build good reputations.

Of course, not all dealers are entirely honest, and will either not tell you something if you don't ask specifically about each part, will actually lie, or won't really know. I've seen folks accidentally "stung" by getting an acoustic guitar from an honest electric guitar dealer, who just wasn't able to tell its state of originality or condition.

If you pay the record high price for a really great original instrument, chances are that it will become more respected and valuable as the years pass. There's a great line in the 1921 Gibson instrument catalog: "Gives satisfaction long after the price is forgotten." I'll probably grow old, hoarse and broke quoting that line and trying to convince people that the really important consideration is to get the right instrument, NOT the right price!

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Is it really bad for my guitar to take all the strings off at once when changing them; should I do it one string at a time as some makers recommend?

It's definitely OK to take off all the strings on any fretted instrument. It's just an old husband's tale that taking off all the strings will injure the neck or any other part of the instrument. By the way, there's no harm in changing them one a time if that's more convenient for you.

Many necks have an internal truss rod which can have quite a bit of tension applied by tightening the nut. Probably the thought of this internal tension makes some people presume that without the strings pulling on the neck that it will be "sprung" backward somehow. Rest assured that your instrument would "rather" have no strings at all! Collectors and others who put their instruments into storage usually either remove the strings or detune completely.

Some instruments, such as banjos, mandolins and arch top guitars, have movable bridges which simply fall off when all the strings are removed. For those instruments, it's generally a bit easier to change the strings one at a time. That's why I change strings one at a time on my mandolin, but all at once on my guitar.

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What tool do you recommend for cutting steel strings?

I hope I don't get in trouble for this one, but I recommend Craftsman diagonal cutters. Steel strings are very hard on wire cutters and you can always return the Craftsman brand for exchange!

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Do I need to have my guitar set up specially if I use alternate tunings?

Yes, and no. If, for example you play exclusively in DADGAD, then your guitar will perform its best if set up with that tuning in mind. Besides the more obvious action work, this may include special bridge compensation to account for the fact that the strings tend to play more sharp up the neck when their tension is lowered as the pitch is dropped, especially the sixth string.

If you're constantly changing tunings, then the best you can hope for is a sort of middle ground where the action may feel a bit stiff in the higher tunings and you may have a bit of a buzz in the lowest. Same for intonation, because bridge compensation can't be changed on the fly.

For the majority of players, alternate tunings work all right with the guitar set up for standard pitch. Watch out for string breakage when retuning.

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Where should I keep my instrument? In the case, on a stand, hanging on the wall?

For most instruments, the safest storage is in their cases. There, they are protected from dust and accident, and to some extent, from temperature and humidity fluctuations. But, there they are also more out of the way and less likely to get used for a casual tune.

I prefer to keep mine hanging on the wall. I just use a leather thong tied to the tuners and hang it on a picture hook firmly mounted on the wall. I check behind the instrument to see were it touches the wall and I use double stick tape to attach a small piece of felt, about 4" square to protect the back from scratches.

On the wall, staring at me, my guitar and mandolin are free to make me feel guilty for not playing enough music! They are free from the accidental kick that can send a guitar flying out of its stand. They do collect a bit of dust, but I can keep them wiped off easily enough.

Our old friend, Barry Olivier, has been teaching guitar to individuals and groups in Berkeley, California, for over 40 years. Barry just told me that since the very beginning he has given each of his students (thousands by now!) a leather thong to tie around the pegs so the guitar can hang on the wall. He tells his students to keep the guitar out so they can take advantage of a short playing break of only a couple of minutes.

"If you have two or three minutes to spare, you can play a tune. That is, you can if your guitar is handy." Barry describes the case as a "barrier to playing." He offers this quote from Shakespeare ("Timon of Athens" Act 1, Scene 2) "Sweet instruments hung up in cases. . . keep their sounds to themselves."

Before you ask, I don't believe that exterior walls pose any threat unless you live in a single wall building like a cabin. If I lived in a one-room wood stove heated house or in the swamps or other harsh environment, I'd rethink keeping them out.

In the winter, some houses get really dry when heated, especially if they're in cold parts of the country. If the ambient relative humidity is really low and you don't humidify your house, you probably use a case humidifier and shouldn't be keeping your instrument out.

Direct sun is an absolute no-no!

My least favorite place to keep instruments is in stands. They are more in the way because they take floor space, they can fall, and they may have some problems if the finish interacts with the protective vinyl or rubber on the stand. If you're going to use a stand, it's a good idea to check whether the instrument's finish is potentially reactive. Older instruments, and many fine new ones are traditionally finished with "nitrocellulose lacquer" which is severely injured by prolonged contact with vinyl and some rubber pads. A good way to prevent this is to cover the contact areas of the stand with a couple of layers of thick felt. You can also purchase fuzzy pads to cover the neck holder portion of the stand, but don't forget where the body touches.

We all agree that you should detune any instrument that's going into storage for a long time without being used. Only problem with that piece of advice is that usually we intend to play it tomorrow. . .

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How often does my truss rod need to be adjusted?

This is a tricky question. Ideally, your truss rod never needs to be readjusted unless your instrument has a flexible neck and you change to a different gauge of strings.

In the real world, however, the truss rod is there to help control the curvature of the neck and may need readjusting for a variety of reasons. The fact is that some particular instruments have less stable necks than others. Some players are very particular about the action and feel of their instruments and may need to be sensitive to the need for readjustments at frequent intervals.

The good news is that for most of us the need for truss rod adjustment is accompanied by a clear symptom. If your instrument becomes difficult to play or starts to buzz in a particular region of the neck, especially frets 1-5, then it's time to have it checked out. That's when the repair person is likely to catch the need for adjustment during the normal course of diagnosis.

Bear in mind that just because it CAN be adjusted, it doesn't mean that it SHOULD be adjusted. Truss rod adjustments are best left to those experienced in setting up instruments.

Most of the time when folks come to me for an adjustment, there's more or different stuff that needs to be done! I'll repeat: truss rods are not there for adjusting action, but their adjustment has an effect on action. Does that make sense? What I'm trying to say is that in setting up an instrument, I'll set the truss rod adjustment first to achieve the ideal "relief" in the neck and then work with the action.

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Will my guitar be hurt if it has to go in the unpressurized baggage compartment of an airplane?


But the airline baggage handlers are another story. Those guys have a reputation for being able to break ANYTHING. Since I see all the broken ones, I'm particularly nervous about sending a guitar through the baggage system.

Even if the lack of pressurization means that the guitar will be subjected to lower humidity the length of time in that environment is not enough to cause trouble.

When I fly with a guitar, I pack it as though I were shipping it by UPS. It goes in its hardshell case with stout packing around the peghead to prevent "whiplash." Then in a guitar shipping box packed with balled up newspaper or the like. I cut a D-shaped hole at the balance point so I can carry the box with one hand like a suitcase. I've never had an instrument injured when I travel this way.

You should be able to get a guitar box from any guitar shop. If you can't, you might try modifying a bicycle box.

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If I buy an instrument, can I tell how much it will be worth if I decide to sell it later?

Not really.

Well known brands and models will often have relatively predictable selling prices. Naturally there are no guarantees but if you buy a used instrument from a reputable dealer, chances are it will be a welcome return to that dealer as a trade-in or consignment.

Used instruments by makers who are unknown or no longer active will generally have fewer potential customers. Makers who have a strong local reputation may have good resale potential in their home town, but nowhere else. That's the case with Gryphon guitars made by Richard and me in the early 70s. Anywhere outside our immediate area they're practically impossible to sell. A friend bought one from a dealer in Oregon for $90.00 a few years ago because it was completely unknown there. Back here in town, it's worth nearly ten times that amount.

So should you buy that instrument you fell in love with? Of course you should. But, it's always a good idea to have any instrument, new or used, checked out by a reputable service person. If you have a good level of trust, that can be the person or shop selling the instrument.

I hope that resale value is not your reason to buy an instrument. These things are made for producing music! A good instrument is an investment in yourself. I expands your creativity! Playing music beats the hell out of watching TV, don't you think?

In the deathless words of my old friend, Jon Lundberg, "If you like it, then buy it."

Sometimes you just have to take responsibility for your decision that it's the right thing for you. Later on, if it has a lower value, then you can still take pride in the fact that you got what you needed from it, and that at the time it was the right thing to do.

I'm writing this note on a computer that cost thousands and is now worth hundreds and it's only a year old. Next year nobody will want it at all.

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Will I get a better "deal" from the big "warehouse" or "super store" rather than the small local shop?

Hard to say. Some big corporate stores sell at a terrific discount. Others may list the instruments at high prices and force you to "bargain." Lots of small shops sell at similar discounts. It never hurts to be aware of the various selling prices of standard commodities.

The small service oriented shop is more likely to have personnel who are knowledgeable and who have considerable experience in helping musicians find just the right instrument. The smaller shop may also have a skilled service staff. In my opinion, music is a service business and every reputable shop should have repair and setup facilities on site. Bear in mind that there are some very large music stores with full repair, service, and knowledgeable sales staff!

You may choose to reward that extra service and guidance you receive when it comes time to buy a new instrument.

Check with other musicians. Find out who's to be trusted by getting some solid recommendations. If everyone says, "avoid those weasels at __________" then it may be good advice.

It is far more important to buy the right instrument than to get a just satisfactory (or wrong) one at a cheaper price. When you figure how many hours and years these things last, the actual price in dollars doesn't amount to much per hour of use!

Think about whom you want to support! By your choice of where you buy your instrument, you're voting for the survival of that style of business.

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How can I get started in lutherie?

Want a career in instrument making and/or repair? Here are a few ideas.

1. Go to school. There are a number of lutherie training programs available, from short courses to full curriculum institutions. You'll find a short list of them on the Luthier Links Page and a much more comprehensive list at the G.A.L. web site

2. Read everything. Every book or video, no matter how badly produced, is likely to have material worth knowing. When you reflect back on it, you'll probably agree that a single really good idea is worth the price of any book.

3. Just do it. Some of us got our start just tearing into things and getting into trouble. Make lots of mistakes and learn from them. Buy yard sale guitars and rebuild them. Buying and selling, fixing up along the way is an excellent way to learn the vintage market, too. It's all fine to see how things are done, but the real learning comes in doing the jobs.

4. Get a job. The best way to get your techniques down smooth is to do a lot of work. A job in a large busy repair shop is the ideal way to learn about all kinds of operations and instruments. You'll have the opportunity to see more experienced hands at work, and you can ease into the difficult procedures with a bit of a "safety net."

5. Learn to eat beans. One thing for sure about building and repairing instruments is that it's a hard way to make a living. If you're on fire to learn and work on instruments, you may not need the reward of high pay. That's good, because (particularly at first) there is no high pay! The woods are littered with the bones of repairers and builders who had to give up. . .

6. Forget retirement. This is a great career for anyone who is afraid of retirement. As long as you can do the work, you'll probably be in demand. At 70, my friend, Mario Martello, tried to retire. In a very short while he got bored, and wanted to get back to the old workbench. Good thing, too, because there were lots of folks who didn't want to lose his services! Mario is living proof that you can support a family, buy a house, drive a nice car and put a kid through college all on the income from fixing instruments. He built his career working at home doing repair for guitar stores. When it comes to efficiency of work, I'll bet on Mario to win the race!

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OK, so how did you get that domain name?

Dumb luck.

I just contacted the InterNIC in February 1998, and found that FRETS.COM wasn't being used. As my friend, Brian Burns has often said, "If you're lucky enough you don't need skill."

I can accept that!

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You don't have an article on how to adjust truss rods. I'd like to lower my action. Can you help me adjust the truss rod on my Martin HD-28?

First, a word about truss rods. They are NOT intended for adjusting action. Truss rod adjustment affects action, but it is not an adjustment for that purpose. If the truss rod is way too loose and the neck pulls forward under string tension, then the action will be raised. So, in this special case, correcting the truss rod adjustment will also correct the action, but that's only a "side effect."

The truss rod is really there to control the "relief" or curvature of the neck, so that the frets are in proper alignment to work properly. Check out the FAQ :Truss rods - how often to adjust. Modern guitar necks are rather thin and more flexible than their older counterparts, so they will be more likely to need periodic truss rod attention than guitars made 50 years ago.

Here's how I'd check the rod on your HD-28. With the guitar tuned to pitch, mash the 3rd string down at the first fret and at the 14th. Look closely at the clearance between the bottom of the string and the top of the 6th fret. For a "normal" or "average" setup, you should see about 0.010" clearance. In other words, look to see if you see enough space between the 6th fret and the string to stick the first string or a playing card between them.

Truss rods should never be adjusted so that the strings lie completely touching the frets when pressed down at the first and 14th. If the truss rod is way too tight, then the neck has a "reverse" bow or curve, causing really bad buzzing when played on the "downhill" side of the curve in the lower positions near the nut.

Now, test drive the guitar. If it buzzes all over the neck, then the action is probably too low at the saddle. If it buzzes on open strings only, then the nut is too low. If it buzzes only on frets 1-4 or so, then the truss rod needs to be a bit looser to give "relief" for playing. If it buzzes only around frets 8 to 12, then the truss rod could be a bit tighter, and the action will need to be raised at the saddle.

Update: Now there is a truss rod adjusting article

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I go between several altered tunings, and I break a lot of strings, right at the tuning post. Should I wind on lots of extra turns of string around the post to reduce the likelihood of string breakage?

Certainly, the more fragile thin strings are more likely to break in retuning. In my experience string breakage between the nut and tuner post is most commonly caused by the string binding in the nut. You can hear string binding if it "jumps" in pitch or "pings" as you tune up. Frequently the string makes no extra noise, but just drags on the nut a little, requiring extra tension to bring it to pitch. Widening and smoothing the nut slots with the proper nut files may help with strings that bind. A bit of graphite (a few strokes of a fine pointed pencil) applied to the string notches can also reduce that friction.

Nuts made of soft plastic may bind the string like crazy! Sometimes changing to a harder nut material, such as bone, will eliminate or reduce the problem.

I haven't found extra windings at the tuning post to be of any help for the problem of string breakage.

FF, 6/25/98

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I'm a beginner learning on a cheapo LP imitation. It has small, uneven frets. I'm saving for a better guitar, but I don't know what I don't know!

Since I'm having a hard time getting all strings to sound properly with my barre finger, I'm tempted to get JUMBO FRETS.

Do you have an opinion as to which fret size offers what

My best recommendation is to keep the frets you have unless they're REALLY uneven.

Long ago I complained to a friend that even after years of playing, I still couldn't barre effectively. He said it was a matter of how I was thinking about the left hand.

The usual method is to mash all six strings down with the barre finger, and then form the desired chord with the others.

BUT, it works far better if you form the chord first and then cover the barre notes with the first finger. That way you're not wasting a lot of effort trying to hold down some strings in two places.

Give it a try. Look a your left hand and see which areas need to have the strings held down, say for a barre F. Really it's only the first, second, and sixth. That means your first finger is really only holding down on the outside edges and can relax in the middle.

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