In the summer of 1999, a short six months after I bought this guitar, I defiled it. I stripped its body of its pickguard, jack plate, bridge, neck and dignity. I placed the body into a tub of paint stripper for two nights while I waited for the paint to bubble and blister away from the surface of the wood. On the following morning, when I pulled the poor thing out of the chemical bath, it looked like a scene out of a horror movie. The body’s beautiful blue skin was sloughing off grotesquely, revealing the wood underneath.
What I had hoped to find under the paint job was a guitar body with a gorgeous wood grain. Instead, I found a plain, unimpressive slab of lumber. No intricate striping, just blandness. Which, it suddenly occurred to me, is why Fender (the manufacturer) painted it at the factory in the first place. If the body had a beautiful wood grain, Fender would have featured it beneath a clear coat and stain, not hidden it with opaque indigo blue paint. I should have known.
At this point, I had a dismantled guitar with the paint mostly removed. The stripper had trouble eating away the paint in certain areas. I began scraping off the remaining paint with a steak knife. That’s right, a steak knife. Needless to say, a steak knife was not the right tool for the job. Its dull edge and my poor technique scarred the body with gashes and scratches. After a few hours of scraping, it was clear to me that I would never be able to remove the leftover paint completely with my steak knife. I gave up and reassembled my guitar.
Standing back and looking at it, my heart sank with regret. I had made a terrible mistake. I was left with an ugly, butchered guitar. Naked and wounded.
I should have left it alone.
Over the next few months, something unexpected happened: I began to love the way the guitar looked.
Don’t get me wrong: it was – and still is – ugly. But it is also unique. It represents me in a way that no other guitar could. It represents my DIY nature. It represents my impulsiveness and my hubris. It represents my naivete. And now, many years later, it represents one my most defining traits: my loyalty.
My guitar’s demise
I continued to play the Strat for years. Since it was my only electric guitar, and I’m primarily an electric guitar player, I put a lot of miles on that guitar. Like worn down treads on the tires of a car, the mileage on a guitar shows in its fret wear. The Strat’s frets were extremely worn, leading to buzzes and intonation problems. They needed to be replaced.
So in July of 2011, shortly after I began giving guitar lessons full-time, I contacted another small business owner here in Glen Burnie, Maryland who performs guitar repairs and setups to refret my Strat.* What happened next still baffles and angers me.
I was standing in this man’s basement workshop turning my guitar around in my hands looking at the damage that he had caused. Unlike the cosmetic damage that I had caused years earlier when I stripped off my paint, this man caused permanent damage to the play-ability of my guitar. I was astounded and speechless.
Let’s start with the task for which I hired him: the refret. In the literal sense of the word, he did perform a refret: he had removed the old frets and replaced them with new frets. Unfortunately, that’s all he did. He didn’t level the frets so that no fret is higher than another like he was supposed to do. He didn’t shape the fret ends so that they would be comfortable against the fretting hand. In some cases, he didn’t even press the frets completely into the fretboard. The refret was a disaster, but at least it could be recovered.
Unfortunately, this man performed other work on my guitar without my consent that rendered the guitar unplayable and irreparable. He carved out wood from the neck pocket with a chisel. For those of you who know what I am saying, I’ll give you a moment to contemplate the stupidity of that action. For the rest of you, I’ll explain.
On a Strat, the neck is attached to the body with four screws. While the screws are great at holding the neck in place, they aren’t enough to stabilize the neck so that it doesn’t shift side-to-side. To stop that lateral movement, the neck needs to be seated tightly inside the body so that the body surrounds the neck on three sides. This little area of the body is called the “neck pocket” and it should be a snug, perfectly sanded space for the neck to fit. This man, for no reason that I can imagine, used a chisel to chip away about 1/8″ worth of wood from the pocket. The remaining surface was rough and uneven. The neck was never stable again. It was never straight again. The pocket was ruined. The guitar was ruined and remained largely unplayed for years.
*I won’t mention his name or business in this article, but I’ll reveal his identity privately to anyone who is curious so that they can be warned of this man’s incompetency.
• • •
Pam walked by and dropped a Kit-Kat and a Reese’s Cup onto the kitchen table next to me as she had done three times before. We didn’t get as many trick-or-treaters as we had expect so we had a lot of leftover candy.
“Thanks.” I picked up the Reese’s Cup and slipped my finger into the folded wrapper and tore it open. I peeled away the waxy paper and popped the cup into my mouth. I picked up the pickguard, spun it around in my hands and admired a job well-done. The soldering was clean. The wires were neatly routed and zip-tied. Even the shielding looked good. I dropped the pickguard down into the neck-less guitar body. Perfect fit.
Pam stood next to me. “How’s it going?”
“I think I’m done. I checked all of the connections and everything works. I can’t wait until I can put the new neck on it and string it up. To see how it sounds and feels.”
“When can you do that?”
“After Don works his magic and finishes routing the new neck pocket.”
“Yeah, I know,” she chuckled. “I mean, when are you meeting Don?”
I chuckled too. “Oh, right. I’m meeting Don on Saturday afternoon at 1pm at his shop.”
“Do you think it will work?”
“After watching him do his thing last weekend, I’m totally confident that I’ll be leaving his shop with that neck attached to this body.” I pointed at the new Warmoth replacement neck laying across the kitchen table.
“I’m so happy for you. This project seems to be a welcome distraction.” She wrapped her arms around my waist, laid her head against my chest and gave me a nice squeeze. I kissed her on the forehead and returned the hug. She peeled away and returned to the living room. My eyes settled on the guitar body once again.
Distraction? I thought. No. Actually, quite the opposite. I’ve never thought about Grandpop more than I have in the last two hours.
I picked up the guitar and turned it over in my hands. My fingers dragged against the raw, unfinished wood. So plain, I thought. No grain. It would be a perfect canvas…
I was struck with an idea.
(Here’s a link to part 4.)