Category Archives: Guitars

Hail Suzuki of Nagoya

Suzuki AD312S

Suzuki AD312S

Found at a thrift store for $40, with bridge almost detached. It also had cracks at the tailpiece, but nothing serious. Everything else about this guitar looked OK, so I brought it home to repair and maybe sell. Little did I know how great it would sound and play. First I patched up the cracks at the tail end. I didn’t bother to worry about how it looked, as I consider wear and tear on an old guitar part of its charm. I then pried off the bridge with a hot knife. It was obviously way too thin, for reasons that escape me, so I sanded it flat and glued on a 3mm thick scrap of walnut. The bridge is rosewood but I didn’t have any rosewood scraps about. I sanded the perimeter and stained the new wood black to match the stained rosewood. After prepping the top by a little sanding to smooth it out, I reattached the bridge with clamps and cauls. That brought the bone saddle a bit too high, so I had to bring it down a millimeter or so. Looking inside I found that the bridge plate was a piece of softwood, which was getting chewed up by the string nuts, so I glued in another small walnut plate to strengthen that. Some guitarists have removed heavy bridge plates, but what I added was not even an ounce of wood, so I had no qualms about potentially muffling the tone here. Six new 25c bridge pins and a set of extra light Gibson phosphor bronze strings completed the repairs. I prefer using light gauge strings, if only because I’m quite used to how they feel. This guitar most certainly didn’t need heavy strings for it to deliver the goods.

label

label – Suzuki Nagoya

I didn’t know anything about these guitars before but I’m wise now. This one is quite excellent. It has a fine top of solid spruce, and the bracing is pretty much standard post-war Martin Dreadnought. The body is all laminates but that is not a problem here – this thing has killer vibes! The post-war Martins had their braces moved back an inch to make the tops less prone to warping, as well as having straight braces, as opposed to the earlier scalloped design. There are heated arguments on both sides as to which design is best. Taking advantage of this, Martin now makes some models with “forward shifted scalloped bracing”. This is basically their old design made new again. But every design change to a musical instrument has consequences. The new old design being lighter braced, and forward-shifted means the sound is bigger and has even more overtones. Some players like this sound, and are convinced it’s better. Others say it tends to muddiness. All those overtones cannot be had without a concurrent change in the whole dynamic, which means you lose clarity of the fundamental note. I love the clarity of this guitar, which I would attribute somewhat to the “tighter” bracing of the old=new post-war backward-shifted non-scalloped design. Whew! One difference I observed in the bracing vis-a-vis the Martin standard, is that the main x-braces appear thicker but lower. So Suzuki copied Martin, but not quite exactly.

new old bridge

new old bridge

I was contemplating selling this guitar at first, but after playing it I decided to keep it – it’s just too good an instrument to part with, and for what the market would value this at, not enough money to turn around and buy anything nearly as good. Considering it dates from 1977 as far as I can gather, it hasn’t much wear on the frets – they’re almost unworn. This guitar has the power and bass of a good dreadnought, but quite a distinct clarity when picked. Now I will be on the lookout for more old Suzuki guitars. Suzuki Nagoya no longer make guitars but they still exist and make violins, as they have done since 1887 according to their label.

headstock logo with Suzuki Three S label

headstock logo with Suzuki Three S label

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Mystery Guitar

2-DSCN2861Last weekend I found this old Japanese electric guitar in the back corner of a thrift shop. It had no strings, one tuner gear and post was missing, and it looked rough – but I took a chance and bought it. I figured the cost would provide me the enjoyment/education of either fixing it or discovering it was irreparable. At the worst it was worth it just for the possibility of the spare parts!

mystery guitar

mystery guitar

When I got it home I plugged it in. Static. I proceeded to disassemble it. The entire face plate comes off with all the electrics mounted to it. The jack was loose and the cable flopped around in the throat, causing intermittent signal. After replacing the cable plug with a new one, and cleaning up the switches it responded with a signal. All three pickups tested for continuity, so that seemed in order. Down to the guitar shop for strings next. With strings on the action was way too high, even with the bridge bottomed out. Neck off, the retaining screws had lost their bite in the wood. Holes filled and re-drilled, a 0.76mm plastic shim was inserted to tilt the neck just slightly backwards, dropping the string height. Action OK, next I discovered the nut was all wrong, with string spacing uneven and again too high. Fortunately the nut had so much extra meat on it I was able to file the grooves out and re-cut it.

coil spring whammy

coil spring whammy

The tremolo needed work, of course. Under the plate is a coil spring, like a car suspension. Things were bent and rubbing but with a bit of filing and bending it too came together. The wheels to adjust the bridge height were gone, but I salvaged a pair from my parts box. Luckily they had the same thread. The bridge had no compensating angle however, but the face plate holes were oblong, which allowed me to move the treble end a bit closer to shorten the high strings.

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individual rocker switches for each pickup

More work included scraping crud from the fingerboard with a razor blade, gluing various loose plastic neck trim bits, and scrubbing up the aluminum face plate. I fixed the missing tuner post with a salvaged post and gear, which was not perfect but seemed to work well enough.

rosewood bound fingerboard, with tiny narrow frets

rosewood bound fingerboard, with tiny narrow frets

After one more check-over all was ready for the big test. Amplified it sounds surprisingly good! Despite the fact that the pickups are single coils they are very quiet. With three pickups and one master tone control the sound possibilities have a great deal of range, from high and clear to deep and crunchy. The scale length is 680mm (26.77″), which means the neck is very long indeed and while it’s not hard to play chords, it is quite a stretch out to first position! The neck is a honker however, almost like a bass. The whammy bar is effective – it gives just a little trem and returns back to tune.

For more on this, plus a cool video, check out the four pickup version here: Adventures in Baritone – 1965 Kingston FVN4 Japanese Electric Guitar | Drowning in Guitars!

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Guitar Surgery

My latest rebuild came back for a tune up. The soundboard, which was very thin to start, got thin enough at the tail end that it began to bulge under string tension.

soundboard very thin here

soundboard very thin here

The first problem was figuring out what to do about it. My first reaction was to consider placing a longitudinal strut between the tail block and the rearward main brace. However, I rejected this because the soundboard had some soft spots, and I didn’t want them to stay that way, fearing future dings might just break the top. So I settled on adding a plate across the tail end that would stiffen the weak zone entirely.

the stiffener

the stiffener

Most of the work was fitting the plate and bracing it. I did a number of dry runs until I was sure it would go in smoothly and could be maneuvered into position. To this end I fashioned some tools to place the plate and brace it.

plate with insertion tool taped in place

plate with insertion tool taped in place

insertion tool flips down to brace the plate

insertion tool flips down to brace the plate

Two similar braces were made to prop the wings. Once I got the piece inside I also clamped it lightly from outside to ensure good contact. Because the inside of the soundboard had been shellacked it wasn’t possible to use wood glue, so I had to resort to epoxy. I used quick set clear epoxy, which gave me a few minutes working time, and is also very flexible.

inserting the plate through the soundhole

inserting the plate through the soundhole

I inspected the innards in the dark in order to make the new plate. The top is so thin that a weak light will shine right through it in the dark.

the inner light

the inner light

After a day I strung it up and everything held well. The tone may even be better, a little crisper! There was no unwanted uplift, just the gentle arch as it was supposed to be.

the tail end with proper top curve

the tail end with proper top curve

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Dead Guitar Lives Again

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body with old thick finish removed

The repairs are complete, and the guitar went back home today. To my delight, it sounded better than I expected. I was amazed at how thick the old finish on the top was. I scraped it off with a plastic scraper after liberal applications of paint remover. In my opinion no guitar should have had this much lacquer on the top. I refinished it with french polish shellac, which is much much thinner, and if not subject to untoward abuse, superior to lacquer. We installed the pickup today and it had a very even and natural acoustic sound through my Roland Cube Monitor, which is a clean amp. Since the guitar had a bolt on neck, and the fingerboard extension fit tight to the soundboard, I didn’t use any glue in the final assembly. This means the guitar can be quickly disassembled and put into a carry on suitcase for air travel. My friend intends to modify a carry on bag for this. I’ll be interested to see how this works. Every musician who owns a fine instrument must sweat when they have to hand it over to the airline baggage handling department, wondering if it will arrive undamaged. Carrying it on board and stowing it overhead should be a lot less risky and stressful, in theory.

guitar with soundhole pickup installed

guitar with soundhole pickup installed

Restoring something of value and beauty is intense work but ultimately very satisfying when it works out well.

Reuben and the new axe

Reuben and the new axe

The old bridge was used after I filled the string grooves to gain a bit more height, but my friend is going to order a new bridge for it, complete with the ‘mustaches’. The original bridge did not have the correct amount of compensation (3.5mm) so it now sits crooked on the guitar. When the new bridge arrives then mustaches can be glued on to complete the correct look. Every gypsy has a mustache, no?

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Resurrecting a Dead Guitar

soundboard with braces removed

soundboard with braces removed

I’ve been rebuilding a guitar this past week.  It sounded very dull and the owner wanted me to fix it. I removed the neck, then the top, and discovered the problem: the top had little or no arching. Since this is a Selmer style guitar, it is supposed to be arched to the tune of around 10mm across the lower bout. This one was dead flat with the strings on. When I removed the braces it was clear they had only a tiny arch in them.

original brace after removal

original brace after removal

Below, for comparison, an arched piece of wood with the correct amount of curvature.

Selmer style main brace is curved like this

Selmer style main brace is curved like this

I made all new braces and reduced some in height to make the top lighter and more flexible.

top with new bracing

top with new bracing and binding around the edges

Then I added 4 ply purfling and an outer binding of ebony. This way I could glue the complete top back onto the body without having to worry about all the bindings and how to make them fit. All that was required was to get the ribs to line up with the outside edge of the new top. Easier said than done, since the geometry had changed. However, it worked well enough.

gluing the newly repaired top back on

gluing the newly repaired top back on

While I had the neck off I reshaped it and changed the frets. I also had to adjust the neck angle and the neck joint itself, since it now has a tilt it didn’t have before.

testing the angle of the upper face brace

testing the angle of the upper face brace

Now the top is on and the neck has been refretted, refitted, recarved and refinished. The next step is to refinish the top and then on to final assembly. However, I did assemble and play it already. Happy to report it now sounds more like a Selmer .

neck done, body in process for a refinished top

neck done, body in process for a refinished top

I shellacked the inside of the box while it was open, as well as the underside of the top, since Selmers were made that way. It may add a little something to the reverberation. Any additional sound that can be squeezed out of this guitar will be welcomed.

shellacked box

shellacked box

 

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Guitar #30/5

unfinished guitar body and neck

unfinished guitar body and neck

Above you have the carved neck, with dovetail joint, stained ready for finishing. I won’t go into the carving process – suffice to say that it involves removing just right wood. It also should be symmetrical, of course. At the speed I carve it took most of a day to go from a flat blank to what you see. Before that I cut the neck joints, then glued the completed fingerboard to the neck blank. Not quite a miracle but it feels close – the neck joint was an almost perfect fit after cutting. Trial and error – many errors, too. But this time lucky! I stained the neck with ‘dark walnut’ so it would be closer in colour to the body. Then I decided to remove some of the stain in the mid section, leaving the ends dark. This looks good, a bit like a violin.

heel of neck with french polish

heel of neck with french polish

head with french polish

head with french polish

Once again I used shellac to finish the guitar. After many years of practice I’ve got it down fairly well. Basically it just gets rubbed onto the guitar with a pad soaked in shellac, with extra dabs of pure alcohol and a few drops of light oil. Add shellac, alcohol, oil by dribbling onto pad – then rub. There is a technique and lots of instruction on the web. Best tip: use clear sealer shellac, unwaxed.

top showing reflection

top showing reflection

I don’t like filling pores, it’s messy and hardly seems worth the effort. Some pros can fill the pores using fine pumice but I never got far with that. Once I have a decent amount of finish built up I call it a day. French polish is very thin but it doesn’t have to be thick to protect the guitar. More can always be added at any time, too.

a nice tight neck joint

a nice tight neck joint

It didn’t require much work to fit the neck, several thin shims to fill up the oversized cavity, and one strip of blue shop cloth soaked in white glue. I pressed the neck into the body cavity and with a little pressure from a quick clamp it set in snug and tight. To ensure it was drawn down tight to the body however I put a screw into it from inside the guitar. This works better than a clamp and can be removed easily.

clamping the fingerboard  - the screw in the neck block pulls the neck tight to the body

clamping the fingerboard – the screw in the neck block pulls the neck tight to the body

I let this dry overnight. Then I put it all together, which took me most of the day. I previously made the nut from unbleached bone, and cut the slots with string gauged files.

bone nut, string gauge ruler, and string files

bone nut, string gauge ruler, and string files

I reused an old tailpiece made of thick brass plate. I polished it up first with Nevr Dull, a product I remember my Dad had around for ever in the basement. Works great on dull old brass.

brass tailpiece all shined up

brass tailpiece all shined up

Next came the bridge. I was a bit surprised to find that the bridge is taller than expected. Not much, but these things happen, as I have said before. I made a bridge blank then used a pencil on a stick to mark the line for the top of the bridge.

bridge height marking tool

bridge height marking tool

Then I installed the tuners, the nut, the tailpiece and strings. More fiddling with the bridge, including finishing it, and making shallow slots for the strings. This is an iterative process in which the bridge goes on and off numerous times, involving much laborious turning of the tuning heads, and often broken strings. But this time none broke. However I did find numerous buzzes, which required replacement of several frets. There are still some very minor buzzes but for now I will wait and see how it settles down before attempting more adjustments. I used the adjustable truss rod to flatten the neck a tiny bit.

the finished guitar #30

the finished guitar #30

Conclusion: it’s very loud, like the previous one. I strung it with D’Addario EJ83M strings, which they now call ‘Silverplated Wound’. They used to call them ‘Gypsy Jazz’, which was a dumb idea, implying that they were no good for anything else. They’re soft and warm toned, and excellent for any sort of musical style. But these are the heavier gauge, and I find them too stiff for my likes. I’ll probably go back to the same string in the lighter gauge: EJ83L, which I’ve been playing for years on most of my guitars.

I hope you enjoyed this repeat guitar build for the second time in a row. I thought it would be interesting to do it again, if only to compare with the first model “O” process. If anyone is inspired to try building a guitar then I will be very pleased. But remember that it’s probably a bit harder than it looks here.

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Guitar #30/4

ribs and linings with glue - ready for the top

ribs and linings with glue – ready for the top

When last we blogged the guitar box was half assembled. I put the back plate on first this time, trying to save a little work by installing the linings at one go. It should have been fine but there was a hitch – the ribs weren’t quite as straight as they should have been, even though they were clamped in place in the mold. Sometimes you have to check things at least three times. This time I only checked twice. So the ribs are a little crooked. When this happens I resist the urge to smash the whole thing and start over. I figure that in time I’ll forget about the mistake and enjoy the guitar despite the imperfections. Then again there are always imperfections – they just vary in degree!

So I glued on the top, and then trimmed the overhangs top and back.

top plate with rubber band clamp

top plate with rubber band clamp

trimming the overhang with the router

trimming the overhang with the router

Next step is to put on the bindings. I taped four pieces together and bent them all at once on the bending iron. Then I clamped them into one side of the mold to dry. I cut the channels in the meantime. The jig was already set for these bindings but after cutting the channels weren’t quite deep enough, and the bindings would have been standing much too proud of the edges, so I adjusted the depth and cut again. Then I began fitting bindings into the channels. Even though the bindings were all shaped to the mold they still required minor adjustments on the bending iron – numerous minor adjustments. So I did these one at a time, gluing on each one and taping it into place before the next one was begun.

bindings after drying in mold

bindings after drying in mold

guitar with bindings glued on and taped tightly

guitar with bindings glued on and taped tightly

After the bindings were dry I removed the tape and began rough sanding the body. Because I’ve had some real problems doing this with power tools I elected to do it this time by hand. That way there’s very little possibility of gouging or finding that you’ve suddenly removed a lot more wood than you should have. I clamped the body using a foam camping mat in the workmate, and spent an hour or two sanding away with 100 grit and various sanding blocks. One very useful tool for this is a 2×4 about a foot long with a piece of heavy sandpaper on one side and a big handle on the back, like a large trowel. I also use some dowels to get into the waist area. I sanded the back too, and the top lightly. It’s surprising how smooth you can get hardwood using only 100 grit sandpaper.

After that I turned back my attention to the neck blank. It’s made up of 3 – 19mm wide pieces, and finished at about 57 mm wide. The headstock has to be wider than that, so I had to add two “ears” to it. Then later I cut it to shape, using a template I made long ago. I’m using the Selmer shape, and the headstock will have slots. I like the look of this, and I prefer the orientation of the tuners this way. They are a lot easier to manipulate on a slotted headstock than on a flat one, because all the shafts and buttons are horizontal. Very ergonomic.

gluing ears on the headstock

gluing ears on the headstock

drilling tuner holes in headstock

drilling tuner holes in headstock

As I mentioned above, I glued the ears to the headstock, then sanded it to thickness and cut out the shape. Next came drilling the various holes and slots. First I drilled holes for the tuners. The best and most reliable method I’ve found is to tack a steel plate from an old 3 on a plate tuner assembly to the side of the head. Then I clamp the headstock and neck to a vertical piece of plywood that is attached to another plywood piece that can be moved around on the drill press table. After drilling the tuner holes I then bored out four 1/2″ holes on the face, and cut out the slots roughly with a power jig saw. Lots of filing and sanding later the headstock is done.

headstock with tuner holes and slots - cut and sanded

headstock with tuner holes and slots – cut and sanded

Next up – the neck angle. Once the body has been all made and sanded the neck angle can be determined. Where the fingerboard sits on the top the surface is usually humped. So it has to be sanded flat. Then the angle is taken with an adjustable square. At this point it doesn’t matter what that angle is, because it’s too late to change it. With luck it should work and allow the correct projection for a bridge height around 15mm. A bit higher or lower is not a serious problem. So I take the angle and then transfer the complementary angle to the neck. If the body angle is 92 degrees, then the neck angle is 88, or 180 minus 92. The adjustable square does the thinking however, no need to do any calculating here. The angle is drawn on the side of the neck at the heel, at the 14th fret – where the neck meets the body, and 15mm beyond – the depth of the dovetail that will be cut.

taking the neck angle off the body

taking the neck angle off the body

complementary neck angle transferred to the neck

complementary neck angle transferred to the neck

The above photo shows the neck with the pencil lines, after I have cut and sanded the end face. Now it’s ready for the dovetail joint to be cut.

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