Guitar repair/mod – Festus the Mystery Guitar

guitar picture
Identities obscured to protect the ugly

One of my many annoying habits is sending emails to my musician friends about instruments I know they will:

a) love and not be able to afford.
b) completely hate.

I sent a link to a Craigslist ad for a guitar to a bunch of my friends. The guitar in the ad had started life as some kind of cheap Strat copy and been seriously messed with along the way. On top of everything else, someone had followed the time-honored tradition of writing a naughty word on the headstock with a marker.

Two days later, my friend John called me and asked if I was going to be around, because he wanted to drop something off. I said I would be. A few minutes later, he showed up with a terribly guilty look on his face, and from the back seat of his car, pulled the guitar from the ad.

“Dude! You bought the “F*ck*r!” My neighbors will never get used to me.
“I couldn’t help it. I had to go take a look!”
“Wow. OK.”
“I really like the neck though!”
“How much?”
“I got it for $25. I figured you know, in parts alone…”

We plugged it in. It had a couple of single-coils in the middle and neck, and some had stuffed a gold-colored humbucker in the bridge. That humbucker, in this guitar, sounded really good. Actually, it sounded disturbingly great.

Well, of course I would try to fix this thing up! How could I not? This is just good practice, and kind of fun, in a weirdo detective kind of way.

Over time, we’ve  beaten this thing into good enough shape that John actually plays out with it sometimes. I’m listing everything that’s been done to the guitar to this point in this write-up, and including some points that might be useful to anyone getting into basic electric guitar repair. Things that were changed after the original fix are listed as UPDATES.

 

Getting started

First, I cleaned off the body. Someone smoked a lot around this thing! Eww. Pretty much all the mess came off with vinegar and a cloth, which means that it probably wouldn’t have been there at all if someone had just run a cloth over the guitar from time to time. Or once a week. Or once in a while.

I took the strings off and then cleaned off the fretboard with orange oil and a cloth. It wasn’t really that nasty.1

There was an interesting collection of screws holding the pickguard on. I think two of them even match. I’m always amazed at how often people manage to lose screws and bolts and things while taking them off and putting them on.2

I got the pickguard off, and got a HUGE whiff of smoke. And I thought. They smelled bad. On the outside.

It became pretty obvious that this was not the original pickguard for this guitar, because there were a lot of holes in the body from whatever other pickguard used to be there.

At this point, I started referring to whoever worked on the guitar before as “Festus.”

 

Pickguard picture
The spiders had been given certain chemicals…

The electronics

I THINK that Festus took the original bridge pickup (or some other one) and put it in the neck position. The original leads on that pickup are about 2″ long, so he added a couple pieces of wire to it, using the worst soldering job in human history.3

The middle pickup might have been original. The magnet underneath it has some rust. Having seen the rest of the wiring, I had a theory on how that happened, but there was no discernible scent of urine, so that theory is probably incorrect.

The bridge pickup is a retrofit, obviously. It’s an Epiphone humbucker that was cut out of another guitar by a meatneck, so its pickup leads are about 1″ long. I wish people wouldn’t do this. Anyway, Festus connected it to some other wire, and it looked like he learned something from the neck pickup, because it was only the second-worst soldering job in human history.

There are a lot of ways to wire up a guitar. I’ve fixed some guitars on which it became obvious that the guitar was wired up one way, and then someone tried to add something based on a different wiring scheme. I may have even done that myself. Only once though. Really.

Sometimes it’s fun–or even educational–to try to figure out what wiring scheme was being used, and where it went wrong, and sometimes that’s like running a cheese grater over your brain.

In this case, all the pickup leads went into what appeared to be the last desperate act of a madman on fire.

My best guess is that the guy just kept connecting and disconnecting wires randomly until he got some output, and then soldered things where they were. There were a couple of wires that just came off the pots and don’t connect to anything, random grounding and stuff on wrong legs of pots. The end result was that the volume and tone knobs didn’t do anything, and only two positions on the five-way switch actually made any sound.

But despite the randomness, all the leftover wires were very neatly gathered up and bundled with a zip tie. It didn’t work, but it looked good. Just like me.

 

Physical stuff

The action on the guitar was high, but not too bad. The frets had very little wear, though they felt very soft.  The neck had just about the amount of relief in it I like, and no twists.  The nut was awful.

When I took off the strings, the bridge went right back flat against the body and sat level. That meant I should be able to make it just stay there when I set the guitar up later. As long as you don’t want to use the trem (YOU DON’T ON THIS GUITAR), that makes life easy.

 

Fixes Part 1 — Pickups

Because John is cheap and lazy (he LOVES when I say that), I was just going to get this thing going with the same pickups that were in it.

I re-did the solder joins on the pickup leads and taped them off, so that they wouldn’t ground off on something when I put the thing back together. After the guitar was back together and hooked up, that Epiphone pickup sounded ridiculously good, particularly in combination with the middle pickup. And the other two pickups sounded just awful.

UPDATE: I found a crazy deal on some Fender Vintage Noiseless pickups. I really like those things. I put them in the middle and bridge, and now the guitar sounds great in every position. It’s kind of annoying how good it sounds.

 

Fixes Part 2 –Electronics

I knew I was going to take the electronics right down and re-do them, partly because it’s good practice, partly because all the existing parts were cheap and nasty, and partly because trying to figure out what Festus was trying to do–or what he ended up doing–would be flirting with madness.

He’d used 500K pots on a guitar that’s mostly cheap single coils and high-end squealiness. That’s not the best idea. If there was any thinking behind this, it was probably that 500K pots are usually used with humbuckers, and he had put the humbucker in the bridge. Regardless, it was a bad fit. I had some pots that I had metered, and came out in the high 200 to 300K range, so I used those. There is space here to mention whatever famous guitar hero you want who uses 300K pots. Go ahead, the rest of us will wait.

Got that out of your system? Awesome.

I wired it up in a pretty standard Strat configuration (volume, two tones, five-way switch) with the new pots and new wire.

UPDATE: Even with the new electronics, this thing was really noisy. That probably had a lot to do with the original pickups.

Also, John has some freaky X-men static buildup ability. I am not making this up. The second finger on his picking hand hits the guitar quite often, just below the middle pickup. Every once in a while, there is an audible “pop” when it does. I’ve seen this happen with him on a bunch of different guitars, which have been worked on by different people. It’s weird as hell. John bought some aluminum tape and stuck a piece on the guitar where his finger hits. That worked really well at making the end of his finger turn black.

I ended up lining the cavity and the underside of the pickguard with aluminum tape, connected to the ground, and the problem went away. It stayed away after we put in the Fender Noiseless pickups as well.

 

Fixes Part 3 – Setup and whatnot

There were three springs in the back of the trem. I just screwed the claw in as far as it would go, and that was enough to hold the bridge flush to the body. You can whack the low E, bend whatever strings you want, and not hear any movement.

The frets on this guitar were in OK shape for the kind of action John likes. I don’t think they will last very long, though. The nut is pretty awful: No real radius to the cuts, and very high. John plays a lot of acoustic, and he’s fine with higher action and more neck relief than I am, so his preferences worked nicely within the limited options this thing has for action. I just set it up as low as I thought I could and set the intonation. I think John has moved the action back up a bit.

It sounds great, plays in tune and he loves playing it. That means it’s set up right, as far as I’m concerned.

Aesthetically, it’s the kind of mutt I just love. Crappy-looking cheap pickguard with a chunk of aluminum tape on it, two different colors of pickups, mismatched screws, ugly, ugly wood on the neck. A player.

John couldn’t live with “F*ck*r” written on the headstock, so he took that off with some alcohol. You can see the faint outline of the original “Behringer” label.  And now he calls the guitar “Festus”

Potay-to potah-to

 


1) Musicians are generally disgusting. Clean things before you work on them. Better yet, tell people to clean them before they bring them to you, and THEN clean them. It took one experience of picking up a stringless neck in a basement and not being able to get the smell off my hands for a couple of days to get me into this habit. Learn from my disgusting mistake!

I always start with the weakest possible cleaners and work up. You usually want something astringent, because most guitar grossness is either oily or sticky. Just plain white vinegar works on pretty much any guitar finish, and rubbing alcohol is USUALLY (test it!) OK as well. I use citrus-oil-based cleaners on open-grain or unfinished stuff, but again, test first. I use old cloths that I don’t mind throwing out or recycling. Have lots of these. Paper towels are a bad choice for cleaning guitars.

2) If you’re going to work on ANYTHING with small bits like screws, wires, nipples, or electronic parts, make sure you have a bunch of containers for things.4 “Containers” are things with a bottom, sides and a top. You can put things in a container and pick them all up at once.  You can use empty pill vials, or little bowls, or little boxes or envelopes or whatever

An Altoids tin in an example of a container. An area on a table that you are pretty sure you will remember is not a container.

As you remove each piece, put it in a container, and then label the container. Label everything no matter what.

3)If you do not know how to solder, you should learn. And if you learn, you should learn to do it well. Seriously, this is a cheap and easy skill. It’s like knowing how to change a tire or stop a tap from dripping: You don’t HAVE to do it yourself, but it will probably save you inconvenience and maybe money, and you will know if whoever you pay to do it does a good job.

4)I freely admit that the use of the word “nipples” was gratuitous.

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