Friday, November 21, 2014

Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 5 | The Big Rewire

In this fifth and final installment of Refinishing My Les Paul BFG, I decided to let my good buddy Arnold San Juan put his remarkable skill with a soldering gun to good use and do a complete rewiring of my guitar.
rewiring les paul bfg
Arnold San Juan

A sound recordist and mixer in the film industry -- twiddling knobs and faders of various persuasions -- Arnold is also remarkably adept at guitar electronics and building effects pedals. And his skill with a soldering iron has left many local electronics gurus slack-jawed in awe, he'll be the first to admit.

Jokes aside, this guy really is one of the best.

The Les Paul BFG comes with one of the strangest electronics configurations of any Les Paul model. With a P90 in the neck and a Burstbucker 3 in the bridge, both pickups have separate volume controls but a shared tone control. In place of where the neck pickup tone control would be, Gibson elected to situate the 3-way pickup selector switch.

And this is the main reason why I so wanted my Les Paul BFG rewired. Where the selector switch would normally be on a conventional Les Paul, Gibson, in all their unfathomable wisdom, chose to add an on-off 'killswitch'. Flipping the killswitch on and off rapidly creates an auditory version of a flashing strobelight, pulsing in rhythm to the music. Or out of rhythm, depending on who's playing.

I found the killswitch to be about as useful as a piece of gum stuck under my shoe.

During the first couple of gigs with the Les Paul BFG, I found myself instinctively flipping the killswitch when I really intended to change pickup positions. The first time it happened, the guitar went dead silent and I actually panicked for a microsecond before I flipped the killswitch back to the 'on' position.

I'd made up my mind. Someday I was going to rewire this thing to regular -- some might say boring -- old Les Paul specs.

My other good buddy Sherman (who regular readers will remember as a recurring figure on The Guitar Column) suggested that I get a new set of CTS 500k audio taper potentiometers -- 'long shaft' he emphasized, with a wink and a nudge -- and a pair of Russian .022 mf paper-in-oil capacitors.
cts pots and paper-in-oil capacitors
CTS pots, Russian PIO caps and selector switch ring

It was all pretty much Greek to me, but shopping for parts I went. But I did know to also get the cool, cream plastic ring that said 'Rhythm' and 'Treble' on it for the selector switch.

And a custom-made pickguard by MojoAxe.

Sherman turned me on to MojoAxe, mentioning that they produced the most material-accurate plastic parts that even vintage Les Paul owners would turn to when they needed to get a spare pickguard or control cavity cover. MojoAxe also makes a well-intonated wrap-around replacement tailpiece for old and reissue Les Pauls.

And since the Les Paul BFG had a P90 soapbar in the neck and a humbucker in the bridge, MojoAxe would also be able to cut a custom pickguard for me.

Dealing with Dan at MojoAxe was an absolute pleasure. He asked for the measurement between the neck and bridge pickup and had the pickguard cut and mailed out the following day along with an aged nickel mounting bracket and screws. He even sent me the picture you see here before mailing it out.
mojoaxe les paul pickguard
Custom pickguard by MojoAxe

But back to the wiring. And a couple of potential problems.

The first thing we noticed when Arnold removed the original Gibson potentiometers and the 3-way selector switch was how much larger the hole drilled for the switch was. Remember that on the Les Paul BFG, the selector switch is located where the tone pot for the neck would normally be on a regular Les Paul.

I was a little worried because the tone control for the neck pickup was going to be re-situated there and that the hole would be too large to hold the pot in place. Fortunately, the metal washer that held the nut for the tone pot was wide enough to cover the hole entirely.
les paul bfg
Note larger hole where the pickup selector used to be

The second thing we noticed was the unusually long pickup selector switch used on the BFG. Unlike the usual Switchcraft switch used by Gibson, this switch was a good 1/2" or so longer. Again I was worried that the switch would be too long for the cavity where the killswitch originally was.

Fortunately again, the plastic selector switch cavity cover fit over nicely, but in full contact with the square base of the switch. No problems there.

And did I mention that the Les Paul BFGs come with these cool clear acrylic covers for both the pickup selector and main control cavity?

The original killswitch came mounted on a nice, sturdy countersunk metal barrel that held the switch very solidly in place. After all, if one was to go ape with the killswitch all the way through a show, it had better be solid.

This metal barrel also fit the 3-way selector beautifully, but because of its slightly larger diameter, Arnold had to file and enlarge the hole of the plastic Rhythm-Treble selector switch ring. The cream plastic ring is purely cosmetic, I know, but I felt that the guitar would look incomplete without it.

On the advice of Sherman, I picked up a pair of .022mf Russian-made NOS (new-old-stock) paper-in-oil capacitors. Military-grade, and indeed, designed for military use, these caps are all the buzz on
paper-in-oil capacitors
Russian-made Paper-In-Oil .022 capacitors
Les Paul forums for their sweet tonal properties. They weren't that cheap but a definite improvement nonetheless, on the matte-orange .022 ceramic caps that came with the guitar. And as you can see in the pic, Arnold very thoughtfully applied rubber heat-shrink insulation to each leg of both capacitors.

If you're interested in these Russian vintage capacitors, the part number and description for them is K40Y-9 PIO (paper-in-oil).  They come with a dark silver body and have just a +/-10% tolerance variance.

Arnold then asked me if I wanted my guitar wired in the 'modern' style or with traditional  50's wiring. These things always give me a case of option anxiety.

Consulting the Oracle Of All Things Gibson (the entity also known as our good buddy Sherman), he recommended going with the 50's wiring for more twang and clarity -- muddy-sounding Les Pauls, he said, usually came with the so-called 'modern' wiring. And with the P90 in the neck position, traditional 50's wiring would bring out the bright single-coil qualities of that pickup even more.

It's nice to have friends who know stuff!
les paul 50s wiring
Les Paul traditional 50's wiring. Very neat work!

Arnold proffered a practical solution to my conundrum and said that he would wire the guitar with 'modern' wiring, and then switch to 50's wiring to compare. Apparently, it was just a matter of moving one of the legs of the capacitors to a different lug on the potentiometer.

'Night and day' is probably the best way I could describe the difference between the two wiring schemes. The modern wiring sounded like how you would expect a Les Paul to sound -- fat and creamy, with the notes in a chord just melding together. If you were playing heavy-rock or metal, the modern wiring would probably be more suitable.

The traditional 50's wiring brought out a lot more clarity and and brightness. You could hear each of the notes in a chord, even through a distortion pedal. Single notes popped more, and had more definition with richer overtones. You could hear the string as you played.
Finishing touches

Another thing I noticed was that the volume and tone pots seemed more responsive. Playing through a Chandler Tube Driver with the gain up three-quarters (which is a ton of gain), I immediately noticed that rolling back the volume controls on the guitar to 3 or 4 cleaned up the sound considerably.  Also, rolling the tone controls back, even to zero, didn't make the sound muddy or woofy. And the combination of using the neck P90 pickup and rolling the tone control back to 4 or 5 put me squarely in Grant Green-Wes Montgomery territory.

I was convinced -- 50's wiring it is then.

Great job, Arnold.

Coda

So, after about a month and a half of working on my Les Paul BFG project, we have reached the point where the guitar is probably more traditional Les Paul than BFG!

The guitar is light, probably from having all that wood shaved off the top, resonant, and a joy to play.
les paul bfg
Done... finally!

No surprise that it has taken on a different personality from its previous incarnation. And it is loud acoustically. A lot louder than it was before.

Sherman probably said it best, "I don't remember your guitar sounding this good."

Pretty cool, coming from someone who used to sing in a club band every Monday and Thursday night for years with me playing this very same guitar!

And if you haven't already, be sure to read Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 and my Interview with luthier Luca Quacquarella.

gibson les paul flametopAlso, be sure to visit mojoaxe.com for the best in Les Paul parts.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 4 | The Final Reveal!

gibson les paul bfg trans gold
A last look at the gold top
This installment of Refinishing My Les Paul BFG will finally reveal the completely resprayed guitar top in vermillion nitrocellulose lacquer!

According to Luca Quaquarella, the luthier who did the refinishing job -- and who was also featured in his very own interview in my last post -- the most difficult part of this project was sanding the top of the BFG completely smooth.

He sanded the top entirely by hand and had to ensure that the curvature of the arched maple top stayed true to Les Paul specs. His biggest concern was making sure that there were no flat spots that would ruin the curvature and symmetry of the arch.

In his own words, he sanded off "a hell of a lot of wood!"

After he mixed the right proportions of red and orange nitrocellulose, Luca applied many coats to the top, wet sanding between each coat. Bear in mind that only pure nitrocellulose lacquer was used.

Gibson now uses a nitrocellulose that has a good amount of plasticizer mixed in to give an impeccably shiny surface. Pure nitrocellulose will 'sink' into the pores and surface imperfections, so no matter how many coats you use, the same type of mirror-like nitro-mixed-with-plasticizer shine can never be fully achieved.
gibson les paul bfg refinished
Applying the first few coats of nitro

I wanted to keep the back of the BFG in its semi-raw state. I felt that sanding it smooth and filling in the pores of the mahogany back would affect the sound of the instrument too much and suck some of the liveliness out of it. If you read my Larry Corsa article from a while back, he talks about the very same thing, and I'm totally with him on this.

And after all, it is a beautiful one piece mahogany back that is simply gorgeous to touch!

I also didn't want the neck refinished for the same reason but I did ask Luca to roll the edges along the entire length of the fingerboard on both the treble and bass sides. Rolling the fingerboard dulls that sharp 90 degree angle of the edge of the fingerboard so that it feels slightly rounded to the touch.

Again, true to the spirit of the Barely Finished Guitar concept, Gibson had left out this very important step.

As far as guitars, I can get used to almost anything. Set me up with minimal fingerboard relief, get the string height medium-low and the intonation in the ballpark, and the guitar is pretty much ready
gibson les paul bfg refinished
to go as far as I'm concerned.

And if the frets don't draw blood, it's a bonus.

Playing the BFG consistently for a long time made me forget how rough the edge of the fingerboard actually is. But when I play one of my other better made Gibsons, and then come back to the BFG, this is when I start noticing how the edge of the fingerboard feels like a piece of firewood.

"The Gibson Firewood. A Few Steps Beyond Aged-Relic. It's Firewood!"  

Perhaps not the best marketing campaign for a new Les Paul model.

gibson les paul bfg refinished
Gotta love that flame top!
Luca also thoroughly cleaned and oiled the fingerboard and the back of the neck removing a lot of built-up crud from the fingerboard. He also took a razor blade to that hard-to-clean-spot right next to each fret.

And according to Luca, there was a lot of crud!

During my younger days, I would take all the strings off my guitar every six or seven months, and give the fingerboard a good scrub with a stiff toothbrush and lemon oil to remove every bit of crud. Those days are over. Life is just too short.

Stay tuned to Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 5 where we will get a cool custom pickguard by MojoAxe installed, as well as a complete rewiring done to do away with that dang killswitch!
les paul bfg refinished

And if you haven't already read the earlier installments, catch up on Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Luthier Spotlight | Luca Quacquarella

Born in Milano, Italy, 36-year old luthier Luca Quacquarella is a man on a mission -- to spread the gospel of fine guitar repair.

And if there's anyone that could raise a guitar from the dead, it's this guy.

Classically trained in violin, cello and doublebass luthiery and repair, Luca arrived in Singapore in 2011 while on a holiday and sightseeing trip. Curious about the local guitar repair shops here, he paid a random visit to one and struck up a conversation with the owner.

And the rest, as they say, is history.
guitar luthier
Luthier Luca Quacquarella

If you have been following my posts on Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Parts 1, 2, and 3, it gives me great pleasure to present this interview with the man behind that project.

The Guitar Column:  Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview with us, Luca.

Luca Quacquarella:  Thanks for the opportunity to work on your guitar, to spray and to do it in a cool color.

TGC:  At which point in your life did you discover that you had a passion for luthiery? Tell us about your luthiery apprenticeship in Italy.

LQ:  After I finished my studies in university -- I studied sociology, mass media and public relations -- I realized that it was not for me. At the same time I was studying, I started to play bass and drums.

It was just a coincidence, but one day while I was on the internet, I found this luthiery school in Milano, which was a four-year course. For the first two years they taught you how to build parts of the guitar, then over the next two years you learned how to build and put together all the parts.

It was not too expensive, in fact it was quite cheap, but it was far from my hometown so I needed to find a job to support myself.

But the school was fulltime -- you had to bring home pieces of a project and keep working on it -- so I couldn't work to make money to survive, so I had to give up. I was a bit depressed. Because, now what?

Luckily I found, not far from my hometown, a German luthier, Felix Habel. This guy graduated from a school in Cremona..

TGC:  Cremona is where those Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins came from.

LQ:  Yes. This is one of the most famous luthiery schools in the world. But to join this school, you have to speak Italian, but there are students from all around the world -- Chinese, Japanese. It is a secondary school -- you had to study all the normal subjects on top of luthiery.

I approached this guy who had graduated from this school and he had opened his own shop to build violins and violas.  I asked him, "What if you teach me?"

I told him my story, what I'd like to do. Luckily I had my very old guitar, a Framus, my father's guitar from the 1950's, in bad condition. So I asked him if I could come and I would work on my guitar. From that moment, I stayed with this guy for almost three years. I didn't pay him, but he also didn't pay me.

He had many orders for custom violins and a few projects to build electric double basses. I started with simple stuff but eventually went on to build six or seven electric double basses from scratch. I also built resophonic guitars.

TGC:  How did you find the materials to build resophonic guitars, the cones and the metal parts?

LQ:  The metal parts you could buy and all the woods we used were from Germany. But even in Italy now, you can still find good wood.

guitar luthierTGC:  How much of your classical building technique do you apply to your current repairing of guitars?

LQ:  A lot!

TGC:  For example?

LQ:  One little example. The nut of any string instrument, I follow how it should be done, exactly like how you would do it on a violin.

How the string must sit properly in the nut; how deep, how far the top of each string should be above the nut. The string should move nicely in the nut. It's a little thing but very, very important.

TGC:  What is your opinion on current guitar manufacturers, for example Gibson and Fender? What is your opinion on the quality of the guitars that they are making?

LQ:  It's mass production. The first thing I can see, under a little light, is how they put a guitar together. They don't pay attention to a lot of details. It's not too small -- if you have a little knowledge of the guitar, you will notice. Sometimes it's bad.

TGC:  How about the quality of the woods you see on the modern instruments? What is your opinion of the types or grades of wood that they are using?

LQ:  One thing I always tell people is that if you buy a solid color guitar, you can forget about the guitar having nice wood underneath!

These big factories, they have stocks of wood so huge -- they buy tons and tons -- so there is no chance that they will be using old wood. I mean, my bass that I built is 40 year old mahogany. You can still find old wood, but you need to go and search.

TGC:  We are not exactly talking about a visit to the lumberyard here?

LQ:  No, no. We look in woodworker's shops, where they build tables, chairs.

TGC: After all this talk of woods, how much does the pickup affect the guitars tone? If a guitar has lousy woods, but if you put a great pickup on it, will it help make the guitar sound better?

LQ:  This is tricky..

The guitar sounds better not just because of the wood and the pickups. It's the flow of the guitar. It happens sometimes that you have a cheap guitar, but when you play it, it sounds good. To answer your question, it's 50/50.

The pickup is important and the wood is important. The density of the wood changes the tone.

TGC:  How about the guitar's finish? Do you think guitars should be finished in nitrocellulose lacquer all the time?

LQ:  All the time, nitro for sure. Spraying nitro is not too easy. Spraying a poly finish is easy. Spraying nitro may take double your time.

TGC:  We are talking about seven coats of nitro to get a smooth finish similar to a thick coat of polyurethane?

LQ:  Usually with nitro, ten coats is considered a thin coat. It depends on how you set your spray gun, but usually it's ten.

TGC:  Tell us about the line of guitars that your company is coming out with very soon. What type of models can we expect and what are some of the different options you offer?

LQ:  Basically, I'm an old school guy, I like old school stuff.

For now, because it's more easy to do, we plan to do guitars in the Fender style. Classic but more modern. For sure we'll change the shape of the headstock. But most importantly, we'll take care of the little details.

TGC:  And the finishes will be all nitrocellulose as well?

LQ:  All nitro. I can use only nitro.

TGC:  Do your customers get to choose the type of guitar pickups they want, choose different types of wood, different neck shapes?

LQ:  Neck shape, of course, it's the most important. The wood you can choose, and you will get to choose pickups also. If you come to me and you are not sure what pickups you want, I will try and help you. I have an idea on how to demonstrate different types of pickups on the same guitar.

TGC:  Luca, thanks a lot for doing this interview!

LQ:  Thanks for interviewing me!


For repair consultations,you can reach Luca Quacquarella through his company's main website at:
can.sg/contact-us/

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