Friday, December 5, 2014

Vintage Gibson ES-175 Restoration

Our favorite local Italian luthier, Luca Quacquarella, was recently commissioned with this vintage Gibson ES-175 restoration.
gibson es-175 restoration

This guitar, which dates back to 1964, was the property of one of the local hotels in Singapore and had been languishing in a damp basement storeroom, unplayed and neglected, for a few decades. Someone had even pasted a couple of hotel baggage stickers on the back, just in case the ownership of the guitar would ever be in doubt.

The nitrocellulose finish had clouded with the passage of time and the seam on the lower bout of the guitar had split due to water damage. The Hofner tailpiece, that someone had used to replace the original ES-175 'zig-zag' trapeze tailpiece, had also severely corroded.
gibson es-175 restoration
Hotel baggage stickers

Although how anyone could possibly damage an ES-175 tailpiece to the point where it had to be replaced, we'll probably never know. Remember that this was a guitar used by the hotel lobby band and not subject to the rigors of outrageous stage antics or heavy usage. My guess is that someone took a fancy to the original tailpiece and swapped it out for the Hofner tailpiece when no one was looking.

Luca's first task was to remove all the hardware and electronics, labelling everything to facilitate their re-installation later. The pickups that came with the guitar had the rectangular black stickers with Patent No. 2737842 on the underside, and very large diameter volume and tone potentiometers, true to the period that this guitar was from.

gibson es-175 restorationInterestingly, Patent No. 2737842 was not the patent designation for the humbucking pickups but was actually the patent number for Gibson's trapeze tailpiece bridge!

As you can see in the pic on the right, the lower seam had completely split and was lifting away slightly.

After Luca glued the seams together, he needed to match the deep brown color of the original finish on the sides. Mixing dark brown nitrocellulose lacquer with a smidgen of black, he managed to perfectly match the original finish.

gibson es-175 restoration
Relic'ing and check lines added!
To match the checking of the original finish, Luca added artificial check lines to the new, pristine lacquer. A good knowledge and understanding of the grain and directional patterns of how lacquer would naturally check is definitely required here.

Although the precise technique that he used to artificially create the checked lacquer lines is something that he does not seem to want to talk about. A trade secret shall remain a trade secret!

gibson es-175 restoration
Once the repair had been completed, the entire guitar was gently wet-sanded to bring back some of the original shine of the lacquer on the headstock, back of the neck, and the body of the guitar.

But according to Luca, he was careful not to make it too shiny, lest it look too new and fake.

To complete the repair and restoration, an after-market ES-175 tailpiece and pickguard were special-ordered to replace the Hofner tailpiece and the original celluloid pickguard. Celluloid starts to de-gas after a few decades and this pickguard was already warped and starting to disintegrate.

CrazyParts.de in Germany, by the way, makes an excellent after-market ES-175 zig-zag tailpiece!

Looks like this 1964 Gibson ES-175 is ready for another 50 years of music!
gibson ES-175 restoration

Be sure to also check out my earlier interview with Luca Quacquarella

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

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