I had two Les Paul guitars come in this month, both very different but both with playability issues. Decided to show you both as its a good reference of an expensive original model and cheaper copy.
2009 Bolt on Les Paul type by Nevada
This guitar is a classic budget Les Paul copy, designed to give the correct look but using cheap hardware and wood to keep the cost as low as possible. That’s not to say it’s a bad guitar, just that its aimed more at beginners. Typically of a guitar aimed at people learning, it is set up poorly and will not be pleasing to play at all. Let’s see what I can do.
This guitar will get a full strip before the set up. The reason for this is that on guitars (especially budget ones) with a Gibson type Tune-o-matic bridge, the threaded body inserts that hold the stoptail and bridge are often loose due to the body holes being drilled too big, and need glue to secure them into the wood. If this is not done then the guitar will never stay in tune properly as the tension from the strings pulling on the tailpiece will be constantly moving the inserts.
While checking the hardware/tuners for tightness i discovered that the 6th string unit was almost totally locked up. I removed it from the headstock and stripped it down to check the gearing inside. Oh dear! The central spigot had lost at least 3 of its gear splines.
This is not repairable and so a replacement was obtained and fitted. This sort of problem is common on this type of machine head as its gears are made of an alloy/zinc type material for cheapness. I actually replaced the entire set of 6 heads rather than just one and the identical replacements only cost £22. If you consider that a set of Gotoh or Schaller steel gear tuners are £50- £100 depending on type, that gives an idea of what they must cost to actually make.
The other thing to check pre setup is the neck joint. Unlike a proper Gibson which the neck is glued into place, this Nevada has a Fender style 4 screw (bolt on) neck joint.
I test all the screws are tight as you don’t want the neck moving around at all. Also as part of my full set ups, i always check over the electrics of the guitar to make sure everything is working correct. I clean any pots/switches with contact solvent and check the grounding connections. This guitar was still new so no problems here, it just needed to be made to play better.
Standard set up from then on. Once the new tuners were on i did the usual fret check and polish, filing down the factory sharp fret ends, and rubbed and treated the rosewood board.
After checking the nut for height and movement i strung the guitar with 10-46 gauge strings. It’s important to install strings properly to aid tuning stability. As you can see the wound strings have been wrapped over and under to ‘lock’ them against reverse tension pulling them flat. Also you want a good few winds down the post, this increases the break angle over the nut and helps intonation. The unwound strings are done slightly different with a loop technique, but i will cover proper stringing another time.
Firstly i set the string heights at the nut using a special measuring dial and my custom v shaped nut files. The nuts on most guitars are usually too high, which makes it harder to play at the lower frets and affects the obtainable action height. This one was pretty high so needed to come down, plus it was made of soft nylon so the thick strings will literally cut their own path if not given a decent slot.
Once happy, I then set the bridge height / action, usually at the 17th fret which I find gives the most accurate setting. Lastly I use a truss rod wrench and my custom steel block gauge and set an appropriate amount of bow into the neck middle to allow it to play cleanly. Normally a Les Paul has a nut adjustment but this copy had a fender type rod requiring a long allen head tool.
With that all done i set the intonation, pickup heights, give it a test, then polish it all up ready to give back.
For a budget guitar it now plays great. With just a few minor but important adjustments it has been transformed from being hard to play into a usable instrument.
2006 Gibson Les Paul Standard
A very different end of the market to the Nevada, this is a solid 06 standard that would have cost about £1800 new. It’s in beautiful condition but had been made almost unplayable buy a previous set up. It was buzzing terribly played open and when fretted, and the action and neck tension were way off.
After proper evaluation I realised the problems were down to mainly the neck tension ( truss relief ) and a badly cut and installed nut which was actually breaking itself apart.
Using my custom fine measurement dials you can see that the nut is totally off. The 6th string ( low E ) was reading .026” above the first fret, while the worst was the unwound 3rd ( G) was just .003”.
In English, this means the 6th string was high enough at the first fret to get a 2mm thick pick under, while the 3rd was pretty much laying on the fretwire. The others were all between these points and were causing terrible buzzing and string muting.
Added to this, the action had been set at 2.5- 3/64th which is too low, and the truss rod had just .001” when measured flat. (basically it was completely loose)
I stripped it down as before, checking the body inserts for tightness etc. One other thing I checked with stoptail guitars is the electrical grounding of the tail/bridge. This is normally a wire end that comes from the rear control box and through into the stoptail post hole nearest the guitars control knobs. These can sometimes be installed badly and will have a huge affect on the hum that the guitar produces, so i test it visually and with a digital meter.
After removing the old nut and cleaning the nut shelf, I fitted a new bone blank that I cut and shaped to fit, cutting starter slots for the strings using a special nut spacing rule I have.
I then did my usual pre restring work, frets, neck wood etc, before starting the adjustments.
After the usual pre set up checks for nut and screw tightness, machine head function etc, I then replaced all the tail/bridge hardware and restrung the guitar with 10-46 strings.
I know that Gibson say that 9’s and even 8 gauge strings are playable on a Les Paul but i just don’t agree. The mahogany neck, angled headstock and the glued in joint just require more tension than anything below 10 gauge can give in my opinion, the tune-o-matic saddles will almost always rattle due to oversized notches, and you simply don’t get enough forward tension against the truss rod to adjust it properly.
Always 10’s on a Les Paul, or 11-48 gauge even better! Better tone, sustain and will stay in accurate tune. Save 9’s for your tremolo guitar.
After tuning to pitch, I cut the nut slots to an accurate 0.018” at the first fret for the wound strings, and a slightly lower .015” for the unwounds. Gibson factory nuts are almost always too high at around .024” These slots are taper cut downwards towards the headstock to help the string travel from nut to tuner peg.
I then set the action/bridge height to a low 4/64th across all strings, measured at the 17th fret. As this particular guitar has had its frets levelled down previously It will go even lower, but chords and upper neck string bends are much cleaner with this type of action. I also cut v grooves into the metal bridge saddles to give better tuning and stability to the strings.
Now the neck is settled, i use my neck relief tool to dial in some slight backbow to the truss rod. I set this neck at 0.010” at the 7th fret, which helps clean up any slight buzz in the centre part of the board. Gibson set .012” at the factory but this guitar didn’t need it. (it is guitar specific, the factory settings are only a guide)
Finally I make sure the guitar is tuned to pitch on an accurate strobe tuner and set the string length/intonation, then give it a play test and set the pickup heights. (If you change the action of your guitar then you often will need to lower or raise the pickups to suit)
Final polish then it’s ready.
Two Guitars. Both the same shape, but both very different. One thing they did have in common though is that a bad set up was making them unplayable. A guitar should suit your budget at that time, but no matter if its £180 or £1800 it should play, and can normally be made to play really well with a little help.
Until next month
Newtech Guitar Services