Luthier Interviews: Richard Stanley - Guitarsmith
While Richard Stanley and I go back more than 20 years, he's been working on guitars for twice as long as that. His personal history is fascinating, but it is his meticulous, and stellar craftsmanship that keeps his clients loyal to him. Analytical and precise to the extreme, Richard Stanley is a man who measures life in thousandths of an inch. it is nearly impossible to get him to speak in generalities.
Since meeting Richard, I've learned more than I ever wanted to know about guitars. For example, I learned that my 1954 Les Paul wouldn't play in tune because the fret scale was off. I learned that he could fix it. And I learned that fixing it would be expensive! But since that first experience with him, I have also learned that any guitar Richard Stanley works on comes back significantly better for the experience.
Richard is constantly busy. He is always backed up with work. At any given time, there are dozens of guitars awaiting his attention in his small, basement workshop.
Unless you need your axe for an impending gig, you will wait. Often for months. He is not fast. His work is expensive. Having him work on your guitars can be maddening, even for those of us who know what to expect. And new customers can easily be frustrated by his pace — until they get their guitars back and see and experience the quality of his work. Then they begin to understand why most of his longtime customers — like me — wouldn't dream of letting anyone else work on their guitars. Once Stanley has worked on your guitars, you'll never want to go back to some flunky at the local music store. Why? Because Richard Stanley is the man! He is the king of fret scale physics and the god of fret work. In everything from repair, construction, and finishing, to building his own pickups, and crafting his own bridges from metal. He is Oz. He is Yoda. The guru of guitar gurus.
I've been preaching what I've learned from Richard at this site and others for years. But I'm just a second-hand source. I've been after Richard for years to capture at least some of his vast knowledge for posterity. He finally agreed to give DRG an exclusive, in-depth, interview. His schedule is such that the interview was initially going to take place in stages through correspondence. But after he provided his personal background information, that approach quickly stalled out and became unworkable. Two years later, I was finally able to sit with him, in his shop and talk shop. When Richard does something, he takes his time and does a full and thorough job. Just like when I give him one of my guitars to work on, I knew this interview — which took over four hours of tape — would be a long, laborious process. Because even the simplest of questions produce very complex and lengthy answers from Richard. But just like when I give him one of my guitars to work on, I knew it would be worth the wait. So strap yourself in and prepare for a long read. I think you'll find it enlightening.
Interview by Dinosaur David B. 8/27/08
DRG: OK, Richard, this has been a long time coming. Tell us a bit about your background.
Stanley: I was born and grew up in Western New York near Buffalo, and discovered music at an early age, my dad having been a pretty decent fiddle and guitar player. Long before I was anywhere big enough to actually play the guitar, I used to sit on the floor with my dad's Kalamazoo archtop and amuse myself by playing the six notes available on the strings between the fingerboard nut and peghead, the six between the nut and the bridge, and the six between the bridge and the tailpiece since I couldn't begin to actually finger any notes. My dad's guitar stood in a corner of the bedroom and when I wanted to play it, I was supposed to get either my dad or mom to bring it out onto the living room floor. In a telling incident, while I was still shorter than the guitar, I one day grabbed the instrument myself, tripped over the bedspread, fell, and put a crack in the front of it! Perhaps this set in motion some cycle of karmic prerogatives that led me to focus my life on fixing the instrument. I actually started learning to play when I was 11 years old, my dad teaching me the top four string versions of the G major and D 7th chords to accompany Down in the Valley.
My interest in music and guitar playing quickly ran through a variety of music genres and guitar playing styles from country, rock-a-billy and pop to rock, jazz, and classical. The leap from popular music to classical came about as a result of listening to Chet Atkins who had a couple of Bach transcriptions on one of his early albums. A lot of the classical guitar repertoire is lifted from the lute music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods and this led me to learn the lute in the early 60s.
DRG: How and when did you actually get into doing guitar work? How did you become the guru you are now?
Stanley: Guru? (Chuckles) That just triggered an image of me with long beard and loin cloth sitting on some mountain ledge high in the Himalayas. “Pay me and I will give you the One True Truth.” But a guru, yes in the sense that I am someone with special expertise. How I got there was by following my nose and sticking to what I did. Within a few months of starting to work on guitars I realized where my best talents lay and just kept at it. I am so much better at this end of the business than I ever was performing that it was blindingly clear to me what I should be doing. I actually originated the expression, when life gives you broken guitars, make lemonade. From a young age, I made things like bird houses and toy guns. I have always been an inveterate tinkerer with a burning desire to know how things work. This led me to take apart anything that I came in contact with. Even during my early experience learning guitar, I spent a lot of time wondering how they work, what makes them sound the way they do and, in particular, how they make electricity and turn it into sound.
By the late 60s, after three years of doing Baroque and Renaissance music, then two years playing in an unusual, sometimes avant-garde rock band, I got into guitar work by pure serendipity. In the spring of 1969, I started working on guitars and basses regularly in a shop at 500 La Guardia Place, just south of Washington Square in New York City, downstairs from Dan Armstrong Guitars. The first guitar that I worked on for pay was a 1958 Les Paul flame top. Along with having damaged my dad's guitar, this seemed to be another significant marker on the road to what has become my life's work. Since the shop at Armstrong's was in an uproar, I took the instrument home to my seventh floor walk-up in Chelsea to file the frets. It was called grind and polish then, I now call it fret facing and it will always be what those of us in this business do more of than anything else. It is nothing less than a full scale restoration of the frets including leveling, crowning or reshaping and polishing. Interestingly enough, then and for all the intervening years right up to the present over 40 percent of this type of fret work has been necessary to fix incomplete or poorly executed work in the original production rather than to correct the results of wear and tear.
I ran my New York shop for two years, working for every band and individual player that you could think of except the Beatles. Those were heady times and New York was a major focus of pop music. The shop was around the corner from the Village Vanguard, a solid jazz venue. In another couple of blocks to MacDougal Street, home of the folk scene, and few blocks up from there to West 8th Street was Jimi Hendrix'a Electric Lady studio. A few blocks east was Bill Graham's Fillmore East and up on East 9th Street was the Electric Circus. We were smack in the middle of a virtual musical riot! All the British and American bands came in through New York and played there.
The shop was open from 11:00 a.m till 7:00 p.m, and the phone just never stopped ringing. I had to go in early in the morning to get any work done, before things heated up for the day. My clientele read like a Who's Who of pop music, including, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, the Byrds, the Incredible String Band, the Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter. To me, however, the most impressive musicians I met were the studio players. They could play circles around most of the high profile stars. A lot of those guys could read scored music or improvise from a chart or right out of thin air after hearing a piece just once. They were genuinely creative besides. A couple of stories that I remember, one player who would arrive at a session, thumb through the score going, "hmm, hmm", then toss the score aside, sit down and cut his track perfectly in one take. Another cat who was similarly capable but always seemed to be watching his score was found to have a copy of Playboy magazine, open to the centerfold, covering his music stand while he played. Charlie Brown, another studio player who eventually put out a couple of albums, played every performance of Hair for all the years it ran except when he was touring out of town. Everyone thought he was crazy for doing the Hair gig all those years, but he laughed all the way to the bank as the saying goes.
Richard Stanley, circa 1970 (age 28) reflected in the front of a Les Paul Jr. he refinished in black.
DRG: You call yourself a guitarsmith rather than a luthier. I know you have built guitars from scratch in the past and are familiar with all aspects of construction of both electrics and acoustics. Can you explain the difference as you see it?
Stanley: A client of mine was responsible for the appellation guitarsmith. I always thought that luthier sounded a tad pretentious and besides a luthier technically is a maker of lutes, although the term is occasionally used to describe violin and guitar makers also. The New York operation was called The Guitar Shop and I once overheard a client in the shop say to another one, "So I told this guy, I know the best damn guitarsmith in the world!" This sounded funny to me at first, but I got to thinking of the idea of the term smith as someone with comprehensive fully rounded capabilities. It also had a nice simple Yankee tradesman sound to it, and, although I have limitations as a player, there is nothing about guitar work that I cannot do. I have always been interested in and attracted to all guitar types and everything necessary to repair, restore, modify, upgrade, or make the instrument.
DRG: What is the nature of your work these days? For example is it 70 percent acoustic, 30 percent electric. Is it 40 percent refret jobs, 5 percent refinishing?
Stanley: Since I first started, my workload has of course included electric basses as well as guitars and other fretted instruments. (I don't handle any violin family instruments). The first several years I probably saw a 90 percent electric instruments against 10 percent acoustic. Part of what drove this was the guitar-playing population as a whole, but also folk players — main users of acoustic instruments, just didn't have as much money as the rock players. This was especially apparent during the late 70s and early 80s here in Boston when the rock scene was active and prosperous. Now, all the good venues around here, rock, jazz and country have nearly disappeared, victims of canned music, MTV, online sources, iPods and there are only a small number of the paying gigs that there used to be, even for very good, experienced players. In the meantime a whole new group of players has driven incredible and exciting developments in the realm of acoustic guitars and those people seem to have at least as much, if not more, discretionary capital to put into their music trip as the ones who play electric guitar. Also, the way acoustic guitars are used has significantly evolved, driven to a certain extent by the development of high quality built-in pickup systems and the amplifiers and processors to complement these instruments.
These days my bench work is about evenly divided between acoustic and electric guitars, occasionally tipping to 80 percent acoustic. That said, there has hardly been a week in all of the past 38 years when I haven't had at least one Strat, and more often two or three in the shop. The Stratocaster must be the all-time most popular guitar in the world. I have also had quite a bit of mandolin work. An upsurge in the use of mandolin outside of just bluegrass and country music has driven this to the point that a few months ago I had four mandolin jobs in the shop at the same time. I do some banjo work and the odd bazouke, bandurria, cavaquiño, and last year, a mandolinetto. It makes my work interesting, varied, and challenging. Still, what we do in this business more than anything else is frets, frets, frets and after that, more frets.
In terms of covering the span of my work, the only thing I don't do these days is custom finishing. I still do touch-up repairs and restoration work and I do necks, but I quit doing full scale refinishing about 15 years ago to cut down on my exposure to all the toxic chemicals before I got sensitized to them and had to stay away from finishing products entirely.
A Custom Stanley guitar built from scratch including the three pickups in the passive circuit. Strat pattern alder body with a glued in, lead-ballasted 24-fret, maple neck with an ebony fingerboard, hex pickup and Roland GK II integrated with the passive system, and Steinberger TransTrem bridge. Finished in 1994.
The Bridge and Saddles
DRG: So lets get down to it. What are the most critical factors in getting a good sounding, solid bodied electric guitar? Is it the wood?
Stanley: Well, not to dismiss the effects produced by the neck and body wood, but on guitars like solidbody electrics — guitars with relatively massive bridges, the bridge is unquestionably the dominant element influencing the instrument's basic string tone or voice. More exactly, this voice is defined by the balance among the various overtones in the string's vibration pattern. This is particularly true in the presence of very massive bridges like the Floyd Rose, Steinberger Trans Trem, and even the Strat's whammy bridge, which weighs almost a pound. When you're dealing with a bridge that massive, the body wood really fades into the background. I wouldn't say that it doesn't matter at all, but it's not the dominant influence. It's a different story with lighter bridges such as the Tune-O-Matic (TOM) bridge on typical Gibson guitars — they weigh only a few ounces, or a lightweight hard-tail Fender bridge with strings through the body. So the weight, and the density of the wood factor in rather more. In the presence of lighter bridges, you start to hear the body wood, synthetic material, and metal more. So if you take a typical Strat of either Alder or Ash — all other things being equal, higher mass is always going to equal more sustain — whether the mass is in the bridge or the body. At the same time, no low mass bridge, no matter what kind of body you put it on, is going to sustain like a high mass bridge does. For an extreme example, take the old Dan Armstrong Ampeg plexiglass guitars which weigh about 12.5 pounds. You can make the body very massive and of high density material and not necessarily achieve a long sustain. My operation in NYC happened to be downstairs from the Armstrong store at the time they were introduced, and we wound up prepping a bunch of those instruments for different bands. Danny Armstrong and the guy working with him, Bill Lawrence (of pickup fame) had the idea to make a long sustaining instrument, and they made the heaviest guitar I know of. But what did they put on it for a bridge? They used the old Dan Electro bridge with a straight rosewood bridge saddle, which negated the sustain potential of the massive body and provided inadequate string length adjustment for good intonation. Everyone stood around scratching their heads for a long time wondering: how come this guitar doesn't sustain the way we expected it to? And of course at that point, they were already committed to production. I guess they never listened to the prototypes. This points out the fact that not only is the overall bridge design is critical to sustain and voice, but the bridge saddle, at the very end of the string’s vibrating length, is even more important. This is true, to a certain extent, for acoustic guitars also.
An extreme example from the opposite end of the spectrum was the first guitar that I built from scratch, which I designed roughly along the lines of a Telecaster and made from pine (low density, light weight). It was all pine except for the rosewood fingerboard. It had a bit of ballast in the neck. Its great sustain was the result of a very massive combined bridge and pickup structure. The entire instrument weighed just 5.25 pounds! That's hardly more than an overweight acoustic guitar, and it's less than the weight of most SGs. It would out sustain any common guitar. I had players who owned Les Pauls and guitars with Floyds on them, and they agreed that this guitar out sustained their's. That was a really lightweight guitar creating long sustain through a high mass bridge.
Tonally, as far as the woods in the neck and the body are concerned, I would hesitate to attempt describing very precisely what results to expect from specific woods, or other materials for that matter. I think it's very hard to pin down and characterize the tonal balance that you wind up with. What you're talking about at that level is called string tone, or the balance of overtone structure within the strings. To be more technical about it, that's just an expression of the vibration pattern in the string, and this applies to all guitars, acoustic or electric. This is where to start analyzing the voicing in an instrument. There's the vibrating string, and at its ends, the focus of the energy, it transmits to the instrument. What you first look to in basic design are the ends of the strings, particularly at the bridge. While there are many variables at the other end of the string, the conditions at the bridge are a constant. What you do right there — where the string ends, is more significant than anything else! The significance of this interface between the strings and the rest of the instrument begs for more attention and discussion than we usually give it.
So when voicing an electric guitar, rather than looking to the body woods, look at what's right at the end of the string. Is it metal bridge saddles? If so which metal? There's a whole variety, for example, for TOM bridges, made of titanium, stainless steel, brass, and aluminum are available. Of course the originals were zinc, or so-called pot metal — which I am not crazy about as a bridge material. That said, there've been a lot of bridges and other guitar parts, for that matter, made using zinc. Different materials contribute to variations in tonal quality. Steel accentuates upper partials yieilding a brighter string tone. That is, if you were to analyze the overtone structure in the string, you'd find that there are more high partials than fundamental, and lower order partials. If you put a softer material in there, for example, if you have a bridge saddle made of metal, but you put in a very small piece of something like ivory under the end of the string, it alters the string tone dramatically, even with the same body, and the same everything else. So rather than looking at body woods, the bigger determinant is right there at the end of the string.
DRG: Well, this raises some questions and important issues. You started off by discussing the increased sustain provided by higher mass bridges. But wouldn't you agree that while those massive bridges might make the guitar sustain forever, it's often not pleasant.
Stanley: Sure. That's the tonal balance you're trying to control. I have had clients who tried and discarded bridges like the Floyd because, while it sustained a lot, they didn’t like what it did to the string tone. A heavy bridge won’t necessarily give you a brighter tone along with the sustain. You can revoice bridges by tweaking the design where the string rests. For example, you could take a bridge that's massive with a lot of metal, and totally roll off the top end of the string tone by sticking in little ivory inserts. I've done a lot of that with jazz player's guitars where the guitar was too bright — that's often a perfect fix for them.
Getting away from the bridge saddles, sustain can be increased by ballasting the area where the bridge is mounted. A common mod I do — say with a hardtail Strat bridge, and particularly on Fender P and J basses with light bridges (basses have higher energy levels than guitars need more mass to back upthe energy produced by the strings) is adding ballast right under the bridge. For over 30 years, I've been casting lead plugs about the size of a half dollar and of various lengths and adding them under the bridge area. That has a totally remarkable effect on the sustain. Also I add lead ballasts in the upper end of the neck, and in the neck mounting pad on a Fender style bolt-on neck where it sits in the pocket and bolts to the body. Neither of them shows when you put the instrument back together. I sometimes also add ballast in the peg head and in the whole neck itself under the fingerboard. These mods increase sustain without adding brightness.
DRG: That's what you did to my Les Paul all those years ago. Doesn't it increase resonance as well?
Stanley: It doesn’t increase resonance, but rather it refocuses or re-tunes the resonance peak and in addition to the higher mass generally increasing sustain. At the other end of the string, fingerboard material is a significant factor. Most players know that ebony, rosewood, and maple in the fingerboard all result in audibly different tones. A higher mass board like ebony generally produces a bit more sustain, but do you end up with a brighter string tone? I don't hear as much effect there as I do from the bridge saddles. Using bone vs. ivory, on steel string acoustic: if you put in an ivory bridge saddle you get a little less top end sound, whereas a bone saddle tends to maximize highs and it should brighten things up. Other materials, such as fossilized mastodon tusk have their own unique effect on tone.
Neck woods themselves are a factor. Take the classic example of the Les Paul with the mahogany neck. Later models with maple necks are quite different sounding instruments than those with mahogany necks.
DRG: So let's try to make this tangible for the player. I come to you with a Les Paul. I want you to help me re-voice this guitar. What are the things you would try to make it go one way or the other?
Stanley: Well, you could ballast it, even though most people agree Les Pauls are heavy enough as is. But there is a weight balance issue with Pauls — they are bottom heavy — so adding ballast to the neck and the peghead can move the center of balance away from the lower end of the instrument. Once again the bridge saddles would be the first thing I'd try. It's easy, accessible, and comparatively cheap to do.
DRG: So, if the bridge saddles are so very important, which saddle materials are going to take the tones in which directions?
Stanley: Well zinc bridges are kind of dead. Not only is zinc on the low-mass end of the metals that might be used there, but it's also kind of non-resonant as a metal. You couldn't really tap a bar of zinc and get a good ringing sound from it. But with brass or steel you could. Brass saddles for a TOM brighten things up a bit, and steel really pushes the tone more in that direction. This company called Pigtail makes really high quality TOM bridge parts. It offers two or three different bridge and saddle materials. Including aluminum, which weighs about half of what a standard TOM weighs.
DRG: So if someone comes in wanting more brightness, they could go to steel or brass bridge saddles. If they come in with a steel bridge, and they want less brightness, they might go back to zinc.
Stanley: Right. Or in the extreme as far as materials that are readily available, something like Graphtech which is a low mass graphite composite. The material is also softer and relatively non-resonant. Either one would be an option for someone who didn't want to hear from high end. The other thing you could do is take some wood out of the body.
DRG: The whole tone-chambering thing.
Stanley: Yeah, but I don't think the voids in that kind of design really operate as a "tone chamber" per se, because you have to have some way to communicate what goes on in there communicated to the world outside of the instrument, like in an acoustic guitar — where the body cavity is a tone chamber that operates through the sound hole, letting the sound — mostly low frequencies out. Where as a totally enclosed chamber in the body of an electric guitar — whatever resonance is going on in that air in there doesn't really have a way to get out and influence the overall sound. The effect you get comes from the overall weight reduction of the instrument.
DRG: Well yeah. Isn't tone chamber just a marketing term for something that's intended to compensate for cheap, really dense, crappy wood?
Stanley: I wouldn't say that, but, in the presence of a light bridge, the way such a tone chamber affects the overall sound is by altering the resonance characteristics of the body and, hence, its feedback to the strings.
DRG: I recall that for a mutual friend of ours, you drilled one inch holes in the back of his USA Jackson Soloist around the trem rout until you removed enough dense wood mass and the guitar went from rather dead sounding to something that really sang and sounded great.
Stanley: Yes, that was an extreme case. We'd drill a hole, then listen. Drill some more then listen. And we stopped when it sounded right. And that's the way you'd have to do it. You can't just say doing this will produce that. I would ascribe the resulting tonal change to a loosening of the area around the bridge, structurally allowing for a different resonant characteristic in that area. I haven't done a lot of that sort of mod because I've never met up with enough players who were adventurous enough to try something like that. But you could go with removing material to reduce the overall weight and rigidity of the system, or you could go the other way. Say you took a Strat made of alder — a relatively low-density wood, and suppose from where the neck is mounted to down by the bridge area, you put in something like a piece of maple — there you could probably push it in another direction that way. In some cases I've put diferent woods under the low mass bridges. There again, you're right in that critical area — the bridge.
You can also alter some details about how the bridge is mounted. For example, you can block up the whammy bar so that it is immobilized. Besides the materials used, the motion characteristic of the bridge has significant effect on the string tone. This effect is obvious in the difference between the sound of the loose, springy mount of the whammy bar bridge vs. the sound if it is blocked.
That reminds me of a client who came to me with two different Strats. One was a hard tail with an ash body, and the other was a whammy bar Strat with a lighter alder body. He noticed that the hardtail didn't sustain anywhere near as much as the one with the whammy. And he was like: What gives? Everyone says the hardtail bridge, the ash body with the strings going through the body should sustain more, but there's no contest — the lighter Strat with the whammy sustains more. This was one of the first times I started thinking about how these factors influence sustain. It didn't take me too long to get to: Hey, even though the alder body is lighter there's way more mass there in the whammy's bridge. It's also important where the strings are anchored. Cast zinc tailblocks in place of the original steel reduce the sustain. Here are the new (left) and old forms of that (right).
Notice how the new version is really skinny compared to the old one. They really cut it down.
And then they even went further by making some of them one piece cast zinc, so the top part isn't even steel.
DRG: So what would you guess the percentage of the tonal factor that the bridge plays in the overall tone of the guitar?
Stanley: Well, it is a guess, but I would say that no matter what the weight of the bridge is it accounts for at least half the basic string tone. And more so if it's heavy. And why I always relate it to string tone, is because it applies no matter what kind of guitar you're talking about. Whether the string tone is feeding an acoustic top, or being picked up by coil-magnet pickups, the basic overtone structure is part of the identity of the instrument. It's like a person's voice — the characteristics of their vocal chords. And it's very subtle. Even with a bridge like a TOM — 50 percent of it. In other words, you can make changes in the body, or you can make changes in the bridge. And I think you'll find that you can push the string tone around more by changing the bridge design than the body design. Then if you get into massive bridge designs like tremolo bridges, it's 85 - 90 percent of it.
DRG: So nothing is gonna change your guitar's basic tone more than messing with the bridge.
Stanley: Exactly. That's the bottom line. And it's true of acoustics too. Every time I designed and built an instrument, I started from basic design constructs. I use few aftermarket parts. I built the bridges and the pickups myself, because between those two things there, I think the body wood fades into the background if you're talking about solid body electric guitars. It's bridge, then pickups — and the control circuit too.
The Fingerboard Nut
DRG: OK, lets talk about the other end of the string — the nut. I think a lot of people don't understand how crucial the nut is — not just in the tonal aspects, but in the ability of the guitar to play well, and intonate well. You can go out and buy a precut plastic Allparts nut for a Strat for $15, and then wonder why it sucks. I know you take it very seriously, and the nuts you've created on my guitars are amazing. So can you please talk about why the nut is so important, and the process you use to make one.
Stanley: Well it really is crucial, and its simple appearance belies its importance and the work necessary to make one properly which is why (in 2008) I charge $125 and up to make most types of fingerboard nuts from scratch. As far as a tone contributor, you only hear it on the open strings. And you can't make a nut heavy enough to really change the neck mass significantly. Thirty years ago, there was a fad for brass nuts. I think everyone found out that they're harder to maintain — they're certainly harder to make, and they don't do anything for the tone when you're fretting a string. Also there's a difference in string tone between open and fretted notes — with any nut — the open string tones are always brighter than the fretted notes. To me, putting metal there just accentuates that, so with a metal nut, there's an even bigger contrast between open and fretted notes.
The fingerboard nut affects tone less than it affects playability, because: 1) it sets the spacing of the strings on the neck and 2) it sets the string elevation in first position. I space the strings evenly from edge to edge, which means there's the same amount of clearance between all of them, but the inside four strings wind up being a bit off-center toward the treble side, because the bass strings are fatter. So rather than space on the string centers — which crowds the bass strings and gives you less room to get around, I space edge to edge. How far they're set in from the edges of the fingerboard determines what your overall spacing can be. If the strings are too close to the edges of the fingerboard, you can inadvertently push them off the ends of the fret. If they're too far in, you waste playing space in the width of the neck. So generally — unless there's something weird going on, I put the high E string in 3/32 of an inch from the end of the fret on the treble side, and 4/32 on the bass side — regardless of the guitar — electric or acoustic.
The nut also sets up playability in first position via the elevation adjustment — almost to the total exclusion of the adjustments at the bridge end (see photo). You can have a pretty high setup at the bridge end resulting in high string elevations in the upper register, but, if the nut is regulated low, first position can still play nicely. Conversely, you can have a setup that looks low, but first position could play terribly if the strings are too high coming off the nut. The range of dimensions for the string elevations there is typically between 0.012" and 0.020" between the underside of the string and the top of the crown of the first fret, requiring feeler gauges to do a proper job of regulating this important setup feature. Again, the important thing to remember from all of this is that the fingerboard nut sets up playability in first position.
There's another factor in nut design: If the nut doesn't have some width and depth to it, it will wear too fast, and need to be re-regulated or replaced more often. Standar Fender-style nuts, for example are really too skimpy and they're the only ones that break frequently. Also, they're not very deep. So the nuts I make are deeper and wider than a standard Fender nut. They are square and flat on the bottom, whereas the Fender-style nut curves on the bottom, the same as the fingerboard, so it's not any thicker in the middle than at the edges.
As I mentioned before, the fingerboard nut sets up playability in first position but it is also crucial to intonation and the ability to be in-tune in first position. If the fingerboard nut is placed flat, first position notes are going to play sharp, and vice versa. So for good overall intonation, the nut must be located as precisely as all the frets are. But there's more to it than that. There is also a compensation required in nut location to compensate the string length for stretch factor, and hardly anyone anyone recognizes that. I just got into in by trial and error, experimenting on my own instruments.
Everyone realizes that the actual string lengths as set by the bridge are longer than the theoretical string length. The offsets at the bridge end are there to account for stiffness factor — which makes the strings act shorter than they are. The fatter, stiffer, bass strings, must always be longer than the treble strings. This is why we have bridges with adjustable bridge saddles. But few recognize that stretch factor detunes first position notes if you don't compensate for that string stretch. The stiffer the string is, the farther out in front of the saddle it starts to bend. You must compensate so that when any note is fretted and the string starts to bend, it's going to behave like it is close to its theoretical string length.
This is where the nut and the stretch factor comes in. Players don't think fretting in first position stretches the string much because the effect of stretch factor is much more pronounced near the ends of the strings than in the middle. You must move the nut slightly forward so that it flattens the notes played in first position. Doing so selectively flattens the notes played on the first fret the most, less for the notes on the second fret, less still on the third fret, and by the fourth and fifth frets, it ceases to be a factor. Displacing the string by a certain amount increases the tension and pitch to a geometrically greater degree approaching the end. This is straight out of hard-core physics.
For a hands-on appreciation of this well documented aspect of the behavior of guitar strings, and any other taught cord or line for that matter, go to a clothesline that is stretched really tight. If you go to the middle of the line and push on it with your finger. You'll find you can displace it six inches or more with no trouble at all. But if you try to do that two inches from where the line is anchored, you'll find you can't.
Typically, the amount of compensation, moving the nut closer to the first fret, is 0.015” – 0.017" for electric guitars and about 0.015" – 0.025" for acoustic guitars. More compensation is required the greater the distance between the string and the top of the first fret as set by the nut’s regulation. This is the basis of the Buzz Feiten system, but it's really just compensating string length for stretch factor.
DRG: So let's just talk about the work you put into the nut. Not the compensation and all that. You're going to create a nut. How much time do you take on it?
Stanley: More than an hour, start to finish, including getting the blank out of stock material. I pretty much charge a flat-rate for fingerboard nuts, but there is some variation. For six-string guitar — $125, which is my hourly rate (in 2008) — plus materials. The nuts I make tend to be wider and deeper, because when I move a nut forward to compensate for stretch factor, I'm filling from the back of the original nut slot to the front of the new nut slot. You can go years and years with a nut like this, re regulating and and shimming it up before you'd have to replace it. So, for example if I use a piece of ivory, I've got to cut it down from something like this (see below).
This is elephant tusk. I bought two tusks a long time ago when you could still get them legally. This is the big end of the larger tusk.
Ivory has a nice combination of hardness and toughness. Bone will chip a little more readily than ivory because it's more brittle. I work on these materials with saws and files. I band saw the material into billets and then into rough widths. Thicknessing is done on the milling machine, then sanding to fine tune the fit because you want a tight solid seating in the slot.
Once I have it shaped, I get the string spacing laid-out — which is a whole other job in itself. If I'm working on a six-string guitar, after I set the locations of the two E strings, I determine the spaces between each adjacent string by measuring the distance between the inside edges of the two E strings using a dial or digital caliper. Then I subtract from that the sum of diameters of the four inside strings. Next, I divide that by five — the number of spaces between the strings. This yields the dimension between the strings and I set the caliper to that spec. to lay out the lateral spacing. Once I have that, I carefully start creating the string slots starting with razor saws of the right sizes.
DRG: And we should also mention that you always ask players what gauge strings they use. This isn't one size fits all.
Stanley: A good point to emphasize. The spacing has to be done to the gauge of their strings being used. I'm working with calipers and feeler gauges. I slowly bring the slot down, then when I get toward the bottom, I start working with various small, rounded files, because the saw produces a square bottomed slot, and I want it to be rounded like the string.
DRG: And you don't glue the nut in.
Stanley: No, hardly ever. The only time it's ever necessary is on Fender style plank pegheads, because even with string trees, frequently there's not enough pressure on the nut to keep it in place like there is on a raked peghead. You take a Les Paul, you'd need a hammer to move the nut once the strings are on it. But on a a plank peghead, I just tack it in place with three tiny dots of CA (super glue). This is completely unnecessary on any guitar with a raked peghead.
DRG: OK, well now I'd like us to move along to the fingerboard and discuss fret scale. Scale length, and the fret scale issues you've seen over the years. If there's any real controversy in any of these subjects, it's here. And then we'll talk about fret work and how you do that.
Stanley: OK, when you start talking about scale length, you start with the theoretical string length. If you devise a fret scale in a coherent way, the theoretical string length is twice the distance from the 12th fret to the theoretical fingerboard nut location. For example, on a 25.5" scale would be 12.75 inches from the fingerboard nut to the 12th fret. And to recap what we've already established, because you have all these adjustments we spoke of before — compensation at the bridge for the stiffness factor, and the compensation at the nut for the stretch factor — the strings all wind up being longer than their theoretical string length although they are made slightly shorter by the compensation at the nut.
DRG: So how do you locate the frets?
Stanley: I use the same math used to determine pitches in the equal tempered scale. To determine the pitches of notes in equal temperament, you start at a given pitch, like A equals 440Hz, and you multiply 440 by the 12th root of 2, which is 1.05946, and that gives you the B flat note (466.16Hz). Next, you multiply that by the 12th root of 2, and it gives you the B, and so forth for each succeeding pitch. Using the 12th root of two for calculating the 12 steps of the chromatic scale produces a 12th note whose pitch is exactly twice that of the first note. The A note at the first octave will equal 880Hz.
Since the relationship between pitch and string length is inversely proportional and one half the string length equals twice the pitch, you use the inverse formula to determine the fret locations. You use 12th root of .5 or ½ which is the inverse of two. The 12th root of .5 is 0.943874. To calculate the fret spacing, you multiply the theoretical string length by the 12th root of .5 to locate the first fret slot, and then subtract the result from the theoretical string length. You then multiply the result by the 12th root of .5 to locate the second fret, and so on for all of the succeeding frets. Notice that this approach locates the frets relative to the theoretical fingerboard nut location. Using this method will locate the 12th fret at exactly ½ of the theoretical string length before making the compensations we talked about previously.
DRG: You didn't tell us there was gonna be math on this quiz! That's a lot of math.
Stanley: And that's not the end of it either.
DRG: Right, but, I guess the pertinent question is how come major guitar makers frequently don't get this right?
Stanley: I honestly don't know. I like to think I'm pretty smart, but I'm just one guy working alone and I figured this out for myself with the help of many text books. However, I'm utterly convinced of the validity of this approach based on nearly 30 years experience adjusting faulty scales and replacing entire fingerboards with boards that have precision scales that satisfy the client.
DRG: Yeah, but you didn't make this stuff up or pull it out of your ass.
Stanley: No, some of this I came to by beating the bushes for background information, and actively avoiding musical instrument marketing literature because there's so much erroneous info out there. I went back to basic physics for a lot of this stuff, and also for a lot of pickup theory. I don't know what the guitar companies use, but this has been my approach. I call it a unified fret scale. That is, one consistent theoretical string length applied to the entire fingerboard — based on the 12th root of 2 and applied as the 12th root of .5. That loop equation, using the 12th root of 0.5 which I described before to locate the fret slots is really pretty simple — it sounds a lot more complicated than it is.
DRG: Yeah, but it's precise!
Stanley: Only as precise as the work you do to apply it to cutting the slots on thefingerboard. Yes, with careful work it does allow for good precision in the finished board, but when you start talking about the 12th root of something, most people go, arrrrrggggg!
DRG: So guitar companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on CNC machines to cut fret slots . . .
Stanley: And they have mostly gotten better. In the last 15 years, I've seen a big change and most manufacturers have come around to 12th root of 2 unified scales.
DRG: So it's finally getting better?
Stanley: Absolutely, but I spent two years on all this stuff in the mid 70s, when I found out that fret scale problems were a significant issue. By the way, during my first few years in this business, if someone had told me: "You know what? You're going to find that a significant amount of your bushiness is going to be replacing fingerboards — because there are problems in a lot of those fret scales out there" — I would not have believed them. But players just kept coming around saying: "I've got a problem with this" and it still was the last thing I would have thought to look for. It took quite a while before I got around to considering the possibility that there was a problem with where the frets were located.
DRG: So you worked out the math and developed the system, and you made some clear templates for checking scales on existing boards and some metal ones for creating fret slots on new boards. All I know is that every time I brought you a new guitar to work on — the first thing you did was your infamous fret scale survey. You'd put a template on my fingerboard to see what was up with the fret scale, and it invariably ruined my day. And to add insult to injury, you charged me for the survey. (Laughs).
Stanley: I didn’t know my surveys were infamous. Some of those bad scales should be, though. (Chuckles) After I had my work templates made, I then made plastic inspection templates so that I could do those scale surveys efficiently and accurately. So, I made some inspection templates. Here's a few of them:
I use metal work templates in my fret board slotting system, which I designed, built and grafted onto my DeWalt radial arm saw.
When I started looking at the fret scale issue, I found two distinctly separate deviations:
- Randomized errors over a period of time where no two were the same
- Non-unified theoretical string lengths, which appear to be intentional modifications of the fret scale. These take the form of scales having more than one theoretical string length within the fret scale, some with as many as five different theoretical string lengths incorporated in one single fingerboard.
Some of the many fingerboards that Stanley has replaced over the years.
DRG: So let's look at some bad boards. In fact, somewhere in these piles of bad boards is the fingerboard you removed from my Les Paul 20 plus years ago. Let's use that for an example.
Stanley: Well on some of these boards, I've written down what I found, so yes, we can look at that.
DRG: So wow! Here's the old board from my 1954 Les Paul.
Stanley: Right. You can see from the survey that from frets one to five, the fret scale is 24.5, from frets five to 12, the scale is 24.6, from frets 12 to 16, it's 24.7, and (finally) from frets 16 to 22 the scale is 24.75.
DRG: And 24.75 is what we think all Gibson fret scales are supposed to be. But on that board it was only 24.75 from 16 to 22. And the rest of the board was segmented into four different, non-unified scale lengths.
Stanley: Exactly, and this deviation is readily distinguishable from random error by the fact that many, many different examples of this form of error are exactly the same, repeated time and again. I refer to this type of segmented scale as a multi-theoretical string length scale or just multi scale. The practical effect is that the string lengths cannot be set up so that all areas of the neck play reasonably in-tune.
DRG: So if a board is supposed to be 24.75 how do you determine what the scale really is?
Stanley: First, I measure from the fingerboard nut to the 12th fret and multiply by two to get a rough fix on it. Then, I pull out about a half dozen templates and start throwing them down on the fingerboard.
I also use a magnifying loupe with a reticule graduated in five thousandths of an inch to actually survey these boards. So what you'll see is one group of frets will agree with 24.75, and another group correlates with 24.6 and so forth. And where a random scale is all over the place, this is purposeful. There's no two ways about it. You can't look at guitars made over a 40-50 year period and continue to see this pattern without realizing that they meant to do it. And the funny thing to me is: didn't they listen to the results?
The way this affects intonation is that when you try to set up the actual string length, if you set the bridge saddles for the true octave, you find that the 19th fret is sharp. Or if you set it up off the 19th fret, you'll find that the octave is flat. This was obvious to me at the outset even before I had the templates that let me quantify the problem.
DRG: And this will show up when you check it with a strobe tuner, right?
Stanley: I suppose, although I’ve never used a strobe tuner. You can see it using a cheap quartz tuner, but, most importantly you can hear it. I got into this before I owned any kind of pitch reference other than a 440Hz tuning fork, and I found that players were pointing out areas where they heard intonation issues that had errors of just 1 percent of the distance between adjacent frets. This is remarkable and sounds counterintuitive when you consider that this amounts to only 1 cent of pitch. An equal-tempered half tone represents 100 cents of pitch. More so, considering that we tolerate (barely) deviations in equal temperament many times that, such as major thirds that are some 12 cents sharp. However, in doing scale surveys that's where my red flag goes up. This represents just 0.010" where frets are about one inch apart. However, if I couldn't repeatedly turn out fret boards with accuracy of location of about +/- 0.002", I wouldn’t continue doing this. It is important to remember that I didn’t go looking for this issue. It took many players expressing dissatisfaction with the intonation characteristic of their instruments over a period of several years to attract my attention.
DRG: Yeah, the players were hearing it.
Stanley: Yeah. But the way people react to my take on fret scales — they think I've got a bug up my butt about fret scales. It's important, but I don't overemphasize it. There's a lot of other things going on with guitars that are more interesting to me, and I'd rather spend my time on them. To me, this is just a basic design issue that needs to be right so that the instrument doesn't create unnecessary hurdles for the player. I should point out that this is not a major part of what I do anymore. Most manufacturers and builders have come on board with unified scales based on the 12th root of 2, and because of improved production practices and CNC machines, randomized errors have become rare. You see it in some cheap, import instruments, but the problem has largely been eliminated and the electric guitar market is way better these days.
DRG: Well, when you have a bad fret scale, whether it's due to randomized error, or a non-unified scale, it can seem like the guitar is not staying in tune. You can tune it for one position or another, but you cannot get it to play in tune all over the neck.
Stanley: Right. You can't. Interestingly, many players contending with faulty scales think they are dealing with a pitch stability problem such as string slippage, sloppy tuners, rather than intonation.
Finally, I got to the point where I'd heard from enough people that I thought there's really something wrong here. So I spent almost two years looking at how various people had confronted the issues of intonation and temperament over the last 500 years. Once I settled on a unified scale and built my template system, I could survey or calculate a practical fret scale for almost any instrument. Anyway, look at this:
Here's a particularly bad scale on a US Guitar Kit instrument (above). The fret scale is all over the place. The fingerboard nut is flat by 33/1000 of an inch, and some of frets are off in the 20s. A few are right on indicated by star), but 7-11 are sharp, then 13-18 are flat again and so on.
DRG: And I have a Strat with a Musikraft neck where you found that — I can't remember which way it went, but either all the even frets ran sharp, and all the odd frets ran flat — or vice versa, and we replaced the board. That seems like a machine thing rather than human error.
Stanley: Yeah, it probably is. Perhaps it's a glitch in the work process. And now look here:
Here are surveys for a 60s SG and a practically new SG. Look at how similar they are. They aren't exactly the same, but they're close. And that's how all Gibsons tend to look. The first four frets are typically 24.5, and in the upper end, the frets are somewhere around 24.75, sometimes running out as high as 24.85.
DRG: So when you see a board like the one on my old Les Paul where it's one scale here, another there, and two more up the neck, what is your fix for that?
Stanley: Usually I look for a scale that will be in tune with the existing bridge location. On most of these Gibson short scales I use 24.6".
DRG: So the fret scale is 24.6 all the way up the board. So when you finish with a board it's in one scale from end to end. A unified scale.
Stanley: Exactly. And nearly all manufacturers and builders except these folks have come to recognize the validity of this.
DRG: But you're saying "these folks" still have not caught on to that.
Stanley: No. About two to three years ago, I saw a Les Paul Studio that had a unified scale on it, and I thought: Well they finally came around! But I have never seen another one.
DRG: Maybe someone re-did the board?
Stanley: It looked like original factory work. It's probably too much to expect that somebody else would be as into it as I am, plus it was a fairly new instrument. It hadn't been around long enough to get much work done on it. But that was the only one. Martin, on the other hand, had a flirtation with multi-scale, but it never really showed up much because people were playing mostly cowboy chords near the headstock, and even virtuosic bluegrass players weren't doing much playing past the 10th fret, which was where the dividing point was. But about three years ago, they went to a unified scale. 25.3" I think.
DRG: So we've discussed Gibson fret scale issues a lot. What's going on with the Fender boards?
Stanley: Well, prior to about the late 70s, a fairly recognizable amount of random error. Unified scales, but random errors. You'd rarely see two Fenders that would survey exactly the same. Then, also in the 70s came the Japanese Squire production . . . spot on. Dead on. Then in about 1980, bingo, the American Fender production all of the sudden snapped into place. So they must have re-tooled at that point, and got a more precise operation. Now, Fender stuff seems to be looking a little shakier again. And I presume that it's time for them to re-tool again. They're still pretty good and generally acceptable, but I'm not seeing spot-on surveys as often. I never got a look at enough examples from the first five years of Fender production in the early 50s to see what the story was then. Most were from the 60s and 70s, when that gear would have been worn out, or maybe it was a more primitive type of setup that didn't provide as much precision.
You know, it's a pretty expensive job to replace a board.
DRG: You're telling me! I've had you do two of them back when your rates were way lower!
Stanley: (In 2008) It’s over $1000 for an unbound fingerboard with dot inlays, and good deal more than that for Gibson style boards with bound edge fingerboards and their inlays. Some people think this is nit-picking or whatever, but you know, my underlying philosophy is that people in my end of the business exist to make things as easy as possible for the player. A guitar is not a real easy instrument to play anyway, so anything you have to spend extra energy on takes away from what you can put into the music. To me, there's no reason to put up with a problem when you know what the solution is. Everyone ought to have the benefit of a level playing field.
The preceding discussion on fret scales is designed to promote awareness of issues that may or may not affect you. It is important to note and remember that rock music history has been made, recorded with, and played live, with thousands of guitars that most likely had "imperfect" fret scales. Millions of musicians and fans never noticed or heard a problem, much less complained about it. Probably because guitarists who hear tuning/intonation problems severe enough to bother them don't typically dwell on the reasons why it is happening. They usually just get rid of the particular guitar and replace it with one where such issues are imperceptible. This is a perfectly valid solution.
The key thing to take away from this discussion — and Richard and I can't emphasize it enough — is this: If you don't hear a problem, you don't have a problem.
DRG: Let's move on and talk about the actual fret work. It's a lot of what you do. And people who know your work rave about your fret work.
Stanley: If you work on fretted instruments you're going to spend a lot of time looking at frets and working on them. It'’s about the least sexy job you do in this business, but it is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. Frets are obviously important to the player — the pattern of the fret itself, how it's mounted in the fingerboard, and how well it's finished. This is the other thing that mystifies me. When you look at all of the guitars out there, it would appear that few manufacturers and builders appreciate this. It takes at least an hour to properly work up a set of frets. When you consider that many of the instruments we are familiar with are built in about 15 operator hours from raw materials in to finished product out, I guess you can understand why manufacturers don’t feel they can spend the extra time to really do the fret job properly. You see this even on $2,000 and $3,000 instruments.
DRG: On guitars that cost that much, you're supposedly paying for a better job.
Stanley: Yes. In all guitars, that price should get you something quite a bit better than average. But the thing about fretwork is that it is boring and dirty work. I get excited by things like desigining bridges, pickups, and re-voicing acoustics. Those things are interesting. But there's no mystery to frets for someone like me, who deals with them day in and day out. Doing fretwork aggravates tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. But it's so damned important to the player! I would take myself out of the business if I found that I couldn't put the proper amount of work and patience into producing excellent fret jobs every time, whether it's for one of my own from the beginning, or a follow-up job.
DRG: If someone brings a guitar to you for a re-fret. Assuming they're not replacing their board or anything — they just want new frets of the type they choose. What's involved? How long does it take? What's your philosophy?
Stanley: One thing that may sound obvious but is important is the fret wire pattern or size. I still run into players who think that when they replace frets they have to use exactly the same kind of fret wire that was in there originally. But fret wire is like guitar picks. Nobody should tell you what to use. Figure out what suits you best. The only way I try to influence players when it comes to choosing fret wire is to steer them away from fret wire with a crown less than a 0.040" high. Anything less allows for only one or two facings at the most. From my own clients and personal experience I feel that a fret that is 0.035" high or lower is unplayable.
DRG: True. You actually put Dunlop Jumbos in my Martin acoustic to improve the playability. The sustain increased, too.
Stanley: Unfortunately, an awful lot of instruments get shipped with undersize fret wire. When players complain about playability, almost all of them think that their guitar doesn't play well because the strings are too high. More of the time, it's because the frets are too low. When frets are too low, particularly on a steel string instrument, your fingers are into the fingerboard before you can close the string adequately to the fret. Also, bending is more difficult on low frets. This is why I end up re-fretting a certain number of new guitars every year. Players recognize it. A lot of them will try to use the original frets as long as they can, and then up the fret wire size when they replace them.
DRG: What is the turnaround time?
Stanley: It can vary quite a bit. Generally, one to two weeks. Bound edge boards take longer than un-bound boards. Maple fingerboards take longer because they must be re-finished before the new frets go in, and I have to the mask the fingerboard to protect it during the fret finishing operation.
Often overlooked is the need to at least trim, if not re-cut the fingerboard before I put in the new frets. Doing first-time re-frets reveals that many instruments have irregularities in the board such as bumps, dips, or too much residual warp. Some irregularities develop over time. The fingerboard must be true along its length and well faired, or even across the radius before I can re-fret. If these irregularities in the fingerboard surface are not corrected beforehand, you wind up having to compensate for them later in the fret leveling operation. That results in frets of inconsistent size and shape.
DRG: So you're planing the board flat?
Stanley: Not flat, but rather true and fair. The fingerboard shape is quite complicated since it is tapered and, the way I shape a board, the arch across the board is not a simple radius. The contour changes along the length, becoming something like what is referred to as a compound radius. A fingerboard well shaped for good playability generally has a less pronounced shape toward the upper register. I don't use a plane because with the type of woods commonly used for boards, and with all those cross-grain cuts for the fret slots, a plane would pull up wood chips left and right. I use a tool called a scraper plane. The blade is a piece of metal that is ground perfectly square on the working edge and is mounted in the body leaning forward so the tool sort of drags the blade across the wood. The working edge is burnished to produce a slightly hooked shape and is work hardened by the burnishing, making it last longer. I made the one I use out of maple. It's a simple tool that lets me work even curly and bird's eye woods without pulling up chips.
Then, to get a fret slot that's appropriately sized for the fret, I need to custom fit them. If, for example if I'm putting in a bigger fret than the original, I have to adjust the slot. It is possible to force the neck into a reverse warp if you set the frets too tightly in the board. So I use tool that looks like a small linoleum knife, saws, and wire gauge drill bits in the range 0.024"– 0.030." For precision, I chuck them in the flexible shaft of a hand held motorized tool, such as Dremel and use it like you'd use a router bit. A perversion of tool use, but it produces uniform depth and width in the slots whereas when you use a saw, you can easily saw too deep, and on a lower radius board, like a Fender, a saw tends to enlarge the width of the slot near its ends.
I set frets looser than most people do, and I've been setting frets this way for decades. I notice that Robert Benedetto, the high-end arch-top builder, does his frets exactly like I do. I set them in a wider slot so that they don't have to be hammered in, but rather tapped in lightly and bedded in epoxy. And this is the only way I'd set frets.
DRG: Everyone else uses CA (super glue)?
Stanley: If they use anything. A lot of people don't use glue at all, and the ones who use super glue don't usually glue the whole thing. They do spot, spot, spot — the ends and the middle. I use five minute epoxy because it has better gap-filling properties than CA glue. And the epoxy is tougher and more resilient. CA glue cures out more brittle — which works great for fixing chips in the finish. But it's not good for setting frets because it doesn't give at all. When you go to remove frets, set with CA glue, you can frequently pull them without heating. Players ask if epoxied frets are difficult to remove. You just take a soldering tip and flow a hot bead of solder to conduct the heat to the fret more rapidly on the top of the fret to heat it up, and I can pull it out with nippers.
When setting frets I mix up the epoxy, and apply it with a palette knife, totally filling the slot. Then tap the fret in, and clean up the excess epoxy. I do three to five frets at a time before I have to mix up some more epoxy. Another thing I do — particularly in re-frets — since the fit may not be uniform — and the fret may not stay down tight to the board, is I scrape the fingerboard with a razor, then burnish the shavings into the area where the fret meets the fingerboard. This way, if the fret isn't perfectly seated, there won't be a gap under it.
DRG: I thought the main reason you used the epoxy is because it prevents the frets from moving or popping up when the humidity changes.
Stanley: Epoxy maintains its character over a wide range of humiditiy and temperatures, up to something like 130° Fahrenheit or so. They literally won't move with epoxy. If you try to pull them out without heating them, you'll tear up the board. I just recently saw two boards I had re-fretted over 20 years ago, and not one fret on either board had moved — not a bit! If you don't glue frets down, three months later, when the first seasonal change hits, the leveling job will be upset. You go through a wet season, the wood expands. In the next dry season, the wood contracts leaving the frets loose. Frets that appear to be well set may be loose enough to diminish sustain and tone. A fret can appear to be tight, and have a perfect finish on it, but can even produce a fuzzy buzzing noise — almost like common fret noise buzzing on the next fret ahead — and it will cut into sustain.
DRG: I can tell you that the ones you did for me over 20 years ago are still going strong. So you've set the frets, cleaned and burnished them. What's next?
Stanley: Well, then I cut off the excess from the ends of the frets and I bevel them with a relatively coarse file at the edge of the board. I shape the end of the fret to blend into the fingerboard, so that it's nice and smooth against the player's hand as it slides it up and down the neck. I think everyone has owned a guitar with fret edges that could make you bleed. No good!
The next step is to level the frets. Fret wire tolerances vary — some manufacturers quote as much as +/- 0.005" — and that means the crown heights might be off that much even if they're all set perfectly. So, using a relatively coarse file, I go over them, and knock down the high frets. Hopefully there won't be one fret that's lower than all the rest making it necessary to bring down all the others. After I level them, the frets will have flattened tops with sharp corners along their length. So then I have to go over them with a dedicated fret file. These files come in many widths and grits. The best ones have diamond cutting surfaces.
Next I re-crown the fret by filing it. Get it back to a uniform shape, and get rid of the hard edges. The crown of typical fret wire, which is all you see when the fret is mounted, is roughly hemispherical in shape usually about twice as wide as it is high. Re-crowning and polishing is the most time consuming part of fretting, but if the frets seat uniformly less work is required at this stage. Even more work is required to properly shape and finish the ends.
It's more than half the whole job — doing the ends the first time. It takes a lot of filing with several different kinds of files. This is why — of all the things about fret jobs — you just never see the ends done well.
DRG: Except on your boards!
Stanley: Well, thanks, but on anything you happen to buy. I mean, I really hope I'm not the only person who does a fret job right. This would be a terrible world if that's the case, but I've seen maybe only a few dozen instruments with fret jobs I would call acceptable if I were turning them out. The rest are usually poor to outrageously bad. Once the crowning and the ends are done, I use sandpaper, starting with a 320 grit silicon carbide paper, and moving on to 400, 500, 600, etc. For finer polishing work, I also use some 3M micro grade papers up to 8000 grit, that's one micron grit size!. The frets look great when they're done. You can see your face in them when you get close. But it's not for the sake of appearance. When a fret is in good playing shape, that's just what it looks like. It sparkles. It takes somewhere between 2000 and 3000 filing and sanding strokes per fret job. Theres the tendinitis/carpal tunnel factor.
DRG: So how long does the whole re-fret job take? Not replacing the board or anything. Just a standard re-fret.
Stanley: Once I've trimmed up the fingerboard and resized the fret slots, I'm still looking at maybe three hours to set the frets, clip the ends, bevel them, and such. It'd be hard to do it in less than three hours. My current flat rate (in 2008) for just the fret job, fingerboard trim not included unbound boards, $375, bound boards $475, but it's always more than that because I have to trim/true, or both. Some people in this business don't do that and you wind up with frets that show the unevenness of the fingerboard. Then you have to take it out of the frets, which results in an uneven fret job again. It's like everything else in that the prep work is almost more important. And as I said, it's a lot of unsexy work. You can work yourself sore. But it's so important. It's really gratifying to see a player who's been struggling with old frets come in and pick up their guitar and play it with the new frets. They're like: ahhhhhhhhhh (they smile). I tell them, "that's just the way it ought to be." It's a sad commentary on the state of this business that people think it's almost supernatural when they get a properly finished fret job, because you hardly ever see it. It's just the way the job ought to be done, damn it!
DRG: Yeah, it's true. I have a Gibson Custom Shop Iommi SG — that cost an awful lot for an SG — and it has, supposedly, their best people, doing their best work on their product. It's not atrocious, though some of them can be. It was an acceptable job (to me) so I left that one alone, but it doesn't compare to the fret jobs you've done for me. They can't possibly put that kind of time into it. And while your job costs a lot of money by comparison, the fret job you did on my Les Paul back in 87 is still going strong. So depending on how much you play the guitar, the fret job could last 10, 20 years.
Stanley: Yes and besides the quality of the work when the frets are put in, how subsequent refacing jobs are handled greatly affects the life of the frets. I can get four refacing jobs out of medium size frets, but if they are re-leveled carelessly, and more of the fret crown is removed than is necessary, it is possible to waste a set of frets in just one facing session. None of the mass producers, or even the custom builders put in the time it takes to really finish frets well. Another factor that applies here is that among custom builders, and particularly acoustic guitar builders, there's a bit of an attitude that woodwork and metal work are two different realms and the attitude is often: as a high class luthier, I do woodwork, but I don't want to get my hands dirty doing metalwork. Part of what drives me, aside from a dedication to just doing the job right for the person I'm working for, is that I want to like the way it looks when I'm done with it. You’ve heard of the Plek machine? The very expensive computer controlled fret leveling and finishing machine — I tell people I’m better than Plek. I've made a lot of my own tools and I really like the stuff that I've made out of metal. I love getting a piece of bar stock or flat stock and starting to saw it out, and file it. I particularly like making a bridge, and then getting it down to where I put the finish on it, and it just looks good. I get a kick out of that. But the most important thing is doing the work right for the player
DRG: So, now that we've talked about some of the unsexy work you do. Let's talk about one of the subjects that I know interests you a lot. Pickups. Tell us briefly about pickup voicing.
Stanley: There's an array of considerations in voicing pickups. I'll give you the short version of what the factors are:
- Turns count — how many turns of wire in the entire coil. Average pickups have about 8,000 – 10,000 turns, approximately a mile of wire. This affects voicing directly through the inductance which varies as the square of the turns count and distributed capacity which varies with the thickness of the insulation thickness, the diameter of the wire, and the layup pattern.
- Layup style or pattern — whether you lay-up the wire evenly, back and forth, layer and skip back, do a skew or honeycomb winding. Those have different voicing properties.
- Choice of wire — though most standard pickups are wound with 42 gauge wire, I also use 41, 41.5 and 42.5 gauge wires — all in single coat or double coat insulation. In general, if you want a brighter pickup, you use a heavier gauge wire, with heavier insulation.
I never wind a pickup with just one wire anymore. Mine are multi-wire or multi-filar pickups. I may start with 42 gauge single coat and then go to 41.5 double coat or something like that. This increases the interest in the sound of the pickups. When you use one wire, you get a simple resonance characteristic. When you use different wires and different layup patterns, you get more complicated characteristics. It's kind of like the difference between a single driver speaker system and a dual or tri-driver system. In a mono speaker, you get a response curve with one bump in it. You get two or three drivers in the system, you get two or three bumps, and the response curve starts to even out more. Also, think of the sound of mono-wood guitars. It's similar when you start playing with some of these variables in a pickup. You get more bumps in the response pattern. There is just more to hear, more color in the sound. Having found that, I would never go back to winding mono wire pickups again. Whether they're single coil or humbucking, I always do multi-wire. I don't think anyone else is into it, and I don't think anyone is into the importance of layup patterns either. I never use the same pattern from start to finish. I'll use at least two patterns, sometimes three. Also, I usually do not use the same wire (gauge or insulation thickness) from start to finish. To me, pickup design is as interesting as the top design in an acoustic. There's a lot going on in there, and that's not even considering the magnets or the geometry of the whole pickup. There's a whole evolution in pickup design just waiting to be explored. For the most part manufacturers have been coasting on 60 year old design concepts in this department.
Pinched Coils in Single Coil Pickups
DRG: I want to talk a bit about a pickup issue I had never heard of until you alerted me to it a few years back when I was building my Strat. The pinched coil problem. I came to you and said, "I want to use these pickups." And you said, "have you tested the pickups for pinched coil?"
Stanley: OK, pinched coil is the most obvious recurring failure mode in single coil pickups. It's not a factor in humbuckers because the construction is different. Pickup wire — it's called copper magnet wire — looks like bare wire, but it has insulation on it or it would be useless for a pickup. The wire typically is in the range of 0.002" diameter, so it pretty delicate stuff. And the insulation coating is barely a few 10 thousandths of an inch thick. So there's not much there. When you build a pickup, the wire has to be handled in a way that doesn't jeopardize it. The insulation can easily be scraped off in the winding process, which results in shorted turns. It must be wound on the bobbin frame very carefully. All the surfaces of the wire guides and the tensioning system that the wire passes through must be perfectly clean and smooth.
It's easy to see how vulnerable the wire is. It's packed in there pretty tight in those corners where the magnets go through the bobbin flanges. As the pickup rotates on the winder it puts a lot of pressure on the ends. Many single coil pickups still use cardboard bobbin flanges which can move and flex since they aren't glued to the magnets. So what happens is that with a little bit of flexing, the coil wire can get pinched between the bobbin and the magnet. And that causes electrical continuity with the magnet. It still sounds totally normal, but the signal-to-noise ratio will be worse than what it usually is with single coil pickups. God knows they're noisy anyway! Then, more often than not, sooner or later, the wire that's pinched in there, breaks, and at that point you have an open circuited coil resulting in reduced volume and almost no bass response. If the break is near the grounded end of the coil, the volume won't change much, but you'll lose all the bass. It starts to sound like the worst, tinniest sounding pickup you ever heard.
The way you detect pinched coil is to take an ohm meter and check from the terminals to the magnets on the high range of the meter, and if you see continuity between the wire and any of the magnets, you'll know it's pinched.
Testing for pinched coil with the meter's probes on one output terminal and an end magnet. The display shows just 2Ω (ohm), indicating nearly a dead short between the magnet and output.
I actually see quite a few bad-out-of-the-box aftermarket single coil pickups with pinched coils. And it's mainly because they aren't put together properly with adequate protection. When players bring me pickups to install, the first thing I do is check them, or I tell the player, "if you own an ohm meter, check them yourself." Take the meter to the store and try it, because you will run into this problem. I found — through my client's pickups — one high profile manufacturer that routinely turns out pickups that have pinched coil right out-of-the-box. My client got a replacement for the first set that was bad, and the second set was bad too. The company said: "That can't be — we lacquer the magnets so that can't happen." Well in the first year I was doing pickups, I learned what happens when you lacquer the bobbin and the magnets. Some of the solvents that are in lacquers are also common to the insulation on the wire. If you lacquer the magnets, then put the wire directly on the magnets, when you wax dip the coil, it heats up the lacquer, and the lacquer off-gasses some of the solvents, and it melts that really thin insulation off the wire. Not only do you wind up with pinched coils and wire that is in continuity with one or more of the magnets, but you also wind up with shorted turns. I discovered this by trial-and-error while building pickups, because it was the first thing I tried. I made a pickup with lacquer on the magnets, and I checked it when I was done, and said: whoa — wait a minute. The resistance was lower than I knew it should be — as a result of shorted turns. And then I found that half of the magnets had continuity to them. I figured it out pretty quickly that the lacquer was melting the insulation. So hence, varnish — not lacquer.
The single coil pickup is very a useful design, but fairly primitive. It's typically made with fiberboard — which is just fancy cardboard. Also, the exposed wire comes off the coil and goes to these little eyelets on the bottom edge. Sometimes the eyelets can rotate and break the wire and the wire is exposed between where it comes off the coil and the terminals.
These days, I build what I feel is a fully realized version of a single coil pickup that replaces the cardboard bobbins with glass epoxy flat stock. I make the bobbins out of that and glue the magnets in top and bottom, inside and out, with low viscosity CA glue. I put in a ground buss, and a separate terminal for it on the bottom so that all the magnets are grounded. Traditionally, single coils are always wound directly onto the magnets, but I tape over the magnets to insulate the wire — getting the wire off the magnets — single coils are traditionally wound directly onto the magnets, and then varnish it. Then it is ready for winding. After it's wound, I wax dip the coil and tape over it. In my improved design, I position the wire terminals in closer to expose less wire, and I use threaded brass studs in place of the eyelets. I also add grounded shielding and then wax the whole thing into the cover, if present, to further reduce microphonic potential and protect against damage from sweat, etc. That makes a good quality version of it without denaturing the way the pickup sounds. I have also always been bugged by the weakness of the high E string and the way the G string wails over the others in the traditional staggered pattern. So I developed a staggered magnet pattern that really balances the output among the six strings effectively.
DRG: Let's talk, briefly, about the other thing you should throw a meter on: pots.
Stanley: The tonal, or EQ balance of the signal at the jack is greatly influenced by the control circuit components. So, by using different values of components, you can push the output response curve around. The first point to consider is that pickups are inductive devices. When inductive devices are loaded by a resistance — such as a volume pot — that volume pot is actually shunting the output of the pickup. It always tapers down the high end response. Apart from whatever other effect is has, the resistance of the pot affects the EQ balance. The actual value of the pot is very important because if you know where you want to go with the tonal balance of a system, and you choose pots of the correct values, you can achieve the desired result. Specifically, lower value pots load the output of the pickup more and reduce the highs. In the extreme, you lose some volume also.
The problem is most pots are made for applications where this variance is not so crucial. Nobody makes pots truly geared for use in passive circuit electric guitars, where you want a specific value for the overall resistance. Manufacturers tolerance specs on pots was always +/- 25% — which is unbelievable — because that means a nominal 500KΩ pot could be anywhere between 400KΩ to 625KΩ. Suppose a player had a 500KΩ pot in your guitar, and I put in a 625KΩ pot. It's going to sound so much brighter that the player will think I swapped his pickup in the process rather than the pot. Or if you go down in value a lot, the guitar will sound dead and lifeless in the upper end. When I'm replacing pots in a guitar, I don't use any that are more than +/- 10KΩ away from the value of the original pot I'm replacing so that I retain the instrument’s voicing just the way it is. Because anything more tham +/- 10KΩ is enough to hear the difference.
When I get potentiometers in, I measure them all with an ohm meter. For example, here are three pots that were sold to me as 250KΩ pots, and I've marked them with the values I took off them with the meter. Here's one that's 219K, one that's 248K, one that's 270K. That's a pretty fair spread.
Another thing that's important is minimum wiper resistance. I reject any pot with a wiper resistance of over 40Ω and I would rather they be not more than 10Ω. This sounds counterintuitive when you consider that the D.C. resistance of most pickups is at least 6KΩ, but a minimum wiper resistance of 100Ω can definitely produce audible problems and I like to stay well below that. High wiper resistance on the lower end prevents the pot from closing down to ground so that you can't roll volume all the way off. This is most often a problem with high output heavy metal type pickups. High wiper resistance on the high end of the pot may reduce signal to noise ratio and affect the quality of the output signal.
I also like to trim and balance the volume and tone pots. Audio taper pots are widely used in these circuits, and un-trimmed volume pots are always very fast on the top end. Fifty percent of volume change occurs between 7 and 10 on the knob. The tone control is usually the opposite — threre's no change until you get down to around 2 or 3. The way I get the tone and volume controls balanced is to make the value of the tone control about half to two thirds that of the volume pot, using audio tapered pots which have 50 percent of the resistance change in 20 percent of the rotation. If you use a 1 megΩ volume pot, use a 500KΩ tone pot, or a 500KΩ volume pot with a 250KΩ tone pot. Then to trim the action of the volume pot, I add a resistor and a capacitor of the appropriate values between the input side of the pot and the wiper. The actual values depend on the design of the pickup and the value of the pot. They're not always the same, but the average, say for a single coil circuit is an 80K-100KΩ resistor and a 1000 Pico Farad capacitor. For humbuckers, the value of the resistor will be a little higher and the value of the capacitor will be a little lower, such as a 200KΩ resistor and a 400-500 Pico Farad cap. This simultaneously kills three birds with one stone. It linearizes rotation and EQ, and stabilizes the signal-to-noise ratio so that when you turn it down half way, you don't have more noise.
DRG: And we should point out, that as complicated as this all sounds, this is a relatively cheap and easy mod. How much time does this take and how much does it run?
Stanley: To really balance the circuit, I have to at least change the tone pot. More often, I wind up redoing the whole original circuit. But if you just want to trim the existing volume pot, on some guitars, I can do it in 20-25 minutes for less than $50. To do the job properly, I hook up resistor and capacitor substitution boxes to the circuit and dial up the values, which I arrive at by ear.
DRG: It's well worth doing. It's one of those things you'll really like having once it's done. You'll find you'll use your volume pots a whole lot more if you have them trimmed for a gradual taper from 0-10.
DRG: You say roughly half your work is acoustic guitars. What I want to know is why it's so hard to find a good acoustic guitar today, as opposed to a decent electric guitar. It seems you really have to hunt for a good acoustic today — at any price point, compared to what I hear it used to be like in the 60s and earlier. Is it about wood availability or what?
Stanley: There's been some de-evolution in certain design aspects that have negatively impacted structural integrity and tone quality, as well as some degradation in workmanship. Finding high quality tone woods has become more difficult, but I've heard enough really good guitars built out of grade level lumber — nothing exceptional — to believe that if you build it right, you can make a good sounding instrument using cheaper woods. If you're going to build a superlative instrument, you want superlative woods to start with.
But even good old Martin. I see things going on inside their guitars — they've made some design changes that I would never ever do. Things that compromise the structural integrity around the neck block. They put in a neck rod system that caused them to cut through the top of the guitar, near where the neck joins the body. In all acoustic flat top guitars, some very important transverse bracing goes through there. That area needs to be stiff to support the pressure that results from the string tension. Martin and some other companies cut through the transverse bracings there, seriously compromising the integrity. Also, many builders fail to compensate for the effects of cutaway design when bracing this area. Some are also cutting through the end block to make room for the neck rod. The net effect of those two moves is that the whole area where the neck mounts is not as stable as it was in the old designs. And when they removed so much wood for the neck rod they didn't seem to think about how that would affect the tone quality.
If you look at old Martins, the necks were cut only just enough to house whatever kind of bar they were using at the time. Large rod-in-channel rod systems take up so much room in the neck that the inherent stiffness of the neck is weakened enough to exacerbate wolf note, or dead spot issues. You can feel the difference by comparing the older, pre 1989 necks, with the newer ones by flexing the neck in your hands. I view putting adjustable neck rods in those instruments as a very bad move, unless you minimize the cutout so that it's only just wide enough to accommodate the rod. Neck resonance characteristics have a considerable influence on tone. I replace those rod systems with a 3/16" diameter rod so that I only remove a minimal amount of neck wood. My replacements also work much better. Most rod-in-channel designs, wherever you find them, do not function well at all. For that matter, at least half of all neck rods barely function at all, and, of the rest, only about half of those work at all like they should. An efficient rod should be capable of putting the neck through a range of 0.030" in the warp spec.
You see a lot of attention paid to scalloped versus straight bracing, relative to voicing. It is clear that the more important point is the dimensioning of the parts. Martin went off scalloped bracing following WWII, and actually a lot of people — me included — think that the post-war guitars were some of the best they ever made. They had non-scalloped bracing, but the proportioning of it was still light. Another important design consideration is bridge patches — sometimes called bridge plates. In the 70s they started using bridge plates that are both thicker than the original designs and about three times larger.
They have such a bad effect on tone that there is a company that makes a heating device specifically designed to remove them. An oversize bridge plate can drastically limit tone in an otherwise well proportioned instrument. You can do everything else right in a guitar, and if it has one of these big bridge patches in it, it's never never gonna have the sound. In recognition of this, Martin has gone back to more appropriately sized bridge patches.
DRG: Assuming you can't spend a fortune, what should someone be looking for in an acoustic guitar. What are the critical areas?
Stanley: Well, for one, resign yourself to the idea that you're not going to get good size fret wire. Everyone building flat top steel string seems to be using undersize fret wire. You can replace that later. Most importantly, you have to find a guitar that feels good and sounds good to you. You can't really go in with an inspection mirror and a flashlight and look. But if you looked inside a good sounding acoustic, you'd find that the bracing is lighter than in a poorer sounding instrument. You would find the bridge patch is thinner and smaller. You'd notice that pretty quickly. But pay more attention to whether it feels good and sounds right. Don't pay any attention to the name. Put a bag over it's head. Don't be positively or negatively influenced by the name, because I've seen many decent cheap flat tops. And I've also upgraded many of them into better-than-average instruments. In the final analysis the criterion should be what floats your boat?
DRG: Here's what Richard did to my Martin CEO-4. To improve playability:
- Adjusted the neck rod for the lowest feasible action, and then trimmed the fingerboard down to remove excess warp.
- Put in Dunlop jumbo (6000) frets
Then to improve the sound, he:
- Shaved the bracings to revoice the guitar for a more even tone.
- Compensated and replaced the nut with one he hand made from Corian.
- Replaced the bridge saddle with an ivory one.
- Did one of his own mods where he puts a plaquette inside under the bridge. This increased sustain and definition in the high mids and highs.
- Put a B-Band electret-condenser pickup under the bridge, so the guitar is now acoustic/electric.
- Unrelated to tone, he also installed straplocks.
Stanley: Another reason it's a little harder to find a good acoustic now is high-volume mass production. Martin, for example, hit the one million guitars mark about four or five years ago. It took them about 150 years to build the first half million, and it took them just 15 years to build the second half million. Even if you take into account that the whole company is bigger, and the production is mechanized — still — that tells you something. So craftsmanship took a bit of a beating along the way. And there was a lot of over-building, particularly in the 70s, over dimensioning everything from the top wood, to the bracing. You cannot build a good sounding instrument that is overweight.
DRG: Do you think you can get a really good acoustic out of a production company right now? From Martin, or Taylor, or Gibson, or whoever?
Stanley: Well, I think companies like Santa Cruz and Collings, two lesser-known outfits, do pretty good in the $2,500 to $3,500 range. However, variability among individuals guitars of the same model can be significant. You can look at ten examples of the same guitar, and maybe the 11th one — for whatever reason — is just better. I just helped a client pick out a classical guitar in the low-end range around the $300. I looked at two Yamahas — one had a laminate top, and the other had solid spruce. Usually, that's a defining mark right there. Generally, laminate top guitars don't sound as good as spruce tops. But I played both instruments, and we ended up getting the one with the laminate top, because not only was it $40 cheaper, it clearly sounded better. I was shaking my head in disbelief, because I'd never seen a case where laminate beat out solid spruce, but it just goes to show you that other variables can trump materials.
Free Association With Richard
DRG: OK, we're running out of tape here, so I was gonna do the old psychiatric trick and do some free association with you, where I name a guitar, and you tell me what comes to mind about the guitar, good, bad, problems, or whatever.
Stanley: OK. But before we do, I'd like to say that while I'm in a business where a lot of what I do is problem solving, it is important to recognize that all these instruments have positive features as well.
DRG: Gibson Les Paul
Stanley: I liked them better when I was a kid. Like many young players, I was more focused on cosmetics than functionality or the sound. I think this is why we still see a lot of focus on funny body shapes and paint jobs. I liked the more traditional looking Gibsons better than the Strat, but I was never able to afford one at the time. The closest that I came was a Les Paul Junior. The Les Paul, as it was built in the early 50s — fret scale aside — there was good consistent workmanship, with nice finishes. The early sunbursts were really nice compared to how Fender was doing bursts back then. They are also a bit easier to play, due to the shorter scale. The unique sound of the humbucking pickup appealed to me back them, too. Nothing really sounds quite like that neck position humbucker. Bigger signal, focused in a different place. Lower voiced, higher impedance. And they used to be put together really well. From a repair standpoint, a little harder to deal with due to the bound fingerboard. Always a more complicated re-fret. You can strip down a Fender faster. A lot of headstock repairs. Those necks are weak in that area where you access the neck rod. Probably 85 percent of all the peghead repairs I've ever done are on Gibson necks. Guild has a similar rod design, except they didn't hollow out so much of that area around the access to the rod. Guild managed to maintain the integrity of the neck structure there. The only broken Fender peghead I ever saw had been vandalized on purpose.
DRG: Gibson SG
Stanley: Very bad for the left hand position. When you're wearing it, first position is way out in left field. Almost all of them develop a compound warp neck deformation somewhere along the way. Lack of stability. You can pull the neck out of tune very easily because the necks are so whippy. The whole neck — all 22 frets — are free of the body. Very weak neck/body joint. A lot of the early ones have very thin neck profiles, so if you just pull on those necks a bit, you can pull them out of tune. I would never own one. I always found them uncomfortable, but it's great for playing in the upper register, and they are light, too.
DRG: Gibson Flying Vs and Explorers
Stanley: Hate em! They're terrible on the bench! They stick out all over the place. They don't even fit on my bench. To me, they're both amazingly impractical designs. Classic examples of something for the sake of aesthetics only. I would never own one. Some of the Vs with those mini hum-buckers are really good sounding instruments. Good sustain on the V, too.
Stanley: Some of the same problems as Gibson. I haven't seen one in ages, but I think they inherited some of Gibson’s tooling and they have the same fret scale issues.
DRG: Paul Reed Smith.
Stanley: High marks for workmanship and quality control.
DRG: Even now?
Stanley: Well . . . I would have to say I've not seen enough of them compared to those from the early years. But for the first 10 or 15 years they were around, unbeatable for consistency. Unified, accurate fret scales. No random errors. Basic workmanship was really tight. On the objective points, it was an outstanding item.
DRG: Fender Telecaster
Stanley: Teles, I never thought I cared for them that much, and then a few years ago I got done working on one, and I was playing it, and I thought: I like this a lot more than I thought I did. And it got me thinking: what am I reacting to, what do I like about it, and what don't I like? Pretty fast, I realized I was getting off on the string tone related to the bridge design. I like that Tele twang. What I don't like: the way it hangs on a strap is not as optimal as on a Strat. Square edge body — not as comfortable. Two pickups — not as versatile. Terrible neck pickup design — it's too small and virtually useless. I've never had anyone ask me to rebuild one, and I've had a lot of players ask me to replace them with other pickups. So that got me thinking, the best of all possible worlds for me would be to have that Tele string tone with the feel of a Strat and my own Self-Q© circuit which builds on the versatility of the Strat circuit. So I thought about how I would I do that? I considered mounting the bridge exactly as it is on the Tele, but I decided against that because then it would sound exactly like a Tele I wanted to hear something different, in particular I wanted to have the sustain of the whammy bar bridge. So I built a sort of hybrid demo instrument incorporating these features: good intonation, excellent fret work, and a highly versatile control circuit.
I wanted to keep some of the Stratocaster quality in the bridge, along with the Tele plate. So I wound up bolting the Tele bridge plate to the Strat trem block and then mounting that solid. The bridge plate is actually suspended, up off the body. There are some dynamics in that plate because it's not resting on anything. I have brass barrels on this, but I would like to hear the sound with steel barrels. I had vintage hardened steel Strat saddles on it first. It's a real mongrel with some of the qualities of both the Tele and Strat. I use it to this day to demonstrate my fret work, pickup designs, and control circuit mod. I incorporated all these mods into an instrument I just finished for a client who had played my modified demo guitar and liked it.
DRG: Fender Stratocasters.
Stanley: Single greatest solid-body guitar anyone has ever come up with! In almost 40 years of working on guitars, I don't think I've ever gone a week without at least one Strat in the shop. Last week there were four of them in here. Not because they have more problems, just because there are so many of them! While I'll acknowledge the widely recognized difficulties with to the fingerboard shape, tight, constant radius, and string spacing versus. neck width in the upper register, I think anyone can see that the Strat presented real innovations in guitar design, with its asymmetrical cutaway body, plank style (no rake) peghead and tremolo combination bridge and tailpiece. Although the six-on-a-side peghead looked new to us, a similar version actually appeared on Stauffer guitars in the mid 19th century.
It would be impossible to overemphasize the impact of this instrument on the guitar playing world over the past sixty years. It is the only instrument I can think of that is played by virtually every kind of guitarist. Jazz, country, rock, they all play a Strat, and it's not hard to tell why. These days, when most players have more than one guitar, one of them is more apt to be a Strat than anything else, if they play electric at all. The contoured body, with its smoothly rounded edges is more comfortable of any other guitar whether you're sitting, or, in particular, on a strap, where it hangs in just that optimum position for easy access without stretching or cramping of the left hand, from first position all the way up to the last fret, where the deep cutaway provides ample access. Also, it balances very nicely on the strap, especially the lighter ones made from alder wood. Many players cite the weight itself as their reason for choosing a Strat. At about 7 1/2 lbs. they are relatively light as solid bodies go, although I have weighed some at well over 10 lbs.! More than the average Les Paul.
Their sound was something never heard before; a product of the massive bridge design, the tremolo spring suspension and the single coil pickups geared toward the bright end of the spectrum. The control circuit is straightforward and easy to use with all of the controls and the switch laid out compactly in one area within easy reach. The original three-way lever switch is nearly indestructible and can be operated blindly with a sweep of the hand for quick changes on the fly. The entire instrument is very durable for that matter. Take a look in the film of the 1970 Isle of Wight concert to see how hard Hendrix had to work to break his up.
Beyond its original form, the Strat presents tremendous potential for innovation in the design of the control circuit. When I started in New York City in 1969, we used to make five-position switches by taking apart the three position ones. The five position switch did not exist then, and filing the two extra detents for the “in-between” positions which players had discovered and used by wedging the lever. High tech – Five sounds instead of just three. My Self-Q© circuit has 17 distinctly individual, directly switchable options, (using three mini toggle switches in place of the original) proof of the incredible versatility inherent in this remarkable instrument.
I would be willing to bet that there are more Stratocasters in the world than any other model of any guitar type. It is unquestionably the most widely copied instrument in the after market industry as well as among custom builders and, recalling that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this is a ringing endorsement of the instrument we all love. If I could have only one electric guitar, it would be a Strat.
When you wear it on a strap, the neck is in the optimum position for your left arm. The potential versatility of the three pickups. The whammy bar. To my mind, it's unbeatable. It's an impressive percentage of my workload. As far as problematical things, the pinched coil thing, early on, the random fret scale problems. Definitely some pitch stability issues related to the whammy tailpiece. The Steinberger TransTrem and the Floyd come pretty darn close to keeping you from frequent retuning. The basic Fender whammy bridge isn't quite as effective.
We at Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Richard Stanley for taking the time to answer our questions. Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved.