Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

Many a great guitar has been ruined by well-meaning but bad advice. And many a great guitar is also ruined by people who overestimate their experience and abilities with a screwdriver or a file. These are obvious lessons but so easy to forget that I think it’s time I reminded you with some real world examples (yes, the names have been changed to protect the innocent)…

Back when I first started playing guitar, my metal-playing friend, Dean, had strings buzzing that was causing him some trouble. He talked to one of the local “guitar heroes” (a respected player by our standards but a spotty denim-clad teenager nonetheless) who told Dean that his frets needed levelling. Dean assumed this was something he could do himself and so headed home to search his Dad’s tool kit for an appropriate implement. One bastard file and five minutes later, Dean’s frets were ruined. I don’t know what his father said when asked to buy a new guitar, but Dean was never allowed near his father’s hand tools ever again.

Alan had a problem with strings buzzing on the 1st and 2nd frets. Having the decided the nut was at fault, he ordered a new nut and decided to do the installation himself. Having removed the old nut, the new nut was a very tight fit in the existing nut slot. Rather than sanding the face of the new nut to the appropriate thickness, Alan reached for a hammer and tried to ‘persuade’ the nut home. The nut broke into two pieces, now firmly wedged part-way into the slot. The pieces wouldn’t pull out by hand so he reached for a hammer and screwdriver and tried to tap the pieces out sideways, as he had seen done on YouTube. The guitar was not properly secured on the work bench, and moved as the hammer hit the screwdriver, which slipped off the nut and took a chunk out of the fretboard. On his favourite guitar forum, he wrote “Can somebody help me? I don’t know how to install a nut.” No kidding!

Stewart’s strat-style guitar had great low action but buzzed on the highest six frets. A fellow forumite recommended he change the neck angle relative to the body by adding a shim to the top of the neck pocket. When the guitar was reassembled the strings were too high and could not be adjusted low enough. He also used the wrong size screwdriver when trying to tighten the neck bolts – the screwdriver slipped from the screw and slid across the back of the guitar, leaving a nasty scratch across the finish. The head of the screw was sufficiently damaged that he was unable to loosen it to remove the new shim. The visit to the repair guy cost him three times more than a simple setup would have done.

In each case we had a mix of bad advice, over-confidence in their abilities, and no knowledge of how to do the job correctly. They never stopped to consider their own lack of experience or that the people advising them might have been wrong. In fact in these cases, not only did they each not know how to correctly do what they were attempting, but it was the wrong solution to their problems.

In Dean’s case, tuning down to D with extra-light strings was his problem. Heavier strings and a simple setup would have solved the buzzing. Alan’s nut wasn’t the cause of his problem, his truss rod needed loosening to add neck relief. Stewart’s neck angle was fine but his strings were a little too low and he had a little too much neck relief. He just needed to raise his strings at the bridge and tighten the truss rod.

As I always say, “It’s a guitar, not rocket science!“. Anybody can learn how to correctly set up and maintain their guitars and basses. It’s not difficult but it does take some time and patience to learn. It also requires a selection of the appropriate tools and knowledge of how to use them. A good place to start is to buy one of Dan Erlewine’s excellent books and invest in a steel engineers rule, feeler gauges, a set of Allen keys, and a set of screwdrivers.

Discussion forums and YouTube give us unprecedented access to knowledge and techniques that might otherwise have stayed confined to a luthier’s workshop. But much of the advice on forums is poor at best and misunderstandings and myth often dominate the discussions. And while some repairs or maintenance might seem easy in principle, they are often far more difficult and time-intensive than a novice can realise or manage. Why? Because they lack the knowledge, workmanship, patience and appropriate tools to be successful.

Most importantly, even the most experienced people have moments when we have to step back and take stock of a situation. What are the options for solving this problem? Am I capable of doing this job correctly? This is something that inexperienced people are unlikely to do. We must be aware of the limits of our knowledge and technical abilities. We must always know when to stop and let a real expert do the job. Remember – Wisest is he who knows what he does not know.