Monday, September 3, 2007

Sometimes a Guitar Falls From the Sky

I had the weirdest experience... last night we picked up a used cheapie Yamaha keyboard that someone left by the dumpster. It looks like it just needs a few batteries. Veronica will love it, especially the built-in drums.

Then later on in the evening I was outside shaking out a rug and the same person that left the keyboard by the dumpster came by, and said "I saw you picked up that keyboard... I thought you might like to know I just left a guitar by the dumpster also. I think it's broken."

I went to take a look. I was expecting the worst -- a piece of crap with a broken headstock, or wiring hanging out of it, etc.

It was actually an Epiphone Les Paul Special II, an Indonesian-made guitar, kind of like an SG with a single cutaway. A black/yellow burst finish, pretty basic in appearance, but with a very "classic" dignified look. This guitar is sold by the chains for about $150, or as part of a $200 "player's pack."

I took it home and started cleaning it up. I took off all the strings (normally I recommend only changing one string at a time to avoid a huge change in the tension on the neck, but this thing needed a complete cleaning and evaluation). I scrubbed the fretboard with lemon oil and ultra-fine steel wool -- a lot of dirt came off. I used some of my Dunlop polish on the body, working it pretty hard with a micro-fiber cloth, and replaced the strings with new Ernie Ball 11s. I cleaned the bridge parts and tightened up all the screws.

What was the damage? One of the tuning keys was slightly loose. The tone knob had been whacked and the little grommet holding it in place had popped off, but that took only a couple of minutes to fix. I opened up the electronics cavity, pushed it back through, applied a little finesse with a pair of pliers to tighten up the little grommet. Then I stuck the tone knob back on and it worked perfectly.

I let it sit overnight so the neck could conform to the heavier-gauge strings, then re-evaluated the condition of the neck. It had too much bow, so I adjusted the truss rod half a turn, then tweaked the bridge up and down by quarter-turns of the screws until I found a point I liked. I played it a while, then let it sit overnight again. Then after another day, looking at the condition of the neck again, I backed off a the truss rod a little bit to allow some relief back into the neck, then made a few tiny further adjustments over the course of the day. This is something that requires some finesse and patience. With such a cheaply-built instrument, the neck is never going to be wonderful, but I got it to a reasonably playable state with as few buzzing frets as possible.

This is now a perfectly serviceable guitar! With a mahogany neck and basswood body, it is very resonant, with a loud unplugged tone. Plugged in, it has a nice nasal "midrange" tone and distorts quite well, with nice overtones. It is configured with two humbuckers without covers (I raised the neck pickup a bit), and has only a volume and tone knob, with a Les Paul-style "rhythm/treble" switch.

As far as I can tell, the only things wrong with it are:

- A couple of dings, including one on the back of the neck and some small ones on the top and edges that show the wood underneath the finish (big deal). I might just touch these up with a black permanent marker to make them less visible against the black parts of the finish.

- A couple of the small screws are stripped (two on tuning keys, one on the output jack). Those could be shimmed/glued at some point.

- A couple of the strings flirt with some fret buzz, but not too badly. I can't get this neck perfect; it seems to have a very slight unevenness in relief between the bass and treble sides, but it isn't that bad.

Aside from that, I think the owner was going to toss it out because the strings were rusty and it was dirty. At the cost of a set of strings which set me back I think $4.00, and a couple of hours of work.

If I ever get around to it, I might see about replacing the tuning keys with something more solid, and maybe replacing the plastic output jack plate with a metal one. The slight irregularity in the neck could, after it has settled, be addressed with a good fret leveling. But this is my new beater guitar! I will see if I can find a gig bag for it, and I'll probably be bringing it for lessons since it is easier to carry around.

Sometimes life hands us these little consolation prizes! It really cheered me up.