A few years ago I was playing a small festival in St. Louis and had just gotten off stage. I’d placed my guitars on a couple racks behind me and was autographing CDs and talking to fans when I heard a sickening “thunk” follow by a “crack.” I turned to see that the breeze — slight as it was — had blown my 1967 ES-345 off its stand, face forward. The beautiful cherry red guitar had smacked to the asphalt and the top half of the headstock had snapped clean through.
I was not happy, but I continued selling CDs and talking, because I knew it couldn’t get any worse at that point and I also knew that a clean break could be fixed by my favorite luthier at home in Nashville. Not only was the guitar repaired, but he ordered a special can of vintage age-tinted paint to match the back of the headstock and make the crack nearly imperceptible.
The point of that story is — if your guitar breaks, just breathe. Chances are it can be repaired. Heck, at one point a jealous girlfriend splintered Bill Monroe’s gorgeous 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin to the extent that one of Gibson’s artisans needed to glue some of the splinters onto string to rest them in place like minute puzzle pieces, but now the instrument looks great, has a place of honor at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and still rings like a church bell when it’s played.
Here are 10 things to consider should your guitar get injured on or off the job:
• Don’t panic: This is worth repeating like a mantra. Only in rare cases can a broken guitar not be restored to playability, even if it requires major work like a neck replacement. If you’ve got a low-dollar instrument you don’t feel strongly about, it might be worth getting a new instrument in extreme cases, but otherwise if the repair costs make sense and you value the instrument it can probably be fixed.
• Pick up all the pieces: Let’s go back to Bill Monroe. As legend has it, his mando was sooooooooooo smashed he brought it into Gibson in a shoebox. But all the pieces were there. Collecting them must have been painstaking, but it is absolutely necessary to have every splinter of wood, every bit of hardware, every piece of debris from your guitar’s unfortunate injury in order to put those pieces back in place. So be precise when you clean up the mess.
• Pack parts carefully: Don’t just throw fragments of your guitar’s neck, headstock, top, etc. into the van in disgust. One again, like Bill Monroe, carefully pack all of the pieces that need restoration into one container that provides protection. Losing pieces like springs and screws, or allowing wooden pieces to fragment further, only complicates things.
• DIY?: You might be able to make some repairs, even something that requires great accuracy, like gluing on the top of a headstock, yourself. Soldering wires is an easier example, and so is gluing a fixed bridge back in place. But if you’ve never done a specific fix, consult the Internet or talk with friends who have done the work, so they can guide you through. And if you have any trepidation about making a fix yourself, do not do it! Take it to a luthier. An incorrect neck angle or inaccurate placement of a bridge will screw up your guitar’s intonation and will require resetting, which increases the chances of permanent damage.
• Find a good repairperson: The items above underline the importance of having a good luthier in your wheelhouse. If you don’t have a repairperson you like, get recommendations from friends and local players you admire. Try a few out for minor fixes, or even set-ups. When you find someone with the right blend of skill and attitude, stick with that luthier. Customer loyalty gets rewarded with quick turnarounds and willingness to put in extra effort when it comes to handling difficult jobs. That’s human nature.
• Save parts: If you need to have a part, like a bridge or electronics, or even a neck, replaced, keep the old part. The part, or a piece of it, may be handy later for another repair or a conventional or unconventional project. Think of your guitar cast-offs as cars in a junkyard, available for the picking.
• Order replacement parts: Guitar repair professionals are generally in the business of fixing, not selling, so don’t be afraid to explore the internet for replacement parts for your guitars, from screws to wiring kits. They may be cheaper if purchased directly, and if you bring them to a reputable luthier he or she will use them to make the repair without complaint.
• Consider resale: Let’s say an injury, like a fractured neck, takes the magic out of your guitar. Sometimes an instrument never sounds quite the same after a repair. Sometime, it actually sounds better. The mojo can be delicate. If the former occurs, don’t think of the money you spent on repair as wasted. Think of it as a ticket to your next guitar. Sell the injured instrument when it’s in good repair and buy something new. Or in the rare instance that it’s beyond repair, sell the mangled mess for parts. I acquired a great set of vintage humbuckers from a Les Paul that had been in the trunk of a parked car that was flattened by a runaway truck back in the early ’90s. I love ’em and play ’em to this day.
• Build something: Now we’re getting into the worst possible scenario zone. If a guitar can’t be fixed, it can sometimes be transformed, either by recycling parts for a project guitar or by adapting it in another way. For example, a friend gave me a gorgeous vintage hollow body Epiphone with its wonderful original ‘60s dog-ear P-90 pickup. The catch was that the instrument had one of the worst neck repairs in history. Likely it was not the luthier’s fault, but there was actually wood missing at the point where the headstock was re-glued to the neck. I played the guitar on a few gigs, but every couple weeks when I’d take it out of its case the headstock would have disengaged itself from the body while in storage. As a blues-based player I’ve got a rich history to draw from. But unlike many blues guitarists, I’m interested in stepping outside the box while still respecting the tradition. So one day after removed the Epi from its case and finding the headstock off yet again, I re-imagined the guitar as a diddley bow — a primitive one string guitar like the one Jack White builds at the start of It Might Get Loud, the kind of African-based instrument that many old-school southern blues pickers got their start on. I took a pair of pliers to the frets and glued the neck on with nasty cryanolite adhesive at an angle that sacrificed perfect intonation, but would never come apart again. I play the guitar on most shows and audiences love it, as do I! It sounds and looks unique.
• Make art: As a last desperate measure, you can always make art from broken necks. Spent bodies and other parts are a great starting point for sculpture. A good example is the instrumentalist’s award presented at the Americana Music Awards show each fall in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. They are made from guitar parts donated by the Gibson Company.
Good news, Gibson Repair and Restoration in Nashville is now accepting all brands of stringed instruments in need of attention at the in-house repair and restoration facility. Offering a state of the art, temperature and humidity controlled environment, as well as a full staff of highly skilled and experienced luthiers, Gibson is fully equipped to perform any and all operations required in all phases of repair and restoration.