DIY Music Gear Tech – Primer Course

The first electric guitar that I could afford to buy was an entry level copy of a Fender Stratocaster. It was made by a Korean company called Hondo. At the time, they were the preeminent producer of entry level guitars in my part of the world, Sacramento, California. There were only a handful of music stores in Sacto at the time and they all seemed to carry Hondo. I paid around $125 for the guitar back in the early part of the mid '80s. The Squires and Epiphones of today can be had for not much more and they are eminently better guitars.

My $125 got me an instrument that had the look of a Strat, with three pickups, a "vintage" vibrato and six in-line tuners. The resemblance is where the "copy" part ended. It did not play or sound much like a Strat. The action was not even close to an acceptable set-up. For what it sold for, the shop would set it up, but I'd have to lay out an additional $25. There was no case candy as there was no case. No gig bag. Just the nifty cardboard box that it came in. I had enough money to purchase a cable, a strap and a solid-state, 30 watt combo amp.

I could not afford a set up. I talked a bit with the luthier/guitar tech at the store. I asked him what a set-up entailed as I didn't have the money to pay for one and I wanted to know what I was getting for my $25 to make my guitar more playable. He understood that my question was one of actual curiosity and not an inquiry that was based on my asking him to divulge some top trade secret. He also must have seen something different in me that set me apart from the rest of the "kids" that came in there. He told me to come back in about two hours when he took his lunch break and to leave my guitar at home.

I did not know what he had in mind, but I agreed and returned at the appointed hour. He led me out to where his car was parked and we sat in the car while he ate. He explained to me that it was a fairly straightforward procedure and asked if I was any good with hand tools and if I owned any basic hand tools. I told yes and yes. He briefly explained about intonation, truss rod adjustment, nut slot depth and bridge saddle height and how they all related to a proper set up. He then handed me a photocopy out of some official Fender publication that detailed the various elements and measurements of set up. As the lunch break was up, he told me to give it a whirl. I went home with the knowledge he'd imparted and the copy of this sacred Fender writ. I cleared off the dining room table and went to work. When I was done, it was easier to play and it did sound better.

As I was jamming with various groups of other young musicians and landing in a garage band here and there, I noticed that my guitar still did not sound that great. Also, the guitar did not stay in tune when I used the bar. This was the era of hair metal and I needed to address both those problems if I was going to be taken "seriously". It was suggested that I replace the bridge with the double locking Floyd Rose or Kahler type bridges and that I replace the pickups. It would cost more than I paid for the guitar.

My friend told me that rather than replace the bridge, that I might get by with a set of locking tuners and a frequent application of a Teflon-based lubricant in the nut slots and where the strings contacted the saddles at the bridge. He also told me that he had a set of gently used locking tuners and a trio of gently used pickups, two Seymour Duncan humbuckers and a DiMarzio single coil that he'd sell me all for $125. He told me what I needed to do.

When I was done, I had a guitar that allowed me to sound and perform the parts in a way that was approaching some semblance of the parts off of the albums. The deficit was more me than the guitar at that point. No more "crappy gear" excuses. I worked harder on my musicianship as a result, a benefit I had not foreseen.

About this time, I had taken an interest in pedals and I had three that I had been able to afford, a flanger, a delay and a distortion. I wanted to add other pedals, but the money was not there. I was talking to my friend at the music shop and explained to him my dilemma. He smiled and told me to come back tomorrow. I returned the next day and handed me a board full of the pedals that I was interested in for free...ummm no.

He did give me the next best thing. He gave me a slightly used but in excellent condition copy of Craig Anderton's Electronic Projects for Musicians. This my friends, is the Bible for the DIY music gear geek interested in music electronics. Within these pages is everything that one needs to know to make the basic analog gear (no amps though) that has shaped most of the modern music that has been produced going back into the 1950's, in some cases.

This book is written in easy-to-understand English and the concepts are presented in an easy to follow and understand format. There are pictures and circuit layouts too. This is where I really learned to understand how to read a schematic. I've never had an electronics class in my life, but I can decipher schematics on account of this book. They are eminently useful projects too. The book is still published and as my gift copy was temporarily thought lost, I recently purchased a new copy via Amazon for about $25. It even has the modern version (a CD) of the "disposable 45 record" sound sheet that plays what the finished project should sound like. This book is not part of the "______ for Dummies" series, but it really gives the noob a good starting foundation as the books in that more famous series do.

So back to my friend. He gave me the means to construct, for pennies on the dollar, what the new pedals of the time would have cost me. I can bet that many of the boutique builders out there in our Golden Age of stomp boxes have owned this volume and have built many, if not all, of the projects. The book is worth its weight in gold. Speaking of gold, because of the Golden age of the stomp box, there are numerous web-based businesses that cater to the DIY pedal builder. All that is needed is available by a point and a click.

That brings us to the subject of the internet. Back when I started, there was no internet. Al Gore hadn't invented it yet. Ok, I know former VP Gore didn't really invent it, but the point is that one had to know someone as I did, willing to impart the information, or one had to pay to obtain a formal education on the level of at least an AS degree from the local community college in order to get the building blocks and know where in the library to then source the information. My friend obtained his education primarily from the United Stated Air Force as I understood it, so the military could be another source back in the day.

Now I reckon that on account of the internet, the desired information is available in a great many places, e.g., on YouTube. Yet if one does not know what one needs to know, then there will be a great deal of wasted time and effort in the culling process. I refer back to Anderton's book that I mentioned. Better to use the book as a primer, especially if this is all new territory to the interested musician. YouTube or other sites are best utilized for more in depth or specialty coverage.

As to other potentially useful suggestions, there are dedicated websites, like Dirk Wacker's, DIY guitar kits, and for effects pedal kits, just to name a few. I'm just mentioning these as possibilities as having never done business with any of them, save MOD Kits, I nor this publication cannot directly endorse them. I can say that my personal experience with MOD Kits has been positive, but as always, Caveat Emptor.

There is no reason for anyone even slightly interested in the workings of music gear in 2016 to not look into this area of study. Everything that I mentioned, and a few things I did not, I learned from my friend. He taught me so many things pertaining to guitar (or bass) setup, changing out pickups, modding the guitar for different sized pickups, changing tuners, installing and cutting a new nut, refretting the neck or just redressing slightly worn frets, etc. Yet these skills and more can be learned by using the internet. There are books out there that are primers for all things neck and fret related, set up related, painting and refinishing related, etc., just as Anderton's is for basic musician electronics.

Stewart-MacDonald is a good source for the information I just mentioned, as well as the tools and supplies for all things luthiery-related. I had to have someone to teach me all of this. Now it is possible for one to teach themselves with the resources available.

As an aside, I'm not trying to screw any of the various and sundry music stores that provide these services out of their customers. I fully understand that there may only be a few readers here that will test the waters and only a few of those that will dive in. Still, there is not too much that is required for the feeding and care of one's modern stringed instrument that one cannot learn to do themselves.

Working on one’s instrument is kind of an intimate act in a way. One gets to know their instrument so much more closely and is more likely to notice when an adjustment is necessary or a part is worn and needs to be replaced. Consider too that if something should go awry right before a gig or on the road, one is in a better position to address it. Grateful too will be your band mates, especially if the band isn't high enough on the food chain yet to afford a traveling technician.

As I mentioned, I have never had a class in electronics or luthiery. I'm a pharmacist by my daytime profession. The school of pharmacy did not consider any of this music tech important enough in the practice of my profession to include it in the curriculum. Yet I would not be intimidated at all to take on most anything that I wrote about here or even intimated at because I was able to learn what is knowable without formal instruction. It helps that I'm mechanically inclined, but that means I just learned this a little faster than some. It does not mean that one who is so not blessed cannot learn. Anyone can learn to do any of this if they can read on an eighth grade reading level or watch a video and absorb the information.

Regardless of the area of DIY music tech that interests one, in 2016 it boils down to the same four basic steps:

1) Secure a book, or some equivalent resource, as a primer to learn what is not known that needs to be known.

2) Supplement that with applicable YouTube, Instructables, Reddit, Instagram or other web media.

3) Locate a web vendor that deals in the tools and/or supplies that one requires to DIY.

4) Choose your project and DIY.

So pick an area, buy a book or a video series and have at it!!

-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist
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