I get that question a lot. People learn that I build guitars and are often fascinated with the various processes I use in creating my "art". While not every guitar enthusiast is looking for a new instrument, let alone a custom piece, many will have an issue with their current guitar -- it's hard to play, makes funny buzzes, the electrics no longer work, won't stay in tune, etc. Many guitar makers don't do repairs, except perhaps warranty work on their own instruments. Then again, many folks in the instrument repair business don't actually build themselves. I've done both side-by-side for the last 10 years.
I believe that repairing instruments helps me with my building. Almost every repair job that comes through the shop gets a set up for playability and many get at least some work on the frets. Virtually every major factory brand has done time on my bench, and that's helped me to critique my own work. Improving the playability of all those guitars has raised my level of skill and improved my own instruments.
Just a few of the guitars that have been across my bench:
Perhaps the most rewarding part of doing both building and repairs is the wide cross-section of customers I see. It's a fact that professional musicians are often not flush with cash, but their instruments are essential tools for their craft. No wonder that musicians often form an intimate bond with their instruments. To succeed as creative aritists, they need instruments that can respond. When a guitar is maladjusted or suffers damage, a musician cannot give a good performance. The repair may be as simple as a small neck adjustment or fixing a broken wire, or something more major like replacing worn-out frets -- they all have a huge impact on a musician's ability to perform.
Then of course there are young students of the instrument. I've had guitar teachers and parents of young kids bring in guitars with everything from lifting bridges to broken necks, asking if I can just make it playable again. The instrument may not be expensive and may not warrant extensive restoration. The object is simply to get the instrument back into the hands of the child so they can experience the joy of making music.
Often, the customer is simply an amateur enthusiast who plays after work, sometimes as a solo endeavour, or maybe sharing music together with friends. They may have a single guitar or an extensive collection. Invariably, they are attached to their instrument as a close friend and feel something very personal has been lost when it fails or simply no longer plays as it once did.
One such repair came through the shop last week. A gentlemen brought in a 30-year-old Gibson ES-335 that had suffered an accident. He's not a pro player and wasn't aware of the value of the classic instrument he's owned for many years. As you can see in the pics, the headstock had snapped and was held only by the face veneer. In one tragic moment, his treasured Gibson had become completely unplayable. "Will you have to use screws?", he enquired sadly. While I can't always make a repair completely invisible, the objective is always to do the best work possible and to return the instrument in good playable condition. "We'll try to avoid screws", I assured him.
The patient as presented:
This was not the first broken headstock I've tackled, but each one is a little different. On this guitar, I used the old luthier's standby, hot hide glue. Luthiers have relied on hide glue for centuries. It cures nice and hard, and can be "reactivated" with heat and moisture -- perfect for repairs. I introduced a liberal amount of glue into the break and clamped the headstock in padded cauls quickly before the glue cooled. The following day I removed the clamps and cleaned up the excess with hot water:
A little bit of touch up was done to the chipped finish before heading to the buffing wheel. The guitar was then reassembled and I went through my normal set up routine. I adjusted the neck relief, nut slots and string height, and gave the instrument a careful going over before telling the owner it was ready:
The real reward was seeing his reaction when he came to fetch the instrument. He left with a smile and I knew that guitar was going to get a good workout with the amp cranked up loud when he got home! The next day I received this note by email:
Je voulais juste de dire que je suis TRÈS satisfait avec le travail que tu as fait sur ma Gibson!
I really appreciated your action adjustment, input jack cleanup and the fact that the repair work on my broken neck is virtually impossible to detect! It's like a brand new ES-335!
mucho gracias...and I will see you next month with another guitar to fix!
Certainly I love building an instrument in collaboration with a guitar enthusiast, knowing that I can offer that person virtually anything they can imagine. But, do I also do repairs? With feedback like that, you bet!