The guitar project that went wrong … then wronger

Back in the 90s when the distinction between music store and pawn shop was rather blurry, I acquired a second-hand silver sparkle Les Paul guitar that only said “Lady Luck” on the headstock and “Made in Korea” on the back of the neck.

This was a time when cheap guitars were really bad. Everyone and their brother had a beginner-level Squier or Jasmine that wouldn’t stay in tune and had the tone of a brick.

Lady Luck played well, but she had an extremely bass-heavy tone. It just never sounded good. Sometime in the early 2000s I actually tried to revive her by transplanting some nice Seymour Duncan pickups, but she still only sounded marginally better.

The silver guitar just hung on the wall for the past 15 years.

Since I’m now working from my home office at least eight hours a day, I’ve been trying to clear the clutter and make it a more pleasant, usable environment. That meant some of the guitars, amplifiers and camera gear had to go. I decided to clean up Lady Luck and put her up for sale.

I opened the back panel and squirted a little bit of contact cleaner into the crackling volume pots. The knobs got stiff. Then they froze. Then they unfroze … completely … and just kept spinning.

In the past few months I’ve cleaned the pots on an amplifier, a vintage clock radio, and another guitar. This has never happened before. I also couldn’t believe the same thing happened on both volume pots. I guess the corrosion was the only thing holding them together.

I had just rendered the guitar unplayable. Selling it was no longer an option.

The “hand wired” tone craze started a few years ago when Gibson started using pots connected to printed circuit boards in their guitars. That was actually good news for me because there were dozens upon dozens of pre-assembled pre-wired pots available to replace those PCBs that ranged from $30 with some questionable looking hardware up to $250 with vintage bumblebee capacitors.

Since Lady Luck isn’t a real Les Paul, I was worried the pot spacing wouldn’t quite be the same. I was wary of buying a pre-assembled kit. I decided to spend $50 and order an unassembled kit from Amplified Parts that included everything from the input plug to the switch. It also came with some really nice shielded wiring.

I immediately ran into a few issues. The pots and the output jack had larger diameters than the original hardware. I wasn’t excited about drilling out the holes and risking a chip in the paint, but I decided it was worth the risk.

Then I had to address the fact that the new knobs were also longer than the old knobs. I made a run to True Value for 3/8″ spacers. Unfortunately, they were out of 3/8″, so I had to pay double and buy a set of both 1/4″ and 1/8″. I ended up $20 into the project just for spacers!

The new selector switch was more of an issue. It was taller than the original switch, and it needed to be countersunk to reach through the body. Lady Luck is mostly plywood with an unknown top. The switch area was not that thick to begin with.

I finally decided that countersinking the new switch to make it fit wasn’t worth the risk of having the new switch rip through the front of the guitar. I had already replaced the switch in the 90s because the original had been snapped off when I bought it. It was clean and seemed fine. I mean, after all, a switch is a switch.

The instructions that came with the MOD kit were very clear, so it only took about an hour to put everything together. Of course, I still somehow managed to hook up the switch backwards. There were no strings on the guitar, so all I could do was plug it in and tap the pickups to see which one was active with each switch position.

I thought, it’s fine, I’ll just rotate the switch 180-degrees and let the wires wrap around. Wrong.

Assuming all was well, I got to the business of reassembling the other pieces of the guitar with the new stainless steel screws I’d picked up while I was True Value. I also decided to put the chrome pickup covers that originally came on the guitar onto the Seymour Duncan pickups. That entailed a little double-sided tape and some solder on the back, but it seemed easy enough.

The next morning I spent quite some time adjusting the truss rod, setting the bridge height, and adjusting the intonation to get the action just right. Then, the moment finally came. I plugged her in.

A very loud hum came through the amplifier.

I strummed a chord.

Nothing.

When I touched my fingers various places the hum would change tone or sometimes stop completely, but never did a single note come through the amplifier.

Did I wire something wrong? Is one of the new pieces bad? Did I ruin the pickups by putting covers on them?

This project had gone wrong when I destroyed the original volume pots. Now I was an additional $70 and 5+ hours into the project, and I had NOTHING.

I hung the guitar on the wall and walked away.

The next morning I got out the multimeter and started checking continuity. This was my first time using shielded cable with a metal sleeve. My first discovery was that I hadn’t peeled the shielding back far enough on the wire going to input jack, and it was touching the base of the prong, causing a short.

My next realization was that by spinning the selector switch 180 and letting the wires wrap around it, they were shorting to the sides of the selector switch.

I remedied this situation by rotating the switch back the correct direction and adding a little bit of electrical tape for insulation — just in case.

At this point, I was still getting a terrible hum, but I was also getting intermittent sound depending on what I touched.

I decided to yank the pots and see if I could get anything to work outside the guitar. Unfortunately during this maneuver I lost one of the $3 spacers into the body of the guitar forever.

After a few solder repairs, which included hooking the switch leads up correctly, I suddenly had sound. That was amazing news since it meant I didn’t destroy the expensive pickups when I put the covers on them.

I made another run to True Value to get another 1/8″ spacer.

I put everything back into the guitar.

The hum was back, and the sound was gone again.

The shielded cables were just touching too many things inside the guitar.

If I ever do this again, I will purchase shrink wrap or some sort of plastic sleeve to put over the metal braid. I didn’t have either of those things, so I started wrapping it in electrical tape. A few minutes later, the hum was completely gone, and the guitar was singing.

So after more than 20 years, this guitar finally plays the way it should. Now I can’t decide if I still want to sell it or if I should hold onto it a little longer.

And for any tech geeks out there who might be wondering, Lady Luck has a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates in the bridge and a Seymour Duncan SH4 in the neck. 220k-ohm resistors tie into 470pF ceramic capacitors on the 500k-ohm volume pots, and .022mf 600v MOD capacitors run between the volume and tone pots.

Resurrecting my first guitar

Did you ever visit The Golden Pawn II?

It was located on Peoria Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Apparently the building is about to be torn down.

The Golden Pawn II: It was a pawn shop … and also golden.

When my granddad took me there in 1992, it was both my first time inside a pawn shop and my first time to experience the joyous overwhelming sensory overload generated by a wall of guitars and stacks of amplifiers.

I didn’t know anything about guitars. The Internet did not exist. I had been learning on an old classical guitar I found in my dad’s closet. My knowledge was limited to what I’d seen artists playing in music videos (which I wasn’t supposed to be watching) and one second-hand Guitar Player magazine a friend gave me at school because he didn’t like the songs in that issue.

My guitar selection method began with choosing black guitars that looked cool, but quickly shifted to black guitars that actually worked when plugged in. I finally landed on a black Arbor stratocaster knock-off that looked much like the guitar Bryan Adams played in the Robin Hood Prince of Thieves music video. While the style hadn’t been my first choice, I decided that it was “cool enough.”

Sidebar: It was actually moderately difficult to find this video. When I finally did, it turns out the Stratocaster was red, and it’s clearly not plugged into anything. Definitely not as cool as I remember. Also, fun fact, Mattel re-used the Return of the Jedi: Ewok Village playset in a different box as the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves forest hideout.

Amplifier selection wasn’t nearly as complicated. The deal was whichever working amplifier — with distortion — Granddad could get them to bundle with the guitar for $100. The man was a negotiator.

I played and played and played that Arbor Stratocaster and the little Peavey Rage amp for years. Eventually the amp died, and I upgraded to something bigger, but I always held on to that guitar.

The Arbor was gigged exactly two times for two songs.

My sophomore year of high school I played Creep by Stone Temple Pilots at the Bartlesville Mid-High Talent Show. My friend Chad sang the second part of the chorus with me. As far as I know, there is no photographic evidence of that performance.

Project Graduation (ProGrad) Talent Show Dinner at William P. Clements High School in Sugar Land, Texas, March, 1996. (Thanks, Mom. Your decades of hoarding really paid off for this blog post.)

In 1996 I opened the senior talent show with The Joker by Steve Miller Band with my friend Steve Love playing the wolf-whistle lead guitar part. Then I played Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton to end the show — but not on the Arbor. The audience was really into The Joker. Unfortunately, it was my first time to encounter large-auditorium off-beat clapping, and I ended up having to stop for a moment in the middle of the song just to find the beat again. I thought Tears in Heaven went better, but feedback at school was, “You sang it too low.” Nevertheless, photos of my performance did appear in the school newspaper.

That was both the first and last time my music ever garnered any media attention.

The Arbor came to college with me, and many people took a turn on it during dorm jams and sing-arounds my freshman year. However, as time went on, it had more and more electrical issues. Eventually I was seduced by a brand new Epiphone Les Paul, and the Arbor was left in a case in the closet for years.

Having had success with the recent amplifier repair, I decided to see if I could work some magic on the Arbor.

At some point the tone pots had frozen up. Turning the tone knob equated to rotating the entire pot, which put strain on the wiring. Eventually one of the leads from a resistor had pulled loose, which was why the guitar had a terrible hum when it was plugged in and why it got put away in the first place.

As a kid I never realized the pick guard was just one big nicotine stain.

When I pulled the knobs, I realized just how much nicotine build-up was on the pick guard. I wasn’t aware of nicotine staining as a kid — no one in our family even smoked. However, I do remember always feeling like I could never really get the pick guard clean. Who knows what life this guitar had before my granddad and I came across it.

A few squirts of CRC cleaner got the pots working freely, and then it only took about 30 seconds to solder the broken lead back to the correct tab. I tightened the nuts on the pots to make sure they wouldn’t rotate again. I cleaned the 5-way switch, then put it back together.

The next issue was the bridge setup. Teenage me really didn’t have a concept of intonation. I had adjusted all the saddles to make a nice, neat straight line. As a beginner guitarist, I also had a tendency to miss the high E string when picking, so I remedied the situation by raising the high E above all the other strings — couldn’t miss it.

It’s not recommended to raise the high E above the rest of the strings, but if I had become famous, everyone would be doing it. The strings are finally level and intonated.

I adjusted the neck truss rod, leveled the bridge saddles, and put some new strings on it. Then, for possibly the first time in this guitar’s entire life, I intonated each string.

Playing her through an amplifier last night generated a brief time warp.

Fourteen-year-old me was home alone in his small-town Oklahoma bedroom, the amplifier pegged to ten, fumbling through the chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit before kicking the amp over and pretending to smash the guitar onto the mattress of his bed.

The action is nice and low. The tone comes through dirtier than it does on my American made Telecaster, but that’s what you’d expect from old, cheap electronics. It plays as well as any cheap guitar can.

Maybe someday Finn will think it looks “cool enough” to give it a try.

So how’s that music thing working out?

xmasparty

You might remember that we had devised a plan to play music as a means to make money while cruising. The idea of sailing town to town and rocking the tiki bars to pay our way around the Caribbean was romantic and enticing.

So will it work?!!!

We’d been taking part in marina jams and playing songs with our friends at open mics on a weekly basis for a while, but the question remained, could we actually book a “gig.”

We got started in March with a St. Patrick’s Day show playing as a 4-piece band.

Then a small wedding followed soon after, which was an eye opener to how rough it is to play in 90+ degree heat and extremely high humidity. We played that one as a three-piece.

I managed to book a few solo acoustic shows, which isn’t really what I was looking for since Mary and I wanted to play together, but it was a good test to see how things went over when we stripped out the guitar solos and vocal harmonies provided by our friends.

Then we got invited to play a police fund raiser as a four-piece band, which was a fun experience.

Then we actually grew to a five-piece band for another show at our favorite bar before finishing off the year as a four-piece at a corporate Christmas party.

The gross income from our seven paying shows  in 2016 was $2050 (not counting about $200 in tips and $200 in bar tabs.) However, we had to pay out $750 to our other players. That puts us at about $1300 for the year.

So what did we learn?

Four hours is a long time: If you want to get paid in the Houston market, you have to play four-hour cover shows. When you’re playing by yourself with no instrumental solos or jamming, that is a lot of songs. I ran through more than 60 songs per night, and by the end of several shows I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel for any song left to play. As we add more and more songs to the repertoire that won’t be as much of a problem, but working full time there is only so much time in the day to rehearse old songs and memorize new ones.

Equipment does make a difference: We started the year trying to mic the cajon with a Shure SM57. While it worked ok at the house when rehearsing, we could never get it loud enough at the bar without feedback. After a long debate, we finally spent the $239 to get a Shure Beta 91A that fits inside the cajon, and it solved all of our drum volume issues. This was a tough decision because the drum itself was only $175. It seemed absurb to invest more than the drum on a microphone for the drum, but in the end, it made a huge difference. I also retired my 20-year-old Shure SM58 vocal mic and replaced it with a $200 Sennheiser e945.

Good performances require rest: I currently have a wrist brace on my left arm. Practice makes perfect, but it turns out that too much practice makes for a pretty intense case of tendonitis. 12 hours a week seems to be my limit on guitar. Mary’s hands get quite swollen by the end of a show after slapping the cajon for hours. My voice also needs rest. Back in September I played four-hour shows two nights in a row, and my voice was already rough at the beginning of night two. By the end, it was really rough, which brings up the next thing I learned.

Not every performance is going to be good: Some nights nothing goes right. We’ve only had one show where things got really bad. It started ok. We had a nice group of friends come out to support us. The crowd was singing along. Unfortunately, I started losing my voice, and I ran out of songs. I thought I had a thick skin from my years in news and public relations, but getting a bad review and not being asked back to play a venue again really crushes the ego. There’s nothing to do except treat it as a learning experience and double down on the rehearsals, so that it doesn’t happen again.

We’re not going to make a living doing this: Yes, the dream is still to play live music as we cruise the Caribbean, but I have a hunch those bars pay even less than Houston bars. I think we were counting on competing against a smaller available talent pool in the islands, but that assumption may be wrong.

I’m not sure what our focus for 2017 will be. When we purchased our PA system we wanted something portable enough to fit in a dinghy to accomodate vocals, guitar and drums playing a restaurant or small bar. We’ve now got it maxed out with multiple vocalists, guitars, violin, bass, etc. While it’s a great portable rig, it’s not the right set up for a full band in large sports bars.

Hopefully we’ll get our foot in the door at some bars in Kemah closer to all of our marina friends.

Last but not least, we’ll be working on some new original music. Songwriting got put on the back burner while we crammed to learn enough cover songs to be able to fulfill our 2016 bookings. With that backlog of music under our belts, we’re ready to move forward with new songs in 2017.

If you have any song requests, please post them in the comments!

Looking for those bookings

As has been mentioned in previous blogs, one of our ideas to slow the burn on our savings while cruising is to play music along the way as a source of income. In preparation we’ve started playing shows in the Houston area to hone our skills, make sure we have the right equipment, and add a little bit of cash to the cruising kitty.

Last week I played a solo acoustic show at Little Woodrow’s in Katy, Texas. It was nice that our Gimme Shelter T-shirts had just arrived the night before.

13588745_10101836624691502_25430710_o

This was a very last minute booking, so I was lucky that with less than 24 hours notice I still had 10 friends and blog readers come out to see me.

13840380_10101836624681522_1223329209_o

We’re currently trying to hard to book at least two shows per month for the rest of the year, hopefully some of which are in the Kemah area. As our schedule fills in, we’ll update the events calendar on our Facebook page.

Until then, here’s a new video of Mary and I covering Bubble Toes by Jack Johnson.

Gimme Shelter’s first “gig”

FirstGig01

When the idea of cruising comes around, you start analyzing all of your skills and talents in hopes of identifying something that might be profitable enough to indefinitely sustain your cruising kitty or at least “slow the burn rate” as Patrick Schulte says in his most recent book, Living on the Margin.

Things like sewing and mechanic work instantly come to mind, but Mary and I are also musicians. (Well, at least one of us is a musician … the other is a drummer. #InsertYourOwnDrummerJokeHere #DrummerJokesNeverGetOld)

The idea crossed our mind that perhaps we could supplement our income, or at least lessen our expenses, by playing music at marinas and bars throughout the ICW and the Caribbean.

Recently we met a couple from New York through Facebook who were already cruising and playing music as they went. Their band, Stell and Snuggs, does some interesting stuff. Reading their blog also brought up some important issues. Considering that most bars in the US pay musicians in cash, we hadn’t even thought about needing work permits just to play music outside the US, but apparently you do.

While we were having nice marina jam sessions every weekend, the question still remained, could we get paid? Therefore, we finally booked a show to test both our equipment and ourselves.

FirstGig02

However, most of the bars really wanted something more than just a duo, especially on weekends. Now, in Houston we have quite a few musician friends, so fielding a full band for St. Patrick’s Day was no problem, but I think Mary and I are going to have to step up our game when playing by ourselves.

We prepped about 50 songs, and we ended up rolling through a four hour show with music to spare. My voice was raw and Mary’s hands were swollen, but we did it.

firstgig03

And yes, we did get paid. For our first show we got $300 cash and a $50 credit on our bar tab. (We also found a whopping $1 tip in our tiny tip can.) Would that help supplement our cruising if we could play one or two shows per week? Absolutely! Is that anything comparable to what a bar might pay in Fort Myers, Florida or Dewey, Culebra? I have no idea.

A few lessons learned:

  • People enjoy top 40, but they get up and dance to oldies
  • We’ve got to further minimize our equipment or we’re going to have to buy a HUGE dinghy
  • Tip jars should be very large, well-labeled and right out front in the middle of the stage
  • We need to record some of our original songs and get them on the blog or on iTunes, so we have somewhere to send people when they ask about it.
  • Don’t forget the important harmonica!

A big thank you to all of our friends, blog readers and Facebook friends that came out to the first show. We haven’t scheduled any more shows at the moment, but if we do, I’ll keep you posted.

P.S. Feel free to post your favorite drummer jokes in the comments!

 

A little music for your weekend

We spent Thursday night hanging out with all of our musician friends at Jive Bar & Lounge Open Mic, and I shot a few videos this week. I’ll post some songs by Cerveza Road, Kristian Davis of Kollective Minds, and Jesse Avila of Poly Seude when we get back from the marina Sunday night after I have time to do some editing. Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy our cover of The Weight with our friend Justin Guy on bass.

Want to see my G-string?

Any luthiers or guitar experts out there?

Gstring

I always keep a cheap guitar on the boat. I want it to sound decent, but if worse comes to worst, I don’t want to feel bad if I have to use it as a paddle.

My first boat guitar was an Epiphone Dove with a cracked neck that I procured for $30.

6319817649_ec09eec893_b

A little wood glue, and it was a nice player for about a year. Then the same spot on the neck broke again, so I stripped it for hardware and junked the body.

My current guitar is an Epiphone AJ. It was a B stock guitar with a few blemishes that I picked up new for $89.

8066503943_27d130f134_h

For the past two years or so, it played and sounded great. Unfortunately it has suddenly started popping G-strings. The last two times I’ve played it the G string has broken at the saddle with less than two hours of use. Then tonight I swapped the strings again, and the G broke while I was just tuning it.

I use Elixir strings, so they don’t rust out in a week on the boat, but they’re about $15 a set. When the guitar is worth less than $100, even $15 is a large investment, especially if the strings are now only lasting for an hour or two of play time. They were previously lasting for up to six months of weekend jams.

My Gibson has a bone saddle, and I see lots of them available on eBay for anywhere from 99 cents to $20. But how do I know they’ll fit, and is a 99 cent bone saddle really any good? Should I search for a replacement nylon/plastic saddle? Should I gift this guitar to a starving artist and find another sub-$100 boat instrument?

Right now I have a B string replacing the G string, so that there’s less tension, but it makes the tone a little funny. Using two B strings is definitely not a long-term solution.

Come on guitar experts, I know you’re out there. What in the world is going on with my guitar and how do I fix it (cheaply)?

It’s so good to see the sun

After three weeks of the dreariest weather you can imagine, the sun is actually visible in the sky today. It’s still cold. In fact, there was frost on the cars and grass this morning, not something that happens too often in Houston.
wpid-psx_20150116_105130.jpgAfter being stuck in the house with cold rain falling outside for so long we’re excited to get to the marina tonight. Tomorrow’s forecast promises weather back in the 60s!

I have no idea how people living further north manage to deal with winter.

Here’s one more video we made while stuck inside with nothing to do last weekend. Hope you enjoy.

Tiny Desk Concert Contest

What do you do when it’s 39 degrees and raining outside? Stay in and play music, of course.

Mary and I just finished writing and recording Write You a Letter, our entry for the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest.

Tiny Desk Concert Contest

Note, as the contest requires we have a tiny desk, and Mary even uses a typewriter as one of the percussion instruments.

Whether or not we win, we figured the world can always use another song about sailing away.

Thanks for taking the time to listen, and I hope you enjoy.