Care and Feeding

Still a looker after 25 years

I've been doing a lot of maintenance on my guitars lately. Not counting the new Les Paul, all of my guitars are over 10 years old and most of them are older than 20. So it's not a shocker that there are a few things needing a little attention right now.

Many years ago I took my guitar to a friend/repairman for a setup and he said, "David, you're a good enough player you really ought to know how to do this." Guy must have known me well because using flattery is probably the surest way to get me to pay attention! Soon after that, I bought a book that taught me how to maintain guitars and that was the last time I paid somebody else to do a setup. My buddy was absolutely right. I think all serious guitarists should learn to set up and maintain their own instruments. As a player, you know how you want your guitar to feel better than anyone else ever will. If you learn to do your own setups, the end result will always be exactly what you want. And if it's not, there's no hassle in taking it back to have it done again. Another reason to do it yourself: It gets really expensive paying somebody else to do it, especially when you have multiple instruments.

Anyway, I've been working my way through my guitars the past few weeks doing setups, deep cleanings, and going over each guitar to make sure everything's in good working order.  I've gotten through 3 of them so far, taking my time and working on one each weekend.

My Custom 22 needed some love. There was too much relief in the neck, the frets needed polishing really badly, the body and fretboard were dirty, the bridge was heavily tarnished, and the intonation was a little off. I fixed all that and now it's playing and looking like a PRS again.

While I was working on the C22, I decided to install a new bridge pickup. I've had different pickups in this guitar before, but I'd gone back to using the stock Dragon I pickups about 10 years ago because the stock configuration is wonderfully versatile. The problem is that the Dragon I bridge pickup is simply too much of a blowtorch for my tastes. The neck pickup is great, but the bridge is ridiculously hot. Like all high-output pickups that I've ever tried, the Dragon I bridge is all balls and midrange. It tends to drive amp inputs too hard, making it difficult to get a good clean or mildly overdriven sound. And if you do get control of the output, by rolling off the guitar volume and/or using an amp with a mile of clean headroom (which is its own problem, in my opinion), it still had that honky midrang thing going on. So I went on a search for a good replacement pickup that was a little hotter than vintage (because having a bit of extra juice is good for the PRS split-coil settings), but well short of being a "high-output" pickup. I also wanted a pickup with an Alnico IV magnet to beef up the bass and treble response a bit because I figured that would offset any small tonal effects from being a bit over-wound. My search led me to the Seymour Duncan Saturday Night Special, which I'm currently testing. The jury's still out on a final verdict, but early indications are positive.

Slightly over-wound with Alnico IV magnets

Mixing PRS and aftermarket pickups on these old PRS guitars with 5-way rotary switches is not straightforward. The are a couple of small complications. I think I'll save the details for another post, but the short story is that you have to reverse the magnet on an aftermarket bridge pickup and you have to wire it into the 5-way rotary correctly or the various switch settings won't work properly. It's not hard, but you have to know what you're doing.

I also installed some new tuner buttons on the C22. I'd always liked the look of the "faux bone" buttons on the PRS DGT, so I thought I'd install some on my C22. My guitar has the original PRS "Phase I" locking tuners, which have interchangeable buttons with the Schaller M6 tuners on which they're based. I got the faux bone buttons from John Mann and they look terrific, complementing the creme color of the pickup mounting rings.

Love the look of bone tuner buttons, but the weight reduction is even better.

What surprised me is how much lighter the bone tuner buttons are than the stock metal buttons. I can actually feel a difference in the balance of the guitar, which I totally didn't expect because we're only talking about a few ounces here. But putting that weight on the end of two foot long stick must make a difference because I could genuinely feel it. I was so impressed by the difference it made that I decided to install bone buttons on my Hamer Special FM as well because that guitar has always been a little bit neck-heavy. The new buttons didn't completely balance the Hamer unfortunately, but they did noticeably improve it, especially on a strap. And the Hamer's plain, stodgy-looking headstock now looks a lot spiffier in my opinion.

Speaking of the Hamer, its nickel-covered pickups have gotten heavily tarnished. Some people like that look, but I prefer to keep them as shiny as possible until they no longer have any shine left. So I'll be polishing them up when it's the Hamer's turn for a deep cleaning and setup. Unfortunately, that guitar is now buzzing on the 1st fret when playing the open B string. The action is reasonable and the neck has just a tiny bit of relief in it, so I'm 99% sure that the B string nut slot has just worn down. That's not surprising considering it's almost 30 years old. I'll need to find a local repair person to install a new nut because I don't have the tools and I'm not 100% sure I trust myself with that one. Fortunately, there are a number of good guitar repair people in Raleigh. I think a repair person might also recommend that the fretboard be re-leveled and dressed, but I'm reluctant to do that. I'm a bit worried that there won't be enough fret left over for my liking. So I'm inclined just to get a full fret job if it comes down to that.

In a couple of months, I'll have deep-cleaned, set up, and performed any needed longer-term maintenance tasks for all of my guitars. And if things go right, I'll enjoy many more years of service from them.