From the April 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY MAMIE MINCH
Q: I have a 1932 Gibson L-00 12-fret that appears to have had a neck reset and refret before I bought it. After finding a few muted notes around the 14th fret, I asked a local repair shop for an evaluation and was told they would need to sand down the fingerboard and then do a refret. I got a second opinion; they said all I needed was a filing down of the frets in question. As you might expect, I chose the latter repair; it was less expensive and preserved the rosewood fingerboard. The second luthier I visited said that the frets on the fingerboard extension were too high and didn’t allow for fretting just below them.
In what circumstances would shaving down the fingerboard be warranted? Was it an appropriate suggested repair for my classic guitar? How would you handle this, and how would you suggest I check a guitar to see what kind of work it might need in this area when scoping it out for purchase? —Lafayette Calhoun
A: Ultimately, I’m glad you were able to find a repair shop that would work with you, that you felt good about the transaction, and that now you can play your guitar in the way you want. In a way, we really do act as stewards of these older classic guitars, and it’s on us to make sure they get the repairs they need to stay in good shape. So we get the bridges re-glued, we notice when their necks need to be reset, we make sure to keep them humidified in the dry air that results from heating our homes. If anything untoward happens to them, we fix them in the best way available to us, within our personal spheres and within our means. In reality, though, sometimes there is more than one way to fix what everyone can agree is a problem.
First, a note—when you are shopping for an old guitar, it’s useful to be able to look down the neck using foreshortening to help you see the neck’s straightness. So set the guitar on a bench and point the headstock at your face, close one eye, and sight down one side of the fingerboard like you would a length of 2×4 at the lumberyard. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to notice any ups, downs, slopes, or valleys.
You say the guitar has had a neck reset and a refret—that’s not unusual for an older guitar. It sounds like the fingerboard extension is still “ski sloping” up after the neck joint—typically something that’s corrected when a neck angle is set back a bit farther. First question: Why is this happening? Was it not glued back down well, or was the angle too shallow? Second question: Is the saddle tall enough for a proper action? These L-00s can project like the dickens, and a super-low action will choke its ability to resonate—as well as highlighting any fret issues. But, I suppose in a way it doesn’t matter for us, because what you’re complaining about is the upper frets hitting the strings when you play up high. So what would I do? I have done both of those fixes on guitars, considering a few things along the way.
How severe is the up-kick? If a 1932 Gibson in killer shape came along and I was satisfied that it was only a little ski-sloping problem that didn’t point toward a neck reset, and it didn’t need a refret, I would dress the tops of the frets to a workable height and call it a day. The freshly dressed frets may look flatter than the others, but at the 14th fret on a 12-fret guitar, we don’t have to worry about how they feel when played. Alternately, if it was on a guitar that had seen some honest wear and needed a refret, and again, didn’t point to any other issues, I would want to fix that ski slope. I would probably pull the frets and carefully sand down the worst of the warped fingerboard. Also, during the refret, I might do a little compression fretting, which means I’ll widen the tangs on certain frets ever so slightly to help stiffen the fingerboard in a spot that might be prone to bowing.
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I can tell the idea of taking any wood off your great old guitar doesn’t sit well with you, but consider that it wouldn’t remove that much wood, and it’s a more fundamental fix than just dressing the tops of the frets. Your fingerboard is unfinished, and the fresh wood can be patinaed to match the rest of the board. If the work was done well, all you’d notice would be that the guitar looked and felt great. That, to me, makes a classic old guitar more valuable to its owner, or shall we say, its steward.
Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie and an active blues player.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.