Neck repairs are a common procedure on a vintage guitar and can enhance the sound of a valued instrument.
Q: I am somewhat anxious about whether or not to commission “major surgery” on a vintage (1962) Martin D-18. Because this instrument has no truss rod, it needs a neck reset and refretting in order to make it comfortably playable. This procedure is quite expensive and there is, of course, no guarantee of success. The guitar is in superb condition otherwise, and I am therefore concerned about how such repairs may affect the status of its “original condition.” Will its value in that regard be compromised? Do such considerations override playability? —Jim Moscovich, London, Ontario, Canada
A: A great question. You sound like a curious guitar owner, and you’re interested in doing right by your investment—kudos to you. I want to ease your fears about commissioning a neck set and refret for your guitar. In fact, you’re in a great position: you have a cool guitar in excellent condition and you get to hire the right repair person to make it play at its best. Lots of people are dealing with poorly done repairs that may have happened decades before they acquired a guitar. Those are much worse problems to have!
It sounds like you need to hear exactly how common this repair is—a vintage Martin that never needs it is the exception. In a busy working repair shop, performing a neck set on a Martin is an everyday repair, and a refret is generally done at the same time. Instead of thinking about this “major surgery” as emergency triage, think about it as a routine procedure that will improve your D-18’s quality of life. When neatly done, the only thing you’ll notice is how good the guitar is.
Martin guitars have been built quite predictably through the decades, so repair technicians know what they’re getting into when they take one apart. They know the glue used, the location and angle of the dovetail, how the wood might behave. This is also how they know that your 1962 D-18 certainly does have a truss rod—it’s just not adjustable. Satisfy yourself: take a strong magnet to the back of the neck. In that era, it’s a T-shaped steel bar running the length of the neck. These are typically gangbusters at keeping the neck straight.
So why do Martins all seem to need a neck reset? A few things add up to the answer. With 150-plus pounds of pressure on a guitar over decades, you’d expect to see certain things give. On any guitar, the top may stretch upwards, the bridge may pull up and need regluing. On a Martin, additionally, the arch in the back will be drawn flatter, luthier Paul Hostetter notes, and the straight neck will pull forward at the neck joint. Add all this together and there’s a hinge effect right where the neck meets the body. Furthermore, lots of Martins came out of the factory with what modern eyes see as a slightly too shallow neck angle. Both the strengths and weaknesses of their designs were consistent.
Let’s talk about value as a concept for a moment. Resale value is one way to think about it—if an object is just interesting to a collector, someone who would put it behind glass, then it’s playability doesn’t affect what it is worth to them, only things like it’s provenance and condition would. But I think of a ’60s Martin D-18 as a very usable vintage guitar, and generally, so does the fair market. You want to play it, don’t you? If you were to sell it to someone, wouldn’t they want to play it? What if a guitar had the potential to sound and feel really good, but doesn’t do either because it has a bad neck angle and needs new frets? That would be a shame—and you’d be the proud owner of some expensive kindling!
Don’t feel nervous about getting this repair done—find a repair shop or independent luthier in your area that has a solid reputation working with vintage flat top guitars. Talk to other players you know, go online (but only if you’re prepared to be flooded with information), and satisfy your mind. Settle on someone you feel confident dealing with. Then, trust them. They’ve done this before.
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Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie. She is the former head of repair at Retrofret Guitars and an active blues player.