Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Re-Fretting Gibson Les Paul Custom

I hope you enjoyed reading Part-I of this article: The Purchase Of Gibson Les Paul Custom.

Before we delve into the re-fret job details, let me introduce to you the creator of the legendary Les Paul guitar: Mr Lester William Polfus.

Meet the genius

Known the world over as Les Paul, he was also called “Rhubarb Red” and “the Wizard of Waukesha”. Born on 09 June 1915, he died aged 94 on 12 August 2009.

Les Paul was an exceptionally innovative guitarist with his own TV show in the 1950s (‘Les Paul and Mary Ford at home’) that featured his wife. The couple had over thirty hit songs if not as many children.

He invented equipment and recording techniques that revolutionised music and recording. The prototype electric guitar known as ‘the log’ was made in 1941. Although Gibson’s President, Ted McCarty, rejected the idea of producing a solid-body electric guitar, he succumbed to commercial pressure when Leo Fender’s Broadcaster (later Fender Telecaster) came out in 1948. Gibson released the ‘Gold Top’ Les Paul guitar in 1952. The rest, as they say, is history.

When singer Bing Crosby gave Les Paul a tape-recorder, he got the idea of modifying it by installing another recording head; this scheme became the basis of latter day multi-track recorders. Such a recorder would enable him and his wife to play and sing multiple parts all by themselves—something unimaginable in those days.
Les & Mary with recording gear

His breakthrough recording, Lover, from 1948 proves his genius. And do listen to what Les Paul and Mary Ford did with How High The Moon and The World Is Waiting For Sunrise.

The innovative sound of flanging can be heard on the song Mammy’s Boogie. This kind of sound would later give birth to ‘flanger’ stomp-boxes for guitarists.

In 2005 Les Paul's final recorded album, American Made, World Played, debuted and featured Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Sting and Eric Clapton. It won this veteran two Grammy Awards.

1952 Les Paul 'gold-top' 
Les Paul is the only person to be inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Mentioning all of Les Paul’s achievements is beyond the scope of this article. My own recording studio’s name, ‘Sound on Sound’, paid homage to Les Paul’s amazing recording techniques and the guitar he created.

Nicknames explained

The Les Paul Custom guitar was named ‘Black Beauty’ because of a solid black body accentuated by white edge-binding. The bound ebony fingerboard and block mother-of-pearl inlays were designed to highlight a player’s hands. It does look like a guitar formally dressed for a ball.
Gibson 400 CES

Compare women with guitars in real life and no matter how hard you try, you will never find a neck, a head and beauty to outdo a Les Paul guitar. While great are the temptations of flesh, the ones produced by exotic woods and gold-plated hardware rate higher.

Steve removing the frets
The reason this guitar was nicknamed the ‘Fretless Wonder’, was because of the ultra-low profile of the frets which enabled fast and furious jazzy playing.

The ‘Custom’ designation of the Gibson Les Paul model meant it borrowed an ornately inlaid headstock from the company’s most expensive model: Super 400 CES.

Almost every guitarist has either owned or played a Les Paul guitar. The list of guitar Romeos who ended up loving the Les Paulian Juliet is quite mind-numbing. Many professionals who ended up endorsing Fender later in life actually played a Les Paul in younger years. Owning this guitar is like owning a piece of history, pedigree and innovation. Cheap copies will never replace the ‘real thing’ no matter how much Coke ones consumes.
The nut removed
To see how a Gibson Les Paul is made, click HERE.

What does Mr Les Paul sound and look like?

Here are recordings worth listening to:

Les Paul LIVE - and magnificent
Les Paul - Greatest Hits

How does one define ‘Black Beauty’?

Look ma, no frets!
Forget makeup and hot dresses; focus instead on the Les Paul’s following features:
  • Three-piece maple top, mahogany back with ½” slotted weight relief to deliver classic Les Paul tone and resonance.
  • Ebony nitro lacquer finish, multi-ply bindings, pearl block inlays on an ebony board, pearl headstock adornments including the Gibson logo and the famed custom Split Diamond inlay.
  • Historic long tendon neck joint and a traditional hide glue neck construction.
  • A mahogany neck with Les Paul Custom profile provides players with classic Gibson feel and playability.
  • Alnico Super '74 humbuckers, legendary tones (that helped shape the sound of rock 'n' roll in the '70s), a warms and smooth sounding neck pickup, a bridge pickup with plenty of bite and edge for aggressive, screaming leads and solos.
  • Sanded and ready
  • Plastic pick-guard, solid brass gold-plated hardware (including Schaller tuners, an ABR Thumbwheel bridge and a lightweight aluminium stop-bar tailpiece).

Fretting away the moments that make up a dull day

Installing frets
Great as it was, my Les Paul Custom had one serious problem that would not go away: its super-low profile frets produced annoying buzz high up on the fret-board. When sought, expert opinion was firm: ‘individual frets cannot be fixed; all the frets need to be replaced’.

Now, re-fretting is a labour-intensive job best left to an experienced luthier. Considering the high cost of re-fretting, nobody that I know in Pakistan has ever bothered having this operation done; guitarists keep playing over unevenly worn frets.
Frets seated

Since nothing in my life ever gets done without conducting deep research, it was decided that Steve Curtis of Guitar Workshop at Manchester would re-fret my Les Paul; earlier he had satisfactorily fixed a few of my guitars.

After consulting with Steve about the fret-wire’s gauge (the fret’s top width and the height from the fret-board) I looked at various brands of wire such as Jim Dunlop, HOSCO, JESCAR, StewMac. My Les Paul’s original frets were 2.35mm wide at the top.
  • Gibson guitars from the late 1950’s used 2.48mm or 2.413mm wide jumbo frets with 0.508mm tangs (which is ‘medium’ by today’s standards).
  • 1960’s guitars had 2.54mm width with bigger tangs.
  • Gold-plated machines
  • New Gibson frets are 2.69mm wide and 0.91mm high, whereas the new Les Paul frets are 2.45mm wide.

Traditional nickel-silver frets would cost GBP 160; I chose the extremely long-wearing stainless steel to avoid later repairs due to fret-wear. The job would set me back by GBP 200. Steve initially recommended JESCAR 55090 whose specifications were: 2.28mm wide and 1.40mm high. I finally chose the wider JESCAR FW51108-S (stainless steel).

Steve also gave two more choices: AllParts LT-0482 (width 2.80mm) and HOSCO HF-J1 (2.90mm wide and 1.30mm high); these I found a bit too jumbo for my playing style.

S/N: 190647 - Made in USA
Keeping other options open

Incidentally, HOSCO (catalogue, p.32) suggests that HF-M1 is a good replacement for Gibson guitars (2.40mm).

Note that HF-M3 at 2.62mm is good for Fenders. The latest American Fenders are 2.61mm wide and 1.168mm high ‘medium jumbo’. My Fender Telecaster Modern Player Plus is 2.70mm wide and 1.10mm high ‘medium jumbo’.

Rear of pickup selector
The following brands and their gauges help one get some idea about fret choices:
  • StewMac gauge: medium-higher = 2.34mm
  • All Parts gauges: Small 2.0-2.2mm, Medium 2.30-2.50mm, jumbo 2.65-2.90mm
  • Ibanez guitars use 2.99mm wide/1.47mm high frets

Modern Vs vintage ‘jumbo’ wire

Frequent or hard playing creates indentations over the frets and which require careful filing and polishing to produce perfectly pitched sound. An average player may not even bother but any guitarist with a distinctive ‘style and sound’ will depend on carefully setup guitars.
Pickups cavity

Every few years, professionals will have their guitars dressed or re-fretted. Their guitar technicians or roadies take care of this business. Currently ‘dressing’ of the frets costs GBP 65. The frets may be dressed a few times after which they require replacement. This seldom happens in an average player’s life.

Another important thing worth noting is, yesterday’s jumbo fret-wire is rather narrow by today’s standards. Players today prefer wider crowns and higher tangs in order to play the kinds of styles that were unknown in the past.

Before the operation at Steve's
I selected American JESCAR FW51108-S stainless steel fret-wire (2.75mm wide, 1.30mm high). This was ‘medium jumbo’ gauge, the same used on today’s Fender guitars.

Plain nuts

I had to sacrifice the original bone nut of the guitar. Since an entirely different fret-wire gauge was being installed, the old nut would not allow precise adjustments of intonation and string height.

Red marks on frets indicate BUZZ points
I feared a bleached nut would look as strange as a ‘white’ man walking hand-in-hand with a ‘black’ woman. Earlier, a man-made TUSQ material nut had already been installed by Steve on my Höfner 173ii. With a near-vintage guitar such as my Les Paul Custom, it was best to go nuts with a real unbleached ‘boner’.
Lie down, I think I love you

Electrifying trivia
  • The Gibson Les Paul Custom had 500K tone and volume pots until 1973.
  • From mid-1973 onward, Gibson switched to 300K tone and volume pots.
  • From 1977 to the late 1980s, they had 300K or 100K tone pots and 300K volume pots.
  • Les Paul Standard models had from 1990s onward, 300K linear taper and 500K audio taper pots.
  • Historic and Custom-Shop models had custom tapers: 0-3 audio taper, 3-7 linear taper, 7-10 audio taper.
Excuse me, while I kiss the sky

As for the capacitor values on my own Les Paul Custom, they are rated 0.22µF.

When was my guitar manufactured?

Although I bought a few serial number books prior to the internet revolution, dating a guitar still is an expert-level job.

  • My Les Paul Custom’s serial number is 190647.
  • It has ‘Made in USA” stamped behind the headstock.
  • The headstock has a volute on its back.
  • The mother-of-pearl Gibson logo on has an ‘i’ without a dot which is an important thing for a literary person to note. The ‘o’ and ‘b’ alphabets in the logo are of closed styling.
  • The ‘Gibson’ name is not embossed on both the pickups.
  • Please be seated
  • Careful research has revealed that my baby was born in June 1972 and which makes her middle-aged and as vintage as great wine.

My Baby's Comin' Home

Taking the guitar out of Pakistan and from England meant carrying a baby that weighed 9 lbs and 9.3 Ounces (4.11 Kg without the hard case). This pain needed to be taken. Email messages went back and forth between Steve and I to remove ambiguities. The man gets full marks for showing patient.
1974 Les Paul Custom Reissue

Steve had my Les Paul all re-fretted and ready at his workshop on a cloudy afternoon on 24th of March 2016. After being re-united with the guitar I breathed heavily down its neck (inspection really) and plugged into an all-valve Mesa-Boogie amplifier at PMT. It sounded absolutely wonderful and felt amazingly easy for bending notes. The GBP220 (Rs 30,000) I spent helped breathe a new soul into an old body.

Steve Curtis giving my Les Paul a final check
Beyond the third fret

Considering the rising cost of production abroad and the constantly devaluing Pakistani currency, any high-end item—be it a Rolex wristwatch or a high-end guitar—goes up in price by an average of 10% per annum. Gibson’s website indicates that the company now has a 1974 Les Paul Custom Re-Issue model retailing for a phenomenal price of $6,699 (Rupees 725,000).

In short, a 6,000 Rupee guitar that nobody within the twin cities of Rawalpindi-Islamabad could afford in 1981 is now worth a small fortune (12,083-fold increase in price in 36 years). Each year the guitar’s price kept increasing by 333%.

If you are a rich Pakistani guitarist, I highly recommend that you get rid of those extra plots in the DHA and buy quality guitars instead.
Playing with a broken arm

Related articles and credits

Read more about music-related articles HERE

Photographs 7-12 courtesy of Steve Curtis at Guitar Workshop, Manchester, England

Photographs 13-21 and 23 by the writer

©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2017

1 comment:

  1. Ok ...... where to begin ...
    What a magnificent instrument and a wonderful article !
    I feel a need to express my gratitude and appreciation for your good piece of work .
    You continue to amaze me l have gained so much knowledge about guitars.
    Thank you TGH for sharing !!!

    ReplyDelete