Adventures in guitar repair

Not as bright red as the flash makes it look
Guitar geek alert. Be warned.

I spent a pleasant afternoon in a small music shop in South Surrey called Surfside Music & Vintage Guitars. For me, musical instrument shops are right up there as great places to hang out with book stores, garden stores, and stationery stores.

My friend E told me about Surfside when I said that I wanted to restore my vintage Fender Mustang to as close to its original condition (plus wear and tear) as possible. Mostly what I wanted to do was to restore the stock bridge that had been modified (badly) before I bought the guitar, used, sometime in the late 1980s. The original bridge had a tremolo bar, a.k.a. whammy bar, which allows you to bend notes (more than you can with your fingers on the strings and more than one string at a time). You can't play surf guitar without one, and it's a good sound for other things. I can already get that sound out of my Stratocaster, but I figured if I could improve the Mustang, why not.

The man who runs Surfside Music is Robbie Keene, an affable man with no mean guitar playing skills himself. I handed him my red Mustang with the yellow racing stripe and let him take it apart.

I had thought the Mustang was a 1969. Close. It was made in 1970, which makes it the oldest guitar I own (my Telecaster Thinline was made in 1972). It still has almost all its original parts, including the nut, which showed evidence of a crack repaired with glue. The pickups, switches, pots, knobs, tuning pegs, and pick-guard are all original. The finish is original. Robbie said that the painted headstock is rare among Fender guitars, which usually have a natural-finish headstock. There is no date stamp on the neck, but that headstock, the same colour and fade pattern as the body, indicates that the neck is original as well. The guitar itself is in the kind of shape that I like—basically good with a few nicks that show that it was played (as I play it now) and not just collected.

The only things missing were the original round bar through which the strings are threaded, the springs it was mounted on, and the tremolo bar.

Robbie and I discussed the restoration of the tremolo bridge. He would have had to send away for the springs and the tremolo bar itself. That was no big deal (assuming Fender still had the parts), since I wasn't in a hurry. But he showed me why the tremolo bridge might not be the best idea. It has to do with the angle of the strings at the bottom of the guitar as they go up and over the bridge. With the modified bridge, which pinned the ends of the strings flat against the bridge plate, the angle was fairly steep, which meant the strings were stable on the bridge and are unlikely to slide (which they don't). With the original setup, the strings come through holes in a round bar at the bottom of the guitar. It's maybe a couple of millimetres height difference at most, but it makes a big difference to the stability of the strings on the bridge. Apparently, this is how Fender designed these guitars. You have to play a bit differently to compensate for the reduced string tension.

I decided to go with Robbie's recommendation and not do the whole tremolo setup. He showed me on a 1965 Mustang (first year for that model, which was named after the car) how he could flip the round bar over so that the strings would go backward through the holes, around and under the bar, and then over the bridge. That would give it about the same angle and string tension as it had before but without the ugly bar that was difficult to get strings under. It's not the original setup, but it's probably more playable. And since, as I said, I have a whammy bar on my Strat, I decided to go for more playable, especially since I would probably not want to change my playing style to prevent the strings from slipping off the bridge.

So I didn't have to leave the guitar. I just waited for about an hour, amusing myself by playing a 1981 black three-quarter-length Rickenbacker 320, a descendent of the three-pickup model 325 that you see in old photos of John Lennon. It was sweet. I also played a Telecaster Standard that was very nice. It felt like my Tele, but the sound is completely different. And I walked around the crowded shop checking out all the cool vintage guitars, basses, and other gear.

The bill was amazingly reasonable. I left with a guitar that plays pretty much the same, looks better, and has clean switches that work better. I also left with more knowledge. And if I ever want to order the hardware and go with the tremolo setup, I can do so. The shop is not around the corner, but it's not very far away, and it's the kind of place where you can get more personal service than at Tom Lee or Long & McQuaid, both of which are excellent music stores but much larger. I know I'll be back for one reason or another. That Rickenbacker is not cheap, but it might have my name on it.

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