Sunday, September 4, 2011

Epiphone Les Paul: a Mod Story

My Les Paul hasn't seen much action since I bought it. A cheap guitar that I never had professionally setup.
Playing it was like fighting it. The action was all wrong, the intonation was impossible and the neck was bowed.
I hadn't had the confidence to have a crack at it myself as getting information from the net isn't always reliable.
A couple of months ago I bought a book on setting up guitars. It explained clearly and with pictures what needed to be done. Also a few tools that were recommended that I hadn't considered.
One of them being an 18" straight edge. I'd looked around online and they weren't cheap.
I wasn't about to spend $40 on what is essentially an 18" ruler.

From one of my other projects, I had some leftover U shaped aluminium rail, which was a little longer than needed. After testing how straight it was against a known surface, I trimmed the excess and set to work on the Les Paul.

I loosened it off before tightening, using the DIY straight edge to ensure that I was on track.
Gradually tightening the truss rod and checking with the straight edge, I could see that the bow of the neck was becoming less pronounced. At each adjustment I'd play each string along the neck and double checking the trouble spots that I'd known about from before.

Pretty quickly it was obvious that the playability was improving. I'd adjusted the bridge for a fairly low action, so when I hit the strings hard there's a bit of buzz on the neck, but it's not audible through the pickups. I need the low action on this guitar as the neck is quite fat and I have fairly small hands.

The next thing that needed attention was the intonation. I'd had a lot of trouble with intonation on this guitar, to the point where the saddles would not travel far enough in either direction to compensate. Some of this was no doubt due to the action and lack of setup, but it was also a common problem with the cheap bridge used on a lot of Epiphone guitars. I'd added a Bigsby recently and figured that having a roller bridge wouldn't hurt any, so I picked up a Wilkinson clone for around $20 online, which turned out to be the best thing I could have done.
The design of the bridge is such that there is a lot of room backward and forward to adjust, as well as being able to flip its saddles without much effort. Intonation was breeze and the guitar was setup in maybe half an hour.

When I installed the Bigsby, I used a Vibramate to mount it in the existing post holes. The posts came out with little effort (I only needed to use my fingers), which I thought might be a problem later on. during the setup, one side of the Vibramate had lifted out of the body. I wedged it back in, but this doesn't seem like its going to be the end of that issue. I left it overnight, so it's holding for the time being.

The Bigsby design has two design flaws in my opinion. One, the way that the strings are mounted and the other is the limited movement of the vibrato bar. It doesn't allow the bar to move over the strings and sits just next to the high E. This means an adjustment of technique, by either grabbing it with my pinky, or pausing on a chord to move the bar. On my other guitars I usually have the bar centered over the strings and Hold it with three fingers while playing. I'm probably going to grind the stopper off the Bigsby to retain that freedom of movement.

You might recall that I scored some pickups from my friend's Gretsch. One of these I modified to fit in the neck position of the Les Paul. The biggest delay in putting this guitar back together was that I had not been lucky with trying to make a pickup ring to suit. It's not a standard sized mini humbucker, so there aren't any off the shelf solutions going around. What I ended up doing was modifying a standard humbucker ring to hold it on place. Now I have the same problem with this pickup as I do with the Filtertron on my Surfcaster. The string width is different. On Gretsch guitars the spacing is a little wider than Gibson spacing (which the Les Paul and Surfcaster use). This is no big deal on the center strings, but the E strings fall inside of the pole pieces and not directly over the op of them as intended.

I never thought it would make much of a difference. But it does. It makes a huge difference. The inner strings have great clarity and impact, where the outer strings are dull and lackluster. The pole pieces can be adjusted, but it only makes the string louder without the characteristic tone of the pickup.

One way of compensating for this is to put the pickup on an angle, so that the string almost sits in middle of the pair of poles. At this point I haven't managed to get quite enough of an angle and will need to extract the pickup and trim some more metal off the pickup casing.

The Gretsch pickup has a nice piano like tone, which really changes the character of the guitar. Coupled with the Semour Duncan P-Rail and the active EQ, I really do have a lot of tone options available on this guitar.
It's not quite finished, but I'm happy with the sound and feel, so it will likely be some time before I attend to the remaining issues.

So many guitars. So little time!

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