Monday: Theory and Technique
Wednesday: Repairs and DIY
Tonefiend Book Week is simple: I discuss a few titles I’ve found particularly enlightening, useful, or entertaining, and then you jump in and do the same. I’ve organized the days of this week by subject matter. Today’s topics are repair and DIY.
Sorry in advance if my faves in this category are a bit predictable!
For any repair topic, I turn to the redoubtable Dan Erlewine. Dan knows his stuff like no one else, plus he’s a terrific writer, with a rare talent for explanation and a charming sense of humor.
Dan has serviced the instruments of countless great players. (I’d insert a list, but it might wear out my comma key.) Better yet, he makes comprehensive notes and measurements. You learn much about, say, Albert King, just by studying Dan’s numbers.
Now, I’m the furthest thing from a guitar tech. (Just ask San Francisco’s brilliant Gary Brawer, who regularly rescues my guitars from clumsy abuse and ill-considered DIY attempts.) But for players who simply need help with basic setup, maintenance, and modification tasks, Erlewine’s books — The Guitar Player Repair Guide and How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great — are godsends. Get ’em both. You won’t be sorry. (The digital versions live on my iPad for workbench reference.)
I never had the pleasure of editing Dan’s columns when I worked at Guitar Player — Jas Obrecht jealously guarded that privilege. But the entire staff would laugh itself silly over Dan’s April Fools columns, like the one where he explained how to install a Floyd Rose tremolo on a pre-War Martin. (If I recall correctly, the process involved filling the body with cement.) Another year, he suggested using kitchen objects as lutherie tools. The photos included a kitchen table used as a clamp for a glue job on some über-valuable axe. (Touch of genius: The pic showed the poor guitar being crushed by a weighty trestle table, where Dan’s kids sat enjoying large bowls of breakfast cereal.) That one prompted a very famous guitar maker to write a shrill letter to the editor. (“It’s highly irresponsible for Mr. Erlewine to recommend using a heavy kitchen table as a clamp. Proper clamps don’t even cost that much!”) The luthier followed this with a frantic phone call, explaining that someone had alerted him to the joke, and begging us not to run the letter. We didn’t. (Dagnabbit!)
Recommending DIY books is trickier. I don’t know anything about “build your own guitar” books, though perhaps some smart readers can offer suggestions. I’ve made a few cool amps, but only from kits, and only using the supplied instructions. (Anyone have recommendations here?) But I have built a buttzillion guitar pedals, and I’ve surveyed most of the book options.
One title is an undisputed classic: Craig Anderton’s Electronic Project for Musicians. Anderton’s magnum opus pretty much spawned the DIY effects movement — many, if not most, modern pedal builders got their start here. Some of these projects still sound great, and to this day builders borrow Craig’s ideas (especially his CMOS-based Tube Sound Fuzz). If you’re passionate about DIY effects, you should own this. You probably already do.
But…the book hasn’t been revised in over 20 years, and much has changed. New parts…new component nomenclature…new designs…new hardware options. You can still harvest cool ideas here, but I can’t recommend it as a starting point for DIY adventures today.
(And why, you may ask, doesn’t Craig revise this book? The dude has a lot on his plate! I hung out with Craig at Musikmesse last month, where he told me he’s moving to Nashville to assume a major role at Gibson. Man, Craig has done so much for our community: popularizing DIY, developing Electronic Musician magazine, penning hundreds of Guitar Player articles, and writing half the gear manuals on your studio shelf. Thanks, Craig!)
Another interesting but dated resource is Nicholas Boscarelli’s Stompbox Cookbook. It’s been out of print since the Pleistocene, and used copies fetch $100 or more. You can probably find illicit copies online. But is it worth stealing, or buying at unconscionable prices? Probably not. (I own a copy, and while some of the circuits are cool, it’s not all that. You can find better and more complete info elsewhere.)
Additional options include the e-books of Nashville pedal guru Brian Wampler. These seem to be out of “print,” but you can probably find copies if you search around. But while Wampler has some cool tips, most of the resources in this books are borrowed from various DIY stompbox sites.
Which brings me to my ultimate DIY stompbox book recommendation: none.
Instead, start by building a few kits from vendors such as BYOC. Haunt the forums at DIY Stompboses and Freestompboxes. Read the fantastic and free articles at Gauss Markov, Runoff Groove, and Beavis Audio Research. (And if you’re feeling lucky, check out what this clown has to offer.) When books fail, the web prevails!
How about you guys? Who do you turn to when you break something — or when you want to build something to break?