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Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Why doesn't my guitar stay in tune?

Answer: To best explain the most common causes of this problem, lets follow the path of the strings. We begin at the tuners. If they are poorly made, loose, or installed incorrectly, the strings will slip. Next, the strings can bind at the nut if the slots are cut at the wrong angle or incorrect width. Now the strings pass over the entire neck and this is where intonation is very important. If it has not been properly set, you will notice some chords sound in tune and others do not. The strings will now pass over the pickups and their height can become an issue. For example, single coils have a strong magnetic field which can pull down on your strings causing tuning problems and even fret buzz. We now arrive at the bridge where uneven string height, low quality parts, and poorly installed hardware will cause even more tuning problems. Finally, the strings themselves can be the cause if they are old or just really filthy. I address all of these problems in my setup, which can be seen on our repairs page.

Question: Whats with all these different string sizes? How do i know what to use?

Answer: Its all about string tension, feel and tuning. For example, 9 gauge strings (9 - 42) are considered normal for electric guitars and they come standard on most brands. These are great for people who play in E Standard tuning (or Drop D) with a light touch and want easy string bending. The next step up is 10 gauge strings (10 - 46) which you can still tune to E Standard for a stiffer feel or tune down a half step to E Flat Standard (or Drop C Sharp) for the same tension as 9 gauge strings. The next step up is 11 gauge strings (11 - 49) which you can tune to E Standard for a super stiff feel or tune down a whole step to D Standard (or Drop C) for the same tension as 9 gauge strings. There are also oddball string sets with mixed gauges. A good example of this is the ErnieBall - Skinny Top / Heavy Bottom set (10-52) which is basically the high strings from a 10 gauge set, and the low strings from a 12 gauge set. You can tune these to E Standard (or Drop D) to accommodate a heavy handed, percussive player or down to Drop C which gives you tight bass strings for fast metal rifts and easily bendable high strings for smooth soloing. Finally, some will argue that bigger strings mean thicker, fuller tone. This is certainly true, but what does it matter if you can barely push down the strings and your technique suffers because of it? So you can see there are no solid rules here, but hopefully this information can serve as a guide to help you find the string gauge combination that best suits your own unique playing style.

Question: Why do some guitars sound good and others don't?

Answer: It comes down to four things: Wood, Electronics, Paint, and Hardware. Changing any one of these things on your guitar can yield good results, but they all play a big part in the tone of your instrument. A guitar made with quality tone woods, hardware, and electronics, thats finished in nitrocellulose lacquer, will always sound better than a guitar made with cheap laminated woods, hardware, and electronics thats finished in polyuthothane.

Question: What is the difference between Nitrocellulose Lacquer and Polyurethane?

Answer: Nitro is often called a "thin skin" as it really allows the guitar to resonate freely. It has a superior feel and a super glossy look to it. Poly is almost like a thin layer of plastic. It feels tacky and doesn't allow the guitar to resonate very well. Most companies use poly because its faster to work with. Its also more durable and immune to finish "checking" (those little tiny cracks that you see all over vintage guitars, which are of course finished in nitro) Another reason most companies do not use nitro is that its bad for the environment... which is a load of crap! Smoke stacks, nuclear power plants, cars, and airplanes are bad for the environment... not painting a few thousand guitars a year.

Question: What exactly is the Buzz Feiten tuning system?

Answer: In short... moving the nut about a millimeter closer to the first fret. You were expecting a long technical answer weren't you? Now you know why they try to keep everything about it a secret... but wait, there is more! Once this modification is done, you must use a special electronic tuner that has built in Buzz Feiten offsets to tune your guitar. You'll also have to learn a new method of string to string tuning for when you don't have your "special" tuner handy. Now I bet your wondering if it really works, right? Yes, it does offer improved intonation, but is it worth all this trouble? Only you can answer that. I personally think its a horrible idea.

Question: What is action and how does it affect my playing?

Answer: The term "action" refers to string height, or to be even more precise, the distance between the top of the frets and the bottom of your strings. If action is too high, the guitar will be hard to play and nearly impossible for a student to learn on. In extreme cases, it can actually make a guitar impossible to tune. If the action is too low, the guitar will suffer from horrible fret buzz. Most people will agree that guitars with low action are easier to play, but it all comes down to personal preferance.

Question: What are the benefits of guitars with different scale lengths?

Answer: The best way to explain this would be to compare a Fender Stratocaster with a Gibson Les Paul. The Fender has a longer 25.5" scale length and the Gibson Les Paul has a shorter 24.75" scale length. If both guitars are setup exactly the same, the Gibson will be easier to play. This is because it takes less tension to tune each string to pitch with a shorter scale length. The frets are also spaced closer together which futher adds to the playability of the Gibson. There are some tonal differences as well. A shorter scale length will provide you with a warmer mellow tone, which may, or may not be desirable, depending on the style of music you play. So you can see there are no winners or losers here... once again, it comes down to personal preference.

Question: How do changes in environment and temperature affect my guitar?

Answer: Ok first lets start with humidity and seasonal changes. Sometimes these will cause changes in the amount of relief present in your guitar neck. The result may be minor fret buzz or action that feels a bit higher than normal. A truss rod adjustment is usually all that is needed. As for temperature... cold isn't so bad, its how quickly the guitar warms up that causes problems. If your guitar is left in your car for a significant amount of time, in very cold weather, and then brought into your warm toasty house, condensation will occur. Its easy enough to wipe down your guitar, but on the inside, this condensation can eventually damage your electronics (pots, switches, jacks and so on) as they become corroded. Heat is a completely different story. It will ruin your guitar. Let me say that again. It will ruin your guitar. Now let me explain... when someone brings me a warped neck, I can make it straight again by the use of heat and clamps. So you can imagine, if you leave your guitar in your car for a significant amount of time, in very hot summer weather, the strings are acting just like a clamp and putting around 120 pounds of pressure on your neck, which will slowly warp it into a bowed shape.

Question: I want a new humbucker, but I don't know if I need two or four conductor wiring! Help!

Answer: This one seems confusing, but its really simple. You're getting the same pickup either way, but four conductor wiring allows for special wiring options like coil tapping, out of phase, and series / parallel switching. On the outside you'll note that the humbucking pickup with two conductor wiring has... well... two wires! In fact most of the time it looks like one wire with a metal sleeve around it. The metal sleeve will go to ground and the inner cloth covered wire will be your hot wire. The humbucking pickup with four conductor wiring will actually have five wires. Don't be confused, just keep reading... seriously! You'll have four colored wires and one bare wire. It takes two coils to make a humbucker so thats one color of wire coming from the side of each coil. The fifth wire is bare and comes from the metal base plate. This bare wire will be twisted together and soldered to ground with one of the colored wires. Two of the remaining colored wires, which originate from the other side of the pickup, will be soldered together to complete the humbucker, letting both coils work together in series. Finally, the remaining colored wire will be your hot wire. You see, the pickup with two conductor wiring has these connections made on the inside so there are only two external wires! So now you're wondering why anyone would want all the fuss of these extra wires if we're just going to solder most of them together anyway... right? I agree completely, but check out the question below to find out more...

Question: What exactly is coil tapping, out of phase, and series / parallel switching?

Answer: In the above Q & A we talked about two and four conductor wiring in humbucking guitar pickups. If you have four conductor wiring, you can take advantage of the three wiring options in your question... coil tapping, out of phase, and series / parallel switching. By using a switch (like a push-pull pot) to ground the two colored wires that you soldered together from one side of the pickup, you'll get coil tapping. This turns off one of the coils in the humbucker and lets you use it as a single coil. In reality it doesn't sound exactly like a true single coil pickup, but its really close. I usually do this to my personal guitars as I think it sounds really cool. If you have two humbuckers in your guitar and you switch the colored wires that you used for hot and ground on one of the pickups, you'll be able to get an "out of phase" sound whenever both pickups are in use. This produces a strange, but cool, nasal like tone that some people enjoy for solos. To change a humbucker from series to parallel operation, you can use a switch (like a push-pull pot) to use the two coils of a humbucker seperately, side by side, rather than in series as one powerfull pickup. This produces full, but slightly less powerful sound and can be useful for taming down a high output pickup, but the tonal change is more subtle... definitely not the radical change you get by turning off one coil when coil tapping.

Question: How did you get started in this line of work?

Answer: I started playing guitar at the age of fourteen. My parents were kind enough to buy me an Ibanez Saber and whenever I had extra money I'd buy a cheap pawn shop guitar to work on. I'd either fix it or destroy it... maybe a little bit of both. By twenty-one I was very comfortable working on different kinds of guitars and my friends were always asking me to work on theirs. By the year 2000 I was working as a salesman in a retail music store. I really enjoyed my job, but working on guitars was far more rewarding than selling them. Eventually I realized I could do this for a living, so I attended a Lutherie school where I studied the many aspects of guitar building and repair. I earned my certification as a Luthier and in 2003 Guitar Lab was born.

Guitar Lab