Sunday, November 14, 2021

Refurbishing a 12-String Acoustic Guitar

You make me feel brand new... or at least look that way. Photo by Kat.

Each day, I make a point of watching David Lynch give his weather report. It's at the point that if I miss even a single day, I feel a sense of loss, admittedly minor. Anyway, on the weekends, David says the same thing, which is wishing people luck on their weekend projects. In at least that aspect, David seems like me; he is happier when he's being productive. You have work that you have to do during the week, usually for the benefit of someone else, but on the weekends, you are free to do the things you want to do.

This weekend, I awoke knowing I indeed had a project to do; it was the restoration of my friend Bunny Knutson's 12-string acoustic guitar. I'd been planning on this for awhile. The guitar not only had been missing some strings but also the bridge pins that would allow the strings to be replaced. Also, after of years of disuse and storage in the closet, it had accumulated layers of dust and grit. It wasn't pretty. I planned to make it look and sound new again, or close to it.

Entropy Increases
Let's talk for a moment about the second law of thermodynamics. Weren't expecting that, were you? But I promise, it's applicable. On a literal basis, it says that as energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted, and that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state. That disorder is known as entropy, and on a general basis around the universe, things go from an orderly state to disorderly. Entropy increases.

If you find yourself interested in more detail about entropy than a blog post on fixing a guitar will provide, learn more about Ludwig Boltzmann, the guy who is so well known for his brilliant entropy formula that it is inscribed on his gravestone. 

Reversing Time
In a more poetic (as opposed to physics) sense, the increase of entropy seems to happen in many areas of life. You start with a plan but unpredictable and random events make your plan more and more difficult to accomplish, with unforeseen variables derailing your goals. In this case, a guitar that sits around unplayed has many factors going on. Oxygen corrodes the steel strings. Dust settles on the finish. Humidity affects the wood, which expands and contracts. In the worst case situations, a guitar can become forever unplayable as time takes its toll, just by sitting around.

One aspect of entropy in physics is that the greater amount of disorder that occurs, the less reversible those changes are. Fortunately, in the case of Bunny's Fender DG-10/12, an inexpensive 12-string dreadnought model manufactured in China from 1995-2005, the arrow of time and the resulting increase in entropy hadn't yet gone far enough to make it unsalvageable.

You'll Need Things
The first step was getting a few items I'd need. Dunlop makes a very handy maintenance kit called System 65. It includes guitar body polish, fingerboard cleaner, and a couple of microfiber cloths. Side note: Bunny's Fender has a satin finish, but this routine works equally well on gloss-finished guitars.

I don't think this lemon oil has any lemons, which is good. Keep reading...

The next thing I'd need were replacement bridge pins, since Bunny's guitar was missing a couple of them. These are the pins that hold the string in place at the bridge of the guitar. I wanted them to match the existing pins, but fortunately the standard black pins with white dots are easy to find and relatively cheap. I got a set of Fender pins; might as well go with the original, and they cost all of five bucks.

Thirdly, I needed new strings. I went with D'Addario EJ36, a light gauge 80/20 bronze string that I felt would be particularly playable on this guitar. They're about $10, making my total cost of restoring the guitar a massive $30... not a big investment to make an instrument usable once again.

Step 1: Dust in the Wind
A lot of what made Bunny's guitar look bad was simply dust. What is dust? If you want to be grossed out, be aware that about half the dust inside your home is dead skin cells. True story. In my home, which includes four cats along with four humans, dust also includes bits of hair and fur and so on. But as we know, on an overall basis dust is fine particles of any sort of solid matter, and they accumulate on surfaces left untouched.

The first thing I did was take a soft cloth that I dampened slightly, and just wiped off every surface of the instrument. Frankly, I didn't want to even be near it before that first step. My respiratory system is prone to allergic reactions, and I didn't want to spend the next hour sneezing and blowing my nose.

Gross! Then better.

Ew! Then ahhhhh.

Step 2: Old and In The Way
I don't know how often Bunny had changed strings on this Fender, but by the time I did my maintenance, the strings were covered in various kinds of corrosion. Again, corrosion on guitar strings is generally a result of the human factor. Oils and dead skin cells collect in the windings of the strings. Non-wound strings are exposed to oxygen and water vapor and they rust.

I carefully downtuned the guitar. At this stage, when the tension on the neck has been relatively constant for so long, I tend to be extra gentle so that nothing really bad happens -- like the bridge detaching from the body or cracks happening in the area of the headstock or body joint. I tune down a little at a time across all strings so that the release of neck tension is gradual.

When the strings are low enough that they are flopping around, while leaving the strings secured on the tuning pegs, I use a needle-nose pliers and gently pull out the bridge pins and put them somewhere safe for the moment. Make sure to pull straight up from the bridge, not at any kind of angle.

I'm not saying Bunny should have clipped these strings, but Bunny really should have clipped these strings. They were a hazard to life itself. 

I remove the strings from the bridge and then just unwind them from each tuning peg. Side note: old guitar strings can be recycled like any metal, if you're environmentally minded. The saddle of the bridge is usually not secured down in any way; remove it and put it to the side for now. After removing the strings, you're now able to finish the job of removing any extraneous dirt and dust. I did another wipe down with my soft damp cloth, and then, using some wet Q-tips, I cleaned out the smaller crevices, like around the neck joint and bridge. While you're got the strings off, it's a time where you're also able to clean the surface areas that are usually more inaccessible, like the headstock and around the rosette.

Step 3: High & Dry
Now that you've got the dirt/dust handled and the old strings removed, it's time to polish the guitar's body. Spray your polish onto the cleaning rag, not onto the guitar. A little goes a long way. You don't want to use so much that you end up with a waxy buildup.

I like to do this in sections. I start with the top of the guitar, followed by the sides, followed by the back. I also give the beck of the neck a polish, as well as the front and back of the headstock. I then follow up with another rubdown using a clean and dry microfiber cloth to make sure I haven't inadvertently left any polish on the instrument.

I don't even know what was going on here. Pretty sure it was a new civilization of microscopic beings who'd claimed this unfortunate spot for their home in the universe. They're gone now. Goodbye my little friends.

Step 4: The Sound of Silence
Again, while we've got the strings off, it's time to do something you're definitely not able to do when they're on. The constant tension on the tuning posts can eventually loosen the tuner nuts. Using a 10mm nut wrench (or, if you're like me and tend to lose your tools, a pair of pliers) just give the nuts a quick righty-tighty. You don't need to overdo it. Just make sure they're secure. If the frets themselves are showing signs of corrosion, another thing you might want to do at this point is take some 0000 steel wool and give the frets a light rub. Brush off any particles, and now it's time to treat the fingerboard.

What you use to clean the fingerboard is, like so many things in the world of music, a matter of mild controversy. Like many guitars, the fingerboard on the Fender DG-10/12 is rosewood, and lemon oil is often vilified because it can dry out the fingerboard, leading to cracks and other unpleasantness. However, the products like Dunlop's System 65 barely contain any actual lemon oil; it's mostly mineral oil with some lemon scent and yellow coloring. It's perfectly fine for rosewood, ebony, and pau ferro fingerboards. Other people will say to use linseed oil as opposed to any lemon-based product. Do your own research. Side note: if you have a maple fingerboard (which is likely finished, unlike the other woods), don't use any product at all; just wipe it with a damp cloth to clean. 

The project took about two hours total working slowly. I spent part of the time listening to my favorite album from 2019, Deceiver by DIIV.

Step 5: Rise of the Fenix
Now you'll want to put new strings on your now clean and happy guitar. I'm not going to tell you how to restring your guitar, but I will gladly show you a video of my friend Tom Watters of Takamine doing it the right way.

My only note when it comes to restringing 12-string guitars: the higher, thinner, octave-up string comes first, so in order from top to bottom, the strings go (my string gauge in parenthesis):

  • High E (.027)
  • Low E (.047)
  • High A (.018)
  • Low A (.039)
  • High D (.012)
  • Low D (.030)
  • High G (.008)
  • Low G (.023)
  • Regular B (.014)
  • Regular B (.014)
  • Regular High E (.010)
  • Regular High E (.010)
And yes, the two highest strings are the same... simply doubled. Side note: with any instrument that uses two strings that are plucked at the same time, those are called a "course", whether or not they are the same pitch doubled (in unison) or an octave apart. A 12-string guitar is comprised of six courses of strings. A mandolin has four courses of strings, each set in unison. Now you know.

Step 6: Getting in Tune
The very final thing to do is to tune your guitar. Like everything with a 12-string model, this is twice as much of a pain in the ass as a standard 6-string guitar. My advice: if your guitar doesn't have onboard electronics with a built-in tuner, just get a simple clip-on tuner. I use this one from Snark. It's fine, but use whichever one you like.

Tuning 12-string guitars is a special section of hell, because the strings are so close, it's super tedious striking one and tuning it without inadvertently also hitting the paired string. But there are plenty of worse things in life, and before you know it, you'll be done.

Kind of. See, especially in lower-end guitars, the tension of the string and the wood of the neck and body need to settle in for a bit. I was actually impressed that once I'd tuned Bunny's DG-10/12, it actually held tune pretty well for awhile. The following morning, it had gone flat across the board, but another quick tune-up and it's good to go. For this reason, if you're using your guitar for a gig or recording session, trying changing the strings the day before as opposed to the day of.

Last note: I'm sure Bunny will eventually want to take possession of this guitar again, and he'll be welcome to do so. Now that it's playable, I might have to record some kind of goofy-ass 12-string song, so perhaps that's my project for next weekend.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Hotel Chelsea (11.02.21)

Rocking more of the alphabet at Hotel Chelsea on a Tuesday night. Photo by Kat.

At my previous show at Hotel Chelsea in Second Life, I decided -- without a lot of planning -- to do my songs in alphabetical order, and chose a song to represent each letter of the alphabet. Being that my show is an hour long and I typically do 12-13 songs per set, I actually got through exactly half the alphabet with songs starting with A through M.

Frankly, I hadn't really thought through the aspect of continuing this at a subsequent show, but as I started putting together my list for this gig, I felt compelled to try the same thing with the much more challenging N through Z zone. While I already had plenty of tunes in my solo music repertoire, which has now bloated to over 650 songs, I found I only had one song that started with Q ("Queen Bitch" by Bowie, which I didn't feel like doing) and didn't have any songs at all that started with X. What a conundrum. Or was it an opportunity?

Life in Late 2021
Before I get to more details on the show, I wanted, as I'm apt to do, to make some random notes about life as we experience it in the current time frame.

  • It's now been about 20 months since we Americans first recognized the event that would literally change all of our lives... the COVID-19 virus. Honestly, I find that I miss 2020. It felt for a little while that we were pulling together and that positive changes would come as a result of our fight against this disease. But 2021 has been chock full of contentious bullshit. I have a bunch of vaccinated friends who've had breakthrough cases of COVID. They'll all be fine, thankfully. But the fact of the matter is that a whole lot of people are acting as if COVID has done and gone, and are going about their lives as if everything has returned to 2019-level of normalcy. Let me tell you: nothing is fucking normal and I'm more certain than ever that it will never return to normal, and not just because of a virus.
  • Speaking of "normal", normally I'm able to enjoy NFL football this time of year. It's something I've done for a long, long time. Following that sport is an escape from the responsibilities and pressures of daily life. My NFL fandom goes back to when I was a child. I participate in pools, and have a pretty good understanding of the intricacies of the sport, probably more than most casual fans. But in the past 24 hours, two things happened that are completely bumming me out regarding football. First was the shocking event of Las Vegas Raiders' wide receiver Henry Ruggs III having killed a motorist at 3:30AM on Tuesday, and going from a star player with massive potential to being a) released from the team and b) facing a possible 20 years for felony impaired driving. The second thing, a story which just broke a few minutes ago, is future hall-of-fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers being diagnosed with COVID-19. My first reaction was, "Well, he's vaccinated so he'll be fine," until I read further and found out that there's a good possibility that he's not vaccinated. This boggles my mind. I can't think of something more irresponsible for a person who is supposedly a role model, and who seems in other ways to be a relatively smart human being. So now, these two situations have really soured football for me in a way I could never have expected.
  • And while we're on the topic of apparent idiots, a crowd of people -- sorry, a crowd of QAnon psychos, I meant to say -- went to Dealey Park in Dallas, TX yesterday because they were under the impression that John F. Kennedy, Jr., a man who died 22 years ago, would appear and reinstate Donald Trump as president for some reason. I'm not going to comment on this. It speaks for itself, or res ipsa loquitur, as Hunter S. Thompson would have said.

Sounds Like 2021 Is Really Shitty, Huh?
I mean, yes, but no. Life has given me a healthy perspective about what the real definitions of bad and good are. I have decent income and roof over my head; my family and I are relatively healthy. We don't live in a war zone. We're not suffering through massive drought or starvation. We're not yet so affected by climate change that our home is unlivable. Many people -- probably a greater portion of the world than I care to acknowledge -- have it way worse compared to us. I don't share the typically American trait of boundless and unfounded optimism, but my reality must allow for the fact that nearly every aspect of my life could be way worse than it is.

How About That Show?
Yeah, so... this turned out to be a really good show. As usual for my monthly Tuesday shows at Hotel Chelsea, I performed directly after my friend Max Kleene, and I was happy to see that once again, a good portion of his sizable crowd hung out for my show as well.

I know for a fact that playing after Max has led to some people discovering me who would not have otherwise heard me. It's always appreciated. Photo by Kat.

Me, alone onstage as usual. Still in a mask? Yeah, I thought that would be done by now, just as many of us presumed the pandemic would be over. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and here we are. I'll take off the mask in SL as soon as I am safely able to take it off in real life... not a moment before. Photo by Kat.

As mentioned above, I did the second half of my alphabetical show theme, meaning I began with a song title that started with N and continued through to a song that started with Z. I found it to be really fun, both the act of putting together the set list and then performing it. Not every song was among my favorite to play live, but they all came out reasonably well, with some of them being really good. Surprisingly, I'd never covered a song by Liz Phair before, despite appreciating her as an artist.

If you're ever in New York City and find yourself at 222 West 23rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth, it looks a whole lot like this. Photo by Kat.

Hotel Chelsea set list...
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Over My Head (Fleetwood Mac)
Psycho Killer (Talking Heads)
*Questions (Buffalo Springfield)
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Steely Dan)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)
Uncle John’s Band (Grateful Dead)
Voices Carry (’Til Tuesday)
Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell)
*X-Ray Man (Liz Phair)
Your Song (Elton John)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Big thanks to everyone who hung out for my show, with super duper thanks to the following who helped support it!
Still Dinzeo, Ariztheo Resident, Jeff Plumday, MirrziLu Resident, AlexPeaceSoul Resident, noowun Wind, Maximillion Kleene, Kat Claxton, Nina Brandenburg, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Hotel Chelsea manager Shyla the Super Gecko!