Sunday 28 April 2024

Yamaha G-231 II

This G-231 II Yamaha guitar is quite sentimental to me, my parents gave it to me when I was eleven - I was big enough to upgrade from my 3/4 guitar to a full size guitar. It was not the cheapest guitar for its time, maybe a model or two up from basic - it's got an ebony fretboard and the build quality is not bad - thanks dad.

It's the guitar that made me. The one that I honed my fingerstyle skills on. That by the time I was 15 I was thrashing with a plectrum (you can see the damage on soundboard) - luckily my mum bought me an electric guitar shortly thereafter. It sat around for 10 years mostly unused, occasionally brought out as a reference guitar when I needed to remind myself about nylon string classical guitars. It was lent out a few times - it was with my nephew for a few years while he was learning guitar. It lived at my old holiday house for 10 years, I would play it to the trees when I was there. It sat under my desk at work for years and I would play it in the lunch room for an hour on Fridays.

It actually sounds quite nice. But, it hasn't been great to play for a long time. Two main problems - the neck has slightly caved into the body under string tension, which happens to pretty much any classical guitar by the time it is ten. So it makes the action really high. There's no truss rod to tweak it back a little, but besides, it's the neck-to-body connection that goes out; the truss rod is about neck relief, so it's not reeeally the right approach.

The other issue is that higher up the neck the fret  heights are a bit out of alignment. Possibly an issue stemming from problem 1, it certainly doesn't help, but some fret positions up the neck are buzzy.

I have thought in the past about sawing through the neck from underneath (stopping at the fretboard) and then regluing - essentially creating a little triangle that pulls the neck angle back - to fix the high action. Seems savage, so I haven't done it.

But after my water soaking to get the double bass bridge back to square, I wondered if there was something I could do similar - clamp the guitar up forcing the neck backwards, splashing some water around tp ,ake things I asked the internet...and discovered a bloke in Queensland had been doing "Steam Neck Resets". I watched his videos and read some stories of other people who had tried it with success and I was convinced.

I decided to start with the fret grind and recrown. Classical guitar necks are flat, you so only need a flat block of wood and some sandpaper to do the initial grind back. I started with 240 grit, and I drew a black line across each fret with a permanent marker, sand for a bit, see whether all the black lines have been touched, draw the line back, repeat - basically I'm aiming to have a dead flat initial surface. I was suprised to find some grooves worn into the first few frets in the usual places. Nylon rubbing through steel!? That was unexpected. There was some very minor imperfections up where the fretting seemed buzzy, I wasn't convinced.

I spent a little time filing off any sharp fret ends as well, where the neck had shrunk a bit over time leaving some sharps. The file I used was a bit rough, I need to add a fret end file to my list for next time.

I then, still drawing black lines on each fret, ran my fret crowning file across. It worked okay, it's a cheap fret crowning tool, so I wasn't really happy. I will buy a good one for next time. Once I had each fret where there was approximately a thin black line across the top - meaning the original fret grind was still intact, but the rounded crown shape was still there - I moved to the next.

The final step was to hand polish each of the new crowns. I popped on my fretboard protector and worked my way down the frets, with decreasing grades of sandpaper, 400 to 600 to 800 to 1200 to steel wool. But the time I hit the steel wool it was nice'n'shiny. I could see in a few places where I had missed some scratches in earlier sanding, but over all, a nice job.

I had nicked the fretboard in a couple of places with the crowning file and the fret end file, nothing terrible, just a little amateur. I think it makes sense that the first fret grind I ever did was on the guitar that made me the guitarist I am today :-)

After an oiling it looked great. But no time to restring and test it - straight to the steam neck reset, I was very keen to try it out!

1. Make a mark across the frets 2. Block & sand until all marks touched
3. Fret crowning 4. Just a thin line still remains once filed
5. Sand through grits to polish 6. Sit back, admire

I bought a length of aluminium square tube and clamped it hard to the neck in a few places. I was using clamps that had rubber feet so they wouldn't mark the neck. The aluminium was sitting direct on the fretboard, but the frets are nickel-steel so they won't be marked by aluminium.

I then clamped the body to a length of board, with a few towels in between to keep surfaces safe. The goal is to have everything rigid so that when you apply the final clamp at the top it will pull the neck right back at the point when it joins the body. We aren't trying to bend the neck, we are trying to claw back the distortions where it all comes together. If you look carefully, kinda everything is involved - the soundboard, the heel, the sides, the internal ribbing.

I like concept though - put force in the direction you want to go, steam it so the wood and possibly glue becomes a bit pliable again, hold it there until it has dried out, and then when you release it and restring it, it will be back to where it once was. Maybe it won't last, maybe it will go back to where it once was? So what, do it again! - it can be a 5 year maintenance schedule.

Result - I steamed it 3 times over the course of a week, and when I restrung it the action was about 0.25mm lower than before. So my verdict is yes it works, but you need to steam it more over a longer period of time, the consensus seems to be 3 weeks. And note that I really pulled a lot of force on - around 12mm deflection clamping force as measured at the saddle - and that only gave me 0.25mm resulting action decrease. So my lesson there is don't be frightened that you are going to accidentally go to zero action, you probably won't. Ahd then if you did, whip up a new higher saddle - they are easy enough to make.

Sometime I will have another crack at this, but I wanted to get this guitar back to work. After restringing there were improvements in playability, and the buzziness higher up the neck was reduced. Not gone, but more tolerable.

A worthwhile endeavour - for more info on this technique search for "John Miner Neck Steam Reset". Still not "great" to play , but better now.

Jig to hold everything in place Initial measure at bridge 8.0mm
Fill with rags and lots of steam This last clamp is particularly important
Cranked to 11.5mm - needed more Finished with 2.75mm action at 12th fret

In the meantime, I will keep my eye out for an unloved/broken vintage guitar that could do with my attention and I will go through these processes again, but without any pressure of needing to get it back to work.

Friday 19 April 2024

What's happening April 2024

A while ago I decided I needed an electric guitar. I bought an interesting one that had a UST pickup in it. I remembered pretty quickly afterplaying it for a while that electric guitar necks are too narrow - generally a nut width of about 43mm. I next had a company in China build me a custom neck - 48mm wide - but I accidentally specified Stat style heel rather than the Tele style heel that guitar actually needed so it wouldn't fit on the guitar. Not dismayed, I picked up a cheap Stat copy from my local pawn shop and fitted the neck. It was okay, but I hadn't made a good nut for it, so the intonation was bad.

Nonetheless I started using it as my practice/arrangement guitar, mostly because it is quiet and yet the neck feels like a classical neck, and the string tension is not that far off a nylon string. I've been playing it more than my actual classical... a lot more.

I thought to myself "why don't I fix up the nut so it intonates better, and do some of my normal recordings with it?" Because to set up a recording with microphones with the classical requires a bit of effort and the house to be quiet. My house is rarely quiet.

Getting the nut better is becoming an easier process for me, I have made a few saddles and nuts now. I have a feel for what you need to do, and am getting a bit quicker at it. This one was easy, the strings all just needed to be closer to the fretboard.

I remembered why I stopped adjusting it last time - you have to be able to file a very narrow groove - the width of a string - into bone. I had tried the welder nozzle cleaner files and they are okay, but not with the really fine files, it's not really possible.

I remembered a trick I had seen on the internet - modify a set of feeler gauges. The idea being that feeler gauges come in all the exact widths you'd need, and they are kinda tall so they don't flop around like a 0.4mm round file. So I grabbed my feeler gauge, measured up each string with a caliper, got the corresponding feeler gauge out, and roughed up a section with a heavy duty file. I didn't need to make it super rough, or even a very long section. I did clean up the burs on the sides by running the edges flat over some sandpaper, and rounded it ever so slightly so it wouldn't cut a completely square slot.

The end result is great. You don't need to file much, it is only slightly abrasive which is fine for a thin bone slot and you aren't going deep anyway.

I quickly had the nut slots the perfect width per string deep enough that you only had to press the string down a tiny bit before it was touching the fret. How far? Well, I figure if you fret at the first fret, and then look at how close the string is to the second fret, you want about that same distance. Leave a bit extra - nuts wear down during tuning, so have a bit of meat there so it lasts longer than the first string change.

Once I re-tuned and then fretted at the first fret the intonation was not perfect but a lot better. I still fret like an acoustic player - mashing those strings down so of course I am going to go a bit sharp anyhow - I need to develop a lighter touch for electric guitars. But I was happy enough.

The next stumbling block recording on an electric, is how to play with headphones on through whatever effects pedal you want to hear, possibly listening to a click at the same time, all while recording just the guitar.

This should not be a stumbling block of course, people have been recording through interfaces for years. I had bought a nice little Behringer mixing desk with USB output for a cheaper price than an interface, and that has come in super handy as both a mixer and for recording. Because whatever you mix can be sent straight to a computer as a 44.1kHz 16 bit USB stereo signal.

The problem now is latency. If you are sending your mix to a giant amp that you are listening to, and recording in the background, then latency is not a problem, it can be seconds, who cares! But if you pluck a string and are listening in headphones from the computer then there should be no delay (no latency). I reckon I can hear latency starting at around 10-15ms.

Out of the box the average computer hardware running Microsoft Windows will not achieve 10-15ms. The standard Microsoft audio driver is "DirectSound", and it is not made for real-time audio. You will be quite sad if you try to use it for real-time audio.

However if you switch to ASIO as your audio driver, you should be able to get your 10-15ms. Unless you have a specific ASIO driver for your USB interface, download and install "ASIO4ALL". From Reaper/Audacity/etc go to your audio setup, choose ASIO, and click on the ASIO Configuration. Things to try: test out Hardware Buffer, I found setting this with anything around 12ms-20ms worked great. Try setting the block size to 64. Keep the sample frequency at 44.1kHz/16 bit.

If you hear latency, then decrease the values. If you hear noise - like the occasional pop and click, then increase the values. I was able to find a noise free setting that had a latency that I could tolerate.

With that all done, I found with ASIO I couldn't play a click track or anything else at the same time! That is because ASIO will only run exclusively, it won't share with other audio. I found if I went back to DirectSound and recorded a click track, and then back into ASIO mode I could play the click track and overdub, so it's okay.

Otherwise, try out WASAPI. This is the Microsoft equivalent to ASIO. It's pretty good, it will run in shared mode so it is almost the same as using the default DirectSound in that respect. It has similar settings to ASIO, play around with the buffer size, and set the thread priority to Time Critical.

I found I couldn't quite get as good latency out of WASAPI as I could from ASIO. This is all on an 8 year old Dell laptop running Windows 10, so hopefully you have more joy!

So once I was ready with a guitar that would play in tune, with a recorder that could record noise and delay free while I was listening, I hit the next road block.

Well, two road blocks.

I couldn't get the tone I wanted, and my fingerpicking doesn't translate well to coil pickups. Huh?

Tone - I am using my Zoom G Four multi-effects pedal, so I can dial in any patches I want. I found an acoustic simulator with a tiny bit of reverb, running through the neck pickup only at about 50% tone was barely okay - I could live with that - but it just isn't the sound of a classical guitar.

Fingerpicking with a consistent dynamic and tone is hard on electric! I only had to pick ever so slightly different between notes, almost imperceivable, and that different dynamic leaps out. Only have to flick the strings percussively a tiny bit different to the previous and it is the difference between a kick drum and a closed high hat!

I dialed in some compression and this squeezed those inconsistent dynamics together and made them less obvious... but you know what? It squeezed the dynamics together! I _want_ the actual dynamics that I want when I'm playing!

So my years of nylon string has meant I don't have the ultra-fine control of my dynamics I need for an electric guitar.

I haven't given up, but for now, I think I will stick to practice on the electric but recording on the nylon. (Oh, and all this practice on the electric is making me rusty on nylon...)