After deciding to up my tone and sustain standards by returning to .011-.049 gauge D’Addario EXL115 strings, I also determined that, in the necessary tweaking of my guitar setup, I would finally face down the basic un-playability of my Gibson Les Paul Custom VOS Black Beauty with three pickups — I hoped — once and for all.

My Les Paul Custom Black Beauty was not a cheap guitar.  It was one of the first guitars I purchased and, not knowing any better, I paid the full price SamAsh.com had listed.  That amount, plus shipping, plus tax and plus all the other things I tried to get the guitar to sound right and play right made the grand total for the guitar around $5,000.00USD.

Now I have retailer relationships.  Now I get at least 20% off the published store price — which is already a reduction from MSRP — and I’m a player in the game who is taken more seriously by sales folk because they know I know they charge way too much upfront.  Negotiation is the key to the ploy.  Never pay their price.  Make them meet yours.  Walking away seals the deal you want.

Writing off the Custom Les Paul in my mind was a bit of a soul bender because that’s a lot of hard-earned cash that, I felt, I’d tossed away a year ago when the guitar arrived in, basically, an unplayable condition. The frets seemed too low.  The string action was so high that I could bend UNDER the other strings.

I thought Les Paul guitars from the Gibson Custom Shop were supposed to be the best your money could buy.  I have not found that to be true in any way — at least when they arrive fresh from the Custom Shop on your doorstep.

I felt like my fingers were stuck in tar as they had to leap up and over adjacent strings.

If I lowered the bridge to get excellent playability, then the strings buzzed a bit and a bend would fret out at the half-step.

If I lived without being able to bend The Blues, then string slap became a problem if I happened to strike a string “too hard” with a pick.

Why should I have to baby an instrument that was made to be played?  Les Pauls want to roar and they’re tough enough to be roughed up a bit, too.

If I’d had any initial sense about me whatsoever, I would’ve sent this Black Beauty straight back to Gibson for a replacement as this one met its righteous end in the business end of a band saw.

When I installed Elevens on the guitar, I decided to make all the necessary setup changes I could to see if I could somehow make the guitar workable, if not playable.

I lowered the bridge a full turn on each side.

I raised the Stop Bar one turn on each side.

I re-tuned.

I set intonation.

No real change.

The strings were still too high or the strings slapped the fretboard.

There were two things left to try — and one of them I would never attempt on my own.

First:  I will not mess with the nut.  If you try to file the nut and go too deep, you ruin the nut.  Nut work demands experience I do not have and just reading about nut slotting is not enough to condition a real world response.

Second:  I could, however, try to manipulate the truss rod.  I previously knew my guitar had a large bow, much too large, in fact, to ever be really playable — even though I told myself for over a year that I could manage to play it “as is” — even though I never could.

I did some research on the internet over the past year, and I found lots of good advice for determining how much bow a guitar neck should have — if any — and I realized there are several ways to decide on proper string height.  I just set the string height to what I like.  I don’t measure string height.  I do, however, measure for neck alignment and bowing.

I removed the truss rod cover from my Les Paul Black Beauty, and I marked the brass nut with a permanent marker line to indicate the starting point for my manipulation.  If things didn’t go well, I could reverse what I’d done and return the guitar to its “shipped state” by turning the truss rod  back to its original position.  You can’t go back to a previous state when you start sawing on a nut slot.

I knew I needed to turn the truss rod only a quarter turn at a time and then let the guitar rest for at least an hour to let the wood adjust to the change.  Then, I’d measure again and make more changes, if necessary.

I was glad Gibson provided a truss rod tool with my guitar.  I was initially concerned if I turned the truss rod nut too much that I might explode the neck of my guitar — but that was wrongheaded.  It seems the worst that could happen is the trust rod screw might get stripped.  That’s a problem — but one with a solution — and it wouldn’t necessarily mean the replacement of an exploded guitar neck.

All day yesterday I measured twice and turned once, then twice, then three times — and each tightening of the truss rod made the guitar start to come into its own.  That’s a good thing.  I couldn’t believe how great the guitar was starting to sound throughout a day of waiting on tenterhooks.

After every truss rod adjustment, I re-tuned, and re-intonated the guitar.

I had turned the truss trod nut 3/4 the way around — that’s quite a lot.  I read somewhere that you should not likely need to ever go more than one full rotation of the nut to get a neck straightened out.  Most ordinary neck issues take only a quarter-turn.

I was well past that ordinary fix.  I decided to stop and let the guitar rest overnight before doing anything else.  I was beginning to be pleased with the sound of the guitar.  The strings were now playable.  The action was still a little bit high, but it was overall much better than it was before I decided to tighten the truss rod nut.

As I tumbled into bed, I couldn’t believe the truss rod adjustment was working.  It only took me a year of feeling sorry for my inexperience to braven up and try to get the thing fixed with my own two hands.  Sure, I could go to a pro for a paid setup, but guitars are as fickle and are as changing as the weather — they are humidity barometers, after all — and you need to be able to help your guitars stay in the best possible shape on your own.

I will eventually take all my guitars to a professional luthier for a complete frets dressing, nut check, truss rod adjustment, etc. setup — but I’m not there yet and I’m not ready to take that plunge even though that is probably the first thing you should do whenever you purchase a new guitar.

This morning, I woke up and started playing the Les Paul.  The action was smooth, but it could be just a tad better.  I then did what I swore I would not do the day before:  I opened up the truss rod cover one last time and I gave my Black Beauty’s truss rod a final 1/4 turn to bring the nut around to one, full, rotation.

I quickly screwed the truss rod cover back on to prevent the temptation of further messing, and I checked the neck relief.  It looked even better.  In an hour, it would be perfect. In two days, it would be incredible!

I re-tuned.

Re-intonated.

I waited for an hour.

Then, I warily picked up my Les Paul Custom Black Beauty and, for the first time, I felt what the guitar was supposed to be all along:  The action was silky smooth.  The sound was clear and eerily chimey in the middle-position.  It growled in the bridge position.  The neck pickup jazzed a mellow brooding.

At last, my Black Beauty had a soulful sound that bled from every curve and corner.

Overnight, my worst guitar became my best guitar merely because of the turn of a screw.

Amazing.

The Les Paul Black Beauty is lovingly known in the music industry as “The Fretless Wonder” and, by golly, I now completely know how and why that nickname was earned.

You can do bends and slides and hammer-ons and pull-offs with super ease.  The guitar plays itself.

It took me a year, but I finally have the once-in-a-lifetime Gibson Custom Les Paul I thought purchased — but never really had — and the sound of that eventual success was never a sweeter sensation.

I’m holding thumbs the extreme truss rod adjustments I made will hold for a long time to keep the beauty in the black beast.

36 Comments

  1. Hello again. I am back for a second taste in one day for the same blog. Hee hee. I think I get it now about the 11 strings being an opportunity to try out this change. Still seems risky to me for such a large investment and I wouldn’t do it. What is string slap?

    1. Hi Anne!

      You’re back for a single-day double dipping! Ha. Yay!

      Yes, the return to 11s was a good way to test my ability to set up the guitars and then to see if I could find a way to get the Black Beauty working and sounding as advertised.

      It was a bit of a risk to mess around with an expensive Les Paul, but I had enough Plans B, C, and D to cover any mishap that might’ve erupted.

      String slap is different than fret buzz. I don’t mind a little string slap. It actually has an interesting tone to it that is valuable in a Blues playing arsenal.

      Basically string slap is when you pluck a string with your finger or your pick, and it — momentarily, unlike fret buzz — sounds a “sting” for a short split second. It isn’t like fret buzz that goes on and on an on… string slap is more like “thwap” that can become annoying when it happens on every note and with every string no matter how short the duration. Used sparingly, and provocatively, though, string slap can become an identifying feature in a riff or solo.

      Some define “string slap” when the vibrating string hits against your right forearm, but I don’t use that definition when it comes to playing The Blues.

    1. Thanks, Gordon! It took a year for the guitar to come to me. I thought it never would without a professional intervention. Now, at least I know it’s a player, and I’ve been playing it all day today and it is still sounding pretty good, the truss rod adjustment is holding so far — and that’s all good and pleasing. Time will really be the teller.

  2. I enjoyed the article Dave, points out something every tech or luthier in the industry knows: Gibson cannot set up a guitar properly. At all. It’s due to a few problems, mainly that they just don’t care all that much. It also has to do with the fact that often their wood isn’t fully cured and ready to build with but they use it anyway.

    As for truss rod adjustment, you’ve been a little misinformed. It seems scary when you don’t work on them a lot, but regular truss rod adjustment is necessary due to humidity changes, the wood curing, etc. Not sure how you’re checking, but it’s as simple as fretting the 1st fret, using your right pinkie to fret where the neck meets the body, and tapping the string at various spots on the neck to see where it is bowing. Depending on how you play, you’ll want just a slight (I mean very slight) amount of forward bow in your neck for normal styles. Shredders like a little more bow as it brings the strings closer to the higher frets, but this can make it feel pretty spongy around the 7th-15th.

    By the way, there’s no need to wait an hour for things to change, it’s usually pretty instant. If you have the guitar on a neck bag when you are tweaking the truss rod, lightly pressing on the middle of the neck a few times will get the truss rod to move into where it will sit. Play around with it a bit to see where your neck bows and what feels good to you. You’d have to wrench it pretty hard to break it. And remember, adjusting the truss rod changes your action, intonation, string tension, and pickup balance, so it should be the very first step in setting up your guitar.

    1. Oh, and I forgot to mention, it is important to check the low and high e strings when you are looking at bow, since most necks don’t bow evenly. If it’s really uneven, I’d suggest getting the frets pulled, the fingerboard planed, and new frets put in. Properly refretted guitars will play better than any new guitar, guaranteed. Just make sure your luthier knows what he is doing.

    2. Thanks for the excellent comment, Samuel. With the season change, I’ve had to readjust the necks of all my Gibsons — even though I keep a constant 40-50% humidity rate. It’s a bit tiresome having to keep readjusting the truss rods. I never had to touch my Fenders.

      1. Of course, it’s something that isn’t very widely known, but guitars need a little more work than the occasional string change and polish. You’ll need to adjust less the older the instruments get, the wood will cure and start to settle down more as the years go by.

        As for why your Fenders need to be adjusted less, that’s the difference between maple and mahogany. And I wouldn’t worry too much about how level your neck is this early on unless it feels less playable, buzzy, or has dead spots. It will never be perfect, regardless of how good the fretwork is. Wood is an imperfect material. If it feels good to you then go with it, I’d hate to give you reason to love your baby less. It is, after all, about the music more than anything else.

        1. Yes, it’s amazing to me how my ’56 and ’57 Les Paul Customs have tricksier necks than my 2008 Standard! I’ve never had to touch the neck on my Standard — perhaps that the benefit of the new neck design and a long tenon?

          Anyway, I’ve been churning away at the neck of the ’57. It’s much tighter now than it was a week ago by about another 3/4 turn and it’s playing better again.

          The key thing to remember, I have learned the hard way, is if you start getting buzzing and fretting out that won’t go away — don’t touch the neck or the bridge — change strings, and the problem will immediately disappear. When people complain about buzzing, the first question we should ask is, “How old are your strings?” If they’re older than two weeks — change ’em! Keep track of the change schedule. Write it down on your calendar so you’ll precisely remember.

          1. Yes of course, don’t know how I forgot to mention changing the strings too, haha. Maybe because when I do guitar work I’m putting new strings on anyway, but yes, change strings every couple of weeks or when they start to sound dead.

            BTW, with the humidity changing soon you’ll probably have to turn right around and loosen the truss rod again, so keep in eye on it

          2. I do keep my guitars humidified at 50% all year long, so I hope the weather won’t adversely affect my setup too much. The ’57, though, has a minds of its own.

            I just pulled my 5120 Gretsch out of storage and put on a new set of DR Tite Fit 11s and tightened the neck an 1/8th of a turn and wow, what a difference! It sings again and the action is low, killer quick, and not a buzz or a rattle. I don’t even fret on bends.

  3. These replies are just getting too narrow, haha. I do enjoy helping out someone who appreciates fine instruments and getting them to see past the label.

    But I’m glad you can keep your instruments much more playable now, knowing how to take care of them makes all the difference. You should try some 12’s on the Gretsch if you think you can handle it, they’ll really make that hollowbody sing. Same reason acoustics need heavier strings. Ever heard of Thomastik-Infelds? They make these strings called the Jazz Bebops, they’d be a great match for it. Kind of breathy but clear with a nice cut since they’re roundwounds, plus they feel fantastic.

    1. Ha! Yes, the replies max out at 7 “indents,” I think, and then they start all over again from the original formatting.

      I run 11-50s on all my guitars now, so moving up to 12s shouldn’t be an issue. I appreciate that clue for moving up on the 5120. Will I have to mess with the nut if I move up to 12s?

      Yes, I’ve heard of Thomastik-Infelds, but haven’t been brave — or rich enough! SMILE! — to try them. Are they really better than regular strings? Where do you buy them for the best price? I will definitely try to Jazz Bebops. Do the TI strings last a while? They’re about three times more expensive than my DRs.

      I’m lusting for a White Falcon, so if we’re moving up to 12s, now is the time to try ’em out.

      Best,

      db

      1. hi david…
        i see now my advice could have sounded a little condescending so I apologise for that… you clearly have a lot of experience.
        picked up the black beauty 57 VOS slim neck today along with a Gretsch setzler hot rod in red.
        loving the black beauty, got the tech to give it a quick set up as the same as you it was absolutely horrible. Gotta say it is the best LP ive played – you can really motor around the fretboard. Gotta say the the gretsch is a fantastic instrument too. so heres the quandry… which one do i keep…..

        1. Hey Matt!

          I didn’t sense any condescension from you — and even if there was — doesn’t matter! I’ll take all the help I can get! SMILE!

          I didn’t know they made the ’57 VOS in a slim neck. How long has that been available? Do you have a link I could look at? I love my ’57, but sometimes the neck is a little massive when I’m doing barre chords on the lower frets.

          I like the Setzer guitars a lot. I like the bracing and the pinned bridge — but those Gretsch guitars have such a specific sound to my ear — that I think the Les Paul is more versatile and edgy and mellow.

          If it were me, I’d keep the Les Paul — but I’m dying to know your evaluation points for both guitars.