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 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 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.
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.