Gary Brawer - Acoustic Tips and Tricks

Learn about the tone and intonation of your acoustic.
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Get the Most from Your Guitar Tech by “Speaking Repairman”

THERE ARE A LOT OF TIPS for getting better tone out of an electric guitar, but this month we’re going to focus on things you can do to improve the tone and intonation of your acoustic. Many of these tips come from client questions and problem solving.

You can dramatically personalize your guitar tone by trying out different materials for nuts and saddles. The saddle influences all the notes, whereas the nut comes into play primarily on open strings. Typically, the rule goes like this: The harder and denser the material, the louder and clearer the tone. Most production guitars come with some form of plastic or Corian, which are ripe for change. We went over many alternative material choices in the June issue, but no matter what the material, be sure your saddle has a proper fit. The saddle should be tight enough not to fall out when turning the guitar over, but should come out smoothly when you pull on it.

On electric guitars, the plain G string is most often the tuning/intonation culprit. On an acoustic, it is usually the difference between the plain B and wound G. In most cases, a well-set up guitar with low nut slots and saddle compensation won’t experience tuning problems. Other times it takes more effort, and you might need a split saddle or a wider saddle for more intonation compensation. Keep in mind that a wider saddle will absolutely change the tone of your guitar. If you’re into dropped tunings, you may notice that the low strings intonate sharp, especially if they’re really heavy. In extreme cases, like tuning a heavy-gauge string down to C#, you may need to have the saddle as far back as possible, and a three-section saddle (optimizing the scale length for each pair of strings) will do the trick. In many cases we’ll add a small shim on the front edge of the nut to not only make the first few frets intonate more sweetly, but also improve the intonation along the entire length of the string. The Earvana nut is designed to bring the notes back into tune and compensate for the fact that while the frets may be in the correct place, the lower frets need some compensation to make up for the strings going sharp when pressed down to the fret.

There is a lot of talk of aging instruments to make them look vintage, but there are things you can do to give your guitar a more vintage, broken-in sound. You can put your guitar on a stand in front of your speakers and blast it with your favorite tunes or try the ToneRite, a device that transmits constant vibrations to your guitar to open up the tone, the same way that years of playing would do. We have been experimenting with the ToneRite here at the shop and after five days we could really hear the guitar break in. It’s an easy, D-I-Y tone enhancer that’s virtually noise free when operating.

We were recently given a list of upgrades to do to a client’s Martin D-18 to make it as loud and clear as possible. First, we refretted with extralarge frets. He asked for stainless steel, but I suspect that standard materials would give comparable results. We then replaced the stock nut and saddle with vintage bone and made the action as high as the player could comfortably handle. While some of the warmth went away, the guitar had amazing volume and clarity.

The point is, if you have a cool acoustic that just seems like it’s lost a step, don’t give up on it. Think about these fi xes and see if they don’t breathe a little new life into that old instrument.

Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.