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Thread: Updating an older Gibson

  1. #1
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    Default Updating an older Gibson

    I have been consumed of late with the romance of owning a playable 100 year old mando or dola. I played such instruments at various stores and do very much like the tone. I am less enamored with the flat fret boards.
    For those in the know:
    What would the approximate cost of having a fret board, new nut, and new bridge installed to accommodate a radius and more modern feel?
    I have heard that C. Thile did just that with his Loar while having the old parts saved.
    PS I'm not expecting to sound like Thile. I just personally prefer the more modern approach for playability.
    Keith Edward Coleman A style, oval hole Mandola
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  2. #2
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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    I would think in the $500 range, maybe a bit more or a bit less.

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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    + however much the modifications knock of the value of the original instrument.

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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    Make sure you keep the original parts, so if you do sell it the new owner can put them back on.

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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    Saving the parts isn't going to mean a whole lot on most average old Gibson mandolins. When you make the changes you are creating a player's instrument. Start out with a player and go ahead full speed. It's your instrument.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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  10. #6
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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    Unless there are intonation problems due to misplaced frets [and we do see this on some of the old Gibsons], there is no need to replace the fingerboard. The existing fingerboard can be radiused and re-fretted.

    I can't speak for anyone else, but I charge $300 for a standard fret job, $85 for a mandolin nut, and $50 + parts to fit a new adjustable bridge.

    There would be an additional charge to radius the existing fretboard. If someone wanted a hand-made replica of a non-adjustable bridge, the cost would depend on whether it was a late teens so-called one piece bridge [they were really made of two pieces glued together], or an early teens bridge with removable saddles.

    I believe that Chris Thile replaced the board on his F-5's because of intonation problems. I know of 2 other Loars that had the boards replaced or had the frets moved because the slots were mis-located.

    Most 'teens model Gibsons I have measured [and that's quite a few] had fret slots that were located reasonably accurately. We are more likely to see mislocated frets in the 20's and 30's.

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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    Sorry to go off topic but is there a relatively simple way to measure whether frets are inthe right place?

  13. #8
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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    Good question. If you've got a good ear, the first test is to tune the instrument as accurately as you can and start checking double-stop intervals between an open string and fretted notes on an adjacent string. This can tell you a lot.

    For more accurate information, Stew-mac guitar supply has a fret spacing calculator on their website. You enter the scale length, which is usually approximately approximately 13 7/8" or 352 mm. Then start measuring from the nut to the center of each fret. Frets that are off by less than +/- 1/64" or 0.75 mm. can be considered within acceptable tolerance to most people. If you start getting a lot of bad numbers, try entering a slightly shorter scale length.

    Many Gibson fingerboards are a little short at the nut end, so you can scoot your straightedge back a tiny bit to accommodate for this. I wouldn't bother with measurements past the 12th fret unless you play up there regularly. Most old Gibsons are not very accurate past the 12th fret-- this is one reason Thile and others have replaced or re-cut their fingerboards.

    I often make a chart with the actual measurements in one column, and the ideal measurements in a second column. Then I figure any difference in a third column to get a better idea of what's going on.

    This subject can get pretty deep very quickly. I've devoted a lot of time to it over the years, trying to determine what is acceptable and what is not. Gibson fret placement was certainly not done to the tolerances we get today with modern manufacturing methods. Many of their instruments will play well enough with no adjustments even if the numbers are slightly off. If any large irregularities are present, sometimes they can be compensated for by adding a thin spacer between the nut and the end of the fingerboard. Sometimes one or two frets must be moved. I have only found it necessary to consider a fingerboard replacement on a few of their instruments. Most of those were made after 1920. The worst I have seen was an early 30's instrument.

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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    A past discussion on the misplaced fret slots can be found here.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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  17. #10
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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    I just had this done on my '23 Snakehead. New frets, radiused the original fretboard and bridge, added a strap button to the heel. Also swapped in a K&K pickup for the Fishman bridge pickup that's been on there for a long time. Bruce Weber up at Montana Lutherie did the work. Pricing was in line with what rcc56 mentioned. Very reasonable.

    Why did I do it? This was my first mando, one I've played and played hard for 17 years or so. Frets were really worn, needed doing anyways so why not go all the way. It won't be sold until I'm dead (I inherited it from a family friend) so the resale value doesn't matter. I don't thing it hurt the value anyways -- it's a players instrument anyways, and wasn't pristine when it came to me. Given that the replaced frets were original, this new work will probably see me out (and I'm only in my 40s).
    Andrew Frink
    '23 Gibson A Snakehead, Phoenix Bluegrass, Ranger travel mando, Kentucky electric, Weyman

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  19. #11
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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeEdgerton View Post
    A past discussion on the misplaced fret slots can be found here.
    That discussion could go on forever.

    Here's some practical tips, though:

    1. The first things to check on an instrument with intonation problems are the location of the bridge, the height of the slots in the nut, and the condition of the frets. A string fretted between the 2nd and 3rd fret should clear the 1st fret by the thickness of a thick piece of paper or less. Badly grooved frets will cause an instrument to play out of tune and should be replaced, or re-crowned if they are not too low. The distance from the nut to the bridge saddle should be a fraction over twice the distance from the nut to the 12th fret.

    2. If you have tuning problems on a Gibson instrument, make the measurements. On long scale instruments such as guitars and banjos, if all the frets are within +/- 1/64" or perhaps a little more [.015" to .020"], the instrument can be set up to play well enough in tune for most people without moving any frets. For mandolins, the tolerances should be smaller.

    3. Many Gibson instruments have fingerboards that are a shade short. Often, inserting a thin filler piece between the end of the fingerboard and the nut will take care of any intonation problems. If you're not sure of the "true" scale length [such as it is], measure the distance from the 5th fret to the 12th. This distance is very slightly under 1/4 of the scale length. On mandolins, the correct distance from the nut to the 5th fret should be a little over 1/64" greater than the distance from the 5th fret to the 12th.
    For guitars, the difference should be about 1/32".

    4. Martin has had difficulty getting the bridge saddles on their guitars in the right place on and off since 1946. The problem continues to this day. If you have a Martin with tuning problems, measure the distance from the nut to the 12th fret with a metric yard stick. The distance from nut to saddle should be twice this distance [which is the scale length] plus 2.5 mm. for the high E, and scale length plus 5 mm. for the low E. If you have a Martin with a bridge that needs to be removed and re-glued, check the saddle location, because it is much easier to plug and recut the saddle slot while the bridge is off the guitar.

    5. Oh, I forgot-- make sure your strings aren't older than your children or your pets.
    Last edited by rcc56; Nov-08-2018 at 2:30am.

  20. #12
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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    Quote Originally Posted by rcc56 View Post
    That discussion could go on forever...
    It has. That's not the only one.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

  21. #13
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    Default Re: Updating an older Gibson

    The bottom line is that all of these instruments are fixable, sometimes with only minor work, sometimes with more.

    The tough part is taking the time to figure out what the most practical approach for a given instrument. If less invasive solutions will bring an instrument into tolerance, it's better to avoid replacing a fingerboard.

    I prefer to concentrate on what will give the best results rather than to guess about what might have happened on an assembly line last week or 100 years ago.
    Last edited by rcc56; Nov-08-2018 at 2:47pm.

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