A local guitarist/pianist - let's call him Jim - recently came to me with an odd request. I've previously worked on his guitars, most notably refinishing an old strat with a new-relic sunburst finish - but this one was strange. He wanted me to spend hours refurbishing and stabilising an old red-burst Kay acoustic, of the kind that can be had on eBay for less than the price of a couple of packs of decent strings.
Why the hell did Jim want to spend his cash on this? Turned out, this guitar had a story...
Some time ago, back in college, Jim had a girlfriend. And that girlfriend had a guitar, which may-or-may-not have belonged to her grandad (Jim's memory is a bit iffy). But what he is sure of is that this guitar had some meaning to her. At some point the guitar came to rest in its case atop Jim's wardrobe, where it sat unplayed for a bit before becoming a regular beater. When it started to fall apart, it went back on the wardrobe, where it stayed. Jim and the girl parted ways and lost contact. House moves followed, the Kay followed and Jim became its custodian, until finally, almost 20 years later, the Kay found its way to me at the malone guitars workshop.
It was in a right state! The list of problems is too long for a two minute read blog post, but included a failing neck joint, a split on the seam between the laminate top and side along the upper bout, huge divots in the plywood finger board (yes, that is plywood too), a deep split in the bridge (mercifully not plywood), a savage split in the heel (it is never a good idea to attach a strap button here with a no.5 screw without at least a little pre-drilling), loads of fret wear, half a dozen lose frets, large chips from the edge and missing paint and lacquer chips all over. And more.
"It's a bit of a mess Jim" I said bluntly. "Are you sure about this?"
"Play it," he replied simply.
That was the kicker. Yes, it had a story, yes it was only Jim's by default, yes he felt he ought to have taken better care of it, but most of all, even with all its faults and the gnarliest strings I've seen for a few years, this old, ugly, plywood box sounded sweet. Richer than you'd expect, bright too.
"I can fix it, but it will need a new bridge and other parts," I conceded.
"No new parts if you can avoid it, I want to keep it original".
Seriously?? This wasn't some '50s Gold Top that should be in a museum, it was a beaten old guitar that someone had bought mail order from a catalogue. But I'd bought into the story, and the sound...
"I'll see what I can do," I mumbled, simultaneously thinking I'd live to regret it. The customer is always right (even if they are wrong).
The following morning it was still there. No bad dream. I took a few 'before' photos and began patching the Kay up. Hide glue and clamps solved the splitting problem. Titebond took care of the split heel and a new-cut rosewood cap covered the damage. Cyanoacrylate and rosewood dust filled and stabilised the split bridge. A full fret dress and polish was desperately needed. I hand-cut a compensated bone saddle and popped it in the space where three bits of plastic previously lived. More cyanoacrylate (this time with mahogany dust) went in the fretboard divots, more still drop-filled the worst of the finish chips. A liberal application of Speedball Super Black indian ink restored the fingerboard and bridge to their factory colour (more or less). There was much polishing and more besides.
I'm pleased to say the Kay survived the facelift. Refreshed, it certainly looks better, plays better, and it sounds better too. Not too bright, very full lows and mids, louder than it should be. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, but perfection wasn't the goal. Will it make more stories? I don't know that for sure, but at least it now has a chance. At the very least, Jim's happy, which works for me. The customer is always right. If my work makes them happy too, then so much the better.