Axe Hacks: Twelve MacGyver-Style Tips for Working on Your Guitar

A skilled luthier is worth their weight in gold, especially when it comes to more advanced tech work. There are a lot of things the average Joe can do for themselves, however. What’s even better, many of them don’t require don’t require fancy tools. Here are a few of my favorite “MacGyver-style” tech tricks that use things you probably already have. Enjoy!

– Capos aren’t just for the stage. They can be useful when performing set-ups and maintenance too. Any time you need to remove the neck of a bolt-on guitar – to adjust a truss rod for example – begin by loosening the strings and placing a capo at the first fret. Then pull the neck and complete the work. When the neck is reattached, the strings will be right where you left them, tangle-free and ready to re-use.

– You can also use a capo to help check neck relief. With your axe strung to pitch, place a capo at the first fret. Then use a finger to fret a string up near where the neck joins the body. The string will become a perfect straight-edge, and you’ll be able to easily gauge the curvature of the neck.

– Polishing rags can do much more than just polish. They can also be used to remove stubborn knobs, with no risk of marring your guitar’s finish. The next time you encounter a volume or tone knob that refuses to let go of its pot shaft, try this: First, work one edge of the rag underneath the knob. Next, pull the corners around so that the rag completely encircles the knob. Twist the rag until in cinches tightly over the knob, and then pull up gently but firmly. You’ll be able exert a perfectly even upward pressure that no knob can resist.

– You can also use a polishing rag to make changing the strings on a Floyd Rose tremolo much easier. Many players advocate changing them one at a time, to help keep the trem near the “zero position” during the change. Unfortunately, this method inhibits other maintenance that requires all the strings to be removed at once, like oiling the fretboard or removing pickups. Instead, I prefer to roll up a polishing rag, dive the bar, and wedge the rag underneath as I return it to pitch. Now I can remove all the strings at once, while the bar remains near the zero position. Once the guitar is strung up again, dive the bar and remove the rag.

To keep a Floyd Rose steady as you change strings, wedge a polishing rag under it.
To keep a Floyd Rose steady as you change strings, wedge a polishing rag under it.

– When doing set-ups I rarely use feeler gauges to actually measure stuff. I use them all the time, however, as safety-stops when doing things like cutting nut slots or pinching the ends of a split-shaft pot together to make a knob fit. When cutting a nut slot, for example, I find the right combination of gauges for the depth I want, and hold the them against the fretboard, under my nut file. This keeps me from accidentally filing the slot too deep – if I hit the feeler gauge I’m done. Placing them in the slot of a split-shaft pot as I use pliers to pinch the ends together keeps me from exerting too much pressure and breaking off one half of the shaft.

– An old toothbrush is a fantastic tool for cleaning the grime and dust out of small, hard-to-reach places like around bridge saddles, intonation screws, or along the edge of pickup rings.

– Ever wonder how to create an accurate template of your control cavity, and then transfer it to the sheet of adhesive copper foil you plan to line it with? You’re overthinking it, my friend. Here is how to do it in one step: lay that sheet of copper foil right over the opening and trace the cavity’s edge with your thumb. The foil will crease easily, leaving you with a perfect guide for cutting.

– File this one in the “use the whole buffalo” folder: You know those little plastic spacers that are part of the packaging in a new DiMarzio humbucker pickup? They make great mini-bins for small parts like the screws, nuts, and washers that seem to be everywhere when you are assembling a guitar. I keep several on my work bench to help me keep track of all those small parts. More importantly, they keep me from rolling my new guitar body over a random pickguard screw that got misplaced, and leaving a nice little …um… “relic-job” on the back. The foam from Seymour Duncan’s packaging can also be re-purposed. Use it in the pickup cavities of wood-mounted pickups to provide upward pressure under the pickup.

Trays
DiMarzio pickup packaging re-purposed as mini parts bins.

– Tired of the wobble and play in your vintage-style screw-in tremolo bar? A little plumber’s tape will fix that right up. Just wrap a few turns around the threads on the bar and screw it back in. Voilà…no more slop!

– Speaking of tape, let’s hear it for masking tape! What can’t you do with it? Besides using it to mask off fretboards or do Eddie Van Halen paint jobs, you can also use it to easily remove the steel wool lint that ends up magnetically stuck to your pickups after polishing your frets. Just dab the sticky side all over the pickups, and watch that pesky dust lift effortlessly away. No fuss, no muss.

– When installing tuners, pickup rings, or other parts that require you to drill precisely located guide-holes for screws, begin by covering the area with masking tape. Continue by putting the part into position and marking the drill spots with a mechanical pencil (Why a mechanical pencil? Because they allow you to extend the lead enough to reach down through long, narrow screw hole openings and mark the tape). Now the part can be removed, while the precise locations for drilling remain. You can also draw guide lines or other marks you need right on the guitar. Once the holes have been drilled, lift away with the tape and all your marks will disappear along with it. Be sure not to use a ball point pen or apply too much pressure while marking – you don’t want to leave impressions in the finish below!

– You can also use masking tape to build a neck shim that is a perfect wedge shape. Luthiers often build shims from wood, but I have found masking-tape shims to be just as robust, and when you think about it, they are actually made of wood too! Plan on making a few shims to get the spacing of your tape just right. The first time I did this it took me four tries. The last time it only took me two. Once you get the hang of it, it goes pretty quickly. Here is how you do it:

Shim
A masking tape shim. This one has been used with a Warmoth neck, as evidenced by the turtle impression now visible.
  1. Lay the neck you are going to use down on a piece of paper, and trace the perimeter of the heel. Now you have a guide that shows the exact size and shape of your neck pocket (assuming they fit together well).
  2. Leaving about an extra inch around your tracing in all directions, cut your piece of paper down to a smaller size that’s easier to handle. Then turn the piece of paper upside down so that your guidelines are on the underside. You do NOT want to stick your masking tape over the side with the tracing…you will need to see it later in step 7.
  3. Put a piece of masking tape on the paper so that is covers the entire area of your tracing.
  4. Now put another piece of masking tape over the last, but move it back about 1/8″ of an inch from edge you want to be the thin end of the shim.
  5. Now put another piece of masking tape over the last, moving it back about another 1/8″ of an inch from the edge of the previous piece. (For a thinner shim, move each successive layer of tape back further than 1/8″….maybe 3/16″ or 1/4″.)
  6. Continue in this fashion until these “stair-stepping” pieces of tape have progressed the entire length of the shim. If you’ve done it right, they should form a perfect wedge.
  7. Now flip the shim over and use your original tracing and a pair of scissors to cut the shim down to a shape that fits perfectly in your neck pocket.
  8. Use a paper punch to punch out holes in the shim where the neck screws will pass through.
  9. Enjoy your new shim!

That’s it for today. Got any other cheap tricks to share? Let’s hear ‘em!

28 thoughts on “Axe Hacks: Twelve MacGyver-Style Tips for Working on Your Guitar

      • Okee-Doke, I hope I can explain this. You need two pieces of thin plastic 2″ by 6″. “Credit card” thickness. There’s some clear plastic that is used in vacuformed packaging, there’s some very thin celluloid, half the thickness of most pickguards. In a pinch you can use two credit cards, but a bit longer is better. And you need SOMETHING 1/8″ thick. A metal file would work, watch those teeth; I have a double-sided crowning file (Stew-Mac 4491), or golly, a pair of scissors, or or, I actually use some pieces of wood lath trim that I glued bits of mousepad and innertube rubber onto save my fingertips from sanding woes. It just needs to be 1/8″ thick.

        Okee-Dokee! Fully-tune guitar; you slide your two credit cards under the strings, and push them right up to the nut. Then you take your 1/8″ THING, put it IN-BETWEEN the two pieces of plastic. Now, slide your THING up to the nut, too. It will lift up the top piece of plastic, which will also LIFT THE STRINGS COMPLETELY FREE OF THE NUT. Meaning: you can take the nut out without detuning strings, MEANING: you can do at least 90% of your nut shaping NOT on the guitar. Meaning, you can’t scratch the guitar WHEN YOU’RE NOT ON THE GUITAR. I was a devout follower of the feeler gauge/file stop, on-guitar filing, for a long time, and I still check my work as I go, but I’ve made SO-OO many Fenderish nuts by now I can do ALL – 100% – of the filing, sanding, scratch-endangering work AWAY from the guitar. Because the strings stay up to pitch (more or less) you can put the nut back in, slide your 1/8″ THING back from the nut, take the “credit cards” out and because you’re still at pitch, you can check your action/twang/feeler gauge/eyeballing stuff immediately, repeat the string lifter stuff, check, lift etc. It’s a lot harder to scratch your guitar with a nut file when you’re SIX FEET AWAY…

        I spent three YEARS sending increasingly-incensed e-mails to Premier Guitar and Guitar Player mag, about the capo thing. And to this DAY they STILL insist you have to put on new strings every time you adjust your trussrod. Gee they have a lot of guitar string ads… this little bit above is every bit as useful as the capo thing.

        Bonus Point: You are in a room 40 feet long and 6 feet wide, sitting all the way down at one end playing guitar. Besides you, the room is empty except for a large, heavy piece of furniture with a 1/2″ slot at the bottom, all the way down at the other end.
        Q: When you drop your guitar pick, WHERE DOES IT GO…..

        • LOL….great question at the end. To answer it correctly, I need one more piece of information: is the guitar I’m playing an acoustic guitar with a sound-hole under the strings? 😉

  1. I’ve heard of masking tape also being used around the 10th or 11th frets to lift up the headstock end of a radiused sanding block. Doing this can enable creating fall-off on the upper frets. (Saw this tip from Chunger on TalkBass.com.)

  2. When re-installing wood screws turn the screwdriver counter clockwise until you feel the “click” of the threads of the hole lining up with the ones on the screw. This will keep the screw from trying to cut a new set of threads and stripping the hole.
    Another important one is when setting the string/neck alignment leave a little more distance from the string to the edge of the fret board on the treble side than on the bass side. The hand and fingers naturally pull downward on the strings so pulling the little E string off the fret board can be an issue. Doing this can also help finger pickers who wrap their thumb over the top fret the low E string easier.

    • Yes! The counter-clockwise screw thing is something we all seem to do intuitively when putting the lid back on a jar of mayo, but not everyone realizes that the same “maneuver” works when re-installing neck screws.

  3. Never, ever, ever use steel wool on electric guitars! As you’ve pointed out, it can get in the electronics and easily short out your circuit. Also, the small pieces can get under your fingernails and injure yourself. If you must use metal – use brass wool. It’s non-magnetic. Best choice: Scotchbrite non-metallic abrasive pads in a huge variety of grits.

  4. For a tune-matic-bridge and stop tail piece use masking tape to hold it in place and avoid disturbing the height adjustment while replacing strings. This works well when you just need to change strings and do some cleaning.

  5. this tip is for anyone with a neck, guitar or otherwise:
    Take a regular pencil and draw on the string grooves of the nut, the tail pieces and the string trees, any part of the guitar where the string touches the guitar. The pencils graphite tip is a lubricating, non-toxic, non corrosive-material. The string does not grip the guitar when you tune or bend and you lessen the chance of string breaks especially on the tail pieces which break down over time because there is nothing sadder than five strings on a guitar neck.

  6. JW Guitars in Sparks Nevada; Been using Playing cards for years for shims. Exactly .010″ , Plastic coated, stiff , very dense,easily makes exact thickness shims, super glue together, lightly sand edges to reduce stairsteps, and lightly sand front & back to reduce slickness. I get exact, beautiful, shims. They are very durable. Used these for over 25 years and have never had any problems. If you have seen the STUFF that even the factories use, you would be amazed. I have never had a customer complain about tone, sustain, or an apparant gap at the joint. I’ve used wood shims, but they are very fragile and tend to split, and are difficult to made accurately. Try this method and see if it works for you. Also in one deck of cards for about $2, you get 20-30 shims ! That’s how we do it in Nevada. JW

  7. Mouse pads can be cut to fit in control cavities to stop batteries from rattling around. They are also good under pickups to stop movement. Old credit cards or room keys can be used for shims or as scrapers. Put them under floating trems when working on them to avoid marring the finish and tape them to vulnerable ares when filing or sanding/polishing to avoid accidental damage.

  8. Regarding working on highly foofoo-finished guitars with dangerous abrasive tools, there’s a couple of kitchen things that can help. One is just the plastic bags that groceries and stuff come in. Two of then can completely cover the body of most guitars, poke a hole for the neck in one then tape them down. cut a little hole over the area you’re working on, and tape the edges of the hole down. No more sanding-grit paranoia! And plastic wrap can do similar things, just wrap the thing up like a big ol’ chicken. Carpet on a workbench is a pretty horrible, scratch-catching idea, unless you just get the sample pieces for free (or cheeep) from a carpet store and throw them away a lot. Old bath towels can be WASHED… I don’t understand official $30 guitar-parts-store “neck pillows” when you can raid the stuffed-animal toy bin at the Salvation Army for 50c a pop.

  9. If you have a guitar with a locking nut and/or Floyd Rose, feed the string through the tuning pegs backwards (with the ball ends near the tuners) when installing new strings. It seems a bit quicker and looks clean.

  10. I have recently begun to improve some of my old (cheap) guitars for practice. These tips are great and I will use them as I become braver with my projects. I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks everyone.

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