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Restoring a Gibson Electric Guitar

Updated on March 2, 2012

So....I've always wanted to learn to play guitar. I got an acoustic guitar for Christmas last year and have been taking weekly half-hour lessons since. I'm still struggling but now I have four guitars, my Samick acoustic, an Ibanez a acoustic electric given to me by my sister, a Fender Squire electric that I picked up at a garage sale and a 1965 Gibson Melody Maker electric given to me by my mother-in-law. The Gibson was a project. It had no strings, no bridge, the controls were corroded, the finger board was severely pitted and worn as were the fret wires and the finish was in pretty poor shape. I have been wanting to try to build an electric guitar from scratch, just to see if I could do it, but I thought restoring the Gibson would be a fair compromise

The first thing to do was to figure out what I had. I knew it was a Gibson Melody maker so I Googled for images to find out what exactly was missing and to get an idea of what it should look like when I finished. I needed a bridge, new controls, new pickup, new tuners, knobs, output jack, finger board and fret wires, stain and varnish and some know how. I found the supplies I needed at an online luthiers supply catalog.

The first step was to remove all the hardware, pick guard, electronics, tuners. Then figure out how to remove the finger board. Some online research gave me method that worked. Some suggested using a steam iron and an old T-shirt to loosen the glue bond and then gently pry off the finger board, a fraction of an inch at a time. Another suggested a heat gun. That is the method I chose. It worked well but it was necessary to go slow and pry firmly but only lift a little at a time, then reheat and repeat.

notice the dark stains from skin oils and dirt
notice the dark stains from skin oils and dirt

Next I need to remove the old finish. Here again the heat gun worked well along with a scraper and putty knife. I removed as much as possible being careful not to burn the wood. The majority of the old finish came off fairly easily. I just heated the varnish till it started to bubble up then scraped it off. I left the original finish in the recess for the electronics.The head of the guitar was painted black with the original Gibson logo. Originally I thought I'd remove that paint also but decided to keep the paint and logo. I thought it would give it some character and the logo would be difficult to reproduce. As I thought more and more about it, I liked the idea of keeping something original besides just the body and neck wood.

Sanding was the next task. I figured this would take a while but surprisingly the remaining finish came off quickly. I started with a random orbital sander and 80 grit paper. This may have been a bit aggressive since the wood is mahogany and fairly soft. I finished with 120 grit paper on the ROS and also hit the hard to get at places by hand. I sanded the neck where the new finger board would be attached just enough to remove any remaining glue residue and to scuff it up a bit so the new glue would have a better surface to "grab"

I decided the next steps should be in this order: cut and fit the finger board, inlay the pearl dots, apply finish to the guitar, glue there finger board to the neck, set the fret wires. I was worried about sloshing stain and varnish on the finger board so that is why I finished the body and neck next before attaching the finger board. In retrospect I would have made finishing (thus the name) the last step and just masked the finger board with tape.

I laid the finger board next to the old one to measure it's length since the bottom fret area needed to be cut off. I then clamped it to the neck and traced the neck outline on the back of the finger board to size it's width to the neck, making sure to allow for the nut at the top of the finger board. I cut it down with a Japanese pull saw then sanded it to get the best fit to the neck as possible. Once I was satisfied with that I proceeded to mark the positions of the large pearl dots on finger board between the frets and of the small pearl dots on the side. I ordered 1/4" dots and used a 1/4" forstner bit in a drill press. I just eye balled the depth, but only drilled out a tiny bit at a time testing the fit as I progressed. There was just enough wobble in the bit to make a slightly oversized recess for the 1/4" dot. I glued in the dots with Titebond II glue. I left just enough of the dots sticking up to file down with a tiny fine toothed file so that they were perfectly flush.

I had some difficulty finding a stain to match the originall cherry finish. So....I made my own with Cherry Tomato oil based paint from Sherwin Williams cut 50/50 with paint thinner. I tested it on the back of the body first and ended up thinning it a little more. Once the stain dried I hung the guitar body by the holes in the head and applied several coats of polyurethane.

Next I glued on and clamped the finger board and the nut. After allowing the glue to set thoroughly and after some final finger board sizing with sandpaper and a file, I proceeded with setting the fret wires. I started low, nearest the body thinking if I messed these up they are the lesser played anyway. I used a plastic hammer and some watered down wood glue. I found that bending a slight curve in the wire (so it forms as arch when laid in the slot) worked best to ensure the ends of the wire stayed down. The finger board has a slight crown. Once all the wires were in place I filed the sharp edges and tested by running my finger up and down the sides of the finger board. I then attached the bridge and found that the center to center distance of the mounting bolts was slightly off. I filed the bridge bolt slots until it fit.

This guitar has the electronics, including the pickup mouted to the plastic pick guard. The pickup I had was smaller than the opening in the pickguard and the mounting holes did not align. I decided to make a spacer and mount the the pickup to the wooden body instead. I then wired the pots, jack, and pickup following the instructions that came with the pickup. Next I polished the pick guard with Mothers Back-to-Black auto trim revitalizer and attached it with new stainless screws. I attached the tuners, but had to sand out the holes in the head slightly to make them fit. Then I attached the strings to see if it plays. I attached one string and plugged it in just in case it was wired wrong. It worked! After attaching the other strings I made some adjustments in the bridge height and I have been making music (more like noise to some) ever since.


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    • JP993 profile image


      8 years ago from England

      Oh yes, the dreaded F chord. Once you get the F chord down it becomes very easy to play. Don't focus on your index finge pressing all 6 strings you only need to press the top string and bottom two. This will relieve some pressure in your hand.

      There is also another way to play the F chord. That is, - e & b string, first fret with index finger then middle finger g string 2nd fret and ring finger 3rd fret d string. you can change this to ring finger, pinky whatever makes you feel comfortabel.

      Lenny kravits fly away = Am F C G

      Iggy Pop Passenge = Am F C G

      Animals House of the rising sun = Am F C G (First Part)

      Sex Pistol = Pretty Vacant Am F C G in some order from what I can remember. Get that F chord down and then you can play every power chord.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 

      8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Well done jim - that's dedication for you! Looks like you did a great job.

      Playing F - try 1st fret string 2, 2nd string 3, 3rd string 4 with your first three fingers.Then wrap your thumb around the neck for fret 1 on string 6. String 5 is muted by your thumb. It's easy and sounds good.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      thks for the comment. yes daily practice and I do exactly what you suggest, although I still have a little trouble with F. I have learned to play of many songs (at least parts of) with those chords esp. G D C E. The gibson was unusable as it was, missing parts, fret wires corroded and worn flush - i could have left it as a decoration but...what the heck.

    • JP993 profile image


      8 years ago from England

      Half hour lessons are not enough. do you practise on a daily basis?

      Playing the guitar is all about being comfortable on it.

      If you can't already, practise playing A,B,C,D,E,F,G CHORDS one after the other quickly. This will build strength in your hand and get your hand to adjust quickly which will make it easier to learn new songs chord progression. You'll be amazed at what you can play with just those chords above.

      Great article, I would have left the Gibson how it was and just got it set up.

      Vote up


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