The Workbench

Multi-purpose Gen-1 Electromatic Double Jet upgrade: GFS tuners, Tr…

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I believe in the scientific method as mankind's greatest tool, and the source of more benefits to the race than any other single intellectual development in our history.

You know: observe carefully, create a hypothesis, devise a test, control the test by constraining all variables but the one you're testing. Run the experiment, observe and document results. Hypothesis is confirmed or disproven, quantified, revised for next test.

Whatever you do, never make more than one change in a system at once - or you won't know how to evaluate the results.

That's why I decided to change the tuners, the bridge, the Bigsby spring, and the strings all at the same time on my 2003 G5248T Electromatic Double Jet.


As mentioned briefly in the what-was-your-first-Gretsch thread - and as covered exhaustively in a gloriously pictographic thread (complete with multiple sound files) which is now lost to us in the 2014 Database Black Hole - this first-generation Electromatic was my introduction to all things Gretsch.

I had been aware of Gretsch since Februrary 1964, but in 38 years of playing had never held one in my hands, nor knowingly heard one played live. They were always too expensive, and I hadn’t followed the rebirth of the company. Around 2004 a guy I was buying a guitar from on Ebay mentioned that the Electromatics were “a seriously good idea.” So I started paying attention and soon bought this one. It was good enough to hook me on Gretsch and send me on a long, expensive, but rewarding adventure.

For those who may not know, this particular breed of Jet represents the state of the solidbody Electromatic line at the very end of the Fred Gretsch era, just before FMIC took the reins. It has the proper double-cut Jet shape, the requisite arched maple top over mahogany body, mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard, a classy narrow headstock, and neoclassic fret markers. So far (with the exception of the rosewood), it has the specs of the pro-line Jets of the day.

But that's before we take note of the licensed tension-bar Bigsby, the streamlined control set (vol, tone, 3-way switch), the stud-mounted Adjustamatic bridge, and a pair of surface-mount Gretsch mini-humbuckers (which I believe survive today only on the Electromatic lap steel) - all of which (along with details of its build, see below) constitute its Electromaticity.

It's made in Korea - someone else will pop in and tell us what factory - and it's my (speculative) theory that there was a panicked DAMMIT moment there when someone realized that someone else had badly screwed up the neck-body geometry on a big batch of guitars.

Specifically, the guitar has as low a neck set as the new rock-n-roll Players Editions Jets - but on this guitar, that neck angle didn't allow enough clearance to mount the pickups on the top of the guitar.

Solution? Rout a shallow cavity to fit the bridge pickup's mounting flange flush with the top - and a deeper cavity to set the neck pickup nearly half an inch into the top. I can't believe such a design was intentional from the git-go. So did Fred, and then FMIC, get a deal on these guitars for this clearly unscientific boogering-up?

Maybe not - because what they got as extra value was more wood. About three pounds of it. There's no chambering in these puppies, no weight relief in sight (or out of it). The body is 2" deep at the rim and more like 2-1/2" in the middle, and you also get a long chunky heel that extends 2" from the tips of the cutaway horns, and 4" from their deepest scoop. (From the front, it looks like you might have easy access to at least the 20th fret (of 22); in actuality, you have a handful of heel at the 14th.)

Weight? 10 lbs, 10 ounces.

There was once a great GDP thread detailing builder Paul Wilczynski's extensive mod project on a single-cut Pro Jet of the same generation, wherein he cut the back off, hogged out some chambers, and put it all back together as a slimmer, lighter guitar - anticipating in many ways the evolution of the pro-line Jets since that time. Paul is well-known as Jingle-Jangle in the Rickenbacker world (in which he's done tons of work); his nick here was cardesnr (as he's also a car designer).

That guitar was finished in Cape Ivory and Wedgwood Green Dark Metallic, Cadillac colors from 1955 - a scheme he borrowed from my Coupe de Ville - and went to a home in Australia. If it's ever for sale, I'd love to know about it. Paul still has pictures on his site right here.

But I digress. The mods to my Electro Jet are teeny-tiny compared to that project. I was just illustrating what measures have been taken to relieve the weight on these first-gen Korean Electros.

All factors taken into consideration, we can all appreciate how the Electromatic Jet line has evolved over the last 15 years: not only are the intentionally historically correct elements more so, but the modernizing features are much better implemented.

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But still. Forgiving the guitars for their weight, first-gen Electromatic Jets are excellent guitars in their own right. There may have been confusion about the geometry, but the build, fit, finish, and overall quality are excellent.

Gretsch purists never liked the mini-hums - after all, there was no historical precedent for them - but, taken on their own terms, they're dandy pickups. I don't suppose they have the twang and thump of Dynasonics, nor the clarity and sparkle of Filter'Trons - but whatever they have, it was enough that the tone was distinctively different from any of my other maple-over-mahogany 24.x" scale instruments - including a 70s Les Paul Deluxe with Gibson's mini-hums. There was enough of the Great Gretsch Sound to pull me in.

I have claimed that the Electro Jet is "as good as any guitar I have" - and, sonically, that's true. The inherent tone of that huge slab-o-hogany is fat, authoritative, rich, and unique.

At some point, though - after I'd compared it to pro-line Gretschs with their truly Gretschy pickups - I began hearing the neck pickup as darker and less detailed than a feller might like. In keeping with the price of the guitar, I looked around for something I could do on the cheap. Guitar Fetish was fairly new at the time, I'd been impressed by their Retro'Trons, and was curious about the NYII, which was pitched as a fat single-coil Dyna-like. Its footprint fit the routed cavity perfectly, so why not?

Why not was that there was really no wood in the corners of that cavity to mount the pickup to. My guitar guy and I improvised some glued-in chunks of something, and the pickup was duly mounted and wired in. Sounded great! Sparkle and bite, still huge-sounding, and I liked the mixed position with the mini-hum at the bridge, which sounds thoroughly Gretsch-like. As a bonus, with the right dirt, the NYII gets into something like giant-Strat territory.

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In the process of remounting hardware after the re-wire, we apparently over-tightened the nut to the pickup selector - and it cracked out a big chunk of the finish. Thus the Les Paul rhythm-treble switch surround, which looked weird to me at first but now seems at home. Easier than a finish fix.

Pic shows a similar chunk of finish out of the butt at the endpin. A buddy was just putting a strap on the guitar and screwing it down with the Gretsch "strap-lock" when this chunk snapped out. That's some thick, very brittle finish. If you have or come into one of these guitars, be aware.

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I have one of those Rhythm/Treble covers at the ready in my supplies.

So much for Science when urge strikes...I have posted a few of mine over the years.

And as I said before, my wife begs to see me occupied doing Music stuff. Even if the first one breaks...just get another.

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And that's how the guitar stayed for ... a long time. 10 years maybe? It was always fun to play, with a tone that sounded way more expensive than the guitar. But I was well into pro-line Jets (and other Gretschs), and the Electro Jet was thus never a daily driver or a main ride. (I'm sure I've mentioned the weight thing.)

And, in truth, it's always had an Achilles heel. Or, rather, a couple Achilles tuners. Tuning issues truly are almost never tuners - but I'd eliminated everything else, and have known for years that - in this case - at least two of the stock Kluson-looking tuners slipped.

I got the Jet out Saturday to take a picture for the first-Gretsch thread, and plugged it in for a play. Kinda fell for the tone all over again and remembered why I've kept it all these years. But the strings were dead-dead-dead (according to the pack in the case, last changed in 2014), and there was that tuning thing again.

That's when I remembered I had a set of chrome GFS faux-Imperial tuners from 10 years or more ago, which hadn't worked for whatever project I had in mind at the time. My track record for tuner replacement is good - in that, since my first one, a Honduran mahogany Melody Maker in 1975, I've always gotten tuners on, working, and looking fine. It's bad in that I have usually boogered up the mounting holes with Neanderthal tool technique. So I always look carefully before I leap.

I popped off one of the Klusonny tuners and found the shaft diameter of the faux-Imperial fit fine, and that I wouldn't even have to remove the original bushings (which is good, because if the bushings were installed before the paint cured - likely in a lowish-end factory build - that's a great opportunity to chip out some finish).

However, there's a larger-diameter housing on the tuner casing, about 3/8" in depth, at the bottom of the shaft which wouldn't fit in the hole. Here's where the trouble always begins. There's almost no way with a drill of any sort to do a clean job of enlarging those holes. (At least not for me.) A drill bit either wants to catch (if you're running it slow) or just split out chunks of wood (if you're going fast). You wouldn't have to ask me how I know this if you saw the headstock of my Melody Maker, where GIANT washers mostly cover my handiwork.

A better tool is a hand-powered tapered reamer, which works more gradually and more smoothly. But it makes a tapered hole - which, OK, is probably fine for this purpose. But I don't have one.

Which left me trying to widen just the headstock-rear side of the hole with small round files. Yeahright.

Then I mic'ed the collar on the tuner for diameter, found a sharp bit to match, chucked it into the Ryobi, and tried turning it VERY slowly. That showed some progress. It would catch, I'd back out, then use the file to clean out the partially-removed wood. I didn't have to go very deep for the collar, and I test-fit the tuner frequently.

I got a couple holes done this way with only very minor chipping of the finish around the edges of holes which ended up reasonably circular. THEN (because I forgot to reverse the button on the drill from a previous back-out) I hit upon a Hint from Heloise that might make this worth reading. I just ran the drill backwards, and moved it gradually into and back out of the hole. This worked very well. I could run the drill at full speed (but, you know...carefully), and it neither caught in the wood nor took out chunks.

It did, however, slightly chatter the finish around the edges of the holes. So by the last couple of holes, I used the little round file to remove finish from around the edge before going in with the reversed drill. Next time I'll have a strategy from the git-go.

The Fauxperials eventually all fit nicely in the holes. The shafts are a couple mm shorter than the original Klusnots, and I was worried about having enough shaft to wind string onto - but I checked the low E before doing the rest of the tuners, and it was fine.

The screw holes in the housings of the tuners almost miraculously lined up with the originals. (The middle tuners on both sides a little less well, so that I stuffed toothpicks in the original holes - which I could still just see through the holes - and threaded the screw in kinda between new wood and the edge of the old holes.) The tuner housings cover any unsightliness from either shaft-hole reaming or screw-hole leftovers, but indentations of the Klusnots' little cleats remain.

But it looks cleanly done from the back.

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And from the front, I think the Imperial tuner buttons add a touch of class - and by golly the tuners hold.

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Also, there was never much range in the Bigsby, which also felt much too stiff. I blamed it on the tension-bar design, and figured it was just the nature of the thing. But I had a supply of Reverend Soft Springs, which I keep around to put on guitars which need them. While I was doing the tuner work and changing the strings, it was the right time to install one.

By comparison to the tuner installation, this was the softest of pieces of cake: swing up Bigsby arm, remove old spring. Place new spring. Done. I took out the white height enhancing-washer from under the original spring, because, as you see in the above pic, the Reverend spring (on the right) is taller to begin with.

Note the difference in wire diameter as well. I counted the turns: the licensed Bigsby spring has 5 complete turns, the Reverend 4-1/2.

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Installed and with strings brought to pitch, it looks like this. I was interested to see if, at tension, the softer Rev spring would compress significantly more and bring the arm lower. It doesn't. As far as I can tell, the arm sits at the same height as with the original spring. It's probably pretty basic engineering, but Reverend has got these springs exactly right. It's amazing how much difference such a simple change can make: the Revspring is the best thing to happen to Bisgby since the thing was invented.

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While I had the whole suspension system off, I thought I'd just see if I had a Tru-Arc to fit it. I must have used this guitar as a test bed when developing the SerpenTune compensation profile for the ES1 series of bridges we make specifically for the bridge position on the first-generation Electromatics. I have no clear memory of that - and in any case, the gutiar still had the original Adjustamatic on it.

Because I sometimes repeat past experiments just to see if physics has changed in the interim, I first tried a Tru-Arc Standard - straight, uncompensated - bridge on the guitar. It dropped right on the posts, I tuned'er up...and what a mess. Some strings sitarred in the slots, others muted unacceptably. (You test for both conditions by temporarily lifting the string out of the groove and onto the body of the bridge, holding it there by grabbing the string behind the bridge if necessary, and plucking the string.) Intonation was also...bad.

At which point I remembered, oh yeah - we have a model specifically for this guitar! And I had one - just one - in stock, in aluminum. (I thought I might prefer stainless for tone on the guitar, but I don't have one.)

I put on the aluminum ES-1 (details to follow), and - skeptically, fearfully, afraid that I'd find it didn't work properly either and I've been peddling snake oil all these years - tuned the guitar.

Dang! No sitarring, no muting. And it's in tune. I was as pleased and gratfied as I hope customers are to find that brother Steve and master machinist Re-Rob's design, engineering, and fabrication really do work. It's good to have a visceral, personal, hands-on reminder.

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From another angle, Tru-Arc AL-120/ES-1 and Reverend Soft Spring.

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BUT! Getting this bridge on was not without a short adventure. The Standard bridge had dropped on the posts easily. This one wanted to bind. I checked the hole spacing with a micrometer: identical. Then I remembered I had adjusted the bridge height when the Standard was in place...but what difference could that make?

I turned the thumbscrews without a bridge in place - and they're both bent. Crooked. As I turn the wheels (which are integral with the posts in this stud-mount assembly), the tops of the posts wobble around, effectively changing not only the distance between the posts, but the angle at which the bridge sits! Light bulb goes off in my head: no wonder I sometimes hear from customers that a bridge seems not to fit a guitar for which the model is made. The shafts have bent over the years - possibly with repeated Bigsby use - and our hole spacing is chasing a moving target.

By turning the wheels I was able to get the ES-1 in place, then lower it for appropriate action - but through part of the arc of the wheels' rotation, they got harder to turn, again because the tops are wobbling and binding either less or more in the mounting holes in the bridge.

What else? Yep - intonation can change with the orientation of the tops of the posts, and thus the precise bridge location. So I got the guitar in perfect tune, checked intonation - and found the bass side strings slightly flat. But note the pic with this post: the bass-side post is leaning backward with its threaded receiver.

I was able to turn the post slightly and get it straighter, and intonation is now as dead-on as I reasonably expect on any guitar. But I learned to be vigilant about this possibility, especially on guitars with fixed stud-mounted bridges, and I'll have another diagnostic tool in the box when customers have problems. I suspect those posts bend over time, particularly with the extreme break angle over bridges with tension-bar Bigsbies. I hope I can source replacement posts for this guitar.

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Which just leaves strings.

My supply recently ran low enough to make my big annual order from juststrings.com, and I remembered Captain Zoom repeatedly bragging about GHS Big Core Nickel Rockers - so I included several sets in different gauges in that order. I hadn’t installed any yet, and here was the obvious opportunity.

My usual choice for a 24.x scale guitar is 11-48 (if D'Addario-branded) or 11-49 (if Gretsch Chet Atkins, also D'Addario-made), with a .017 third. Gauges here are .0105, .01305, .018, .028, .038, and .048. But with the heavier core wire in the wound strings, there's slightly more tension on the bass strings - which comes through on this guitar with more punch and authority, an almost grand-pianistic articulation. The heavier third makes a good transition to the trebles, which just feel right. It's a well-balanced set, and the pure nickel wrap provides an ideal balance of warmth and brightness.

I dig'em! Glad I bought half a dozen sets, and thanks to BZ for the tireless recommendation.

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So how's the whole package?

I find that when I get personal with a guitar, I appreciate and bond with it all over again. I remember what I like about it and get a chance to refine what needed improvement. I find its voice all over again, sometimes enhance it. It's like getting a new guitar, and I'm motivated to play it - a lot - again. A too-extensive collection seems like a worthwhile investment, not just in cost, but in ongoing enjoyment. It reminds me, usefully, that I don't have to buy a new guitar when things get stale - I just need to get out one I already have and give it some love.

It also lets me critically evaluate a guitar from the perspective of my current self - which might have changed from the poor benighted goober who bought it. Sometimes I find that, much as I've loved a guitar in the past - and maybe still do - it's time for it to go. (That just happened with my never-quite-bonded Epi Wildkat, now on Reverb.)

But in this case, the Electro Jet is reborn. The tuning stability is unreal - unimaginable in its previous state. The tone is better than ever. I think the combination of pure nickel strings and aluminum bridge (which I usually like on Electromatic Jets, so why was I doubting myself?) really works. Stainless would no doubt lend a more aggressive punch and clarity, but the aluminum has a transparency and zing, and yet with the pure nickel, a fat twang and jazzy smokiness that I'm enjoying

I should put up a sound sample while the strings are fresh and I'm in a second honeymoon with my first Gretsch.

This time, a completely unscientific method paid off.

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So I assume it’s a keeper. There was a time when I was opposed to many mods. Now I’m all in for “making it mine”.

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So I assume it’s a keeper.

Well, for now...

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I really enjoyed reading about this journey with your very first Gretsch. It felt like I was reading an article in a magazine.

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Said Suprdave, in the other (short) version of this apparently TLDR thread:

Speaking of which. I know that you had discussed in another [this] thread that drill bits screwed up the finish. Isn't there an old trick where you use masking tape on the area to be drilled and then drill through that, to protect the finish. I may be wrong.

I know of that trick...I'm not sure it would work on the thick brittle finish on this particular guitar (if it works on any guitar) to protect the surface layer from chipping out when using a Big Honking Wood Bit with very coarse pitch. I could be wrong. I'm used to it.

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Right on. Let me know if you ever try it. Heck, maybe Curt knows. Ha, I said maybe. that's funny.

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It felt like I was reading an article in a magazine.

Well, I guess it felt a little like I was writing one. Clearly it wasn't appropriate to the medium, thus I made the AD Skimmer's Version as ironic self-mockery.


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