General tech questions

The Plek Trek: can the best be made better?

1

April 1: An epic day in Nashville...

I've had enough fret jobs done to know a good one can make a real difference in a guitar which sounds great and shows promise – but falls short for niggling neck/fret issues. I also know a fret-dressing by an inexperienced or simply inattentive tech having a bad day can be at least moderately disastrous, if not worse, possibly requiring a re-fret to resolve.

So it's always dicey, taking a guitar for a fret tune-up. If it's not a favorite guitar and you're just trying to improve it, maybe not so much of a risk. But if it's one of your cherished rides – but has small congenital (or gradually developing) problems – a fella gets a bit nervous. There's also often little cost difference from "touching up a few frets" to a complete leveling, so it can be problematic deciding just how to proceed.

Once you've had a couple BAD fret jobs, you're a little nervous ever after. The worst thing (ask me how I know) is to spend a pile, wait to get the guitar back, find it little or no better than before (or bad in a different way), and realize the next step is a refret or new neck.

I could probably eventually learn to do fretjobs myself. I hacked away at them when teching in a music store in the 80s, being careful always to work on guitars I couldn't make WORSE. But I've done enough of it to know my limitations, and to imagine the time, expense, and unfortunate accidents likely to accompany my own attempts to get results that would satisfy me.

I'd been aware of this Plekking business for a couple of years. It sounded like science fiction: an "automated" fretjob machine which can (in experienced, trained hands) reputedly do a beyond-humanly-perfect fret dress in minutes.

Was it John Henry vs the steam engine, or sending a robot to do an artist's job. Are fret jobs art or science? (The answer, as it turns out, is that it's both.) A great technician on a conscientious day can do a wonderful fret job, no doubt. But if the Plek machine could deliver "perfect" results, every time, with no worry – it's a no-brainer, huh?

So I had been looking for the opportunity to have a guitar (or two) imPlekticated. When gradual fretwear issues on a couple of my favorites started to bother me, it was time. From research, I knew Joe Glaser Instruments in Nashville was not only my closest plektorium, it was one of the most experienced. (Just HOW experienced, I didn't yet know.) I knew Richard had his prized 6122-59 tweaked there, and was very happy with the results.

I made the call, and was told I could drop a guitar off and get it back in a week or so. I asked if I brought several and drove down from Indiana, could they possibly be done in a day?

Joe graciously accommodated this imperious request, and we set the date for April 1.

Accordingly, I rose stupid early, loaded seven guitars in the van, and made the drive, arriving at Joe's place around 9:30 in the A of M. Joe's place is in a residential neighborhood south (and I think west) of downtown, an area of recording studios, art galleries, and the like. From the street, it looks like a small house; there's no signage. (In fact it started as a small house; there's now a reasonably enormous industrial building attached behind it.)

I carried guitars in and we got right to work. Joe explained all the parameters the machine measures, and – since one size fret job does NOT fit all – the variables that have to be considered before he could determine what would be a "perfect fret job" for me.

I explained the two kinds of problems I thought were represented in one or another of the timber I'd brought with me: more string rattle than I'd like on the bass strings in the first position – and isolated fret buzz in a few locations above the 12th fret.

I demonstrated the issues on the guitars. He asked if I'd brought a guitar that I considered played perfectly. I produced my Dyna Jet, and played it. He watched and listened to my playing for awhile, no doubt drawing some conclusions.

The he put the Jet on the Plek (which is set up in a small room off the front office) to get its parameters scaned. The Plek machine (which you should read about in more detail elsewhere, as I won't do it justice) measures most parameters with the strings on and at pitch. In a minute or two it knows neck relief to thousandths of a millimeter, at every point across and up down the neck, as well as the distance between string and fret EVERYwhere.

It creates a clinically merciless graphic of the shape of the fingerboard, on a string-by-string, fret-by-fret basis: no hump, twist or bump will escape notice. It knows the height of every fret above the board under every string.

The Jet was good; it wasn't perfect. I saw the anomalies, and Joe could see how the setup could be improved to suit my playing habits. The question then became, should we plek the Jet?

I trusted him – if I was in for a donut, I was in for the whole box – so we went for it. First Joe adjusted the truss rod (I tended to have too little relief on all my guitars), then slacked the strings and pulled them aside. The machine put tension on the neck to exactly mimic the tension of the strings, Joe entered the parameters of presumed perfection, and turned the beast loose.

The process so far had taken 30-45 minutes, maybe a little longer. (It would get faster.)

We were interrupted when "Vince" came in to talk shop (he and Joe were helping organize a community guitar show/jam). Joe introduced me briefly, they talked for 10 minutes or so, and Vince left. I know I don't pay enough attention, so I had to ask. Yes, it was the Vince you'd think it was.

The actual Plek process, the fret-dressing itself, took about 8 minutes, removing absolutely the minimum amount of metal necessary to level the frets and give them the profile desired.

Before I could play the guitar, though, it was delivered into the hands of one of Joe's techs to have the nut attended to as needed, and to polish the frets. (The machine work doesn't leave them mirror-smooth.)

When that was done, half an hour or so later, I played the sucker, and – fur's I could tell, in that environment, it was even sleeker and smoother than it had been. Of course, on a guitar that already played well, I wouldn't know for sure till I got it home and played through my own gear across a range of songs.

And there wasn't time for that. But my confidence in Joe and the process was strong enough that we forged onward, using the setup of the Jet as a starting point for the others. He had me line the guitars up in whatever order of priority I preferred (whether "worst problem" or "favorite guitar").

The day settled into a rhythm: I'd get out a guitar and show him what I wanted to resolve. He'd inspect it from a luthier's viewpoint, then scan it with the machine, show me the results, and we'd decide whether to proceed with each one. Then he'd program and let it do its thing.

All the time we talked, and I learned more about Joe and the process. Turns out Joe is actually Mr. Plek in the US, and has been a co-developer of the machine since it was invented in Germany. His is one of the earliest units of the current generation, incorporating the latest upgrades.

He's done over 5,000 guitars on the machine – and the data for every one of them is stored on the attached computer. From the famousest of famous players down to hacks like me, that machine knows more about the intimate details of neck and fret than the people who built the guitars. He showed me some of the befores and afters of amazing players' axes. Every brand and model.

Joe has also installed every other Plek machine in the US and trained its operators (who must be experienced techs, if not luthiers, to run the thing). He consults with every manufacturer who uses the machines, some on a frequent, even almost daily, basis.


As the day wore on, I began to understand that, even with all that, the Plek machine is not the center of Joe's operation there. I don't know how many superb guitar techs there are in Nashville, but Joe's place is clearly one of the premier shops. (Maybe THE premier shop.) They do every kind of functional and finish repair, setups, quick fixes, emergency jobs, rebuilds.

But, as Joe explained, they're not about strictly cosmetic collector work: they're about bringing instruments to a peak of real-world playability for professional tone-mongers. In that vein, he provided some gentle reality therapy: for as hard as I like to play down low on the neck (which didn't seem unusual to him, as many Nashville players drive pretty hard), I was going to have to accept somewhat higher action than I'd been trying for.

Knowing I'd be in Nashville for the day, but not realizing I'd be hanging out WITH Joe as he worked, I'd invited Duane and Deed to lunch if they were going to be in town. As the lunch hour passed, Deed called to see what was up...I explained that I was immersed in guitar mania, and she said their plans had changed, so maybe it wasn't going to work out.

In the meantime, we had other interruptions: Tom Peterson checked in a stripped mid-60s Rickenbacker guitar to have pickups, bridge, and other hardware installed.

One of the other techs who works there carried in a triple-humbucker Les Paul Custom he'd just refretted, for Joe's verdict. It was Peter Frampton's. Was it THE guitar? No one knew. Maybe.

Next it was Al Anderson, of NRBQ, who dropped off a new Fender relic Musicmaster-looking Tele-cross kind of thing for a quick setup before a gig. And the hits just kept on coming...

Eventually I went for lunch and a post office run. While I was gone, the shiny iPhone rang, and it was Deed. They'd come downtown after all, were hanging out at Joe's, and Deed needed ice for a hornet sting.

So we got to hang out after all. Joe and his techs were thrilled to meet Duane, of course, and we got a tour of the whole facility from paint booth to tech benches. And not one but TWO giant plastic garbage cans FILLED with removed strings – which the shop carefully saves after removing for donation to folks who need them. We were told it was about two-months' worth. I'm trying to imagine how many guitars go through the place!

So the afternoon had that texture: Duane and Deed sharing casual stories in response to questions from all of us, passing around guitars as they came off the bench, hearing the Plek grind away at my guitars. All very casual.

At some point we talked about bridges, and I told Joe about Tru-Arc. He was very interested in both the concept and the execution, and showed me a carefully arc'ed truly compensated wrapround stop-tailpiece bridge he'd designed – a work of art. He's made six of them, and they sell for 250.00. Says he doesn't want to make any MORE, and thinks Tru-Arcs are UNDERpriced.

I left him several to try out with customers.

One of the seven guitars, we determined, didn't need enough work to justify the expense. Joe thought its isolated 10th fret buzz on one string could be a dented string – and was right.

The others were duly plekked, frets polished, set up to boutique standards, passed through my hands for a quick approval, and re-cased. He was generally impressed with the consistency and quality of the Terada Gretschs' necks and fretwork, a little disappointed at the Hamer (which he's found generally superb), and dismayed (but not surprised) at issues with the Reverend Club King.

But even those guitars, from his experience, were well within the usual spec of current production guitars. His demonstration of Plek machines at trade shows involves the cheapest, rawest Chinese acoustics they can find – which, in 15 minutes start to finish, the machine renders perfectly and sweetly playable.

By the time he wrapped up my guitars around 6:00, Joe was pressed for time to get to a practice (or gig). I loaded out, we settled up and shook hands, and I was on my way.

Beyond the incredible service I got, and Joe's generosity in spending a day on my guitars and talking about plektation, was it worth it? Do I like the results?

And that, hardy readers, will have to wait for tomorrow's installment.


My apologies that there are no pictures. I COULD have; I SHOULD have documented this visit more thoroughly for the edification of all. I was remiss. Deed did take a couple of pics, which I imagine will appear later...

2

Excellent read Tim, looking forward to the rest!

3

Thanks for this, Tim.

I've wondered about Plek'ing, and whether it was snake oil.

Knowing the WWE's Vince McMahon gets his guitars Plek'd is good enough for me

4

A full day's Plekking — and Al Anderson and Duane Eddy!

Here's a great bit if Al, complete with twangy baritone.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUNb3tekTzo

5

That's awesome Tim! It is truly amazing what people can come up with when they apply themselves.

From the plek (dot) com webpage, 'and began to write the first control programs on a 286 PC in MS DOS'. This (kind of) means that in a few years time when I have finished my engineering degree, I can put all the c++ programming practice that we are doing at the moment to good use and write control code for a micro-processor to use on a fantastic machine like the plek pro.

WOW!!!

6

Fantastic narrative, Proteus, as usual. Ol' Vince must be a regular dropper byer at Joe's place. I was introduced to Joe by Ronny Light when I was visiting him in Nashville a couple of years back. Believe it or not, Vince was in there that day also. He had just returned from a visit to Oklahoma where he acquired an old Broadcaster somehow. Joe was to apply his magic to it later. Vince turned out to be very accomodating to me also when Ronny told him I was from Oklahoma. We had a good visit talking about our experiences in the Sooner State. As fate would have it, Ronny got tickets for my Norwegian friend and I to the Friday Night Opry backstage that night, and who was there? Yep, none other than Vince Gill. He invited us into his dressing room for a cordial visit and a quick swap of a couple of guitar licks. Then they told him he was on in 2 minutes. He can still bring down the house.

Everything about the Plek procedure is fascinating, from the machine, to its procedures, to the computerized precision. There is nothing else like it. I go into dreamland everytime I pick up my '59. It is hard to believe that such a wonderful instrument could be made even better, but it is. The one thing that the Plek procedure did for me was that it turned a so-so relationship with my CGP into a love affair. You did good, Tim. I'm glad you had the opportunity to introduce Tru-Arc to Joe. Hopefully he will be able to give some good quality lip service to your fine product. Of course, getting to hang with Deed and Duane would make any trip worthwhile. Isn't it amazing how everything just kinda comes to a halt when somebody says, Duane Eddy (is here)?

7

I have been fascinated by this since I'd first heard about it. I am looking forward to your appraisal Prot!

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Thanks, Mr. P. Standing by for Part the Second.

9

Absolutely outstanding!

Why doesn't somebody vote this Proteus guy up.

10

My 6120 DSW got Plek'ed there (I shipped it from Louisiana, though). It made a world of difference.

Sounds like you had a fun day.

12

Thanks, Proteus. I too will look forward to further analysis.

And thanks to you too, Bryan K. Any of us who pay attention knew how you felt about the TruArc months ago. All of us are now waiting for you to give it a rest.

13

I have two guitars that are way overdue for fretjobs. I keep throwing money everywhere else but on those two and they would both be great players again if I did.

14

Man, this is a great thread Pro, just finding it now. I'd love to someday try this on a few I have as well. Wait times must be enormous though.

15

You'd think I'd've wanted to play the guitars, nonstop, for hours, as soon as I got home, wouldn't you?

I didn't though. For one thing, it was pretty late, and I was tired. For another, my hands hurt. I'd played a lot all day, actually, though rarely plugged in (and would you believe a world-class shop had nothing but a solid-state reverb-free MARSHALL on the bench?). And remember I'd tumbled down stairs less than two weeks before and stoved my left little finger – which was slowing me down, stiffening and hurting, and putting more stress on the rest of the hand.

Also, on the long drive home I'd started getting weird. I think I was mourning for all the metal shavings. I was thinking, "Oh no – what if the precise height and occasionally random contours of the frets were part of the essential personality of the guitars? What if the EVIL MACHINE has SUCKED ALL THE SOUL out of the Best Guitar in the Worlds?

I was practically afraid to find out – but I did get out one of the not-quite-grail guitars and give it a little play. It felt great - slick, smooth, consistent. No trouble there.

Yeah – but did it feel THE SAME as it had before? Besides being better, was it somehow different now, in a bad way? Who knew? I certainly didn't remember exactly how the frets and neck had felt before.

So. Good enough, I thought, that one sure seems PERfect.

Still, I went to sleep wrestling with buyer's remorse and mourning over those metal shavings. This was not much like me – I'm usually fairly immune to such second thoughts. (Particularly if it's "just money" – maybe less so if I fear I've done something stupid.) This was much like I'd felt after getting mid-back-length hair cut off after my freak-flag days, seeing the golden locks shorn on the barber's floor.

Sure I was now a better, manlier man – but what had I left behind?

So you think I played through them all the next day? I did not. I had many days of work just thereafter which both ate up time and exhausted me.

When I did play (some of the plekked guitars, as well as others), I was hyper-conscious of my hand: if I had trouble doing something I thought used to be fairly effortless, I'd wonder if it was the hand – or something mysteriously different about a guitar.

But gradually, over a period of a couple of weeks, I did play all the guitars a lot. I never got all six out in succession to try them back-to-back; I just started using them "normally," for solo practicing, writing, band practices, new amps and pedals to try.

For the first couple, it was "whew - it's alright!" Eventually I quelled my own superstition and expected the guitars to be wonderful.

Which they are. The piece de resistance came at a gig Saturday when I finally tried the Country Club – and it was fine. Finer than it had EVER been.

To be perfectly clear, then – lest I've created any clouds of doubt – plekking had no negative consequences whatsoever. The guitars were NOT robbed of any individuality; they don't feel "sterile" or stiff or generic. They're every bit the guitars they were, only better. Surprisingly better.

Of course the specific problems I was trying to address are gone. I can still get low-fret buzz on the bass side if I rake it with a brick, but I have to be trying for it. Otherwise, clean as whistle. And the random isolated fret-outs higher on the neck have simply vanished.

What I HADN'T expected was how the responsiveness and playability of the entire guitar is enhanced. I think most guitars – particularly those played by those of us who go for the lowest action we can reasonably get – have areas of the fretboard where we know to go easy, because certain notes will choke if we play too hard.

I suspect we all adapt subconsciously to each guitar's unique pattern of such idiosyncrasies, eventually without even knowing we're doing it. We know how far we can bend here and there, which voicings to avoid, where we have to go easy.

When all those anomalies are just gone, the entire fretboard opens up. The guitar rings like a piano at every fret, every note. You don't have to steer around potholes or avoid the shallows. Nothing chokes anywhere, so notes you'd have avoided (like above the 14th fret on the lower strings) are now useful.

You find the guitar more responsive. It doesn't choke. Bend away. Pick more dynamically. The guitar actually becomes completely itself, like it can now express its full potential.

And of course you get the benefits of a pro fret-dress and setup: perfect nut height and dressed slots, ideal relief for YOUR playing, silky smooth frets, and best-possible intonation.

In other words, you lose all setup or action-related excuses: the guitar no longer inhibits you in any way.

It must be something like the pampered treatment womerns get at day spas.

Is it worth the money? For a guitar you want to play as well as it possibly can, in a heartbeat. Won't matter what you PAID for the guitar either. If you like the guitar enough to want it to be "all it can be," a fine Plek job seems a bargain.


Random Notes

• Joe has my personal setup specs saved in the machine. This means I can send him other guitars long-distance and know they'll come back as perfect as art and science allow. I can also use the numbers myself to set relief, nut height (should I be so inclined) and action on any guitar.

And if I forget how I like my own guitars (easier than you'd think), there's always a reference to go back to.

For instance, it was clear that I was setting my guitars up with too low action for my hamfisted piledriver technique. I now know where it should be to accommodate my whacking.

That doesn't mean I've LEFT it there on all the guitars. Nosiree – I've cranked it down a little to where I have to pay attention and back off. But that's my choice now. When I do go low, nothing chokes or frets out – it's all a question of how much string rattle I can tolerate when I play too hard.

Nothing Joe or any machine can do about that.

• Not all Plekking is identical. The best pleknician is an experienced luthier or setup tech, because he starts with an expert analysis of every aspect of the guitar's setup from string gauge to relief to nut height to action everywhere.

If it's a setup for a specific player (as Joe was doing for me), the operator must take that player and his technique (or lack of it) into account as well before he makes his expert judgment as to what he should have the machine do.

The Plek machine is a tool for doing precise fret (and nut) jobs – not a robot. The better the guy running it, the better the results.

• Plek machines are used by some manufacturers, no? How are they used in production environments?

Unless it's a custom shop situation – where the player and his specs are known – production guitars must be set up to specs established by the manufacturer, presumably to hit a happy medium that will satisfy most players and provide a consistent place for dealer or customer adjustments to start.

The Plek has obvious benefits in that environment: assuming the frets are consistently installed into consistently profiled necks, Pleking can bring in a beautiful fret job every time.

But, as Joe shared with me, not all manufacturers necessarily use the machines that way. In some cases, they're used to make up for sloppy or marginal production work – or to address persistent problems in the design and specification of the instrument itself.

So, while Pleking from the factory sounds like an unquestionable good thing – and it certainly should deliver a highly playable surface every time – again the best results are obtained when the construction of the neck and installation of frets already meets a high standard.

• What ABOUT my remorse over the metal shavings? Were my frets "taken down"? Well, metal was unquestionably removed. Honestly, I can't tell any difference in the relative fret height of any of the guitars. Either there really isn't enough height difference to notice, or I've forgotten how the frets felt before.

Doesn't matter, when they play so sweetly.

And in any case, one of the virtues of the machine is that it removes the bare minimum of metal necessary from each fret to achieve the optimum result. It knows the height of every fret, all the way ACROSS the fret – and so knows where the lowest point on the neck will be. Everything will reference to that. (Naturally, if any frets are so low they'd compromise the whole job by sacrificing too much metal, the pleknician will find that out during the evaluation and recommend replacing them.)

Taken together, I'm confident no fret dressing that really did the job could have removed LESS metal than the Plek did.

• Would a great tech have dressed the frets as well with his conventional tools? That could turn into a religious argument. For my money: maybe – doing his best work on an attentive day.

But I really doubt he could have got six guitars done to this consistent standard in a single workday.

Joe showed me part of a stunning roster of clients whose guitars have passed through his Plek machine. They rely on it, swear by it, wouldn't have it other way.


At the end of the day I was well pleased (if a little shell-shocked). After a month of playing the guitars, I'm even more pleased and impressed. You want to treat yourself to something even sweeter than your guitar already is, get it Plekked. I have no reservations about it.

16

Tim, you write all this on your word processor and then copy/paste it here , don't you?

Fantastic information on the plek system. The closest one to here is in SF. I'd love to have my falcon plek'd since it is starting to show visible signs of string wear, but that will have to wait for another day....

17

Actually, no. I write in the little yellow box.

18

Can I ask what the cost is, on average?

19

Told ya years ago, Plek was the way to go, Tim.

Happy it worked out so well for you and as usual, great writing.

20

My recently-purchased Gibson Les Paul Traditional Pro came with a PLEK'd fretboard. I love it. I think the biggest impression I was left with after playing it a while was that not only were the frets finished perfectly, but the guitar felt so completely broken in and playable, it was like I had already put in several hundred hours on it! Highly recommended!

Jim

21

ditto to what gcat said, that is my first question as well

22

As I recall, 140.00 - 200.00, depending on what other setup-related services the guitar requires.

23

The cost is about $175.00 at the local Plekified shop.

24

Your mentioning the steering clear of "potholes" and such on individual guitars is interesting. The beautiful thing about Plek'ing is that you simply don't have to think about such things anymore.

It's not that your Plek'ed guitar FEELS so much better, and it's a miracle and a revelation. It's that now, you're not wishing for, and simply don't think about, a miracle or a revelation.

You think about what you want/need to play. That is the miracle, and the revelation!

Glad you're enjoying the fruits of your day, Pro.

25

Thanks for that breakdown Proteus.

The only niggling thing in my mind now is if I should (too) make the trek with several guitars so that I can show the Plekker my best/favorite playing guitar so that the others could be matched closer to it - rather than mailing one and just having the excellent happy medium type setup.


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