I had the hammer drawn back, about to strike the beautiful guitar, when the owner exclaimed incredulously, “You’re not really going to hit my new guitar, are you? I paid a lot of money for it!” I placed the mallet on the workbench and explained what I was doing to the nervous gentleman. He had brought the guitar into my shop, complaining of buzzing strings. While technically, I guess the sound a string makes normally is really a buzz of sorts, this was a vibration against a fret when certain strings were pressed down at one spot on the fingerboard. If the guitar had been functioning correctly, the string would vibrate freely when pressed to the fingerboard and plucked. The culprit was a high fret one up from the intended pressure point, causing the string to vibrate slightly against the top of the nickel fret. The resulting sound was not pleasant, nor was it desirable.
The reason I was about to swing the hammer was to see if the errant fret was just popped up from its place a bit. The hope was that it would settle back into position without the necessity for further ado. It seems a drastic action, but not nearly as drastic as the next option in making the correction to the problem child. I tapped on the fret, hearing a slight inhaling of air from the owner as I did it, but nary a complaint from the piece of metal on the neck. Regrettably, the fret didn’t budge either and the buzz remained.
I turned to the slightly pale owner and asked him about the guitar itself. “It looks brand new. Isn’t it under warranty?” He replied that the guitar had been purchased from a music store in a town some distance away and yes, it was still under warranty. I suggested that he return the guitar to the dealer and get them to rectify the problem for him. I quickly learned that that avenue had been attempted, but the dealer was unwilling to either replace or repair the instrument under warranty. He wouldn’t even contact the guitar maker for his customer. At this point, if I had been a dealer for the guitar brand, I would have just taken care of it for him, but unfortunately, such is not the case. I tried to wriggle out of the predicament one more time, suggesting that he contact the manufacturer online and have them make things right for him. His reply came, “I want you to repair it. I’ll pay for the repair.”
I was in a quandary. There are ways of making the buzz go away, but they are not desirable; things like raising the strings by elevating the bridge saddle, or by loosening the truss rod that keeps tension on the neck, allowing it to bow an inordinate amount. Because of the severity of the misalignment of the fret in question here, we were going to have to take extreme measures. The real fix is what I call the “nuclear option”, a poor comparison to the practice in politics of taking drastic measures to rectify relatively small problems. I explained the process to the gentleman, who listened in disbelief.
We would have to perform a fret dress, taping off the fingerboard to avoid collateral damage, and filing each and every one of the frets to level all of them with each other. Then all of the frets have to be re-crowned, a process in which we use a special file to round them back over where the leveling file has flattened them. Next, an emery cloth file will remove the coarse file marks, then finally a polish with a felt wheel treated with jewelers rouge will erase all evidence of our massive assault on the new instrument. All this, just to take care of one high fret! One little two inch strip of metal, barely over two millimeters thick, rising just over one millimeter above the rosewood fretboard. Only one of twenty total frets on the neck of this beautiful instrument. But, from long experience I know that you cannot file just one fret, because the result is always uneven frets to either side, a domino effect that continues as long as each fret is addressed individually. For the defect of one fret, all of the frets must be subjected to extreme duress.
Isn’t that the way life seems to go? Because of one troublemaker, all the class is kept late after school; because of a botched play by one inattentive player, the ballgame is lost for the entire team; because of one tiny faulty part, the race car can’t even cross the finish line. The list of times that one single part of the whole causes the complete failure of the organism to fulfill its function goes on and on. And, the solution often causes pain to every part of the entity.
As I worked on the guitar tonight, my back pain returned with a vengeance, personalizing the reminder of the tiny parts, even of our own bodies, that rule our activities. I made the mistake of moving a piano last weekend and have paid the price for it all week. Muscle strain, herniated disc, arthritis…all are possibilities that have been mentioned by doctors and chiropractors over the years, but the result is still the same; intense pain when certain activities are performed. The vast bulk of my body, and one tiny zone, probably less than five percent of the body’s area, alters my life patterns! I’m still amazed…no, more like dismayed, as I consider it.
At times like this, I frequently remember the little poem that has been quoted throughout much of the last 500 years:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of the horse, the battle was lost;
For the failure of the battle, the kingdom was lost;
All for the want of a horse-shoe nail.
I’ve become well-known in my store lately for the phrase, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I may have to repent of that statement. Sometimes, the small stuff affects a lot more than itself or even the surrounding area.
Wasn’t it Barney Fife who reminded us that we need to “Nip it! Just nip it in the bud!”? Maybe that could be my new mantra. It’s worth a try…
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
(I Corinthians 12:26~NIV)