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.

– 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.

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:

A masking tape shim. This one has been used with a Warmoth neck, as evidenced by the turtle impression now visible.

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).

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.

Put a piece of masking tape on the paper so that is covers the entire area of your tracing.

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.

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″.)

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.

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.

Use a paper punch to punch out holes in the shim where the neck screws will pass through.

Enjoy your new shim!

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

Since 1980, Warmoth has been the standard in American-made bodies and necks for electric guitars and basses. During that time, they have helped countless players customize, personalize, and improve their instruments. They have also helped to pioneer many advancements in guitar technology, including the compound radius fretboard, the conversion neck, and the “drop-top” laminate top. Visit the Wormoth Blog for more great guitar tips like this or visit to check out the most beautiful instrument bodies and necks known to mankind. You can also connect with Warmoth on LinkedIn, Google+Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook