Quantcast Ryan's Guitars: Alpine White 2003 Gibson Les Paul Studio Mods

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Alpine White 2003 Gibson Les Paul Studio Mods

It took me a few days and some patience to get all the modifications done to my (new to me) 2003 Alpine White Gibson Les Paul Studio. The guitar itself is in excellent condition considering it is used and about 6 years old. There are a few dings here and there, as one would expect, but overall the finish is in remarkably good condition. I get the impression that this particular guitar was not gigged at all and was probably kept in its case most of the time.

First thing I check on a used guitar is how much neck warp there is and if the truss rod adjusts properly. This particular guitar's neck has a very slight tongue warp, but well within a reasonable amount; the truss rod nut moved very easily and does its job with little movement. So, all good on the neck. The only thing this guitar needed to be playable was a new nut.

The factory installed nut had a low high E slot that caused buzzing at the first fret when playing the string open. I use the best nut material on earth (Slipstone) which is normally sold by Stewart MacDonald... but at the moment they have none in stock due to the old manufacturer discontinuing the formula that Slipstone nuts are made from. Slipstone is really a plastic called "delrin" that is used for a variety of industrial applications (some guitar picks are also made from it). The particular formula that Stew Mac uses is impregnated with teflon and has a custom, bone-like creme color. It is actually slipperier than Graph Tech and, due to its off-white color, looks OEM on most guitars. Stew Mac assures me that they will be stocking Slipstone nuts in the future as they are currently in the process of lab testing a new delrin manufacturer's product. I chose micarta (also a type of plastic) for this particular nut. I'll likely replace it sometime in the future when Slipstone becomes available again.

The first thing I did was cut off the old strings and began de-soldering the old electronics. The OEM pickups were the ceramic magnet Gibson 490s. Super high gain pickups, but just a bit too harsh for my taste. After rewiring the whole guitar with an RS GuitarWorks complete Modern Kit (switch, jack, potentiometers and caps) I popped in my favorite Les Paul pickup config: Duncan JB in the bridge and a Duncan Jazz in the neck. The electronics process went very smoothly with no major hiccups. I will say that I finally got myself a good soldering iron and I highly recommend buying a good one if you decide to try your hand at soldering. I bought a 40 watt Weller wand-style soldering iron for $17 on Amazon because my previous iron never got hot enough to melt the solder completely, which can lead to cold solder joints and messy wiring jobs. Do yourself a favor and get a 40 watt Weller wand!

With the electronics marked off the list it was time to install the new TonePros bridge. I bought this bridge thinking it would be a substantial upgrade from the existing bridge, but I was suprised to find out that they seemed to be about the same in both weight and quality. The main difference being the TonePros having the locking mechanism for better coupling and bridge stability when changing strings. Since the old bridge seemed to have pretty good string spacing I decided to use it as a template for marking the TonePros' saddles for slotting. Worked out great and I was able to knock out the whole operation quickly. The hardest thing was getting the press-fit bridge post slugs out of the guitar. With extra care and patience I was able to coax them out without any major catastrophe.

With the electronics now installed and the new bridge firmly in place it was time to string up to test everything out before moving on to creating the new nut. I must say I am impressed with how great these pickups and the RS wiring kit make this guitar sound! It has huge tone. Huge!

After testing I loosened the strings enough to allow the stopbar tail piece to slide out, with strings still attached to both the tail piece and the tuners. This is a clever way to remove all the strings from a Les Paul at once (and pop them back on) easily... a very useful trick when making a nut. With the strings and stopbar placed to one side and the headstock and fretboard protected, I then scored the old nut to detach it from the finish. Once scoring was complete I began to attempt the removal of the old nut. This proved to be quite a challenge! Not sure what the factory used to glue this nut in place, but it simply would not budge. I tapped and tapped and tapped, applied heat with a hair dryer and tapped some more... nothing. I had no option but to destroy the old nut. Even this proved to be extremely difficult! I used a very sharp blade from a Leatherman tool and the handle of a screwdriver to carefully chip away at the old nut until it finally started coming out in chunks. I am happy to report I was able to get it all out with no damage to the guitar's finish or nut slot!

With the old nut out and the slot cleaned up I began to fashion the new nut from a micarta blank. I basically just tape down a piece of 800 grit sandpaper to my workbench and grind the nut down by hand. This ensures nice, level sanding but it can be pretty laborious. I also use a Dremel for certain procedures to speed things up. Once I got the shape and fit I wanted I measured off the two outer E strings at about 1/8 inch from the edge, then used my awesome Stew Mac nut slot ruler to figure out the placement of the inner slots.

After popping the nut on and off the guitar for minor adjustments, slotting was all that was left to do before gluing it in permanently. I used my slotting files I bought a while back from Warmoth (part #NFS8 for only $64.00) which is a great deal for nut files! They are excellent quality and work very well, and I paid a fraction of what a similar set of files would cost anywhere else. With the slots properly radiused to the neck (12 deg) the nut was complete! I beaded the nut slot with some water diluted wood glue and carefully set the new nut, placed the strings in the slots and tightened them down for the nut to dry overnight.

The final step was to install the locking Kulson tuners, clean the fretboard, polish the frets with 000 steel wool, restring and make final action and truss rod adjustments before intonating the guitar. The Kulsons matched up with all the existing headstock holes perfectly, no need to drill or modify the guitar in anyway. I think all Les Pauls can benefit greatly from having locking tuners, and all of mine have them. The cool thing is that these days one can obtain retro-fit tuners for just about any guitar, which prevents unnecessary headstock drilling and reaming that typically devalues the instrument.

This is one of my best sounding Les Pauls, despite being a cheaper, regular production model. Acoustically the guitar is quite loud and crisp and that certainly translates to the plugged-in tone which is huge and articulate with plenty of sustain and output to drive the amp in both positions. The neck position tone might just be the sweetest of all of my Les Pauls! The Duncan Jazz is simply stunning in this guitar.

I plan to add sound clips to this post soon, so don't forget to check back if you'd like to hear my newly modded 2003 Alpine White Gibson Les Paul Studio! Wow, that's a mouthful. :)

1 comment:

  1. jaydee3:03 PM

    hey man, i stumbled upon your blog while doing some research on slip stone. i went to my luthier last night planning to swap the stock corian nut on my gibson es-339 with bone, but when i asked him which material he prefers, he told me slip stone would be his choice. i don't know much about this material, so i was looking into how durable it might be compared to bone and corian.. could you please tell me more about your experience with this nut material?