News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

In this month's issue we are not going to focus on a particular question, but rather discuss a situation which applies to most old guitars in general, and that is the old guitars' old tuning machines or tuners, if you will.

Comparisons between cars and guitars provide a useful analogy. Just as GM & Ford make cars, but not tires, Martin, Gibson, Fender, etc., made guitars but not the tuners. Major manufactures have relied on smaller, feeder manufacturers for many component parts. The principal players, (no pun intended) in the tuning machine industry were Kluson, Grover, and Waverly. They made nearly all the tuners on all the guitars that were manufactured in the U.S. through 1970. Though there are exceptions to this rule, however. These are the tuners we will primarily discuss.

Cost and availability of goods greatly influence industry. Manufacturers want to be as efficient as possible, so they use what's available at the best price. Guitar manufacturers would specify particular tuners for specific models of guitars.

Waverly was very popular in pre-WW II acoustic guitars, while Grover loomed large in the 50's and 60's. These were your more deluxe tuners for upper line instruments. Kluson made the common tuners that were used on the majority of American guitars through 1970.

Availability and variations in Kluson tuners meant that you could find two like guitars with slightly different tuners. Gibson, Fender, Martin, Guild, Gretsch, Kay, Harmony, Rickenbacker, National, and all the other manufacturers, especially those in business before that 1970's, relied on these three tuner manufacturers.

Given all this as a backdrop, let's examine how and why tuners play an important and varied role in the old guitar story. First is utility. They are designed to perform a function tune – your guitar. They're just great until they wear out. So, for many, many years no big deal. You would just go and replace them.

A second factor took shape when old guitars became sought after, because they were deemed better than newer models, which led to the whole collectors' item and vintage guitar craze. As with any collectible item, condition and originality are paramount. So, what seemed like a great idea 20 or so years ago now has backfired on some models.

For many years, replacing worn out tuners was a way of upgrading and improving your guitar. People would replace those simple 3-on-a-plate Kluson tuners with 6 individual Grover tuners. A better tuner, perhaps, but Grover tuners require reaming out the original tuner holes in the headstock. This makes for not only a structural change but also a cosmetic and aesthetic change.

Once again, none of this mattered until the demand for high quality vintage guitars took off. Now no longer original, the value of that 50's Les Paul or that '39 D-28 Martin has been significantly lowered if the tuners have been changed. For example, a Kluson-equipped '56 Les Paul Junior in excellent original condition might sell for $1750 today. That same guitar having had Grover tuners put on might sell for only $1000. A significant drop in price. Since most of these changes occurred when the value was not so greatly affected, and function of the instrument was the point, we find many old guitars with changed tuners.

A similar situation occurred when the German-made Schaller tuner came on the scene in the early 70's. Designed to compete with the high quality Grovers, Schaller also designed a mini-style tuner for six in line headstocks, namely Fender, and so the rush was on to replace those worn out Klusons with Schallers on that Burgundy Mist '63 Strat, or whatever hot rod Fender you were sporting at the time.

It was not until the early Seventies that the vintage guitar demand began to take off, so most of the damage was already done. I want to emphasize – being a guitar player myself – having a guitar that works is first and foremost. Changed tuners or not, when I go to play my guitar, it's got to work.

So that leaves us today with a situation where lots of guitar players want an Old Strat or Les Paul, or perhaps a 50's Gibson flat top. Maybe they already own one. The guitar is fitted with heavy Grover Rotomatic or Schaller tuners. It feels unbalanced and looks not quite right.

What do you do? Kluson went out of business. For many years during the Seventies and Eighties, you scampered for used replacement tuners for restoration purposes. Hopefully, you might get lucky and find a set that still worked.

In the past few years, Gotoh, a Japanese tuner manufacturer, along with Schaller, began making Kluson style reproduction tuners. They work great and are reasonably priced. In order to use them, your guitar may require new, oversized bushings to insure a snug fit, or in the instance of wanting to fully restore your guitar, the headstock tuner holes may have to be doweled and redrilled. This I would recommend on specific instruments of considerable value. For instance, a '59 Sunburst Les Paul, currently valued at $50,000, in excellent original condition, would merit a total tuner restoration, down to finding an original set of Kluson keystone, or butterfly style tuners. Vintage tuners can be found, but expect to pay from $50 to $250 for a nice set, depending on the style.

An example in our own home is my wife's 1960 Danelectro Longhorn bass. It's a very cool instrument. A great bass and a bonafide vintage guitar, with collectors' appeal and investment potential. When we acquired it, it was fitted with Schaller mini-tuners. They work great but just don't look quite right. Kinda like tooling around in your '57 Chevy that's sporting late model Toyota hubcaps. We'll leave the Dano alone unless we decide to sell it. Then we will seek to replace the Schallers with original tuners.

If you currently own an old, or vintage guitar, and the tuners are wearing out, you're in luck. The repro tuners are a great way to improve your guitar's performance while maintaining it's aesthetic and monetary value. If you are unsure as to what to do, talk to a reputable guitar shop or repairman. There are several in the Kentuckiana area.

That's all for now. In a future issue, perhaps we will discuss the history and evolution of guitar tuners. Elf or Gremlin – you decide.

Until then, keep rockin'.