Recently I realised my beloved Ibanez RG370 needed a fret job. It was my first good electric guitar – Father Christmas gave it to me brand new in 1993 – and it’s seen thousands of hours of service over the years. Finally a pretty substantial buzz developed around the 15th fret. After hearing lots of great things about his work I took it to Joseph Price at Soxy Music here in Melbourne, and the dude really seemed to know his stuff. We got to chatting and his story sounded pretty damn interesting, so a while later I came back with a camera in one hand and my voice recorder in the other. Here’s our little chat!
So how did you get started?
I started dabbling in tweaking guitars – I guess what people call setups – when I was 15. I got a Paul Reed Smith, which I still own. It came with .009s and I thought, “What would this sound like with .010s? Then I tried .011s and all these things. Then I started with my friends’ guitars. And when I was 17 I had that guitar refretted at the best guitar shop in London, who should have done a good job and were very capable, but basically they cut the fret slots too deep so it weakened the neck. I didn’t understand what was wrong but I knew that something was wrong, and I knew by their reacction and me being unhappy that they knew something was wrong as well. So I spat the dummy and went “Well I’m gonna buy some tools, and I’m gonna show you!” I started buying up cheap plywood Yamaha Strats, and I would rip the frets out and refret them. After about ten goes I started to learn what works and what doesn’t, and I moved to Glasgow in Scotland to study, where I worked part time for a violin repair guy. And he showed me, “this is a hand plane, this is a chisel,” and he taught me more useful information about wood, grain direction, run-out, all of these old-school things which helped me to start to build guitars. But it was mentally quite a big jump from repairing to building, and realising they’re quite separate disciplines.
The third refret I ever did was on that Paul Reed Smith. I purposefully took three days to do it. I made a little jig, what’s called a neck jig, to try to stabilise the neck into the position that the neck lives in when the strings are on. I took a really long time. I glued the frets in, I pressed them, I sweated over each one. And eventually I realised this was not going to be efficient when I come to do this for a living. But I was quite fortunate because my best friend in music college, who was very committed to getting a record deal, got a record deal with a company, Miles Copeland’s company, and through that connection I got to tour as a guitar tech, which was a very different thing. I got to learn quickly what a professional needs. There’s a professional guitar player and then there’s a rock star. And what a professional needs is very different. They need it to absolutely be in tune, play in tune and stay in tune in any and all conditions. So you start learning outside the boundaries. You learn that it’s a very good idea to make the G string intonate very sharp because by the time you hit the power chord at the 7th and 9th fret, it will be in tune. All different things like this. How to condition a nut. And working with various techs who were not strictly on one instrument, and getting various tips and insights. So that was particularly good for learning how to do all of that.
I moved to Germany to study classical guitar building. I naively thought I could get an apprenticeship. After three months of going to every shop in town I started working for this guy whose name is Lutz Heidlindemann, and he owns a guitar company called LuK Guitars. They’re basic Strats and Teles, and what I learned was the German way, which is based on the Spanish tradition of “This is how you do it because we’ve always done it this way.” And at the same time I spent a lot of time on websites, learning all this lovely information from Americans, who are very open: “This is how I do it. This is how you build with a CNC robot.” And I realised that my personal approach is kinda halfway between the two. Yeah, if it ain’t broke it doesn’t need fixing, but I remember I had a conversation with Lutz about a guitar with Buzz Feiten tuning installed. He said “Ya, it’s good, but you don’t need it.” And I just looked at him and I thought “You and I are just not gonna see eye to eye.” Because even a rank amateur could hear the difference. If you’re telling me you don’t need it, then what I’m hearing is “I can’t be bothered.” But I learned a lot there about efficiency and how to take care of your customers. It was a shop of probably about 250 square meters with racks of guitars. At any given time we had 200 guitars, with just two guys. So what I learned from that mostly was, if you say it’ll be ready on the second Monday, by hell or high water it must be ready. So unless it’s a major rebuild or we have to order a special transformer from the States or something, we don’t have gear too much longer than ten days. I feel that’s been very good for our business.
Do you see a lot of particular problems showing up over and over again?
The main problem in Melbourne particularly is the humidity: how much moisture is in the air. It can swing from 20% relative humidity, which is very dry, to 90%, which is very wet, in about three hours. In Europe or most parts of the continental US that would take three to four days. And the guitar reacts as if you’ve just taken a big jug of beer and poured it on the guitar. Which also happens! Most techs get away with that by leaving the nut high and a lot of relief in the neck, so the neck’s got room to move and it won’t be buzzing. I don’t do that. What I tend to do is, I do a setup in two stages. I do it averagely, then I let it sit over night, so the neck has had some tension on it and fresh strings. Then I fine tune. And I think that really, for most players, what they really appreciate is very, very shiny frets, so I do go to a lot of trouble to make sure that happens – it’s extra work but it’s got to be perfect – and really solid intonation. And that’s not something you can just put down to a formula. I do subscribe to the Buzz Fieten way of looking at it. I do get the nut as low as I can, otherwise you get what’s called the ‘stretch effect’ – but it’s about wearing the guitar and watching the guy play. If he hits it hard you’ve got to set it for the attack, and if he’s a sweep picker it’s a different thing. It’s about keeping it personal and it’s about not letting it go out the door until I am 100% happy. It’s got to be 100% right.
I’ve recently done a couple of refrets with stainless steel. From a ‘repair guy’ point of view I’m totally against it. From a tone point of view, once you’ve buffed it up it’s very smooth and it feels great. It’d probably stay that way for 18 months of heavy touring. It is a slightly brighter sound to my ears, but so is a double truss rod, so is graphite, all these other things we hear about.
What do you consider your trademark mod or treatment?
The mod I do on the nut, which I call finessing the nut, is probably my trademark. I knock off each corner and round it over. If you look at the standard bone nut on an old Fender, they just tend to make it arch. Mine’s more like an ESP or Jackson fret end. It’s completely domed, and then I arch the trajectory of the profile of the nut so that the string – and this depends on the string gauge and the style: if you bend a lot of strings, the strings have to sit in the nut so don’t pop out. But specifically on a steel string guitar where a guy’s mostly playing rhythm, you’ll see that the depth of the slot is less than one half of the gauge of the string. I picked that up years ago when I played a guitar that was custom built for Bruce Springsteen by Takamine, and it was absolutely beautiful. Incredible. There were no sharp edges anywhere. So I said, “That’s how I want it to be.” You can generally recognise my work when you look at the nut.
Let’s look at a few guitars!
This has been quite a lot of work. [Soxy produces an axe with a scalloped fretboard]. It took me five hours non-stop going hell-for-leather. I try to take the minimum amount out necessary. You can do it minimum, which is the Yngwie way, or you can do it this way, the way Richie Blackmore likes it.
This is a Strat that’s come back for a setup. This is a standard Strat that we do. Unfortunately the new Strats from the Strats, they’re so well-made but the pickups are horrible. Other than that they’re good to trot. We do these from $850 because the bodies come already done and the necks are done but they’re not fretted, so there’s no option on this. It’s as-is apart from the colour. It has the bone nut, solid steel Wilkinson bridge and our own pickups. This one is $950.
It’s interesting that you only use two screws with the vintage trem, making it much more like a two-point fulcrum bridge.
The reason for that is I read an article with Rene Martinez, who did Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitars, and at the time I used to go into a shop in London called Chandler Guitars. They do everyone; Clapton, Gilmour, Kirk Hammett. But the big thing for me was they used to do Randy Rhoads’ guitars. And Charlie explained to me that you only need the outer two. If you’re using heavy gauge strings you put another two in but you set them up so that the only contact they make is when it’s all the way forward, just so you don’t tear any wood out. But it does make a big, big difference.
This[Tele-style guitar] is a cool guitar I’m about to modify. I made the body a long, long time ago, and the neck is recently made. It has like a Music Man-style finish, but what’s unique about it is we radius the holes and we cut the angle into the slots themselves, which is how Roy Buchanan had his guitars done back in the day. You have to do it for each string gauge, but once you’ve got them on it’s perfect.
Soxy Music also has rehearsal rooms which are acoustically treated to isolate each room from the next, but they’re not so dead as to kill your sound. They also have top quality Allen and Heath 12-channel desks, Rode mics and QSC K10 2000-watt speakers. And Soxy does a guitar setup course too.