Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to do some work on a truly rare and highly coveted instrument, and this one was no exception. For your edification, I bring you the Micro-Frets Plainsman.
This particular instrument belongs to Christian Wargo of Seattle’s own Fleet Foxes. Even though it’s been on the road with the band for quite some time, this guitar is refreshingly devoid of battle scars or wear, looking just as good as it probably did when it left the factory in the late sixties/early seventies. Just looking at this guitar is an exercise in reverence; frankly, you just don’t see these rare birds out in the open anymore, and these guitars are so coveted that they command a high price when they are available. They embody a progressive design ethos, with uncommon body shapes and construction techniques setting off a few innovations that were truly ahead of their time.
One such innovation is the Micro-Nut, a fully-adjustable roller nut that’s stock on all Micro-Frets guitars. This nut allows for precise intonation settings at both ends of the string! That’s right, it’s entirely possible to keep your G string precisely in tune all the way up the neck! Remember, this was before the Buzz Feiten tuning system or Earvana compensated nuts. And, if you’ll notice in the above photo the notch cut out of the fretboard for the string that needs it the most. Easy to adjust, this nut makes an already great guitar even greater!
Another stroke of geniusis the tunable vibrato system, called the “Calibrato”. At first glance, this thing seems almost pointless if not intimidating. I mean, it’s not like a Strat or Jazzmaster where the tension of the vibrato needs to be adjusted for feel- this thing works like a Bigsby in that the vibrato arm actuates via a spring directly beneath it. What really sets it apart is the ability to adjust the rate at which the strings are loosened. (This one doesn’t do up very well)
Here’s what I mean: When the guitar first arrived, I fell in love of course. Now, I’m a big vibrato guy, and employ it to great effect whether in small doses or full-on, arm-tiring cacophony. When I first depressed the lever, my ear picked up on the G string being out of tune. I quickly realized that, due to the current state of the Calibrato, each string was detuning at a different rate relative to its behind-the-bridge position. “Intriguing…” I thought as I studied the marvel under my wrist.
Those six screws correspond to each of the strings, obviously. They each dictate the height of the anchors that hold the ball end of the strings, enabling one to “tune” the action of this vibrato. Brilliant! It only took a few minutes of experimenting to discover some magic ratios, and within ten minutes’ time I was not only dropping notes more pleasantly, but I was bending whole chords completely in tune! I’ll tell you: “Sleepwalk” never sounded so good! And I’m sure you’re dying to know that it always, always returned to proper pitch!
M-F’s locking bridge was also a welcome counterpoint to a then highly varied and sometimes under-designed component. If you take a look back through the annals of electric guitar history, you’ll see that each and every company had differing opinions of what constituted a decent bridge, with many simply mounting a non-adjustable bar somewhere in the middle of the body while others had rollers with adjustable spacing, 3-on-3 barrel saddles, wood, plastic and deceptively sturdy floating systems with locking everything. They were all over the place. In more recent times, it would appear that most iterations of this key piece of the puzzle have standardized, with most manufacturers offering double-locking trems, tune-o, adjust-o, stop- or hard-tail bridges and the classic “S-style” bridge. There are exceptions, of course, but most things seem to boil down to these categories.
The neat thing about this bridge is that it truly does lock. Each saddle has two thumb wheels on either side, allowing immobility when desired. I’ll be honest: this was a bit frustrating at first, especially when everything seemed to be pretty tight to begin with. I had to use a tiny flat screwdriver on the knurled sides of these wheels to get them to budge, but once loosened intonation went as smoothly as it would with any tune-o-matic.
Another nice feature that improves playability is that the Micro-Frets seems to have rollers galore. Both the nut and the frigg’n string tree have rollers, so there’s virtually nothing to impede bending to your heart’s content. One concession, though: the B string roller had a very deep groove in it, giving that string a propensity for popping the string in and out of tune. Word to the wise: keep those things lubricated!
And, while this isn’t a functional “feature” per se, the recessed, hidden controls nicely improve the overall look of this already non-traditionally elegant beast. In a familiar volume-tone-volume-tone configuration, the only thing that might make this feature more useful is an indicator of some sort. That’s a minor quibble, I’ll admit. The only other minor complaint I have about the guitar is the position of the high E string tuner in relation to the top fin of the headstock. It’s much too close to make tuning comfortable, but that peg head looks so cool I don’t know that I’d change it at all.
Well, on to the repair work.
The guitar came to me with a noise complaint. Upon plugging in, it was all too plain to me that there was an excessive amount of noise for a guitar that was seeing heavy stage use. Even with both pickups turned off (via the super-cool hidden controls!) it practically roared with 120 cycle hum. Strange.
I figured that the grounding was somehow inadequate, either from factory or an internal break, but I wouldn’t know for sure until I’d figured out how to get to the electronics. I knew the guitar would have to come apart, but how exactly I didn’t know. The Micro-
Frets body is constructed of two halves, stuck together by a series of tabs around the perimeter. From what I could tell, step 1 was to remove the neck, as that was the only bolted-down portion of the guitar that extended through both halves.
Holding the body, one must carefully separate the halves by pulling the back away from the front. That little metal bit on the lower treble bout should give a hint as to which direction.
With a little coercion, the back came off without so much as a snag. The halves of the body then opened up like a book, exposing the surprisingly barren interior. There really wasn’t a lot going on inside making my job that much more simple. Though I don’t really know what I expected other than space-age metals and Sci-Fi this-and-that.
Taking apart the Micro-Frets guitar was much easier than I expected, especially having searched the web to no avail for instructions, then pointlessly trying to wedge my fingernails between the halves like Data opening a turbolift door. He did this effortlessly, but alas, it was a television program. My real-life experience was much less… satisfactory. (Part of the purpose in my writing this article is so there would be some information available on this subject.)
Once inside the guitar, I set about diagnosing the wiring deficiency. With only a cursory inspection I was able to determine two things about the wiring. First, the wiring had been altered at some point, with cold solder joints and brittle wire. Secondly, that the ground connections themselves were not up to snuff. Since this guitar is traveling worldwide and will be knocked around a bit, I decided to go as overboard as possible in my ground connections.
I started by cleaning the pots with flux remover as they were caked with grime. Once they sparkled, I made careful notes about the wiring scheme and began the task of making a serious-as-hell ground buss.
John has plenty of heavy-gauge copper rods that he frequently uses in amplifiers, so I copied his usual format and soldered a length across all pots. While I was there I felt that the wire used from the pots to the switch, and also the ground, were at the end of their lifespans. I went ahead and used sturdier wire than probably necessary, all for the sake of killing that extraneous hum. I also cleaned and re-wired the switch and output jacks, and I made sure that my new ground wire wasn’t going anywhere by wrapping it around on of the screws on the Calibrato. In the end, I didn’t change out the tone capacitors like we normally would, knowing that Christian likes the way his guitar sounds as it is. Perhaps there would have been an improvement with paper-in-oil caps, but I really wouldn’t have changed anything about this guitar. It sounded glorious as it was, especially with those Hi-Fi pickups.
Another way in which a player can shield their guitar from excess noise is by lining the control cavity with foil tape, which I also did for this guitar. Shielding a hollow guitar can be hit-or-miss, specifically because there’s a lot of open space where noise can creep in, but this guitar had a sort of wall on the north side made of bracing, so I took the chance anyway.
It can be tricky to make sure that you have full continuity when shielding a guitar, but one trick we use here to cut a length of tape into thin strips, then affix them to larger pieces with both adhesive sides facing each other. That way, there’s always guaranteed to be foil contacting only foil. It’s a trick we use often with great success, both in customer’s guitars and in our own.
With the guitar totally shielded, I set about putting it back together which was much easier than getting into it. Fully assembled and run into Fromel’s handwired 18W Fender/Marshall hybrid amp, the guitar sang without an unkind tone in the mix! Quiet as ever, this guitar passed my exceedingly stringent noise test with aplomb, and I was happy to have conquered the ever-present hum. And those pickups, like the best middle ground between P90’s and Jazzmaster pickups, won my heart and mind freely. What a blast! Early Christmas gift for Michael, anyone?
I love this job.