You might not recognize Seth Mayer’s name if you live outside of the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, but he has repaired guitars for players you may know. Among the many familiar names on his client list, he’s repaired guitars for Gerry Mcgee of the Ventures, Steve Jones, Chris Poland and Jimmy Cliff. After working at ESP guitars and the Yamaha Custom Guitar Shop, Seth started his own repair shop.
In addition to his repair work, Seth is also a luthier who specializes in reproduction instruments (you can see some of his custom guitars here including a repro 72’ brown Strat for Paul Barrere of Little Feat. Since he is experienced and knowledgeable in guitar repair and building, here are ten questions for Seth Mayer of Seth Mayer Guitar Repair.
1. The bio on your web page outlines a unique journey to your current work. Not everyone takes a path that starts with a buying a $50 Les Paul copy and goes on to repairing the Les Paul guitar Slash used for Appetite for Destruction. While working with high end clients sounds glamorous, the training that prepared you to do that work seems grueling. I have to say, I’ve never been a fan of finishing wood so when you mention in your bio you spent 10 hours a day sanding for over a year, it sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me. What have been the most difficult and the most rewarding parts in your journey to becoming a luthier/repair man?
I wouldn’t recommend sanding finish for as long as I did to anyone, but it did inspire me to get to Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery (http://www.roberto-venn.com) as fast as I could. At the same time, I learned a great deal about finishing and finish touch-ups!
Along the way, the most difficult lesson for me was the realization that achieving a comfortable place in this business doesn’t happen overnight – it takes time and experience. In my first “guitar” job, I had the privilege of working with an amazing luthier Mark Lacey. I wanted to learn how to re-fret a guitar and he said to me, “After you re-fret your hundredth guitar, you’ll know almost nothing”. At the time, I thought he was crazy, but he was giving me the real deal. I’ve probably done a few thousand re-frets since then and I still learn something new every time.
By far, the most rewarding part of my work is being able to satisfy my need for instant gratification. It may sound a little juvenile, but building guitars, at least good ones, takes a lot time and is laborious. With the experience and skills I now possess, repairing guitars is fairly quick. Maybe I’m part of the “McDonald’s” generation, but I don’t like when things take too long. There’s a problem- fix it. Period. Plus, once it’s finished you get paid…
2. I’ve referred some repairs to you, and I know of one in particular that was problematic. Chris Lavender, a touch guitar player I play with in the Rough Hewn Trio, snapped the end of the truss rod on his Warr guitar. I know that typically a broken truss rod involves removing the fingerboard, replacing the rod and re-gluing the board. This is both labor intensive and expensive – but you came up with a completely different approach. Can you talk about that repair?
The Warr 8 string job was really rewarding. First of all, Chris said he had been to a couple of other guys who wouldn’t do the repair. Maybe it was my ego, but that threw down the gauntlet and I took up the challenge.
Basically, the truss-rod had broken inside the neck. The builder was too busy to repair the guitar, and the other guys that looked at it figured they would have to remove the fingerboard to accomplish the repair. After looking at the construction, it occurred to me that the neck was a multi-laminate with a center strip that, if removed, would access the rod. This could only be accomplished (accurately) with a milling machine, which I have. Long story short; I milled out the strip, dropped in a new rod, and glued in a new strip. A week later she was done, costing less than half of what the other guys quoted and my ego was firmly intact.
3. What’s the most challenging job you’ve ever undertaken?
Recently I restored a 54′ Gibson Les Paul Jr. This was the first year they were introduced and they came out of the factory with a neck pitch that was too shallow, i.e. the string action was too high when the bridge was adjusted all the way down. At some point, a previous owner had stripped off the finish and recessed the top to accommodate a “Badass” bridge. This presented several problems. First a Jr.’s neck is glued on all three sides with a small “gully” in front – not easy to steam off. Next, the bridge route had to be plugged and finished over as to not be seen. Lastly, the customer wanted to re-fret the neck and a nitro-cellulose lacquer “Bumble bee” sunburst finish. Plus – he wanted it to look authentic to the age of the guitar. All in all, a tall order! It took about three months, which for my shop is a long time, but in the end it turned out amazing! It’s definitely one of the best Jr’s I’ve ever played.
4. Do you have any general maintenance tips for players to keep their instruments in good working order?
I can’t stress enough that guitars need to be maintained regularly. The specific intervals vary depending on where you live because of weather and humidity conditions. I suggest doing a general set-up every time you change the strings. That may sound like a lot to players, but it’s easy, doesn’t take much effort and will ensure that your guitar will be consistent throughout the years. Here are the simple steps:
a) Clean the dirt from your fingers off the fingerboard when you change the strings. To do this you’ll need some 0000 steel wool and some lemon oil (typically available and any hardware or wood working store)
- Remove the strings one at a time to release tension on the neck;
- Take a pad of steel wool and run it over the fretboard lengthwise (i.e. with the grain). [Interviewer’s note: Depending on how many times you have to go back and forth over the fretboard, the steel wool will have the tendency to flake off everywhere. If you’re cleaning the neck of an electric guitar– you may want to put some masking tape over the pickups. That way if any metal filings attach themselves to the pickups you can just pull up the tape, instead of cleaning off the pickup). If you’re working on an acoustic, Use masking tape to tape a piece of paper over the sound hole, will keep the steel wool “lint” out of the body of the guitar.]
- Oil with lemon oil when done. To do this put a couple of drops of oil on a polishing cloth and lightly go over the fingerboard once. A little goes a long ways.
b) Learn to adjust the truss-rod. It doesn’t take much and a little tweak can make all the difference in playability. (Interviewer’s note: truss rod changes are not instantaneous. It takes a couple of minutes for the neck to react to the change in tension. When adjusting the truss-rod, make no more than a ¼ turn and wait 5-10 minutes before adjusting again. Be careful not to over tighten as you may break the truss rod. If the rod is tightened all of the way and the action is too high – there may be other issues at play and you should seek a qualified repair person.)
Doing these simple things will keep your guitar playing at its optimum. Of course, there are times when an intonation adjustment is needed or frets need leveling, but it’s like changing the oil in your car. If you do it regularly, the car will last for a long time. The same is true for guitars.
5. When looking for a repair person what questions should a guitar player ask?
Experience is everything so one question to ask is, How long have they been repairing guitars? Having some formal training can also be very important. I mentioned that I attended Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. It provided a major boost to my overall knowledge of guitars and guitar building. You learn a lot about how to fix things by building them. It can also add some legitimacy to a luthier’s resume.
6. On your website you talk about the 62 Blue as your favorite instrument. Clearly a great deal of work went into its construction and relicing, but what is it about that instrument that makes it your favorite and are there any universal qualities that you look for in a guitar design or build?
The 62′ Blue is my first “Strat” replica. I used a one-piece “aged” alder blank (for the body) that I got while working for Yamaha. The neck is made from German “fiddle back” flamed Maple and sports a Brazilian Rosewood fingerboard. It’s a replica of a pre-CBS Stratocaster down to every detail. I’ve had several nice offers on the guitar, but I love it and don’t want to give it up!
I truly love all different kinds of guitars, from the famous vintage ones, to funky off-the-wall stuff. To me, they’re all different, like flavors of ice cream. I want to try them all. That’s another reason I love to do repairs — I get my hands on a lot of them.
7. I know that you build custom guitars as well. Could you tell me more about your custom designs specifically, are these guitars primarily tweaks to classic designs or original designs? How do people order instruments etc?
I only build a few guitars a year. They are projects I take on for my close friends and customers who believe in my work. Generally they are replicas of classic designs.
When I was working with Yamaha, we were constantly trying to re-invent the wheel (which is not so easy to do in the guitar world). Now I just build the stuff I love.
This year I built a replica Stratocaster for Paul Barrere of Little Feat. He had a Strat that he had used since his earliest days with the band. It had definitely seen a few shows in some smokey rooms… It was a fun project that really meant a lot to me, being that I’m a huge fan, and he’s my uncle (by marriage)!
8. What tips do you have for people who want to get into guitar repair?
Take what you have and start working on it. Every guitar needs something. Practice setting your own guitar up. It’s best if you mess something up (and you will) that it be your own instrument.
The internet is an amazing tool that I have learned to harness. Almost every question you could possibly have is there to be answered. Early on in my career it didn’t exist (in its current form) and I did a ton of research with books and “on the job” experience. All that has changed. Now you can download any kind of schematic or watch videos ranging the gambit on Youtube. Use it.
Lastly, establish relationships with other well-seasoned luthiers. In the end it’s all about who you know, and I wouldn’t be where I am without the help and guidance of some amazing people out there.
9. Are there any repair jobs you groan at the prospect of doing, or refuse to do?
I try not to refuse any job; after all I’m in the business of staying in business. I consider myself mainly an electric guitar “guy”, but I work on acoustics all the time. I don’t love doing neck re-sets, so I refer them to my good friend Glenn Harrison at California Vintage Guitar and Amp. He has a ton of experience with them and he’s almost strictly an acoustic “guy”. Our relationship is kind of symbiotic in that he doesn’t like to work on electric stuff.
For the most part anything goes…for the right price.
10. What is the most indispensable tool in a repair or build and why?
The tool I find most indispensable has got to be the milling machine hands down. I paid about $1000 for it and it has paid for itself many, many times over. You can do almost anything with it from routing and cutting to making tools. It is a must-have for any experienced craftsman.
Thanks for your time Seth!
Thanks again for the opportunity to share my love for this gift I’ve been given with the Guitar-muse readers!! Being a luthier isn’t really a money making career; it’s a calling. After all, I’m just a guy that gets to do what he loves.
You can check out of a ton of repair “before and after” pictures including the milling of the Warr 8 string, the 54’Jr project and Seth’s 62′ Blue at sethmayerguitarrepair.com You can also call him at (818) 427-1543 and speak to Seth directly about instrument repair or commission requests.