Crawls Backward (When Alarmed)

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I'm a Travelin' Man, Pt. 1

This is a project I've been meaning to get to for a while. Now it's become a bit more urgent cause I need this guitar for a trip soon. As in, next week.

Some background: I wanted a geetar that I could take on travel - one that would hopefully fit in carry-on, yet would still be robust enough to act like an actual guitar so as to keep up my chops (such as they are) unlike a toy.

That narrowed it down to "3/4 scale" guitars. The contenders were: the Taylor Baby, the Martin LM series, and the Alvarez MDS-2C. I played all three and wound up with the Alvarez and have been happy with it so far.

My main acoustic is a Taylor 410 I bought new in 1992. I've put many many many many hours on it since then. I was a bit predisposed to Taylor for that reason, plus I read a lot of positive web reviews about the Baby model. But when I played one, I was underwhelmed. I didn't expect too much for the price (which at the time was about $220 I believe), but I was disappointed. The tone was not great, and two things really put me off: the neck is attached to the body with two Phillips-head screws that go through the fretboard at the 12th fret or so. So you can see these ugly screw heads. Ugly. The second off-putting factor was the salesman at Chuck Levin's claimed they have a lot of neck issues. Good bye Taylor Baby.

Next up was the Martin. I liked it, but the one model with a solid spuce top option and good hardshell case would have been more than the Alvarez, which had more features for the money.

Basically the Alvarez offered all solid woods (not just the top), unlike the Taylor and Martin, which offer laminates on the body. Plus some nice details, such as a choice of spruce or cedar for the top, and nice fretmarker inlay and rosette inlays. And it sounded very nice. A little boxy, but nice. I got it online with both the gig bag and a nice SKB hard case - mine has the cedar top. You can see from the pictures it looks like a nicely-made guitar, just shrunk down in size. And that's a good description. Most of the complaints about it you'll read online center around the fact that it sounds 'boxy.' And it does. The body is small and it's not real deep. But it's a travel/practice guitar - do you want small or do you want big tone?

I wanted to mess with mine a bit to see if I could improve the tone and volume a bit. The tone really wasn't bad; it just sounded a little....small, as I said earlier. Plus, the string action was a bit high. I had adjusted the truss rod some, but clearly the saddle was high and in replacing it, hopefully I'd get better tone and playability.

I've been on a little bender in putting bone nuts and saddles on guitars. Most recently I did Ms. Yr Fthfl Blggr's Guild. Bone is pretty much the most-recommended material for good tone.

So ve poot ze leetle Alvarez on ze bench and take off zee plastic saddle, yes? Ja!

Let's get to it. I loosened, but didn't remove the strings. Since I might have to remove the saddle a few times and tune up and down, I didn't want to be retuning with new strings. Taking the bridge pins out was easy with my $1.79 pin puller. (You don't use pliers, do you? Bad!)

The saddle pulled right up. You can see it's a compensated saddle to adjust string length on the high E and B strings. Alvarez seems to have compensated saddles on its guitars. I'm not convinced it makes much difference on an acoustic guitar in terms of intonation. The saddle I'm putting on will be conventional, so we can test and see if the intonation is bad afterwards.

As I suspected, the factory saddle is plastic. It's a cost-cutting measure for sure. Easier to mold saddles up than it is to hand-cut bone saddles for such an inexpensive guitar. This is where a bit of know-how can really make an ok guitar much better.

I took the old saddle and traced it onto a new bone blank. I'll pretty much make a 'clone' of the old one, get it to fit, and then file down the height as needed to lower the action. I labelled the bass and treble sides of the old saddle. I'll stash it somewhere but it probably won't be used again.

This is a 'vintage' bone blank from Stewart-Macdonald. You can see the 'vintage' part is a little more yellow in color than a bleached blank would be. But, and my question to you is, wouldn't you think it takes more effort to bleach a blank? But the 'vintage' blank costs more (about a buck) than the bleached one.

I guess these days anything that gets called 'vintage' or 'retro,' even if it's not actually vintage, costs more money.

Next we take our trusty X-Acto razor saw and trim the new saddle to length. I left a little material outside the line - I can file that away to get an exact fit.

At this point it's pretty much a matter of filing down to the markings I traced. I like to get close, fit it into the guitar, and then file again until it's perfect. It's not brain science, but a couple-o-too many strokes with the file will spell disaster. I find it's better to take a bit off, test it, take a bit off, etc.

It's almost there. A bit more off the end and it will be a perfect fit.

You can see I filed the saddle ends round to fit the slot in the saddle. I'm also filing the top a bit rounded as well. If it comes to a sharp point, the strings will tend to break right on the saddle. Ve no vant dat.

I have the saddle fitting into the slot perfectly. Now I'm going to file a bit off the height to lower the string height.

I measured the action on my Taylor for a reference. You can see the string height at the 12th fret on the bass side is a touch over 5/64ths.

And after a bit more filing, we have the Alvarez at the same height. With the slant in the saddle (lower on the treble side), the treble height is about 4/64ths - pretty good.

Made a quick truss rod adjustment to bring the neck relief to very little - just about .020".

This is the curve of the top of the saddle I mentioned earlier.

Now for the piece of resistance, I'm going to swap out the factory plastic bridge pins for new bone bridge pins with paua abalone inserts. Some people claim better bridge pins will improve tone, but I'm not convinced. I just like the look of these. I love paua!

Here's the whole thing back together. I strung it up with new .012 gauge strings - I believe the originals were .010 or .011. I use .013s on my Taylor. I'll go with the .012 for now but may move this one up to .013s also.

How's it sound? Much improved. The new saddle, combined with the heavier gauge strings really give it more power and volume. It actually sounds darn good now!

I'd like to put a bone nut on it at some point, but that will have to wait. Now I'm taking the guitar with me on vacation.


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