Eric Chaz Guitar Repairman to the Stars By Paul Hanson and Jim Bybee Master guitar technician Eric Chaz (short for Czechanski) runs Eric’s Guitar Shop in the San Fernando Valley region of Southern California, near the heart of the Hollywood entertainment industry. Unlike many shops that double as guitar and amp retailers, Eric’s specializes in repair and modification, servicing nearly 100 instruments every week. His client list features a who’s who of well-known bands and players, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tool, Joe Walsh, and numerous others. In Edition 43 of the BOSS Tone Radio Podcast, we talked in depth with Eric about guitar repair and maintenance, working with famous artists, and many other topics. The following is an edited excerpt from our discussion. To listen to the complete conversation, visit the podcast page. When you started out, you worked together with Jim Kaufman on guitars, and Jim Demeter worked on amps. Now you run the whole shop. Is it still in the same location? Yes and no. I’m in the same building. I was working for a guitar company before I went to go work for those two. That was my first job. Then I ran into Jim Kaufman. After a couple of years, he was involved in a different business, and it was really just me running that shop. Was Jim building his Sunrise acoustic pickups? Yes. He was doing that and I was doing guitars. It was a great opportunity and it led to where I am now. And we’re busy. I’ve got two other guys that work for me. We’re going crazy; I do 13 hours every day. You’ve worked on instruments for many well-known players. Do you have any interesting stories? I’m constantly working for the Chili Peppers. I don’t go out and do studio service at all, but they’re probably my number one clients. When they were making this last record, I ended up doing it a few times, and for them I would. It was just a surreal moment where they’re writing and rehearsing, and I’m rewiring Flea’s bass in the middle of the rehearsal floor. They’re all standing around playing, and I’ve got the bass drum at my head. Those are pretty cool moments. Even though I can’t really get out and drive across town, I’m very glad that I did that because it’s a fond memory. Have you ever considered going out on the road with a band? No, I never have. When I was a teenager, I probably would have [for] the right band. I’m glad that I never did, because I’m a homebody. I like sleeping in my bed, and now I have a family. Even prior to the family, I’m building a business and being away is [not good]. Even though I’m here all the time essentially, I get to go home and kiss my wife and kids at night. I do that every night, and that’s really important. In addition to guitars, do you also work on amps or pedals? That’s something we should start doing, and I’ve always had the vision that we will. It’s not something that I’ll ever do [myself]. There are a few guys that I refer [people] to that I think are terrific. What I’d like to do is eventually find a bigger place and then expand my services. It would be great for my business. It’s also cool that we’re dedicated to guitar repair [now]. I think there’s a coolness when [repair is] all we do. We’re not going to sell you a guitar, we’re not going to sell you an amplifier—we fix guitars. It allows us to really kind of hone in on our skills and be as good as we can. What are you working on this week? Well, right in front of me, I’m staring at a Gibson 335 [with] the headstock broken off that I have to glue this morning when I’m done with you. Do you get a lot of broken headstocks? Constantly. Most of them are Gibson. And if not a Gibson, they’re going to be mahogany necks on an acoustic guitar. The Strat headstocks just don’t break off. They just don’t. Not to say that they couldn’t, but it’s rare that I’ll see that. The head does not pitch back, and there’s less of a tension issue. The maple’s more rigid than the mahogany, so it’s more durable. I think a lot of times this happens because people travel with their guitars and they’re getting banged around and they’re not detuning the guitar. There’s so much [string] pressure put on a neck—even if it doesn’t take a blow, just a quick jolt or a stop in momentum [can cause a break]. So when you travel with your guitar, detune it. You don’t need to completely detune it, but bring it down a full step. Do you have a whole line of guitars after the 335? Oh yeah. In the shop, we get in about 15 guitars a day, and we’re six days a week. So I’d say anywhere between 80 and 100 guitars a week easily. On my other bench, I’ve got Dwight Yoakum’s bass. It’s a Rickenbacker that we’re completely redoing everything on. I have two benches, [and] the other guys have a bench each. On one bench I have a 1964 Gibson Firebird with the headstock broken off. This one’s going to be a lot more complicated, because we actually have to cut material from the back of the neck and the back of the head to create a large glue joint, the break was so bad. What goes into a basic service at your shop? If you’re looking at my price list, even below a setup, which I call our most basic service, is a restring. If I have your guitar on my bench for a restring, we’ll do a general cleaning of the guitar. If it’s an acoustic, we’ll put an air hose inside the guitar and blow all the crap out of there. You’d be surprised—old Harmonys, Kays, or Silvertones from the ’60s, you put an air hose in one of those f-holes and a cloud of dust that you can’t believe comes out of there. I’m sure you find picks and other stuff too. [Laughs.] Picks, French fries, cockroaches. Maybe that’s why the cockroaches are there, because of the French fries. You know, everybody can trim their own nails, but sometimes it’s nice to go to a salon and get it done. It’s a basic service. After we do that, you know, there’s moisture in the air, and oxidation occurs when you’re not playing on those frets. If you look where you’re playing [regularly], they might be a little worn but kind of shiny. But up higher over the body, those frets have a greenish or dull hue to them, and that’s oxidation. What we do to take that off—and you can buy this at Home Depot of course—is 0000-grit, ultra-fine steel wool. We’ll simply just rub the frets. Also, if it’s a rosewood or ebony fingerboard with no finish, we’ll put the same effort into cleaning the fingerboard in-between the frets as well. That cleans everything out, and now you’ve left your fingerboard with no topical oils. Again, you can’t use anything coarser than 0000-grit. When you’re bending notes, there’s drag on the fingerboard under your fingers, so having a dry fingerboard doesn’t feel very good. Having some kind of oil or conditioner on the wood makes everything feel so much slinkier and nice. I’ve tried all the guitar fingerboard oils; the thing that I like the most is something called Howard Feed-N-Wax, and you can usually get that at a specialty hardware store. It’s an oil, but it will leave a nice sheen and wax layer on top of the wood. It conditions the wood and makes it really look super-clean and sharp. What kind of polish do you use on the body and pickguard? Kyser [is] probably my favorite. The Gibson polish, Martin polish, Planet Waves polish, all that stuff is good. The key is, if you have an older guitar, don’t spray the polish on the finish—spray it on your polishing cloth. That way, [the polish] stays on the finish the least amount of time possible. With older lacquer finishes or even French polish types of finishes, [they’re] very porous. If you were to spray a cleaner or polish on top of that and you don’t get it off immediately, it’s probably going to soak into the finish and leave cloudy spots. When you re-fret guitars, what fret size is most popular? [Jim Dunlop] 6100 has always been popular. We have a large supply of the 6100 fret wire. What’s gotten popular as well is one called the 6105. It’s got almost the height of the 6100; it’s only off by a few thousands of an inch, but it’s a lot more narrow. It has a little more of a vintage width, but the modern height. With it being narrow like that, is it easier to shape the top of the fret for proper tuning? Yes, that’s another good point. On a fret that has a more prominent crown, there’s no perfect intonation everywhere on the neck. But having a fret in good condition and the string leaving off the center of the fret is the best thing going. In theory, no matter what size fret you have, if it’s crowned correctly you’re going to leave off of the center of the fret. So it shouldn’t really matter, but as frets will wear, the narrower fret will hold tuning better. You also rewind pickups. What does the thickness of the wire and the amount of windings do? A pickup is a winding around a bobbin, and it creates resistance. The bobbin will consist of a magnet. If you have a Stratocaster pickup, you’ll have six cylinders that are alnico magnets that will run through the bobbin. Of course, without a magnetic field, there’s no way to read a string. You can have a perfectly healthy pickup, but [if] a magnet has been completely degaussed, you’ll have zero output when you hit a string. There’s nothing there to sense the movement of the string and create voltage, which starts the whole signal process. And the magnet affects your tone, the plastic bobbin material affects the tone. The fish paper, or u-tape material, will affect the tone. If you go with a thicker gauge of wire, maybe a 42 gauge as opposed to a 44, you’ll be able to put less wire around the bobbin, but it’ll give you a little bit fatter tone. There are so many subtleties, and all these things add up to the character of whatever that pickup will eventually be—how it’s wound around the bobbin, if it’s scatter wound or uniformly wound from one end to the other. If somebody comes in with a broken pickup, a broken wire around the bobbin, we’ll strip the bobbin down and rewire it. Again, we’re just focusing so much on repair rather than building custom pickups. It’s a service we offer as well, but most of what we do in terms of pickups would be rewinding. If someone wants to customize a guitar with new pickups, what do you recommend? I consult with clients all day long, and I’m always a little bit vague when it comes to making those recommendations. No matter how much research you do on the pickup, it always comes down to your best educated guess. Right. You can never know until you put it in and listen to it. I’ve had some pickups that I love that I put into a guitar and man, they completely don’t work on that guitar. But you can really narrow the field down. There are so many generalities. If you’re a metal dude, you’re going to want a hot pick up. If like more bite, you’re going to want probably a ceramic pickup, or an alnico with a very high rating on it. What do you think of the vintage replica guitars that are popular now? You’re not talking about the cheap $300 one you’re getting from China—you’re talking about the really good replicas. Right. Here’s my thought: just because the guitar is from the ’50s or the ’60s or whatever your magical era, is doesn’t automatically make it a good guitar. And that guitar was built on technology that had not been refined. Yeah, a lot of those guitars are great because the wood has [aged], and it’s been played a lot so it’s really broken in. But I think a lot of it is psychology, mojo. Why can’t a guitar be made with today’s technology to exceed that [vintage] guitar that normally costs you $35,000? So absolutely, a lot of those [replica] guitars are great, [with] great wood selection. You know, there’s a difference between a well relic-ed [guitar] and a really old one—it’s obvious, I can see the differences. That doesn’t mean these relic-ed guitars aren’t done well, because some of them just blow me away. But there’s a difference. In terms of the way a guitar plays and sounds, it’s absolutely not a given that that a guitar that’s 50 years old is going to play and sound better than one made today [with] an awesome piece of wood with exceptional hardware. If you want a great guitar to play, you can go to [a store] and buy one today. Do you have much experience with BOSS gear and pedals? When I was in bands and playing, that’s all that I used. I first started with the [DS-1] Distortion, then I went to the [SD-1] Super Overdrive. Then I also used the flanger. I just had ’em on all the time. [Laughs.] I would always have the Super Overdrive pedal on, and Jim Demeter made me a little mid boost that I have always had in my guitars. For me, those were really the only pedals that I ever bought or used. Of course, I don’t play in bands anymore, but we all open up cases [of guitars in the shop] and look in a pocket and the pedals in there. Do you have any BOSS tuners on your bench? I have a few TU-12s, and I also have a chromatic TU-10 tuner, a clip-on that we use daily. [When a customer picks up] their guitar, I want to make sure it’s perfectly in tune before I hand it to them, and I use the TU-10. Or if a guitar comes in without a pickup and we’ve got to get it up to pitch, [I use the TU-10]. It’s an awesome tool; they work exceptionally well. They’re very accurate actually. They’ll even turn off when you’re not using them so you don’t wear out the battery. Right, which is a godsend for me, because I always forget. Roland makes the G5 VG Stratocaster®, which has modeling and different tunings, and also the GC-1 GK-Ready Stratocaster® that plugs into V-Guitar systems and guitar synths. Are you an authorized repair guy for those? Yeah. What we’ve done with Roland mostly is prep those guitars and get them ready for trade shows. Or if they’re going out to a high-profile artist that’s on your roster, we go through them and make sure that they’re set up perfectly. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had to do any electronic repair on any of those modeling systems. They seem to hold up really well. They’re fun to play with. They’re dangerous. I’ve got to move it off the bench quick, because as soon as you start going onto these altered tunings or whatever, you look up and a half hour has gone by and you should be working. Cool thing about [the G5] and having the ability to go to an open tuning is, if you’re writing a song and you’ve got writer’s block, what a great way to try new things to open up some different melodies that you wouldn’t have otherwise done.