Thursday, 31 March 2016

Höfner Shorty - DIY modifications

If you've missed reading my review Hofner Shorty - Test Drive, I suggest that you do before diving into this article that is specially written for handymen.

Tools required for donkey-work

  1. 18" straight-edgfoame (or a steel ruler)
  2. Feeler gauge (Metric)
  3. Small Phillips screwdriver
  4. Large Phillips screwdriver
  5. Small flat-head screwdriver
  6. Large flat-head screwdriver
  7. Foam rubber tubing
  8. Teflon grease
  9. Teflon tape
  10. Fish-wire
  11. Scissors
Breathe down my neck, baby!

The 12" radius neck (maple neck with rosewood fingerboard) came straight as an arrow from the factory. Some
players would prefer this but I wanted a slight relief (dip in the middle, back bow) for the strings to vibrate freely during hard strumming.

Access to the adjustable truss-rod was difficult; at least two strings needed to be moved aside to unscrew three Phillips screws of the 
head-stock's plastic cover.
Using the supplied Allen key, the truss-rod was loosened by a quarter turn in the anti-clockwise direction (looking down from the head-stock).

With a capo placed at the first fret, the strings were held down at the 17th fret. Using a feeler gauge, 
a satisfactory gap of 0.10 mm was  achieved (measured between the fret's top and the string's bottom at the 7th fret).

Bridge under troubled body

The chunky Schaller look-alike nickel-plated bridge was placed too close to the pickup. It was moved back to achieve the 24.75" (62.8 cm) scale length for which the Shorty is designed (Gibson Les Paul's scale length is the same). Fender guitars usually come with a longer 25.5" scale, hence their twangy sound.

By fiddling with the two large flat-head studs of the bridge and the two Phillips side-screws at its rear back, I was able to move it back to 
achieve the following gaps:

Bass side: 5.50 mm
Treble side: 5.00 mm

The studs were unscrewed and their bottom halves covered with Teflon tape to make them fit snugly for a bridge that would not move about in the bushings.

That's where the action is

I adjusted the bridge height for 
a comfortable playing ACTION (height of bottom of string from top of fret at 12th fret). At the bridge, base-to-body heights of the studs was adjusted to get the following:

Bass side: 5.50 mm
Treble side: 3.50 mm

Although Höfner's suggested ACTION is 2.00 mm (bass side) and 1.30 mm (treble side) at the 12th fret, 
I set it for the following:

Bass side: 1.60 mm (lower than recommended)
Treble side: 1.40 mm (slightly higher than recommended)

ACTION measured at the 1st fret (
Bass and Treble strings): 0.45 mm.

The above-mentioned adjustments might seem tedious and difficult but if left uncorrected, a player will end up applying greater force ('high action') to press the strings and sounding out of tune higher up the fret-board due to intonation problems. Both things are undesireable.

Strap buttons

Although the buttons are large and very useable, the rubber washers under the strap buttons sat with their bellies sticking out. I adjusted them to look proper.

Tuners won't tune her

The Shorty's tuning tended to drift a lot. This was due to loose tuner shafts and wobbly knobs. One may
spend money on more expensive tuning machines but not before trying the following trick for free.

At the head-stock, I unscrewed the hexagonal top nut of one tuner and found its centre-post wiggling merrily. After unscrewing one Phillips screw from the rear of the head-stock, I was able to take the tuner off completely. The centre-post was given a few turns of Teflon tape and after reassembly it felt snug in its place.

Since the lose Phillips screws of the tuners' knobs also contributed to tuning problems, I tightened them somewhat for a tighter turning feel and hence greater 
stability. The Shorty now stays perfectly in tune all the time.

Grease monkey

With just a touch of Teflon grease I lubricated the top of the individual bridge saddles to make the strings move easily over them. I also lubricated each string's slot on the nut to make the strings move easily inside them. Instead of grease, some guitarists use powdered graphite from a soft pencil.

Are you nuts?

Höfner claims the nut is made out of bone. My guess is that it is made out of water buffalo horn.

The heights of strings at the first fret, as they passed over the nut, were fine. If these are high on your guitar, the action there can make playing uncomfortable. You will need to have the slots filed down 
by a guitar repairs-person using special nut files.

Odd harmonics are bad for love

Odd harmonics (overtones) generated behind the nut tend to colour the sound in a negative way. A strip of hard rubber was placed under the strings and just behind the nut to mute all the odd harmonics of the strings.

You'll see players as old as Elvis Presley using devices to dampen unwanted vibrations for a better tonal balance between open and fretted notes.

Foam rubber can be stuck between the bridge and a tailpiece (as on Les Paul) but the Shorty has no such need as it comes with a combination bridge-tailpiece.

To find out how much difference no dampening makes, strum between the bridge and the tailpiece (or nut and tuners). Those loud off-key pitches can interfere with synthesizer tracking in case you're using a MIDI device.
Pinkie-pad and wrist-pad added
Slap my wrist, twist my pinkie

A Fender guitar's large pick-guard and a Gibson's floating type help guitarists anchor their right hand fingers for comfortable playing. The Shorty's low pick-guard makes the right hand automatically move towards the neck where it remains oddly suspended in the air to make 
picking difficult.

I tried resting my right wrist over the bridge but its sharp saddle edges hurt. The abnormal Shorty had too much space underneath the strings.

At least a 3.40 cm high wrist-pad is required to provide comfortable anchoring while playing.

Occasionally I require anchoring my right pinkie on the pick-guard. Again this could not be done on the Shorty. So I stuck at the bottom of the pickup frame an adhesive stick-on furniture protector. Its thickness of 1.40 cm was just right for the job.

The humbucking bugger

I played the Shorty through various amplifiers and found the guitar's humbucking pickup sounding harsh, treble-heavy and sonicly imbalanced. The bass lacked clarity and punch.

By adjusting the pickup height from both ends, I was able to alter the balance between bass and treble. T
he middle Phillips screws on both ends of the pickup frame were adjusted until I got the following heights (measured from the pickup's plastic frame):

Bass side: 0.50 cm
Treble side: 1.00 cm

I think this humbucker contains ceramic magnets with excessive machine-wound copper wire around the bobbins. Since there is nothing smooth or classy about the Shorty's sound, perhaps changing to a pickup of choice will inject new life into this guitar.

As of this writing, I'm considering a very special hand-wound pickup that's made in England but before doing so, I must replace the original strings with something better to hear what the Shorty really sounds like.

A rubber piece can dampen odd harmonics
Since there's a gap of 9.00 cm between the fret-boards' end and the humbucker, installing one more Tele 'lipstick' pickup (with circuit modifications) might provide greater tonal variations on the Shorty.

Tone and Vallium controls

Nothing in the world is sillier than slippery knobs under sweaty conditions. Thankfully, the Shorty comes with 
round knurled metal knobs that are exceptionally smoothly. Just like for vintage wiring, the tone remains intact when the volume is turned down (something that doesn't happen on many 'modern' guitars).

The humbucker sounds treble-heavy only when the tone control is left wide open but when turned down, the tone is quite controllable. One could also try inserting a resistor in the circuit to make this guitar less shrill.

Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton and Jeff Beck have shown us how to do tone and volume swells on Fender guitars not with volume pedals but with pinkies; you can easily do the same tricks on the Shorty. I feel the volume and tone controls could have been placed a bit farther apart for greater flexibility.

The ratings of the capacitors and potentiometers (pots) used are as yet unknown.

0.022μF for humbucker (normally 0.047μF is used for single coil pickups).

500K for humbucker (normally 250K is used for single coil pickups).

The innards

A bit of hum is always heard when the Shorty is plugged into an amp. I lined the pots and pickup cavities with aluminium tape to take care of this 'hmmm' problem. Since there was no hole drilled internally that allowed a ground wire to connect with the bridge studs, I simply attached a wire to the two points to get rid of hum produced when hands are taken off the Shorty. 

Unbalanced personality

When you wear the Shorty with a guitar strap, its head-stock drops and renders it unwearable. If you are seated, it behaves like a very restless infant. A ballast weight of approximately 1.20 Kg is required at the body end to keep it properly angled for playing. Tying the guitar strap to the head-stock somewhat stabilised playing.

Is that a bone nut?
Louis Vuitton soft-bag

I cut a sheet of 1/2" foam, folded it inside the bag, glued the bottom end together and added a foam strip at the bottom end for the guitar body to rest upon. I also created a 2'' thick neck support out of the same foam. With this done I could afford to bang around this soft-bag without worrying about inducing stress on the neck or the head-stock.

The original Made-in-Germany Shorty

This baby came with hardware, tuners and a humbucking pickup made by Schaller of Germany. If you had the same goodies on the Chinese Shorty (let's call it Chorty), it might cost U$D 250 extra.

Like some of their current more expensive Höfner guitars, the company could offer a German model with all the bells and whistles attached. Would you believe, it once also offered Shorty with a built-in amplifier and speaker, and came in kit form for assembly at home? Gone are the days when quality oozed from objects of desire for much less money.
Watch my back, Fraulin
In conclusion

Even pricey guitars tend to emerge from factories without being properly set up. Today manufacturers save time (money) and leave you to struggle with guitars that sound awful and feel uncomfortable. This is a huge conspiracy against the consumers; the manufacturers had better clean up their act. New guitars must have documentation that certifies that each and every item has been properly set up. Just affixing 'QC' or 'passed' stickers does not do justice to musicians.
Original baby from Germany

Most people are not even aware of the kinds of faults I have highlighted here and end up spending more money on 'better' guitars. A guitar technician may charge as much as GBP 65 (U$D 100) for doing what I did—and that will not include modifying the tuners.

So, go ahead buy a Shorty and experiment like a mad scientist.

And don't miss reading part-I of this article: Hofner Shorty - Test Drive

Model code: HCT-SH-RD-O
My guitar's S/No: P0408H323
All pictures by the author, except that of 'donkey with a guitar' and Mid '80's Shorty Super-181 (Wolfgang, Germany)

©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2016