Trade Secrets!

Vintage retainer wire: searching Nashville for one little guitar part!

Issue 90 June 25, 2009

Photo: Tune-O-Matic bridge Trade Secrets on the Road
Runnin’ ’round Nashville with Leon Rhodes: on a mission to find this little piece of bent wire!
Dan Erlewine, June 25, 2009
Photo: Erick Coleman
Photo: Leon Rhodes On a recent visit to Nashville, I stopped at some repair shops with my good friend and guitar-playing hero, Leon Rhodes. Leon was the guitarist in Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadors from 1959-’63, and he’s the house guitarist for the Grand Ole Opry. Leon’s also a guitar fixer and a setup man.
Photo: Leon Rhodes today
Photo: Joe Glaser, Leon Rhodes, Dan Erlewine If you check out Leon on, you’ll see him playing the heck out of the red Epiphone in the center of the picture above. The day I visited, Leon had a mission: he needed retainer wires for that guitar’s bridge and some other original ABR-1 Tune-O-Matic bridges. (The retainer wire holds adjustable saddles in place when the strings are off or when a string breaks).
Along with many hundreds of recording sessions, Leon also spent 25 years as the guitarist for the long-running "Hee Haw" television show. If you haven’t listened to Leon, it’s a treat you owe yourself!
That wire’s just a tiny part, but when you need it, you need it bad. An original T-O-M bridge requires an original retaining wire: it won’t accept a wire that fits a modern replacement bridge. If you’ve got a vintage bridge, here’s how to make yourself a replacement wire that’s a custom fit. Leon and I learned how to make these by visiting two Nashville lutherie experts: Joe Glaser and Phil Jones. (That’s Joe on the left in the photo above — he and I look like we’re the OptiVISOR Brothers.)

ABR-1 Tune-o-matic Bridge
Photo: Phil Jones Photo: A kajillion guitar stringsFirst, you’ll need an
unwound guitar string

At Joe Glaser’s shop we picked out as many .018" plain guitar strings as we wanted from the throwaway cans (Joe’s filled two of these cans in less than a year). Joe Glaser’s a steel player, and Leon’s his hero too. Joe made Leon several retainer wires in the blink of an eye.
Next, we visited Phil Jones — the first Gibson Custom Shop builder, and long time benchman at George Gruhn’s shop in Nashville. That’s “Philly Joe” at left with the only Korina Thunderbird VI bass in the world; and the only Korina pre-Steinberger bass, too — both built by Phil while he was at Gibson. Phil contributed a few retainers for Leon too. Joe and Phil had slightly different techinques, and I combined them when I got home. Here we go:

GHS Phosphor Bronze Strings
Photo: step 1 Start with a 4" length of 018" string. That’s more than you’ll need, but it gives you room to grab and bend. Guitar strings come coiled, so they have a natural curve. We’ll make that curve work for us: keep the ends curving upward as you hold the wire in a nut/saddle vise. When you’re done, that curve will be pressing down onto the saddle screws.
Image: retainer wire

Nut & Saddle Vise
Dead Blow Fret HammerOur 10-piece Essential Nut Making Tool Kit includes clear instructions to teach you nut making. And you can review those complete instructions on our site before deciding to buy! Check it out:

The Essential Nut
Making Tool Kit
is a selection of
our best tools
Photo: step 2 Make the first 45° bend. The bends that will tuck around the screws at each end are 45°. Bend those downward now. I found that FretFitter pliers worked well for this: the tiny groove in the jaws is the perfect size to hold the wire.
Image: first bend

Photo: step 3 Once that first bend is made, I use a 1" repair magnet to hold the wire — that keeps it flat, on the same plane as the first bend. Measure a point 7/32" from the bend — that’s where you want the next bend. A small piece of tape marks the spot here. (I use magnets to hold things to my vise, too: that’s what’s holding that under-string radius gauge and nut-slotting file sticking out in the background.)

Guitar Repair Magnets
Photo: step 4 Photo: step 5Make the second bend: this one’s a 90° angle. Using the fretfitter jaws as an anvil, I’m squaring up the 90° bends with a fretting hammer. Trim the end so it’s just a little over 1/4" long.
Image: second bend

6" Steel Rule
Photo: step 6 Insert that bent end in the bridge, and pull the wire snug across the saddle screws. Now make the downward bend for a custom, tight fit.
Image: third bendMake the 90° bend on this end the same way as the other. Trim it to length and push it into the bridge body.
Image: finished retainer wire
Photo: finished retainer wire
Saddle Retainer Wire (for modern ABR-1s)
Done! You just made an ABR-1 retainer wire.
Erick Coleman signature

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