Screwing Screwed Screws

When we talk about our guitars it’s usually about the pickups, the bridge, tuning machines, what type of wood, etc.  Nobody ever says, “my guitar has a killer set of screws”.  Screws only come into the conversation when we say “I can’t get the damn screw loose”, or “why does it keep coming loose?”.  At one point or another most guitarists have a screw dilemma.  The good news is that most screw problems can be easily avoided with some routine maintenance and common sense.  The screws that do become damaged or uncooperative can usually be coaxed with a modest set of tools.

Screwing 101   I’m not trying to insult anyone, but after being a senior technician for ten years I have seen some shameful screwing and improper screwdriver handlingIf you feel you are a proficient screwer you can skip this section.

  • There is a difference between tightening a screw and screwing the proverbial poop out of it.  Screw it until it feels snug and that’s it.  If veins are popping out of your neck you’re probably screwing too hard.
  • Use the correct size screwdriver.  The tip of a your screwdriver should completely fill the slot, but no more than that.   Using the right size screwdriver won’t only avoid damaging the screw head, but will lessen the chance of the screwdriver slipping out and gouging your guitar’s finish.  I have seen several Les Pauls with a gouge next to the bridge post, wonder how that happened.
  • If a screw is starting to get worn out replace it.  Don’t wait until it becomes too damaged for the screwdriver to grip it anymore.
  • Don’t use a damaged or worn screwdriver.  You could hurt yourself, or worse damage the screw.
  • I can’t believe I’m going to mention this one, but since I have seen it more than once, here it is.  Do not try to jam a flat head screwdriver into a Phillips-head screw because you don’t feel like taking two minutes to find a Phillips-head screwdriver.
  • My personal belief is you should never have to use a powered screwdriver on a guitar, not even on the neck plate screws.  They should be firmly tightened by hand without going overboard.  As long as the neck doesn’t move it’s good.  A powered screwdriver can produce enough torque to actually smash the neck plate into the wood as well as crack the neck pocket and/or strip the holes out.   I know I can set the clutch on the power screwdriver and be really careful, but I don’t think is it worth the risk.  Besides, it’s not like I have to take the neck off ten times a day.

Problem Screws   Here are some of the more common screw issues on a guitar and how to resolve them:

  • Strap Button Screws (and other wood screws) Strap button screws seem to be the one of the most problematic  screws on a guitar. After years of supporting the weight of the guitar, plus the weight of the player’s arms and hands, the screw starts to eat away at the wood, especially on guitars made with softer woods like basswood and poplar.  At first you notice the screw becoming loose more often until one day it no longer tightens,  it just keeps on turning.  I’ve had this issue on several guitars and the way I fixed all of them was with the old toothpick trick.  I took some hardwood toothpicks, birch to be exact, broke them in half , lightly coated them with white glue, and jammed them into the strap-button screw hole, broken end first.  I completely filled the hole, snipping each toothpick flush to the guitar with a pair of side cutters.  After letting it dry overnight, I drilled a small pilot hole and reinstalled the strap button.  I recommend drilling pilot holes for two reasons, one,  so you don’t split the wood and two, screws tend to follow the grain of the wood, drilling a pilot hole ensures the screw goes in straight.  Also, coating the threads with some bar soap makes putting a screw into hardwoods easier.  This technique can be used on any wood screw such as pick guard screws, tuner screws, and input jack mounting screws.
  • Fender Bridge Saddle Height Adjustment Screw  These screws usually go bad as a result of their environment. Despite washing my hands before I play and wiping the guitar down when I’m done, these screw still get rusty and seize up.  It doesn’t help that they are so small and can’t take much torquing before rounding them out.  I was having a major issue with this on my Strats when I was playing gigs in Virginia Beach where the summers are hot and humid.  I decided to replace the stock screws with stainless steel screws I got from Callaham Guitars.  But, before I could put the new screws in I had to take the rusty seized screws out.   In order to do that I had to take off all the saddles and soak them overnight in WD-40, occasionally scrubbing them with my drummer’s toothbrush to work it in.  This freed them up enough to get them out without too much hassle.  Since going stainless I haven’t had any problems.
  • Floyd Rose Intonation Screws  Similar to the issue with the fender saddle screws, the intonation screws on my Floyd Rose Trem would get rusty and seized on the bottom three strings where my palm would rest.  I didn’t go stainless on these, instead I used something called anti-seize.  You can find it at car part stores  and all you need is about a toothpick tip worth on the threads.  It’s usually a blend of copper, aluminum, and graphite in the form of a paste that prevents corrosion.  They turn easy now, yet they don’t come loose on their own.
  • Input Jack Nut Despite having a big lock washer  I was tightening down the nut several times a week.  I was going to use some Thread Loc or Locktite but A technician friend told me to use a dab of clear fingernail polish on the threads.  It keeps the nut tight but doesn’t make it hard to take off when you need to.  This also works on volume and tone pot nuts that suffer from chronic loosening.

How to Remove a Screw with Rounded Out Head  Unfortunately most of the screws on a guitar are flush to the guitar’s surface.   This makes many popular techniques such as drilling the screw out,  using a dremel to cut a new slot, or beating your frustration out on it with a hammer not very feasible without doing damage to the guitars surfaces.  Here are a couple of the techniques that I have used and can say they work.

  • Use a Rubber Band  The first time I heard about this I was skeptical but it has worked for me many times.  All you do is take a wide rubber band, put it over the screw head, push down hard on it with your screw driver and twist.  How this works is that the rubber band gives you extra grip.  It helps that guitars really don’t have many super long or insanely torqued screws.
  • J-B Weld J-B Weld is a very strong epoxy that can be found at most hardware stores.  I will get a nut, usually a #6, and J-B Weld it to the screw head.  After leaving it overnight I can use a socket or a nut driver to remove the screw.
  • Extraction Tool  I have used an extraction tool and know they work, but I have never had to use one on a guitar.  The above two methods are all I’ve needed to use on my guitars.

Preventative Measures

  • Wash your hands before playing.  Hand sweat is oily and acidic.
  • Wipe the guitar after playing.  If you are playing long, sweaty gigs wipe often.
  • If you live in a humid environment, keep some silica gel packs in your case.
  • Get the correct size screwdrivers and wrenches.  Most screws on a guitar use a #1 Phillips,  neck plate screws are usually a #2 Phillips.

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