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The New Guitar Plek-trum

| March 31, 2008

Putting It Down And Pleking It Up
The Plek Machine Comes To Chicagoland

George MacPhail is accustomed to leaving work at the end of the day with hands that hurt. Actually, he is accustomed to leaving work with hands, fingers, and arms that hurt. MacPhail is one of two guitar technicians at The Music Gallery guitar shop in Highland Park, where he has worked since 1975 and, if you believe what they say about the man nicknamed “The Doctor,” has repaired or adjusted more than 20,000 instruments in those 33 years.

So what about the day-to-day tasks of a guitar technician has MacPhail buying Advil by the gross? You’ve changed the strings on your guitar many of times without the slightest discomfort, right? Probably. But you’ve likely never done a complete fret dress, and if you have, no offense, you probably didn’t do it right, because it’s a tedious, time-eating (but vital if you want a good-sounding axe) process. The fretboard is examined note by note to find uneven frets, and once those are identified repairmen like MacPhail take a large, flat file (anywhere from 8- to 24-inches long) and grind them down — one by one — until they all are as even as possible. Next a crowing file (basically an ergonomic handle with a file insert that has a concave cutting edge) is used to smooth each fret (which were roughed up by the original filing) individually. Careful, though. Do it wrong and you’ll simply end up with uneven frets again. To finish the dress, the frets are polished back to their original shine.

It sounds straightforward enough on paper, but consider that if all goes well, MacPhail (or his partner Chip Jurkovac) might be able to get two level and crowns done per day. Might.

“A good level and crown will generally take a good repairman between two and three hours to do,” MacPhail says. “Plus your hand and arm hurt quite a bit. Your muscles get very sore and you really get achy.

“If you can knock out two of those a day by hand, that’s good, ’cause that’s a lot of work.”

So you can imagine MacPhail and Jurkovac’s disbelief when Music Gallery owner Frank Glionna told them he planned on buying a machine called the Plek Pro that would not only allow them to do upwards of 10 each day, but do so with nearly perfect precision. And all with less arm ache.

“They were non-believers,” Glionna says with the smirk of a man proven right. “Well, they were skeptical, but I shouldn’t say they were non-believers. You’d have to ask them.”

The were, indeed, non-believers, MacPhail admits.

“I’ve been working on guitars for probably close to 40 years and Chip for about 30 years, and we’ve doing this by hand all these years. So it was like ‘Oh yeah, a machine can do this better than we can,” MacPhail recalls. “‘It can’t do it any better than we can do it because we’re so experienced at it.'”

Nonetheless, Glionna placed his order with German company A+D Gitarrentechnologie GmbH in February ’07, but before the Plek was shipped to him, he shipped his luthiers to Nashville’s Glaser Instruments to train with legendary guitar man Joe Glaser, who, in 2001, bought the first Plek.

Less than a half hour spent watching Glaser, MacPhail insists, is all it took.

“We watched the machine and went ‘Oh my god, it’s as good as they say.’ Within about 15 minutes our whole attitude [changed] — total believers,” he emphasizes.

The machine itself is about the size of a small walk-in closet, and the “Pleking” process is relatively simple for an experienced technician (Glionna stresses a Plek machine is nothing without someone like MacPhail behind the controls). First the guitar is strapped in (with string tension), and a robotic arm moves up and down the fretboard measuring everything pertinent, including fret height, action, scale length, tension relief, board radius, etc. This information then becomes available in a series of graphs on the machine’s computer monitor, where the technician analyzes it (though the data looks extremely complicated onscreen, MacPhail, who says he doesn’t use computers at all outside the Plek, swears the Virtual Fret Dress program is simple to use) and determines how much should be cut and where. Step three — processing — is the good stuff. The strings are loosened and strapped behind the neck, and the frets and nut (and the saddle on acoustics) are cut (within roughly eight minutes) by a customized wheel cutter A+D boasts is accurate to within .0004 of an inch, a claim neither Glionna nor his luthier contradict.

“We’re talking about tolerances that are so insanely minute, which is typical of German engineering,” Glionna says, laughing. “This does it so precisely and so perfectly, there’s very little error. Your eye can’t see that. It takes all the guess work out, and that’s what’s amazing.”

“To see how accurate it is, to see how it can take off the least amount of metal and get a neck truer than it’s ever, ever been — it’s just amazing,” MacPhail adds.

While Glionna’s $155,000 investment (Music Gallery is one of only 11 service shops in the United States — 16 in the world — to own a Plek and the only in the Midwest, according to A+D) is helping save his technicians’ time, so are the investments of others. Ten guitar companies (Gibson Customs, Suhr, McPherson, and Heritage among them) utilize Plek machines in production now, which significantly lessens the amount of time guitar stores spend “setting up” (basic adjustments) those brands before they go on the wall.

Mike Rinkenberger is a manager at Naperville Music, which carries three brands — Gibson, Warwick, and Takamine — that are Plek’d in production.

“It’s awesome,” he says bluntly. “The results are consistent, and we have to do minimal, if any, setup work when [the guitars] come in.”

Like MacPhail, Rinkenberger admits he dismissed early notions of the Plek’s superpowers, but also like MacPhail, his pessimism didn’t last long.

“I was really skeptical when I first heard about it. It was a tough sell for me because I had put a lot of faith into ‘you have to do a set up by hand,’ but yeah, the results speak for themselves. The Gibsons have turned out awesome; the Warwicks are great.”

MacPhail echoes Rinkenberger, saying he used to spend at least 20 minutes on each Martin before they could go to the showroom. But after Martin bought a Plek in 2006 (and three more last year!) it’s only a matter of minutes.

Unfortunately, if Rinkenberger’s reaction — “Absolutely not” before the question was even finished — is any indication, the price tag a Plek carries will keep most Chicagoland shops from owning machines for the time being. That’s just fine with Glionna, though, who is happy to corner the market for the time being.

“It was just instinctive, a no-brainer,” Music Gallery’s owner says of buying the machine. “It’s certainly the wave of the future. I haven’t been in this business for the short term. It’s always been for the long term, and after 33 years of doing this, it just seemed like, ‘Hey, all these other guys who are a good at this as we are are buying these machines and having great success.’

“There’s something extremely pleasing about a Plek because it’s so precise, and they can get it done in a timely fashion.”

And maybe more importantly, MacPhail, says, a painless fashion.

— Trevor Fisher

Category: Features, Monthly

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