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  • Writer's pictureJames Leitch

My New Old Guitar: Rehabbing a late-90s budget guitar.

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

All the way back in 1997, I was 15 years old and getting pretty good at guitar. I had been taking lessons for about a year, and I wanted an upgrade from my Shocking Pink 1985 Yamaha SE300. I wanted a guitar with a maple fingerboard, because my friend had one and I thought it looked cool, and I wanted humbuckers because Guitar World (and all the full-page Gibson advertisements therein) told me that in order to be the heaviest metal-est, you need a guitar with humbuckers.

So my mom took me to a non-Guitar Center owned/affiliated music store (these existed in the 1990s) and bought me this Ibanez RX20 in an Ivory finish and I became basically attached to it. I took it with me everywhere for years. It annoyed neighbors, friends, and audiences alike until I found out about Andres Segovia and unceremoniously replaced it with a Yamaha C40 somewhere around 2002. After I went full nylon, my Ibanez spent the next decade and a half tucked away, collecting dust and who-knows-what-else in closets, trunks of cars, and basements while I refused to do anything with it out of a mix of sentimentality, guilt, and lack of resale value. You might’ve seen it hanging from the wall behind my head in my Bach video.

Recently, I got the idea to fix it up and make it nice enough that it was useful in lessons and maybe even some gigs and videos. I’m still in the research and concept phase, so we’ll take this journey together.

Part 1: What do I want it to look like?

First off, here’s some pictures of the state it has been in for at least 10 years:

Non-functioning, pickups not totally screwed all the way in, missing a string, and gross.

There’s some serious grime and dust around the bridge and where the strings go.

At some point, I attached a label under the bridge, and I don’t remember what it said, but I'm sure it was "hilarious." You can see the outline of where it was on the guitar for years.

The neck has some serious gunk on it.


Taking the pickguard off, the inside is even grodier and full with dust (I hope). You can really see the smoke damage here: there's no pickguard on this guitar.

Giving the body and the neck a good wipedown with a damp towel took care of most of it, and the body and neck (which are still separated, for now) are as clean as they’ve been since Titanic was in theaters.

Amazing what a little damp rag can do! You can still see the part the label covered because it's less yellow.

The neck gunk came off green, which one of my students assured me was probably just because of oxidation. Looks great now!

Thinking about how I want the guitar to look, I take to YouTube University™ to see if I can do something about the color, which I was never fully thrilled with in the first place. The first thing I learn is that refinishing a guitar is a full nightmare even if you do have a bunch of power tools, scary chemicals, and a workshop to fill with paint, dust, and fumes. So Smoke Damaged Ivory it is!

To me, White On Not Quite White isn’t really a great look, so replacing the pickguard is top priority. The aforementioned friend's guitar was the same color RX60 and I really dug that faux tortoiseshell pickguard, so that was my first thought. I saw one on eBay that looked like it would fit (the RX line was discontinued in ‘98, but the current GRX line is basically the same) and was cheap enough, so I bought it. After waiting a month for it to arrive, it looks great, but the screw holes don’t line up with those on my guitar, so I’ll either have to get a new one, or start drilling.

Looks great! Too bad the screw holes don't line up :/

Thinking about having to get a new one led me to wonder what other color combos would look good with my permanently ivory guitar, but my photoshop skills are pretty poor. Fortunately, I stumbled across this custom guitar website and their guitar visualizer, enabling you to get a pretty solid idea of what your guitar will look like before it’s finished. So I made a few thousand, and am having a very hard time deciding which I like the most from these five. I love the black with the gold hardware and gold pickups, but I also love the tortoise. This will be a months-long project, but hopefully not just because I can’t figure out which color hardware to order.

Leaning toward (from the left) number 2, number 1, or number 5?

Which one do you like the most?

Next episode: Lessons I learned in the world of aftermarket guitar parts

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