a guitar being repaired

Guitar Maintenance 101

Whether you are a new guitar owner or a long time player, understanding that your guitar requires routine maintenance will help prevent catastrophic issues from happening to your guitar.

Hardware Check

Checking your guitar’s hardware (strap buttons, output jack, volume and tone knobs, pickup selector, and tuning machines) to make sure that they are tight is crucial in preventing future catastrophic issues from happening to your guitar. A quick “finger” check will let you know if you need to get out your screwdriver and wrench.

Humidity

One of the most important rules for owning a guitar is trying to minimize the exposure of the guitar to extreme temperatures and humidity. Climate change can have some nasty effects on the playability as well as the structure of the guitar. Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios. During the Winter there is a lack of humidity in the air and the exposure to the lack of humidity allows the wood to shrink and in the cases of acoustic guitars, also allows the glue to dry out. This could result in cracking, splitting, warping of the wood, or even the separation of the parts of your guitar. Even though acoustic guitars are more susceptible to the dangers of humidity changes, similar problems of cracking and warping can also occur in your electric guitars.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the Summer there is an increased amount of moisture in air. This moisture is absorbed by the wood in the guitar and therefore causes the wood to expand, resulting in neck movement. In the case of acoustic guitars, the increased moisture often causes the top of the guitar to expand.

One of the best ways to minimize the effect of humidity changes on the guitar is to store the guitar in a hard shell case. The hard shell case will help provide a more stable atmosphere for the guitar and will help minimize any drastic changes. Additionally, during the winter and other drier months, it is recommended to use a guitar humidifier to help increase the humidity level in the case.

Cleaning/Conditioning

It’s always a good idea to clean and condition your guitar every so often. Be careful, there are special guitar cleaners and polish that should be used. Some manufactures will make suggestions of which ones to use, when in doubt, use what they tell you.

Make sure to inspect the parts of your guitar too. Dust, dirt, sweat, etc. can build up and “gum” up screws, bolts, and other parts of your guitar that could pose immediate or long term issues. Its’s a good idea to have a soft brush and canned air to help remove any build up from these parts.

Conditioning your fret board is often overlooked by players. Unlike the body of a guitar, most fretboards are left unfinished and therefore the fretboard is more susceptible to drying out. Using a good conditioner will help hydrate your fretboard as well as remove any dirt and grime that builds up with playing.

Conditioning the fretboard goes hand and hand with restringing the guitar. Once the strings are removed from the guitar, I will apply fretboard conditioner to the fretboard and let in soak in. In the dryer times of the year, I may re-apply conditioner multiple times dependent on how dryness of the fretboard. Use a soft cloth to wipe off an excess conditioner as well as any buildup of dirt of the fretboard.

Restring

Knowing when your guitar needs to be restrung can be complicated at first but it is easy once you understand a little about strings. Over time, guitar strings become duller or darker in appearance as well as the sound. The unwound strings will even have a “texture” to them from the buildup of grime on the strings. Many times, players will even experience tuning issues or string breakage from old strings. If you experience any of these, it’s time to change your strings. There are many different techniques of restringing, some better than others, but it’s whichever works best for you. The key is to have the proper amount of string wrapped around the tuning pegs which will help with tuning as well as string life.

Checking the Neck Relief

In order for a guitar to play properly, there needs to be a proper distance between the strings and the top of the frets. An easy way to do check this distance is to look at the low E string at the fifth and seventh frets while holding down the low E string on the first and twelve fret. The proper amount of relief is in the range of 8/1000 and 10/1000 of an inch. If the strings are more or less than this, the truss rod will need to be adjusted. This is not an overly complicated process, but it’s more of a “feel” thing. The more times you do it the more comfortable you become. Minor adjustments are the key here and too much movement without improvement is an indicator to stop adjusting.

Checking the Intonation

The intonation is the ability for the guitar to play in tune all the way up the neck of the guitar. Overtime, the intonation will drift out and make the guitar sound out of tune. One of the easiest ways to check the intonation is to tune each string and then play that string at the 12th fret. The string played at the 12th fret should be in tune also. If the string is playing out of tune the intonation will need to be adjusted for that string.

Unfortunately, over time all guitars no matter how many precautions you take will need a little TLC. If your guitar is becoming harder to play or your strings buzz, you may need a set up. A set up is essentially a once over for the guitar and most often having your guitar setup will bring the guitar back to its original playing condition. A typical guitar set up will consist of a neck adjustment, checking and adjusting the intonation (when applicable), conditioning the fret board, restringing, and checking the guitar for any other problems that may be present. This sort of maintenance should be done every six to twelve months to ensure that the instrument is always in the best possible playing condition and to prevent any minor problems from becoming major ones.

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