Caring for Your Guitar
Over twenty years of repairing guitars as a luthier I've seen a wide variety of preventable problems come across my bench. I think it's really important to share some information that can help you avoid repairs that really could be avoided not to mention save you that money.
- Have a polish cloth handy and when you're done playing make it a point to wipe down the strings and dry off the fingerboard. Different body chemistry can shorten the life of the strings but regardless, it's good general maintenance to wipe off any perspiration from the strings and fingerboard.
- Periodically wipe down the finish of the instrument with a quality polish specifically designed for guitars. Avoid using a generic furniture polish on a guitar and especially any that contain silicone. Silicone is a rubber like polymer that is added to polishes to lower the surface tension which helps avoid dust build up. However when silicone gets into the wood any type of finishing work need can become more difficult. If you have vintage guitar with cracking or crazing in the finish definitely avoid any polishes that have silicone.
- If you play electric guitars check to make sure the potentiometers aren't working their way loose. A properly working potentiometer will have a definite start/stop point in its rotation. If it feels like it is "spongy" when you turn it up or down chances are you are get to the start/stop point but are actually then turning the entire part. The nut on the pot is loose and will need to be tightened down or eventually the wires will fray and break.
- If you need to tighten them down remove the knobs and get a hold on the pot itself. In a Stratocaster style instrument this means removing the strings and taking off the pickguard or just removing a cover plate on other instrument designs. You want to prevent the pot from rotating as you're trying to tighten the nut so wires don't break.
- If the pots don't have lock washers it's a great idea to add some. This will help prevent the pots from coming loose avoiding unwanted rotation of the entire part.
- Bring your instrument in for a general set-up about once a year. It has likely moved around somewhat with changes in temperature and humidity. Having a knowledgeable tech go over the instrument will keep it in top working condition and perhaps catch any problems before they get out of hand. Preventative maintenance can help save you money down the road.
Temperature and Humidity
It's really important to realize the guitar is almost certainly made of wood and because of that it responds to changes in temperature and humidity. When it is humid the wood will absorb moisture from the air and expand. When the air is dry the moisture is released from the wood and shrinks. On an acoustic guitar the top, back and sides are very thin and they're attached to each other. A piece of wood that is attached to something can only shrink so much before it cracks. Avoid dramatic changes in temperature and humidity. Here are some tips...
- Do not leave your guitar on a stand by a heat vent! In some climates winter means bitter cold and dry air. If your home has a forced air furnace this means the air gets even drier as it makes its way through the furnace. If the guitar is sitting by the heat vent that hot air will speed up the process of moisture leaving the wood and a rapid change of temperature and humidity will damage the guitar.
- Don't hang the instrument by the fire place! I once asked a very nice couple if that's where they had a 1920's Gibson F-4 mandolin and they cheerily responded "Yes! How did you know?" I said "because the instrument has some pretty extensive damage and if it isn't being played it probably is being appreciated as a decoration." If you wouldn't hang your dog on the wall by the fireplace why would you hang a vintage Gibson mandolin there? However, some points are probably better left unmade.
- Keep the guitar in the case with humidification! There are a wide variety of products out there to help you care for your guitar. It's a wise investment to choose something you like and is easy to use so you'll check it regularly and fill as necessary. Crack repairs can get expensive very quickly and it can be avoided if you pay attention. If you have a dedicated room for music and keep all of your instruments there buy a humidifier large enough to cover the square footage. If you can afford it, buy a humidifier that is rated for more square footage the room actually is. A humidity gauge can be very helpful too but vary in how accurate they are. Just walk down the isle at the hardware store and you'll see the gauges have different readings. At the very least you can get a sense for how much it fluctuates with changes in the seasons.
- Get a quality guitar stand! If you aren't willing to keep the instrument in the case but have a room with a humidifier make sure the guitar is on a quality guitar stand. It is really easy to knock over a guitar that is leaning up against a chair or amplifier. Why end up with a nasty ding, crack in the body or a broken headstock? If it can go wrong, at some point it will likely go wrong. Unless it's a padded room, get a good guitar stand or wall hanger.
- Don't leave your guitar in the guitar on a hot summer day! Remember the part about the dog hanging on the wall? You wouldn't leave them in the car on a hot summer day would you? The adhesives that hold everything together can start to soften and since there's significant string tension the neck can bow severely as the adhesive "slip" between the fingerboard and neck. An acoustic came in to the store one day and the salesperson that helped the customer asked if he had left the guitar in the car. He said "Nope, just brought it here" but the staff told me the guitar case was so hot it hurt to touch the latches. The guitar had a very severe warp beyond any normal up bow. When the customer moved out west shortly after bringing it into the store he shipped it to another shop simply by putting a label on the chipboard case. Needless to say the guitar arrived in worse condition than it had left. Let's just say the person wasn't doing what they should have to care for that guitar.