We love our guitars and hope to get years of enjoyment out of them. That also means taking care of our instruments and staying on top of some general upkeep. Fortunately, there are some easy things that you can do at home to keep your guitar playing its best for years and years. Here are some tips and regular maintenance that you can do with little-to-no special tools.
(There are some things that you will need the help of a luthier for, but we’ll cover that in another article).
Keep your guitar in a good spot
Guitars are made of wood, which can be affected by the environment it’s in, sometimes severely. Some of the best maintenance you can do is just keeping your guitar in the right spot in your house.
You mainly want to avoid places where the guitar will meet sudden temperature changes. So, do not keep your guitar near heaters, furnace ducts, air conditioners, or near anything that gets hot or cold at regular intervals. If you keep it near a window, you also risk the sun affecting the finish (much like guitars that hang in a guitar store’s window for too long will discolour. You also want to avoid extreme temperatures as much as possible (such as keeping your guitar in the trunk of a car in winter for hours on end).
If you do happen to find your instrument in such a spot, you will need to let it reacclimatize before using it. Keep the guitar in a room at normal temperature in its case for the same amount of time that it was in extreme temperatures (so if it was in the trunk of a car at -20 celsius for five hours, leave it in its case in a room for five hours). DO NOT open the case, as the rush of air can make the wood expand or contract, cracking finishes and possibly damaging or ungluing braces, bridges, etc.
Guitars are best when they are at 45-55% relative humidity. Prolonged exposure to too much humidity, or too little, can cause damage. Low humidity can cause wood to dry out and crack, or cause failures in the glue joints. Too much humidity is just as bad, causing the wood to swell. This won’t crack the instrument, but it can cause bulges that may pop braces and also affect glue joints.
Fortunately, there are several products designed to help keep your guitar at optimal humidity while in its case, such as D’Addario’s Humidipak system.
This, along with keeping your guitar in optimal temperature conditions, are two of the best things that you can do to keep your guitar in shape.
One of the easiest and best ways to keep your acoustic guitar sounding its best is to change strings regularly. New strings have a brightness and snap that makes a guitar sing. However, that tends to fade over time as the strings get old and dirty. Old (or dead) strings also lose quite a bit of tuning stability once they’ve gone past their lifespan.
How long do strings last? Well, that depends on how much you play and your chemistry. If you play a lot, strings will wear out faster. As far as chemistry goes, if you have sweaty hands, strings will get dirty (and even corrode) over time. To combat this, you can wash your hands before playing, or switch to a coated string (such as Elixr strings).
Keeping the neck and frets clean
When changing strings, it’s best to take the opportunity to make sure that your frets and fretboard are clean and oiled.
Frets can develop a hefty amount of dirt and gunk on them while playing. Fortunately, cleaning is easy; just use a damp cloth to wipe away the gunk. If it’s particularly stubborn, you can use very fine steel wool (#0000) to scrub the fretboard; just be sure to go parallel to the frets while rubbing.
You can also take the time to apply oil to the fretboard once or twice a year to keep the wood hydrated and looking its best. You can buy special oils for this from the guitar shop, or just use plain, old mineral oil from the pharmacy. Just apply a small amount to a clean cloth, rub it on the wood and let it dry (though you may need to remove excess oil if it doesn’t all soak in).
Keeping things tight.
Guitars vibrate. When we play them, we love the sound and the feeling of the wood that moves on us. But, that also means you need to pay more attention to things that may shake, rattle, and eventually roll (away) because of those vibrations. Sometimes, things just start getting loose.
The strap pin can be quite notorious, as it supports the weight of the instrument, as well as having to contend with a strap that moves around quite a bit. Check the pin from time to time to make sure that it stays tight where it is; the last thing you want to happen is the guitar coming off during a gig. If the pin is loose, a twist of the screwdriver is sometimes all it takes. Take care though not to overtighten as it may either crack the wood or strip the hole.
Tuners are another part that can rattle loose from time to time. If it’s the gear cover on the back of the headstock, again sometimes all you need is a twist of the screwdriver. The same care should also be applied here as with the pin, however. Another part that can come loose is the nuts that hold the tuning pegs in place through the headstock. Suppose these come loose, best to use a small wrench just to tighten them back up.
If you happen to strip a pin or screw hole, you can always try the toothpick method to get it set again. You will need toothpicks and glue for this. Remove the screw, fill the hole with glue, stuff the hole with a toothpick or two and let it dry. Once set, carefully cut away the excess wood of the toothpicks so that the hole is flush with the body. This will give the screw some extra wood to bite into, helping ensure a tight fit.
Keeping the neck straight
The odds are very good that your guitar is equipped with a truss rod to help keep the neck nice and straight. It does so by applying counter tension to the pull of the strings, forcing the neck back. Sometimes, depending on conditions, humidity, time, etc. the neck may move too far back or too far forward. Too far back, and the strings will hit the frets, causing some buzzing noises when you play. Too far forward, and the string action will be higher than normal.
Once you’ve sighed your neck (staring down the edge of the fretboard to see if the neck is straight or bowed), determine if you need to tighten the rod (applying more tension), or loosen it (reducing tension). The adjustment follows the “lefty-loosy-righty-tighty rule”, but go easy. It is best to go one quarter-turn at a time, allowing the neck to adjust and relax for a few minutes between turns. Sight your neck constantly during this exercise to see how the neck is adjusting. Just go a bit at a time until the neck is where you want it.
(Just remember, don’t force the rod further than it will go! You don’t want the repair bill for a broken truss rod!)
In part 2, we will look at some advanced maintenance that you may need to consult a luthier for. Until then, play on!