Know Your Weapon
An Easy-To-Understand Guitar Maintenance Guide – #2
Guitar Maintenance Q&A
I’ve been maintaining guitars for over 20 years. I’ve definitely learned from experience how to (and how NOT to) keep a guitar playing and looking great. The Q&A session below clears up some of the most common maintenance questions I’ve run across. All of these points can be applied to acoustic guitars/basses and solid body guitars/basses.
Do humidity and temperature affect my guitar?
Yes. The short term effects are subtle, but they may warn you of a more serious long term problem. Tuning issues, string action (height) changes, and premature string deadening/rusting are all signs of atmospheric problems around your instrument.
Martin keeps its factory at a constant 45% – 55% humidity and 72° – 77° (F), and that’s a great basic guideline. If you don’t have the resources to accurately control the air-space around your instrument, you may be better off storing it in its case to protect against extreme conditions.
Do I need to treat a fingerboard/fretboard?
If you own a rosewood or ebony fretboard, then absolutely. Over time, the fretboard can become grimey and stained. If the fretboard is not cared for, it can crack and separate from the neck in extreme situations. Clean it regularly, and at the very least, ensure that you treat ebony/rosewood fretboards roughly once per year.
I have found that cleaning is easiest with a toothbrush and a purpose-made fretboard cleaner (some of which also treat the fretboard). Treatment should be done using high quality lemon oil. Maple fretboards are typically coated with lacquer and therefore do not need to be treated unless bare wood is exposed.
Do I really need to polish/wax my guitar?
No, polish brings out the shine of the finish. That’s it. When polishing, try to stick to a microfiber cloth or a very fine material or you may end up with swirl marks or fine scratches in your finish.
Will it hurt my guitar to remove all strings?
In researching an outside opinion, I came across countless arguments on this subject. However, the general consensus is that the neck will bow due to the lack of string tension to counter the truss rod tension.
Some people suggest that you never remove all strings at once to keep tension on the neck, but I’ve yet to find any hard evidence that this makes any impact. I’ve been removing all strings when changing them for over over 20 years without so much as a slight change in feel (solid body guitars, basses, and acoustic guitars), so I can say with confidence that this will not harm or massively change the feel of your instrument.
Longterm is another story. Rate of warping will vary wildly, but your neck is made out of wood and it WILL change shape if left for long periods of time with no tension balance. Just to stay on the safe side, I suggest not leaving your guitar stringless for more than a few hours.
What is the best storage method for my guitar?
This isn’t a one-size fits all question, but here are some guidelines.
A wall hanger might be best suited if you play frequently. Your instrument stays within reach and away from foot traffic. The small amount of gravity won’t cause any serious effects on the neck.
Atmosphere is the biggest concern here. Avoid outside-facing walls that experience more extreme temperature changes, and shield from the sun as much as possible.
Stands are typically the most convenient and perfectly acceptable in a low traffic area. They have same potential environmental issues as wall hangers with the added problem of being a magnet for accidental bumps. I avoid these stands when possible because I’ve knocked enough of them over.
Cases are the ideal storage environment. In my experience though, a guitar in a case does not get played as often. You need to determine if you are willing to dig your guitar out of storage every time you want to pick it up, or if laziness will eventually lead to less playing.
How can I make my strings last longer?
Clean your strings and wash your hands before touching your guitar.
There are advanced coating methods, but you need to balance the effort with the cost of simply replacing strings more often. Bass strings are a little more expensive, so that’s a consideration. Typically though, my bass strings naturally last longer than my guitar strings anyway.
My school of thought is that strings are fairly inexpensive. They should be cleaned once or twice during their lifespan, but it’s better to replace strings than to go through a drawn-out process to squeeze a little more time out of a set. How much is your time worth?
Can I leave a capo on my guitar when I’m not playing?
No. You risk denting the wood, putting unnatural stress on the fretboard, and creasing your strings. This causes some of the most severe and quick damage that I’ve personally seen on a guitar.
Will down-tuning warp my neck?
Any extreme tension change will cause issues if you do not account for it. String gauge, the truss rod, and bridge adjustments all come into play here.
Minor tuning changes can be managed through bridge adjustments. However, if you are down-tuning an entire step or more, use a larger string gauge (size depending on the tuning) to match the guitar’s natural tension as closely as possible. Even then, bridge adjustments and possibly truss rod tweaks may be necessary. We’ll talk about that in a later article.
Regardless of the build quality, your guitar will last YEARS if you simply use common sense when caring for it. Don’t leave it in an environment you wouldn’t enjoy, keep it clean, and make EDUCATED adjustments. It really is that simple.