Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Caring For Your Guitar

The guitar being made of wood is sensitive to changes in humidity, temperature and gravity. The following observations come from some time servicing guitars in my shop as well as a few decades in caring for my own personal instruments as a player.

The No Care Method

I would like to address my behavior as an enthusiast over the years first because it exemplifies the level of care chosen by some players today. This is to say I did nothing but change the strings and wipe off the grime every few months. I bought my first quality instrument in 1972. It was and is a 1969 Martin D35 Dreadnaught. It is the guitar my kids grew listening to me play and it has sort of an heirloom status in my family. At least they are fighting over who should get the guitar when I "shuffle off". This guitar was made in humid Pennsylvania at the Martin factory and has lived here in the arid high mountain plains of Colorado ever since. It was never humidified or saw a stand. When it was time to move our residence, it took me some time to locate the case. Most of its life it stood leaning against the wall in my bedroom where it occasionally fell subject to the laws of gravity. It has flown on airplanes through the luggage handling system in a regular hard case, It has gone camping and on various trips outside the state and has remained under the stress of heavy and medium steel strings at 180lbs of total tension during the last 34 years.

So how is the guitar doing today after all that time of hard flatpicking and relative abuse? It's doing fine, thank you. The neck is absolutely straight and the only crack in it is a tiny one in the back and was there when I bought it thirty years ago. The finish looks pretty good except for where I strummed outside the pickguard area. The soundboard is structurally perfect and the action has never changed in spite of my years of neglect. The sound is terrific.

Right now you're wondering what type of advice am I going to offer based on the above. Actually where I took "care" of my guitar as a practice of ignorance, some players consciously choose to think of their instruments as a working tool and do not wish to treat their instruments as a hot house flower. No humidification at all and thrown in the backseat protected by a simple gig bag. No fuss, no muss. Expensive instruments expected to hold up like 3/4-ton pick-up trucks. You might be surprised that there are some big name players counting on their guitars as the significant tool of their trade who intentionally select this method.

The obvious problems coming from the "no care" school are that their guitars often aren't as lucky as my old Martin. Some guitars under these conditions will simply give up and develop all manner of playing problems, serious cracks and degraded sound. Lack of humidity or rapid swings of humidity can cause the instrument to literally shrink resulting in low (or high) action as well as highly variable sound quality. I know that repairmen typically won't treat these players practicing this No Care Method very sympathetically whereas they will go the extra mile for those instruments that are obviously given proper care. To be sure there are all manner of degrees of care between No Care and The Best Damn Possible Care Method and somewhere in here you may find a process that fits your style.

The Low Care Method

Most of us practice this method. This is the player who provides a pretty good single arched case for his guitar and keeps it there when he is not playing it. There is some attempt to humidify the guitar…….at least there is a humidifier in the case and sometimes it is actually filled with water. Once each year when the strings are changed the finish is wiped off with a commercial product from one of the guitar factories. A variation to this approach is where the guitar is left out on a stand in the practice area so that it can be ready at hand for spontaneous fits of playing inspiration. I am one of those players. The results of this method mostly count on the player not being too active and the guitar is mostly at rest and protected from rapid humidity swings at least when it is in the case. Unfortunately, guitars left on stands can become victims to toddlers, dogs or vacuum cleaners not to mention dropped tuners, capos or music stands. Additionally, if your home is not humidified please be aware that humidity can swing wildly through the day typically drying out during the day and heating cycles while rising at night at cooler temperatures. Low Care Method guitars can suffer changes in action and sound quality while experiencing buzzes that come and go. Often small cracks and dings will show up over time.

The Pretty Good Care Method

This is a practical method that you can live with and offers care that your guitar will be happy with. This involves buying a high quality double arched case and padded case cover and absolutely keep your guitar in the case when it is not being played. Place the case inside a closet in your playing area so that it won't be subject to the whims of gravity. Purchase a Planet Waves Humidifier and follow the instructions. Why Planet Waves? Because it can hold far more water than any other humidifier as of this writing that gives you more time between fillings. You can also place a travel soap dish with self-applied perforated holes so that the moist sponge you place inside can help humidify the case. Finally and most important, buy a digital hygrometer that are commonly available for $20-30 from Radio Shack or local cigar stores. The use of this device is critical to the Pretty Good Care Method as it allows you to work with knowledge about humidity that your guitar lives in. You can keep it in the studio where you play and/or inside the case. In this manner you can begin to work intelligently without guessing as to the single most critical component for a wood instrument……Humidity.

When you are finished playing your guitar, wipe off the finish and strings with a soft dry cloth. If you are a classical player concentrate on the upper treble bout on the back where it rests on your chest. This area seems to be particularly vulnerable. Another area is where your right forearm rests on the lower bass bout on the side and soundboard. If you need to remove a foreign substance you can use a slightly damp cloth. Normally you do not need to use any of the commercial guitar cleaners but of course you can if the finish on your guitar is lacquer. Do not use these on recently French Polished instruments.

The Pretty Good Care Method will help your guitar live a long time in a healthy state and it will be very consistent in terms of sound quality and playability while being resistant to seasonal shifts. As a result you'll feel pretty good about your ability to take care of your guitar.

The Best Damn Possible Care Method

Building from the Pretty Good Care method, this system chooses, as it's primary strategy, the acquisition of a fiberglass flight case such as those available from Mark Leaf or Calton. These cases are not permeable because they have rubber or neoprene seals and of course are not made of wood that is highly hydroscopic. As result these cases will maintain temperature and humidity like a bank vault. Additionally, These cases are exceptionally rigid and are trustworthy enough to go through the airline luggage system with integrity. One can also purchase case covers made to resist heat build-up for these flight cases.

Now assuming that you want to have your guitar residing in it's special single purpose studio out and available to be admired and played on your whim, you will want to do two things. First is to purchase a wall hanger fixture that will securely hold your guitar off the floor and not subject to gravity. No guitar stands please! Finally, install a humidification system in the room or better yet in your home. They make the environment healthier for you and your loved ones including the guitar. Mount a quality digital hygrometer next to your guitar so that it can be monitored easily. Also carry one in your case for the same reason.

Players employing the Best Damn Possible Care Method will also want to take their instrument to a luthier for a check-up every 1-2 years depending on use. A luthier will be able to check for a variety of common health issues faced by guitars and will inspect for fret and fingerboard problems, hairline cracks, finish problems, etc.


It would be a good thing to make a conscious choice of one of the methods detailed above. It may not be possible or practical for some of these methods to fit into your lifestyle but at least you'll be making knowledgeable decisions.

Many of us play the guitar and take the health of the instrument for granted. It would be helpful to adopt some form of regular maintenance where we look with a critical eye for problems. Perhaps this could be done when strings are changed but most important is the habit of putting yourself in the role of the luthier and critique the instrument as though you had never seen it before. It's a useful habit and can prevent small things from getting to be big things. Good Luck!

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