Best Practices: Guitar Care and Feeding

Posted by Bryan Peterson on

A lot of new instruments are going to be bought over the next month, especially as 2020 is an indicator, it’s been one of the biggest years for guitar sales ever. This also means there are a lot of new owners who don’t know how to properly maintain their instrument. The kind of care we’re talking about may be minor in time investment, but it is critical in how well they play for you. We’ve seen some absolutely scungy guitars come in, so scungy we break out rubber gloves. Often the damage has been done on these instruments.

One of the early things I learned was to have respect for my instrument (just like my tools). Make sure it goes back to a proper stand after playing, wipe down, and care for it. There are guitars in my collection that I’ve had for 20 years that could be put on the shelf new. And they plays just as well.

So let’s start off talking about one of the most significant care tasks for guitars, humidification. While this is largely an acoustic guitar thing, electrics ca get affected by this, too.

The woods in your guitars are aged and often kiln baked to remove water from the wood, but this only goes so far in getting them fully dried. Until they’re fully dried, which may take another 30 years, the wood is susceptible to warping or cracking from humidification, particularly thin exposed woods like acoustic guitars. These have a lot of exposed surface area for moisture to escape, and the rapid escape causes problems. You may have heard about guitars settling in tone as they age, this is one of the prime components of that settling in.

     The problem is the wood may shrink, and even in solidbody guitars, this can create ripples in the finish. This is greatly impacted by climate. If you live in Florida, there is enough humidity to break bonds in protein glues, and the instrument my come apart. You might even get the bubble belly of an acoustic that is over humidified. In Arizona, “Yeah, but it’s a dry heat” means your guitar is drying out all year. In Chicago, we pump dry air into the house during the winter. These are the times you need to worry about your instruments.

You may wonder about how this can affect playing of your instrument, well, the top, as it dries, has glue and bracing holding certain areas, and it sinks, almost forming like a spoon. As the top sinks, the height of the strings neared to the bridge begins to sink, until they’re buzzing against the fretboard.

 You can recover these instruments sometimes, especially if you catch them early enough, but sometimes the instrument is gone. And it doesn’t matter how much the instrument may have cost. It will happen with the best.

So get a guitar humidifier. They’re only around twenty dollars. They need a little maintenance and attention. Keep them in the guitar inside a case or a bag, as needed for your climate. You might even get a hygrometer to tell you your relative humidity level, which should be 45%.

Humidity can also affect fretboards, particularly rosewood and other exposed darker woods. The symptom of a dry board is a lighter color, often, and the shrinking of the wood across its width. Your frets will begin to poke out more. In this case, yes, humidifiers can help, but you’ll also want to oil your board. There are a lot of debates going on right now among the connoisseurs of the guitar world about what the right oil is. Traditionally you’d use Lemon Oil for darker woods or linseed oil for maples. Lemon oil has come under fire for being too acidic, and therefore in the long run drying your board out. Linseed oil has all but disappeared. There are good oils these days that are gentle, and do the job for all woods, like the Music Nomad F-One oil. You’ll want to oil your neck a couple times a year, four at the most, and it will play just fine for years to come.

Your guitar will have some sort of surface finish, be it gloss or matte. The bulk of guitars are sprayed with polyurethane or polyester these days, with a number of brands still using nitrocellulose lacquer. The poly finishes are pretty durable and impenetrable. You won’t be losing moisture through them, or letting anything soak in, but some folks don’t like the feel of them as much. For these surfaces, you can use just about any kind of polish. You might want to avoid petroleum distillates, but there’s almost nothing out there that use them anyway. There are some polishes that are great for day to day use, Music Nomad One is a favorite in our shop. It’s thin, and great at getting dirt off the surface. Other polishes are more of a cream polish with some slight abrasives in it which are more designed to enhance and preserve shine. Matte finishes, if you want them to remain matte, require the most delicate touch, often just a slightly wet microfiber cloth, or soaped wet cloth is best.

Lacquer is a different story. Lacquer is an old world material which has a big environmental cost, but also has a long history and great tactile feel. The reason most brands don’t use it or use it sparingly, is that it requires intense air filtration in the spray booths and proper protective gear. It is often closely regulated. The upside is the tradition and the porous nature of it allows the trapped water to escape. It can also allow oils in. Over the years, people who didn’t know better (and really, there wasn’t much guidance on this until the last twenty years or so), people might use furniture polish which would sink in and dull the actual sound of the instrument. These days, you’ll want to check if a polish is safe for all instruments, though you’ll rarely find one that isn’t. You simply want to be sure.

There are some high end instruments will just have an oil finish, which need some fairly meticulous care with specially formulated waxes and oils. If you get one of these instruments, you’ll likely be instructed on their care.

That leaves the hardware. This is a little bit more dependent on the person than anything. We all know a guy who is more acidic than others, who has to change strings every week or they rust. That person will have the same effect on the hardware of the instrument. Hardware may be pot metal, brass, aluminum, steel, maybe chrome or nickel plated. We plated things in nickel, chrome, or even gold because they do tend to resist oxidation more than most metals, seriously, its not entirely because they’re shiny metals that look good. This is one of the things you may want to wipe down very specifically after play. I tend to not corrode strings, but I do tend to plant my hand on the bridge when I play, and each guitar I have has a worn spot where my palm rests. Chrome will pit as it corrodes, which is not reversible, but other types of corrosion can be removed with a few kinds of polishes, like Mother’s brand metal polish.

Just as your hardware may tarnish, you can, by neglecting to wipe off your board, happen to your frets. Occasional steel wool polishing with an ultra fine 0000 steel wool (with fret guards) and polish with Music Nomad Frine will keep you playing well.

Learn to care for your instrument every time you pick it up and it will be with you for a very long time. We’re here to help you care for it every step of the way. As always, any questions, we’re here for you, send us a message in our comment form.


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