Maintaining Your Guitar For Performance

Written by
Michael Johnson

Guitars are people too. Generally, if you think of guitars as the living breathing things they are, you will treat them properly. The wood in your guitar is alive! Here are a few things to think about and watch for:

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not cabin pressure that will cause your bridge to rip away from its mooring, breaking your heart in the bargain. It's abuse by baggage handlers that destroys guitars. Consequently, I do not loosen my strings before flying. I don't believe in it. What's the use if, upon arrival, you find that your guitar is unplayable because you've screwed up the neck by releasing so much of the string tension, and now when you bring it back up to pitch it won't stay in tune for five seconds.

If you must do it, then just lower all six strings one half step. That will relieve a surprising amount of tension and you'll still be able to make music when you get there.

For myself, I stopped checking my guitar in the baggage years ago. I travel with it in a soft case that fits in the overhead compartment, and have only had to check it when traveling on the little "vomit comet" prop jobs. In that even, I hand-carry it to the baggage compartment and make sure it's the last bag on so nothing rests on top of it, and then of course it will be the first bag off too.

Don't remove all six strings at once leaving no tension on the neck, and for God's sake, don't cut them with wire cutters while they're at full tension! Not smart. Change your strings one at a time, leaving the other five up to pitch. Your instrument will be playable sooner and will stay in tune longer. This really works.

I don't suppose that any one climate condition is worse than another for your baby. It's the changing from one to the next that can be so dangerous. I've had braces fall out in jungle-type humidity and sat in dry hot dressing rooms and listened, in shock, to guitars cracking.

The course of action is to go for the middle ground:

  • To humidify guitars in dry situations: Use a "dampit" or other product made for the purpose. Actually, a damp sponge inside a small jar with holes punched in the top of the lid will work just as well. Humidify from the inside of the instrument.
  • To dry out guitars in a very wet environment: I use those little silicone packets. You know, the ones that come packaged with new camera equipment. You can get them at photo supply shops. I don't need to do it very often, but when I do, it works.
  • Heat: Keep guitars out of direct sunlight, (or away from forced air heaters if you live in Minnesota). Hot and dry together is a tough challenge for the wood in guitars.
  • Cold: Remember that bitter cold, when it warms up, will not only leave condensation on your guitar, but on whatever electronics you may have inside your guitar as well. Batteries, input jacks and wiring need to dry out thoroughly before you plug in and turn on. The same is true for your outboard electronic equipment. Remember to let your guitar acclimate slowly to its new world.

Your fingerboard has gotten kinda funky because, let's say, someone spilled a little Schnapps on it. A couple of your tuning pegs are getting difficult to turn. You're developing buzzes here and there, and you need to clean more than fingermarks off the guitar. You're ready for the hotel room overhaul!

  • Fingerboard: For this you'll need to remove all the strings. Clean the fretboard with one of several products available, like "Guitar Honey", or lemon oil. Rene Martinez, guitar tech for Stevie Ray Vaughn (among other credits), advises just plain boiled linseed oil saying, "If it was good enough for Stradivarius, it's good enough for you." If the fingerboard is really funky, use some "0000" steel wool instead of a rag to rub the grease off.
  • Tuning Pegs: I occasionally remove the tuners and grease the rollers and gears with cork grease. Again, there are several products to use if you want, such as vaseline, liquid graphite, etc. Whatever floats your boat. The idea is to lubricate the tuning gears (if they are exposed) to minimize the wear and tear. It's also easier to tune while you're playing if the pegs all have the same feel to them.
  • Cleaning the finish: Remember that you are not really cleaning the wood when you sit down to clean the back, sides and top of your guitar. You are dealing with the finish. Liquid Gold and other oil based products intended to treat wood are not what you want. Use a polish intended to clean finishes. There are many to choose from.
  • Buzzes: Classical guitars: you did bring the other saddle and nut that you had the guy at the repair shop make for you, didn't you? Steel string guitars have truss rods for straightening/adding curve to the neck and thereby changing the string tension and the feel of your playing. In the end though, if you don't know what you're doing with regard to buzzes, don't do it. There are many reasons and as many remedies.
Often, things that are considered to be guitar problems are really the problems or bad habits of the player. Many performing guitarists know that after playing for a certain length of time—depending on the player, the guitar and the music fairy—the sound will suddenly open up. Without your awareness of doing a damn thing differently, the sound becomes different. The range of texture increases, you find you have more dynamics available and the volume seems to increase while you're playing half as hard. You have arrived at your sound. I suspect that both you and your guitar have warmed up to each other.

Break a leg.

Performing Songwriter - Volume 1, Issue 5 - March/April 1994

Photo: ©C. McArthur

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