Guitar Maintenance and Upkeep for the Emerging Artist

One of the things I am most proud of when I perform are the complements I receive about my acoustic instruments. I recall recently receiving from another artist the comment, "wow, that is one beautiful guitar!" I genuinely appreciate such complements about my guitars because I take good and regular care of them. So what follows are merely some tips (some obvious,other less so) about keeping a guitar in superb condition:

1. Play it. It may seem obvious, but a guitar as a instrument made primarily out of wood (and even carbon fiber to a lesser degree) changes over time. The changes are often subtle so you need to play your instrument and "listen" to it. If strings start to buzz, the neck may need to be adjusted to provide more "relief" (the incremental distance between the strings and the top of the frets) by de-tensioning the truss rod on the guitar. If the strings have less sustain, they may need to be changed. In any event, listen to the instrument, it has a lot to say.

2. Clean it. Whenever I replace strings, before I put the new ones on, I thoroughly clean the instrument. By cleaning, I mean using a 2-step cleaner and conditioner on the fretboard, using 0000 grade steel wool on the individual frets (I actually now use a small polishing wheel on a dremel tool to clean and polish frets), lubricating each slot on the nut and the string contact point on the saddle and, of course, using some non-silicone based polish on the soundboard, sides, back and neck. 

3. Adjust it. Once or twice per year I'll take my guitars over to my guitar technician to have him properly "set up" the instrument. This is something that I possibly could do myself, but, discretion being the better part of valor, I'd rather have a genuine expert do. By "set up" I mean that the string relief and guitar's "action" (which involves raising or lowering the distance of each individual string to a desired height above the fretboard) are changed or reset based upon the gauge of string and tuning I'm then using. Since I primarily fingerpick, I like my action as low as possible without the strings buzzing on the frets.

4. Humidify it. Winters are hard on wooden guitars in New England. The use of heat at home tends to dry out the indoor air. There are plenty of guitar humidifiers on the market. I personally like the Oasis humidifiers but most all of them work well. I think the best alternative is just to buy a room humidifier. I got at 5 gallon one at a church yard sale some time ago and just have it run constantly. Which brings up the fact that you need to know what the humidity in the room is. I bought a digital humidity/temperature gauge so I can adjust how much moisture is put into the air by the humidifier. Do it. Your guitar will love you for it!

5. Protect it. I generally leave my guitars in their cases when I'm not playing them. If I do leave one or two out, I keep them on individual guitar stands. Folks that leave their instruments leaning against a wall or piece of furniture are just begging to pay a guitar repairman. 

6. Improve it. I love to tinker. I generally prefer to customize my own instruments. The first to go are the factory installed tuners. Unlike a custom guitar with high-end tuners, most production instruments have less than desirable tuning machines. In fact, I've replaced the tuners on all of my guitars in favor of more aesthetically pleasing, higher ratio tuning machines to more finely tune the instrument. I have also replaced the plastic bridge pins with brass ( or even titanium!) bridge pins to get a brighter sound with much more sustain. I've also installed John Pearse armrests on each of my instruments lower bout to keep my right forearm off of the soundboard when I play and installed Planet Waves "O-Ports" into the sound hole of many of my guitars to improve sound projection.

A guitar can be a beautiful thing to see, but really regular maintenance and upkeep not only improves its looks, but can improve the instrument's tone, sustain, playability and character as well. People that play strings black with corrosion are doing themselves no favors to themselves or their instruments. If you really appreciate your guitar, especially as an emerging artist, taking good care of it can mean the difference between sounding okay and sounding great.

Food for thought.

Yours in DADGAD

Rick Gottlieb