The Care and Feeding of Your Axe
Simple Things You Can Do to Clean and Preserve Your Guitar
By Jon Chappell
To keep your guitar healthy and happy, you dont have to do much more than give it a comfortable place to live and perform routine maintenance, which requires little more than tending to its cleaning needs. Periodic wiping and dusting not only keeps your instrument looking spiffy, it wards off corrosion and prevents wear and tear. Without entering into realm of the technical, there are a number of steps you can take to help better preserve all the different materials and components of your guitar, from the woods in the top and neck to the hardware to the strings. Lets look at some good practices that will help keep any guitar in ship-shape condition.
Give Your Axe a Loving Home
Although youre more likely to expose your guitar to hazards and extremes as far as changing conditions when traveling with it, your home (or the guitars home, if thats a different place) must still be monitored and modified to suit the guitar. Most guitars can live comfortably where humans do: in a climate-controlled environment, free from wild swings in temperature and humidity.Temperature-wise, if youre comfortable, so is your guitar. A guitar stays in tune, plays well, and sounds its best in room-temperature conditions. But temperatures do change, and if your guitar must bear extreme weather changes, cold is better than hot (which will melt the finish)in human-comfort terms, that is. A guitar sitting in an unheated car trunk in 20-degree weather is better than having it be in a sun-baked passenger compartment in 120-degree temperatures.If you do find yourself leaving your guitar in cold conditions, though, let the guitar warm up slowly before you play it. When bringing a guitar in from the cold, leave the guitar in its case before opening it right away. Use the metal buckles of the guitar case as your clue when its safe to open, but note that the metal parts will warm up more quickly than the space inside, so when the buckles are room temperature, wait an additional few minutes before opening the case.
A hygrometer (which often contains a thermometer, too) indicates the relative humidity of your environment. Between 45%-55% is ideal for a guitar.
Guitars are made primarily of wood, and wood, even with a protective finish, is porous and responsive to humidity. Although your strings wont curl (like your hair does in the humidity), your guitar and its parts absorb and release moisture depending on the surrounding conditions. Acoustic guitars are much more sensitive and responsive to humidity changes than electrics, but you should apply the same humidity-control practices for both types of guitars.Ideally, a guitar should be in an environment with a relative humidity of between 45 and 55 percent. Too dry, and you risk cracking the finish (also called checking). Too moist, and the guitar may fret outa condition where the wood swells and pushes out the frets from the fingerboard slots and generally makes your guitar buzz.Here are a few ways to control the humidity where your guitar lives:
- Buy a hygrometer. A hygrometer is a device that you keep near the guitar or inside the case to let you know when the humidity conditions have gone too far outside the range one way or the other. You can find one of these gadgets at your local hardware store.
- Invest in a humidifier or de-humidifier. Both of these machines protect your instrument from the swings in your particular environment.
- Keep a damp sponge inside the guitar case. Keeping a damp sponge inside your guitar case can fend off excessive dryness.
- Keep a desiccant inside the guitar case. A desiccanta silica gel packet available at your local hardware storesoaks up excess moisture.
Protecting Your Guitar
Your guitar is a precious instrument, and in some cases it may even be your meal ticket. So you want to go to great lengths to protect it from the ravages of the roador in your house, if you live in such a place. And it doesnt take much to create a hostile environment for a guitar. For example, one of the most-feared home hazards is a toddler. Ever see a guitar after a four-year-old has tried to feed it a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Not pretty, I assure you.
A guitar rack
keeps your guitar at hand and safely stowed.
But assuming you can control the human element, your home is probably the best place for your guitar, in terms of a friendly environment. Homes, unlike, say, speakeasies and juke joints, have consistent temperatures and good climate-control devices, such as thermostats, humidifiers, and de-humidifiers. Although you should have a high-quality case
for your guitar, its not any healthier to keep the guitar in its case instead of on a guitar stand
or hanging on the wall
, if the case resides in the same room or in a different room with the same conditions. The only advantage of keeping a guitar in its case is that you wont have to dust it as often as you would if you left it out in the open. (The downside is that you may not be compelled to play it as much.) But if your room experiences rapid changes in temperature and humidity, the space inside the casewhich is neither air tight nor a great insulatorchanges along with the room in which it resides.Keeping your guitar in its case may not protect it from a hostile climate, but it will shield it against other unpredictable elements at largelike pets and mischievous toddlers. But if those threatening life-forms arent an issue, your guitar will be just as happy hanging on the wall (provided you use a special guitar-hanging hook
) or in a rack.Exercising simple common sense is often the best guard against damage. For example, when you put the guitar down, dont lean it against a radiator or place it above a heating duct. Keep your guitar out of direct sunlight because the sun can heat up the guitar, causing the finish to crack and discolor.
On the Road, Again
When youre on the road traveling with your band or just headed to some friends house with your guitar, consider the tips below to keep your guitar safe:
- Use a hardshell guitar case. Hardshell cases can stack in any configuration inside car trunks or cargo holds. Guitars in gig bags (the form-fitting leather or vinyl variety) cant. If youre traveling, always plan on using sturdy cases. You can always fold up your lightweight bag and stuff it in a road case if you want to use it once you get to your destination. The one exception is an airplane, where the overhead compartment will readily take a guitar inside a gig bag, but not a hardshell case.
- Take a stand. When youre playing and need a break, it may not be practical to put your guitar in a case every time you take a break, so place your guitar on a guitar stand whenever you leave the stage, rehearsal space, or playing area. You must always leave your guitar secure, because simply leaning it against your amp, wall, or chair is a recipe for disaster. You never know what force of nature may knock it over.
- Follow the last in, first out rule. When I travel, the guitar is the last thing to get packed and the first to be unpacked. This procedure ensures that my guitar spends the least amount of time out of the house or venue (which is climate controlled) and in the vehicle (which isnt fully climate controlled). Theres a security advantage in this approach, tooan instrument is most likely to get stolen in transit or from an unattended vehicle. Practice the last in, first out rule, and you can minimize your security risk.
A hardshell case
is more desirable for traveling because it can be stowed, stacked, and stored more safely than a soft case or gig bag.
Making Your Guitar Sparkle
A guitar needs to be out working in the real world or it isnt happy. But being out and about and not inside a glass case means that your guitar encounters the elements that plague the rest of the natural worlddust, dirt, grime, and corrosive chemicals both organic (sweat and skin oils, mostly, but atomized kitchen grease can be a culprit, too) and inorganic (spilled soft drinks). So to get your instrument clean and gleaming, you must first get rid of the dirt.As dust and other airborne pollutants collects on your instrument, they can get caked in further with pressure from sweaty hands and fingers. To get that stubborn gunk off, you need cleaning materials and elbow grease.Fortunately, none of the stuff that collects on your guitar is very harmful, as long as you remove it within a reasonable time (every few weeks or so at the latest). You dont want to leave gunk, goo, and grime on your guitar indefinitely, because over time and the changing seasons, the wood can eventually absorb the stuff on the surface, and become a permanent part of your guitar. Plus, it looks bad. Its nice to have an ol beat-up guitar to play the blues, but its definitely not cool if its filthy dirty. Following are the different components of the guitar with the best ways to keep them shiny and happy.
Just as its not possible for us to trade in our car when it gets dirty (Egad! Mud on the fender! Jeeves, fetch me a new Lambo!), its impractical to change the strings after every set or session (not to mention expensive, too). So most players develop a routine for cleaning their strings.
- The routine clean: When youre through playing your guitar for the time being and before you put it away (back in the case or on your guitar stand), take a moment to simply wipe down the strings with an absorbent cloth. A chamois (pronounced shammy) is one of the best materials to wipe with, but you can use a cloth diaper, too. Make sure to wipe the back of the neck of the guitar, too, to remove sweat and dust.
- The deep-down clean: Even if you wipe the strings religiously, gunk still builds up over time, making the strings sound slightly dull. So every once in a while, take some steel wool, grab each string with the steel wool placed between your thumb and index finger, and rub the length of the string (from the nut to the bridge, or as close as you can get) to dislodge the more stubborn stuff. Then wipe the string with a chamois to remove excess dirt that youve loosened.
Besides wiping with a cloth, steel wool helps remove more stubborn grime from strings.
The majority of your guitar, whether its electric or acoustic, is made of wood, and wood loves to gather dust. Just like the furniture in your house, you should keep your guitar dust free and avoid spilling liquid on it. If you do, wipe it off immediately.Your guitars finish is the coating on the wood that makes it shiny, and every guitars got one, even if its a matte finish, and you cant tell its there. The finishs job is to protect the wood mostly by sealing the porous surface from the outside world and its elements (namely moisture and dust) and to provide the reflective coating that makes the guitar shine. The finish also adds just an extra little bit of protection from the occasional ding.If you start to notice that you guitar is losing its luster, you can treat it in a couple of ways:
- Furniture polish: You can use regular furniture polish to treat your guitar, but furniture polish often comes in a spray can. Never spray the polish directly on your guitar. Spray makes sense for a flat table top but not for a curving guitar with metal parts, gear workings, and other internal workings that may not take as kindly to the furniture-polishing chemicals as wood does. Spray the polish on a soft cloth first and then polish your guitar:
- Liquid guitar polish: Give your guitar a fast shine with liquid guitar polish specially made for the task. Follow these steps:
- Dab a little polish on a cloth and work it in to the cloth. Doing this helps keep excess liquid and runaway drips from going where theyre not supposed to be (like inside the guitar or the electronics).
- Apply the dampened cloth to the guitar and rub in the direction of the wood grain until the polish is worked into the finish.
- Finish by rubbing the guitar with a dry, soft cloth to remove excess polish.
For heavy, set-in grime, you need a special cleaner, such as Virtuosoa vintage, non-abrasive guitar cleaner that works well with lacquer, shellac, and varnish finishes. When applying any cleaning products to your guitar, use a soft cloth (or cotton diapers), making sure to work in the direction of the wood grain. Dirt can become abrasive once its loosened and can scratch the finish; polishing with the grain minimizes the visibility of any abrasions that may result.
When using a liquid polish, always pour it onto the cloth first (working it into the fabric), never onto the guitar directly.
Your guitars hardware, as the name implies, is made of metal, and usually just needs a good wiping down with a dry cloth after a sweaty jam session. But if you really come up against some nasty, caked-on crud, though, you can use dishwashing detergent on a cloth to cut through the scum. Dont dribble the soapy water directly onto the metal surfaces; soak it into a cloth first and then wipe down the parts, being careful not to squeeze excess water onto the hardware. You dont want water getting inside the tuning gears or into the pickups. Wipe any soapy residue off with a cloth dampened with plain water, and then wipe with a dry cloth.
The Frets and Fretboard
After cleaning the fretboard, applying a drop or two of lemon oil will help rejuvenate the wood.
The frets on your guitar are made of metal, and as you play, the string is pressed repeatedly in the same spot on the fret wire. Over time, grooves start to form on the frets, and after a groove forms, the string finds the groove more easily, making it deeper, and accelerating the wear.To clean the frets you can brush them lightly with 600 grit sandpaper, and then polish them with #0000 steel wool. In addition to sanding and polishing, this process helps prevent grooves from forming in the frets.Take care that you dont slip and end up scratching the fingerboard as you sand and polish the frets. Sand the fret slowly, in one direction, with long, even strokes. If you do see grooves, pits, or gouges beginning to form, take your guitar immediately to a qualified technician. You may need a fret dressing (minor filing work) or a fret job, where all the frets need to be replaced.To clean the fretboard, work with #0000 steel wool in medium strokes along the length of the board. A splash of lemon oil here and on other unfinished areas will restore the fretboard woods vibrancy and velvety feel.Gunk tends to build up next to the fret wire, rather than in the middle of the fret, so make sure to keep an eye on these regions, especially in the lower frets, where you do most of your left-hand fretting. Break out the steel wool when that happens.Guitarists fond of taping set lists, lyrics, and cheat sheets to their instruments can remove the gummy residue with naphthaa combustible but otherwise finish-friendly solvent available from your local hardware store (its the stuff that mothballs are made of).
The above steps are simple, non-invasive procedures that help you clean and polish your guitar, prolonging the life of the strings and other elements. Youll find that if your guitar is clean and happy, you will be tooat least when you pick up your nice, shiny axe to play. Next time, well get into actual repairs and adjustments, using simple tools, that you can do yourself. In the meantime, keep the peanut butter away from the guitar and the cat out of the case.
Jon Chappell has written five books in the For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing), as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill). 2009 Jon Chappell and licensed to Harmony Central, LLC. All rights reserved. Harmony Central encourages linking from other sites to Harmony Central content. To reprint this on another site, contact [email protected].