William Lewis
William Lewis
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Keeping your guitar healthy

Hello again. This lesson is about how to maintain your guitars to keep them functioning well. While a guitar can take a fair amount of abuse, you need to maintain them to keep them in top shape. Of course, there are a few things that are universal to every guitar and there are some that are related directly to certain types of guitars.

One universal thing you’ll need to keep up on is the strings. It’s probably the first change you ever made to your guitar. There are a million different kinds of strings out there. Light gauge, heavy gauge, bronze strings, coated strings, uncoated strings, and nylon strings etc. You might wonder what exactly this has to do with and how it will impact the tone.

Electric guitar strings are generally a nickel plated steel. The reason you have these types of metal involved is because an electric guitar relies on the modulation of a magnetic field to induce a current in the pickup coils. Basically, the string wobbles in the magnetic field of the pickup causing an alternating current to form. When you hear people say light or heavy strings, they are referring to the thickness of the string, or it’s gauge. The higher the gauge, the thicker the strings will be. It also translates to more tension the thicker the string. Guitarists who detune use heavier strings to keep tension and so the sound remains clear. Using higher gauge strings means that you’ll get a thicker tone out of your guitar. The downside to this is it’s a lot harder to bend on 13’s than 9’s and in general it takes a lot more to move the strings.

In no way does using higher gauge strings give you so much better tone. The debate that heavy strings are better is not really true. They are different yes, but tone is subjective. You can’t really declare one thing when a million other people don’t hear what you do. The tone is simply different. As a guitarist, you need to decide what gauge feels right for you. And what type of playing you do should also be a deciding factor.

Acoustics use bronze because it’s slightly warmer than the nickel and because it will resonate a bit more than your average nickel steel strings. Nickel steel strings weren’t really developed for power. All they need to do is get the magnetic field going. Bronze strings need to vibrate a good bit of air. That’s why if you’ve ever tried putting electric strings on an acoustic, you lost a lot of volume and it sounds bright. Classicals use nylon strings. These strings are exclusive to classical and have a softer, more mellow sound when picked. I’m not sure why these are used, but I’ve heard it was because the early instruments to come before guitar used animal intestines for strings and in the modern world nylon was close to giving that type of sound, but in a more durable format. That’s not fact, just what I’ve picked up.

Coated strings have a thin coating over the string to protect it. Strings are bombarded with sweat, dirt, oxygen, and fragments of your fingers. That’s what causes them to go dead. So coated strings were a way to keep the string sounding better longer. The downside to them is they lose a bit of treble and tend to sound a bit muddier than uncoated. However, newer types are even thinner and don’t have that effect so much.

Now onto changing them. I’ve heard a lot of ways to do it, but I’ll tell you what I do. I’ve never had any ill effects from this. I take all the strings off. There is a lot to clean you can’t get to with strings on. After I remove the strings, I check the frets. You want to look for raised frets, damaged frets, and look around the base of the fret near the fretboard. A lot of stuff collects in here. To clean this area, I take a toothbrush and clean all the gunk out. That gets it out of there and won’t hurt anything. If it’s been a few months, I’ll condition the fretboard. You only really need to condition the rosewood fretboards, maple can just be wiped down. If you condition a maple board, it can run under the frets and raise them. I used to use lemon oil which works, but now I use EB conditioning wipes. You only need to do this every few months, just to keep the wood from drying out.

After that, take a cleaning cloth to your bridge. Get what you can with that. If any remains where you can’t get it, you have a few options. One is a simple q-tip. The other way is the canned compressed air. This will get all that stuff off of there and prevent rust and pitting. Once you have that done, it’s time to put the strings on. Always start with the lower E string. You don’t want to start with the high E because you’ll run into issues trying to put subsequent strings on. It cuts off the room you’d otherwise have. I don’t just put it into the hole, I wrap it 2-4 times for the E A and D and 4-5 for the G B and E strings. Keep the wrappings below the hole in the post. After you wrap it, put the string through the hole and give it a good pull. I keep a pair of needle nose pliers near so I can pull it tight. The reason I wrap them is because it wears the gears of the tuning machine out a lot faster if you don’t.

Basically, just repeat that six times (or these days, 7 8 or even 9 times). Once they’re on, tune them to pitch. They won’t stay there for long though. This is because the strings need to stretch out and become stable. After you tune it the first time, lift the string at the 12th fret and pull up from the guitar. Then, retune. Once tuned, repeat the pull a few times, retuning after each time. This will get your strings to stretch and keep them in tune.

To clean your finish, most guitars with a polyurethane finish just need a cloth. Or maybe some polish if you want to keep it really shiny and clean. That’s really it. Now with guitars with nitrocellulose finishes, you can wipe them down with a cloth too. Make sure though it says “safe with all finishes” or safe for nitro finished guitars” or something like that. Every now and again, I take a specialized cleaner for nitro finishes and use it. I only do that once a week though, there’s not too much a need to do it more unless you play out a lot. One last mention to finish, do not use a foam stand with a nitro finish. It will marr up the finish. You'll need to find a stand that is non reactive with that finish.

Now that you’ve got your hardware clean, your fetboard and frets taken care of, your strings changed, and your finish clean, your guitar should be pretty well good to go. One last area to check and clean are the pickups and other electronics. You want to keep the bobbins clean of any dirt or dust as well, to keep them from invading the windings. Every now and again, I spray some contact cleaner on the pots and switch to keep them in top shape. Before I do that tough, I spray some canned air in to get any particulate out, then use the cleaner. This will keep your pots and switch noise free and in operating order.

Now, your guitar is properly taken care of. But how do you store yours? Do you leave it on a stand? Put it in a case or bag? Leave it sit out on the couch (I do that sometimes). Only two of those are the right ones. Leaving it out or on a stand is alright when you’re using them. But you don’t want to do that when they’re not being used. Why? All that cleaning you did will be undone very quickly if you leave it sit out. And your pickups (unless they’re covered, like EMGs) are more prone to getting stuff inside them which can cause they to stop working. Always put your guitars in a case or bag to help protect them from corrosive elements. Or children. Those of you with kids know what I mean. My son recently decided to knock over my ‘87 RG. While it survived with some cracks, you still never want to see that. I made a barrier with amps. If you’re lucky enough to have a decent house, keep guitars and kids separate. Oh, one last thing. If you keep your guitar in a hard case and it’s got a pitched (angled) headstock, make sure that headstock has room and isn’t pressing down on the case. That can cause some neck issues down the road.

And that is essentially how you maintain your guitars. Like I said, guitars are tough. But to keep everything running smoothly, take these simple steps to keep your playing experience good. And to take care of your instruments. Hopefully your guitar will last you a very long time. Unless you have an Esteban. No amount of advice could ever fix that.