Seasonal Setup: Environment-Proof Your Guitar
Depending on where you are in the world, it’s probably either starting to cool down or warm up right about now. While your mind is turning to thoughts of hot chocolate, puffy jackets and toasty fires (or ice cream, cool drinks and beaches), spare a thought for your poor guitar. It goes through a lot when the seasons change. Most guitars are made mainly of wood, and wood expands and contracts with fluctuations in temperature. Your beloved axe is also subjected to the stresses and tensions imposed by strings and springs, and maybe even a little more or a little less humidity than it’s comfortable with. So while you’re swapping your summer and winter wardrobes to the front or back of the closet, make a mental note to give your axe a little TLC, too.
Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years. To demonstrate, I borrowed my brother’s Epiphone Tony Iommi SG. This is a beautiful guitar, but it’s had a hard life. The store it was bought from kept it in the front window facing the street, where the harsh and very direct summer sun caused the wax within the bridge pickup to actually melt out of the pickup casing and onto the top. This was cleaned off by the store when they realized what happened – and they put the guitar on sale at a discount as shop-damaged floor stock – but a little wax was still underneath the pickguard. Easy to fix, but a vivid reminder of what can happen to your instrument when it is hit with severe temperatures.
Let’s look at a few tweaks you can make to season-proof your guitar.
This one is quite obvious – you should already be changing strings pretty regularly, but not all of us have the time to play as much as we like, so we’re not all going to be changing strings every week or two. Although you really should be changing strings more than every six months, a season-change guitar tweak session is a good excuse to throw on a new set. If your guitar has a tremolo bridge, especially a Bigsby, you should change one string at a time. If you’ve ever tried to string a Bigsby guitar from scratch, you’ll know how difficult it can be! If you have a fixed bridge, it’s okay to take all the strings off at once, and that will give you more space to work with when you move on to the next step…
Ask your guitar store for the best cleaning solution for your particular guitar’s finish type – please, please, please don’t use furniture polish! I like to unscrew the pickups and pickguard when I clean a guitar so I can really get in there. You’d be amazed and maybe even a little grossed out if you saw the crud that can accumulate along the edges of pickup rings and pickguards. You should also give the fretboard and headstock a good seeing-to with a clean rag, because fretboards in particular can pick up a lot of finger gunk. Just be careful not to damage the fretboard wood by cleaning too vigorously – my first electric guitar still bears the scars of me trying to scratch dirt off the fretboard when I was 13. Oops.
Different pieces of wood tend to require oiling at different times. One of my guitars has a very dry rosewood fretboard, while another has remained relatively juicy for almost 20 years. This particular Iommi SG has a rather dry fretboard, no doubt exacerbated by the time it spent in the store window soaking up all that sunlight. Typically you should only need to oil your fretboard once or twice a year, and don’t go overboard with it. A little bit goes a long long way. I prefer to use lemon oil – again, avoid furniture polish and go for something formulated specifically for guitar fretboards.
A few screws had worked loose over time on the Iommi SG, particularly the strap button on the bass side horn. This is the kind of thing that can happen so gradually that you might not even notice it until it’s too late and your guitar goes dropping to the floor. Check every screw on the guitar. You’ll probably find that a lot of them have worked loose, if only slightly, especially if they directly interact with string vibrations, such as the screws on the back of the neck that hold machine heads on place. A simple tightening is usually all you’ll need, but be careful not to over-tighten the screws or you could crack the finish or, worse, the wood itself.
Play a note at the 12th fret. Play the harmonic at the 12th fret. Check your electronic tuner. If the fretted note is sharp, move the bridge saddle slightly further away from the neck (with a screwdriver or Allen wrench, depending on your guitar design – check your owner’s manual). If the fretted note is flat, move the saddle closer to the neck. Remember that each time you move the saddle, you’ll need to re-tune the string before you check it again. Do this on every string and eventually you should be more or less in tune across the neck.
Hold down the low E string at the first and last frets simultaneously (one hand at each end). Look down the string. Do you notice the neck bowing away from the string around the middle? Is it dead straight? Is it arching up a little? Ideally you want a little bit of bow. Too much and your guitar will be oddly uneven to play. Too little and you may get fret buzz, especially if you pick hard. Some players prefer a dead-straight neck with super-low action, but this only works if you play with a very delicate touch.
If you have too much back bow, turn the truss rod bolt clockwise to straighten it out a little. If you have too little, turn it counter-clockwise. Go by small turns and be prepared to check it again in 24 hours, because often it takes the wood some time to settle. This is one of those things that you should probably get a professional to talk you through at least once. While the truss rod is ultimately a user-serviceable item, it’s easy to make a mistake by making too drastic a turn and end up cracking the wood.
For more drastic tweaks – such as if your frets need a polish or if your electronics are crackling – you may want to take your guitar to an experienced repair tech. But you shouldn’t be afraid to do some of the hard work yourself, especially when it comes to these little seasonal tweaks.