I’ve gotten lots of letters over the years asking for a rundown of some basic things a guitar owner can do to maintain the health of their guitar. Here are some things to consider doing—and not doing—to keep your instrument healthy.
Get Regular Setups
A good setup will make your guitar feel and sound its best, but just bringing your guitar into the shop regularly is good maintenance: Your luthier is likely to catch things that you may not notice, from simple things like a loose screw to more serious issues like a neck pulling forward. Build a relationship with a repairperson you like, someone who will remember you and the way you like your guitar set up. If your tech knows you and how you like to play, she’ll be better equipped to set up your guitar in the way that works for you, and it’ll make the whole exchange more beneficial. There are certain clients I’m always glad to work with—the ones who visit me with an upbeat attitude and trust that I value them and their instrument. If I find something they should know about, we can come up with a repair plan that works for them.
Humidify When the Air Is Dry
This is the biggest single thing you can actively do for your guitar to help it live a long, happy life. When the air is dry, your guitar is dry, too, and wood—which is, of course, an organic material—loses moisture and shrinks. Imagine the stress this puts not only on big pieces of wood, like the back and soundboard, but also on all the glue joints, as two pieces of wood shrink and swell while glued together. When we humidify the air around a guitar—whether it’s a room’s worth of air or just enough to surround it in a guitar case—we minimize that stress. The opposite is true, of course, if you live somewhere with a very high humidity. Lots of steamy heat is bad for glue joints, and people living in this sort of climate will need to think about a dehumidifier.
Keep It Clean
Avoid letting sweat, spilled beer, or anything else dry on the surface of your guitar. In a perfect world, we’d all wipe down our guitar’s top, back, and neck after playing it. In fact, I recently saw a D’Angelico Excel in absolutely killer shape—turns out it had one owner for most of its life, a professional jazz guitarist in New York, who gave the whole thing a once over with a soft cloth every time he put it away. Without getting too crazy about it, do what feels right to keep your guitar clean and dry. You don’t need to polish it regularly for its health, but if you like a shiny finish, use wax and silicone-free guitar polish, or try scratch remover from an auto supply store.
You’re helping your lovely guitar fulfill its destiny by playing it regularly, but consistent use also helps you build your relationship with the instrument so that if something changes, it’ll be clear to you. If the action changes quickly, you’ll know it; if a crack appears, you’ll have a chance to catch it before it gets worse. Any of the things that might go wrong with your guitar are easier to handle when they’re recent.
Don’t Let Your Guitar Be Exposed to Extreme Temperatures
Heat is a real enemy of stringed instruments. Although your guitar is happiest in a moderate clime—think 70 degrees and 50% humidity—a bit of fluctuation is not such a huge deal. Where you encounter trouble is in the trunk of a car on a hot day: Wood dries out, and glue joints are softened to the point of giving up, or more insidiously, of “creep,” the slow surrender of glued parts to the tension that is applied to them. After a glue joint is overheated and starts to creep, it will likely keep doing so. Extreme cold is also not great for guitars, although much of the danger here lies in quickly warming up a guitar. If you realize that you’ve left your guitar outside on a cold Michigan winter day, let it warm up slowly—bring the case inside and leave it closed for a while before you open it.
Don’t Let Scratchy Things Near the Finish
When you sit down to play a beloved guitar, don’t forget to take off your belt. It’s common sense, but given all the buckle rash I see on vintage guitars with otherwise healthy dockets, it bears saying.
Don’t Let the Big Repairs Slide
Here’s where a good relationship with your luthier will come in handy—she can level with you about how soon you need to address certain things. With a refret, for example, I tell people it doesn’t bother me until it bothers them. That’s a higher-ticket repair, and if someone has brought in their guitar for a setup and I notice that it could use a refret, I tell them what I see, and they can choose when they want to deal with it. But there are some repairs you shouldn’t put off. With a structural repair like a bridge re-glue, I recommend fixing it sooner than later. If left halfway glued, that bridge can put uneven stress on a bridge plate and a top, which will contribute to a belly behind (or dip in front of) the bridge.
Don’t Forget to Play It Regularly!
At the end of the day, don’t forget why we keep these things around—because they bring us joy. It’ll help you remember why you read all these articles—and it will feel especially good if you’ve had a recent setup!
Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie and an active blues performer.