DIY Maintenance: How to Make Your Acoustic Guitar Play Better Than Ever
Everyone loves a new guitar, and everyone knows that you can’t have too many. But let’s face it: even buying an “affordable” guitar can empty your wallet. Before you start singing the blues, however, there are some things you can do to make the guitar you already own play its very best. For example, a great setup can make your old guitar sound and play so much better that it may be almost unrecognizable. Learning how to give your guitar a minor tune-up or knowing when it’s time to take it to a guitar-repair pro will help you get more enjoyment out of your instrument.
Even if your guitar has been carefully maintained and plays like butter, there are easy and inexpensive ways to tickle a bit more performance out of your instrument, like upgrading its nut and saddle, tweaking its tone with different bridge pins, or getting it performance-ready by adding a new pickup. Of course, there are limits to how much an acoustic guitar can be improved—don’t expect a Pimp My Ride–style makeover—but a few simple tweaks and modifications can make enough of a difference to remind you why you fell in love with your old guitar in the first place.
Let’s look at a few options.
Here’s a guide to the sections in this article:
Make your guitar good as new
Start by making sure that there are no basic setup issues, old strings, or even just accumulated dirt restraining your instrument’s potential.
Check for Cracks
Inspect your entire guitar for cracks in the finish or the wood, loose binding, or a bridge that has separated from the body. Try pushing a piece of paper under the bridge. If it goes in more than about 1/8 inch, the bridge should probably be reglued. If you find anything that looks like it needs to be glued or a significant repair, take your guitar to a professional repairperson.
Tighten Loose Parts
Check to see if any hardware is loose. Use a proper-size screwdriver to tighten the screws used to mount your strap button, truss-rod cover, preamp, and tuning machines. On most modern steel-string tuners, this may include tightening the bushing that goes over the string post with a box wrench. Give the guitar a good shake and listen for rattles. If your guitar has a pickup, there might be loose wires inside the body. Secure them with miniature self-adhesive cable clamps.
Clean the Guitar
Once you’ve determined that your guitar is structurally sound, give it a good cleaning. The best way to start is by taking off all the strings so that you have easy access to the entire top and fretboard. However, if your guitar has an undersaddle pickup, you should probably skip this step or just remove half of the strings at a time. This will maintain string pressure on the saddle, ensuring that the pickup’s output balance isn’t compromised.
If your guitar is just a bit dusty, wipe off the entire instrument with a soft cloth. Most guitar-accessory manufacturers sell polishing cloths for this purpose, and you can also use a 100 percent cotton T-shirt. If some of the grime on your guitar is too stubborn to be removed with just the dry cloth, moisten the cloth with a bit of water mixed with a few drops of dishwashing detergent. Never apply the water directly to your guitar; use a spray bottle to get the polishing cloth damp and then rub the guitar’s surfaces in a circular motion.
There are many cleaning products made specifically for musical instruments. Dean Markley’s Love Potion #9, Dunlop’s Formula 65, Kyser’s Dr. Stringfellow Guitar Polish, and Martin’s Guitar Polish all offer great cleaning solutions. Besides being formulated to aggressively eliminate grime without harming the guitar’s finish, they often come in small, handy bottles. (However, don’t leave these bottles in your instrument case. An accidental leak could cause serious damage!) Ernie Ball’s Wonder Wipes—pre-impregnated wipes that come in a handy dispenser—make cleaning extremely easy. Similarly handy are Planet Waves’ Pre-Treated Polish Cloths and single-use Express Packs consisting of guitar cleaner and polish (Planet Waves also offers its cleaners and polishes in bottles). If you have seriously sticky dirt—or even residue from stickers or tape—that soapy water or a commercial guitar cleaner won’t remove, you can add a bit of naphtha or lighter fluid to your rag, which should dissolve even the most difficult grime. Budget: $0–$20.
Because an acoustic guitar’s fretboard generally doesn’t have finish applied to it, it should be cleaned with a method slightly different from the one you use on the body. A few companies make cleaners for just this purpose (Dunlop’s Fingerboard Cleaner and Dean Markley’s Love Potion #15 are two examples), and you can also use a bit of very fine (0000-grade) steel wool to remove fretboard grime. Steel wool works particularly well on seriously grungy fretboards, and you can also use it to clean your frets. Be sure to move the steel wool parallel with the wood grain, however, to minimize scratching. If your frets still look tarnished after cleaning the fretboard, you might try Planet Waves’ Fret Polishing System, which consists of five sheets of polishing paper and protective templates to keep the wood areas of the fretboard from becoming scratched.
To complete your fretboard cleaning and maintenance, apply a dab of lemon or mineral oil (or any of the various fretboard conditioners made to “feed” the wood) to a soft cloth and rub it into the wood. Most manufacturers of guitar-maintenance products offer a version of lemon oil for this purpose. Don’t overdo it—excess oil will take a long time to dry and may reverse your efforts by attracting dust and dirt to the newly cleaned fretboard. (You don’t need to do this often; once a year is plenty. I often go several years before applying oil to a fretboard.). Budget: $0–$20.
Many of the dedicated guitar-cleaning products already mentioned also double as polishes, so you can not only clean your guitar, but make it shiny. If you desire just a bit of additional shine, Ernie Ball’s Guitar Polish, GHS’s Guitar Gloss, and the Santa Cruz Guitar Company’s Fine Instrument Wax can help restore a mirror-like finish using the same kind of cloth and circular motions you used to clean the instrument (if your guitar has a satin finish, this will act more as a final cleaning step). One word of caution: don’t use polish on cracked, checked, or otherwise damaged finishes. If a polishing product soaks into exposed wood, future repairs can be extremely difficult. Budget: $5–$15
Once your guitar is clean, install a fresh set of strings. If you have a favorite brand and type of strings, by all means, stick with them. But if you’ve been wishing for a slightly different tone or feel, it’s worth looking at other options. Besides differences in brands, strings have various kinds of windings. The two most common are phosphor bronze and 80/20 bronze. Phosphor bronze tends to be warmer and 80/20 bronze brighter. But there are more options. A set of silk-and-steel strings can warm up an excessively bright guitar, as can nickel-wound strings (more commonly used on electric guitars) or D’Addario’s Flat Tops (which are ground to leave the outside surface semi-flat). Coated strings often sound mellower than uncoated strings, making them a great choice not only for extended life but also for taming an overly bright guitar. Budget: $5–$20.
Try Lighter or Heavier Strings
A switch in string gauge can make a big difference in your guitar’s sound and playability. If you’ve been struggling with barre chords, try using a lighter gauge than the strings you’re used to. Or if you’ve been using light-gauge strings but would like a fatter tone and more volume, give mediums a try. Some guitars with delicate construction are built for light-gauge strings only, so check your owner’s manual or the label inside your guitar before putting on heavier strings. It’s hard to predict how your guitar will respond to a change in string gauge (or composition), since every guitar is a little different, but it’s worth experimenting with different types. You may be surprised by the results. Budget: $5–$20.
Check Your Action
If it’s been a while since you had your guitar set up—whether at the factory or afterward—you may not notice that it isn’t playing as well as it should. Setups don’t usually change overnight. Action can creep up and notes can start to buzz gradually over time. If you don’t have a lot of experience with how a guitar should feel, compare yours with guitars that have been set up correctly for the style of playing that you do, and see if they’re easier or more difficult to play. Guitar stores, teachers, and some guitars owned by friends are great sources for experiencing different setups.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Ideal action height depends on your playing style. A fingerstyle player may be OK with 1/16 inch for the first strings, and 3/32 inches for sixth string (both measured from the top of the 12th fret), while an aggressive strummer may need as much as 5/64 inches for the first and 7/64 inches for the sixth string to avoid excessive fret buzz. Unless something is structurally out of whack (like a shallow neck angle or deformed top), there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to get your guitar to play as easily as others with the same scale length (scale length—the distance between the nut and the saddle—matters when comparing guitars, as a shorter scale will be easier to play than a long scale if all else is equal). An experienced player may be able to check action height at a glance, but for an exact measurement, use a small ruler or Stewart-MacDonald’s String Action Gauge.
How Straight Is Your Neck?
Although neck relief is only one of several factors affecting action, it’s one of the first things to check if your strings seem too low or too high. Most players want a neck that’s either completely straight or has a slight amount of “relief” (forward bow). If your neck is either back-bowed or severely forward-bowed, you’ll have to adjust the guitar’s truss rod before going any further.
String Height at the Nut and Saddle
If your neck looks fine, check the action height at the nut and saddle. An easy way to check your guitar’s action at the nut is to pop on a capo at the first fret. Is the guitar significantly easier to play? If so, the nut or its slots are probably higher than they need to be. Dialing this in takes experience and a bit of time (which is why many—especially cheaper—guitars leave the factory with somewhat high action at the nut). Paying a pro to do it is money well spent.
With the exception of certain vintage guitars and vintage-reissue models that have glued-in saddles (such as some Martin Vintage Series guitars), the saddles in most flattop and classical guitars can be easily lifted out of the bridge slot, making it easy to modify their height. If your neck and nut are adjusted properly and your action is still too high, you can lower the saddle by sanding the bottom with sandpaper set on an even surface. Until you have experience with this, it’s best to take it slowly, repeatedly checking to see if the height is right before you sand too much off. Hold the saddle at a perfect 90-degree angle, and, unless you need to lower one side more than the other, make sure you sand the saddle bottom evenly. If your guitar has an undersaddle pickup, you might want to leave this job to a pro, since an uneven saddle surface can make the pickup’s output uneven and you may create a new problem as you’re solving this one.
If your action at the saddle is too low, you can either replace the saddle with a taller one or put shims under the existing saddle (shims aren’t recommended on guitars with undersaddle pickups). Thin strips of hardwood are ideal shim material, but evenly cut strips of thin plastic (from an old credit card, for example) can also be used in a pinch.
If your guitar has a built-in pickup, plug it into an amp to make sure it works. If it’s an active pickup and you don’t remember when you last changed the battery, pop in a new one right away so you’re starting with a clean slate. If the pickup doesn’t work and you’re certain the battery is OK, there may be a loose wire that needs to be resoldered—most often at the output jack. Unless you’re confident of your soldering skills, leave this to a pro, as an iron that’s too hot can destroy delicate circuit boards, and splattered solder can wreak havoc with your guitar’s finish.
Endpin Jack Trouble
Endpin jacks often become loose, leading to crackles or “pops” in the signal and an insecure strap button. Some jacks need to be tightened from the inside of the guitar (requiring thin arms or a special tool), but many can be tightened from the outside. In most cases, the strap-button part of the assembly serves as an outer nut, with a smaller nut between the button and the guitar holding the jack in place. Many of these jacks have a small hole in the shaft, into which a small screwdriver can be inserted to keep the jack from twisting as you turn the tightening nut. If you can’t get the strap button tight enough with your fingers, use a pair of pliers or vise grips and pad the button with a piece of leather or cloth to avoid scratching.
If any of your volume and/or tone knobs or sliders crackle as you move them, they’ve probably attracted dirt or become corroded. This is often easily solved with a can of cleaning spray, such as Stewart-MacDonald’s DeoxIT Pot and Switch Cleaner ($16.95). Aim directly into the slider (remove the buttons first) or pot (it usually has an opening on the back for this purpose), and, using the included tube, spray a few shots into it while moving the slider or shaft. In most cases, this will clean things right up. Be careful not to drip the cleaner on the guitar’s bare wood. To be extra safe, cover the surrounding area with a rag, or remove the dirty component from the guitar completely.
Improve Your Guitar Tone
Once you’re done cleaning it, installing new strings, and getting the action set right, your guitar may already be better than new. As a guitar’s woods age, the sound of the instrument “opens up,” resulting in greater tonal complexity and maturity. If you seek further improvement, however, there are a few other modifications you can make.
Replace Your Saddle
If your guitar has a plastic nut and saddle, replacing them with a harder material may be the single most dramatic improvement you can make. The saddle has a significant impact on a guitar’s tone, while a new nut will primarily affect the sound of open (not chorded or capoed) strings. Because of its relative softness, a plastic saddle (often identifiable by its ultrawhite color and grooves that have formed from the pressure of the strings) doesn’t allow the tone to bloom to its fullest potential. Bone saddles are the most common upgrade, but synthetic Tusq and fossilized walrus and mammoth ivory are also harder than plastic, and the improvements in volume, sustain, and clarity they provide can be astonishing. Saddles usually come as rough blanks that need to be shaped before installation (see “Make Your Own Saddle,” May 2006 for detailed instructions), but companies such as Graph Tech, Bob Colosi, and Stewart-MacDonald offer preshaped saddles (starting at about $12) designed to replace many stock saddles. Some small adjustments usually have to be made (primarily sanding the new saddle to the proper height), but replacing the saddle can usually be done even by a novice. Budget: $5– $100.
A New Nut
Replacing a guitar’s nut is more complicated because the original is usually glued in place and there are very small tolerances in height, width, and string spacing. As noted above, however, tonal differences between various materials aren’t as dramatic as with a saddle. But if your old nut wasn’t fitted or adjusted perfectly, a replacement can lead to a great improvement in playability. In some cases, a new nut can also give you an opportunity to slightly modify your guitar’s string spacing by moving the slots closer together, farther away from the edge of the fretboard, or wider in general, which can have a big impact on the instrument’s playability. Budget: $5–$100.
Unless your guitar has a pinless bridge, replacing your bridge pins can provide both a cosmetic and sonic change. Tonal results will vary—on some instruments they’re virtually inaudible, while on others they’re quite noticeable. Check to see if your current pins fit in their holes well. If they’re too tight, they’ll be difficult to remove; too loose, and they may fall out or rattle. Plastic pins can become deformed over time and may not properly hold the string’s ball end to the bridge plate, which can cause a loss of tone. The bridge-pin holes of many factory-made guitars aren’t tapered; having them tapered (a job for a pro) can improve the fit.
Bridge pins are available in many different materials from vendors such as Graph Tech, Luthiers Mercantile, John Pearse Strings, Planet Waves, and Stewart-MacDonald. Plastic and wood are the most common, but bone, brass, fossilized ivory, water-buffalo horn, and synthetic materials such as Tusq are also popular. The possible tonal differences between the various materials stem from their different densities and weight. For instance, on many guitars, using a lightweight material such as ebony can result in improved bass response, while a heavier and denser bone or Tusq bridge pin may yield greater volume and sustain. Some people feel that fossilized-mammoth or walrus ivory bridge pins provide an increase in overtones and harmonics. Bridge pins do vary in size and taper, so make sure you get ones that match your guitar—most manufacturers specify which of their products fit particular guitars. Budget: $5–$100.
Add a Pickup
If you’ve been lusting after a new acoustic-electric guitar, adding electronics to your own acoustic guitar can produce amplified sound as good as, and often better than, many guitars with factory-installed electronics at a much lower cost. Unless you want a thin-body design or extensive onboard controls (such as EQ), spending $50 (for an entry-level soundhole pickup) to $500 (for a top-of-the-line rig) on a pickup for your guitar is likely to make it sound as good or better than many stock acoustic-electrics. Adding an electronics package to an existing guitar allows you to choose a system that suits your playing style, the venues you’re likely to be performing in, and most importantly, the specific sound you like.
Because they’re simply mounted into the guitar’s soundhole, magnetic soundhole pickups are the easiest upgrade, and you can install one yourself. In addition, many players really like the warm, fat tone that these types of pickups offer. But it is also possible to have an undersaddle pickup installed, which is the most common pickup used with factory-installed electronics. An undersaddle pickup can be virtually invisible and offer a natural sound, and it is unlikely to change the acoustic tone of your guitar. However, unless you have some experience working on guitars, this kind of an installation is best left to a pro.
Players who are adding pickups to their own guitars also have the choice of more sophisticated electronics—including soundboard transducers (contact pickups that mount on the inside of the guitar’s top) and multiple-source systems that combine two or more pickups and/or an internal microphone—than most factory-configured acoustic-electrics. Budget: $50–$500.
Play It Again!
Most guitars can be improved, and in many cases a setup customized to your needs combined with a fresh set of strings will make a noticeable difference in your guitar’s tone and feel. Some of the procedures discussed here may be difficult for a novice player to do, so it’s good to discuss your needs and options with the repair department of your local guitar store or an independent guitar tech. While there is no known cure for GAS, improving the sound and playability of the guitar you already own can help you recapture the excitement you felt when you first brought it home.
Troubleshooting Your Ax in 12 Easy Steps
Sometimes it’s the little things that keep you from enjoying your guitar. Here are 11 common problems and their typical solutions.
- Hard-to-Turn Open-Geared Tuners. Lubricate all the moving gear parts with light oil, such as 3-in-One.
- Tuneup “Ping.” Do you hear a “ping” as you tune up, with the string jumping in pitch? It’s not the tuner’s fault—the string is likely binding in the nut slot. Filing the slot smooth may take care of this, but it is usually a job for a luthier, who can do it without lowering the string height too much.
- High Action in First Position. If your guitar is hard to fret in first position but not farther up the fretboard, check the nut-slot height at each string by pressing the string down between the second and third frets. Look closely for clearance at the first fret. There should be just enough space to slip a piece of a phonebook page under the string. Adjustments are made by lowering the individual nut slots, but once again, this is best left to a luthier.
- Open-String Buzz. A buzz only in the open position may indicate that your nut is too low, requiring you to either replace or shim the nut. But it could also be caused by a truss rod that’s too tight or a loose first fret that needs to be stabilized and leveled to the plane of the other frets.
- Muffled Open String. A string that sounds muffled only in open position may be sitting in a badly formed nut slot or one contaminated by foreign material. This can usually be fixed by cleaning or recutting the string slot with an appropriately gauged nut file.
- Buzzing Below Fifth Position. Are you getting buzzes only in low fret positions, from open position to the fifth fret? This could be the result of a truss rod that is too tight and causing a “back bow” in the neck, which can easily be corrected with a truss-rod adjustment. Fixing a back bow in an instrument without an adjustable truss rod might require a complete fret replacement and neck leveling.
- Buzzing Only on Higher Frets. If your guitar buzzes at frets seven to 12 or so, you may have a combination of a loose truss rod and a low saddle. To correct this, the truss rod should be tightened and the action raised at the bridge by shimming or replacing the saddle.
- Buzzes Only on One Fret or in Isolated Areas. Look for uneven, worn, or loose frets. Correcting uneven frets may be a simple operation such as leveling and rounding the frets, or it may require a complete refret.
- Poor Intonation. Compare the pitch of the harmonic at the 12th fret to the fretted note in that position. If they are not the same, your saddle may need more compensation. In extreme cases, the bridge may be mounted incorrectly. Minor intonation difficulties can sometimes be remedied by recontouring the top of the saddle, while serious problems might need to be addressed by relocating the saddle in the bridge or replacing the entire bridge.
- Buzzing at the Saddle. The top of the saddle may be too flat. Ideally, each string should contact the top of the saddle at a single point. A flat saddle will cause a light “sitar-like” buzz up and down the neck. A simple rounding of the saddle top (using fine sandpaper) usually corrects this problem without affecting the playability or action of the guitar.
- Pickup Distortion. Replace your pickup’s battery. Marking your calendar for an annual battery replacement can help you avoid this problem in the future.
- Pickup Doesn’t Work. The first thing to check is whether a cable has come loose at the output jack. Next, try another cable. They often fail because they are subjected to a lot of bending. And it’s possible the jack itself may need to be replaced if it has broken internally.