Inexpensive Ways to Help Keep Your Guitar in Top Shape

May 14, 2014

A small investment can make the difference between a fun night of playing your favorite guitar or putting the guitar back in the case, leaving you feeling broken, despondent, and dejected. Let’s look at some tools and products you can invest in—as well as a few adjustments you can do at home—that will hopefully help you avoid the aforementioned heartache. Some of this should be obvious, but enough players are caught unawares that it bears repeating.

First, string changing. A string winder—manual or electric—will save your wrist and save you time. If you have a Floyd Rose-style bridge, a string cutter is a must. It will also keep you and your bandmates safe from dangerous, pointy, eyeball-puncturing string ends. If you don’t have a string cutter, you can curl your string ends like you would a ribbon by grabbing the string near the tuning peg with a screwdriver, a key, or a coin, and dragging it to the end. This will also make for a stylish peghead.

It is a good thing to know how to adjust your string height, intonation, and trussrod. Occasionally, a saddle can vibrate lower—especially when you have individual saddles—and a string or two will be unplayable. If you look closely at the alignment of the saddles you should be able to tell what has moved and, if you have the correct wrench, adjust it back. Almost all individual saddles can be adjusted with a small hex wrench or screwdriver. Most trussrods can be adjusted with larger versions of a screwdriver, hex wrench, or socket. Most guitars come with the appropriate wrench.

Here’s an important thing to consider if you open your case, and, all of a sudden, the strings are noticeably higher or lower than the last time you played. The bridge height can’t change by itself, but the neck can move by itself. Rather than trying to compensate with bridge height, in this instance you want to adjust the truss rod. Remember, tightening lowers the strings, and loosening raises the strings.

Here is a good tip: Invest in a small ruler or “action gauge” so you can measure and note your ideal string height. Once you start looking closely at string height (and have a way to keep track of it), it’s easy to maintain something that’s comfortable.

These days it is easy to buy guitar tools from a number of places like Luthier’s Mercantile, Allparts, WD, and eBay. Stewart MacDonald has full kits, as well, for maintenance and adjustments, and great online tutorials and support. Bicycle shops have some great multi-tools, hex wrenches, and sockets.

Other tricks to keep in mind: Nail polish comes in lots of colors and makes great, cheap touchup paint. Super Glue or cyanoacrylate is also handy to keep around. It comes in a few viscosities, as well as a de-bonder to clean it up and get it off your fingers, and an accelerator to make it set quicker. There are other uses for it besides just gluing things together. If you have some chipping off your guitar’s finish, you can wick the thin glue into the chip to keep it from continuing its destruction. You can mix the glue with baking soda or bone dust to make a very hard compound that you can use to shim up a low string at the nut, or rebuild a broken plastic part like a saddle. If you need to file that nut a little bit, a nice set of nut files can be handy to have around. If you are in a pinch, try picking up a set of welding tip cleaners from your local hardware store. These aren’t the best—and will not last too long—but they can file a nut slot in an emergency. It’s fun to look outside the box for tools and products that can help you adjust you guitar and keep it in shape.

Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.

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