Acoustic guitars and other instruments depend on proper maintenance to play and sound their best. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to keep an acoustic in optimal condition, and, compared to maintaining many other complex pieces of craftsmanship, it doesn’t cost a lot.
Here are some easy ways to enhance the sound, playability, and ultimately the lifespan of the guitar you treasure.
Humidity and Temperature
The thin woods used in an acoustic guitar are easily affected by humidity and temperature, and rapid changes to either or both can cause problems such as swelling of the wood, cracks in the finish and even weakened glue joints. The ideal conditions for storing an instrument are a humidity level of 45 to 55 percent—something you can easily check with a hygrometer—and a temperature between 72 and 77 degrees (F). Keeping a guitar in its case is a good way to minimize the effect of humidity and temperature changes, and always avoid rapidly exposing an instrument to hot or cold conditions. Let the guitar slowly acclimate to the environment by keeping it in its case for a while before taking it out to play. Also, if you are going to store a guitar for an extended period it’s a good idea to loosen the strings to reduce stress on the instrument.
The action, or the height of the strings over the frets, greatly affects playability and will change over time due to bowing of the neck or “bellying” of the top around the bridge area—a natural occurrence that can be caused by humidity, heavy strings, or the age of the instrument. Resetting the action on an acoustic guitar typically involves adjusting the trussrod or changing the height of bridge saddle and/or the nut. If you don’t know how to do these adjustments, take your guitar to a dealer or repair shop where a tech will do it right. On guitars with necks that are bolted on (Taylors, for example), the neck angle can be readily adjusted for optimal action, usually eliminating the need to make changes to the bridge saddle or nut, or in some cases, even having to remove and reset the neck.
The best way to remove sweat and grime from the guitar is to use a damp cloth, and then follow that up by wiping down the entire instrument (including the strings) with a soft dry cloth before putting it away. If you want to restore your guitar’s high-gloss sheen, use a recommended polish and avoid anything that has silicone in the formula. It’s also best to steer clear of straps made from synthetic materials because they may contain chemicals that can harm the finish. Natural fiber or leather straps are generally good, but even some leathers might contain potentially damaging chemicals. Again, consult the manufacturer when in doubt.
If your guitar has enclosed tuning machines with metal covers over the gears, they are factory lubricated and require no attention. However, if the tuners are the open-gear type they need to be lubricated periodically (as in once or twice a year) by putting a bit of grease or petroleum jelly in the gears with a toothpick. It may also be necessary to adjust the tension of the machines to make them easier to turn. That’s done by adjusting the screw in the middle of the gear on an open-gear tuner, or via the small screw at the end of the button on an enclosed tuner.
Strings and Bridge Pins
The easiest way to change the way an acoustic guitar plays and sounds is to put on a new set of strings. Strings can last a long time—coated types even longer—but that doesn’t mean you need to keep them on if something about the playability or sound isn’t happening. Obviously, the gauge of the strings can make a huge difference in how a guitar feels, and while acoustic strings are traditionally heavier than their electric cousins, there’s nothing wrong in trying a light-gauge set. If your flat-top is suddenly more fun to play, that’s a big win.
The strings on an acoustic guitar are held in place at the bridge by tapered pins made of wood, plastic or metal, each of which has a slot in it. When putting new strings on, make sure that the slots are facing forward toward the saddle. Press the pin against the string’s ball end as you push it into the bridge and give it a firm push with your thumb to seat it. Never hammer on a bridge pin or you could risk splitting the bridge.
To learn more about how to care for your acoustic guitar, click here to get Martin’s free Care & Feeding Guide.