A small investment can make the difference between a fun night of playing your favorite guitar and a disappointing performance.
Getting the most from your guitar actually isn’t very difficult. And in fact, taking care of your guitar is easier—and cheaper—than you might think.
Let’s look at some tools and products you can invest in—as well as a few adjustments you can do at home—that can help you avoid common problems.
1. Get the basic tools required for 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.
2. Learn how to adjust your bridge saddles and truss rod. Occasionally, a saddle can vibrate lower—especially when you have individual saddles—and a string or two will become unplayable. If you look closely at the alignment of the saddles, you should be able to tell which saddle 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.
As for truss rods, most can be adjusted with larger screwdriver or with a hex or socket wrench. For that matter, most guitars come with the appropriate wrench for the job. If you open your case and notice that the strings are higher or lower than the last time you played, you probably have to adjust the truss rod. The bridge height can’t change by itself, but the neck can move on its own. 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.
3. 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 action that’s comfortable.
4. Use Super Glue to patch up nicks in the finish and repair the nut. Super Glue, or cyanoacrylate, is handy for this purpose. It comes in a few viscosities, as well as a debonder to clean it up and get it off your fingers and an accelerator to make it set quicker. You can wick the thin glue into the chipped area to keep it from eroding further. You can also 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, such as a saddle. If you need to file the nut a little bit afterward, use a set of nut files. 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.
For that matter...
5. Nail polish makes for great, cheap touch-up paint. It comes in lots of colors and is easy to apply. Some players prefer the reliqued look, and that’s fine too. But for fast, easy and inexpensive fixes, nail polish does the job.
If you need help finding guitar tools, check out 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 multitools, hex wrenches, and sockets. And of course Amazon is a good all-in-one place to find just about anything you'll need.
Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.