A guitar is a lot like a lover: if you don’t take proper care of it, it will soon stop making those wonderful sounds it makes every time you touch it. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but I will assert that I am not far off.
Many people start playing the guitar in their early teenage years. For some of us, it becomes a lifelong affair without a break in between, but for many of us, life, kids, and work get between us and our instrument. With that in mind, I’m going to dole out some advice that is just as salient for those of us that populate either one of the groups I just mentioned. Just how do you maintain your electric guitar so that it gives you a lifetime of enjoyment? Read on!
A Proper Set Up Is Golden
If your guitar hasn’t been played in a while, and you have absolutely no clue on how to adjust the truss rod, bridge, etc., take it to a reputable tech and have a proper set up done. It will cost you about $50, but it will give you a properly set up guitar that you can use as a benchmark for your own setups, which I highly recommend you learn how to do. Pick up a book/DVD combo like Dan Erlwine’s How To Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great! and do the adjustments he recommends using the guidelines he talks about, and you will be well on your way to being able to adjust your own truss rod from now on. I know it’s a scary thing for so many guitarists, but really, if you have ever seen the way guitar techs handle a guitar, you’ll come to appreciate that they are indeed just tools, albeit beautiful ones with sentimental attachments. Do not be afraid to work on your guitar. It will save you money but you will also have a truly customized instrument with tweaks and treats here and there that an outside tech will not necessarily be able to replicate right when you need them to - say at this Saturday night’s gig.
Resolve Tuning Issues Before They Start
I can’t tell you how many people rush into music repair shops and declare “My guitar doesn’t stay in tune! It needs a new (fill in the blank here with: bridge, set of tuners, neck adjustment)!” In many cases, they have simply not stretched the strings properly after a string change, or the problem they are having is at the nut. If you put on a new set of strings, you must stretch them. You can do it manually and rather imperfectly, or you can quickly use the String Stretcha and take the guesswork out of it. I reviewed the String Stretcha not long ago and will never do a string change without it again. It makes a 45 minute job a 5-minute job with much more reliable results.
Another consideration is the nut. If the grooves in the nut are too wide or too narrow, they will either hug the string not enough or too much. Gee, that does sound like a bad lover doesn’t it? If your guitar has been recently setup, the tech/repair person probably made sure the nut was replaced/fixed so that the spacing is not a problem. That doesn’t mean you are off the hook. I’m going to continue with my lover analogy here and say this: the wrong kind of friction is going to cause problems. How do we fix that? Simple: Big Bend’s Nut Sauce. A dab of this awesome product in the grooves of the nut where each string sits is going to allow the string to bend and move when it needs to, and that is going to prevent you from going out of tune more than you should be. Guitar tech’s all over the world swear by this product and there is a good reason why: it works. Put some sauce on your nut! You won’t be sorry. You can even use it on your bridge or any other friction point where your strings come into contact with your guitar. It a versatile product that in this reviewer's opinion, is unmatched in the industry.
Keep Your Instrument Clean
The part of me that is classically trained has absolutely no shame in saying that a clean instrument is a well-cared for instrument. I don’t care that Sid Viscious had goop and blood all over his bass. I also don’t care that some punk rockers cover their guitars in stickers and basically damage the finish on purpose. I will tell you that if you do not take care of the finish on your guitar, it will eventually start to crack, without you having played the crap out of it for 20 years. That may look kinda cool, but a cracked finish can lead a host of other problems. Wipe your guitar’s neck and body off after every playing/practice session and your instrument will survive for decades. A microfibre cloth is all you need for that purpose. I particularly like the one that Dean Markley offers because it's a huge 18"x18" and can be used in one quick swoop over an entire section of the guitar and neck.
Some of us that love guitars much like we love cars (that’s me!) absolutely love shining them up and showing them off. Using a product that is safe on whatever finish your guitar has is crucial. For vintage instruments with nitrocellulose finishes, using the wrong product will end in disaster. I’ve tested a bunch of products for this purpose, and by far my favorite is Prof.Green’s Guitar Polish. Made of all natural products, it easily wipes away grime without adding any buildup. The really neat part about Professor Green's products is that they offer a discount if you send them your empty container to refill. You help the environment while helping your guitar, and what's not to love about that?
If you’ve got little scratches to get rid of, not a problem. The folks at Big Bends make an incredible product - the best in it’s class as far as this tester is concerned - called Encore Scratch Remover. Used together with their mirofibre AXS Wipe it works to take away any little swirl marks or scratches that have built up on your guitar. If you have more intense scratches, you may be able to use some automotive products if your guitar finish isn’t a nitrocellulose one. But remember: don’t get more invasive than you need to. Don’t start with a belt sander. Start with the least intense scratch removal process and go from there. Once you’re done, spray some of the Prof. Green’s polish on a polishing cloth and you’re good to go!
It’s All About Conditioning
With the exception of a few new products being used on some guitars, most fretboards are made of wood. My favorite fretboard wood is ebony, but even if you’ve got a rosewood fretboard, the following applies to you: condition the wood! Especially if you live in a place that gets dry in the winter. You don’t need to condition your fretboard often, but when you do you should keep it simple. No point putting all kinds of goop on there that you’ll just have to scrape off eventually. My favorite fretboard conditioner is the one by Prof. Green. It is all natural in composition and it smells relatively pleasant as well, but doesn’t leave behind a gunky, slippery mess. Don’t over-do it. Your fretboard shouldn’t be sopping wet once you’re done.
Storage Concerns aka Humidity: Friend or Foe?
As someone who lives in North America’s northeast, I can tell you that if you do not monitor humidity levels, you will end up with a guitar that is uncomfortable if not plain horrible, to play. With the cold winter months comes dryness, and that is followed by the more humid conditions in the summer. This temperature and humidity change causes the problem of wood expansion/shrinkage. That can lead to warping, frets that stick out of the edges of the guitar neck (ouch!), and a host of other issues. If you live close to the ocean, you have other considerations to factor in when dealing with humidity. Keeping your guitars in cases can help, but you may still need to monitor the humidity levels in your home to be sure that you don’t end up causing severe damage by neglecting your instrument. If in doubt, purchase a humidity gauge. It will tell you if you need to invest in a humidifier for your case or room/home. I prefer to use the Planet Waves Humidipak system with my acoustic guitar because it takes the guesswork and the mess out of a properly humidified case.
There is a lot more to the maintenance and upkeep of an electric guitar that would garner volumes to be written, but the above 5 steps should set you on the road to success. Depending on the type of bridge (tremolo or not) that your guitar has, there are other considerations you may need to address. Whatever you decide, if you have any doubt that an adjustment you are making or a product you are using is not going to give you the desired result - ASK AN EXPERT! Leave a comment with #AskTheRockerChick on Twitter, or below and I'll do my best to put you in touch with the right person for the job. It may even be me.Some things can’t be “undone” so to speak, while other seemingly disastrous mistakes have a simple fix. Here are some links to websites where you will find more maintenance tips given by some of the leaders in the industry. And please, once you’re done taking care of your guitar, play it!
Seymour Duncan - Aside from yours truly, there are some other great writers and real experts over on the Seymour Duncan blog. You can find tips, tricks, and even artist interviews and videos.
Stewart MacDonald - An online shop and repository for luthiers and guitar DIY enthusiasts. They have awesome e-mail tips and a lot of free videos that can help you get your guitar in the best shape of its life.
B.C.Rich Junkies - I'm a self-confessed B.C.Rich Junkie, and I am very fortunate to know some very highly skilled people that either used to or currently work on B.C.Rich guitars, including the venerable Neal Moser, who was the brains behind the 10-string B.C.Rich Bich model. It is a B.C.Rich focused page, but I have never encountered a group more willing to help and so well-versed in guitars as the people on this page. They have an awesome charity raffle going on right now too, so check them out! Their main page is actually their Facebook page, but this website will lead you to that as well as a lot more.
KAOS Music Centre's "Ask The Expert" - Based in Toronto, this music store is responsible for several of my "addictions" and the purchases that enable and feed my love of music and guitars. Recently, the store added a free service that allows you to send in questions to their staff, and they will gladly answer you and provide you with top notch service. You can't beat it, and the guys at KAOS are awesome.
Your local guitar shop - I don't mean a big box type store. I mean the local shop where the owner rings up your sale and where the long-standing tech in the back room has forgotten more than most people know about guitars. For me, KAOS Music Center and The Guitar World in Mississauga, Ontario provide that kind of unparalleled service. I can go in any time and get all the help I need in a non-judgmental environment. The bonus is I call these people my friends so we get to talk guitars, music, and concerts too. Test-driving new gear is also an added benefit, and Jim Toris at The Guitar World, and Lou Roppoli at KAOS are always happy to introduce me to another piece of awesome gear. Lou Roppoli also makes custom amplifiers, through Roppoli Amplification. You can check them out here.