Caring For Your Guitar & Bass

Mar 23, 2016

blog - caring for your guitar & bass

If you’re one of our regular readers, you’re probably already aware of the theme we have been staying in these last few weeks. If you’re a new reader, let me fill you in on what you might have missed over the last month or so. With the changing season inspiring people to dig out their old instruments to give them another try, we’ve been trying to center our attention on general care and maintenance tips for a variety of musical instruments. We kicked it all off with Help it Last: General Care For Your Instrument, which was a brief overview of the entire orchestra. Since then we have been focusing on particular instruments, like the piano and drums, which require a little more information than can fit in a general blog entry. To that end, this week we’ll be looking at the care and maintenance of both acoustic and electric guitars and basses.

Temperature & Humidity

Acoustic & Electric

Acoustic and electric guitars are susceptible to changes in both temperature and humidity. Wood is extremely sensitive to its environment, and there is a lot of it in both guitar designs. While not a big concern when playing, this is definitely something to keep in mind when you put it away in between jam sessions. It is best for the guitar if you try to keep the humidity at a steady 45-55% and the temperature around 22 to 25 Celsius (72-77 Fahrenheit). The farther outside these parameters you go, the more danger your instrument is in.

Temperature changes outside the recommended range can be perilous for the instrument, with rapid changes causing cracks in the finish, and extreme cold contributing to more substantial cracking in the body. But the biggest danger is humidity. As the local humidity increases, the wood of your bass or guitar will swell, which in extreme cases can lead to glue joints weakening, or even opening. Dry spells can be equally disastrous. If the local humidity in your instrument’s storage area suddenly drops rapidly, some parts of your guitar can shrink more readily than others, causing cracks.

There are a few warning signs that your guitar is too dry to watch out for. The first is sharp fret ends. When the neck dries out the wood will shrink slightly, leaving the fret ends sticking out. Another sign to look for is low action, which can be caused by the neck warping. If your strings start buzzing more than usual you may want to begin slowly humidifying your guitar.

To combat these effects in other instruments, we have previously suggested using a humidifier. Again, that is a great way to help your bass or guitar during the winter months, but keep in mind that direct contact with the instrument can cause the very damage you are trying to avoid.

Cleaning the Finish

Acoustic

The vast majority of acoustic guitars and basses have a nice, high-grade finish, which makes them very sensitive. The best way to keep that finish looking great is to just use a warm, damp cloth. If you must use a product, make absolute sure that it is safe to use on your instrument; anything with alcohol, solvents like those in plastics, vinyl and leather straps, citric acid, even sweat, can leave permanent scars on your guitar’s finish. In fact, it is usually even recommended that you use a soft, dry, clean cloth to wipe down the strings and body of your guitar after each use, to remove potentially harmful oils from your hands.

Electric

Electric guitars and basses tend to come with either a glossy or flat finish, each of which require their own cleaning methods. Most guitars have a glossy finish, which is good, because it’s usually easier to clean than a flat finish. For this there are two main categories of cleaning products: sprays and pastes/gels. Whichever you choose to use is a matter of personal preference, but both do a decent job of removing fingerprints, oil, and dirt, while leaving a nice shine. Follow your chosen product’s instructions for cleaning, but be careful not to get any cleaner on your pickups because even the smallest amount of liquid can cause corrosion and damage.

If you go with the paste/gel option, keep an eye out for the words “silicone” or “abrasive” on the packaging, and avoid them at all costs. These additives will scratch your instrument’s finish.

For guitars with a flat or satin finish, you need a somewhat different cleaning process. You are still free to use a paste style cleaning product, but I would generally recommend against that, as it will eventually wear down the finish, giving it a more glossy look. If the instrument isn’t really all that dirty, and you’re just looking to remove skin oils and fingerprints, just use a slightly dampened cloth to wipe it down. If your guitar or bass requires a more thorough cleaning, look for a commercial product designed specifically for flat or satin finished electric guitars.

Strings

Strings don’t last forever; sometimes they break, other times they just lose that inexplicable quality, and just don’t sound right. Stretching the string with tuning as well as dirt and oils from your hands can muffle and deaden the sound. When this happens it’s time to change your strings. Not all strings are created equal: acoustic strings tend to be thicker than electric strings because they need to project unassisted. And remember, regardless of how many strings need replacing, you should always change all of them, otherwise your instrument will sound unbalanced.

Acoustic

Acoustic guitar and bass strings are usually some sort of bronze alloy, which produces a bright tone. Try phosphor bronze for a slightly warmer sound, and brass for an especially bright tone.

Electric

There is a little more choice in string alloys for electric guitars. Nickel-plated steel strings have a wonderfully bright and warm sound, and features excellent magnetic properties. Steel strings also produce a nice bright sound, while also offering more protection against oxidation. A third option, favoured by jazz and blues musicians, is the harder chrome string, which gives a much darker tone.