In many ways, guitars are like a 70s Chevy. Almost anything can be customized, and many of those things are done by the owner. This post will be a guide about maintenance and customisation tasks that any beginning guitarist should be able learn – and those that are best left to someone with a little more experience. Basic maintenance tasks aren’t difficult, but sometimes beginning guitarists need a little reminder of what they can, and what might require a little more study first. This article will focus on electric guitars, but much of the information can be used for acoustic guitars as well.
I just bought a guitar…and I’m afraid I might break something!
Relax, you won’t. Just don’t drop it and you’ll be fine. First thing to know is that modern guitars are pretty durable. The finishes are generally some kind of polyurethane, which is a protective plastic coating over the paint and the wood. Small scratches will eventually form on this coating from zippers, jeans, taking it in and out of the case, etc. This is normal, and guitars that are actually played regularly eventually show some wear. Obsessing over every tiny scratch in your investment will take energy away from the reason you got it in the first place: you wanna rock.
Most pieces on an electric guitar are held on with bolts or screws, and this makes them easier to build, fix, replace and customize. If you can operate a screwdriver and possibly a hex wrench, you can adjust many aspects of the guitar to suit your own whims and playing style without messing anything up. Just use common sense. Work slowly, don’t over-tighten anything, and remember that snapping or cracking sounds are bad.
Keep Your Baby Clean
While working as a guitar tech for a few years, I am amazed at how many guitars came to me in terrible shape. Crusty strings, sticky paint and rust were common, and sometimes I wonder if these were stored outside all year. Cleaning a guitar is easy and it’s something every guitarist should learn to do. Guitar polishes sold in music stores can be used for wood or paint and are mild enough that they won’t build up a haze after repeated use. You shouldn’t be able to feel the polish on a guitar after using it: if you do, you’re either using the wrong stuff or too much of it. I use a cotton cloth or an old t-shirt, and spray to polish on the cloth, and rub in circles on the guitar’s surface. For hard-to-reach areas like the bridge (hard to get to under the strings), I use an old toothbrush and compressed air to get rid of the funky stuff that seems to collect there.
I use guitar polish on the back of the neck too and for the initial cleaning of the fretboard. The fretboard has to be cleaned with the strings off, so you can polish the frets and get the gunk that collects on either side of the metal frets themselves. Again, I use guitar polish on the wood, which works on the most common fretboard materials.
To clean the frets I use painter’s tape on either side of every fret to mask off the wood. I then use #0000 steel wool to polish the tops of the frets. This sounds like it takes more time than it does – and if the guitar is cleaned regularly when you change strings, there won’t be need for a super-deep cleaning. The entire cleaning process might take about 20 minutes, and less when you get really good at it.
Change those strings!
Guitar players vary wildly when deciding when to change strings. Luckily, strings are cheap (try pricing upright bass strings) so it’s a good idea to change them when they get funky. If I run my finger underneath the length of the small strings and I wind up with dirt from the string on my finger, I change them. I also live in a humid environment, and water in the air will break down the nickel on the string. You can get coated strings to delay the need to change them, but sooner or later you will have to.
Changing strings is something all guitarists learn to do. Before rock stars became so big, they changed their own strings. It takes only about 15 minutes or so, and gets shorter every time you do it. YouTube and guitar-playing friends come in handy here, and you can consult these great resources when it is time to get those nasty ol’ strings off. By doing it yourself, you will save money and be the envy of all your coworkers. New strings stay in tune better, are easier to tune, and feel better under your fingers.
Learn a little about wiring and pickups
The wiring in an electric guitar is really simple, based on principles from 100 years ago. Most guitars don’t have PC boards in them, and the parts inside are connected with solder and simple hookup wire. Almost every electric guitar at some point has a wiring issue, from an unexplained hum to a jack that has become disconnected. Don’t worry! I will bet that most people learned about this stuff online or from books. If they did it, you can! You are smart, you can learn! Soldering isn’t difficult although it helps to have someone show you, watch videos online and/or read about it. Once you know, you will also wonder what the big deal is- it isn’t exactly rocket science, and it is part of what every guitarist should know.
Learning how to solder can also open up a whole world of guitar wiring customization. Don’t like how your switches and knobs work? Change ‘em! Love your guitar but hate the way it sounds for this new ‘the heavy metal’ music you kids are into? Change the pickups! The Seymour Duncan User Group forum can answer questions about many types of wiring and pickups, and the Tone Wizard will suggest pickups based of the style of guitar you have and the music you want to play.
Things you might want to leave to someone else…for now
Adjusting the straightness of the neck using the truss rod scares people at first, but it isn’t much of a big deal either. This may need to happen during the initial setup when buying a guitar, and later on if you decide to change gauges of strings. The neck may have to be adjusted if you live in a climate with extreme seasonal changes too. Adjusting the truss rod is something you can do, but unlike other suggestions, if it is adjusted wrong, you can seriously damage your instrument. While you will learn this later on (you should, as it is on the ‘things guitarists should know’ list we pass out to all our new members), you might leave this to a local guitar tech for now.
Like other adjustments, the bridge can easily be set up by you as well. While you won’t hurt anything by trying, you might end up with a guitar that doesn’t stay in tune past the 10th fret, or a tremolo that won’t stay in tune. Adjusting the bridge is one of those things that once it is set, you don’t need to change it unless you change gauges of strings or radically change your playing style.
Things you might not want to try
Replacing frets when they’re worn over many years is a job best left to someone with the right tools and experience. Refinishing is one of those things too. Any kind of woodworking, like routing for a new bridge or pickup, might be something left to a qualified pro. Plenty of guitarists do this themselves, but they never practice on their #1 instrument, and only after reading, practicing, failing, and repeating do they go ahead with it.
For more reading
I love How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great, which is a great guide to basic adjustments and wiring. For a more in-depth study of guitar repair (and a great read too), check out Guitar Player Repair Guide, which dives into the nuts & bolts of real repair work. Both books are by Dan Erlewine, who wrote a repair column for Guitar Player magazine many years ago, and started my interest in understanding how these instruments of torture work. Also, check out Orpheo’s article on giving your baby some TLC.
How much work do you do on your guitars? How did you learn how to do all of that stuff?