10 Signs Your Guitar May Need Some TLC

Les Paul with broken neck
No level of TLC can bring this unfortunate guitar back to life…

Already during the early days of my guitar-playing career I saw myself surrounded by amazing guitar players and luthiers. Some of them I consider friends nowadays and I couldn’t be more impressed with guitars than I am with theirs. So, naturally, their trade rubbed off a bit on me. I believe that I started to think a bit like a luthier. That mindset helped me to notice issues that may have caused problems if they weren’t addressed. The more I work with other players outside my circle of guitar playing friends, the more I see that many players have no idea when it’s time to hand over the instrument to caressing hands who can breathe life back into their cherished guitar. Often they simply don’t know what to look for! Let’s highlight the 10 most common signs that your guitar will exhibit that warns you that it might be prudent to go see a good guitar tech or luthier.

worn frets1. Worn Frets
Odd though it might seem, I discovered that most guys have no idea that their frets are worn. They just blame the worsening of the playability on old strings, dirt on the fretboard, overall grime or just the age of the instrument. If you see something that looks similar to the picture on the left, you should go see a guitar tech or luthier.
2. Loose Electronics
It may seem just annoying but when your jack or pots are loose, you may develop some serious problems later on. For example, if you turn the pot too fiercely or pull out the jack with too much force you might tear the internal cabling! If you have a complex wiring schematic, that might be be hard to fix!
3. Sharp Fret Ends
Sharp fret ends can be extremely irritating but are often the result of either of two things. One: it might be because the guitar wasn’t built to the highest possible standards so the frets stick out. Two: changes in humidity. If the humidity changes, for example if the air gets a lot drier, the wood dries out too. And because the wood changes but the metal stays the same, the fret ends will stick out a bit creating a sharp edge in the process. If your neck has binding, you might see cracked binding if the frets protrude a lot, but you won’t feel it: you’ll just see it. So, what can be done? Just bring it to a luther and he’ll level the fret ends with the side of the fretboard. Next time the humidity goes down, the fret ends won’t stick out!

This picture shows very rough frets. A great exaggeration of most fret jobs, but even a minute level of this kind of wear will greatly influence the smoothness and playability.
This picture shows very rough frets. A great exaggeration of most fret jobs, but even a minute level of this kind of wear will greatly influence the smoothness and playability.

4. Raspy Feel When Bending
I know a lot of guys who think their guitar plays nicely, and accompany that statement with something like this: ‘I have super low action!’ That’s a common phrase for me to hear. As if low action is the only key to nice playability? I don’t think so. Because when I pick up the guitar and play a bit, it feels raspy and gritty when I bend the strings of the frets. A close visual examination tells me what the culprit is instantaneously: unpolished frets! I even see it on some brand new guitars, fresh out of the factory! If you feel comfortable doing so, you can even try to fix it yourself. Grab a 1 x 1 inch piece of sanding paper, grit 2500, and go over the fret a couple of times. You’ll see an instant change. Do that with all the frets, then move to either an even finer grit or polishing compound and start rubbing. If you take your time it might take you an hour, but if you already had good action, this will make your guitar play even better than before! I always do it when I’m doing a total setup of a guitar, which involves a good cleaning too! Just don’t forget to mask off the fretboard!
5. Buzzing Of The Strings
Fret buzz can be extremely annoying, even to the degree that you’re inclined to never use the guitar or even worse: throw away the guitar all together. It can be a daunting task to find the right balance between bridge height, nut height, truss rod tightness and string tension. A good luthier and even a good guitar tech (those things are not the same!) should be able to sort it out for you. If you feel very bold, read this article as well as this article if you want to tackle the problem yourself.
6. Buzz
Didn’t I just mention buzz? Yes, but now I’m talking about buzz through the amp. If your guitar always operated normally and now it’s buzzing through your amp, you may have a ground issue. It could be that the wire going from the pot cavity to the bridge stud has corroded a bit, causing the ground to be attached to ‘nothing,’ or you yanked it out of the guitar with extreme tremolo use. In any case, if the buzz doesn’t go away if you touch the bridge or any other piece of metal on your guitar, you’re having a grounding issue. Don’t start cluttering the back of the pots with dollops of solder-goo, just go to a tech. He’ll pull out the stud, lay down a new earth wire and you’re good to go!
7. Buzzing, Take III
As you may have gathered, there’s a hell of a lot to say about buzzing, wether it’s caused by the electrickery or the strings flapping and rattling against the fretboard. There’s one more cause of buzzing I don’t want to withhold from you and that’s the twisting of your neck. If the grain isn’t perfectly perpendicular to the neck’s direction (and that’s more often the case than not!) and the wood hasn’t dried and rested for the necessary time, the timber might twist along its length. You’d notice that when there’s buzzing on, for example, the higher frets on the wound strings but not on the unwound strings, or vice versa of course. To exaggerate the issue, the neck will look like a huge corkscrew. Unfortunately, there’s not much a luthier can do. Maybe set the strings up very high and go all ‘Ry Cooder’ and suggest you go play slide, but if you play a super slick shredstick, you may not want to do that. If the guitar’s out of warranty a luthier might take off the fretboard, level the neck again and attach a new fretboard, or replace the neck all together. This is a very costly procedure and the choice to engage in this reconstruction depends entirely on the value you put on the guitar.
8. Crack At The Heel
If you’re a guitar lover as I am you must have seen the detailed pictures of Steve Vai’s white Ibanez JEM called Evo. After years of use and abuse, the inevitable happened. The neck pocket started to crack. It ran down the body all the way to the trem cavity! The soft body wood couldn’t handle all the stresses of relentless touring, gigging and recording as well as Vai’s intense on-stage use. I bet you can imagine the tuning issues you get with a crack like this. Thankfully, an injury of this kind can be fixed. It’s not easy, but it can. When you see a crack near the neck pocket going towards the back of the guitar, be cautious and just go to a tech. It may be nothing – simply a crack in the finish rather than the wood – but if it is a developing crack be sure to have it fixed. The sooner you have it repaired, the easier it is to repair and the cheaper the repair will be. It could also be just a crack in the paint, but do you really wish to take a chance?
9. Unexplainable Microphonic Feedback
A couple of years ago, Slash brought in his prized Les Paul replica with which he recorded and toured during the early days of Guns ‘n Roses. You know… that cherryburst Les Paul with that amazing flame top, loaded with very early Alnico II Pro pickups. Slash had issues with microphonic feedback at high volume. At first glance that might seem odd because, after all, the Alnico II Pro humbuckers are wax potted to prevent such annoyance! But apparently, wax potting can decay over time. Consider that wax potting is really what the name says it is: putting the pickup in a pot of wax, to fill in all the nooks and crannies of the pickup so nothing can vibrate (which causes the microphonic feedback). But if the pickup is put in very warm conditions, day in day out, year in year out, it doesn’t require that much of a stretch of imagination to understand that the wax may melt away. Even a little bit of loss can result in unwanted trouble. If you never had trouble with your guitar and suddenly after years of trusty use it starts to feed back, it may be time to have your pickup re-potted. If you are a bit of a daredevil you can do it yourself but you can also send it to Seymour Duncan in Santa Barbara, they’ll be happy to repot the pickup for you. Take a minute to see Seymour W. Duncan take apart this piece of Rock ‘n Roll history. He’s explaining perfectly why a pickup may get unpotted over time, but it’s just an amazing clip to watch.

10. Continuously Breaking Strings
This one is such a basic issue I almost forgot to mention it. Strings can break at five possible locations (in descending order of likelihood): the saddle, the stop tail (tremolo block), the nut, the tuner or simply in the middle. For a string to break in the middle, you’d have to hit it VERY hard and I have only seen it on very rare occasions. Since the string passes over some sharp ridges like the nut and saddle, the string is more likely to break at that break angle than somewhere in the middle. All other locations where the string might break are in 99 out of 100 cases the result of a small, sharp edge called a of burr. You can try to sand it away with fine sandpaper (grit 1200) and polish it afterwards just to be sure the burr is gone, or replace the current saddles with graphite saddles. In any case, breaking strings on a regular basis is not a good thing and is a sign that something needs your attention.
There are of course much more things that can go wrong with your guitar than just this small list, but in my opinion are these the 10 most common shenanigans one might experience with his or her guitar that can cause major problems if not addressed in time and are easily fixable. If you’re handy with a screwdriver, hammer and soldering iron you can fix these issues yourself quite easily, but if you don’t feel up to snuff, just hand it over. Don’t mess with your guitar if you’re not 100% comfortable with tinkering because keep in mind: most luthiers and techs don’t mind fixing a small thing, but repairing a botch job that was intended as a repair is much more annoying, time consuming, irritating and much, much more expensive!

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4 Comments

  1. High quality parts matter to reduce string breakage as 9/10 of the time I break strings tuning on cheap guitars. Use micro mesh to polish the frets for that smooth feel. Lemon oil and lighter fluid for rosewood/ebony fretboards to keep them clean and hydrated (dry fretboards are a no-no). If you’ve got sharp frets or buzz see a tech.
    some string types work better. Avoid fender super bullets and dean markley. Thick cored strings I’m yet to break one picking. Same with say Dunlop Heavycore. But besides that try to keep the sweat and dirt off a guitar to prevent rust and wipe down your strings after every play.

    1. I’ve found that sharp burrs and bad edges appear on any price guitar. I just had to de-burr a couple saddles on an ESP custom shop eclipse because it constantly broke strings. That was a $4000 guitar, and it went through e strings faster than my $400 1990s DeArmond. Paying more does not always preclude you from having an issue like this, but it absolutely does prevent issues with poor quality woods and electronics.

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