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How To Care For Your Guitar | Keep It In Optimal Shape For Years To Come

October 7, 2017

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” 
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

 

 

If you are in any shape or form serious about your guitar practice and music, you'll want to take good care of your instrument.

Guitars are quite rugged, yes, but that is no reason to mistreat them, especially once you start getting better quality ones.

 

It's like when you finally get the car you wanted. Would you bump it and scratch it all around? Yeah, me neither.

 

In that sense it is that in this lesson I'll teach you the basic things you need to know to make sure you always take care of your guitar, which will allow it to work for years to come and, like wine, get better the older it gets.

 

We'll be covering how to protect, store, handle, transport, and clean it.

Let's start with the basics that apply to the care of all guitars.

 

 

Protection

 

 

Guitars are very nice, aren't they? The whole reason why there are so many models out there is virtually only aesthetic.

 

So yeah, we like our instrument to be beautiful in addition to having nice sound.

 

Durability is another subject, however. While there are guitars that are more robust than others, you can't go wrong by knowing how to protect it from damage that will affect every and all guitars.

 

The most important source of damage at this stage is mechanical damage, like bumps, scratches, twists, as well as combinations of those.

 

When you are not playing the guitar, there are two main ways in which you can help protect the guitar from harm:

 

  • Gig bag

Whenever you buy a new guitar, you should throw in a gig bag for it as well. They are usually cheap unless you dive into the top-of-the-line bags, but even a simple cheapo goes a long way into protecting your six-string lady (yes, guitars are female, sorry my female readers).

 

The two main sizes for gig bags are acoustic and electric. Like the names suggest, these are designed for each kind of guitar, and usually it's enough to choose a bag. However, there are exceptions of bigger and smaller acoustic and electric guitars that might not fit all acoustic and electric bags, and this is why it's often a good idea to purchase a gig bag adequate for the guitar you are buying by choosing it on the spot and making sure it fits snuggly (it should not allow much movement of the instrument inside it), especially since you can get good quality bags for as low as $20-30.

 

These bags tend to be quite soft and flexible, with a varying amount of padding that can protect the guitar from virtually all scratches (unless you are a maniac and attack it with a knife).

 

As for bumps, depending on the amount of padding it has, they are usually good enough.

 

Twists are a different problem. The main problem with twists is the damage it can do to the neck. A soft bag has little to no protection unless it's a very thick and padded bag.

 

As for protection from the elements, mainly humidity, gig bags are no good. Unless you were to find a bag which is air-tight, which I've never seen one since they use zippers, you should avoid leaving it in humid places for too long (as in as little time as possible). Humidity affects the wood by swelling and contracting it, which can lead to cracks both in the wood itself as in the paint and finish. It also affects the strings, which will rust much faster (even wound nylon strings will have the wounding wire rusted), in addition to affecting the rest of the metallic hardware on the guitar (bridge, pots, etc).

 

Normally, you'll want to be wary of just how much humidity the guitar is subjected to. You don't want to keep it too humid, which will make the wood swell and possibly warp, but you don't want it to become too dry either, which will contract it and make it less flexible, and therefore more brittle. Not good in any case, but let's continue with the bags, and we'll dive more into humidity later in this lesson.

 

Gig bags come in many shapes and colors, although the most common color is black. They will have at least one handle for carrying it by hand, and at least one strap to carry it on the shoulders (sometimes the straps are removable).

 

These are a couple of photos from the bags I own:

 

Bags number 1, 2, and 4 are for electric guitars. Number 1 is especifically designed for a Jackson RR model, which I own, which has a very distinctive shape. Numbers 2 and 4 are for standard super strat model electric guitars.

 

Bags number 3 and 5 are for acoustic or electroacoustic guitars. I store my electroacoustic on bag 3 and my acoustic on bag 5.

 

  • Case

A case can be thought of as a hard bag for most intents and purposes.

 

They hold your guitar inside a protective hard material that will protect it from all mechanical damage.

 

The only consideration is the effect of humidity. Although cases are usually not air-tight, they tend to be much tighter than bags, which will help prevent excessive humidity to get inside it.

 

Tip: get yourself a bag of silica gel and store it inside the case for maximum protection from humidity.

 

 

They also come in models for acoustic and electric guitars, although the same considerations on size apply to cases as they do for bags. Unless you are buying the case at the same time with your new guitar, it's often a good idea to take the guitar to the store to help you choose a right one.

 

Cases tend to be more expensive than bags. You can have cases that retail for hundreds of dollars, although you can still get some that are more affordable (like this one).

 

Here are a couple of photos of the cases I own:

 

This case I use exclusively for my Jackson PS4. It's all about the color ensemble, hahaha!

 

This case is specially designed for my Ibanez SZ320, which is possibly my favorite axe in my arsenal.

 

This last one is the odd one out.I bought this case about two years ago for cheap, and I have it as a backup in case anything goes south with any of the other ones...or maybe it's just waiting for a new guitar to come by... Only time will tell.

 

 

Now, if we are talking about how to protect the guitar while you are playing it, the main advice is to have common sense and be prudent.

 

If you are playing by yourself in your room, make sure you have nothing close to it that can hit or scratch the guitar (this includes playful dogs and cats that want to get to know the guitar better).

 

If you are rehearsing with your band, the same concept applies, with the added consideration of the other musicians. Try not to bump into each other and hit your instruments.

 

If you are playing onstage, it's usually not a problem unless the stage is very small or exceptionally crowded.

 

Be wary of your surroundings and it should be fine.

 

I hate it when I hit my guitar against stuff. People are fine, and sometimes they deserve it, but objects are innocent.

Storage

 

 

Not very common, indeed, but it can happen that you have to store a guitar for an extended period.

 

Situations like going on a trip overseas on a scholarship, or getting hurt in an accident and be restricted to bed can leave you away from your guitar for quite some time. A couple of months or more.

 

Even if you are travelling and want to take the guitar with you, it might happen that you have more than one guitar, so it will be a good idea to take only one and store the rest.

 

If you are going to be on leave for more than two weeks, I recommend taking special care for the storage of the instrument.

 

To that end, the best option would be a guitar case. The reason a case is better is because it's more air-tight than bags. Together with some dessicant, like the silica gel I talked about above, it will help keep your guitar fresh for a long time.

 

However, in these situations the consideration of temperature becomes increasingly important. In everyday use it's usually a minor concern, but when leaving the instrument unattended for long, the effect of temperature can be considerable, especially in countries that have huge temperature swings throughout the year.

 

The effect of temperature on the wood is very similar to that of humidity. It can expand or contract the wood and produce cracks. The strings are not affected by temperature, luckily.

 

To minimize this, there are couple of things you can do:

  • Avoid storing in any place that is subject to direct sunlight. Stay clear off windows.

  • Air currents are to be avoided as much as possible. Avoid doors.

 

Basements are tempting. Usually the temperature of a basement is more stable than the rest of the house; it won't get too cold in winter nor too hot in summer, so it's a definite possibility for long-term storage.

 

If you are sure that humidity won't be out of control (especially make sure that the basement is not prone to flooding), then it's a very good place to store your guitar.

 

If humidity might be a problem, but you still want to use the basement, what you can do is try to seal the case as much as possible. You can try adding a weatherstrip to the case so that it makes a good seal, and yes, you can even consider duct-taping it all around.

 

Just make sure you get back and pick up the guitar soon, or else she'll feel lonely.

Handling

 

 

I've seen many players treat their guitars like sh*t onstage.

I've also seen many others treating them as their loved ones, which has even made me think twice if that is even legal.

 

You can agree or disagree with me, but the truth is that there is no car enthusiast in the whole World that doesn't care if their car is scratched because of reckless driving, or even just driving normally. No, there is no such thing.

 

My question to you, then, is this:

 

Are you a guitar enthusiast too?

Do you treat your guitar as such?

 

Yeah, I know, I said I had one question for you, but ended up asking two. So sue me.

 

Myself, I consider myself as such, which is why I treat my guitars with the utmost care. It's especially important to know how to handle it adequately when you are playing live, but also if you are practicing by yourself in your room. Remember that any damage resulting from mistreatment adds up.

 

This means that you should stay clear of any abrasive elements next to the guitar.

 

 

Whenever you pick up your instrument, you should avoid grabbing it by the neck. The only exception to this is if you pick it up vertically.

 

 

The reason why this is because the body of the guitar tends to be quite heavy, which in turn produces a considerable amount of torque on the neck. Although this is not a guarantee of damage, and even many Luthiers have assured me it's completely safe, it's best to avoid it altogether. Why risk it?

 

The same principle technically applies whenever you pick it up vertically, although the effect is virtually negligible because the force of the weight is applied in line with the neck, so there's no torque generated. That is why you can hang guitars vertically just fine, like you see in stores, which is exactly what I've done with one of my Jacksons:

 

 

BTW, you can buy inexpensive wall hangers for your guitar online for a couple of bucks, which is exactly what I did for my Jackson RR on the previous photo.

 

 

Another issue with handling that I used to struggle with a lot in my teenage years has to do with sweat, mainly from the hands. I used to be a hard sweater and usually the guitar and strings were pretty damp after using it for more than a couple of minutes.

 

Although it might look like no big deal, rest assured that it can become one.

 

Here's the thing...

 

The guitar itself won't suffer any real damage by the sweat from your hands. It does affect the wood in the neck ever so slighly, but unless you shower it with water from your skin, it will be OK.

 

However, the same thing does not apply to the strings. These will be very heavily affected by humidity, be it from the air or from your hands, especially if those are steel strings. Rust will kill your strings faster than the Internet killed record companies.

 

While you can't really prevent sweating (I do not recommend using anti-perspirant), what you can use that goes a long way into preventing damage is very simple:

 

A rag!

 

Any inexpensive cloth rag you can get your hands on will be useful to wipe your guitar and strings every couple of minutes as you play. Just have it lying around while you are playing and use it if you start to notice sweat.

 

As for the material itself, I don't think there's much benefit in any specific. Cotton will work well, but microfiber too, so just get the one you like the most.

 

Pro tip: do not just wipe the guitar and strings, but your hands as well.

 

Super pro tip: get multiple rags and leave them in your cases and bags, so that whenever you go to play elsewhere you don't have to remember taking it.

Transporting

 

 

If you are going to play a gig, rehearse with the band, or record in a studio, you'll have to take your instrument with you on the road.

 

It's totally not recommended to take a guitar out there without any bag or case. The main reason is that people will see you and bother you with comments like "play something", and that kind of stuff you don't want to deal with. I know, I've been there...

 

 

Let's see the best choices according to the mode of transportation.

 

  • Walking

Gig bags are very comfortable to carry your instrument on foot. Carrying it on your hand is fine, but the best way is to strap it to your back.

 

Of course, you can just as well take a case with you, but it's not the best choice since they tend to be heavier and you usually don't strap them to your back (because they are usually to big to fit). In spite of that, I've seen a couple of people with cases on their backs, and it does look pretty silly; definitely not the best fit for a rockstar.

 

Would Slash strap a case to his back? Of course not, and neither should you. Success leaves clues.

 

  • Bus

Carrying a guitar on a bus is usually not a problem. You can use both bags and cases indistictively.

 

The only advice I will give you about this is that if you are using a gig bag, don't strap it to you back.

 

Believe me, you don't want to be that guy who doesn't give a flying f*ck about the rest that bother everyone with a guitar on your back. Whether you are standing up or sitting down, carry it on  your hand and lean it on your side.

 

I mean it: don't be that guy. You'll live longer and healthier.

 

  • Bicycle/Motorcycle

Bicycles are great. You get to exercise, save money, and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time.

 

Motorcycles are cool AF. I don't know why, they just are, and I can't think of any musician that would not ride one. We all wanted to be rebels without a cause at some point, and a motor on two wheels has that instant appeal.

James Dean, what a badass. If he had picked up a guitar, he would have become an instant rockstar.

 

Whichever you choose to ride, there's only one clear option: a gig bag.

 

You can carry it on your back and leave both hands free for driving the vehicle. Sweet!

 

  • Car/van/truck

If you happen to have a four-wheeler, you can use both bags and cases just fine. However, this is when I think it's easier to use a guitar case.

 

The advantage of a case over a bag is that it is very easy to throw it on the trunk and don't worry about any other stuff you might have there. You can even stack things on top of it (unless it's a very low quality case), which is very useful when you are carrying a lot of gear from the band.

 

If you are touring with your band in a van, definitely take a case you can throw back there somewhere and not worry about your guitar being damaged by the multiple empty beer bottle impacts that will happen.

 

Don't get me wrong, you can still take a gig bag on the car just fine. I usually take bags and lay them on the floor of the front passenger seat, and lean it against the seat. Easy to do. Of course, if you make any fast turns, it can fall to one side, but hey, we're not on Nascar, right?

 

  • Plane

Pretty similar as the situation of a car. I don't think anyone will let you take a guitar with you on the cabin, so you will have to put it with the luggage, and you don't want to be using a bag, as it will not hold its own to being thrown and caught by the personnel as they load everything on the plane's bay.

 

Definitely use a case. The more rugged, the more better.

 

  • Space Shuttle

You are such a badass; just do whatever you like. Rules don't apply to you; you are living the life the rest of us only dream about (care to tell me how you did it, pleeeeease? -- sad kitty face --).

 

While you are at it, check out how the dark side of the Moon looks like, so we can then tell if Pink Floyd got it right.

Cleaning

 

 

You knew this was coming, right? Of course we have to keep our guitars clean!

Didn't your mother teach you to keep your stuff clean?

 

Keeping your guitar clean goes a long way into keeping it looking as sharp as your music. Image is also important.

 

Cleaning our instrument usually does not take much time or effort, in addition to not needing much tools or products, so there's literally no excuse.

 

  • Soft cloth

Similar to our sweat-wiping rag, although we'll be using this one slightly different.

I recommend you use a separate cloth for cleaning and wiping sweat; the reason should be obvious.

  • Sponge

Just your normal kitchen sponge that you would use to do the dishes (you do wash your dishes, right?).

This is optional, though highly recommended. Read further to find out why.

  • Toothpick

Believe it or not, this is very useful to clean the fretboard. You'll see below.

  • Soft brush

Just any brush will work as long as it's soft. I have a makeup brush that I stole from my mother many years ago, and it works fine (pro tip: only wear makeup when giging with a glam metal band). This is very useful to wipe dust on difficult-to-reach areas in the guitar that you cannot wipe with the cloth directly.

 

 

For the sake of this blog post we are, of course, going to center on cleaning rather than restoring. If your guitar is damaged in any way, even if it is only aesthetically, you'll need other tools to fix it than what we are going to learn now. In fact, in those cases you'll probably be better off taking it to a professional Luthier, unless you really know what you are doing.

 

With that said, let's dive into the basics of guitar hygiene.

 

  • Body

The body of the guitar is the easiest part to clean.

Mostly, just wiping it with the soft cloth will get rid of 99% of dust.

 

You have to consider that most filth is actually dead Human skin.

 

Yes, I know, it's gross to even think about it. I know it is, because owning and playing  white guitar is very notorious to leave residue of skin stuck (as an effect of sweat or air humidity) mostly to the places where you place your hand and forearms on the body of the guitar.

 

Fortunately, it's easy to remove. You don't need to use any cleaning agent: just wipe it with the cloth a little harder and it will come off. If, however, it were to be difficult to remove, you can use some water together with the wiping action and it should be fine.

 

If you need to wipe the bridge, you can usually use the brush, which will yield better results as the fibers will get into all the holes and indentations that would be impossible to reach with the cloth.

  • Headstock

You don't usually come in contact with the headstock too much, except when changing and tuning strings, therefore most of the times what you'll have to clean is just dry dust.

 

You might want to use the soft cloth to wipe that dust, but you can also use the brush, which in general will be easier to wipe between the machineheads and strings.

  • Fretboard

There are three things you'll have to clean on the fretboard often:

  • Finger marks

See those marks on the wood next to the fret? That's what we want to remove.

These marks are mostly sweat mixed with dead skin. Yes, really nasty once more.

 

You can wipe this off using the cloth or the sponge. I prefer using the cloth, but make sure you don't press on it too hard or you risk removing the finish on the wood, which is going to leave an ugly mark.

  • Humidity spots

Sometimes you can't help it and you will see that some marks appear on the fretboard, which are caused by humidity. That's fine, it's usually no big deal.

You can remove them using either the cloth or the sponge, but for this the sponge will be the best option.

  • Grime in the frets

See that greenish stuff at the base of the fret? That's what we want to remove, and to do that we can use a toothpick

 

If you don't clean this gunk every once in a while, it can start to pile up and get really nasty!

 

The advantage of using a toothpick for this end is that it's easy to get below the strings and, unless you are pressing it down very hard, it won't scratch the wood.

 

 

  • Strings

You'll want to wipe your strings after you are done playing, especially if you are a hard sweater on your fingers. It will help extend the life of the strings by a lot by preventing rust, especially if you are using steel strings.

 

My choice for this task is the cloth. You can wrap it around a string gently and move it up and down to wipe it completely.

 

You have completed the caring guide for your guitar!

 

If you have gone this far, you now know how to make the best care of your instrument to make sure that it will stay in its top shape for many years.

 

How you apply this guide is up to you, but I'll give you my recommendations.

 

Especially for the hygene of your guitar, you might want to make a schedule of checking it once a month, for example. Give it a quick wipe after each playing/practice session, and once a month you go over cleaning the frets and fretboard, or you might want to check regularly and give it a thorough cleaning if you notice build-up.

 

Oh, and always get at least a cheapo bag whenever you get a new guitar.

 

Thanks for reading this guide. Let me know if you have any questions.

 

Remember that if you treat your guitar with care, she'll reciprocate with the best sounds.

 

Oh, and also remember that rockstars are seasoned pros. Don't bite the hand that feeds you and take care of your instrument.

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