Guitar maintenance is often overlooked because most guitarists would rather spend time practicing than doing maintenance on their guitars. However, there are benefits of keeping your instrument in tip-top shape. For example, it keeps the setup of your guitar consistent so you won’t have to keep adjusting the string action and intonation. It also retains the resale value of your instrument.

Neglecting your guitar’s condition can result in overly rusty strings, a bloated body, a warped neck, damaged finish, dull frets, or worst of all, a cracked body. All it takes to avoid these problems is proper storing, cleaning, and common sense.

Professional Setup

To remain in great playing condition, you guitar first has to be set up correctly. This is true for almost every brand-new guitar. A professional setup ensures that the instrument is easy to play and produces a good tone. It is possible to do this yourself, but you’ll need the right tools and knowledge of what to adjust; therefore, it is always recommended that people do their first setup with a professional.

Once you’ve gotten a setup, all that will be needed on your part is proper maintenance so the setup does not change. With proper care, a good setup can last for a long time.

Temperature and Humidity

Two of the biggest environmental factors that can affect your guitar’s performance are temperature and humidity levels. The majority of your guitar is made of wood, which is extremely susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity.

Hot and humid

Both high heat and humidity will cause your guitar’s body to swell up, resulting in warped wood and a much higher string action. Try to visualise how this happens: the guitar bridge sits on top of the body, so if the body swells up, the bridge will rise up and bring the strings farther away from the fretboard. Even a guitar with a great setup will eventually become difficult to play. Your tone will also be affected, as wet wood tends to sound dull compared to dry wood. Also, the glue that keeps all the joints together may melt, resulting in loose joints. Your neck can also warp into weird angles and the metal components of your guitar can get rusty.

Cold and dry

In contrast, cold and dry conditions will cause the wood to shrink and crack. This is actually harder to deal with compared to wet wood. You can always dry out wet wood, but fixing a crack requires a professional and quite a bit of money.

So what’s the solution?

To prevent the previous two scenarios, keep guitars in ideal humidity levels, which is between 45 and 55 percent. You can use a humidifier or a dehumidifier to maintain this humidity level or simply keep your guitar in its case with something like the Planet Waves’ Two Way Humidification System.

Temperature wise, keeping your guitar at room temperature is fine. You want to avoid extreme temperature changes, so don’t leave your acoustic guitar in the trunk of your car on a hot summer day unless you really like unfortunate surprises.

Some people go so far as to leave humidity and temperature sensors in their cases to have a real-time readout of the conditions in their case. This may not be necessary for everyone. However, if you have one of these sensors handy, knowing about the exact environment in your guitar case can’t hurt.

String Maintenance

The easiest way to extend the life of your strings is to wash your hands before you play. I’m surprised by how often people, including myself, pick up the guitar after eating buffalo wings and bust out Wonderwall. The dirt and natural oils on your hands will cause your strings to oxidize and rust at an accelerated rate, so please remember to wash your hands.

Another great way to extend the life of your strings is to, after playing, always wipe down your strings, fretboard, and neck to remove any dirt or oil.

String maintenance can be a little more tedious for people with “acid hands,” and unfortunately, there really isn’t much you can do about that. (In case you’re wondering, “acid hands” refers to those of us cursed with sweaty palms or hands that naturally produce more oils.) If you have this condition, you’ll have to be a little more diligent when wiping down your strings, fretboard, and neck. A little help from
Dunlop 6582 Ultraglide 65 String Conditioner can goes a long way.

Finally, if your strings are already rusty, please change them. Rust is a tone killer, and it also makes your guitar hard to play.

Cleaning and Maintenance When Changing Strings

The best time to do a full cleanup and maintenance of the guitar is when the strings are off. Always take the opportunity to do the following things when you change your strings; you’ll thank yourself in the future.

Clean the fretwires

A lot of dirt and grime can get stuck right where the fretwires meet the fretboard, so your frets and fretboard can get quite disgusting, especially if you have acid hands. To clean out these areas, grab a wooden or plastic toothpick and gently run it along the fretwires to scrape off the dirt.

Condition the fretboard

The fretboard of most acoustic guitars is unfinished, and it’s usually the unfinished parts of the guitar that can crack first due to low humidity. In order to avoid cracks on your fretboard, you can condition it once in a while with something like the Dunlop Fretboard 65 Ultimate Lemon Oil. Remember to read the instructions on the container of the oil, and do not use an excessive amount. If used correctly, one bottle of lemon oil can last for years.   

In the case of a fretboard that has a finish, for example a finished maple neck on a Fender Telecaster, wiping it down with a damp cloth suffices. Remember to thoroughly wring the cloth out before wiping your guitar.

Clean the headstock, neck, and body

A dry cloth and some elbow grease is often more than enough to clean the headstock, neck, and body, but if the dry cloth isn’t cutting it, you can use a damp cloth that has been thoroughly wrung out. You can also use one of the many specialised cleaning and polishing products on the market if you want your guitar to really shine.

Clean and lubricate the nut

Okay stop snickering. We’re still talking about guitars.

Have you ever tried tuning a string that just wouldn’t budge on the first few turns of the tuning peg, but suddenly jumps in pitch with a distinct “tink” sound? This can be caused by the string getting caught by dirt in the nut slot, a lack of lubrication in the slot, or the slot simply being too narrow. Cleaning and lubricating the nut slots prevents your strings from breaking at the nut or getting caught in the slots when tuning. If the slot is too narrow, you’ll have to ask a professional to widen it.

If it’s dirt or a lack of lubrication, it’s a pretty simple fix. Grab some fine grit sandpaper and run it through the slots a couple of times to clean them out. Alternatively, running your old strings through the slots a couple of times can remove any dirt that may be stuck in the slot. Once you’ve done that, grab a pencil and color the slots with your pencil. The graphite from the pencil lead is an excellent lubricant.

Storing Your Guitar for Long Durations

In the event that you have to store your guitar somewhere for a long period of time, consider a couple of precautions.

First, keep your guitar in a good hard case. This is the best form of protection for your instrument. Avoid stacking anything on your guitar case.

Secondly, avoid storing your guitar in a place where it will face extreme temperature or humidity changes.

Finally, detune your strings to avoid unnecessary pressure on the neck and bridge.

Remember What’s Important

Many of these tips can be boiled down to simple common sense, so don’t spend too much time worrying about the details. I mean, if your humidity level is at 60 percent instead of the recommended 45-55 percent, does it really matter? Probably not. Some people end up being so paranoid about taking their guitars out of the case that they end up not playing the instrument at all. I know, because I went through that phase with my current favorite acoustic guitar.

Above all else, your instrument was made to produce music, and being able to play music through the instrument is the most important thing. Of course having a guitar in excellent playing condition will improve your ability to play; a guitar with a good setup will allow you to play so much more than a guitar with a bad setup. However, even a beat-up guitar with cracks and holes can sound great with good technique and a great sense of musicality! Just look at Willie Nelson’s guitar “Trigger.” This guitar still sounds amazing in the hands of a master like Willie Nelson!