Acoustic Guitar Maintenance: 5 Healthy Habits

By Connor McCoy, Spire Contributor | November 5, 2018

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Like all instruments (especially wooden ones) that are used on stage, in transit, or stowed away, acoustic guitars naturally deteriorate over time. A guitar can be an expensive purchase, so it makes sense why you want to give it the best care possible. Luckily, there are a few easy guitar maintenance techniques and products you can use to protect against possible damage, wear and tear, and extend its lifetime.

1. Restringing your guitar

One of the most common examples of poor guitar management, especially among novice or beginner acoustic guitar players, is knowing when and how to restring a guitar. Restringing a guitar can be a very daunting and intimidating task (it was for me when I first started). Most beginner guitar players don’t know the lifespan of strings on their guitar and are therefore confused or frustrated when their guitar starts to sound dull or muffled after a while.

The life expectancy of most guitar strings is about 3 months (or around 100 hours of practice, whichever comes first). Because they’re usually made of steel, after being played by oily, human hands and exposed to certain elements, guitar strings become dirty and rust, causing the sound to darken or dull.

So, if you haven’t changed the strings that your guitar originally came with when you bought it, that should be step number one! Go out to the local music store and buy some new guitar strings. If you’re unsure of which guitar strings to buy, check out this site—it should help you decide which strings to buy based on what style of playing you prefer!

If you’re unsure on how to get started on stringing your guitar, check out this instructional video, and remember, it gets easier and faster with time!

Generally, if you’re playing heavier, louder music, you should go for a heavier gauge string, and a lighter gauge for softer, folkier, and more intimate settings. Remember that while lighter gauge strings emit a brighter sound than their heavier counterparts, they’re more prone to snapping or breaking, so if you’re prone to strumming heavy every now and then, a more medium gauge string might be the way to go.

If you’re looking for a great acoustic string for a quick, bright sound, D’addario Phosphor Bronze Light Gauge (.012-.053) are a best seller at most music stores, and my personal go-to when I need to change my strings.

If a guitar string breaks or snaps, you can buy a pack of strings and only replace the string that you need, but a general rule to follow is to try and restring your strings all at once, restringing one string should only be in an emergency. Afterward, you should continue to replace the rest of the strings so that the sound remains balanced.

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to change strings often and you don’t mind paying an extra few dollars for a guitar string, Elixir specializes in making guitar strings that last just a bit longer than the average competitor, so that your strings sound brighter for longer.

Before you completely restring your guitar, however, finish reading the rest of our acoustic guitar maintenance tips! There are some things you have easier access to clean when your strings are stripped off of your guitar.

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2. Cleaning the fingerboard

Once you’ve removed all the strings on your guitar, it should become apparent how dirty the fingerboard (or fretboard) becomes, even after just a few weeks of playing. A dirty fingerboard is a telltale sign for when a guitar needs to be cleaned. You’ll notice that fretting the guitar and playing chords can become more difficult if you don’t clean your guitar for a while.

Fortunately, there isn’t too much to maintaining your guitar’s fingerboard. To wipe away the dirt and grime that accumulates, simply scrub down the frets with a #0000 super-fine steel wool pad. You don’t want to use conventional, thicker steel wool as you could damage or scratch your fretboard.

There are some additional conditioner and oils you can buy from guitar companies that can better maintain your fingerboard, but as long as you clear it often of any dirt and dust by using some super-fine steel wool and a damp (read, not wet, damp) cloth, you can freshen up your fingerboard to keep it slick, smooth, and clean for playing.

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3. Temperature and humidity control

Your acoustic guitar is made of thin pieces of wood, which are vulnerable to sudden or gradual changes in humidity and temperature. Most guitar factories keep their storage units at 72–77 degrees fahrenheit and 45–55% humidity.

Wood is a fickle thing, and needs proper taking care of if you want to keep your guitar in top condition. Guitars are prone to morphing and cracking when exposing it quickly to dry areas, or when left out in the cold for too long. In general, you want to keep from exposing your guitar to drastic changes as much as possible, and when you finish playing, make sure to store it back in a hard case.

If you live in an arid area, you can buy a humidifier to place in the sound hole of the guitar when you store it. This mediates the humidity in your guitar case to help keep your guitar from morphing or cracking from areas with 40% humidity or lower. And vice versa, if you live in a humid area, you can buy a dehumidifier to keep your guitar from any unwanted damage or fretboard bending, although damage from an area being too hot/humid is rarer than damage from a dry/cold area.
If you travel with your instrument a lot, you might want to consider having both in case you find yourself in a particularly humid or arid area.

4. Traveling with your guitar

The acoustic guitar is probably the most traveled instrument in the world—and that’s why we hear so many horror stories about what happens to them during transit. If you’re taking your guitar on the road or in the air, you’d do well to distinguish it from the rest of your luggage; guitars are fragile instruments.

If you’re bringing your guitar in your car/sedan, a solid rule of guitar maintenance is to avoid putting it in the trunk. In most cars, the trunk is not ventilated and therefore not a safe place for your guitar, even in a hard case. The back seat, if open, is a much safer space for your guitar to sit while you drive to your next gig or your band’s house.

Airlines don’t actively make an effort to damage your guitar (at least, we hope they don’t), it’s just that most conveyor systems can’t tell a guitar case from a suitcase, and won’t treat your guitar with the care necessary to fully protect it.

TSA guidelines allow the transportation of small instruments, such as a violin or a guitar, onboard any U.S operated aircraft if the dimensions of the case are within reasonable measurements. Therefore, your hard case or soft case acoustic guitar acts just like carry-on luggage. If you can board the plane quickly enough, and overhead bin space allowed, you can store your guitar in an overhead bin just like you would a suitcase. If there’s no more space on the airplane, you can ask a flight attendant to gate check your instrument, therefore bypassing the usual rough and rowdiness of the conveyor luggage system.

I’ve also found that most airlines will allow you to store your instrument in the “coat closet” at the front of the aircraft if there’s no room in the overhead bin space. It definitely soothes anxiety if you know your guitar is on board within reach instead of in the cargo area, but if you have to check or gate check your guitar case for any reason, it’s best to have a proper, sturdy hard case to protect it in case things get turbulent.

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5. Dirt and cleaning

And finally, you can keep up the aesthetics and overall look of your guitar up to par by using a damp cloth and briefly running it over the whole body. You don’t need any special oils to keep your guitar looking nice, but if you choose, there are some oils you can use in order to bring out the shine even more.

Some guitarists actually stand by the old trade that Turtle Wax Express Shine (an automotive wax) doubles as a guitar body wax! There are several different options you can use, but remember to keep any dangerous solvents away from any part of your guitar. Any substance with alcohol or lemon oil can slowly eat away at the finish of your guitar.

In general, if you find a safe wax or oil to use on your guitar, a little bit goes a long way, and absolutely do not drench your guitar in water or oil—less is more when it comes to cleaning your guitar!