String & Fretboard Care
By PGS Fitz
We all know the fun part of playing guitar is: PLAYING GUITAR! Less fun for many of us is the proper maintenance required to keep our instruments in tip top shape (not saying that there aren’t plenty of tech nerds in the herd, just that a lot of us could stand to implement some best practices when it comes to our instruments!). This month we’re taking a look at your fretboard and your strings—there are a few easy strategies you can implement that will keep your instrument playing great and reduce overall wear & tear.
At the outset, let’s talk about storage. Where do you store your guitar when you aren’t playing it? In its case? Hanging on the wall? Propped up in the corner where the sun hits it every afternoon?! The more your instrument is exposed to air and sun, the faster the guitar’s condition can degrade. In an ideal world, the guitar would go back into its case to keep it better protected from air, sun, and moisture. Most guitars are fine under normal home conditions, but extra care should be taken if you live in an exceptionally dry or exceptionally moist environment. A good rule of thumb is that if you require special care for your temperature/humidity, your guitar probably does too. For higher-end instruments, temperature and/or humidity controlled environments/cases may be in order to protect your instrument. A digital hygrometer can be found online for between $15-$30 and can help you identify any potential humidity issues for your instrument. When there is more moisture in the air, wood can swell. When there is a lack of moisture in the air, wood can dry out and crack. Believe me, there’s nothing sadder than a cracked fretboard. Except maybe a broken neck.
Your fretboard is really about the most important part of your guitar, in my opinion, and you always want to make sure to take great care of it. Most maple fretboards have a finish on them and do not require as much intense care as other fretboards—a finished maple fretboard is easily wiped down and does not require the same conditioning that unfinished fretboards do. The lacquer acts as a barrier against dirt and moisture.
For unfinished fretboards, you’ll need to consider both keeping the fretboard clean as well as keeping it moisturized. Wiping the fretboard down after playing is key—the oils from your skin and the sweat your hands generate while you’re playing that solo with the 256th notes will linger on the fretboard, eventually seeping into the wood. If buildup accumulates over time, you may need to use a flat, straight item like a credit card or, if you are very careful, a blade to gently scrape away the buildup—taking care not to damage the fretboard itself. The name of the game here is prevention—by keeping your fretboard as clean as possible with daily maintenance, you should be able to avoid long term problems with dirt and grime. Commercial cleaners can help you maintain your fretboard, but beware of extra chemicals in these products; some cleaners include silicon or heavy waxes, which can actually damage or further gunk up the very guitar you’re trying to keep clean. Look for cleaners with no silicon, no wax, and as few chemicals overall as possible.
I once purchased a guitar from an online retailer in Phoenix. When I received the guitar, the rosewood fretboard was so dried out, I had to condition it once a month for a few months until the guitar acclimated to the Pacific Northwest. It’s still not as dialed in as I’d like it to be after drying out in the Southwest desert, but I was able to rehab it somewhat. Ebony and rosewood fingerboards will need to be conditioned or oiled from time to time—at least once a year, more if you live in a climate that requires it. Lemon oil is often considered a great conditioner for these fretboards, but again—beware the ingredient list. There’s great speculation amongst players over what is the best conditioner for fretboards—you want to find a substance with the least amount of additives. As always, your mileage and your guitar’s mileage may vary—use any fretboard conditioner judiciously until you know it’s the right match for you and your fretboard.
Funny enough, your hands are one of the most dangerous offenders to the life of your guitar strings. Oils and sweat from our hands collect on the strings and can increase the oxidation of your strings—making your strings sound dead and lifeless sooner, not to mention making them prone to breakage. Dirty, coarse strings can also cause damage to frets themselves. A great habit to form is to keep a soft, dry cloth handy to wipe down your strings, neck, body, and bridge hardware after every playing session. Doing so will help extend string life and keep your guitar from accumulating nasty, mungy buildup. Several manufacturers make special string cleaning products which can be used after every playing session or every few sessions and which can greatly extend the life of your strings. There’s no hard and fast rule about when to change your strings; as soon as they feel flat or sound dead, change them. You might find that your strings last a lot longer once you start paying attention to keeping them clean.
The critical component here is to shift your mindset into instituting a couple easy hacks to your playing routine that will help you prevent long term damage to your fretboard and that will prolong the life of your strings. That means more time for rocking, shredding, writing, and uh, maybe even shopping for your next guitar. If you’ve got tips/tricks for fretboard and/or string care, let’s hear ‘em!