Basic Guitar & Bass Maintenance Tips

There are many things that you can do yourself to keep your guitar or bass in tip top shape. Here are some tips:

Keep your instrument clean.

This is probably the best advice that we can give. Before you play, wash your hands. This will extend the life of your strings and keep your fingerboard and other parts of your guitar looking fabulous. Also, when you are done playing, wipe down your strings with a clean cotton cloth. We recommend that you do not use any type of liquid (cleaner or lubricant) when you clean your strings.

Also wipe down the neck and body with a different clean cotton cloth, and for this we recommend that you do use a mild cleaning liquid like Dunlop Formula #64 Guitar Polish and Cleaner. Also, your instrument will remain cleaner for longer if you store it in a case or gig bag when you are not playing it, because when it is out of the case, it is a magnet for moisture, oils, and dust circulating in the home.

Don’t wait too long before changing strings.

This tip applies mostly to guitar players, since bass strings tend to last a long time (provided you keep your instrument clean). Your axe will always sounds its best with a fresh set of strings. Plus, guitar strings are not a major investment. Professional players on tour might put on a fresh set of strings before every show. If you are not gigging every night, or if you don’t play for hours every day, and if you keep your hands and strings clean, you can enjoy a $6 set of strings for several months. Some players even prefer the mellow (i.e., dull) sound of strings that have been played on for months, but most players like the sound and feel of strings that are fresher.

What to look for in determining whether it is time to change your strings? How do they sound? If they are sounding too dull, then its time to change! How do they look? Strings will start to degrade with the physical impact of being played, as well as the chemical impact of moisture and oil from the fingers (and air). Are your strings looking less shiny than they were when they were new? Are the plain (i.e., unwound) strings starting to look black? Is it getting more difficult to play in tune on the fretted notes even though the open strings are in tune? Well, these are all signs that it is time to change your strings.

Check and adjust the intonation. 

If your guitar is playing well (i.e., feels good) but not playing in tune (even though the strings are fresh and the open strings are in tune), then you likely need to adjust the intonation. The intonation of acoustic guitars is preset by the fixed placement of the bridge/saddle, so if your intonation is out on an acoustic guitar, it is likely due to old strings or action that is too high. On electric guitars and basses, the intonation can be adjusted by the movable saddles. Most guitars have a single saddle per string, which makes it possible to dial in the intonation on each string.

To check and adjust the intonation on a guitar that has good action and fresh strings, make sure that all of the strings are in tune. Then, using an electronic tuner, pluck a single string either open (i.e., without touching the string with your left hand) or using the 12th fret harmonic. To play the harmonic, pluck the string with your right hand while touching–but not fretting–the string just above the 12th fret with a finger on your left hand, then let go with your left hand. You should hear a note that is one octave above the open string note. Make sure that this note is in tune, as it will be your reference note. Now compare that note to the note played by plucking the fretted note at the 12th fret. If the fretted note is sharp (high) in comparison to the reference note, then you need to make the scale length of the string longer by moving that string’s saddle back away from the neck. If the fretted note is flat (low) in comparison to the reference note, then you need to make the scale length of the string shorter by moving that string’s saddle toward the neck. In either case, move the saddle a little bit and then recheck the comparison of the reference and fretted notes. When they are identical, then the intonation is set.

Adjust the neck.

Most likely, your guitar or bass has a truss rod that works to counteract the tension put on the neck by the strings. In order for the strings to ring without (too much*) fret buzz, the neck needs to have a slight bow in it (yes, that’s right, think of an archer’s bow). If the neck is too straight (or even arched up toward the strings), then the strings are likely to buzz (too much*). When the average temperature is colder, the truss rod will contract, causing the neck to straighten. When the average temperature is warmer, the truss rod will relax, causing the neck to become too bowed. NOTE: while it is important to have a properly adjusted neck, it is also important that the string height at the nut and bridge is also adjusted optimally. Once the action at the nut and bridge is set, it is typically only necessary to periodically adjust the neck to maintain optimal playability.

On most guitars, the adjustment nut of the truss rod is easily accessible either at the headstock (sometimes covered by a plastic plate) or at the end of the neck inside the soundhole. If you have an electric without an adjustment nut at the headstock, it is likely that the neck will have to be removed in order to access the adjustment nut. Classical guitars (i.e., those with nylon strings), typically do not have adjustable truss rods.

How to tell if a neck is too straight or too bowed? Well, (too much*) string buzz (neck too straight) or action (i.e., string height) that is too high are the best clues. There is also a way to visually check the curvature of the neck in relation to the strings. Checking the adjustment of the neck, as well as making adjustments to the neck, should always be done with the guitar tuned to pitch (i.e., whatever tuning you want to utilize).

With the guitar tuned to pitch, the strings are perfectly straight. If you hold down the highest (thinnest) string at the first and last fret on the fingerboard, you can then look at the relationship between the string and the neck along the length of the string. Somewhere along the middle of the fretboard, say at the 9th fret, you should see some space between the string and the top of the fret. If there is too much space, then the action is likely higher than it needs to be and the truss rod needs to be tightened (righty-tighty). If there is not enough space (or none at all), then¬† the truss rod needs to be loosened (lefty-loosey). How much space should there be? Well, that all depends upon the guitar, the type of strings, the tuning, and the player! There is no simple answer, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to adjust your guitar’s truss rod properly.

*Too much buzz? Shouldn’t there be NO buzzing whatsoever? Well, it depends on the player’s style and how low they want their action. Generally, nobody wants their acoustic guitar to buzz at all, so the trick is to adjust the neck so that the action is low but not buzzing. As for electric guitars, most players understand that, though a certain amount of buzzing can happen acoustically (i.e., when not playing through an amp), this buzzing often will not come through when playing through an amp (especially if one plays with a lot of overdrive or distortion). In order to enjoy really low action, many electric players are willing to live with the acoustic buzzing and are even willing to adjust their technique while playing through an amp.

The Magic Flute has an expert technician for (just about) all your service and repair needs. We will always do a thorough evaluation of the condition of your instrument and provide you with a free estimate for the cost of service/repair before we do any work. Although we will need to see your instrument in the shop before we can provide an accurate estimate, you can find a list of basic repair/maintenance prices HERE.