Last summer, my friend Yancey discovered her son’s forgotten bass guitar in the basement. For years it had been exposed to classic Hudson Valley weather: humid summers in the damp cellar followed by dry winters near the furnace. The bass’s electronics survived the mistreatment, but the environmental extremes caused the neck of this poor instrument to warp so much that it no longer played well. 🙁
Even though you haven’t abandoned your beloved guitar in a basement or near the radiator, you should protect it from changes in humidity and temperature. Both can affect a guitar’s playability in the short term and create deeper condition issues in the long term.
There are a few telltale signs of when dryness and humidity are affecting your guitar. For example, if it suddenly sounds kind of buzzy, but you can barre the F chord like an old pro, dry conditions have caused your string action to get too low to the fretboard. If you can barely barre the F chord or the chords further up the neck are near impossible to play, humid conditions may be raising your string action high above the frets. Over the years, this fluctuating environment can cause your guitar’s neck to warp, your soundboard to get hairline cracks, and lift the bridge away from the body.
You can do a few simple things to ensure your guitar doesn’t act up or crack up and stays in tip-top shape.
1. First, understand the humidity conditions in your home and guitar case. Put a hygrometer, a device that measures the level of water vapor in the air, in your guitar case and put one in your practice room. You can get an inexpensive multi-pack of these gauges from Amazon. The ideal relative humidity for guitars is between 45-55%, but some experts say 35-45%. Ultimately, it depends on your guitar and where you live.
2. Keep your guitar in its case when you’re not playing it. The humidity level is usually more stable in the case (your hygrometer will let you know!), and that protects the guitar from changes in the room. If your hygrometer shows that keeping your guitar in the case is no better than leaving it out, consider getting a better case.
3. Use a humidity control system in your guitar case. One solution is the two-way humidification packets, sold by Boveda and D’Addario, which raises humidity in the winter and lowers it in the summer. The sachets are arranged at the headstock and in the soundhole. You might need a couple of sets in the winter because they dry out (the contents get crunchy). But don’t throw them out! They’ll rehydrate in the summer, or you can carefully rehydrate them yourself–check the Internet for suggestions. (manufacturers recommend always buying a fresh set and not rehydrating.)
4. Oil your rosewood and ebony fretboards to prevent cracking, shrinking, and raised frets. Do this every six months or so, such as when you change your strings. Varnished fretboards, usually made from maple, never need to be oiled. Many people like lemon oil, but I find it builds up with finger oils and dirt against the frets. I use D’Addario’s Hydrate Fingerboard Conditioner, which is affordable, and a little goes a long way–in other words, don’t over-oil the fretboard!
My guitar still buzzes!
If you’ve taken steps to control your guitar’s environment, but issues remain, consider bringing it to the repair shop. For example, a high fret might need leveling so strings won’t buzz. Or your truss rod might need adjusting to straighten the neck and improve the string action. Or the saddle might need an adjustment. For an acoustic guitar, the saddle may need to be raised with a shim, sanded down and lowered, or replaced entirely; each solution requires precise measurements. On electric guitars, what’s usually needed for this is a tiny Allen wrench and a proper ruler; with a bit of internet research, you might learn to do it yourself.
One more thing about saddles
Even though I’m careful about maintaining a good humidity level for my acoustic guitars, it does drop quite a bit in the winter. They can’t compete with my apartment’s old wood and plaster, sucking up every ounce of water vapor during the colder months. So I’ve gotten winter and summer saddles that are different heights, and I swap them out when the action gets too low or too high.
If you have a guitar that seems really far gone, there is still hope for it. Yancey’s bass guitar wasn’t a loss. I removed the frets, sanded the neck, and then installed new frets. Now it lives a happy life in the properly humidified oasis of its case, except when my friend Lisa comes over and plays it. 🙂