Us guitar players are very experienced at restringing our guitars, polishing them, tuning them up and so on. Many of us adore our guitars and do everything we can to keep them as close to perfect as possible. However, there are always some things that get missed one way or another. Over a short period of time these things maybe don’t matter but if you want to still be playing your guitar in 15 or 20 years they really can make a mess of things if you don’t have a good routine.
Here’s the Guitar Noize Regular Maintenance Guide. All of these points are no-brainers and absolute musts with each re-string. This is the minimum that should be done to keep your guitar playing like a dream. The guide will not go to go into any great detail per step as there are plenty of amazing resources available in text and on YouTube which will help you further.
Think of a guitar like a machine with moving parts. Some of those parts are made of metal and some are made of wood. The neck is under a great deal of force from the strings pulling it and therefore has something to counteract that bend by adding force in the opposite direction via the truss rod. There are also metal parts which rub against other metal parts! Not nice. All in all, you need to do as much as possible to help ease the pain of your guitar’s (hopefully) long life.
Remove the strings. Clean the body etc. Remember just how much force is in a fully tuned guitar, so be gentle when unwinding and clipping off the strings. Pick a polish that will work nicely with the guitar. For example, I like to use Fender’s Guitar Polish with my Fender! Use a swirl free cloth, like a Meguiar’s cloth if you don’t want scratch marks all over the lacquer.
Clean the fingerboard. Simple. Get a cloth and work the dirt off. You can use a bit of spit or something like Fast Fret to help the grime if need be. Occassionally treat rosewood or ebony fingerboards with Lemon Oil when you can see they look a bit “dry” or “cracked” and in need of a sip.
Nut.Nut problems go out of scope for this guide but generally you want it high enough for each string to have clearance across the whole fretboard. If you’re having trouble with the string in the nut then simply get a pencil and rub some graphite into the slot, it can work wonders.
Electrics. If you have scratchy volume or tone pots then now’s a good time to get at them and spray some contact cleaner in there. It’s important to do this regularly if you have a scratchy pot. Much easier to do it once every month or so than to have a hell of a problem in 2 years time. Yes pots are cheap to replace but who needs the hassle? If you have any dry joints get them re-soldered and pay particular attention to the ground. It’s also worth tightening up any loose pots or jacks.
Bridge. Drop a tiny bit of 3-in-1 oil onto each string saddle. This is the one thing I never see any guitar player do. And it’s probably a secret weapon of a really nicely playing guitar. Think about metal on metal for a second. Think about the horrible noise it makes. Then think about how the metal moves on metal. Yuck! You want to avoid that for sure! A tiny drop of oil on each saddle really helps the string have a contact that glides and not grinds! Don’t glug the bottle onto there! Just a single drop is likely enough.
Trem. If you have a trem system then you likely have two points on the bridge each shaped somewhat like a V. These are slotted against a post screwed into the guitar body. Again, think about metal grinding on metal'¦ yuck. So, add a bit of grease, say Vaseline lip balm, to these contact points. This will help smooth the trem movements, aid flutters etc. Whilst the trem can be got at now’s a good time to adjust the arm stiffness if you can, something which is a right pain to do when strung up!
String up and tune up.
Truss Rod. So many guitar players never touch their truss rod. I’m going to state that guitar players should fiddle with their rod regularly! If you’re worried about it then trust me, tuning down to Eb, then to DAGDAD, then back up to E'¦ that’s all just as bad as giving the nut on the rod a little twist. And if you don’t fiddle with it it’ll seize up and give you hell in the future. It’s a rod, with a nut and the nut is wound up fairly tight to help the rod pull the neck back straight. So, don’t go getting a torque wrench to do the job! Be sensible and always keep in mind that it is already tightened and needs a tweak not a gut wrenching yank. If you adjust it regularly it’ll stay fairly fluid and easy to adjust and you’ll get to know just how your guitar likes the rod to be set in different conditions. Like anything, the more you do it the easier it gets.
Fret the low string at the first and last frets and spot the gap between the string and the fret which is in the middle of your neck. This is usually the 8th or 9th fret. It should be a very small gap, say 0.010″ not something you could get your finger in. Turn the rod clockwise to tighten the rod to straighten the neck'¦ or the other way to loosen if back bowed. Many guitar players like a totally straight neck, so it’s a good idea to aim for that and then slacken the rod slightly if you don’t like it. The nut on the truss rod is usually tight (obviously it’s wound up tight to help the force of the rod bend the neck back!) so you really won’t need to turn it much at all. It’s not a “winding” kind of job'¦ a short gentle turn is usually enough. This is sometimes around a quarter of a full turn. And if it won’t turn'¦ then don’t turn it! Loosen it and then try again. And if the neck is bent like a banana it doesn’t mean the nut on the rod needs spinning round and round to get it straight'¦ every guitar is different so make small adjustments and pay attention to what happens.
String Height. This is another one of those things guitar players avoid doing and again it’s very simple. Once your rod is set measure the gap between the top of the 17th fret wire and the bottom of the string. Do this for the lowest and highest strings. As a starting point you’re looking at a measurement of around 3/32″ for the bass end and 2/32″ for the top end. Don’t forget that the fret wire isn’t level but curved!! So you want to set the high and low string heights and then fill in the rest to match the radius of the curve of the fret wire! If you have a fixed bridge you simply need to lift it up and down. There is no excuse not to do it.
Intonation. Intonation is a nightmare when it’s not right but is so simple to fix. Basically, your intonation is related to your string length. You can move the saddles in and out via a screw. There is no such thing as perfect intonation on a standard fretted neck so don’t use a tuner and don’t expect perfection. Simply try to balance the pitch of the open string against the 12th and 19th fret note and harmonics by shortening or lengthening the string. They should all be relatively in tune. However, prioritize the position you feel is most important. E.g. If you always notice your solos around the 12th sound out of tune then make sure the intonation is in at the 12th and don’t worry about the 19th so much.
Pickup Heights. This is so simple and yet I see so many guitars with really badly positioned pickups. Usually there’s a screw on the bass end and another on the treble end. They’re usually central to the pickup, the ones on the outer edge are usually for the fixings. Those central screws adjust the heights of each side of the pickup. Simple! Check your recommended heights with the pickup manufacturers and set accordingly. Depress the last fret and measure the pole pieces to the string. Single coils in particular need to be in the sweet spot or can sound really terrible if too close to the string. Somewhere inbetween 8/64″ and 3/64″ is likely the gap which your pickups will sound good in and usually they like to have the treble side slightly higher than at the bass side but you can distribute that to personal taste.
Fret Wire. This will be the last time I mention metal grinding on metal again I promise'¦ but think about those strings grinding away at your frets!! There’s not too much you can do about it, sadly those frets are going to wear down over time. However, you can take some measures to help the longevity of the frets. Again, rubbing an oil over them before playing is a great way to help and it will make the guitar feel much, much better. No more nasty scratchy string bends. GHS Fast Fret does this job nicely and the instructions suggest rubbing some oil in, then wiping away the excess before and after playing.
It really is worth that little bit of extra effort to really keep your guitar fantastically playable!