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Annual Guitar Checkup

Here we are at the beginning of another brand new year! So, instead of waiting until festival season is right upon you, how's about taking time to take a look at your music making making equipment. Even if you're not experiencing any particularly troublesome symptoms of poor playability, it couldn't hurt to check out the old axe to make sure it's ready to go for the season. You might even consider taking your instrument in to the shop for a simple restringing. Your friendly local luthier will charge only a small fee for restringing your guitar, and would be likely to diagnose and/or correct small problems before they become significant. There's a lot you can do for yourself, too, as you look over your instrument before running off to festivals, workshops, etc.

Here, then, are a few areas to look at:

Change the strings. Really, most of us don't do that as often as we might to get the best tonal performance. Now is a good time to review your stringing technique so you don't end up with a messy job like this one:

A big wad of wound string can make tuning imprecise and unstable.

You don't have to wait for the string to actually break before changing them. Wound strings start to sound dead after a while and many musicians do a monthly string change to keep their instruments sounding their best. Eventually, the windings break and the strings really go dead:

For a bit of specific instruction on restringing, take a quick hike over to FRETS.COM

As you change strings, take a look at those old bridge pins. The plastic ones are prone to deformation and can get chewed up to the point that they're hard to extract, and they don't hold the ball in place against the bridge plate. So if your pins are starting to look like this one, well, you know what to do - get some new pins - they're cheap enough:

Loose hardware can be particularly annoying, and can lead to damage if unattended. Check out the tuners. Are tightly mounted? If they mount with nuts from the front side, slip a wrench on and give it a little pull to make sure the nut isn't loose:

This is particularly important in the first year of a guitar's life because the wood compresses a bit and the tuners can loosen.Check the back of the peghead for signs of loose tuner mounting screws:

If you have enclosed gears with replaceable buttons, make sure that the button attachment screw is reasonably secure. It doesn't need to be very tight, the screw serves to hold the entire mechanism together, so be sure to notice if the screw has backed out or if tuner is starting to come apart. Schaller tuners and those with Phillips screws are less likely to become loose, but watch out for those older Grover Rotomatic tuners that have a slotted screw holding the button on:

If your tuners have open gearing, now might well be the time for a small drop of oil on the moving parts. Most open gears fail because of lack of lubrication, not from a lack of "quality."

As you tune up after restringing, consider how your guitar is playing. Barre an "F" chord - if it's about as easy as a "G" then your nut is not too high. Pick around in different areas. A string that buzzes only in the open position tells you that the nut action is a bit too low. Buzzing in the general area between the nut and the fifth fret may be a sign of a too-tight truss rod. A nasty buzz in only one fretted position may indicate an uneven, loose or damaged fret. High action up the neck may be a sign that the truss rod is a bit loose, that the neck angle may need resetting, or that the action is simply a bit high and could be lowered at the saddle. Any of these symptoms should lead you to a consultation with your local luthier before you hit the road or the jam scene.

Peer around behind the bridge and see if it's still firmly glued to the top. If you have any suspicion, use one of those little yellow sticky notes and try to jam it under the back edge of your bridge:

If it slips under more than about 1/16", it may be time to reglue the bridge before serious damage starts. Left unattended a loose bridge can result in some pretty nasty damage to a sensitive guitar top!

That same little paper can help you identify other, potentially less serious areas of glue failure or looseness:



Pickguards are protective devices and primarily cosmetic, but on older Martins and other instruments, they can cause top damage as they curl and shrink with age:


A curly pickguard can be downright annoying to look at and use, too.As it ages, the ivoroid or plastic body and neck binding can become unglued, loosening at the waist of the guitar:

For sure, you don't want to snag the binding and rip it loose - best to have loose binding reglued as soon as possible.Look again at the bridge. If you notice that the saddle is leaning forward, you get some advice from an experienced luthier. A leaning saddle may fail unexpectedly, or may be a sign that the bridge itself is cracked in that area.

If it's really leaning over, the saddle itself might be broken:

Most of the time a broken bridge will show only a "hairline" crack between the bridge pins or near the saddle for some time before failing completely:

It can be a bit confusing as you look the body over for cracks. There may be "cold checks" in the finish - tiny cracks that are only cosmetic. A finish check may run along the grain lines of the wood, but usually does not, instead veering off in a curve that crosses over the grain lines. Cracks in the wood almost always run along the grain. Don t count on a body crack to be "just a surface crack." Guitar bodies are made of wood that's barely 1/8" thick, so any crack in a top, side, or back is certain to go all the way through, and may be likely to weaken that part significantly. As you look the guitar body over for cracks, try to view it in reflected light. That way, you'll be able to see if there's any difference in the plane of the finished surface, whether the cracked area appears to bend downward or pucker upward.


Press on the crack lightly with your finger to see if the wood appears to bend on the line of the crack. Evaluating the significance of body cracks is certainly a job for the repairer with an experienced eye. Your local luthier will look all around inside to get the complete picture of what's going on and how it can best be repaired.

Here's an especially nasty symptom of a loose top brace:

If you see this kind of "wrinkle" in reflected light, there might be serious damage underneath. More about loose top braces.

If your guitar has a pickup with a powered preamp, toady is a good time to replace the battery. I figure once a year whether it needs it or not:

Don t check it, replace it. A new battery once a year is cheap insurance against being embarrassed in performance! Now is also a great time to look over the condition of any electronic accessories. A new battery for the electronic tuner. How about the cables? Again, if you're traveling, you don t want the hassle of trying to find a cable at the last minute.Take inventory of your other important accessories. Strap still OK? Especially with those acoustic electric jack end pins, the end of the strap can wear and get loose The jack itself is prone to working loose, too. If you don't lose capos as often as I do, you might do well to check the rubber pad, and see if yours is doing its job properly. This one is ready for replacement, I think:

You don't want the back of your neck looking like this one, so make sure the protective pads are still firmly in place:

Consider the case - it may be worn and look ugly, but it still works, right? Maybe, but consider how you'll use it when you are at camp, or wherever. That rope handle may be fine around town, in and out of your car, but how about when you have to hike with it?

Much, or all of the above may seem obvious, but it's important, too. Simply keeping an eye on your gear will make a big difference in how well it performs for you.

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