Guitar Maintenance

Guitar Maintenance and Repair 101.

Why It's Important To Maintain Your Guitar

Do your guitar favor.

I remember when I received my first guitar. It looked great, and it didn't sound too bad despite being made from lower grade materials. Upon receiving my guitar I was young and inexperienced, I had no idea about properly maintaining my guitar. To me, maintenance consisted of constantly polishing off the finger prints and occasionally changing the strings. While polishing your guitar may be aesthetically pleasing, the fact of the matter is that it really can't be considered as maintenance.

Maintenance involves physically altering/adjusting your guitar in various ways to insure that you get the maximum performance out of your guitar. It is similar to maintaining your car. Every now and then you need to get a grease and oil change, check the battery, and insure the tires are balanced and in safe driving condition. Why wouldn't we do the same for our guitars?The sad thing about all of this is that as many of you read this, you are the person I'm describing who doesn't properly maintain your guitar. This isn't something to beat yourself up over as you can't do something about the problem unless you know a solution to it. Many subtle adjustments can be done at home eliminating the need to drag your guitar into your local shop everytime something doesn't sound quite right. You would be amazed at how easy this maintenance is. Let's start off with some of the most easy yet major adjustments you can do by yourself.


Intonation is a fancy word to describe the proper creation of a tone that is perfectly in tune. In other words, how well your guitar's notes are in tune with each other. There's nothing worse than playing a beautiful chord and then changing to a different progression only to find that it sounds out of tune. This becomes extremely frustrating and can often deter players from going to their instrument to practice. When I had my first guitar, it had horrible intonation and it got to a point where I wasn't motivated to play because I thought I sounded horrible. It wasn't me that was the problem, rather, the guitar.If you haven't experienced this with chords, you may have when playing lead. You'll find that you will produce a tone that "Quakes" and "Shifts." It will not sound crystal clear, just wobbly. This is a symptom of bad intonation.

So how can you fix this problem? It's actually quite simple. Here are some tools that you may need:

  • Chromatic tuner. It is very important that the tunerbe chromatic for the ease of use and accuracy.
  • Small phillips head screwdriver.

The reason your chords sound bad is because the individual strings are not at their proper length for the frequency to vibrate at the correct period (some physics for all of you science people). This requires a very slight adjustment to the length, often just millimeters. You may have noticed that there are six screws located at the back of your bridge. These screws are connected to the little piece of metal that holds the base of your string in place. They can also move the string when those screws are turned. Here is a diagram from a Les Paul illustrating the location of these screws on the saddle:


...In order to know how much to turn the screw, you need to know how in tune your guitar is with itself. To do this, place your finger on the 12th fret of any given string. Let's use E (1st string). Press down on the string to make sure the string is in tune. If it isn't, simply tune the string as per usual.The second step is the most important. Play a natural harmonic on the 12th fret of the same string you just tuned. Does your tuner say that the harmonic is in tune? If so, your intonation is perfect! If it turns up being flat or sharp, then you have to make an adjustment to the string length by using the screws located at the bridge. If the note is sharp, turn the screw so the saddle moves towards the end of the guitar. If the note is flat, turn the screw so that the saddle moves towards the neck. Screw in or out (depending on whether the string is sharp or flat) until the harmonic on the 12th fret of the string is in tune. Repeat for every string. Yes, it may be tedious but it is relatively simple once you get into it. Try not to strip your screws because you will need them again. It is important to remember to tune your string before you play the harmonic or you will make your problem far more complicated and actually make matters worse.

String Buzz

This is probably the worse problem to have of them all because you know it's there, you just don't know how to fix it. While string buzz rarely comes from the same place on every guitar, there are a few things you can check out to see if you can stop the problem. You should note that some of them require a trip to the shop because they are more complex.

  • Loose parts of your guitar. Most of these problems are located in the neck area. You may notice that there is a washer around the tuning peg on your neck. This is used to attach the tuner to your neck but they can come loose with age as they settle in the wood. This slight vibration can make a huge impact on your playing. To fix the problem, simply take a wrench of the appropriate size and tighten them back up.
  • Loose strings. If you don't cut your strings, the loose ends can rattle against each other.
  • Flat frets. After time your frets become very worn. It takes many years but it is bound to happen to well played guitars after a period of time. The normal guy can't repair this, so it will require a trip to the shop.
  • Low action. If the height of your strings above the fretboard is too low they will hit the frets as they vibrate, making them buzz. On the other hand, if the action is too high, the string will vibrate out of control and hit the frets again. This requires an experienced eye to handle this and I recommend going to the shop to get it done. It's extremely inexpensive.
  • Wrong string gauge. If the strings are too light, they won't respond well. The heavier the better in my opinion.
  • May require a truss rod adjustment. Your neck doesn't have enough strength to hold all of the strings in place by itself without bowing (meaning to bend in the middle). It relies on a metal rod that is inserted through the middle of the neck to counteract these forces. This rod also has the power to bring your strings closer and further away from the frets, which is called relief. This usually should be done by a professional because you could ruin your neck.


This is one aspect of guitar maintenance that is often overlooked. Wood is a very unique material in that it shrinks and expands on a daily basis. For us, this means retuning regularly, to the guitar it's like constantly running a marathon. Every acoustic guitar should have a humidifier. They look like a little box and are placed between the string into the sound hole. You fill them up with water and the guitar takes in the moister it needs. In winter time, this is especially critical. Why? Because the air is naturally dry.This dry air sucks the moister out of your guitar and can cause it to crack and/or lose tone! To keep the wood stable and happy, you need to give it some water.

Another important thing to remember is to keep your guitar acclimatized. What does this mean? When you see your favorite guitarists playing in the middle of winter on a live stage, their guitar has been set up to meet the very cold conditions. If you simply took your guitar in its case out of a room and opened it in these frigid conditions, you would crack your finish or wood. This is because of the rapid temperature change. On the other hand, if you leave your guitar in your car for a long period of time during the Summer, the same effect can happen for the opposite reasons. So insuring that your guitar is at the proper temperature is essential for playing success.


This is one of the most popular issues regarding proper guitar maintenance that we receive here at Guitar Tips. It is important to know how to travel with your guitar because it's something that you'll be forced to do at some point in your life.

If you're traveling in your car, it's pretty easy going. You should have your guitar in a position where it won't move around a lot and is out of the sun. I like to tune down a half step if I'm travelling longer distances as a preventative measure. This isn't necessary for day trips.

If you're flying, you enter a whole new world of protection. If your guitar is small enough (like a classical for example) many airliners will allow you to carry your guitar on the plane as a carry on. If this is the case, you have no need to worry and there isn't any prep work necessary. However, many will force you to put your baby in the cargo hold. Unfortunately, this has been the final resting place for many guitars over the years. Nothing bothers me more than to see someone let their prized guitar go to the cargo hold in a normal hard shell case. This should be your first measure of protection.There are cases on the market designed specifically to protect your guitar while flying. Creatively enough, they are called "Flight Cases." They are made of metal and range from $200-700. While they aren't cheap, there will protect your investment from any damage.

Regardless of case, you should always make sure to reinforce the neck with bubble rap and various other packing materials. It's extremely easy for your guitar to fall over and snap its own neck under the forces of its weight. Another good idea would be to detune your strings and relieve some pressure on the neck.

The Complete Setup.

You may have heard the words "Set up job" echo through your local music store numerous times. What a proper setup job does is put your guitar in perfect working order. A guitar tech will correct your intonation, adjust pickup height if you wish, straighten your neck via the truss rod, and adjust the action to your liking.

While all of these things are completely doable from home, many guitarists simply don't have the time or interest in learning these skills. A setup job costs around $40 and is worth the money. Aside from your intonation which should be continually checked after every string change, a complete setup is only required once a year.

Article by Jordan Warford,
Managing Editor,
Learn to Play Acoustic / Electric Guitar online