Oasis digital hygrometer and guitar humidifier

Humidity! A Guide to Understanding How Humidity Affects Guitars

Last Updated: December 22, 2017

If you own a guitar, especially if it’s acoustic and one of the more expensive models, you need to understand how humidity affects guitars. Every time someone writes to me asking why a crack has mysteriously appeared or some part of their guitar has come unglued, I shed a single, solitary tear.

By the time something like this has happened, it’s too late. If you’re lucky it can be repaired, but it’s going to cost you–possibly a few hundred dollars depending on the extent of the damage.

This article is here to teach you the basics and help you avoid a catastrophe. On the other hand, if you feel like you already know this stuff and just want some suggest solutions, check out my other article: Humidity Control Solutions for Guitars.

This post contains affiliate links, meaning, if you click through and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. This is at no additional cost to you. Learn more.



Like You, Guitars Need Moisture, But Not Too Much

The ideal humidity range for your acoustic guitar is anywhere between 45% – 55%, with the sweet spot being right smack in the middle at 50%.

Acoustic guitars, especially the more expensive ones, are most affected by humidity and temperature because they’re made from ultra-thin sheets of wood and held together primarily by glue. Lots and lots of glue. These (mostly organic) materials are sensitive to extremes in humidity.

Solidbody electric guitars are generally less sensitive to weather conditions, because they tend to be built with thick slabs of wood and are held together more with screws and similar hardware. However, this doesn’t mean electric guitar owners are completely off the hook. They still need to pay attention to this stuff too.

Don’t Freak Out! It’s a Guitar; It’s Meant to be Played

I’ll be discussing extremes and worst-case scenarios a lot in this article.

However, I’m not preaching here that you should be overly paranoid and obsessive about humidity. If this all seems a little overwhelming, simply keeping your acoustic guitar in a good guitar case whenever you’re not playing it will help you avoid most problems. Soft “gig bags” or cheap cardboard cases won’t do. If you have an acoustic guitar that’s of decent quality, you shouldn’t be storing it in a cheap case.

Short exposure (say… 1-2 days of continuous exposure) to extreme dryness or extreme humidity is generally okay. Guitars are built to be played, not to sit in their cases sheltered from the world. The only exceptions are rare, old, and/or expensive collector’s pieces. These gems should probably spend the majority of their lives protected and only occasionally be taken out for routine maintenance and some strumming.

It’s not until a guitar has been in an extreme environment for about a week that you may start to see signs and symptoms of a “wet” or “dry” guitar.

A Wet Guitar – Signs of Too Much Humidity

Guitar repair folk like to call a guitar that’s showing signs of excessive humidity a “wet guitar.” The guitar’s been exposed to humidity above 60% for a few days or more, and has literally begun taking on water.

Weird fact: you can actually measure an increase in the guitar’s weight due to over humidification

Humidity, in general, has the effect of causing wood to expand and swell. So, avoid any sudden increase in humidity. For example, if you normally live in a very dry climate and fly to a very humid climate, keep your guitar inside its case 1-2 days (if you can) to let it gradually acclimate.

Signs of a Wet Guitar That YOU Can Watch Out For:

High action is the most common/obvious symptom of a wet guitar. Your strings start to feel higher than usual–maybe even to the point that your guitar becomes too difficult or painful to play.

Another indicator can be heard. If you have an astute ear, you might notice that your guitar has begun sounding rather dull and lacks the projection it once had. This one’s highly subjective though, as this could be caused by other factors (e.g. old strings).

Signs a Professional Repairperson Will Look For:

A pro will use visual sighting as well as a straightedge to diagnose over humidification. Over humidified guitars can have an improper neck angle, improper bridge angle, or unusually swollen (arched) top and/or back. As a beginner, don’t try looking for this stuff yourself. If you do you’ll drive yourself a little crazy, because you won’t know the difference between what is normal and what may be the result of over humidification. Also, I don’t want to be responsible for you accidentally dropping a metal straightedge onto your glossy guitar finish!

Wet Guitar

An extremely “wet” guitar can have a swollen top when checked with a straightedge.

What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

At the extreme end, your finish can begin to lift or crack, glue joints can fail, and splits can form in the top, back, or sides of the guitar. At this point, it’s too late, and repairs are very costly… if they’re repairable at all.

Live in a Really Humid Climate? Here’s What You Can Do:

If you live somewhere where the humidity is routinely above 60%, you’ll need to take some precautions. However, first confirm that humidity is actually a problem. The weather outside may be humid, but if you run the heater or air conditioner, the humidity inside your house may be ideal or even too dry. For now, we’ll assume that humidity IS too high.

If you store your guitar in its case (as you should):

  1. Buy a digital hygrometer to go inside your guitar case so you can measure humidity, otherwise you’re just guessing. I recommend the Oasis OH-2C Digital Hygrometer (pictured right) and corresponding Oasis Hygrometer Holder. The holder is great–it keeps the hygrometer right where it’s needed (near the soundhole) without scratching your guitar.
  2. To cut/control the humidity, I recommend the D’Addario Two-Way Humidification System (pictured right). This awesome little system is called “two-way” because it maintains proper humidity inside your case no matter WHAT the weather is like… too dry or too humid. Best of both worlds!

OR

Low-budget option: Silica gel packets. Yep. Simply collect them any time you find them in food containers, vitamin bottles, etc. Or, you can purchase the Dry & Dry 1 Gram Silica Gel Packets. Keep one by the headstock and another just above the soundhole (you can use an envelope to fashion a homemade holder). Start with just those two and and see what your hygrometer reads after 1-2 days in the sealed case. If humidity is still above 60% add 1 more packet above the soundhole. The packet(s) need to be above the soundhole. They can’t do their job if they’re inside the accessory compartment or wedged somewhere else inside the case.

Oasis OH-2C Digital Hygrometer

The Oasis OH-2C Digital Hygrometer


D'Addario 2-Way Humidification System

D’Addario 2-Way Humidification System

If you insist on keeping your guitar out on a stand, or don’t have a good, airtight case:

  1. As above, buy a digital hygrometer. I still recommend the Oasis OH-2C Digital Hygrometer… because it works fine to measure room humidity too.
  2. Buy a room dehumidifier for the room where the guitar is stored. I don’t have personal experience with these, so I can’t make a recommendation. Just do your homework when shopping for one, and use customer reviews to help you find a good one.

A Dry Guitar – Signs of Too Little Humidity

Of course, the opposite of a “wet guitar” is a “dry guitar.” It’s been exposed to humidity below 40% for a few days or more and has begun to dry out.

Extremely dry air, in general, has the effect of causing wood to shrink/contract. All the same disclaimers mentioned above apply here: if you normally live in a very humid climate and travel to a very dry climate, give your guitar time to gradually acclimate inside its case, if possible.

Signs of a Dry Guitar That YOU Can Watch Out For:

A dead ringer for a dry guitar is that the fret ends will begin to feel sharp. This is because the wood of the fretboard has contracted, leaving the metal fret ends exposed.

String buzzing in the higher registers (above the 7th fret) is another sign of a dry guitar. However, string buzzing can happen for many other reasons, so let your repair person be the judge here.

The other sign is an audible one, but it’s pretty subjective: the guitar can develop a brittle or “tinny” sound. However, there are other reasons a guitar’s sound can change, so let a professional repairperson be the judge.

Signs a Professional Repairperson Will Look For:

A pro will evaluate the above symptoms, but also use visual sighting as well as a straightedge to diagnose a dry guitar. Dry guitars can have a hump in the fretboard somewhere between the 12-14th frets, a concave top, or a very flat back. A repairperson may also listen for any unnatural rattles when the guitar is played or tapped in certain areas.

Dry Guitar

An extremely “dry” guitar can have a sunken or concave top when checked with a straightedge.

What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

At the extreme end, the same damage that results from a wet guitar can manifest from a dry guitar as well. Glue joints can pop apart, cracks can form in the top, back, or sides of the guitar, and the glossy finish (if applicable) can crack or check.

If your guitar gets to this point, it will have to be repaired by a pro, and that’s going to be very costly depending on the extent of the damage.

Live in a Really Dry Climate? Here’s what You Can Do:

If you live somewhere where the humidity is routinely below 40%, you’ll need to take some precautions. Again, we’re aiming for 45% – 55% humidity. Some of the information in this section will be redundant, but I’ll repeat it in case you skipped to this section.

If you store your guitar in its case (as you should):

  1. Buy a digital hygrometer to go inside the case so you can measure humidity. As mentioned up above, I recommend the Oasis OH-2C Digital Hygrometer and corresponding Oasis Hygrometer Holder. The holder is great because it keeps the hygrometer right where it’s needed (near the soundhole) without scratching your guitar.
  2. To increase the humidity I recommend the Music Nomad Humitar Acoustic Guitar Humidifier (pictured right). This is what I use and it keeps my guitars between 48% – 55% humidity, even in the driest Arizona summers.
Humitar Acoustic Guitar Humidifier - Package Front

Humitar Acoustic Guitar Humidifier. Simply awesome, it’s what I personally use to combat the dry Arizona climate.

If you keep your guitar out on a stand, or don’t have a good, airtight case:

  1. Buy a digital hygrometer. I still recommend the Oasis OH-2C Digital Hygrometer… because it works fine to measure room humidity too.
  2. Buy a room humidifier for the room where the guitar is stored. I’ve been using the AirCare MA0800 in my music room. It works quite well, but can be a little noisy and does require some regular refilling and maintenance (like all room humidifiers).

OR

The Musik Tent

I now use a Musik Tent to protect my expensive acoustics.

I recently began using a Musik Tent (pictured here) which allows me to keep my guitar accessible while providing a self-contained environment of perfect humidity. It can hung in a closet, from a door, wall or ceiling. You can’t really see it here, but the kit includes a humidification bag (which holds water) as well as a digital hygrometer–so you always know the humidity level inside the tent. The humidification bag lasts quite a long time. As of the time of this article, I’ve had mine for 4 months now and the bag probably still has at least 2-3 months worth of water left in it. Awesome.

OR

Low-budget option: Believe it or not, simply keeping open containers of water in the room will help. Fill a few vases (wider openings are better) or bowls and stick ‘em somewhere you won’t knock them over.  Refill them as the water evaporates. Plants help with humidity as well, as long as you keep them watered and healthy.

My Parting Thoughts

Environmental conditions are constantly fluctuating–both inside and outside your house.

This is why I highly recommend that you keep your expensive acoustic guitar inside a sealed case whenever you’re not playing it, along with whatever humidity-controlling devices you’ve decided on. This gives your guitar a more consistent “microclimate” that is independent of the all the craziness going on everywhere else. Another great option, which keeps your guitar more accessible, is the Musik Tent.

Questions? Concerns?

If you think your guitar is showing signs of under or over humidification but are unsure, please leave a comment below along with the signs and symptoms, and I can try to help you diagnose whether you have an issue and what you can do about it.

 

Action! A Beginner's Guide to Understanding String Height

Action! A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Guitar String Height

Last Updated: September 9, 2018

“Action” … a weird word used to describe how high (how far above the wooden fretboard) your guitar strings are. Some people just say “string height” or “guitar string height” as well, which is a bit more specific. Also, you’ll sometimes hear guitar players throwing the term “action” around loosely–to describe the overall playability of a guitar.

This post contains affiliate links, meaning, if you click through and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. This is at no additional cost to you. Learn more.



High Action vs. Low Action

The higher the action, that harder it’s going to be to press the string down… because the string has further to go before it makes contact with the metal fret. The lower the action, the easier it’s going to be to press the string down, because it’s already closer and has less distance to travel.

If you’d like to learn exactly how to measure your string height, as well as see a listing of measurements for what constitutes low, medium, and high action, check out my other article: How to Measure String Height.

Low Action – Advantages and Disadvantages

The main advantage of low action is that the strings are easier to press down. This is great for reducing finger soreness, hand fatigue, and avoiding injury when you’re first learning to play and building strength. As a beginner, you usually want the lowest action possible.

However, get your action TOO low and you’ll get a nasty, undesirable buzzing sound with every note (or chord). I’m not talking about the kind of buzzing you get when you’re a beginner and can’t yet press the strings hard enough. That kind of “beginner buzzing” is normal and will go away as you gain skill and hand strength. Buzzing that is a result of excessively low action will happen no matter how great of a player you are, and it can be maddening.

String Height or "Action"

String height or “action” is measured from the top of the metal fret to the bottom of the guitar string.

Another potential downside to having excessively low action is that it can lessen a note’s sustain–the length of time a note is audible after you pluck it. Some notes may also “fret out,” meaning they make no sound at all due to obstruction by other frets. I won’t try to explain these last two things, as it would only be understood by professional repair people and advanced guitar players (neither of which are probably reading this article).

Now, it IS possible to achieve extremely low action while avoiding or minimizing these issues, but it’s sort of the holy grail for guitar players. Your guitar needs to be expertly set up by a true professional, and may also need a more dramatic (and expensive) procedure known as a “fret level and crown.” As a beginner, don’t worry about the latter right now. I do, however, recommend getting your guitar set up by a pro. If you’re wondering what all goes into a setup, you can ready my article Guitar Setups: What They Are and Why You (Might) Need One.

High Action – Advantages and Disadvantages

The main advantage to having high action is that your guitar will generally be free of that nasty buzzing I mentioned above. It also allows the notes to sustain freely and naturally, since the string is unobstructed. With high action, having your guitar set up by a pro isn’t as critical.

However, if your action is TOO high it becomes extremely difficult to press the guitar strings down. Not only is this just plain painful, your hand will tire much faster and you can actually injure yourself. With action that is too high, you’re more likely to get a lot of that “beginner buzzing” that is the result not having the sheer hand strength to press the strings down fully and firmly (especially when trying to make chords).

Measuring string height with my StewMac String Action Gauge

My StewMac String Action Gauge allows me to see precisely how high the strings are.

Very high action can also cause issues with something we call “intonation.” Without getting into the specifics, suffice to say really high action can make notes and chords sound out of tune while you’re playing, even though you may have tuned the guitar perfectly. This is where “intonation” comes into play. When your intonation is messed up, your guitar will sound out of tune only while you’re playing. It can be just as maddening as fret/string buzz.

This is the most common issue I find whenever I inspect a beginner’s guitar: the action is WAY too high when it doesn’t need to be. It’s no wonder so many new guitarists get discouraged and quit. It’s so dang painful and frustrating that they assume they just can’t do it. Additionally, most beginners use guitar strings that are way too thick, which just compounds the problem. This is why I always advise beginners use ultra light guitar strings, which I talk about in my article: Fingers Sore From Playing Guitar? Don’t Give Up, Lighten Up!.

So, Should You Have High Action or Low Action?

You need to be somewhere in between, but as a beginner you’ll want to be near the lower end of the spectrum. You want your action low enough that it’s reasonably comfortable to play, but not not so low that the strings buzz or fret-out (make no sound) unnaturally. Now, understand that some buzzing is normal, especially on electric guitars, and especially when you’re a beginner. Many factors determine how well individual guitars will tolerate low action, and cheaper guitars tend to buzz more than their high-end counterparts (though there are always exceptions). A skilled repair person (what we call a “guitar tech” or “luthier”) will be able to evaluate your guitar and set the proper expectations for you–just let them know that you’re hoping to get the lowest action possible without any (or much) buzzing.

What Should You, the Beginner, Do Next?

I encourage you to learn to do your own guitar setups–which includes setting action. However, this is something that can be challenging for beginners. It takes a little time, trial, and error to get right.

So, in the meantime, take your guitar to a good guitar shop and tell them you want “a complete setup, with the lightest strings and lowest action possible, with minimal fret buzz.” They’ll know exactly what you mean and, as long as they know their stuff, will be able to have your guitar back to you in 1-2 weeks… playing and sounding as good as it possibly can.

If you’d like to see what all goes into a “setup” and how you can learn to do them yourself, check out my article: Guitar Setups: What They Are and Why You (Might) Need One.

Question:

Do you prefer high action, or low action? Or, maybe somewhere in between? Let me know in the comments section down below.