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I recently took my car to the shop for service, and while looking around the lobby at all the signs for procedures, products, etc. I had a big ah-ha moment.
Car manufacturers and auto shops are great at laying-out the “lifetime maintenance schedule” for cars at-a-glance. They tell you what procedures your car is going to need over its entire lifespan–at 5k miles, 10k miles, 35k miles and beyond–usually stopping somewhere around 150k miles.
Nothing like that really exists for guitars.
Oh sure, there’s lots of information out there on how to do specific procedures on your guitar, but there’s really no high level, bird’s-eye overview of what you can expect over the next 20+ years that you’ll own your guitar.
So, I’m going to try to lay-out something similar for guitar owners.
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If you just bought a new guitar (and especially if you ordered it online), have your guitar set up properly by a qualified guitar technician or music store. If you don’t know what a “setup” is, check out my article:
Getting a setup will ensure your guitar is as physically easy to play as possible. That way you can focus on learning instead of physically fighting the guitar.
A setup will run about $40 – $60 depending on where you go.
If you bought your guitar in a music store, they may have already done a setup for you. If you’re unsure, call them and confirm by asking: “Did my guitar get a full setup before I brought it home?”
Good guitar stores will perform a full setup and install new strings as part of the purchase price. You’ll usually know if they’ve done this, because rather than letting you take the guitar home right off the wall, they’ll tell you they need anywhere from a few hours to a few days to get the guitar ready. Most of the time, that means they’re doing a setup for you.
Wash your hands. Even if you think your hands are clean, wash ‘em anyway. It’s okay if you occasionally forget, but the more diligent you are about washing your hands before you play the cleaner your strings, fretboard, and frets will stay and the less work you’ll have to do later.
Check yourself. If you care about your guitar’s finish, double-check yourself for things that might scratch the guitar like buttons, bracelets, rings, zippers, belt buckles, etc.
Tune up. Check the guitar’s tuning, and tune it if needed. It’s easy to be lazy and settle for playing a guitar that’s slightly out of tune but, it’s a bad habit to get into. Just tune. It only takes a minute and the more you do it, the better and faster you’ll get at it.
Wipe the neck and strings. With a clean, soft, dry cotton rag or microfiber cloth, give the neck and strings a quick wipe. Keyword: quick. This shouldn’t take more than about 30 seconds. To see exactly how this is done (and how easy it is), see my article:
Wipe the body. With a different (soft, cotton or microfiber) rag, wipe the spot on the front edge of the guitar where your forearm was resting during play. No guitar polish is needed–simply fog the area with your breath and wipe… repeating 2-3 times. If you like to play guitar with your shirt off, you’ll want to wipe the back of the guitar too. Basically, wipe anywhere there was skin-to-guitar contact.
Wipe metal bridge components. If you’re playing an electric guitar with a tremolo or metal bridge parts, it doesn’t hurt to give them a quick wipe as well, to prevent buildup of corrosive sweat and salts that our hands leave behind. If you have metal volume/tone knobs, wipe those too if you touched them. Even if the metal parts are black or coated in some other color or finish, wipe them anyway.
Remove Old Strings
To be clear, 4-6 months is really just a “ballpark” time frame for changing strings. How often you should actually change strings depends on how much you play and other factors. For a more precise guide on how often to change your guitar strings, have a look at my article:
Wipe the Fretboard, Frets, and Back of the Neck
While all the strings are off, take this opportunity to give the fretboard, frets, and the back of the neck a quick wipe with a clean, soft, dry cotton rag. Keyword: quick. This is not meant to be a deep cleaning. We want to get through this string change and get back to playing asap. You should be able to do all these tasks in under 5 minutes.
First, lay the cloth on the fretboard and run it quickly up and down the fretboard a couple times, end-to-end. If there are any spots that are especially dirty, wrap the cloth over your finger and give those spots special attention, rubbing with the direction of the woodgrain. If you can’t quite get it all off, don’t worry. You’re going to do a more thorough fretboard cleaning at the 1-year mark anyway. Next, quickly buff each fret. Lastly, give the back of the neck a quick wipe as well.
Give the Body a Quick Wipe
Using a different rag than the one you used to wipe the fretboard, frets, and neck, give the body a quick rubdown. A soft microfiber cloth is my first choice for this, but my next-favorite type of cloth for general cleaning and polishing are 100% cotton cloth baby diapers. No joke. Wash and dry baby diapers 2-3 times before you use them on your guitar to ensure maximum softness (never use fabric softener when washing any guitar rags).
You can follow-up with a good guitar polish if you choose, but guitar polish really isn’t necessary at this stage.
Install New Strings
Once the basic cleaning is done, string it back up with a new set of strings, and don’t forget to stretch them thoroughly so they’ll stay in tune. If you don’t know how to stretch strings you can read my tutorial:
If it’s an electric guitar, set intonation if necessary. If your intonation was fine before the string change and you’re using the same brand and gauge fo strings, then you’re probably fine and don’t need to set intonation. I don’t (yet) have a tutorial for you on how to set intonation, but in the meantime I highly recommend this article by luthier Gerry Hayes:
Depending on how much you play, the one year mark is the point where you’ll want to spend a little quality time on certain tasks.
Perform a Complete Setup (If Necessary)
You may not actually need to do a complete setup every year. It all depends on how much and how hard you play your guitar, as well as your environmental conditions. However, if after a year your guitar is starting to produce any odd sounds (excessive fret buzz, fretting out, etc.) or having playability issues (uncomfortably high action), it might be time for another setup or, at the very least, a minor truss rod adjustment.
If you know how to do a setup, then proceed with the core tasks of setting neck relief, action, intonation, etc. then move on to the other maintenance items under this section.
On the other hand, if you don’t know how to do your own setups and decide to take it to a pro, note that they will probably do everything else listed below. So, check with them first, so that you don’t waste time cleaning and doing things that will be done for you as part of the setup.
Thoroughly Clean & Condition the Fretboard
If you’ve been giving the fretboard a quick wipe during each string change as I suggested up above, then it shouldn’t be very dirty after your first year. However, it’s probably dirty enough by now that it could benefit from a slightly more thorough cleaning. My favorite one-step product for cleaning & conditioning moderately dirty fretboards is Music Nomad F-One Fretboard Cleaner & Conditioner.
Clean/Polish the Frets
At the one year mark, your frets might have lost their luster a bit, or could be downright funky, depending on how much you play. However, there’s no need to bring out the steel wool or sandpaper yet. For now, you should be able to easily buff them back to a high shine using a metal polish, as I demonstrate in my article:
Clean and Polish the Guitar’s Finish
Dust off the guitar’s body, neck, and headstock. Then, give it a good cleaning and follow up with a high-quality guitar polish of your choice. If you need a detailed demonstration of how to clean and polish your guitar, and to see some of the products I use, you can read my tutorial:
Tighten Loose Screws and Nuts
Certain screws and nuts on your guitar can work their way loose over time, so you’ll want to check and tighten them, if necessary. If you don’t know what you’re doing here, leave this to a qualified guitar tech instead, as you might inadvertently over-tighten them and cause damage.
The tuning buttons and string posts are notorious for loosening over time. Also check the strap button screws, toggle switch screws, knob screws, etc.
Important! None of these need to be extremely tight, so don’t crank-down on them or you risk stripping the screws or wood, or cracking your guitar’s clearcoat.
Deep Clean & Condition the Fretboard
By this time, your fretboard may be showing visible buildup of oils, dirt, sweat, etc. The severity depends on how much you’ve been playing and how diligent you’ve been about following my recommendations above regarding fretboard care, washing your hands, wiping your strings, etc.
If your fretboard is really dirty, you’ll need to pull out the big guns and spend some quality time cleaning and and then re-conditioning it afterward. That’s why I call this “deep” cleaning, unlike the less intensive fretboard cleaning we did at the 1-year mark. To see how to clean a really dirty fretboard, read my how-to article:
Lubricate Tuning Machines
If your tuners are becoming difficult to turn or feel like they’re grinding, it’s time for a little lubrication. If they’re really cruddy or completely frozen (won’t turn at all), you’ll want to give the worm and crown gears a good cleaning first to remove rust and debris, then finish by lubricating them with with Tri-Flow Lubricant.
The right way to go about all this depends on whether your tuners are the open or closed type, as well as how bad they are. At the 5-8 year mark, they really shouldn’t be too bad, and simply lubricating the gears or knob bushings, should suffice.
If your tuners are the closed/sealed type, you can sometimes get the little cover off the gear compartment–if it has one. It can be a tad tricky though, so in some cases, it might be less of a headache to just replace the faulty tuner.
Inspect Nut for Excessive Wear or Damage
If you’ve got a bone or plastic non-locking nut and you’re experiencing issues with your action, tuning stability, or hearing unwanted fret buzz on open strings, it’s possible that over the years your strings have naturally worn or distorted the string slots of the nut. Nut string slots should be neither too deep nor too wide, and be shaped properly to ensure good intonation, action, and tuning stability. Wear-and-tear on bone and plastic nuts is normal, and depending on how long (and how hard) you play, it’s only a matter of time until it needs a little maintenance… or to be replaced altogether.
Also inspect the nut for any obvious cracks or chips. Chips that are on the edge of a string slot might allow the string to pop out during heavy bends. Cracks in the nut are cause for concern too, and it’s best to be proactive and replace the nut entirely.
Electric guitars, on the other hand, are supposed to have slots or notches in the bridge saddles–where the strings pass over the top. So, on electric guitars you’re instead looking for signs that the slots have worn excessively deep or have become too wide, and are allowing the string to slide side-to-side when you bend.
What constitutes “too deep” and “too wide” you ask? Well, that’s not something I can describe in the space of this article. If you’re having problems and suspect that your saddles are the culprit, take your guitar to a pro. Years of experience has taught them exactly what to look for.
Inspect Fretwire for Dents or Pits
The difference between a fret “dent” and a “pit” is:
Dents are indentations in the metal that have soft edges. You often can’t feel them when playing and bending strings because the soft edges allow strings to slide smoothly through the dent. Dents happen naturally over time and can’t be avoided with traditional nickel fretwire. Harder fret materials like stainless steel, Jescar, and EVO will last longer (stainless steel can potentially last a lifetime).
Pits have harsh, sharp edges. You can definitely feel a “catch” whenever you bend a string directly over a pit, and they can make the guitar unplayable. Pits are the result of an accident–usually a sudden impact that has slammed the string into the fret. The #1 cause of pits is accidentally smacking the front of the guitar neck into a mic stand.
Here are a couple examples…
If you have dents or pits that are causing issues, take your guitar to a qualified repair person to be evaluated and get a quote for what it’ll cost to fix them. If they’re fairly minor and you have plenty of material (metal) left, a level and re-crown can be all that’s needed. In very extreme cases, the neck may need to be refretted, but this is major surgery that usually isn’t necessary until the guitar is much older and many frets need to be replaced.
Clean (or Replace) Bad Pots and Switches
While electrical components can last 5-10 years and beyond, some will not. So, if you’re experiencing any electrical crackles, pops, or buzzes, first try cleaning the components with DeoxIT D5 spray. If that doesn’t seem to fix the issue, it may be time to consider replacing some or all of your electronics.
If it’s an electric guitar and you do decide to replace your electronics, I highly recommend the solderless wiring kits by Mad Hatter Guitar Products. You can learn more as well as watch a step-by-step demo of me installing a Mad Hatter kit in my article:
If you’re not comfortable doing electronics work, or don’t have the time or desire to learn how, please take your guitar to a qualified repair person.
Clean Rust/Corrosion Off Metal Hardware
Our hands give off salt and sweat that can corrode metal parts over time if it isn’t regularly wiped off after you’re done playing. If you’ve played your guitar a lot over the past 8 – 10 years and haven’t been diligent about wiping the guitar regularly, it’s possible that the metal parts of your electric guitar’s bridge may be starting to look pretty gross. If there’s any surface dirt or rust, this should be removed, and to do so properly usually requires that the parts be removed from the guitar first, so that they can be cleaned with the necessary solvents.
My usual disclaimer here: If you’re not comfortable doing this, or don’t have the time or desire to learn, please take your guitar to a qualified repair person.
Tighten or Replace Output Jack
On electric and electric-acoustic guitars, a few things can start to go wrong with the output jack. The whole assembly can start to become loose and wobbly as the nut that holds it gradually works its way loose. This is usually an easy fix: simply tighten it back up with a tool like a Bullet Jack Tightener. Other output jack types may require a bit more work to get access to, like this one:
Another problem you might experience, if your guitar has a standard Switchcraft style jack, is that the little retaining clip inside gets loose (bent backwards). In extreme cases, the cable may simply fall out of the output jack and not stay inserted. If you’re lucky, simply bending the clip back to its original position will fix the issue, but not always. You may need to replace the entire jack.
Electric Guitars: Lubricate Tremolo Pivot Points
If your electric guitar has a 2-stud tremolo system (Floyd Rose style bridges, 2-stud Strat style tremolos, and the like) and you’re having issues with the guitar returning to correct pitch anytime you use the tremolo, it may be time to give those pivot points a bit of lubrication. I prefer a dry, non-stick PTFE lubricant for this task. You need the lubricant in between the tremolo studs and the the tremolo’s knife edges. To see how this is done, check out my demonstration article:
Clean Dirty Nut String Slots
If you’re having issues with your guitar staying in tune, loosen the strings enough that you can pop them out of the nut’s string slots and inspect the slots for crud and debris. If you find any, use a very fine grit sandpaper (1000 grit or above) and gently clean out the slots–taking care not to actually remove any bone or plastic and not altering the depth or shape of the slot. Once it’s nice and clean, put a tiny drop of Big Bends Nut Sauce (my favorite) in each slot for added slickness.
Inspect for Visible Cracks and Loose Binding
Look over the entire guitar for any cracks or, on guitars with binding, any areas where the binding may be coming unglued. Primarily, we’re looking for damage due to over or under humidification. Humidity (or lack thereof) causes wood to swell or contract, and too much or too little puts stress on the wood as well as delicate glue joints. On acoustic guitars, look for fine, hairline cracks that run lengthwise along the grain of the wood in the guitar’s top or back, especially down the centerline. Similar cracks can also appear on the sides. On acoustic guitars, it’s the body that’s most susceptible to this kind of damage, so that’s where you’ll want to focus your efforts.
Here are just a couple obvious examples…
Acoustic Guitars: Inspect Inside the Guitar
Remove all strings and use a small inspection mirror to look around inside acoustic guitars for any obvious cracks or spots where braces are loose or coming unglued. Also inspect the bridge plate for excessive wear–primarily where the ball-ends of the strings normally rest and are held in place by the bridge pins.
Acoustic Guitars: Inspect Bridge for Lifting or Damage
Inspect your acoustic guitar’s bridge for any visible cracks, and also check to ensure it hasn’t begun lifting off the body. Try to slip a sheet of paper under the back. If you’re able to slide the edge of the paper any more than about 1mm under the back of the bridge, as shown in the image below, it’s time to loosen the strings and get the guitar to the shop. The glue has begun to fail and it will only continue to lift until it breaks free completely.
Inspect the Neck for Twisting
Sight down the fretboard from the tip of the headstock toward the body and look for any obvious signs of the neck twisting, like a corkscrew. Of course, if this has happened, you will no doubt have been experiencing all manner of fret buzz, high action, etc. If this isn’t the case, then you really don’t need to worry too much, even if you think you’re seeing a very slight twist in your guitar’s neck (which isn’t uncommon).
Repairs and Maintenance as Needed
Sorry to make this section so general, but after this point you basically address issues as they crop up.
The good news is, I’ve seen guitars that are 20+ years old that are still essentially in mint condition. They’ve rarely or never been played, and the owner(s) stored them with the upmost care.
On the other hand, I’ve seen guitars in this age range that seem to be hanging on for dear life–battered and bruised after years of touring and thousands of hours of playtime. Their only hope for continued survival is a major restoration by a professional luthier.
Assuming you’ve actually been playing your guitar for 20 years with some regularity, beyond this point the best advice I can give is to keep an eye on the things I mentioned up above, and address them as they come up.
It’s much the same as when your car hits the 150k mile mark–where the manufacturer’s predefined “maintenance schedule” stops and no longer tells you what to do.
Standard nickel fretwire doesn’t last forever. It’s not a matter of “if” it’ll need to be completely replaced but a matter of “when.” If you haven’t played your guitar much over these past 20+ years, your fretwire is probably fine.
On the other hand, if you’ve been playing your guitar a lot during its lifetime, and perhaps even had your frets leveled-and-crowned at least once, your frets will eventually get to a point where there’s no longer enough metal left to rehab them any more. This is when it’s time for a complete refret–and a good repair person can let you know when/if it’s time. All the old fretwire will be carefully removed and replaced with shiny, brand-new wire that will last you another 20+ years.
Replace Hardware as Needed
This is also the point where parts will simply start to fail, and preventative cleaning, lubrication, etc. will no longer do the trick. Hardware like tuning machines, bridges, electrical pots and switches, etc. can last a very long time if maintained and serviced regularly, but they’re not indestructible. If you’ve logged thousands of hours of play time, you’ll eventually have to replace something.
If you have a guitar that you play regularly (and would like to continue doing so), but are concerned about vintage authenticity, simply retain the original parts after you’ve replaced them. Future collectors appreciate having the original parts, even if they’re in really bad shape, and having them will increase the resale/auction value of the guitar.
This all might look like a lot. It may even seem overwhelming when you see it all in one place like this. However, here’s the bottom line:
Guitars are pretty durable… and forgiving.
You absolutely should strive to take good care of your guitar, so it lasts to give you a lifetime of enjoyment and self-expression. Perhaps it’ll even survive long enough to be an heirloom you can pass onto someone else. However, you don’t need to be obsessive-compulsive with its care. Your guitar should not be a source of stress and worry.
Acoustic guitars, semi-hollowbody guitars, and jazz boxes do indeed need a bit more care. This is because of the thinner sheets of wood that are used, the fact that they’re unfinished inside, and the fact that they use more glue than nuts and bolts to hold things together. So, at a bare minimum, pay attention to temperature and humidity with these hollow and semi-hollow axes.
Electric guitars, on the other hand, tend to be more rugged and forgiving of abuse. While I hate seeing guitars neglected or intentionally abused, the fact of the matter is that electric guitars can usually handle a certain amount of it before they start to give up the ghost.
Do the best you can with the items on this list, and your guitar should served you well for a very long time.
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