It’s been staring at you from the closet. A busy career, long days at the office, too much time on the road… and now the holidays. All of it has kept that old guitar in the closet. It’s ok! Even if it’s been years since you’ve opened that guitar case and you’re worried what you might find, don’t panic!
It might be easier than you think to get that old guitar in playing shape. And now is the perfect time to rekindle your guitar love and get it into shape for the new year.
How long has it been in hiding?
If it’s been five to ten years, things may not be as bad as you think. But if it’s been more like thirty or forty—one, congrats, you’ve got a vintage instrument on your hands. And two, you might have a bit more work to do.
Guitars can be sensitive to temperature and humidity, it’s true. If you’ve had your axe stashed away in a hot attic or clammy basement, you might have some surprises waiting for you. But while properly storing your guitar a climate-controlled environment can certainly extend its life, many guitars stored in less-than-ideal conditions can still glow with a quality setup.
To Luthier or not.
Regardless of whether you’ve got a six-string masterpiece stashed in the closet or an old pawnshop specimen buried in the basement, bringing it into a luthier for a basic setup—and diagnosis of any major issues—is a no-brainer. Even brand new guitars require a basic setup to shine, so the instrument you’ve had stashed away for the last few years definitely deserves a professional tune up.
But if you’re on the fence about whether to bring it into the shop right away, there are some simple checks and repairs you can do on your own.
It’s nearly impossible to assess how playable your instrument is with old strings. Even if they’re not obviously corroded, dirty, or bent, the best course is to change them. Don’t even bother with string cleaner. If you’ve forgotten what kind of strings you use, the standard for electric guitars is .010–.046 nickel wound, and the standard for acoustic guitars is .012–.053 phosphor bronze or 80/20 bronze.
2. Cleaning the Wood
When you remove the strings from your instrument, you’ll want to use this opportunity to clean the neck and frets. Depending on how dirty your instrument is, it might be a fairly quick or a time-intensive process. For basic dust, wiping down the neck and body with a clean, dry cloth is sufficient. For tougher grime, you’ll want to use the right materials for the wood and finish on your guitar.
3. Checking the Electronics
If you have active pickups in your instrument, you’ll want to swap out that 9V battery pronto. Storing any device with a battery installed isn’t a great idea, so you’ll want to check right away that the battery hasn’t leaked. If you notice any powder or corrosion, you’ll want to clean that up first.
4. Cleaning the Electronics
If you’ve plugged in and you’re getting at least some sound through your amplifier, you’re halfway there! You’ll want to check that the knobs and pickup selector are functioning correctly. If you notice crackling or other sound interference, you’ll want to clean those knobs and switches. Cleaning the potentiometers, or “pots,” is fairly easy stuff. All you’ll need is a can of electronic contact cleaner like DeoxIT. Nope, do not reach for that old can of WD-40 in your garage—it can wreak havoc on your instrument.
5. Talking to a Professional
Once you’ve changed your strings and cleaned your instrument, if things still aren’t sounding right, it’s definitely time to pay a visit to a luthier. Changes in temperature and moisture can create a bow in the neck of any guitar, even ones that are properly stored or regularly played. To check if your neck has bowed, press the low E string down just behind the first fret. With your other hand, press down on the same string just past the highest fret. If the neck has a forward bow, you’ll notice a gap between the fret and the string around the area of the ninth fret, about enough to slide a medium guitar pick through.
If you notice buzzing when you fret certain notes, this sometimes indicates a neck bow in the opposite direction. Notes “choking out” when you bend a string can also indicate a backward bow. Neck bows require a truss rod adjustment, and while there are ample videos how to adjust a truss rod, it’s easy for a first timer to get it wrong. It’s best to consult a professional on this step.
And if you’re worried about bringing in a cheap instrument to be professionally set up, don’t be. Sometimes a professional setup is all a lower-quality instrument really needs to shine. Over their careers, luthiers have seen it all, and they have a whole tool kit of tricks to deal with stubborn instruments.
Your first play session, in forever, doesn’t have to be confusing or frustrating. With a proper tune-up, it can be as fun and enjoyable as it was a decade ago (or more!). For any of these steps, it’s helpful to search for the make and model of your particular instrument for dedicated advice on setting up and troubleshooting. Different manufacturers have different guidelines for the right cleaners, tools, and procedures. When in doubt, get help from a professional luthier. The pros have guitar techs. Why shouldn’t you?
TrueFire is the home of the best online guitar instruction, jam tracks, and more. Sign up for free at TrueFire.com and why not treat yourself this holiday season to some guitar love. Come back to guitar is your perfect New Year’s resolution.