Let's Talk Guitars


Dirt, Who Cares?

Okay, we’re not trying to suggest you’re a grubby character…heaven forfend! But dirt and grime and it’s affect on your precious axe is an area many people don’t think much about, and often don’t realise is the cause of costly repairs…could this be you? Read on….

Not many of us go and rub our guitar in the dirt, so where does it come from? There are many answers to this, some I’m sure we’d all be grateful no-one delved into - but the primary source is most likely your hands. These release natural oils from the skin, and oils are often not water soluble, so those oils hang around until they are wiped on something – like your strings, fretboard, volume and tone knobs, bridge, machine heads – you get the picture. If you’re touching it, you’re leaving stuff all over it. Also these oils trap other kinds of dirt – perhaps some of the burger you had for the pre-gig nosh is still invisibly present…have you washed your hands? All this stuff, of uncertain origin, contains substances that potentially change ph (aciditiy) levels, and grit – you are probably starting to see where this is going.

Then there’s sweat. Eeuw. Stage lights are hot…need we say more? And what is sweat mostly? Salty water….can’t wait to see what that does to a guitar. Let’s have a look at the things that are happening, right now, to your instrument, even the one safely in it’s case…

Corrosion – cool word in a band name, bad word around guitars. Sweat and moisture of all kinds eventually penetrates the worn finish on metal parts and starts to cause oxidisation – rust. The rust undermines the strength of some parts, and causes distortion of the shape – parts start to not fit properly, or in the case of screws, become rusted in place, and when you try to turn the screw head you round off the holes the screwdriver grips with – or break the head right off! Now you have to get the screw out, fill the hole, and drill a new one for a snug fit. What a drag. How to prevent this? Wipe off the guitar with a clean cloth after playing, particularly a sweaty gig, and replace screws when they start to discolour….before it gets too late.

Corroded bridge parts – most bridges have some height adjusting grub screws, and a screw to adjust the intonation – the grub screws in particular like to get full of dirt and corrode – it can take up to half an hour to get out a really stubborn one of these suckers…or maybe your hapless tech will just replace the whole saddle, if they even find one – you get the picture. Either way, that screw has to move, and your tech has to make it happen – and these common problems drive up the price a business has to charge for repairs and setups. The solution? Wipe your guitar after playing, and as part of a professional setup, your tech should clean and lube up your moving bridge parts…and replace problem parts early, before they cause these kinds of headaches.

Rust in pots, pickups, electronics. Obviously a bad idea – causing noise and/or component failure…hopefully not on stage! Fingers crossed…

Strings – your hands and what they leave on the strings is the primary cause of string wear, leaving them duller in tone, harder to keep in tune, and feeling sticky to play. Wipe off your strings with a clean cloth if it’s been a heavy session, and wash your hands with soap before you play your guitar – it may cause a few raised eyebrows with the band or the girlfriend, but hey, it works, and money for new strings stays in your pocket while you keep your tone longer.

Fretboard – there are different types and finishes – some natural like rosewood and ebony, some lacquered, as in the case of maple. With the boards bare and exposed to the elements – they need to be kept loaded and moist with the right kind of oil, lemon oil, so the wood remains healthy and they don’t drink up the skin oils loaded with dirt you are leaving behind. And not keeping oil and dirt away from your beautiful rosewood or ebony board means it will grind away at the board with playing, digging holes in it, ruining your playing. Lemon Oil should never be put on boards with finish on them, use your professional guitar polish for that.

Frets - all of us eventually notice the gunge that builds up right next to the edges of frets. This needs to be cleaned away, or it eventually can cause the fret to lose it’s firm seating. The fret itself too will eventually discolour, and the surface get rough, a sort of greeny tarnish – this is gritty and if left will cause premature fret wear. Mask the board either side of the fret with masking tape (or get an inexpensive fret mask) occasionally and use superfine steel wool – NOT the steel wool ball in the kitchen sink – and rub them back to a clean dull shine.

Finishes – obviously there are many kinds – lets split them up into vintage finishes and modern finishes. Modern finishes are pretty easy to maintain with a good guitar polish and an attentive owner. Vintage finishes on the other hand, are generally softer and more volatile, and will absorb sweat and dirt into themselves, which will not come out with a simple polish, and discolour and weaken the protective surface. Another note on nitro-cellulose finishes, these benefit from using a polish designed specifically for nitro-cellulose – ask at your local repair shop. Nitro is also vulnerable to other kinds of cleaners, particularly those with citric acids…modern two pac finishes will take abuse from citric acids alright, but if you have sticker glue to remove from a nitro finish, don’t use any of the usual suspects on it – damage will be permanent. It’s up to elbow grease I’m afraid. Oiled finishes are another kettle of fish – they don’t create a hard protective surface at all, and they will rub off…if you don’t replace the oils regularly, after cleaning, the sweat and dirt will penetrate the wood itself where it will remain forever. Yuck.

Phew! Yes mum! Anything else? Clean my room while I’m at it? Hopefully though we have convinced you of the merits of being bit more of a fuss-pot – a beautiful instrument deserves it , right? And that axe you’re hoping to replace soon with something awesome needs all the help it can get…Cleanliness is next to godliness – or unholy playing, it’s up to you!

Cat Johns
Lauda Guitars

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