Guitar Maintenance 101: Do It Yourself VS Taking It To A Tech

Guitar maintenance
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When it comes to guitar maintenance, knowledge is power. What are the advantages of doing it yourself versus taking it to tech? Today we go over the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Guitar Maintenance: It Can Be Very Important

Have you ever picked a guitar right off the wall at a guitar store that seemed really nice, only to play it and wonder why it plays so badly? I knew I have, even on some of the most expensive guitars that I have ever played.

You expect a guitar to play as good as it looks right off the rack, but that is not always the case. This doesn’t mean that a guitar is always bad, or a lemon. It might just need a good setup, and the right setup can make any guitar play like a million bucks.

Sure, some guitars are just made badly and slipped through the QC department. Those would be lemons, and they should be returned. But most of the time, if a guitar doesn’t play well, it just needs a good setup.

I came to this realization after owning a cheap Epiphone for a while, and it just didn’t sound “right” anymore. It was my first “real” guitar, and it sounded great for the first 6 months! So what went wrong with my guitar?

I took it to the shop I bought it from, and the tech said it just needed a good setup. I was 15 years old, and I had no idea what he meant by a “good setup”. He explained to me that you need to adjust your guitar routinely to keep it in tune and playing well.

What IS A Guitar Setup?

A guitar setup refers to the process of adjusting various components of a guitar to optimize its playability, intonation, and overall performance. This typically includes tasks such as adjusting the neck relief, setting the string action, adjusting the intonation, and ensuring proper string height and alignment.

The goal of a guitar setup is to make the instrument comfortable to play, in tune, and to achieve the desired tone and feel for the guitarist.

So I eventually went to the library and got a book that showed me how to set up the guitar. I have been doing my own setups for the most part for 28 years or so, since I did have a tech at one point when I played shows. I know a lot of guitarists that do their own setups.

But I also have friends that take their guitars to a tech regularly. These people may do the basics at home like polishing and string changes, but they leave the setups to the techs. They make 3 or 4 trips to the tech every year, for each guitar.

So which one is right? Should you learn how to do setups at home, or should you take your guitar to a tech that has been trained?

There really isn’t a correct answer to this question, and it depends on the person. Some people can do setups at home, but they leave fretwork and electronics to a tech. Some guitarists have a full workshop at home, while others have the bare minimum.

Everyone has a different “guitarist’s toolkit” at home, with varying different levels of tools and experience. Personally, I think basic guitar maintenance is part of being a guitarist. You should know how you like your guitar to be setup, play, and feel.

Today we are going to look at it from both sides, and go over the advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes, the problem might be out of your range of experience. In that case, you should take it to a tech that you trust.

But being a guitarist is not just about playing the instrument. Knowing basic guitar maintenance can save you a lot of money, and you can become much more connected to your instrument when you know how it works. Learning how to work on your guitar can be a personal thing, and it is just as important as your technique and playing.

As a guitarist, taking care of your instrument is essential for achieving the best sound, playability, and longevity. In this article, we will explore the reasons why learning guitar maintenance and performing setups at home is crucial for every guitarist.

By empowering yourself with the knowledge and skills needed to care for your guitar, you can enhance your playing experience and keep your instrument in prime condition. Let’s dive in and discover the world of guitar maintenance and DIY setups.

The Importance of Guitar Maintenance

Guitar Maintenance

Let’s start at the very beginning, and talk about why keeping your guitar in tip-top shape is so important. I like to think about my guitar like a race car, and putting it on the bench is like taking it to the pit crew. There is something wrong, and it needs attention before it can get back on the track!

Just like those guitars that you might have played in the store that felt off or wrong, your guitar will need adjustments to feel better and play its best. The setup is the difference between a “good” guitar and a “great” guitar!

Guitar maintenance is the key to unlocking the full potential of your instrument. Here’s a few reasons why it’s essential to learn how to maintain your guitar:

  • Optimal Playability: Regular maintenance ensures that your guitar plays smoothly and comfortably. Proper setup improves the action, intonation, and overall feel, allowing you to play with ease and precision.
  • Longevity: By taking care of your guitar, you can extend its lifespan. Proper maintenance helps prevent issues such as fret wear, neck warping, and electronic malfunctions, ensuring your instrument lasts for years to come. Regular guitar maintenance can even diagnose problems early!
  • Consistent Tone: Well-maintained guitars produce consistent and balanced tones. Regular upkeep helps preserve the integrity of the wood, hardware, and electronics, allowing your guitar to deliver the sound you love. Change your strings and wipe down your guitar!
  • Personal Connection: Learning to maintain your guitar creates a special bond between you and your instrument. As you invest time and effort into its care, you develop a deeper appreciation and connection, which can positively impact your playing.

When it comes to optimal playability, this part is probably the most important. Have you ever tried to play a guitar with sky-high action? It can be pretty difficult if the guitar isn’t setup well. Likewise, details like intonation ensures your guitar always sounds good.

Keeping your guitar clean, and properly adjusted also adds to the longevity of your guitar. Keeping your guitar clean will make the parts last longer. Wiping down sweat from the strings and bridge stops rust, and keeping your frets polished makes bends smooth as butter.

When it comes to consistent tone, this means your guitar will stay in tune, and always sound great. Changing your strings often keeps your guitar sounding bright. Making sure your electronics are clean and working properly will keep your guitar stage-ready.

The personal connection is the part that means the most to me. When I am working on my guitar it is very relaxing to me. Knowing how your guitar works gives you a connection to the instrument and you know how it works, inside and out.

It may sound cheesy, but I feel a bond with each of my guitars, and I know where every scratch and dent came from. That personal connection is something that I really appreciate about guitar maintenance. I do everything in my downtime, and my guitars all play their best!

So what do you need to know? What exactly is guitar maintenance? It comes down to several different tasks, and every guitarist is at a different level when it comes to skill. But let’s look at the basics, and go over the tasks.

Basic Guitar Maintenance Tasks

These are the bare basics when it comes to what you can do at home with simple tools. When it comes to products, everyone has a different preference. The same can be said of the tools, but most guitars come with the basic tools you need.

  • Cleaning and Polishing: Regularly clean your guitar to remove dirt, grime, and sweat buildup. Use a soft cloth and guitar-specific cleaning products to avoid damaging the finish.
  • String Replacement: Over time, guitar strings lose their brightness and become harder to play. Learn how to change strings properly, ensuring correct tension and tuning stability.
  • Fretboard Care: Keep your fretboard in excellent condition by cleaning it and applying a conditioner to prevent drying and cracking. Use a suitable cleaner from a name brand and a soft cloth to remove dirt and oils.
  • Fret Care: If you have nickel frets, make sure they are in good condition. Dull frets, or dirty frets can affect the way your guitar plays and feels.
  • Adjusting Action and Intonation: Understanding how to adjust the guitar’s action (string height) and intonation (accuracy of pitch across the fretboard) allows you to optimize playability and tone.

These are the tasks that you should do often. I have a routine, where I perform these tasks every time I change my strings. I try to change my strings every month or so, and this frequency ramps up if I am recording or playing gigs.

There are a ton of different brands out there that make polish and fretboard conditioner, and I personally like Music Nomad products. But I always wipe down the fretboard, and make sure it is properly hydrated during a string change.

Then I check the frets, and I make sure they are clean and shiny. Dirty frets can be a big problem when you are playing, especially when it comes to playing bends. They will feel “scratchy” under your fingers, and frets are a huge part of guitar maintenance.

It only takes a few minutes to check your intonation on the 12th fret after you have the new strings on the guitar. This is a great time to check, after your strings are stretched. Intonation is usually stable if you stick with the same string gauge, but it is always good to check.

These are the bare-bones tasks that every guitarist should probably learn as a beginner. You need tools to do this, and we have already gone over the basics of building a guitarist’s toolkit in depth. But as a refresher, in case you missed that article, let’s go over the tools you may need.

Basic Tools for Guitar Maintenance

Guitar maintenance tools

We already went in depth with the guitarist’s toolkit article. But we can still take a moment to go over the basic tools you will need to do guitar maintenance at home.

To perform guitar maintenance tasks effectively, you’ll need a few essential tools:

  • Guitar Cleaning Kit: Invest in a guitar cleaning kit that includes a microfiber cloth, guitar polish, fretboard conditioner, and string cleaner. These tools will help you keep your guitar clean and well-maintained.
  • String Winder and Cutter: A string winder speeds up the process of changing strings, while a string cutter ensures clean and precise cuts. These tools are indispensable for hassle-free string replacement.
  • Truss Rod Wrench: The truss rod is responsible for adjusting the neck’s curvature. A truss rod wrench allows you to make small adjustments to achieve the desired neck relief.
  • Allen Wrenches: Allen wrenches, also known as hex keys, are essential for adjusting various components such as bridge saddles, truss rod nuts, and saddle height.
  • Screwdrivers: A set of screwdrivers with different sizes and types (flathead and Phillips) is necessary for adjusting hardware, such as pickup height and control plate screws.
  • String Action Gauge: This handy tool helps you measure and adjust the string height to achieve optimal action.
  • General Measuring Tools: Having a good straight edge, and several rulers are a good idea. That way you can check your neck relief.

Again, we have gone over all of this already. I cannot stress how important it is to have the correct sizes when it comes to wrenches and screwdrivers. The wrong size can strip out screws or even strip the nut on your truss rod. Then you have a big problem!

Advantages of Working on Your Guitar at Home

This is the big one, right? You can always take your guitar to a tech for setups and customization, but I think you are seriously missing out if you solely rely on a tech. I think you can miss out on learning a lot about your guitar.

There is a time to take the guitar to a tech, otherwise we wouldn’t have any! If you have any doubts about an issue with your guitar, never risk potentially causing damage. That is the hardest way to learn, and trial and error can cost you a lot of money.

But for most basic guitar maintenance, you can do it at home. The most important thing to remember is to go slow. Try to make small adjustments, especially when you are just starting to learn. There are so many advantages to learning how to work on your guitar:

  • Cost Savings: By learning to maintain and set up your guitar yourself, you save money on professional service fees. The initial investment in tools and learning resources quickly pays off.
  • Convenience and Flexibility: When you can work on your guitar at home, you have the freedom to do it on your schedule. No need to wait for an available appointment or endure time without your instrument.
  • Deeper Understanding of Your Instrument: By performing your own guitar maintenance, you develop a deeper understanding of how your instrument works. This knowledge empowers you to make informed adjustments and modifications to suit your preferences.
  • Customization and Personalization: Working on your guitar allows you to customize and personalize your instrument. From adjusting the action and intonation to installing new pickups or upgrading hardware, you have full control over the sound and feel of your guitar.
  • Learning and Skill Development: The journey of learning guitar maintenance and setups at home is educational and rewarding. You expand your knowledge, develop new skills, and gain a sense of accomplishment as you enhance your guitar’s playability.
  • Immediate Problem Solving: When issues arise with your guitar, being able to diagnose and address them immediately saves time and frustration. You can troubleshoot problems such as fret buzz or tuning instability without relying on a technician.
  • Sense of Achievement: Successfully maintaining and setting up your guitar creates a sense of achievement and empowerment! You become more self-reliant as a guitarist and gain confidence in handling your instrument.

Learning how to do guitar maintenance at home is such a rewarding experience. You can diagnose problems on the fly, change out parts, and always have a great playing instrument! I love learning new skills, and I especially love learning new things about guitar!

You will probably never know everything about fixing the guitar, I know I don’t! But you can definitely learn a lot, and there are tons of resources out there. I think Phil McKnight has one of the best YouTube channels about guitar maintenance, and he has videos about all kinds of topics.

The cost upfront may seem high when you are looking at tools, but it will pay for itself many times over. Plus learning how guitars work give you a deep appreciation of the instrument. I am amazed at how a Floyd Rose works, and the simple electronics of most guitars.

Even if you do not know how to fix an issue, you can have a good idea of how to diagnose the problem. that way, when you take it to the tech you can tell them what you think is wrong. Like we said in the beginning, knowledge is power, and it can save you a lot of money.

Wrapping Up: Additional Resources

Learning how to do your own guitar maintenance can be a hugely rewarding experience. It has become a hobby of mine, and I even have a few customers at this point. I also set up my student’s guitars for them, and show how easy it can be with a little effort. We have some articles that can help you out if you want to learn:

All of these articles can definitely get you started on your journey to learning guitar maintenance. Learning guitar maintenance and performing setups at home is a worthwhile endeavor for any guitarist. By taking control of your instrument’s care, you can optimize playability, extend its lifespan, and develop a deeper connection with your guitar.

Building up your guitarist’s toolkit and learning more about your instrument will totally change your perspective. You will find a brand new appreciation for your guitar, and the more familiar with the features you get, the easier it gets to find out “what you like in a guitar”.

For instance, some people don’t want to deal with floating bridges after doing the work on them. Likewise, some people end up loving a floating bridge, and it becomes a part of your technique! Hands-on experience is the only way to know what you prefer.

Embrace the journey of DIY guitar maintenance, equip yourself with the necessary tools, and enjoy the satisfaction of keeping your instrument in prime condition. Remember, a well-maintained guitar leads to better playing and endless musical possibilities. Happy playing and happy maintenance!


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