Five upgrade and maintenance tips for your acoustic guitar

Here are our top tips on keeping your acoustic guitar in tip-top condition.

1Experiment with pins

Kalamazoo KG-14 bridge pins

After hundreds of restringing cycles, bridge pins can show signs of wear. For optimum tone and stable tuning, it’s essential that strings are firmly anchored at the ball end and if you’re noticing pins creeping upwards when strings are tuned to full tension, it might be time to consider pin replacement. But be warned, because it might be that the string holes in the bridge are getting a bit worn, too, and new pins won’t necessarily fix that.

When shopping for pins, you might consider an upgrade – especially if the originals are plastic. For instance, a set of ebony pins might smooth brash treble, bone pins may provide extra brightness and complexity, while brass may enhance body, sustain and harmonic overtones.

Vintage-style Martin pegs may not have string grooves cut into them, however the vast majority will, and the groove should be oriented towards the bridge for the string to sit in the channel. The pins should not necessarily sit flush with the top of the bridge and never try to force them all the way in if it’s a tight fit, because you risk splitting the bridge. When replacing pins, measure the diameter of the originals to establish the size and taper you need and have fun with this cheap and easy modification.

2Clean your ’board

Many modern acoustics come with Richlite fingerboards, a man-made material comprised of resin-infused paper. With its uniform jet-black appearance, it’s a dead ringer for ebony and some believe it could eventually replace ebony in large-scale guitar production. Like wood, Richlite can get dirty, but it’s easy to clean. Wipe it down with a soft damp cloth and avoiding the use of chemicals and fingerboard conditioners.

If your fingerboard is rosewood or ebony, it will benefit from being cleaned periodically. Finger grease, dead skin and goodness knows what else can build up and become impacted, which makes it harder to remove. Some prefer to start by scraping off the dirt using the edge of a credit card or even a Stanley blade scraper, but avoid the latter unless you are experienced and skilled.

Others eschew scraping and wipe the fingerboard down with naphtha (aka lighter fluid) squirted onto kitchen paper. It takes longer, but it will lift off the detritus without removing any wood. Some warn that naphtha can damage the finish and dry out the wood, but we’ve never experienced anything untoward with nitrocellulose finishes.

The gentlest way to get the detritus off is to use a specialist fingerboard cleaner such as Dunlop Fretboard 65 Ultimate Lemon Oil. You can also apply it after cleaning with naphtha to prevent the ’board from drying out. Simply wipe it on, allow it to sink into the wood for several minutes, then wipe off the excess and buff up the ’board with a clean cloth. Cleaning of this sort shouldn’t be necessary at every string change and two or three times per year will probably suffice.

3Try different strings

Image of strings on an acoustic guitar
Image: Nor Gal / Shutterstock

Don’t allow yourself to get hung up on using the same type of strings on every acoustic. With such a range of tonewoods, body sizes and bracing styles, it would be tantamount to using just one type of pickup on every electric guitar, irrespective of body style, shape or size. There are plenty of gauges, alloys and coatings to consider, so have fun discovering what works for you and your guitar.

However, it’s key to understand that the strings must be suitable for the guitar. With electrics, you can use any gauge (within reason) and the only compromises will be tone and playability. With acoustic guitars, there are structural considerations that should guide your choice.

For instance, vintage-style Martins with scalloped bracing are not designed to withstand the tension of extremely heavy strings and even 0.012-gauge sets could be pushing it. You may observe the area behind the bridge bulging upwards, which is sometimes referred to as a ‘belly’. Some bellying is normal and indeed preferable; however, bellying as a result of excessive string pull will raise the bridge and twist it forwards. String action will increase as a consequence and it may permanently distort the geometry of the guitar if you persist with heavy-gauge strings.

Conversely, the more robustly constructed acoustics with non-scalloped bracing may lack volume and projection if a string set is too light. Sometimes, a heavier set will drive the top harder and help to bring out a guitar’s voice. Also remember scale length – the OM scale is longer than the 000 scale, for example – so you and your guitar may be fine going up a gauge with a shorter scale length.

4Think about humidity

Image of cracked finish on an acoustic guitar
Image: Tallula / Shutterstock

All wood has moisture content and it shrinks and expands as it dries out and rehydrates. When guitars get very dry, the shrinkage can be sufficient to crack the wood. Obviously, it’s desirable to avoid cracks so care must be taken with solid wood guitars to prevent them from drying out.

If possible, maintain your guitar’s humidity level between 45 and 55 percent within a temperature range of 22-25 degrees Celsius. Rapid temperature changes are bad news, so if you fly with your guitar or bring it indoors after it has been in a freezing van all night, allow it to come up to room temperature slowly before opening the case.

Too much humidity increases the wood’s moisture content, which causes it to expand. Over-hydrated wood may not sound its best but in isolation, a high moisture content shouldn’t be an issue. When very high humidity is combined with high temperature, glue joints can become weakened and even open slightly.

Much of this is common sense and few would consider it wise to keep an acoustic guitar next to a radiator, an electric heater, an open fire or wood-burning stove. Rapid humidity changes are as undesirable as temperature extremes because the rate of moisture loss will not be consistent, which increases the danger of cracks opening and joints failing.

Fortunately, specialist guitar humidifiers are readily available and very affordable. Martin and Taylor both market their own and they’re all designed for the same purpose – you simply need to follow the instructions. If you do need to re-humidify an instrument, it might be best to do so with the guitar sealed in its case.

5Keep your finish clean

Lowden F32 Review Back

Although the factory-aged look has now made inroads into the world of acoustics, there’s nothing nice about picking up an acoustic covered in gunk. Acoustic-guitar cleaning should begin by removing dust or potentially abrasive particles from the finish using a brush or a soft dry cloth. Once everything has been removed, you can think about polishing or cleaning the finish. In a sense, the two are different, so let’s make the distinction.

Some finishes are porous and over time, grease and dirt can get into the finish to make it look dull or cloudy. In more extreme cases, this type of ingress on the back of the neck can create a tacky feel that seems to get worse after you’ve been playing for a while. Any cleaning process should focus on removing this to restore the look and feel of the guitar.

Sometimes, the dirt will simply be confined to the outer surface of the finish, so polishing the finish might be deemed sufficient rather than a deep clean. However, beware of matt and satin finishes – because polishing them can result in a blotchy and uneven sheen. With finishes of this sort, polishing should be avoided.

Before cleaning or polishing your guitar, it’s worth finding out what type of finish it has because certain cleaning products may harm it. As a general rule of thumb, all abrasives should be avoided, irrespective of the type of finish.

If your guitar has a shiny and thick gloss coating of polyurethane, polyester or epoxy, it will probably outlast the guitar. Since it’s pretty much impervious, you can buff it up with any old spray polish you might find in the cupboard and a soft cotton cloth.

For guitars with nitrocellulose finishes, more care needs to be taken because it’s porous. Some cleaning products can impregnate the finish and stay there after you have buffed off the excess. Although they’re more expensive, specialist guitar polishes and cleaners are probably your safest bet. Another generally accepted recommendation is to avoid cleaning products that contain silicone. We’ve had success with Virtuoso Premium Cleaner and Premium Polish in the past.

Check out our tips for upgrading your Gretsches, Les Pauls and Stratocasters, too.