Fix Your Guitar: Our 10-step Survival Guide
Step this way as Huw Price shows you how to perform all kinds of routine repairs that’ll make a trip to the luthier a thing of the past…
We know, we know… you’d rather play your guitar than spend time fixing it up. But if you want it to play well, and if you want to be able to rely on it for gigs and jam sessions, then our practical guide to quick and easy tweaks and repairs – from truss rod tweaking to fret-slot fettling – will give you all the info you need.
The common thread running through all our DIY and workshop features is our desire to encourage self-sufficiency in guitar owners, and save you money. If you understand the principles and get hands-on with basic maintenance, then you’ll make informed decisions about when a trip to the luthier is really necessary, or whether a minor tweak at home can solve a problem. That’s what this feature is all about.
There are obvious parallels between car and guitar maintenance, and a guitar owner’s relationship with the luthier can often follow a similar dynamic to that of the car owner and their mechanic. For example, if you’ve ever owned an old Alfa Romeo, you may be aware of something called the ‘Italian tune-up’. The scenario goes something like this: the owner takes great care of his car, never driving too fast, always accelerating gently and keeping the revs well below the red line. But every few months, the car begins to feel sluggish and unresponsive, so the owner decides it needs a tune-up and takes it to the garage.
The mechanic pretends to listen carefully as the owner details all the symptoms, waits until he’s out of sight, then takes the car for a long spin so he can rev the crap out of the engine – literally. Having burned and blown away the carbon deposits that have formed because the engine isn’t being used as intended, the mechanic returns with a big grin and writes an invoice. The owner is delighted the ‘tune up’ has got the car running as it’s supposed to again, and the mechanic is delighted because he knows he’ll soon be doing it all again.
Yet if the owner was a bit more savvy, they could have saved themselves some cash and hassle, and it’s exactly the same with many common guitar ailments. By the end of this feature our aim is that you’ll have all the knowledge you need to perform the guitar equivalent of the Italian tune-up on your gear. So, with our sleeves duly rolled up, let’s crack on…
YOUR GUITAR MAINTENANCE TOOLKIT
Here’s a suggested list of tools to invest in to carry out the majority of routine guitar-maintenance tasks…
• Various flat- and cross-head screwdrivers
• A set of Allen keys
• A string winder
• Pliers with wire snips
• A soldering iron
• A multimeter
• Guitar lube
• Lighter fluid
• Fingerboard oil/conditioner
• A socket set/truss rod tools
• Finish reviver/polish
• Spare batteries
1. TRUSS ROD BASICS
If any aspect of routine guitar maintenance comes closest to the Italian tune-up analogy, it’s truss rod adjustment. Research the subject and you’ll encounter dire warnings on the dangers of amateurs wielding truss rod wrenches and how this delicate operation must be left to ‘qualified luthiers’. What constitutes a ‘qualified luthier’ remains a mystery; but on your next visit, try asking to see your luthier’s qualifications. I know exactly what the response would be if I asked my favourite luthier, but we wouldn’t be able to print it. Suffice to say, every ‘qualified luthier’ had to start somewhere – most likely by getting stuck in to the very tasks we’ll show you how to do in this feature.
If the gap between the strings and the 7th and 8th frets is bigger or smaller than normal, your truss rod needs a tweak
Getting back to truss rods, many techs get busier twice a year, when clients call to say their guitars need setting up. These periods tend to coincide with the weather getting colder during autumn and warmer during spring. In most instances, these changes in the weather will cause necks to bow up or down: the tell-tale symptoms are a change in a guitar’s action, and intonation that sounds a bit off. If you think it through, it’s highly unlikely that a bridge’s height has spontaneously shifted, or its saddles have moved – and on an acoustic, they can’t move – so any sudden change has to be attributed to a neck responding to changes in atmospheric conditions. Necks are always moving to some extent, which could be why your guitar feels better on some days than others. Truss rod adjustment may also be necessary if you swap to a different string gauge, or even a new brand of the same gauge.
The first step to take is to determine what’s going on with the neck. Only three specialist tools are required here – your ears, your fingers and your eyes. Some use feeler gauges, but in the real world of worn and uneven frets, their usefulness is moot. If the strings feel higher than before and notes played at the 12th fret sound sharp of the 12th fret harmonic, the neck may have bowed upwards. Place one finger on the first fret of the sixth (low E) string and the thumb of your other hand on the same string at the fret where the neck joins the body, and then check the gap between the string and the top of the 7th or 8th fret. There should be a very slight gap, but if this seems greater than usual, that confirms there’s a slight forward bow and the truss rod needs to be tightened. The gap is called ‘neck relief’.
Conversely, if your action feels too low and you’re experiencing fret buzzing and choke outs when bending strings, the neck may have bowed backwards. If the intonation test reveals that fretted notes at the 12th sound flat to the harmonic and the finger test shows the string touching the 7th or 8th frets, you can be pretty certain there’s a back bow, and it can be corrected by loosening the truss rod. Accessing the truss rod adjustment point isn’t always easy.
If it’s at the headstock end, there may be a cover that has to be removed, or the end of the truss rod may be hidden away a centimetre of more inside a drilled hole. In a famous example of Leo Fender not actually getting everything right the first time around, vintage Fender-style necks have their truss rod adjustment at the body end, meaning you may not be able to adjust the rod in situ without damaging the pickguard or the finish.
Ideally, truss rod adjustments are made while the neck is under string tension, but with those vintage Fender-style necks, this usually isn’t possible. Fortunately, you don’t have to remove the neck entirely to do the job, but you will need to slacken the strings right off. We suggest putting a capo on the 1st fret to keep the strings in their nut slots and wrapped around their tuner posts before loosening the neck screws. Try and ease the neck upwards in its pocket until you see the truss rod screw.
When adjusting truss rods, there are two key things to remember – always use the correct tool and work slowly. If the truss rod access is at the body end, you’ll most likely need a sturdy cross-head screwdriver. Gibson- and PRS-style necks usually feature a nut at the end of the truss rod, so you can use the appropriately sized socket from a socket set, or buy a wrench specially for the job. Specialist suppliers such as Allparts UK and Tonetech may be able to help, and you can often find what you need on eBay. Recessed truss rods at the headstock end usually require an Allen key. Sometimes, the hardest part is finding one of the correct size, because Fenders made in the US, Mexico and the Far East all have different sizes – in metric and imperial. Again, you can use a specialist supplier, or take your guitar to a really good hardware store that keeps a large selection of Allen keys sold individually.
Working slowly means checking the neck relief every quarter turn – and of course, this takes a little longer when you have to tighten the neck bolts and re-tune the strings every time. To tighten a truss rod, turn it clockwise and to slacken it, turn anticlockwise. If the truss rod doesn’t turn easily and you feel as if you’re needing to apply real force, consult a pro. Truss rods are only designed for minor corrections and cannot fix badly bent or warped necks. What’s more, only dual-action rods can correct a back bow. If, after a full turn, the neck problem remains, it’s time to take your guitar to the repairers. Fortunately, major issues seldom happen, and we can all perform minor truss rod tweaks that will keep our guitars playing as they should.
2. ISSUES WITH ELECTRONICS
We’ve all suffered from ‘pot scratch fever’ from time to time, and unwanted electrical noises periodically crop up with any electric guitar. The all-too-familiar symptoms include crackly pots, sticky switches, intermittent jacks and hum. When these things happen, it’s all too tempting to rip all the guts out and change everything, but repairs are often an easier and cheaper alternative to replacement. Let’s start with noisy pots, because they’re the most common electronic problem. Before going any further, we need to determine if that scratchy sound really is coming from the volume pot or somewhere else. Try swapping to another guitar to see if that sounds scratchy, too. If every guitar sounds scratchy through your amp, the problem is more likely to be stray current from the amp leaking through the guitar cable.
Many noise issues can be fixed with a the application of some contact cleaner, but if your wires are badly frayed or hanging off their contacts, then you’ll need to get your soldering iron out…
Try putting a buffered pedal between your guitar and amp, and see if that cures the noise problem. Any Boss pedal will do, and many tuners are also buffered. If this cures the scratchiness, it’s time to call the amp tech rather than your luthier. Incidentally, buffered pedals sometimes cure scratchy wah pedals, too.
If you’re still left with scratchy noises, there may be dirt or oxidisation in the potentiometers, so they’ll need cleaning. You’ll need contact cleaner, which comes in aerosols with an extension tube for the spray nozzle. The tube lets you direct the product into the pot casing – so long as you can get at the pot. Things can be trickier with semis, because there’s no direct access to the electronics. Check out a product called the Pot Cleaning Cap, because it slips over the pot shaft – once you have removed the knob – and enables you to force cleaner into the pot. Popular cleaners include Servisol and DeoxIT. Some contain lubricant, too, which will help your treated pots turn more freely. Just in case you weren’t already aware, WD-40 is not a contact cleaner. After treatment, if the pot is still noisy or cutting out in certain areas, it probably does need replacing.
Switches can get noisy and stiff. In fact, the 1963 Olympic White Strat we featured in the previous issue arrived with a switch that would barely move. After spraying the contacts with Servisol, we applied 3-In-1 oil to the switch’s pivot point and let it soak in. After a few minutes, the 55-year-old switch was operating like it was brand new. Jack sockets sometimes become intermittent and if this is happening, hit a chord and wiggle the cable in the vicinity of the output socket. If signal cuts in and out, try a different cable, and if it stops happening, you’ll know it’s a cable issue rather than the output socket.
Let’s assume swapping cables doesn’t cure it, and the jack socket is the most likely culprit. Two things are possible – firstly, the jack socket has lost some of its springiness and the tip connection is making intermittent contact with the jack plug. If you can get at the jack, try gently bending the tip connector towards the centre using pliers.
The second issue may be oxidisation on the contacts. You could try putting some contact cleaner onto a cotton bud and giving the contacts a scrub. Very fine Wet And Dry abrasive can also be used to remove the gunk and reveal untarnished metal. If your guitar has started generating a load of hum, there could be a fault with its ground connection. You can test this by connecting a wire from the metal outside casing of the output jack (ground) to the guitar’s bridge. If this reduces or eliminates the hum, you’ll need to find the broken connection. Alternatively, you can use a multimeter to test for continuity between the bridge and ground. If there’s no continuity, a visual inspection of the wiring will usually identify a broken joint that needs to be resoldered.
4. TUNER TIPS
All moving parts tend to need occasional maintenance and tuners are a prime example. Over time, they can get to feel loose and sloppy, or they may go the other way and get stiff, or even seize up. So, is it new tuner time? Not necessarily.
Let’s begin with the open-geared tuners that are commonly found on acoustics, Gretsches and so forth. There are usually two screws on the gear plate that fix each tuner onto the headstock. Remove the screws to remove a tuner, and then undo the screw holding gear onto the string post. When everything is dismantled, the metal parts can be cleaned with a naphtha (lighter fluid)-soaked cotton bud.
If your open-gear tuners are too stiff or too loose, you’ll need to clean out all the dirt and grease using naphtha, then lubricate them with petroluem jelly. If you have sealed-gear tuners, you can tweak the tightness of the buttons themselves using the screws on the gear shafts
You may find a load of caked dirt and dried grease. Once clean, reassemble using petroleum jelly between all the moving parts and wipe off any excess before mounting the tuners back on the guitar. The grease tends to solidify inside the gear housings of Kluson-style tuners, too. Take the tuners off the guitar, heat them up on a radiator or blast them with a hairdryer and flush the gear housings with naphtha. You can force it in with a syringe, but with extremely stiff or seized tuners, you may need to soak them in the naphtha for some time.
If there are plastic buttons, try and keep them out of the naphtha. Once the tuners are turning freely, flush out any remaining grease, allow the naphtha to evaporate, then use a syringe to inject petroleum jelly into the housing and wipe off any excess.
Even if your tuners are working fine, it’s a sensible precaution to check the tightness of the fixing screws periodically. Tuners can sometimes get a bit rattly, too, so check the tightness of the bushing nuts if your tuners have them. Sealed tuner buttons are always held onto the gear shafts by screws, and they can work loose. If there’s any play in the buttons, tighten the screws – but don’t over tighten, because the tuners will stiffen up and be hard to turn.
5. COMMON NUT ISSUES
Unless you’re buying a reasonably high-end guitar, most guitars are shipped with nuts that have relatively shallow string slots. Cutting nut slots to a perfect depth takes time, which isn’t conducive to mass-producing guitars. Cutting them just deep enough so the guitar plays, but high enough to prevent the open strings buzzing against the 1st fret, ensures that there will be no rejects. The problem here is that high nut slots tend to make open chords sound out of tune.
If your nut slots aren’t cut properly, tuning issues can often follow – to get things moving smoothly again you can use sandpaper to tidy up a slot, or alternatively lubricate it using chrome polish, Nut Sauce or other bespoke solutions
An E major chord may sound fine, but a D major doesn’t. Tune the G string so the D major sounds sweet, and your E major will suffer. High nut slots also make the guitar harder to play. Try putting a capo on the 1st fret, make sure all the open strings are in tune – a semitone up – and try those open chords again. If your guitar plays easier and sounds more in tune, the nut slots probably need attention and getting a luthier to do it is probably cheaper than buying a set of nut files.
Italian tuning tune-up
Tuning instability is another issue associated with hastily cut nut slots. All too often, the tuners are blamed and replaced unnecessarily, but if you hear pops, clicks and pings when you’re tuning up or bending strings, you can conclude that the strings are binding in their slots. Try wrapping some 1000-grit abrasive paper around a string and using it to smooth the slot. With materials such as bone, you can make the slots smoother still using chrome polish. Lubricating the slots with Tune-It, Nut Sauce, graphite powder or even petroleum jelly can also ensure your strings will glide easily.
What can be done about slots that are too low? In the long term, you may need to have the nut replaced, but there are workarounds that will get you through the next few gigs – and may even become permanent.
Bone nut slots can be packed with baking soda, then a drop of water-thin Super Glue is allowed to wick into the powder and set solid – preferably overnight. You can use bone dust, too, but the slot will have to be recut with a needle file or the appropriate string wrapped with abrasive paper. If the slot was only marginally too low to begin with, add just a little powder rather than pack the slot to the brim.
Plastic and nylon nuts may not be such an easy fix, but if you’re in a hurry, tiny pieces of paper can be pressed into the offending slots to raise the strings. It may not look pretty, but it does the job. If a few of the slots are too low, it may be easiest to shim the nut. Be warned that the nut and the finish can be damaged in the process of removing a nut, but find an online tutorial video and decide for yourself. A single layer of 0.6mm veneer placed into the nut slot, before the nut goes back in, should be sufficient.
6. LOOSE VIBRATO ARMS
Whether it’s a Strat-style ‘synchronised tremolo’, a Bigsby or a Floyd Rose, the thing about vibrato arms is that you want them to be where you expect them to be. The big dive-bomb moment has come, you hit a perfect harmonic and find yourself grasping at thin air because the arm has swung all the way down. Modern vibrato assemblies often have grub screws that can be set to achieve the preferred balance between solidity and swingability. Once you’ve found where the screw is, you can set-and-forget. However, vintage-style Strat vibratos can be more problematic, because they can become loose in the block. As well as refusing to stay put, there can be excessive play within the arm hole that makes the vibrato system loose and unresponsive.
Fixing a loose vibrato arm can be as simple as tightening a nut or dropping in some thread-seal tape
Some people advocate dropping a spring into the block that will compress against the arm as it’s tightened and hold it firm. We’ve found that wrapping the arm’s threaded section with PTFE tape from a plumbing-supply shop does the job just as well. The tape may need changing from time to time, but it’s dirt cheap. Bigsby arms are held in position by a spring pushing against a couple of nuts. The amount of compression on the spring affects the arm’s swingability, and you can adjust this by loosening the outer nut, repositioning the inner one and retightening the outer one. Once you have the feel you want, apply a drop of Super Glue between the nuts and they’ll hold tight.
7. CABLE WOES
It’s probably happened to all of us at some point. Everything was fine earlier, but when you flick the standby switch, there’s the sound of silence. Panic may seem appropriate, but staying calm and trying to trace the problem logically is more likely to get the show back on the road. Assuming the amp is okay and your guitar volume is turned up (yes, really), the most likely scenario is a communication breakdown somewhere between your guitar and amp. Invariably, problems of this nature can be traced to a dodgy cable.
When checking for your dodgy cable, be sure to unscrew and examine the solder joints to make sure the core and shield wires aren’t touching
Try pulling your guitar cable from the pedalboard and plugging directly into the amp. If it works, do the same with the cable running from the pedalboard to your amp. If both are working, it’s probably one of the patch cables on your board. Established sound-engineering practice is to work backwards through the signal path until you find the issue. In this case, that means pulling the patch cable from the output of the penultimate pedal in the chain and touching the tip with your fingertip. If you get noise through your amp, plug the patch cable back in and move onto the next one. Repeat until you don’t get any noise, and you’ve found the dodgy patch.
You can also test cables electronically. If you own a multimeter, set it to continuity and touch the test probes to both tips of the jacks. If the connection is good, the meter will buzz. Do the same with the sleeve sections of the plugs. If that also tests ‘good’, but the cable still doesn’t work, try the test again with one probe on a tip and the other on a sleeve. If you get the continuity buzz this time, it means the cable has shorted out. Unscrew the jack plugs and examine the solder joints to check that the core and shield wires aren’t touching. If the plugs look okay, the short is probably somewhere within the cable and you need a new one.
You can also perform rudimentary cable tests using a speaker cabinet and a nine-volt battery pulled from a pedal. Plug the suspect cable into the cab and touch the positive and negative battery terminals against the tip and sleeve of the cable’s unused jack plug. If the cable is working properly, you should hear a momentary thump coming from the speakers.
8. STORAGE AND TRANSPORT
Hang them, case them, stand them or bag them… which option is best for keeping your guitar safe? Some years ago, I interviewed Dave Edmunds, who explained one of the reasons he sold off his guitar collection to me: owning over 30 vintage guitars, he had to keep them in cases. Every time he felt like playing one, it had to be pulled out of storage, cleaned and set up with fresh strings, because they always went dead in the case.
Keeping your vintage electric guitar in its case might not be the best thing for its hardware and finish, while you’ll want something more robust than a vintage wooden hard case if you’re planning to gig it
By the time the guitar was in a playable condition, Edmunds had usually lost interest and the guitar was put back into hibernation. Few players own 30 guitars, let alone vintage ones, but many of us believe we’re doing the right thing by keeping our guitars in cases. Unfortunately, this practice can do more harm than good. Besides the accelerated corrosion that invariably dulls the strings, frets and hardware, there’s the issue of aging celluloid plastic.
Over time, the plastic emits vapours that eat into metal plating and can damage the finish. Vintage Gretsches are particularly notorious for ‘binding rot’, but in our experience, the celluloid binding survives just fine if the guitar is kept on a stand or hung on a wall. Another advantage of hanging your guitars, or keeping them on stands, is that you can just grab one whenever the mood takes you. A wall of guitars also looks pretty cool, and they’ll never smell musty or mouldy.
Some acoustic aficionados take a slightly different view, arguing that keeping all-solid guitars in sealed cases with controlled humidity prevents wood shrinkage and cracking. Maintaining constant humidity also ensures consistent tone and there are countless humidifiers on the market from manufacturers such as Martin, Planet Waves, D’Addario and Oasis.
Keeping guitars in good condition at home is one thing, but making sure they’re safe and secure when you’re out gigging and touring is something else entirely. Keeping your guitar safe is paramount and irrespective of how great some vintage guitars may be, the same cannot be said for all vintage cases. The only thing an ‘alligator case’ will protect a vintage Les Paul Junior from is the rain – and that’s debatable. Even Joe Bonamassa isn’t carting ‘The Snakebite’ around the world in a ‘Cali Girl’ case. Although 70s and 80s Gibsons may be unloved, the Gibson ‘Protector’ cases of that era are regarded as the best ever, and that’s what Joe tends to use. If you travel to gigs by car and carry your own stuff, strong modern cases are your best bet. But if your gear is going into vehicles and planes alongside heavy objects like amps, cabinets and drummers, a proper flightcase is indispensable.
9. BRIGHTER BUTTONS
Two issues tend to occur with strap buttons – straps falling off the buttons, and buttons falling off the guitar. The results can be catastrophic as well as comedic, but there are various ways to ensure that your guitars hang tight.
If you prefer the look of vintage-style buttons but want to reduce the risk, many guitarists have successfully used the rubber washers from the stopper tops of Grolsch beer bottles. The strap goes on first, the rubber washer goes over the top and the problem is solved. It’s an expensive way to do it and you end up with pink parts on your guitar, but at least you can enjoy the beer. Alternatively, you can buy black rubber-lock strap-lock washers on eBay, which cost less than £2 for a pack of 10.
Consider moulded plastic strap locks that slip over vintage-style strap buttons – such as the Jim Dunlop Ergo. Perhaps the safest option is to go for full-on locking strap buttons, but that will mean taking off the old buttons to fit the new ones. Since they’re only held on with screws, if you can operate a screwdriver you can do the job yourself.
The trickier issue is how to prevent strap buttons from pulling out if the screw is loose in the body. You might consider drilling out the hole, filling it with wood glue and tapping in a dowel. Once the glue is set, you can drill a new pilot hole and so long as the diameter of the dowel is less than that of the strap button, the repair will be invisible.
The ‘matchstick trick’ isn’t just for sorting out your strap button – it’s great for sorting out problematic pickguard holes as well…
Alternatively you can pack the loose screw hole with wooden matchsticks, toothpicks or cocktail sticks and a generous squirt of wood glue. Again, you’ll need to drill a new pilot hole for the button screw, but the fix should be permanent. You might also try using longer screws than can bite into fresh wood, but ensure the diameter is suitable for the button.
10. ROUTINE MAINTENANCE
Some guitar players struggle to differentiate between lovely vintage patina and plain old dirt and refuse ever to clean their guitars. It’s a personal thing, but we feel guitars that are regularly cleaned and maintained tend to operate more reliably.
Get into the habit of wiping down your strings with a clean cloth or some proprietary string cleaner after jamming or gigging. These products are cheap, quick and easy to use – and by removing sweat, grease and dirt from your strings, they may last longer and that will save you money.
Two or three times a year, try cleaning your fingerboard during a routine string change. Naphtha is ideal and you can apply lemon oil or fretboard conditioner to ebony and rosewood ’boards to keep them looking and feeling good. Try polishing the frets, too, with some Micro-Mesh or Crimson Guitars’ Fret Rubbers. Smooth and shiny frets make string bends feel easier.
Grease and grime can also get into the finish on the back of the neck, making it feel slow and sticky. Again, naphtha can help to an extent, but the most effective product we have tried is Virtuoso Premium Cleaner. It miraculously lifts out all the gunk while leaving the finish unscathed, and it’s suitable for vintage guitars. A quick check of all the screws and fixings is also worthwhile to ensure strap buttons, tuners and pickguards are all properly fastened.
While you’re at it, apply guitar lube where needed – in nut slots, under string trees and on the pivot points of vibrato bridges. Lastly, run an electronics test to establish that everything is working properly. Prevention is always better than a cure, and regular maintenance allows you to enjoy your guitars more – and may save you money.
When changing your strings, give the fingerboard a proper clean two or three times a year – rosewood ’boards respond well to lemon oil