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Ultimate Guide to Basic guitar maintenance

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

How to tune your guitar

Names of the strings on the guitar

The guitar has six strings, and each string has a letter name. The names of the strings are listed from thickest to thinnest: E              A             D             G             B             E

 With a Tuner

Tuners vary in style and function, so its important to read the instructions. When tuning the guitar with a tuner, make sure the tuner is set to guitar mode. Often tuners will have multiple settings to tune different instruments, so make sure yours says “G” or “Guitar”. Start by tuning the thickest string first. Pluck the string and observe what the tuner says. If the tuner says D# or D then the note is under pitch and you need to tighten the string until is says E. If the tuner say F or F# then the note is above pitch and you want to loosen the string until it says E. When you see E on the tuner the indicators will tell you whether the note is under E or above E. If the indicators are to the right usually it means the note is above E. If the indicator is to the left usually it means the note is below E. Once the E string is tuned, repeat the process for the next 5 strings.

Without a tuner

If you don’t have a tuner, you can tune the guitar to itself. The only risk is if the guitar is way out of tune, it may be in tune with itself, but it won’t be in tune with any other instruments. If you are jamming with a friend then you should try to tune to each other by making sure both of your low E strings are tune to each other, then you can tune your guitar to itself. If you are just practicing alone then it shouldn’t be a problem.

First when tuning the guitar to itself, locate the thickest string. The thickest string is named E. Press the E string at the fifth fret and pluck the string. The sound of the E string should sound exactly like the string directly underneath which is the A string. If the two strings do not sound the same then adjust the A string to match the note you played on the E string. Repeat the same process for each string. Pressing the A string at the 5th fret will give you the correct sound for the D string. If the two notes are different then adjust only the D string. The one exception to this method is when you tune the B string. This time, when tuning the B string, you need to press the G string at the 4th fret in order to produce the correct pitch. After pressing the G at the 4th fret, then pluck the B string and compare the notes. If they don’t match, then adjust the B string. Once the B string is properly tuned then press it at the 5th fret to tune the thin E string.  It is important to keep the guitar close to correct tuning, and not to let it get way out of tune.

With Harmonics

Using harmonics is another method to tune your guitar, though it is more difficult than other methods. Harmonics are created when plucking each string while lightly touching the strings at the 5th, 7th and 12th frets. Don’t press the strings down to the 5th 7th and 12th frets, just hover your finger over the string and lightly touch the string directly over the fret wire. Harmonics are not produced like regular notes on the guitar. To produce the sound correctly you must place you finger directly over the fret wire to the right of the fret. Harmonics make the sound of a softer high pitch. This pitch is the over tone. The over tone, or the Harmonic played at the fifth fret of the E string sounds exactly like the harmonic played at the 7th fret of the A string. If they don’t sound the same, then adjust the A string until they match. Then repeat the process. The harmonic at the 5th fret of the A string sounds exactly like the harmonic at the 7th fret of the D string. If they don’t match, then adjust the D string until they do. The harmonic played at the 5th fret of the D string will sound exactly like the harmonic played at the 7th fret of the G string. If they don’t match, then adjust the G string until they do. The G string is the exception. The harmonic played on the fifth fret of the G string doesn’t sound like the harmonic played at the 7th of the B string. Instead, you can play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the thick E string, and then play the harmonic at the 12th fret of the B string. They should sound the same, and if they don’t match adjust the B string until they do. Then return and play the harmonic at the 5th fret of the B string. It should sound exactly like the harmonic played at the 7th fret of the thin E string. If they don’t match, then adjust the E string until they do.

How to keep your guitar in tune

If you are playing your guitar every day its likely you will have to tune it a few times a week. Guitars will get out tune when you move them from place to place, when the temperature fluctuates, and when you play them as well. If your guitar won’t stay in tune, it’s possible that you may need a new set of strings.

Your guitar will stay in tune longer if it is properly strung with enough wraps at the tuning peg. That means when you are stringing your guitar the string should wrap around the tuning peg at least three times so that it has enough tension and grip at the peg. Strings may slip when only wrapped once or twice around the tuning peg.

Its common for people with a strong grip to press the strings too hard. Make sure you are pressing just enough to make the note sound clear. Pressing too hard will bend the string and the note will sound slightly out of tune. This also goes for picking. If you pick the string too hard then you may cause the guitar to go out of tune. Its important to pick with enough energy to hear a strong note, but not too hard. Players will often pick too hard if they feel the need for more volume. If you need more volume its best to turn up the amplifier volume until you feel like its enough to help you relax when you are picking.

It’s also possible that your guitar will not stay in tune because of structural issues with the guitar itself. If the guitar is not properly set up and correctly adjusted then tuning issues may arise. Problems with tuning may arise when the nut slots are not cut wide enough to accommodate the string gauge which results in the strings getting stuck in the nut slots. Also, you can have problems with the intonation or the truss rod just to mention a few. It may be helpful to check with a luthier, or guitar tech to help properly adjust the guitar.

You may consider buying locking tuners and a more refined and stable tremolo system to help fix tuning issues as well.

How often should you change your strings?

When you should change your strings may depend on what kind of player you are. If you play a lot of rock and roll, or funk, and you are strumming and picking hard and very often then your strings will wear out sooner. If you are a very light picker, your strings will last longer. Generally, strings should be changed when they stop staying in tune. It’s true that new strings have a brighter tone than old strings. The bright tone usually fades soon after you put the strings on the guitar. If you change the strings every time that bright tone fades it can get expensive. A good string is one that stays in tune.

What should you use to clean the guitar neck?

After playing for a few weeks you might notice some dirt and grime start to build up on the fret board around your favorite key or your favorite chords. For those who play at lot of open chords this happens in the first three frets. Its natural for dirt to collect after a lot practice, and it can turn your strings and your fingers black. You want to clean your guitar to avoid this build up, and to help make your strings last longer. Its good to clean the neck of the guitar every time you put a new set of strings on.

The method for cleaning a Maple wood neck is different from cleaning a rosewood neck or any other dark wood fret boards. When cleaning a maple neck you can use a clean cotton cloth with just a little bit of hot water to loosen the dirt from the fret board. If there is a lot of dirt and the water isn't helping you can use some alcohol swabs to remove the dirt as well. After you have removed the dirt from your maple fret board you can dry it off with a clean cotton cloth and then you're done.

When cleaning a rosewood or dark wood fret board you can remove the dirt the same way you would for the maple fret board. After you have removed the dirt from your rosewood fret board you can apply a little bit of lemon oil. I would recommend using planet waves lemon oil or Dunlop lemon oil. You don't need too much lemon oil, just enough to give the wood a shine.

Can you put lighter strings on the guitar?

For some people playing with lighter gauge strings will be more comfortable because lighter strings are easier to press and easier to bend. The trade off for putting lighter gauge strings on your guitar is that you will lose a little volume and your tone may be slightly affected. These effects are minimal and maybe worth changing to a lighter string gauge.

It is important when changing to a lighter string gauge to have guitar properly set up. Heavier strings put more tension on the neck of the guitar than lighter strings do. So, when you change to a lighter set the neck of the guitar will move, and the truss rod will need to be adjusted to accommodate the new tension. The same applies for when changing from a light gauge set of strings to a heavier set, the truss rod will need to be adjusted properly to accommodate for the change in tension. If you don’t properly adjust the guitar to accommodate for the change in tension the result may be either a lot of string buzz from the strings being too close to the fret board, or the strings will be too far from the fret and be very difficult to press and play.

It is best to ask a luthier or a guitar tech to help you make the proper adjustments to the guitar when changing string gauges.

Never leave your guitar in the car!

Wood is very sensitive to temperature changes. Wood will flex and warp in the hot and cold. Leaving your guitar in your car on a hot day will likely cause the wood to warp. If its a really hot day the glue in your acoustic guitar could possibly melt and cause the bracing to come loose which can produce a rattle sound or an annoying vibration. I've seen the glue under the wood saddle melt and the string tension just pulls the saddle right up from the body. If the saddle doesn't come up then your guitar might even suffer a bulge under the bridge caused by the string tension and the heat warping the wood.

Keep your guitar humidified.

Its a good idea to keep your guitar properly humidified. If the wood in your guitar dries out then it may become brittle and crack. You can buy a humidifier for your acoustic guitar and keep it in the case to maintain the proper amount of moisture in the wood and avoid any cracking. If you buy a guitar at a lower altitude and store it in a place with high altitude for a long period of time then you risk cracking because its often drier in places with a high altitude. I brought an acoustic guitar with me from California to Colorado. The difference in altitude was about 5000 feet. I didn't humidify the guitar and it cracked in a few places.

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