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How To Make Your Guitar Last: A Maintenance Guide
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Whether you are new to electric guitars or a seasoned player, you might be wondering what maintenance items are needed, and how long guitar components should last.
When well maintained, a good electric guitar can last you a lifetime. Some components may need to be replaced or repaired at different intervals. For example, the frets will eventually wear out from playing, and you’ll need to have them leveled or replaced. The tuning machines are another component that might require replacing, especially less expensive tuning machines.
Here’s a summary of how long your electric guitar and its components should last:
|Guitar body (solid body)||Lifetime|
A solid wood guitar body will last as long as it is protected with a finish, and not subjected to temperature or humidity extremes.
|Guitar finish (polyurethane)||Lifetime|
A polyurethane finish is very hard and durable, and will last a long time.
|Guitar finish (lacquer, nitrocellulose)||20 years or more|
Nitrocellulose and lacquer finishes are softer than polyurethane. You might see some vintage guitars from the 50s and 60s with worn finishes.
|Chrome hardware||20 years or more|
Chrome or Nickel-plated hardware should last almost indefinitely. Nickel-plating is softer and will tarnish with time. Some components may wear out, such as gears and gaskets in the tuning machines. Small screws can be lost and some metal will corrode.
|Tuning machines||10 years or more|
How long tuning machines last will depend on their quality. Those found on less expensive guitars will eventually wear out and need replacement.
|Frets (nickel-silver)||5 to 10 years|
Most frets are made from a composite metal called nickel-silver. The longevity of the fret wire will depend greatly on your playing style and how often you play. If you play regularly, you likely will need a luthier to perform some fret maintenance every few years.
|Frets (stainless steel)||20 years or more|
Stainless steel frets are rumored to last forever. They do wear, just more slowly than their nickel-silver counterparts.
The fretboard itself should last as long as the guitar when properly maintained and hydrated.
|Output jack||10 years or more|
The output jack and its wiring may become loose with time. This is a minor repair though.
|Bridge and saddles||20 years or more|
The bridge, saddles, and tremolo can last a lifetime. Some metal parts eventually corrode where they come in contact with your hand. You will see this on bridge saddle screws and pickup pole pieces on older guitars.
|Electronics||10 years or more|
The longevity of the guitar electronics and wiring will depend on the original construction, and the wear and tear on the guitar.
|Plastic parts||20 years or more|
Most plastic parts will last, though volume and tone knobs sometimes come loose, and other plastic parts can crack.
In this post, we’ll go over the basic maintenance tasks you can do yourself to protect your guitar and make it last as long as possible.
I’ll link to what you need below, but here is a quick list of the tools and materials you’ll need to keep your guitar in shape.
Clean the Guitar Body
The first and most obvious thing you can do is to keep your guitar clean. This starts with keeping your hands clean when you play. And each time you are finished playing, wipe off the guitar body and the strings.
To clean your guitar, use a soft microfiber cloth. Gently wipe down the guitar body to remove the oils from your hands. From time to time, you will want to use some guitar polish for additional cleaning and to keep the finish looking its best.
Use specifically designed guitar polish, such as the polish and cleaner from Music Nomad. Follow the instructions on the bottle. You want to apply a small amount to a soft cloth, apply it to the guitar body, and remove any excess with a clean cloth.
You don’t need to use the polish that often, especially if you use a clean microfiber cloth after playing to wipe down your guitar.
Clean the Strings
You can get more life out of your guitar strings if you clean them after playing. Over time, the oils and moisture from your hands will contribute to your strings sounding dull and wearing out. You can keep them brighter for a longer period of time just by cleaning them off with a cloth when you’re finished playing.
There are string cleaners specifically formulated to clean the strings. Use a little bit of cleaner on occasion to brighten the strings, and prolong the string life. Check out the GHS Fast-Fret cleaner. I like it because along with cleaning the strings, it does seem to make it a little easier to move around the fretboard.
Hydrate the Fretboard
The fretboard is an area of the guitar where your fingers are in constant contact with the wood. Any oil and dirt from your fingers can build up on the fretboard, especially next to the frets. The wood can also dry out. It’s a good idea to both clean and hydrate the fretboard on a regular basis.
How often you condition the fretboard will depend on how often you play. I usually do this roughly every two or three months.
Most fretboard conditioners clean the fretboard and condition it at the same time. They are formulated with oils and cleaners specifically designed for the fretboard. Use a fretboard conditioner to hydrate it so that it doesn’t dry out, and clean any excess dirt or oil buildup.
I recommend using a fretboard cleaner and conditioner designed for this purpose instead of something like lemon oil.
Note that you only want to use a fretboard conditioner on a rosewood, pau ferro, ebony, or other dark wood fingerboard. If you have a maple fretboard, do not apply fretboard cleaner or oil. Many maple fretboards are finished with a satin finish. This is common on Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters.
That said, there are also unfinished maple fretboards which have a different cleaning procedure altogether. If you have an unfinished maple fretboard, the fretboard conditioner is probably safe to use. Check with the manufacturer or read the label to make sure.
For a maple fretboard with a satin finish on it, just use a microfiber cloth, and some elbow grease. Do not use any oil or conditioners.
Clean the Bridge
It’s also a good idea to clean the bridge saddles and other hard to reach areas you can’t easily reach with a microfiber cloth. Music Nomad makes a set of cleaning brushes you can use to reach into small spaces. You can also use a compressed air duster to get rid of the dust buildup under the bridge saddles, tremolo, and at the headstock.
Keep the Chrome Shiny
Wipe down the tuning keys and the output jack. Eventually the chrome on your guitar will age due to the oils from your fingers, and you’ll have a nice vintage look. But keeping it clean is still a good way to prevent corrosion or other problems.
Lubricate Moving Parts
As part of your cleaning process, and especially when you change strings, it’s a good idea to use some guitar nut lubricant to lubricate the moving parts. Take a look at our guide on keeping your guitar in tune for more details.
Storage and Humidification
When you’re finished playing, the best place for your guitar is in its case. It’s fine to leave it out if you want to encourage yourself to play. But when it’s sitting in a stand, or leaned up against an amp, there is more risk of having it knocked over and causing damage. I know the pain of breaking a guitar headstock, and it’s best to avoid that if you can.
We just wrote a post about humidification and electric guitars, and you should check it out. You will want to control the humidity in your environment or use a guitar case humidification system. This will ward off any problems that can occur with either an overly dry or wet environment.
Proper Guitar Setup
While not necessarily a maintenance or cleaning item, a proper setup on your guitar will do wonders for your playing. If you don’t know how to do the setup yourself, take it to a reputable luthier and pay to have them set up your guitar. It will be easier to play, and you will ultimately get more enjoyment out of it.
Parts That Wear Out
While maintaining your guitar as described in this guide will help make it last, there are parts on your guitar that will eventually wear out. Here are a few trouble spots to consider.
Your guitar frets wear over time as a result from playing. The pressure of the guitar strings on the metal frets will create indentations and flat spots after repeated playing. A good set of frets should last 10 years depending on your playing style and how often you play.
Stainless steel frets will last longer. Less expensive fret material won’t last as long, and professional musicians will need more fret maintenance than the average home musician.
As the frets wear out, low spots on the fretboard are created, causing the strings to buzz against the higher frets. This can be corrected by taking your guitar to a luthier. The frets will either need to be leveled and crowned, or the fretboard will need to be refretted. Sometimes just a few frets need to be replaced.
The guitar electronics wear over time as well. The volume, tone knobs, and pickup selector switches can get dust particles and moisture in them from the environment or from your hands. These parts may eventually develop some static scratchiness when you are moving the knobs or switches. Use a contact cleaner designed for electronics to correct this.
Guitar output jacks are an inexpensive part that can become loose over time. Neglecting to fix it or tightening the output jack incorrectly can lead to a loose connection in the wiring. This is easily corrected by replacing the output jack, or resoldering the connections as necessary.
These repairs are relatively minor, and if your guitar is new, you don’t need to be concerned about these repairs until further down the road.
The machine heads will eventually wear out, especially those on inexpensive guitars. The gears can start to bind, making it difficult to turn. Any plastic or rubber gaskets can disintegrate over time. If you have an inexpensive import guitar, expect the tuning keys to stop working properly down the road. This is an easy upgrade though.
Obviously (or maybe not if you are new to the guitar), you’ll have to change the strings periodically. Even though they are metal, they will stretch out from playing and lose some of their original brilliance. They will sound a bit flat and dull after a while.
An electric guitar can last a lifetime when properly cared for. While some components may eventually wear out, a little regular maintenance will help keep your guitar in playable condition for years to come.
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