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Performing Songwriter Cover

The Care & Feeding Of
Your Acoustic Guitar

Originally published in the column "Risky Business," Performing Songwriter Magazine, Issue #60, 2003

Let me say this at the outset: I have a druid's approach to acoustic guitars. I believe they're alive.

My reasoning is simple: guitars are made of wood. Wood comes from trees. Trees are alive. Just because the wood is separated from the tree, doesn't mean it no longer has a soul.

I own an enviable list of acoustics, most purchased during the '70's, when my career was high and prices were low. D'Aquisto, Bozo, Ryan, Baggs, Martins dating back to 1898. I have a 1974 Les Paul, and the second or third Eddie Van Halen on the market.

I really like guitars.

Owning so many, and touring so much, most of them rarely get played. Yet as guilty as I feel about it, I haven't been able to let them go. I know the Bozo can provide the crisp, satiny finish I need on a track. I can feel what the Ryan will bring to a solo. I can promise anyone that the little Martin makes a fine high-strung for session work. In short, I might need them someday.

A friend of mine once asked why I didn't sell them all and "buy some nice jewelry". I was horrified. One sells a guitar to buy a better guitar, or because one has completely run out of financial options. One does not sell a guitar to buy jewelry.

Most people who own guitars are like me. They love their instruments. They know that every guitar has a reason for being, and every guitar has a tale to tell. Every guitar has its own personality.

Some folks name their guitars, inevitably after women. When a Spaniard named Antonio de Torres Jurado created the first guitars in the form we know now, back in the 19th century, rumor says he was inspired by a young woman he knew. With apologies to the serious feminists in our midst, acoustic guitars are a lot like women: wide-hipped, malleable, organized... angry when crossed, and fragile in spots you can't anticipate without really knowing that particular instrument.

And like all beings, they need to be attentively cared for.

Of late, I've noticed that the generations coming up after me don't know much about acoustic guitars, or guitars, period. People like myself learned from the luthiers and players we met, back when folk festivals were small, and anyone could walk up to anyone and ask a question. Nowadays, with everything so specialized, it's harder to learn the basics, let alone the tricks and tips a lifetime of experience will bring. Hence, this article. Even if you're a pro, even if you've been playing a long time, read through it! You might learn something new; I know I did.

Choosing A Guitar 101

  • Buy what you like. Don't buy what Eddie or Bonnie plays. Don't buy what your pals think is cool. Don't buy what the salesman says "will sound great in a few of years." Don't listen to anything but your body and your heart.
  • Listen. To the instrument as you play. To the instrument as other people in the shop play it. Don't be afraid to ask them for the favor; guitars sound remarkably different when you're standing a foot away. Do not ever believe the guitar is perfect "except it needs to be broken in". A good guitar sounds good right away; later, it should sound better.
  • Look at the instrument. Does it seem right to your eye? Are the frets even in spacing and height? Is the bridge steady, do the tuners look evenly spaced, and the like? Can you sit comfortably and write for five hours with it? And look at the mundane - will it look good on you when you're performing? is the color all right? the body shape? After looking, you should:
  • Taste and smell. A lot of the input we receive comes through our noses and mouths. Put your mouth against the sound hole and breath in simultaneously through your mouth and nose. Does it smell good? musty? fresh? An old (or "vintage", if you're a salesman) guitar may have layers of dust in there – you can clean that. But an old guitar can also have mildew, and you can't get rid of it. Make sure the guitar smells okay to you. Then:
  • Feel. Feel the wood under your hands. Feel the guitar on your lap. Heft it for weight. If the neck stock is too heavy, you won't be able to change that! If you perform, think about whether you can stand for two hours with this guitar strapped around your neck. Touch it everywhere. Guitars, like all instruments, enjoy being touched. If the finish is so fragile that the shop owner asks you not to get fingerprints on it, that's not the guitar for you. And finally:
  • Trust your instincts. You trust them as a writer; you trust them as a performer. Why not trust them now? And if instinct says Don't buy this, don't buy it under any circumstance. Conversely, if you put the guitar down and walk around outside for two hours, have lunch, and still can't stop obsessing on it, better go back for that guitar, because it's talking to you.

A Basic Primer In Guitar Physics:

Sound is caused by vibration, whether the thrumming of an insect's wings, or the vibrations caused by your voice when you speak into the empty air. With a guitar, the strings are hit (or plucked, as the aficionados say), which makes them vibrate.

The strings are attached to a bridge, which sends that vibration to the top plate (the "top" of the guitar, or the big piece of wood in the front of the guitar with a sound hole in it). The top, in turn, sends the vibration on to the rest of the guitar. From there, the vibration (or sound) hits the air, and our ears.

Vibration is complicated, but the thing to remember here is that guitars move on their own. All you do is pluck a string; the instrument does the rest. Every time you hit a low string, the entire thing contracts and expands, moving wood at around 100 times a second. The higher you go, the faster the vibration. That's why it's A440, not A500 – the note is calibrated to so many vibrating beats per minute. 880 is a higher note than 440, and so on.

No matter the instrument type, if it's wood, it moves. Which brings us to the first rule of caring for your acoustic guitar:

Play it!

Those of us who came up in the 60's, when guitars weren't all that popular and there was no such thing as a "beginner's" cheap instrument, had a whole bag of tricks for breaking in a new guitar. Chief among them was playing it daily. And because wood absorbs sound even as it moves the sound through, play it in all sorts of different styles. A guitar that's only been strummed will never sound as good picked, and vice versa. When you break in a piano, you make an effort to play all up and down the keyboard, loud and soft, in many different styles. It's no different with a guitar.

Jimmy D'Aquisto, perhaps the premier luthier of the last five decades, told Sal DiTroia to "pound the guitar when you're playing rhythm... don't baby it, but don't over-do it either. When you fingerpick, dig in. Work the guitar right from the start."

The more it's played, the more it'll "break in". What does that mean? It means, simply, that the guitar will reach its optimal sound sooner.

We used to have a cheap way of hastening the break-in period; take an amplifier (or stereo speaker), crank it all the way up with nothing coming through, and lean or lay your guitar against it. The vibration coming from the amp will go through your guitar, spin the molecules, and break it in faster. Some people run music through, but it's not really necessary.

Now, the problem with moving wood is that sometimes it moves where you don't want it to go, which brings us to our second rule:

Moisture content is the enemy – too much and too little!

If it's too wet, the guitar gets "soggy"; the neck appears to change, though in fact it's the top swelling and throwing the bridge placement off. A sudden influx of humidity will muffle the sound, losing all crispness. Too dry, and the opposite occurs, sometimes shrinking the neck so much that the frets stick out and cut your fingers when you play. Either way, your friend is in trouble.

If it gets dry enough, like in the winter when household heat robs the air of humidity, the guitar can develop cracks in the body. These aren't a huge problem if you deal with them quickly, but they can destroy a good guitar if left unattended.

One of the reasons many people prefer an older guitar is that it's already been through the wars. It's just like buying an old house; with all its creaks and cracks, you know it's survived earthquakes, hurricanes, what-have-you. If it's still standing, you can expect it to survive them again. An older guitar has already seen climate changes aplenty. If it still looks and sounds good, chances are that will continue – with proper care.

Store it safely – and back to moisture again

There are various schools of thought on keeping stored guitars strung; one believes in keeping the tuning accurate when the guitar goes in the case, the other says to loosen the strings by anything from a half-step to a whole step. I keep mine at concert pitch, because that's what the guitar was made to hold.

In an ideal world, your guitar lives in a relative humidity of 40-50%. The best way to enforce that is to buy a serious case, like the Mark Leaf, which seals tight enough to float and has a built-in hygrometer for measuring humidity. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most expensive cases. And, I might add, the heaviest. Anyone who's hauled a Leaf case around a festival knows what I mean!

The next best way is to buy a decent case, and buy a guitar humidifier and hygrometer. There are dozens of them on the market, mostly affordable. In fact, D'Addario have one that measures humidity, and also tracks the highest and lowest humidity/temperature your guitar's been exposed to, even supplying the dates. A small humidifier/hygrometer is fine; you just have to remember to keep it watered. Or you can buy a system that uses replaceable packets, which also must be checked and replaced. That means no leaving the guitar in the case for months on end without looking at it!

If you're broke, or faced with an emergency, here are some options:

  • Cut off the top of the plastic case your strings come in, or take a plastic baggie. Wet some paper towels or a small sponge (not dripping, but well-soaked), place the wet material in the open plastic, and put it in the case with your guitar. (Between the body and the case, idiot, not inside the instrument!) Keep the case closed and that will keep your guitar humidified. Of course, the problem here is remembering not to lift the case before removing the baggie.
  • In a real pinch (you're suddenly in a hrribly dry climate, you suddenly have to fly the guitar in baggage), half an apple will work as well as the sponge for a day or two. And it smells nice.
  • If you don't have/can't afford a case, or can't afford a decent one, Frank Morey suggests that you "invest in a sleeping bag for the car/van. Put the guitar inside the sleeping bag. This will keep a fairly constant temperature and prevent humidity/cold damage."

Also, keep it in the case! I confess that when I'm home writing, my main guitar stays out, where it's accessible. But guitars feel better when they're encased, except for being played. And keep the case latched; more guitars are damaged every year when someone picks and the guitar falls out...

Cases & storage:

  • Do make sure the guitar fits snugly in the case. If there's not a neck guard (a raised area for the neck to sit on), put firmly-packed towels under the neck – this might save you a broken headstock if you drop it or ship it.
  • Don't leave things like picks, tuners, winders loose in the case. Your guitar might survive being dropped, but little things flying around in there won't help. They wreck the finish, too.
  • Don't carry your guitar around outside with no protection; even a blanket's better than nothing.
  • My best guitars live in Leaf cases. Every six months I open them, check the humidity, then close them. When I fly over twelve hours, the Leaf cases double as road cases. Humidity and temperature fluctuations on long flights are a bear, and it takes days for a guitar to recover from too much or too little. My road guitars stay in Calton Cases. Like the Leafs, they come with a lifetime warranty on the case, bindings, latches; all you have to pay is shipping. My writing guitar, when I'm home, stays out, or in an old soft case that's easy for me to carry around.

Strings & Straps

There are a lot of theories of string changing. Some people change them every show, some people change the bottom 3 every so often and the treble once or twice a year. I personally think strings should be changed when they start sounding dull, but Reverend Gary Davis enjoyed them that way, and who am I to contradict a legend?

Your gauges will make a huge difference to the way your guitar plays, and the way it survives playing. Some guitars are not made to use heavy gauge strings; as Jim D'Addario reminds me, if you're into alternative tunings, you can inadvertently create the same tension conditions of a heavy gauge set without even realizing it. That's why gauges tend to be standardized, no matter the manufacturer – because those tensions work.

You want to set up the guitar, or have it set up by a professional, to use specific gauges, and then stick to them most of the time. Going from light to heavy, or vice versa, should be done slowly and lovingly. Build your own sets if necessary. I have problems with my left hand, and use an extremely light custom set: 10, 12, 22, 30, 39, 49. Frankly, I'd be happier with an 18 gauge for the G string, but Larry Brown warned me that "the guitar's stability rests, in large part, on the G string." Since I went to a higher gauge there, I've found the neck holds better, and the tuning is more even.

On the type of string to use, that's another article entirely. Basically, go with your ears and your hands. If you like the way your guitar sounds and plays with those strings, stick with them. Guitarists still mourn the passing of Black Diamond strings, but the fact is that there are literally dozens of good strings out there on the market. Know your requirements; for instance, I perform so much that my strings have got to hold up under all weather conditions, including the heat from stage lights. It's a different set of needs than those of someone who stays at home writing all the time.

It's a good idea to change the strings "outside in"; in other words, take off both E's, put on the new ones, bring them up to pitch. Then take the A and B and do the same. Continue with the inside two strings. This avoids changing the tension on the neck all at once. Some people even change them one at a time, but I don't have the patience.

And when you're removing the strings, don't cut them at the center with wire clippers unless you've loosened them first! That's just asking for trouble.

Once in a while, it's good to use a very fine grade of steel wool on the fret board and frets (which does mean removing all the strings). Putting a very light coat of lemon oil on the fret board is a good way to keep it from drying out, but make sure to really wipe it clean before putting on your strings.

Victor Mecyssne notes: "It amazes me how few folks observe the simple basics. Wipe down the strings after every session...and always keep an extra set of strings in the case!"

There isn't much to be said about straps except the obvious – make sure they're secure before you put the guitar on! Be aware that some straps are coated, and that coating can take the finish off your guitar. Don't store the strap on top or under the guitar in the case. For safety's sake, install "strap-locks" - that way, once you put the strap on the guitar, there's no way for it to come off without deliberate action on your part.

A note about finishes – some bug sprays can also ruin them. Beware!

Making Changes

In the old days, no one changed anything on a good guitar. Putting in a strap-pin was considered dangerous; many people thought it changed the sound. Does it?

Stanley Jay of Mandolin Brothers says, "This is a controversial question. We think it does less to distort the sound than to simply change the instrument description from '100% factory original'—which is the characterization that will normally lead to a fretted instrument fetching the most money – to 'It's factory original except that I...' (You fill in the blank.)." He also points out that "the seemingly innocuous alteration someone made back in 1975 results in their Fender (Martin, D'Angelico) being worth $5,000 less than it would have been if they'd left it alone."
On the other hand, Lloyd Baggs installed one of the very first Baggs Pick-ups in my D'Aquisto, with Jimmy's knowledge and approval. So there you go.

If you bought an expensive guitar that may seriously appreciate over the next quarter-century, you may someday want to sell it. I have a friend who purchased his D'Aquisto from Jimmy in 1972 for under $2,000; the guitar is insured now for $75,000. Those stories are uncommon, but the same two rules hold true for any collectible, whether coins, stamps, or guitars – the rarer it is when you purchase it (a coin the government only minted 5,000 of, versus one they made five million of), the more it will be worth eventually. And if it's not in its original condition, it will be seriously devalued.

That being said, it's next to impossible to live in this world as a performer without making some changes. So know what you're buying, and why. My stage guitars have strap locks, built-in pickups, a jack for my cable or wireless rig, and gaffer tape where I normally clang the body with my rings for effect. They're not collectibles; they're use-ables.

Necks & Repairs

Repairs are sometimes necessary. Guitarists learn to cheat early on, doing everything from throwing a folded matchbook cover onto a nut under the string to change the action and stop a buzz, to gaffer-taping a string into the bridge when a pin breaks and you don't have another. Sometimes you don't have a choice; Noel Stookey told me that "During the videotaping of Peter, Paul & Mary: 25 Years Together for PBS television, I'd been on for 15 minutes and opened the 12 string case to get the guitar out for my solo section... only to discover the neck had been broken in half at a joint occurring on about the 7th fret! I used two industrial strength capo's to hold the break together and thus was able to bring the strings up to about a tone and a half below concert pitch to do the song."

I've had everything from cracks to snapped necks repaired; it's never fun, and it's always expensive. But at the end of the day, if anything major goes wrong, your best bet is to find a good, qualified repair person. In the old days, when there were only four or five types of decent acoustic guitars on the market, most repair people could do anything. Nowadays, depending on your instrument, you may have to do some serious networking; some guitars require a special wrench for neck work, some need special glues because of the type of wood or finish. Not all repair shops are well-equipped.

Most high-end guitars come with a lifetime guarantee, provided it's the guitar's fault and not yours. However, I personally would trust the repairman I work with over a factory, even the original factory. And because of the lifetime guarantee, and because I know my repairman and my vendors well, the guitar company will almost always pay the repairman for the work. I don't honestly know if non-professionals get this kind of treatment, though.
Cracks should be dealt with as quickly as possible; at least, have them looked at as soon as you notice them. A competent repair person will tell you whether you can get away with leaving it alone for a year, or not.

Beware of repair people who are willing to do "anything you want". A good repairman won't strip down an ancient Martin and refinish it just because you don't think it's pretty this way. Conversely, when I brought my 1938 D-18 to Joe Glaser, after it had been stolen 26 years before, he happily hand-stripped away the goop some idiot had poured over the neck in an attempt to refinish it on his own. You want someone with a lot of experience, who will listen to what you say about the guitar and what you want.

As a last thought, there are few better investments for a professional than having your bridge saddle compensated. To be honest, I'm not sure exactly how this works, but I do remember the great Buzzy Feiten coming up with it initially decades ago, then perfecting and patenting the concept. Basically, it will change the bridge and string seat so when you go from a D chord to an A chord to a C chord, everything is still in tune. That sounds like a small thing, but if you're recording, it's huge.

As to truss-rods and necks, the best thing is to learn how to adjust your own, and carry the proper wrench. Clint Black and Taylor Guitars both tell me "When the seasons change, you'll notice changes on the straightness of the neck, usually showing up in the action. In high humidity, action will raise from swelling of the top, and the neck will back-bow and need loosening. In lower humidity, the action will lower from the sinking of the top, and bad buzzing can occur. The neck will usually need straightening." This is something anyone can do, and worth learning.

The Last Word

As Chet Atkins said, quoted by Dave Conrad:
"Generally speaking, keep all your playing on or below the third fret... that's where the money is."

Special thank to Clint Black, Oscar Brand, David Conrad, Dana Cooper, Jim D'Addario, Sal Ditroia, Steve Gillette, Victor Mecyssne, Frank Morey, Janet Robin, Peter Schindler, Noel Stookey, Jenny Yates, and the dozens of luthiers and technicians who've generously given of their time and experience so I wouldn't destroy my instruments, among them Jim D'Aquisto, Lloyd Baggs, Larry Brown, Joe Glaser, Greg Krochman, Mike Longfellow (Martin Guitars), Kevin Ryan.

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