Maintenance

Snake Oil: What To Use On Your Fretboard

Oh, the endless, endless debate. Pick your favourite guitar/bass forum and there’s a good chance you can find at least one multi-page thread about what oil to use on your fingerboard.

What Fingerboard Oil Should I Use?

Lemon oil, baby oil, mineral oil, Three-In-One oil, linseed oil (boiled or raw?), lavender-scented essential oil, Honest Dave’s Super-Duper Never-Been-Bested Slinky Fretboard Juice, etc.

Opinions and viewpoints. Everyone’s got one.

Me too.

So who’s right?

Well, I am, obviously.

Nah. It’s not really that simple. Let me tell you what I mean.

First up, though, we should mention that some guitar manufacturers recommend against some oils. Martin Guitars, for instance, recommend you don’t use lemon oil. You should consider whatever I say on this topic against what your guitar manufacturer recommends. I certainly won’t be offended if you want to follow their advice and play things safe.

If you want my advice, here’s how our conversation will go:

You: So, which of the many, many oils do you recommend?

Me: I don’t think it matters much.

You: Whaaaat?! Have you gone nuts? Have you lost your mind?

Me: Meh.

You: Well, what do you actually use then?

Me: Linseed Oil. You’ll probably find a fair bit of opinion about whether to use boiled or raw linseed oil. I use boiled.

Here’s the thing though…

I don’t think it matters much.

You: Why? Tell me why.

Because we’re not going to be using enough of it that it’ll make a huge difference.

It’s a rookie mistake to saturate your fingerboard with oil every couple of weeks. Let’s say this clearly:

  • You DO NOT need much oil.
  • You DO NOT need to oil often.
  • Your fingerboard IS NOT as dry as you think it is.

Oiling once or maybe twice a year is usually more than enough. Honestly, it’s almost certain that your fingerboard isn’t too dry (and if it is, you've probably got humidity issues, not oil issues).

Also, if you’re going to oil, you only need a very small amount. I know you’ve probably been squirting and smearing this stuff all over the fingerboard like a Texas oil baron, but no more. From now on, you’re a frugal oiler.

Very.

Small.

Amount.

Almost none.

If you use oil properly and infrequently, in my opinion, it’s much less critical what oil you actually use.

No ‘soaking’ with oil. Don’t pile it on and wait for it to ‘penetrate’.

You want to dampen a rag with some of your oil of choice (see above for why it shouldn’t matter too much). Rub it into the board, cleaning any grime that’s accumulated. There shouldn’t be a film of oil left behind—maybe just the lightest sheen. Start at one end and by the time you get to the other give the whole thing a good wipe with a dry rag to make sure there’s absolutely nothing left soaking.

If you do this right, you shouldn’t need to overly concern yourself with dire warnings about rotting fingerboards, or corroded hardware, or oil build-up, or oil demons living in your fretboard. You shouldn’t need to worry about what oil you actually use.

And, because you’re just using a little oil on a rag, it’s easier to control and keep away from areas where you don’t really want oil (i.e. everywhere else). If you get a smear on your lacquer or hardware, it’s easy to clean off quickly.

By the way, if there's an accumulation of fingerboard gunk, use an old plastic card—like a credit card to scrape away most of it before you start oiling. Of course, you don't let this gunk build up, do you? Also, if you're planning on polishing your frets, do that before oiling too. 

The Bottom Line

I reckon you should stop worrying about the many, many forum threads discussing the pros and cons of various oils and concentrate on oiling your fingerboard properly and far less often. ;-)

Feel free to buy Old Ma McGarnagle’s Pressed Komodo Dragon Fingerboard Oil for a hundred bucks a bottle if you like. Or, just buy a bottle of linseed oil in your hardware store for next to nothing and you can pass it on to your grandchildren.

Your call.

Don’t Burn Down Your House

No discussion of this subject should occur without a warning about fire risk. Most of these oils are flammable and, while you’ll likely be careful around the oil itself, remember that the rags you use are a REAL FIRE RISK.

Seriously. I know it seems slightly far-fetched but in the right conditions those rags can spontaneously catch fire.That's SPONTANEOUSLY! All by themselves.

Do NOT crumple them up and throw them away—that’s bad. Heat can build up in the folds and catch fire. Lay them flat outside (weighed down with a stone) to dry. Once they’ve dried, and gone a bit hard, things are a little more safe but don’t get complacent. It can be a good idea, once dry, to keep the rags in an old paint can or a jar. Top up the container with water and you’re good.

Be safe.

Oh, and check with your local authorites for any requirements you might have to adhere to when you dispose of this sort of stuff. Be nice to the planet—I kinda like it here.

guitar fretboard oil

Safe Storage of your Instruments

I get asked about storage a lot. What’s the best way to store your guitar or bass? What’s safe? Will it be a broken or warped mess if I do something wrong?

So let’s give it some thought, then.

Is it safe to hang my guitar on a wall hanger?

Yep.

Well, put it this way: I don’t feel that the act of hanging your guitar from its head will unduly affect it. You should obviously be careful not to fall into it, or bash it, or otherwise cause it damage, but the act of hanging your guitar or bass isn’t going to cause any problems.

Is it safe to put my guitar on a stand?

Yep.

With the same caveats as above—try not to fall on it as that’s unlikely to end well.

What about the neck warping from hanging/standing?

I read this thing, right. On this forum. And this guy said he hung up his guitar for a second and when he looked back, the neck had literally turned into a rubber-like substance and he had to chop it up with a hatchet and burn the pieces 'cos it was so warped it was useless.  

Pah.

The neck on your guitar is already under a whole heap of tension. For example, if you’re playing an electric guitar strung with 10-gauge strings your neck has over 100 pounds of tension on it. Your four string bass is closer to 200 pounds. And they’re handling it quite well. The bit of pressure that a guitar stand will put on your neck isn’t going to freak it out. Same goes for, the 'straight-down' pull of your instrument’s weight as it hangs.

Give it some credit. It’s not a problem.

What about the finish?

Ah, this one might be worth considering. Some stands and hangers have a padding/cushioning that can actually corrode or eat into the finishes on some guitars (I think it's chlorine in the padding that reacts with the guitar finish, melting and marring it).

If your guitar has a nitrocellulose finish, you need to be a bit more careful. Check to see if your stand or hanger is listed as 'nitro-safe' or something similar. Poly finishes are a bit tougher but be vigilant. 

If you want to be super-sure, wrap your stand's cushioning with some felt or cotton or similar. Socks are common stand-protectors. ;-)

Is my guitar safe in a case?

Depends. What sort of case?

A Gig-Bag

In a gig bag, it’s a bit more protected than it would be were it ‘unbagged’ but it’s not great. Consider a gig-bag the minimum protection for your guitar or bass. They’re really handy and are usually easier to carry but do bear in mind that they’re definitely not invulnerable.

A Hard Case

Better.

A good hard case should protect against most knocks and bangs that your guitar will get in general use/transport. If you’ve a nice axe that you care about, you should put it in a hard case for transporting it.

NOTE: SCARY WARNING

I’ve repaired more than a few headstock breaks that happened in the case. Les Pauls and SG headstocks in particular are just dying to break and your case may not save them.

Keep this in mind, particularly if you decide to sit your case upright (vertically). A fall could still break the neck. More on this below.

Flight Case

Flight cases (we’re talking serious stuff now) are even better again. They’re designed to be super strong with reinforced bits and pieces all over and great clasps that should not come undone by accident.

A good flight case is NOT cheap and it’s NOT handy. If you’re planning on travelling or touring a lot, though, it’s definitely worth considering.

How to store the cases

If it were up to me, guitars and basses would be stored in a hard or flight case that’s standing on its long side. That is, the guitar is pretty much in the ‘playing position’.

I don’t recommend storing cases upright because of the increased risk of falling and I don’t recommend storing them flat because of the risk of some idiot falling onto them (and because they’ll inevitably become a ‘stack’ of cases which makes things awkward).

If you really want to reduce the risk of broken headstocks (and this really just applies to angled back headstocks, and mostly Gibson-style), you can slacken off the strings a little before popping your guitar in the case. It’s a pain and it’s no absolute guarantee, but it will certainly move the odds back in your favour a little.

It goes without saying…

Don’t store your instruments anywhere you wouldn’t want to be. No freezing temperatures. No boiling-hot cars on sunny days. No dank, damp basements. If you’re comfortable, your guitar will be comfortable. Give it some thought when you’re storing or transporting.

If you’ve just played an outdoor gig in the rain, dry the guitar off for a bit before putting it in the case. If you’ve just come into a warm venue after hiking through the icy cold, leave the case closed for a while to allow the guitar to acclimatise gradually rather than opening straight away and shocking it.

Or ignore all of this and give me a call when you need a repair. ;-)

Maintenance: Clean and Polish Your Frets

There's no doubt that a clean guitar is a longer-lived guitar, and there's an argument that cleaner frets are better for tone (although that one's a little less cut and dry). Want an even better reason to buff up those frets, though? Nice shiny frets are, simply, a pleasure to play on (that goes double in you like to bend strings). 

A little fret polishing should be part of everyone's regular maintenance routine. You don't need to go crazy and it doesn't need to take hours a week—a couple of minutes every now and then can work wonders, though. 

Incidentally, if you're wondering how often you should do this, or any sort of maintenance, it's a bit hard to say since every player's different. The best advice is to keep an eye on your fret condition—maybe when you change strings—and you'll soon get a feel for how long you can go between clean-ups. 

Frets don't rust or even corrode much but they can get tarnished, which can make them feel a little 'gritty' to play on. Unless it's been a long time between cleanings, however, a quick polish will generally have them shiny in a jiffy. 

Before: Dull, dull frets

After: Shiny, shiny frets

Now, this fret-shining job needs an abrasive of some sort. We have a few options: 

Steel Wool

Aftermath of steel wool on ONE fret—shed fibres and shavings.

Steel wool is the traditional choice and it does a great job at polishing. However, it does 'shed' and leave tiny shavings and slivers of itself behind. If you use steel wool, you need to be careful. Vacuum really well afterwards and whatever you do, don't rub any wool residue on your guitar body because it will scratch it. 

Steel wool comes in a different grades. You'll want the finest grade which is 0000. Don't use any other grade. 

Oh, and one last thing to be careful of: Because your pickups have a honking-great magnet inside, they will grab any steel wool shavings that come near. This isn't good so cover up your pickups really well before you start. 

Personally, I hate using steel wool. It's really good at the job but clean-up afterwards is a pain and it's almost impossible to prevent those fibres getting places you don't want. 

Find it: Your local hardware store or the entire internet.

Micromesh Finishing Abrasives

Micromesh is great. It's similar to sandpaper but it's fine abrasive is on a rubberised cloth backing rather than paper. It's nicely flexible and works really well.

Like sandpaper, it's available in different grits. I'll generally go with a couple in succession on each fret—2400 followed by 4000 (or similar). Sometimes I finish off with a higher grit if I'm feeling crazy but you'll get a good result with those grits. 

The drawback of Micromesh is that it's bloody expensive. You can wash out your paper to extend its lifespan but it still runs pretty steep. I use it for loads of jobs so I have the luxury of having it around but, if you just want it for frets, I'd move on to the next item below.

Some tools of the trade for polishing frets

Find it: Get it at Stewart McDonald or you can sometimes find it more cheaply on eBay if you're lucky. 

3M Polishing papers

Probably your best option. They're called polishing 'papers' but it's more like a thin fabric. It's flexible and comes in a number of fine grits or grades. Each grit comes in a different colour. I tend to use the grey 600-grit and follow it with the blue 1200-grit for a decent shine. 

D'Addario/Planet Waves sell some pre-cut, small sheets of the 1200-grit (blue) polishing paper in a pack as the Fret Polishing Kit. While this pack comes with a cardboard 'fret guard', you'll get a much better deal buying these papers in the larger, standard size and cutting them to size yourself. 

Find it: Planet Waves product at the usual virtual and real music stores. For the full-size sheet, Stewart McDonald sell 'em and you should find them in loads of places around the web if you Google it. 

Anything else I need? 

For tape, use only low-tack tape and be careful

You're not using very rough abrasives but it makes sense to protect your fingerboard (particularly if it's maple). You can use some low-tack tape (stick it on your shirt first to remove some stickiness) either side of a fret but that's a bit more time-consuming. If you decide to use tape, beware of lifting finish along the frets on a finished maple board or at the edges of any fingerboard. 

Fretboard guards are useful. They're really thin metal strips with a cut-out for the fret. They're handy if you plan to do this job regularly (and you should). 

Stew Mac have some—they come in a set of six so you can split the cost with three friends. Why three? Because you should cut the long sides of one guard so it fits between the higher frets on your guitar and keep another for the lower frets. Alternatively, search eBay for 'fretboard guards' or 'fingerboard protectors' and you should find sets with one narrow and one full-size guard. 

How to actually polish the frets

It's not rocket science. Pop your fret guard down, fold your polishing sheet to provide a little cushioning (which will help it conform to the fret contour), and rub. Start with the lower grit number and repeat with higher grade. 

Cleaning and polishing frets with 3M polishing papers

Easy like pie. 

Now string up and bend strings like a crazy person. 


Keep Your Guitar Hardware Clean

Keeping your guitar or bass clean is important. Now there are those of you out there who don’t care too much about how your guitar looks (and that’s cool if it’s your thing) but that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about actually keeping your guitar working.

Guitar Screw Corrosion

We’ll leave the wood and finish to another day and consider your guitar’s hardware right now. You might be surprised by how many instruments I see where the hardware is utterly wrecked, inoperable and—sometimes—fit only for the scrapheap.

Your sweat is a guitar killer. Not to judge, mine is too. Over time, it eats into metal.

Really.

Given time, the acids and salt in anybody’s sweat will corrode through any metal bit of your guitar it can reach. Some people’s sweat is more acidic than others and will do the job much more quickly.

Screws

Guitar Screw Corrosion

Guitar Screw Corrosion

Guitar Screw Corrosion

These images show what a little sweat and a little time can do to the screws in your guitar. Once they get to this point, it’s pot-luck if they’ll screw out for replacing. Odds are pretty good that it’ll be impossible to get a grip or that the head will simply shear off when turned. This latter usually means the shaft has to be drilled out and that’s no fun.

Bridges

Bridges are under a player’s hand almost all the time and they take quite a beating from sweat corrosion. The most frequent issues are siezed saddle-height screws and intonation screws on Fender-style bridges.

Fender-style bridges can be completely destroyed by dirt and corrosion

Cleaning fluid can sometimes free up seized saddles.

It’s sometimes possible to save your original saddles and free-up the screws but don’t rely on it. An old Dan Erlewine trick involves soaking the parts in a cleaning solution of 3 parts naptha or lighter fluid and one part light oil (think Three-In-One or similar). This can sometimes free up siezed screws.

Remove the hardware from the guitar first and. if possible without damaging parts further, use a wire brush to brush off any loose crud. For particiularly nasty gunking, I’ll sometimes heat the parts a little before soaking them (NOT red-hot, of course). 

A very serious word of caution at this: Naptha/Lighter Fluid is (obviously) massively flammable. It’s also very unpleasant to breathe. You don’t want it on your skin and you certainly don’t want it in your eyes. If you’re going to try this, take proper precautions. Wear gloves and goggles. Work outside to avoid fumes. BE CAREFUL. This stuff is dangerous—treat it as such.

After a day’s soaking, carefully dry the parts (and carefully dispose of the rags you use—they’re now flammable too). If you’re lucky, the screws will be free to move.

Pickups

If your pole-pieces or screws begin to corrode, that corrosion can carry on, eating its way down into the innards of your pickup. Once your coil wire (and its insulating coat) begins corroding it's re-wind or replace. 

Pickup pole pieces and screws/slugs can carry corrosion into the coil

Corroded pickup poles can cause the coil wire to break down


PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE

I’m guessing you want your guitar to last a while before you have to scrap it or buy new hardware.

I’m also guessing you’re dreading the advice to carefully clean every part of your guitar after every use.

Well, that’s obviously the best thing to do. However, let’s be practical—that’s not what you, or anyone, really wants to do. So, I’ll suggest the following steps as a compromise.

  • If you tend to sweat a lot during gigs or rehersals, throw one of those absorbant cloths in your case and do a very basic wipe-down after you play. Seriously, I’m talking ten seconds here. It won’t kill you and it will help you not kill your guitar.
  • Buy a cheap toothbrush and leave it in your case. Whenever you change strings, give your bridge and other hardware a good brushing. Pay attention to the nooks and crannies. You don’t need to go nuts—just take one minute to do it and you’ll help prevent the build-up of crud. Just make it part of your string-changing ritual.

Easy, eh?

Save a guitar and save a repair guy from thinking, “Eeeewwwwwww!” ;-)

Guitars and Humidity: What you ACTUALLY Need to Know

Guitars and humidity - what you ACTUALLY need to know

Guitars and humidity - what you ACTUALLY need to know

We need to discuss moistness.

And dryness.

You see, almost every article I read on caring for your guitar mentions protecting the instrument with a humidifier. Tons of companies sell humidifiers that you can pop in your case, or even your guitar's sound hole. These devices will slowly release moisture to keep your guitar humidified.

And, to be fair, conditions that are too dry are definitely bad for your guitar—especially an acoustic instrument.

The problem is, the writers of these articles seem to forget that not everywhere in the world is the same as their neighbourhood. Sure, there are many places where the weather conditions make for the sort of low humidity that can dry out your guitar and even damage it.

However, there are also many places where the opposite is true and, while being too dry can damage your guitar, you'll also want to avoid too much humidity.

If you live down the road from Death Valley, you might want to pop a humidifier in your guitar from time to time to ensure it doesn't get too dry. However, if you live in a tropical rain forest, you probably won't want to add more moisture most of the time.

Two slightly extreme examples there, but you get the idea.

Remember too, that even if you need a humidifier sometimes, your local weather may change with the seasons. If you blindly follow the 'humidify-advice', you may be over-humidifying your guitar for some of the year.

So what's the answer?

Firstly, remember that many of the articles you read about humidifying may be either location-specific or (more likely) parroting information that's location-specific. You can check your local weather conditions to get an idea of the average humidity over the year. Google "average humidity for <your city>".

An even better idea, however, is to invest in a hygrometer (a humidity gauge) for your guitar case. Even better, get one for your house/studio/rehearsal room too. Rather than guessing at it, this will tell you exactly what the humidity is. Keep an eye on the levels and try to maintain your guitar somewhere around 45–55% humidity.

You might be able to get a gauge at your local guitar store and, predictably, Amazon have a good selection.

Here's a tip though—Don't search for guitar humidity gauge. If you do, you'll get tons of gauges that cost three or four times as much, just because they have a logo from a guitar accessories company. Just search for 'humidity gauge' or try the Amazon links at the end of this article.

And if I need to Humidify or Dehumidify?

Guitar humidifiers are easy to find. They're everywhere. Pop to your local guitar store and you'll probably trip over a rack of them. The internet can certainly help you too.

The options for keeping your instrument dry in its case are less 'widespread' in the guitar industry. Desiccant packets (like silica gel or similar) are available but there aren't so many guitar accessories companies selling them. Again, Google or Amazon are good places to look but you may have to venture outside the 'musical instrument' categories.

Planet Waves/D'Addario offers a product called Two-Way Humidification System (see links at end of article) that will humidify AND dehumidify as needed. Given that this product adds or absorbs moisture depending on the conditions, it could well be the set-it-and-forget-it solution for the real-world musician. Just pop a sachet or two in your case. They should last a few months in there.

Another money-saving tip: This same product also sells branded as ’Boveda’—The D'Addario one is a re-branded version. You’ll probably pick this up a little more cheaply if you search out Boveda.

If you go this route, buy Boveda 49 (see links at end of this article)—the number is the humidity level it maintains and 49 is a good number for your guitar.

Think Outside The Case

Your guitar doesn't always live in its case. Remember that your home or studio needs to be considered too. Air conditioning can really dry the air, for instance, so you may need a room humidifier if you're running air-con a lot. Damper rooms might benefit from a dehumidifier.

Check your rooms with your hygrometer too (or use my cheapskate, non-branded humidity gauge tip above, and buy one for your case and one for your room).

The Bottom Line on humidity and guitars

Depending on your location, you might need to be keenly aware of too much or too little humidity.

Just don't assume everything you read applies to you.

Check your local weather, get yourself a humidity gauge and try to keep your guitar around the 45–55% mark.


Amazon links for products mentioned:

  • Humidity Gauge (Hygrometer): US | UK
  • Planet Waves Two Way Humidification System: US | UK 
  • Boveda 49 Humidification System: US | UK  

These Amazon links have my affiliate code attached. If you click them and buy stuff, Amazon gives me a few cents. It doesn’t cost you any more and it means that, every now and then, I get to buy some tea or something. If this bothers you, feel free to just open Amazon and search for the stuff yourself.