Photo by Andy Ellis
Owning any guitar at any price is a blessing. Never dismiss a cheap guitar. Even the humblest model has the potential to change the world through the right song composed at the right time. I speak from experience: I’ll be celebrating my 45th wedding anniversary this year, thanks to my first 1967 Harmony H 150, which I purchased for $40.50. With a tune performed just so, this all-mahogany lunk had the latent potential to turn the head of my darling wife-to-be. That’s the power of an acoustic guitar, and something we should never take for granted. In that spirit, let’s look at what our 6-string companions require in terms of basic TLC.
Resonance Versus Durability
Just like an automobile, which won’t run indefinitely without periodic adjustment for the effects of road conditions, your acoustic guitar requires periodic adjustment to compensate for the effects of extremes in temperature and humidity. At Santa Cruz Guitar Company, we make guitars with the intention that they’ll provide personal fulfillment and joy to their owners throughout their own lives and be passed on to a few succeeding generations of grateful players. This presupposes the instrument will get a modicum of thoughtful care and occasional maintenance. I say “our intention” because the guitars are constructed with restorability inherent in their joinery, glues, and finishes. They’re also built to a carefully calculated recipe that balances lightness for resonance against structural integrity for durability.
The lower your guitar’s initial retail price, the more likely its build is weighted toward durability over resonance. Economy of scale dictates that if a brand makes a million of something a year, they bank on a minuscule percentage being returned for failure in the field. Conversely, SCGC—like many of our colleagues—builds a superbly resonant instrument in a price range we assume will force the player to pay attention to its future well-being by keeping it out of harm’s way and in proper adjustment. So if you got off cheap when buying your guitar, you need to be less concerned about seasonal- and age-related changes because, like patio furniture, your instrument was designed to weather well. If you paid the same for your guitar as for your car, then you should heed the following advice to the letter.
Know Thine Enemies
Dry and wet are dangerous, with dry being the worst. Our tests show that a guitar’s 16" lower bout can shrink as much as 3/8" (10 mm) when going from extremely wet to extremely dry climates. In such conditions, the weakest link in the wood grain will separate. If you laid out in excess of $5,000 for your instrument, you’ll likely see no humor in a top that cracks from dryness. Nor will you appreciate it if the soundboard swells beyond playability from high humidity.
The soundboard’s movement is monitored throughout the build process. Here, top deflection is being tracked. Photo by Richard Hoover
To mitigate such potential weather-related heartbreak, you need to quit suffering the whims of the seasons and instead create your own controlled environment. This can be done in a music room or, more practically, within the case itself. First, invest in a humidity gauge (hygrometer) that you can trust. General Tools offers a wall-hanging, music-room gauge for about $40. That’s a no-brainer. Consider getting a companion to keep in the case, like the Bluetooth-enabled device from Govee (about $80).
Our guitars are built at 47 percent relative humidity (RH) at approximately 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The combination of these two indicators give us the guitar-playing world’s mid-point average for the amount of moisture in the air. This means the instrument can go from Stockholm in the winter (the driest) to Singapore at any season (the wettest) and vice versa, with only half the risk of cracking or swelling, compared to a guitar built in an uncontrolled environment. Most reputable makers practice this kind of control.
Your job is to keep your room or guitar case within parameters that approximate the conditions under which your instrument was assembled. For me, a worry-free zone has temperatures that are comfortable for humans and a RH of 35 to 75 percent.
Fine acoustic guitars are crafted in carefully controlled environments. Even in the earliest stages of a guitar’s construction, the instrument is measured to establish a baseline for wood movement. Photo by Richard Hoover
Once you get a hygrometer, whether it’s mounted on an inside wall or stashed in a closed hardshell case, you’ll need to monitor its readings on a regular basis. Initially, this means checking it several times a day, until you get accustomed to the frequency and range of any variations. And remember: It’s important to position your guitar away from direct sunlight and heat sources, like vents or radiators.
Control the Space
Adding moisture to your environment is not expensive. A room can be brought to spec with a home-style vaporizer, but you’ll want to use utmost care not to over-humidify—especially if the unit doesn’t have an adjustable, built-in humidistat to limit its range. Home HVAC systems can provide or be modified for humidity control, if you can stand the investment. Controlling the environment within the case itself is the surest, least expensive method, if you carefully monitor to avoid too much or too little moisture.
Using technology based on a museum’s need to protect fragile antiquities, D’Addario’s Planet Waves Humidipak is a well-conceived system for use inside a hardshell case. It works to both dry and add moisture. To keep it actively protecting your investment, the Humidipak requires your focused attention to changing the packets, as needed. But if you stay on it, this portable, within-the-case device will keep your guitar happy when on tour or traveling.