Chris Martin taps Martin Guitar’s top tech Dave Regec for the expert edge on how to maintain your acoustic guitar—and when to take it to a pro.
For this installment of Acoustic Soundboard, I decided to recap some common but important repairs and prevention tips for your guitar. Dave Regec, Manager of Customer Repair at Martin Guitars, and the rest of Martin’s techs often need to divine the source of a guitar’s ailment before they can get to work. “Although we can hardly know the life history of every guitar, we’re still tasked with unraveling the mystery of why each guitar has encountered an issue,” he says. “It’s kind of a ‘whodunit’ mystery that my team needs to solve.” Here are Dave’s thoughts on the most common issues.
Cracks. Poor environmental conditions or accidental drops can cause cracks in a guitar. Proper care and storage are your first lines of defense against those cracks. Ensure your guitar is stored in an environment with a humidity level between 45 percent and 55 percent, and a temperature range of 72°F to 77°F. We always recommend using high-quality guitar stands that feature non-corrosive padding.
The good news is that most cracks can be repaired, from a barely visible line to a body smashed by a baggage handler. My advice is to take your guitar to a first-rate repair person as soon as a crack is noticed.
Open and Loose Bindings. If you’re a touring artist, taking your guitar on the road can expose it to all sorts of elements, which can cause bindings to separate from the body. In older and vintage guitars, glue can deteriorate over time, or binding materials can shrink. These repairs are sometimes as simple as new glue. Others require more extensive replacement of the binding. Take your instrument to a professional luthier at the first sign of separation.Neck Resets. You’ll know your neck needs to be looked at if the playability changes and something doesn’t feel right. It may become harder to push the strings down, or the strings may buzz because the action is too low. A certified technician can determine if the neck is at the wrong pitch and whether a reset is needed, or if a simple truss rod adjustment can solve the issue.
“We’re tasked with unraveling the mystery of why each guitar has encountered an issue. It’s kind of a ‘whodunit’ mystery that my team needs to solve.”
Fret Wear. We use a quality German nickel silver fret wire on all our instruments. Even so, regular use will eventually require a refret at some point in the guitar’s life. A light face-off and setup can extend the period between refrets, but eventually, you’ll reach a point where the frets are worn too low to work with.
Touch-Ups and Refinishing. We typically perform minor touch-ups and repolishing when conducting our repairs, but we always caution every owner before entering into a total refinish. Nitrocellulose lacquer is a traditional finishing material and has a wonderful way of accentuating the tone of a guitar as it ages. Refinishing can sometimes interrupt this aging cycle and impact the tone of the instrument.
Proper Humidification. We’ve received some guitars in the repair department with multiple humidifiers in the case, but none located in a position where they could actually release their humidity to the internals of the guitar. I recommend guitar hygrometers that attach to the strings over the soundhole, which will provide accurate data regarding humidity and temperature levels while your guitar is stored in its case.
Over-humidification is a real thing, too! If you refer back to the recommended humidity and temp ranges, they both have upper and lower limits. If you live in states like Nevada or Arizona, it never seems like you can find enough moisture; if you are in Mississippi, you may struggle to escape the humidity. Work on finding that sweet spot for the wood within the guidelines.
String Tension and Storage. “Storage” can be a fairly subjective term. We’ve received guitars that have been in “storage” for 20 years in someone’s attic, garage, or basement, and the outcome is seldom good. If you’re lucky enough to own several guitars, there’s nothing wrong with reducing string tension on the ones that aren’t currently in your playing rotation by tuning them down. You’re simply removing something that can influence or impact the guitar when it’s not in use.
How Often Should Instruments Be Serviced? It’s less about time, and more about mileage. Touring musicians’ instruments need more frequent checkups than weekend players. Educate yourself on guitar maintenance, and get your 6-string checked by a professional as soon as you notice an issue.
Proper care and a deep understanding of your instrument will keep your acoustic guitar in its best shape, ready to produce beautiful music for years to come.
Get 10% off from StewMac when you visit stewmac.com/acoustic-soundboard
In an exclusive interview with Premier Guitar, the Stradivari of archtop lutherie reflects on a lifelong synthesis of art and guitars, while discussing the new film that documents his journey.
Woody Mann loved John Monteleone’s guitars so much, he thought there should be a movie about them.
After years of playing Monteleone’s legendary archtop guitars, Mann, the great fingerstyle player who died in January 2022, pitched his filmmaker friend Trevor Laurence on a documentary following Monteleone’s work. Laurence agreed, and when Mann shared the idea with Monteleone, the luthier had just one condition.
“I said, ‘Sure, sounds good, as long as we can do it in a way that allows me to express the artistic side of creating these instruments over the years,” says Monteleone over the phone from his home in Long Island, New York. “Not only the fine art of instrument making, but the fine art of art itself.”
This, in a nutshell, is the story of John Monteleone: The Chisels Are Calling, the new feature-length documentary directed by Laurence and produced by Laurence and Mann. The film burrows through Monteleone’s life story, from childhood tinkerer to world-revered archtop luthier, but it also serves as a profound rumination on what moves people to build and create.
John Monteleone: The Chisels Are Calling
Even the documentary’s title reflects this depth. It’s a phrase that Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, a Monteleone fan, saw the luthier use often while signing off his emails: “The chisels are calling, it’s time to make sawdust.” One day, Knopfler was stringing together new chords and melody. Words began to fit together, and he realized he was writing a song about John Monteleone.
It’s an eyebrow-raising trivia tidbit, but it also suggests something about Monteleone and his work. It’s not just that Knopfler liked his guitars. Monteleone’s process and total commitment to his craft stirred something in Knopfler. At a performance in 2009, he discussed the song and his appreciation for Monteleone. He describes witnessing the luthier in his shop, tapping on different pieces of wood and navigating an array of chisels. Knopfler gathered that something stirred Monteleone to do this work. It was more than a job.
“I realized he has this compulsion to be with his chisels and his work,” Knopfler told the audience. “It was inspiring, so I wrote this song.”
The Chisels Are Calling is a window into Monteleone’s workshop, but it’s also a window into the soul of a creator.
The Operating Table
The Chisels Are Calling documents John Monteleone’s life story, from childhood tinkerer to world-revered archtop luthier, but it also serves as a profound rumination on what moves people to build and create.
Photo by Rod Franklin
Early in the documentary, Monteleone says one of the greatest things that ever happened to him was his family getting a piano. Three years after they bought it, he says, the piano started breaking down, and he convinced his parents to buy a new one. Before it was to be delivered, Monteleone, age 10, asked his mother to “have his way” with the old one: He wanted to tear it apart and study it. She consented, and the young Monteleone set to it, disassembling and diagnosing the marvelous old instrument. Then he started fixing it. By the time the new piano arrived, he had the broken-down beauty fully operational again. Later, he’d use the smash-’em-up tactic again to gain access to the innards of an acoustic guitar sitting around their house.
These were Monteleone’s initiations into a lifetime of repairing, building, and creating. His father was a sculptor, so, from a young age, Monteleone had an appreciation for tools, the people that use them, and the things they make. By 14, he had built his first guitar, a Martin-esque dreadnought. And he just kept building. “Once you start, you just can’t stop,” he says in the film.
In college, he operated on a Harmony 12-string acoustic, repurposing his spruce study desk drawer for tone bars and bracing inside. The guitar lasted a month before it began to “fold up like a banana,” he laughs. But that wasn’t the end: Monteleone took it back to the operating table, cut it open, and fixed it up. After graduating, he got his first professional gig doing repair and restoration for a vintage mandolin shop in Staten Island.
A stunning closeup of John Monteleone’s Grand Central archtop.
Photo to Rod Franklin
The rest of the story is fairly well known. Over the years, inspired by legendary archtop luthiers John D’Angelico and mentor and friend Jimmy D’Aquisto, Monteleone has become, according to former Martin Guitars designer Dick Boak, the “patriarch of the archtop guitar community.” His guitars have been celebrated as works of art and are on permanent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s been a pretty swell ride. Monteleone admits in the film, “I always thought of it like I’ve been retired for the past 45 years.” So, what drew him to the jazzy archtop over other guitars?
“The archtop guitar as an acoustic instrument was not really as well-defined as it could be,” says Monteleone. “When I started building them, there was something else I wanted to hear from them.” As the documentary shows, Monteleone came of age in the American folk renaissance of the 1960s. Fingerstyle guitar playing was exploding in popularity, but it was almost entirely heard on flattop guitars. Monteleone thought it would sound great on an archtop.
“I could hear it, I could imagine it,” he says. So, he set out to build an instrument that would be sensitive enough to satisfy and inspire the flattop acoustic player. He wanted to soften the traditionally metallic treble of archtop guitars and introduce a high-end that was fatter and thicker tonally.
“The harmonic balances became a real issue of focus as well as the extreme other ends, the bass,” says Monteleone. “An archtop guitar tends to do fairly well responsively through the whole mid-section, but to extend the treble and bass regions of the instruments and bring them into a harmonic balance was more challenging.”
In 1995, a collector commissioned John Monteleone to build a guitar with just one condition: It had to be blue. The luthier created the Rocket Convertible, a blue archtop with two ebony-bound soundholes built into the side, with sliding doors so the player can modify how much of the sound is directed to them versus listeners.
Photo by Vincent Ricardel
Monteleone succeeded, as demonstrated through the film by the scores of fingerstyle and hybrid players who have taken up Monteleone archtops for their sensitivity and touch. From Mann to Knopfler to Julian Lage to Anthony Wilson to Ben Harper, Monteleone’s guitars are revered among masters of the craft. But one glimpse of a Monteleone reveals that the instruments aren’t just about function. They’re about form and aesthetics, too. Monteleone has created guitars based on architecture, Art Deco locomotive design, even the four seasons.
In 1995, a collector commissioned Monteleone to contribute a guitar with just one prompt: it had to be blue. The luthier initially set out to build one of his classic Radio City models in blue, but deviated from the path and created the experimental legend Rocket Convertible, a blue archtop that skipped the popular F-hole design in favor of an updated traditional oval soundhole in its spruce top. Monteleone built two ebony-bound soundholes into the flamed maple side facing the player, then fitted both with sliding doors so the player can modify how much of the sound is directed to them versus listeners. They worked like a monitor for the unplugged player, letting them hear more clearly what their audience was hearing. Just like in a classic convertible, a guitarist could roll the top down or put it back up as they pleased.
Monteleone’s Grand Artist guitars are inspired by his mandolin-making years and feature an elegant scroll on the bass-side bout.
Photo by Rod Franklin
Monteleone’s approach turns a practical instrument into a gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art. Though it feels novel in a world of mass-production pragmatism, Monteleone is quick to note he’s not the first to elevate form alongside function in musical instruments. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries. “We can go back and look at keyboard instruments, we can look at organs in cathedrals, where the basic instruments had been ornamented to a degree that goes beyond the basic idea, to express or make a connection to what that musical idea is all about,” says Monteleone. Indeed, late in the documentary Monteleone traces the archtop back to its ancestral roots in violin making in northern Italy, where Antonio Stradivari made his masterpieces in the 17th and 18th centuries.
This somewhat luxe approach might strike some as extravagant amid a cultural era structured on planned obsolescence, instant gratification, and minimalism. But for Monteleone, this extra element is the basis of a fuller experience. “The guitar is so accessible, you can pick it up and have at it right away,” he says. “But the musician will sit there and observe, for years, and look at their instrument, and just enjoy the material that it’s made from. That’s a kind of satisfaction that relates to an enjoyment of the instrument beyond what they’re hearing. Now they’re seeing something that is connected to that idea of what they’re hearing.”
He likens it to having a dinner party with friends in a beautiful environment: When the food is great, the company is comfortable, and the setting is pleasing, an evening can be elevated from fine to perfection. Those are the rare evenings that stay in our minds for the rest of our lives.
Monteleone’s archtops serve as a reminder that we are surrounded by and indeed entitled to experiencing beauty and spectacle and wonder—things which often feel impossibly out of reach in the sprint of 21st century life.
“There’s a completion of the experience that really begins to tie it all together when everything is just right,” says Monteleone. “Musically, that’s what we’re doing, trying to express ourselves. We do that with music and also in conversation and many other forms of art. It makes the experience that much more dynamically enjoyable.”
The Thrill of the Hunt
Among their many other functions, Monteleone’s archtops serve as a reminder that we are surrounded by and indeed entitled to experiencing beauty and spectacle and wonder—things which often feel impossibly out of reach in the sprint of 21st century life. So rarely do the stars align to produce a complete harmony of sensory experience, but that’s exactly what Monteleone has been chasing for nearly five decades.
He says his routine hasn’t changed much over time. He’s still dreaming up new sounds and expressions to squeeze out of pieces of tone wood. “I continue to do what you see [in the documentary] every day,” he says. “There’s vision in what I do, and that vision includes what I hear and what I want to hear.”
In his own way, this is Monteleone’s thrill of the hunt: a tense, invigorating pursuit of the sound and feeling in his head. “It’s always maybe a little challenge of expectation,” he says. “I can’t wait to hear if it measures up to what I think I’m gonna hear. When it all turns out right, it’s very rewarding. It’s an exciting thing.”
Energy is in everything. Something came over me while playing historical instruments in the Martin Guitar Museum.
When I’m filming gear demo videos, I rarely know what I’m going to play. I just pick up whatever instrument I’m handed and try to feel where it wants to go. Sometimes I get no direction, but sometimes, gear is truly inspiring—like music or emotion falls right out. I find this true particularly with old guitars. You might feel some vibe attached to the instrument that affects what and how you play. I realize this sounds like a hippie/pseudo-spiritual platitude, but we’re living in amazing times. The Nobel Prize was just awarded to a trio of quantum physicists for their experiments with quantum entanglement, what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Mainstream science now sounds like magic, so let’s suspend our disbelief for a minute and consider that there’s more to our world than what’s on the surface.
I recently spent a day filming a factory tour of Martin Guitars in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. After we wrapped, we discovered that Martin has this amazing museum that showcases more than 170 historic instruments. We decided to meet at the museum at 7:45 a.m. the next morning to film a few choice pieces before catching our flight in not-too-near Newark, New Jersey, that afternoon.
These were not ideal conditions for a performance. Neither my brain nor my fingers work well before 10 a.m., plus I hadn’t slept well the night before. Even so, we loaded into the museum, met the curators, set up the shoot, and began rolling by 8 a.m.
The first guitar was an 1834 gut string, perhaps the oldest Martin in existence. It was beautiful but had some tuning issues and did not project very well, so playing it felt more like work than music.
Next was a prewar D-45 worth over $500k. The strings were ancient with that rusty feel, like you’ll need a tetanus shot after playing it. I’m sure it sounded great, but I was tired and thinking more about making our flight than playing guitar. Wonderful instrument but uninspired performance on my end.
Then, I played a 1953 D-18 coined “Grandpa” by Kurt Cobain. I picked up the deeply sacred D-18, and my hands went to an A minor. This sounds like hype, but honestly, I closed my eyes and connected with a deep, beautiful sadness. The feeling was palpable as soon as you picked it up. This guitar pretty much played itself, leading me to a sad version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I don’t know if it was any good, but I know I felt something deeply. That’s why I started playing guitar in the first place. I don’t have to play well to feel moved.
I later talked to the museum director, who told me the D-18 was given to Cobain by his 1991 girlfriend Mary Lou Lord. Cobain played it on tour before and after Nirvana’s Nevermind. It was returned to her after Cobain married. Shortly after that, Mary Lou loaned the guitar to Elliott Smith, who played it until his death.
When I’m sad, I make myself play guitar to feel better, because it usually works. This 70-year-old guitar spent a lot of time literally pressed up against the hearts and chests of two artists who were so tormented by their emotions that they ended their lives. That’s heavy. You can’t explain those feelings that make the hair stand up on your arm, or when you feel like crying for no reason … but hitting that A minor made me feel it.
We had to split for the airport, so Chris Kies and Perry Bean started packing up. As they did, I saw this cute little 1880 Martin 000 that belonged to Joan Baez. In the photo next to it, Joan looks like my mom in the ’60s. I asked the curator if I could play it, and Chris grabbed his phone to do a quick Insta video. I swear there was a happy vibe coming off this tiny guitar. It felt like watching my mom dance—like a warm hug I needed after Cobain’s D-18.
In Chinese culture, there is a superstition that antiques may hold evil spirits, and chi (energy) transfer can bring this negativity into your home. Feng shui is all about objects carrying good or bad chi. Here’s how I see it: All matter is made of atoms. Atoms contain energy. Ergo, everything contains energy, or, more aptly, everything is energy. Ever walk into a room and feel powerful emotion: joy, sadness, fear, tranquility? That’s energy. We all have felt energy coming from people, places, and things. But that’s what I love about old guitars: Their atoms spent the first few hundred years as a tree in the forest connected to nature. Then, they’re turned into an instrument that makes people happy or consoles them when they are sad. That’s the kind of chi I want around me.