Cures for the Summertime Blues
It's summertime and the strummin' is easy. Images fill your head of getting away from it all with only the bare essentials: just you, your guitar, and a view of the water. Maybe a cooler, too but, uh, just so you have something to sit on.
Sounds blissful, huh? Well, it can be, but not taking care of your guitar in summertime conditions is worse than falling asleep on the beach without sun block. Any repairman can tell you that the end of the summer usually brings forth a bevy of sadly misshapen instruments, victims of various forms of heat stroke and benign neglect. Let's look at a few different scenarios and what can happen to a mishandled guitar.
Day At The Beach
Catching rays and scoping out the burning flesh while playing summer songs can be a real fine time, but the beach is probably the single worst environment for a guitar. The direct sun, the salt air and the sand are all going to wreak havoc with your instrument's finish. Sand will find its way into delicate parts such as tuning gears, and can cake on your strings. Even if you were to change your strings later, you could easily scratch up your frets and fingerboard. The humid salt air is also big trouble, and I've seen it ruin the finish on more than a few fine tops. Remember also that salt is a natural dehumidifier; even if you were to polish up your guitar after a beach trip, you could essentially be rubbing the salt into the wood, resulting ultimately in severe cracks. A bit of sun is generally not a problem for guitars, but with the sun comes heat. A dark finish, especially, is going to soak up enough heat that your guitar's construction could completely give way at the glue joints. Boinnggg! That's the sound of a heat-exploded guitar.
The resolution here is plain and simple: Don't take a valuable instrument to the beach. Hit your local music store for a cheap plywood special and make it your beach guitar. Or get a ukelele. Certainly less tears will be shed when high tide carries it out to sea.
Speaking of exploding glue joints, the single most common end-of-summer repair I get is the bellied top and rising (or totally separating) bridge of an acoustic guitar that has spent a few hours in the trunk of a car. We all know what happens to a box of crayons on a car seat, right? And we all love Rover enough not to leave him in the car unattended, don't we? Well, the uncirculated hot air of a parked car will let your strings gently reshape the face of your instrument until the glue joint in the bridge finally turns into chewing gum. Let me tell you a nice little horror story. When I was a young hippie type, I drove from New York to Los Angeles with my Gibson SG Special on the sill behind the back seat of my Plymouth Valiant. Upon arriving in L.A., I unpacked my guitar and discovered that the finish the beautiful, cherry-red lacquer finish had simply bubbled and melted from a week of sunlight. Did we learn something from this? Yeah, we learned how to take guitars apart and refinish them!
A Blast of AC
Here's another common nightmare. If you're gigging a lot in the summer, as many people do because of all the parties and weddings, your guitar is constantly transported between your home, a car, the outdoors, and the performance spot. Let's say you head out for a wedding gig on a hot summer day. First your guitar is comfortable and safe in its home environs. Then it's out to the car, where the temperature and humidity can rise to a simmer. From there you take your guitar directly into a catering hall, which is cooled by air conditioning into the low 60s, with bone dry humidity. (The crowd would heat the room up another 10 degrees.) Four or five hours of this would be followed by a ride home in cooler but still damp summer air.
Temperature and humidity changes are perilous, but manageable. For starters, keep a cotton cloth in your guitar case to wipe the gunk off the strings and to lay between the strings and the fretboard during travel. This helps to slow the moisture exchange between the guitar's raw fretboard wood and the extremes of the outside world. Additionally, keep packets of silica gel in the case. Silica is a rock-like substance which soaks up moisture. When your cool, dry guitar hits the hot, wet air of summer, the silica drinks up the condensation. Finally, always keep your guitar in its case for as long as possible when moving from one environment to another. This minimizes the shock of the extreme environments.
The Mysterious Disappearing Crack
Even the very best guitars treated with the greatest respect can show some odd symptoms during summer. Oddly, the summer can actually help to heal an instrument suffering from the sometimes inevitable cracks that appear in wood.
I recently repaired two acoustic guitars which had clear separation cracks in their faces and backs when first brought to me in the late spring. Along with numerous other jobs the instruments needed, I watched the cracks gently close up, aligning perfectly. Without a single clamp, I was able to glue the offending fissures and seal them to near invisibility. Now the only thing that the owners must remember is to keep their instruments properly humidified during the winter months.
Sealed wood is protected from the ravages of humidity. The seal is the finish and it acts as a barrier to moisture. It stands to reason that electric instruments will be least affected by moisture, while acoustic instruments, with their unfinished interiors, will be more sensitive. So as you head out to enjoy the summer, bear in mind that your guitar is not as resilient as your skin. You might sweat, get dirty, and crack and peel in the sun, but your guitar will have a much tougher time getting back to normal. Stay cool.