PRO GUITARIST TIPS – EPISODE 1 – TAKING CARE OF YOUR INSTRUMENT
Greetings! In keeping with my intention to blog more regularly, I’ve decided to post some of the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years as a professional musician. These tips are things I wish someone would have told me when I was just starting out! Hopefully my years of playing will give you some insight into what you can do better as a musician to further your progress in becoming the best musician you can be. I plan on covering a variety of topics in my “Pro Guitarist Tips” series.. from how to practice to what’s expected of you on a gig. The things I’ll say in this series are derived from my experience as a working musician, and my personal opinions about what works and what doesn’t.
Seeing as how it’s 2014, and seeing as how these tidbits of string slinger wisdom are organized in a list.. I’m tempted to name this post “10 Things You should know about being a Professional Musician.. number 7 will BLOW YOUR MIND” to try and get more clicks, but you know what? We’re above that here. MikeNull.com isn’t about hijacking your attention span to make a few cents. Enjoy your distraction free reading! If you like it or find it helpful, let me know and/or spread the word!
My first installment is going to be all about taking care of your guitar. If you already are or plan on becoming a working guitarist, it’s important to know that maintaining your instrument is a vital part of sounding great.. and at the end of the day, sounding great is more important than looking cool, acting cool, or pretending to be good. Sounding good trumps almost anything else. It will get you noticed and will make people want to work with you, among other things.
As a guitarist, there are certain things that you need to do to keep your instrument in full working order, with no exceptions. I’d like to pass these on so you don’t have to work in a music store for years to learn them like I did! I would run into problems in my practice sessions.. thinking that I just needed to be stronger to pull of those crazy bends, or that I would never get any fast technique because I just had “slow hands”. Not true.. Once I got my guitar set up properly, there were a lot of things I could suddenly execute that I wasn’t able to before.
- Change your strings. First, foremost, and probably most important.. change your guitar strings regularly! For example, when I’m in on a contract playing 5 or 6 nights a week, I change my strings once a week. That said, I can hear the tone start to dullen and darken after about 3 days.. and really, I only stretch them out to a full week for cost reasons. I know someone who changes his strings before every show! If you continue to play on old strings a few things will happen.. Your tone will dullen, your intonation will gradually start to slip as the strings corrode, your frets will wear down faster from the gunk on the strings. Also, buy a string clipper / winder to help you. Use the winder part to speed up the process, and use the clipper part to get rid of the excess string. Having big knotted strings flying everywhere above the tuning pegs not only looks bad, but it’s a pain in the butt and offers zero sound benefit. Once you change your strings, stretch them out. Tune the string to pitch, then grab it and pull it back towards the bridge. Now check the pitch.. it’s flat, right? Repeat with each string until it doesn’t slip very much. Congratulations, your guitar will now, for the most part, stay in tune!
- Take care of your frets. Again, depending on how often you play, I recommend getting your frets crowned about once a year, especially if you play hard. As the frets begin to wear down, your intonation and general sustain will start to suffer. Not sure if you should get it done? Look closely at the first and second fret on your guitar. Do you see divots? If yes, then it’s time to get your frets crowned. You should be able to get your frets crowned about half a dozen times before you need to get a refret. I just had to get a refret done, but it was the first time in 5 years, and I play hard and play often, to give you an idea. Take your guitar to a local luthier to find out about fret crowning and how much it will cost.
- Polish your guitar. Every time you change the strings, clean your instrument. I prefer Dunlop 65 and have been using it for years. Once I take the strings off, I spray the polish on to the body, the neck and the frets, then I scrub it down with a microfiber polish cloth to get all of my hand gunk off. Don’t buy into the hype that a grungy dirty instrument sounds better than a well maintained one. It simply isn’t true. I get compliments on my tone quite a bit, and it’s not because I let my strings get too dull or the intonation on my guitar go bad.
- Strap Height Matters. This is more of a general playing tip, but because it involves a piece of gear, I figured I’d throw it in. Adjust your strap height so that your left hand can comfortably perform barre chords and big stretches. Setting your strap low may look and feel cool at first, but at some point you’ll realize that you can play better with your strap at a normal height, and it really doesn’t look bad. Find a place that’s comfortable for you. You want to find that perfect balance between the left hand wrist and the right hand wrist. If it’s too low, the left hand will struggle to do certain things.. if your strap is too high, your right hand and right elbow might get too tense. Neglecting these things will eventually lead to serious injury! Also, having your strap at the right height and possibly secured with strap locks will ensure that your strap won’t accidentally let go and fling your new axe into the front row, sending your number one groupie to the hospital. #didthishappen?
- Tighten the screws. If you just bought a new guitar, or if you are performing maintenance on your current guitar, check all of the screws and make sure they’re tight. This is especially important for the tuning pegs on the head stock, and for anything else that might rattle or hum while your guitar vibrates with music. If you have an acoustic guitar with a pickup, check the wires inside and make sure everything is secure. This tip, however, does NOT apply to the TRUSS ROD nor the saddle screws on the bridge! Unless you know what those are and know what you’re doing, tightening or loosening these screws / joints while only cause you problems.
- Seasonal set ups. Take your guitar in to a luthier seasonally to get it set up. If you don’t play all that much, you will still need to get one done at least twice a year. This happens because things will move whether you play on it or not. Frets wear, volume pots get dirty, output jacks get loose, and bridge saddles and neck truss rods move. Depending on where you live in the world, the change in seasons may also bring about spikes and drops in humidity, causing the wood in your guitar to warp. Ever pick up your guitar one day and realize that the strings were higher than usual? That’s probably because you’re entering a new season and your neck moved with the change in the weather. When I first heard this I thought people were crazy but it’s totally true! Keeping your guitar set up will keep your playing in top form as you are practicing. That way, when you hear something go out of tune or can’t get that tone that you want, you’ll know that the problem is YOU and not your guitar. In the long run you can save a lot of money if you learn how to fix your instrument yourself. While true, I still prefer to take my guitar to an experienced luthier.
- It will never be perfect. While it’s important to do your best to keep your instrument maintained, know that it will never be perfect. The current design of most guitars lends itself to NEAR perfect intonation, but not perfect. In order to have PERFECT intonation, your neck would have to have fanned frets, which we don’t really see on most instruments. So, give your local luthier a break. Don’t be THAT GUY. Get your guitar so it feels good and is intonated well enough so you don’t notice nasty sharp or flat notes when you’re playing with other people. As the “instrumentalist” in the situation, it’s up to YOU to adapt your technique to make that flawed piece of wood sound beautiful, not the responsibility of the local guitar repair guy at the shop.
- Always keep your guitar in the case. If you’re not on stage, or not actively using it, put your guitar away. As a working guitarist you should have a HARD case for your instrument, a quality gig bag and a good stand. You wouldn’t believe the horror stories I’ve heard about guys leaning their $3,000 Gibson Les Paul up against the wall while taking a break to make a sandwich, only to have their dog run by, knock it over and snap the neck in two. I like to look at it this way.. I use my gig bag for transporting my guitar on my back, and I use my hard cases for storing my instrument. If I’m going to a local gig, I’ll throw the guitar in a gig bag and carry it around like that. If I’m going to china for 6 months and am bringing my tele but not my strat, I’ll leave the strat at home in its hard case. Capisce? At the gig, have a quality guitar stand on the stage so you have a place to put your guitar in between sets. The last place you want your guitar to break is on the gig where you are (hopefully) getting paid to play it.
If you follow these tips, you should be able to keep your instrument working well for you, regardless of its quality. When a guitar is properly maintained, a cheap guitar can work well and sound great your entire career.. while an expensive high quality guitar can be passed down to your offspring, and your offspring’s offspring. Stay tuned for the next post in my “Pro Guitarist Tips” series, coming soon.