Climate & Instrument Wellness

Welcome to Flagstaff, AZ.  We have big skies, beautiful mountains, full seasonal changes, and an extremely harsh climate for string instruments!  Our humidity can get down into the single digits, and the wide fluctuations can irritate the heck out of guitars and other things made of wood.  Average humidity charts for the region are of no help in assessing the climate here because the primary concerns for us are the variations from day to day, and our climate is highly variable.  Please keep reading for more information and for tips on keeping your instrument happy.

 

Proper Care & Feeding:

Stability is the key.  A good solid case will help keep your instrument more stable.  When not playing, your guitar should be in its case (unless you keep your instruments in a climate-controlled room.)   Climate fluctuations are hard on guitars, and quick changes are worse.  For instance, if you remove your instrument from a cold car, leave it in the case for an hour so its temperature can equalize with the room.

  • The fingerboard and bridge should be oiled and conditioned at least 3-4 times per year. Screws and gears should also be checked and tightened with the same frequency.  Most guitarists bring in their instrument for a full setup 1-2 times per year, while making their own minor adjustments even more frequently. (You can learn about making your own adjustments here.)
  • If you are experiencing a lot of string breakage, make sure you have enough windings on the tuning posts and that there aren’t any sharp spots, or burrs on the saddle.  If they are still breaking often, try working on your right-hand technique.  Going between alternate tunings can cause excessive string breaking too.
  • Keep a case humidifier around at all times.  The monsoon season is really the only time of the year you can reduce your humidifying.  Although the humidity rises slightly during the winter months, the heater in your house dries out the air.  Because of this, winter can be the harshest time for guitars.

 

Humidification:

Without getting into a long discussion about what Relative Humidity is and how it’s calculated, just know that the sweet spot for guitars and other string instruments is 40% – 50% RH.  We constantly monitor the humidity of the store with four room-humidifiers and three hydrometers placed throughout the shop.  When a guitar dries out, all sorts of bad things happen.  As wood dries it shrinks in various directions.  When internal components of the guitar start shrinking, (bracing, reinforcement plates, neck joint, etc.) they pull on each other in different directions. This causes the entire instrument to fight against itself, making it tighten up and becomes less resonant.  The neck angle will start to shift and the top will sink, causing the strings to get lower and start buzzing on the frets.  Finally, the instrument will start to crack and become unplayable.

Here in Flagstaff, when the sky is clear and a breeze is blowing, humidity can go into single digits.  This is absurdly low, for humans and especially for delicate instruments made of wood.  During certain parts of the year, the next day can bring monsoon weather creating 85% – 98% humidity.  These changes are extremely rough on guitars.  Keeping your guitar in a case will help insulate and stabilize it from these fluctuations.  There are many different ways to humidify your instrument.  Bring it by the shop or give us a call to discuss which option is best for you.

 

Common Myths:

Let’s dispel some of the most common rumors:

  1. I should change my strings one at a time to keep tension on the neck.  Your guitar was built without strings, and most repairs require removal of all the strings, sometimes for an extended period of time.  All strings need to be removed to oil and condition the fingerboard.  Complete restringing and adjustments will keep your guitar from tightening up, tonally speaking.
  2. I don’t worry about humidity issues because I have a really nice, well-made instrument.  The opposite is most often the case.  High-end, solid-wood acoustic guitars are usually more sensitive to climate changes and more prone to dry-cracks.
  3. I can acclimate my guitar so it won’t need humidification.  This really depends on the guitar, and if you plan on trying this, expect to pay for some major setup work and crack repairs during the 7-10 years it will take your instrument to “acclimate.”  Some old guitars seem to have stabilized to a degree, but they typically had stable lives at one point.  Specifically speaking, however, no instrument can be truly acclimated to such a drastically variable climate.

 

Temperature:

Heat is much worse than cold.  Not only does heat cause changes to occur more rapidly, it also effects the glue joints… and almost your entire guitar is held together by wood glue!   Leaving a guitar in a hot car can easily cause braces to come loose and bridges to start pulling off, in addition to other detrimental problems.  The back window or trunk of a car can reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer (even hotter in places like Phoenix.)  While leaving your guitar in a freezing car over night probably won’t do any damage (although this highly unrecommended,) leaving it in a vehicle on a summer afternoon can cause hundreds of dollars of damage within an hour.  Leaving your guitar case in the direct sunlight can have a similar effect.

More Questions? Want to learn more about your instruments?  Check out the one-on-one setup lessons we offer.