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When you spend as much time talking to guitarists as I do, you hear it all–myths, misconceptions, misinformation, and outright legend. This is especially true when it comes to guitar care and maintenance. However, there are some that I hear over and over, and that’s what prompted me to write this blog post.
Here, I’ve compiled some of the most common guitar care myths–the ones I hear repeatedly. These are in no particular order…
Myth 1: You should loosen your guitar strings when you’re not playing it
One of the top Google searches that brings readers to this blog is some variation of this very question. So, apparently, this is a big one for a lot of beginner guitarists. I answered this question in this blog post in response to a reader’s email to me asking if he needed to loosen the strings when not playing his guitar, but I’ll restate it here:
You do not need to loosen your guitar’s strings when you’re not playing it. Simply put your guitar back on the stand or back in its case when you’re finished playing. The guitar’s neck is designed to withstand constant string tension, and being strung up-to-pitch is its natural state. Leave it that way unless you need to change strings, clean the fretboard and/or frets, or do some other maintenance that requires you to remove the strings. This leads into our next myth…
Myth 2: Taking all the strings off your guitar at once can damage the neck
Myth 3: Never use lemon oil on your guitar’s fretboard
Myth 4: Never use WD-40 on any part of your guitar
If you’ve read my article You May be Loving Your Guitar to Death you’re probably wondering why I’m contradicting myself and now calling this one a myth. In that article, I said to NEVER use WD-40 on ANY part of your guitar. Well, that’s actually good advice for beginners and others who don’t know what they’re doing. Here’s the deal with WD-40:
WD-40 is a good rust remover for metal parts, and guitar techs will sometimes use it (carefully) for this purpose… but they remove the rusty parts from the guitar first. This is the important distinction: WD-40 can be used to clean rusty metal guitar parts, but the parts should be removed from the guitar first. Never spray WD-40 onto anything that’s still attached to the guitar. Don’t get WD-40 on any bare wood nor on the glossy finish of your guitar. Don’t use WD-40 to “lubricate” anything on your guitar and don’t use it to clean your guitar strings–because no matter how thoroughly you think you removed the excess, there will always be a little left on the strings, which you can inadvertently transfer onto your fretboard.
Myth 5: Never attempt to adjust your truss rod yourself
It’s amazing how many guitarists are confounded by that little bolt under the cover on their headstock (or inside the soundhole, if it’s an acoustic guitar). I’ve met some who are literally afraid of it, and I also sometimes hear the objection, “I don’t want to crack or break the neck, so I’ll leave the truss rod to a pro.” I’ve even been asked, “Won’t I void my guitar’s warranty if I adjust the truss rod myself?” So, I did a quick Twitter poll about attitudes toward the truss rod, and here’s how 70 people responded:
Wow! Really, with just a little education you can safely and easily adjust your truss rod yourself. In fact, you need to know how to do this if you want to do your own setups, or simply keep your guitar buzz free throughout the year.
Wooden parts naturally expand and contract with changes in humidity. This causes your neck to bend slightly forward or backward. It’s totally natural, but can result in action that becomes too high or too low. The remedy is a slight tightening or loosening of the truss rod bolt–literally no more than 1/8th of a turn (or less) in either direction. Some guitars will play perfectly throughout the year without needing adjustment, but this is very rare.
As I pointed out in #2 above, your guitar’s neck is a lot tougher than you think. Yes, you should first learn the proper way to adjust the bolt, and learn what a “tight” and “loose” truss rod bolt feels like, but there’s some safe margin for error.
If you want to learn more about truss rods and how to do your own guitar setups, there are two resources I recommend:
Myth 6: Your truss rod is for adjusting action (string height)
Wait a second! Didn’t I just say that you should adjust your truss rod if you’re action becomes too high or low? Yep, but what you need to understand is that a truss rod’s primary purpose is not to adjust action–that’s a secondary effect of adjusting the rod. The primary purpose of a truss rod is to adjust the amount of forward-bow or backward-bow in the guitar neck, and it just so happens that this will have a small effect on string height. To properly adjust string height during a setup, we raise or lower the guitar’s bridge, bridge saddles (if applicable), and nut.
So, think about it this way: if your guitar had comfortable action and was buzz free, but the strings seemed to mysteriously become a bit too high and uncomfortable, or too low and began buzzing, then a slight truss rod adjustment is the proper thing to do.
On the other hand, if everything’s been fine but you just want to raise or lower your action, then adjust that at the bridge, bridge saddles, and nut. Just know that when you do this, especially if you lower the strings dramatically, you may also need to adjust the truss rod slightly to compensate. This is where knowledge of how to properly set up a guitar will be needed, otherwise you can drive yourself a little crazy jumping from one thing to the next.
Myth 7: If you plug a live cable (a cable already plugged into an amp that’s powered on) into your guitar, you can damage the guitar’s electronics
A damaged, faulty, or improperly grounded guitar amp can indeed send electricity into a guitar, but this extremely rare and unfortunate scenario could happen regardless of what order things are plugged in. Getting shocked while playing guitar is a whole other topic–which I won’t go into here–that has nothing to do with the fact that you plugged in a guitar cable that’s already connected to a live amp.
Instead, the most annoying thing that’ll happen when you do this is the usual loud POP you get any time you plug the guitar-end of a live cable into your guitar. Unless, of course, you use a guitar cable with a silent plug tip.
Your guitar’s jack is called an “output jack” for a reason: it outputs a very weak signal through the guitar cable and into the amp. The signal does not flow the other direction–the amp is not feeding anything into your guitar.
Myth 8: A guitar’s neck should be perfectly straight (or flat)
To the naked eye the guitar’s neck looks straight, not to mention you’ll hear phrases like “… a good, straight neck” kicked around in conversation. However, the reality is that guitar necks usually play their best with just a tiny amount of forward bow (or up-bow) that we call “relief.” In other words, the neck isn’t dead-flat, it’s actually bent forward just a bit. You see, when a guitar string is vibrating, it’s not just wiggling side-to-side, it’s actually vibrating around in an elliptical pattern… in all directions:
Don’t confuse this natural forward bow with “a warped neck.” Relief, forward bow, back bow, etc. are normal conditions for a neck, whereas “warp” is a term used to describe a piece of wood that has twisted in a bad way that could potentially render it useless.
Myth 9: “You should oil your fretboard every time you change strings”
Want to Learn the Right Way to Care for Your Guitar?
For years after I bought my first guitar, I struggled with all this stuff, and on several occasions did accidental damage to my guitar. There was so much misinformation flying around out there that I finally decided to cut through all the crap and just learn the right way. I bought and consumed every book and video series that guitar repair guru Dan Erlewine and the Stewart-MacDonald company produced.
However, you don’t have to do all that. So, these two books are what I recommend to anyone wanting to cut through all the noise and learn the right way to setup, care for, and even repair their own guitars:
What guitar-care myths or legends YOU heard? Lay ’em on me and I’ll investigate to see if we can either confirm or dispel them.