Stay in Tune! Vol. 1 intro 4/16/09
By Luthier Patrick Podpadec
I should start off by introducing myself. I am a luthier. Many people may not even know what that is, but I assure you that it is not a bad thing. It is a person who builds or works on or repairs stringed musical instruments.
I own a small repair business called Wood-N- Strings, located in Madison. (see my ad). I have been building guitars, mandolins, and a few other odd musical instruments in the Cleveland area and have been serving most of north east Ohio since about 1997 and repairing them since about 1982. I was lucky enough to have a very nice article written about me, and the art of lutherie, by Cat Lilly in a issue of the Voice magazine about three years ago. Recently the “Voice” and myself thought that the loyal readers and many musicians may be interested in a discussion about the trial and tribulations of trying to keep your instruments in tune. Having worked on many of your guitars (you know who you are) I thought I would try to give you some of my tips to do, or maybe more importantly , what not to do in regards to having your instrument playing to its best ability. I will try to do my best at answering questions about problems you may be experiencing with string buzzes, intonation problems(the ability of keeping the instrument playing in tune up the neck),neck relief, truss rod adjustments, nut and saddle problems and a whole host of other things that can, and will go wrong with your guitar all the while you are reading this article!
I really hope that doesn’t happen to you, but if it does there are things we can do to fix them.
Some of the things that I encounter in my shop has to do with weather changes. Such as, the action. (it’s the height of your strings from the frets, the higher that they are, the harder it is to play and your intonation will also be affected). In the winter the lower humidity tends to “tighten up” or shrink the wood so as to lower the action. Many players choose to have me make them separate saddles for their guitars, one low one for summer and one taller one for winter. This is a very common problem and although I would not suggest you go out and make yourself a new saddle without reading up on the process first, but with some skill it can be accomplished. A good thing to do to reduce the possibility of this happening is to make sure that you always return your instrument to its case (and shut the case!) after playing it. It looks good on the stand, but the dry heat from the furnace will play havoc on it. Its also very possible to develop cracks in the top or side woods. Another good thing to do is to purchase a humidifier that is made to set into the sound hole or inside the case of the instrument. There are many different kinds of this type of product out there. Most music stores will carry one or more of them.
Generally this will not happen to your lower priced instruments, due to the fact that they are manufactured with laminated woods which prevent them from cracking, unfortunately it also prevents them from sounding as good as a solid wood instruments. Now I know I will probably get some feed back on that one, but I’m more than willing to take it on.
So far, as you have probably figured out, I have been speaking mainly about acoustic guitars. Another problem I see that happens to almost any fretted instrument some time in its lifetime is that the frets can actually get “pushed out from their slots that they are so tightly seated into due to the shrinking of the wood on the fingerboard in the lower humidity months. I don’t mean they actually come out or even come loose but they most certainly raise themselves up taller than there adjacent fret and can cause some very annoying buzzes that usually need to be dealt with what we in the “biz” call a “fret leveling”.( This should probably always be done by your friendly guitar repairmen, I happen to know a guy!) I have witnessed (and fixed) many a fret level gone bad.
Patrick from Wood-n-Strings