Stay in tune Vol#13
By Luthier Patrick Podpadec
Here comes Fall! The time of the year that brings all of us outside loving guitar players back inside for a good 5 or 6 months or so. This also is the time of the year that we are all turning on our furnaces or kickin up the wood burners to keep our bums warm. (and our instruments).It is important to know that when you do this that the furnace dries out the air in your home pretty dramatically so there are some precautions that you should take to prevent any damage that can occur to any wooden instrument during these winter months.
Probably most important is to try to keep your instrument in it’s case (with the lid closed) whenever your not playing it. This helps to stop the dry air from sucking to much of the natural moisture content that is always present in every piece of wood. Musical instruments that are strung up with 100 to 200 lbs string pressure are very susceptible to the changing of string “action” because of this humidity change. Most wooden instruments will tend to “shrink” or “tighten up” due to the loss of moisture in the wood during the winter months. This often will lead to the string action lowering and causing some unwanted buzzes on the frets. It can also shrink the fingerboards ever so slightly as to lift or push the fret a very small amount from it’s fret slot, causing it also to buzz in certain areas. Now I know that this movement is very minor and probably not even measurable, but it does occur and can cause havoc on the playability of an instrument.
There are a variety of different humidifier systems out there that can help combat this problem. Some of course can be the whole house types that can be fitted directly to your houses heating and cooling system or even as simple as a small plastic bag with a small piece of sponge with some slits cut into it that has some water in it that can naturally release some moisture back into the instrument. I’m not talking about drenching a sponge with water and throwing into a sandwich bag and then putting it into your guitar. But to lightly water the sponge and then squeeze most of the water out and then put it into a resealable “ziplock” bag with some very small cuts in it that will leave an avenue for the moisture to release itself into the guitar. Just gently place it in the sound hole and try to suspend it so that its not setting directly on to the top or back of the guitar This can easily be done by attaching a cheap “Bic” pen to the bag and clipping it on to the strings in a way that suspends the bag inside the guitar.
For those of you that say “your friggin crazy!” There are other commercially available humidifiers for instruments at your local music stores. Make sure that you monitor often the water levels of which ever system you choose to use. And please!, whatever you do, DO NOT leave or set your guitars next to a heat vent. It’s pretty easy to figure out what can happen when you do.
I was talking to a good friend the other day and he asked me if I ever talked about the problem of string breakage. More specifically, ”Why is my son always breaking his #$%* strings?” There are a few things that can cause this, ranging from small burrs on the nut slots or the saddles to cheap or old strings or even the possibility of the player beating on it so hard that it just can’t take it anymore. Fortunately, all of the above can be remedied. (some, easier than others) Many times nuts and saddles of instruments (these are the points of contact of the strings) can develop small burrs regardless of the material that there made of (wood, plastic, bone , brass, etc.) The constant friction that is produced by the string vibration is what causes this “burring action” Whenever the strings are being changed it is a good idea to take a good look at these points of contact and remove any small chip or burr that might be present. I sometimes “refile” the groove on the saddles of many electric guitars. They tend to “cut” into the strings more because most of them are made from metal instead of plastic or bone which is a bit softer than the string itself. Sometimes the problem can occur from the “break angle” being too great and is causing too much tension on the string. (The break angle is the angle that the string leaves the back of the saddle to its mounting point, whether that is a stop tailpiece or any other style of string mount). Usually this will happen to the lighter gauge strings, but can happen to any string. At the nut end, or near the headstock the problem can be that the groove is too small and binding the string and when you go to “bend” the note it can cause it to break and possibly go way out of tune and the constant retuning of the string can cause it to break. So please check these areas before you restring your instrument.
About the problem of playing too hard
What can I say? Sometimes it’s necessary to play hard .If that is the problem you might try stainless steel strings. They are a bit more durable, but there is a trade off of either tone or excess ware on other parts of the instrument. Either way, the most important thing is that your having fun playing and that you try to “Stay in Tune” Till next time…….
Patrick from Wood-n-Strings