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Instrument Care

Fretboard Conditioning Oil

Fretboard/Fingerboard oil serves a few purposes.

  • Beautifies the wood - A dried out old piece of wood looks sad and neglected. Oiling it up makes it look all shiny and new.
  • Protects the wood from shrinking - drying out leads to shrinkage
  • Preventing shrinkage eliminates "fret sprout" or sharp fret ends. When the board shrinks inward, the metal fret wire does not. This results in fret ends that stick out and many times hurt to play.
  • Prevents cracks - In more extreme cases, sometimes the fretboard will crack down the grain lines. This usually happens after many years of drying and shrinking. Sometimes this is irreversible, and the cracks must be filled.
  • Smooths the wood to touch - When your fingertips contact the board, they move smoothly across it. If the wood is dried out, it tends to be a little more "grabby" and can slow your playing.

Oil is used to condition unfinished woods such as rosewood and ebony. If there is paint on the board, do not oil it. Just keep it clean.

Almost all Maple fretboards are painted with a clear-coat finish. In some cases, it's an oil finish. This type of oil is not the same as fretboard conditioner. It is typically a gun stock oil like Tru-Oil. That is a semi-permanent finish and should just be kept clean. If you start wearing through the finish, we can discuss refinishing it. These days it's considered cool to wear out the fretboard finish though. It means you played it a lot, or you paid someone to make it look like you did.

In some cases, such as Rickenbacker, you will find a clear coat finish on woods such as rosewood that most companies would leave bare. If there is paint on it, do not oil it. If you're not sure, come see us.

Q: How often should I condition the fretboard?

  • When it appears dry - Obvious one, but if the wood looks a little dry, oil it up
  • When changing the strings - Great chance to do it, with the strings out of the way
  • At least a couple times a year, just to be safe - If you're the type of person who lets your guitar sit for long periods of time without playing it: You should pull it out and give it some attention once in a while. Clean it, oil it, inspect it. That way when you want to play it again someday, it's ready to go.

Years ago, I ordered one bottle of every type of fretboard conditioner I could find. I used the cheap stuff. I used the super expensive handmade stuff. I used the major brands that we all see regularly. After a lot of searching and testing over the years, I finally found the one I like. Music Nomad F-One Oil. They're somewhat of a newcomer to the market, but they've hit a home run with this product. It's about eight bucks a bottle, so it won't break the bank. The amount you get for that price will last most people for years. We burn through this stuff pretty quickly here at the shop. It's used on every guitar it can be applied to.

It's made of all natural oils. It doesn't smell like machine oil like some of the big guys' stuff. They don't have to add a lemon scent and Yellow #5 to mask the fact that it's just cheap mineral oil, either.

The packaging does a good job of keeping the oil inside the bottle until you want to use it. As with all bottles of oil, however, some care should be taken to make sure it doesn't get on mom's tablecloth. Store it upright after opening and keep it shut tight. It will last you a long time.

We sell this stuff here at the shop. Come pick up a bottle. If you have your guitar setup or restrung by us, this is what we will put on it during the process.

When Should I Change My Strings?

These strings are worn out and should be replaced. The bronze has turned brown/black in areas. New strings will sound much better. Click for larger image.

The strings on your guitar are not a permanent part. When you first buy your instrument, they usually don't mention you should change them out once in a while. The strings should be treated as a disposable item. You're expected to change them frequently.

Signs your strings should be replaced:

  • Heavy discoloration or rust - they should be shiny and somewhat clean looking. Nickel strings should be nickel color. Bronze strings should be bronze color.
  • Coating peeling off - if your strings are coated and the coating is peeling off, it's time to replace them.
  • "Dead Strings" - Dead strings don't have any pop or sparkle to the tone. They make more of a thud and a muddy sound. They won't hold a tune very well, and intonate poorly. If your strings seem to have lost all the treble, then they're dead. Note: Sometimes a brand new string can be dead. It will buzz everywhere - usually even on open notes. Intonation will be poor. (sounds out of tune when you fret it after you've tuned it open)
  • Breaking strings - If the first sign you need a new string is you broke one after a few years of ownership - It's time for a whole new set. Playing heavily on good strings can break one, but if you run them so long they just give out - don't change the one string. Put on a new set. Most strings are inexpensive.
  • Buzzy guitar that used to play clean - As the strings die, they get buzzy and floppy. Many times a new set of strings will clean up the sound a bit.

How often should I change my strings?

This depends on a few factors:

  • How hard you play - This one is obvious.
  • How often you play - While unused strings will go bad, they go bad faster as you play
  • Type of strings you use - Coated strings generally last a lot longer
  • Weather/Environment - Most strings are metal and very susceptible to moisture
  • If you keep it in the case - Weather will have less effect and generally preserve the strings a little longer
  • If you wipe down the strings after play - Getting your sweat, acids, and oils off can save them

Knowing when to change your strings is going to be something you have to figure out for your individual situation. It varies from player to player. If you're using standard steel strings with nickel or phosphor bronze winding: expect to change them anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months at a time. If you're using coated strings: you may get away with a few months longer. Pay attention to the signs of bad strings listed up top, however. Setting a schedule is nearly impossible when there are so many factors involved. If you're unsure, we can tell you.

Nylon strings will last substantially longer than steel strings. Those used on classical guitars and ukulele take a long time to stretch out, break-in and start to stay in tune. It would be a real hassle to change these strings too often. Our advice is that if they're holding up pretty well, leave them on until the sound starts to deteriorate. If you run your finger underneath the string and feel indentation marks from the frets, that's a sign they're worn out.

Note: Nylon strings are not intended for guitars built for steel strings. They do not fit the nut or bridge properly. The neck is much too narrow for the fatter strings. They won't play well or sound nearly as good as the steel strings. If you want to put easy-to-play strings on, consider Extra Light Phosphor Bronze or Silk & Steel Strings. We stock both of these. Also, if your guitar has high action, bring it by for a setup. We'll make it easy to play with proper strings on it.

Never put Steel Strings on a Nylon String guitar. The guitar is not built with proper bracing to withstand the tension the steel strings apply. The top will flex and bend out of shape. The bridge will eventually rip off the top. The neck can twist or bow to the point it's unplayable. The standard nylon guitar strings all have a nylon core. The three lower strings are wrapped with metal, but they are still nylon strings.

My guitar is new, why should it need a setup or fret dress?

My guitar is new, why should it need a setup or fret dress?

There are various reasons why a guitar may not play well when new.

  • Poor Setup from factory - Most guitar manufacturers do not put a lot of effort into the final setup process. This work takes time and precision. Large factories are concerned about the bottom line, and must turn out many guitars per day.
  • Poor fret work from factory - Many factories don't level the frets at all after pressing them into the neck. This leaves lots of room for error.
  • Effects of shipping and environment - Wood shrinks, expands, twists and flexes over time. Depending on the condition of the wood when the neck was made, the conditions it has been through getting to you, and the conditions where you are now playing the guitar - you may have some issues. Your guitar may have been built 18 months ago, shipped across the ocean on a boat, sat in a warehouse, and then hung on the wall at the store for a few months or shipped again bouncing around on a truck getting to your door. Don't be surprised if it encountered some issues. It likely needs some adjustment and definitely some new strings.
  • "Plek'd" at the factory - The Plek is a wonderful machine and does amazing work. Plek requires a talented operator to turn out good results, however. Not operating it properly can end up with poor fretwork. The setup is still performed by a person, and even though your frets might be perfect, the setup could be horrendous. (we've seen this a lot) There are some really great guitars being produced by several manufacturers with Plek, but there are also a few duds in the bunch. The effects of shipping and environmental changes still apply. The guitar may have been perfect, but again gone out of whack since the factory. It is made of wood, after all! If your Plek'd guitar isn't perfect, come see us.
  • "Inspected & setup in the USA" - This means someone took the guitar out of the box after it arrived from overseas and checked it out. If there were any major issues, these would be addressed or the guitar rejected at that point. This does not mean someone spent an hour or two dialing it in. The people who do this job will tell you it's usually only a few minutes per guitar. (they've got a lot of guitars to get through)
  • "Setup by the store" - Setup by.... the sales guy? Do they have a full time technician who is talented at setting guitars up? The person who sets up your guitar should be an expert at it. Otherwise, you may not be getting the full potential of your instrument. It's nice that they'll string it up and adjust the truss rod for you, but this free service is usually not quite the same as a full-blown job done by a luthier or setup technician.
  • My new guitar feels just fine - Great! You may not need anything at all. Feel free to bring it by and we'll give it a once-over. We'll address any issues we find. We'll also let you know if we can improve on the way it plays now. This inspection is free. If we don't believe we can make it play better, we will not pressure you to do anything. We don't want to charge money and not deliver a better playing instrument. We rely on the trust and repeat business of our clients.

So all this said - there's actually some companies that turn out very nice playing guitars. Unfortunately, these are the minority.

Contact us if you have any questions. Feel free to bring your guitar in any time to have it checked out.

Hard Case vs Gig Bag

There's no doubt that a quality hard shell guitar case is really going to protect your investment from damage. It won't be invincible in there (as we've seen some guitars break inside a case that was dropped) but it certainly doesn't hurt to have it.

Gig bags range from the thing that comes in a beginner guitar kit for $99 that isn't worth as much as the picks that were included all the way up to luxury soft cases that cost hundreds of dollars and/or fit multiple guitars. There are some quality pieces to be had somewhere in the middle, too.

If you've ever loaded your gear in for a performance, then you know what a hassle each large heavy object can be. A quality hard shell case can weigh more than the guitar inside. It always has a handle for one hand to carry it, and that means one arm is loaded down with just a guitar.

A good gig bag should have shoulder straps, and many times backpack straps. These can be invaluable when you load a couple guitars on your back, pick up an amp in one arm and another piece of gear in the other.

Now gig bags certainly won't protect your guitar if they get run over by the van... but neither will most hard cases. They give you a pretty safe way to transport easily and avoid bumps and bruises. Stacking them for long term storage may not be the best option. Hard cases win in this category.

If your guitar is acoustic and you're in an area where humidity is a concern (anywhere with less than 50% humidity) then a hard case helps to contain the humidity of your soundhole or case humidifier. A porous gig bag will likely leak out the humidity over time, allowing your guitar to dry out. A quality hard case will seal it in and preserve your guitar from the ravages of drying out.

So you may find that a hard case is best for long term use, but a gig bag can be helpful when it's more convenient. Just don't think your guitar is impervious to damage in any case... as we've seen the results to prove that wrong. Be sure your roadies don't throw an amp on top of your case.... and Gibson headstocks can break just from knocking a case over on the floor.