We’re going to take a break from the technical stuff this week. I was playing around with an old acoustic guitar I had and it got me thinking…it probably would be a good idea to talk about proper storage and how humidity can be your best friend (or your worst nightmare).
Guitars aren’t living, breathing things. Really, all they are is simple pieces of wood that have some steel and plastic parts glued and screwed on them, then they have some real thin wires drawn tight (that would be the strings. Pretty simple, right?
All of that being said, they do have to be taken care of in order to keep you playing for years on end. It never fails to amaze me how many people (especially beginners) do not properly maintain their instruments – either because they are too lazy or they simply don’t know what to do.
One of the best (and least expensive) things you can do for your guitar’s health is to use a guitar humidifier.
Wood is an organic material
It’s just a dead tree, right? Yeah, but wood – even with a properly applied finish, is unbelievably vulnerable to the environment in which it lives. This is particularly true when you are dealing with thin pieces like you see on the body of an acoustic guitar (we will be referring to acoustics for the most part here).
Humidity – or, better said, improper humidity – can literally destroy your prized investment. And when I say “investment”…many times that’s very true. Some acoustic guitar can cost thousands of dollars. Even if that type of guitar is out of your budget, you still should properly maintain what you do have.
Have you ever walked into the acoustic room in your local guitar store? Have you noticed that it feels warm and almost a little damp? There’s a reason for that…
Effects of humidity
Guitars (really, any wooden instrument) need to be kept and stored where the relative humidity in the air is in the 45% to 55% range. Less than that may lead to shrinking and cracking. On the flip side, too much will cause the wood to swell. That can make parts that are glued on (like the bridge) pop off, and it could even lead to mold and mildew buildup.
Got time for a horror story?
I finally had enough money to get what I thought was a very nice acoustic. It wasn’t crazy expensive, but it certainly cost more than I had ever spent on an acoustic before. It had a solid wood top (unlike the plywood on the cheaper models I had used for years), and it sounded and played great!
All I did was keep in in its case. I mean…why not? That’s what I always did before with my other, less expensive guitars. No issues with that, ever.
I noticed after a week or so that it didn’t play as well as it did when I left the store. It actually started fretting out pretty bad. I knew that wood could move around a bit according to the environment so I just chalked it up to that and didn’t really worry about it.
That was a mistake. A BIG mistake.
Imagine my absolute horror when, one day, I opened the case to find that the solid top had cracked. And I don’t mean just a little bit. It was split all the way from the bridge to the back edge. I was SICK.
Needless to say, proper humidity is something that I am absolutely paranoid about, especially now that I have an even nicer guitar.
So what can you do?
By far the simplest way to control the humidity is by using a guitar humidifier. These are nifty little devices that fit in your case. For the most part, once you take your guitar out to play it should be fine. In a case or gig bag is where it’ll spend most of its time so that is the best place to create the ideal storage environment.
Types of guitar humidifiers
There are several different types of humidifiers, each with pros and cons.
There are simple models that are nothing more than a sponge and a plastic housing. Many times the housings are designed to fit inside the sound hole. They are typically low cost but take a little tending to; you have to make sure the sponge is always wet. By “wet” I really mean “damp”; you don’t want it dripping because that’ll damage the wood.
With this type there also is no way to tell what the humidity level truly is unless you invest in another fancy gadget called a digital hygrometer (which will give you an exact number). Also, the sponge usually lasts only a few days from my experience before it has to be wetted down again.
There are other systems that use proprietary packs with a gel-like substance in them. These packs are designed to let humidity flow from the pack and also absorb any excess. They also are intended to keep the relative humidity range in your case exactly where it needs to be. These are great as they don’t require nearly as much attention, but they can be more expensive over time because the packs do eventually get hard and wear out. When that happens you have to buy more.
It’s the whole “convenience over cost” debate, right?
What about my electric guitar?
Electric guitars are not immune to the effects of humidity, but they aren’t nearly as vulnerable as an acoustic is. You may still experience shifting and tuning stability issues but since you are dealing with a thick, solid piece of wood (unless you have a hollow-body) it isn’t as critical to keep a close watch on the humidity within the case.
That being said, it never hurts to be careful. There are humidifiers that are designed as little “cans” that can live with your electric in its case and serve the same purpose.
Wrapping it up
Being mindful of the humidity levels your guitar lives in is a pretty big deal. It can make a big difference in the playability and overall health of your instrument. I’d highly recommend to spend a few bucks on a guitar humidifier – it’s cheap insurance against what could be something catastrophic.
Well…that’s it for this week. Next week we will be getting back into some of the technical stuff so keep an eye on your inbox.