Fretboard peeling and new strings: why your guitar needs more TLC than you do!


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While our amps generally look after themselves over the months and the years, the same can’t be said for our guitars. The more we play our axes, the more often we need to change the strings, clean them, tweak various bits and pieces, and so on. This maintenance can be a frustrating and time-wasting job for some of us, so here we give you a few simple, tried and tested tips on how to keep your guitar fit and healthy – use them, and your tone and playing enjoyment you benefit…

Ah, the worldwide web, fountain of all knowledge. Whether you’re plagued by a common cold, your car’s given up the ghost, or you’re just looking at stuff you could cook for dinner or places to visit on your next holiday, the internet always has the answer.

But whether these online tips are relevant and this advice actually useful is another question entirely. Indeed, until you physically do something these inspirational strangers on the web have recommended, you’ve no real idea if it’s going to work as planned or just explode in your face – and trust us, with dinner or a broken down car, this is not a good thing!

So, how do you separate the online wheat from the digital chaff?

We guitarists can do it, of course. We’re always going on about the latest miracle tubes that’ll give our amps that magic mojo, those all-new specially coated strings that won’t go rusty and will never break, or that great brand of batteries that’ll see you through an entire tour without needing to change them. It must be true if we saw it on the internet, right?

But must it? How do we know, until we try it, what’s important for our tone, and what’s just pure nonsense? Because of this uncertainty, today we’ve decided to give you a range of advice that’s genuinely been tried and tested in real life!

Ah, this is what we all want to end up with after indulging in a bit of guitar wellness: a clean, shiny guitar with a spotless fingerboard and frets - and spanking new strings to match! Now we can concentrate on bringing the rock 'n' roll...

Ah, this is what we all want to end up with after indulging in a bit of guitar wellness: a clean, shiny guitar with a spotless fingerboard and frets – and spanking new strings to match! Now we can concentrate on bringing the rock ‘n’ roll…

OK, let’s start at the beginning, with the interface between guitarist and guitar: the strings. Now, this might sound stupid, but the way forward is to find strings you actually like! This is easier said than done, perhaps, as there are so many brands, types and gauges out there.

But, although many music stores have a dazzling variety of strings on offer, it is certainly worth your while exploring the possibilities. Trying new strings out – and experimenting a bit – is really worthwhile, because it’ll help you develop your own individual style as a player. You’ll soon find your own favorite strings this way, and it can be a genuinely inspiring moment when you suddenly realize you’ve found your match!

One thing to remember, though: back in the day, players like Jimi Hendrix never had the string choice we have now. They probably had to make do with whatever selection local stores had wherever they were playing that day! And it didn’t hurt Jimi, did it?

Anyway, so you’ve got your old strings off, and your new dependables ready to go. But wait! Before you start winding anything, there’s a couple of small things you can do to your fretboard to make you feel like you’re playing a completely new instrument.

We’re talking, of course, about Fretboard Peeling!

Since the modern wellness wave swept over us a few years ago, nothing seems to work without peeling. Everything gets rubbed and scrubbed and brushed and grated, because the dirt, muck and goo just has to go! Afterwards, the body just loves to be creamed with a fine lotion, a practice which leaves plenty of us feeling as fresh as newborns.

And this, you’ll be delighted to know, is exactly what we’re going to do with our guitars before we put those new strings on.

Why? Sweat, dirt, skin flakes, dust – all of these begin to cake our uncared-for fingerboards over time, mummified together into an indefinable tar-like substance that slows our playing and starts to look more disgusting the longer we leave it to fester.

Contrary to any popular belief, letting dirt build up on your fretboard over the years does not make you cooler or more rock 'n' roll, and nor does it provide extra mojo. In fact, it'll slow your playing down if anything, as the disgusting gunk will stick to your fingers. Kind of looks like kebab meat, doesn't it? Gross!

Contrary to any popular belief, letting dirt build up on your fretboard over the years does not make you cooler or more rock ‘n’ roll, and nor does it provide extra mojo. In fact, it’ll slow your playing down if anything, as the disgusting gunk will stick to your fingers. Kind of looks like kebab meat, doesn’t it? Gross!

The best human dirt remover is steel wool with the grade 0000. The number of zeroes denotes the degree of fineness. The more zeros, the finer the wool, and the better it will be for your sensitive fretboard. You can get good steel wool in any decent hardware or DIY store, but try and get it from a place that also stocks equipment used to restore old furniture – it’ll have a longer lifespan.

Next, use a pair of scissors to cut off a strip of steel wool, and then very gently – and only in the direction of the grain on your ‘board – rub away the gunk. We repeat: be exceedingly gentle! You don’t want to scratch your precious fingerboard.

Easy does it with the steel wool: use only the finest grades (0000 is the standard choice) and go with the grain of your fingerboard to avoid scratching the wood. You can also use steel wool to buff the frets themselves if they've become tarnished or corroded.

Easy does it with the steel wool: use only the finest grades (0000 is the standard choice) and go with the grain of your fingerboard to avoid scratching the wood. You can also use steel wool to buff the frets themselves if they’ve become tarnished or corroded.

If the years of crud build-up are proving particularly stubborn to shift, you can try using a plectrum – or even an old credit card – to work away the thickest of the grime first, before sweeping it away with a gentle, clean brush. But again, be careful, and only use a plastic pick for this. Metal picks are too hard and can damage the wood underneath.

You can also use this string-free time to rub some nice fretboard oil into your ‘board. This will stop the open-pored wood drying out and will make your guitar look just like new again!

The absence of this care can be very noticeable in older guitars that have been neglected of TLC. If a fingerboard stays dry for very long periods of time, the fingerboard can shrink, which can lead to the fret ends protruding slightly. You can feel this effect more than you see it, generally, and it’s rather unpleasant for sensitive hands. Fretboard oil can’t help here (you’ll need a good tech for that), but it is also great for dealing with tarnished and dirty frets.

Before and after: on the left, tarnished, corroded and generally pretty sad looking frets. On the right, after a bit of steel wool treatment, you've got a guitar neck that looks as good as new again!

Before and after: on the left, tarnished, corroded and generally pretty sad looking frets. On the right, after a bit of steel wool treatment, you’ve got a guitar neck that looks as good as new again!

And at this point, here’s something that most of us never think about: our tuners. OK, we’re always thinking about getting in tune, but loose, rattling tuners are one of the biggest hindrances to guitar players. The thing is, though, the way machine heads and tuners are built, there’s forces at work that naturally loosen the screws holding everything together over time.

To get round this – and while your strings are off – use a wrench (about 10 or 11mm tops will do the job) to gently tighten the bushings and washers. But be really careful, as these are sensitive parts of your instrument, and too much force will get you in trouble.

It’s surprising how slack some tuners can become over time. Of course, certain types – like Klusons, and some found on old Strats – don’t need this kind of treatment, as they’re constructed differently. But even modern guitars equipped with Floyd Roses should be checked on occasion, as even though they’re not going to run you into tuning problems, they do loosen over months and years of playing.

As with any other bits of guitar-related TLC, you need to be extremely careful when taking a wrench to your tuners. One false move, or too heavy a hand, and you'll end up needing to replace more than just the strings!

As with any other bits of guitar-related TLC, you need to be extremely careful when taking a wrench to your tuners. One false move, or too heavy a hand, and you’ll end up needing to replace more than just the strings!

So, now we’re finally ready to get the strings on, and even here there are things we can do to optimize our guitars. Firstly, you only need to pull 3-4cm of string through the tuning peg hole before you start winding. The rest can be cleanly snipped away: it’s not needed, and as well as looking dumb poking off the edge of your headstock, it’ll scratch your gig bag up too – not to mention your eyes, if you get too close. Get rid of it as soon as you can.

Next, make sure to keep the strings held nice and firmly as you tighten them into place. This will really help with the intonation. If your guitar is a Strat or Les Paul type model, lightly oiling the nut can also help to smooth up the process and stop strings snagging later on.

Then, as you tune the guitar up for the first time, give the strings a good tug to help stretch them in. If you’ve got a gig coming up, play the guitar in for about half an hour if possible, and the tuning will become more stable. Strings always need a while to settle down!

If your strings look like this after you've put them on your axe, you've done a great job. Clean, tidy and and not excessivley long is definitely the way to go, even if players like Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello might say otherwise!

If your strings look like this after you’ve put them on your axe, you’ve done a great job. Clean, tidy and and not excessivley long is definitely the way to go, even if players like Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello might say otherwise!

Last but not least, if you’ve got a wrench to hand, check that your axe’s volume and tone pots are securely in pace. Again, this is something most of us wouldn’t think of doing, but a bit of overexcitement while you’re rocking the stage can cause the wires inside to tear. If you’ve tightened the pots in advance of going onstage, you can minimize the chance of anything going wrong.

So there you have it – a little guitar TLC session can work wonders for your playing, and you’ll soon discover that every song is only as good as the guitar it was played on. After all, only when you’ve got the perfect tool can you deliver a passionate performance and get lost in the most important thing: the music.

How important is the health of your guitar?

Oh, and for those of you who’ve made it this far, here’s a little video we made showing you how most of the above is done! Enjoy, and see you next time…

 

First published: September 26 2014. Most recent update: February 17 2016.

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Leave a comment

Billy on September 27, 2014 Reply

Nothing about the frets them selfs, how they ware down and little nicks that catch your strings. That’s the problem I need help with.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 28, 2014 Reply

    Hi Billy. There is a mention of what to do with the frets themselves in there – use steel wool, very gently, and you can rub away the corrosion on the frets. Watch ou video at the bottom of the post to see our expert doing exactly that…