Winter, not my favorite time of year. Honestly, some days I just don’t open the curtains because I do not want to see all the white stuff on the ground. I complain about it too. Alot. My throat gets sore, my hair needs extra conditioning and my skin gets dry. I dream of the warm ocean breeze.
Did you know that your guitar can dry out too? The same lack of humidity that causes your body to feel dry in winter can really damage guitars. If guitars could dream, they would probably dream of the warm ocean breezes during the winter months too.
Most of us carry our instruments in cases to prevent damage from being bumped around. These same cases minimize the temperature changes our instruments experience when being transported from warm rooms to outdoor temps to vehicles. If you live in a northern climate you probably already know to let your guitar warm up inside the case for an hour or so during the winter before trying to tune it. The wood simply does not respond well to rapid temperature changes. It can expand, contract and even warp depending on the temperature. Humidity, or lack of humidity, can also have a damaging and long term affect on your guitar. Acoustic guitars tend to get all the publicity when it comes to humidity, but electric guitars are affected as well.
The Warning Signs
Guitars that have experienced too much dry air (low humidity) can have these problems:
• At first, the instrument tone just sounds a little off. The wood is changing so the tone of the guitar changes, not usually for the better.
• The fret ends feel sharp. The fretboard shrinks, which leaves the fret ends sticking out just a little. Your guitar may become painful to play, but most often the sharp frets ends do not cut your fingers. They simply become an annoyance that cause your transitions between chords and runs to be less smooth.
• The strings buzz. Did your guitar play fine last week but the strings buzz this week? It is probably not because your fingers are weaker, or you are not playing as well as you did last week. This is a good sign that the fretboard has changed because the instrument is too dry.
• The guitar doesn’t tune easily and tends to fall out of tune quickly. The neck can warp. Most often your guitars fretboard and neck are not made from the same wood. One may shrink faster than the other and cause the neck to twist. Good luck keeping your guitar in tune then.
• The finish is checkered and the wood is cracked. The entire guitar is vulnerable to cracking: the fretboard, neck and body, especially areas where wood is joined together. Cracking is extremely expensive to repair.
Guitars are expensive to replace.
Guitars are expensive to repair.
So, the best way we can save money
on our instruments is to prevent damage.
Have you ever noticed that stores which sell new guitars often keep them in a separate room? These rooms are temperature and humidity controlled. We need to do the same thing with our own guitars. We can either keep our guitars on a stand in a climate controlled room or store them in cases and control the climate within the guitar case. Either is fine, depending on how accessible you need your guitar to be.
The humidity in your home or practice site can vary widely. It is influenced by outdoor humidity, but is not usually the same. So, checking the weather is not going to give you an accurate measure of the humidity your guitar is experiencing if it is in an open room or in the case.
What you need to measure humidity is called a hygrometer. They come in digital (number display) or analog (gauge display). Either display works, but most musicians prefer the digital display because it is easy to check with a quick glance.
The best selling and most popular hygrometers for musicians are:
Both of these hygrometers are inexpensive, fit well inside a guitar case, are easy to read and have good reviews on Amazon.
However, until you get a hygrometer that costs in the hundreds of dollars, their readings are not necessarily accurate. Each hygrometer can be calibrated differently, usually within a 5-15% range. Fortunately, the range that each hygrometer is off stays the same. For example if your hygrometer reads 5% less humidity than actually exists it will most often always read the same 5% less no matter how high or low the humidity is. So, once you get a hygrometer it is advisable to test it to see how far off it is calibrated.
The Salt Test
The most common way to test a hygrometer is to do a salt test. Here’s how:
Get a small cap from a bottle (like the average water bottle or 2 liter of soda). Put ordinary table salt in the cap and add enough water to make it wet/slushy but not dissolve. Put the cap of salt and water and the hygrometer inside of an ordinary zip lock sandwich bag. Zip it up and leave it undisturbed for 6 hours. At the end of 6 hours your hygrometer should read exactly 75%. If not, calibrate the hygrometer according to the manufacturers’ instructions. If it cannot be calibrated remember how far of the hygrometer read and add or subtract that amount to your future readings.
Ideally, guitars like humidity
that consistently ranges from 45-55%.
As with temperature, guitars like consistent humidity—
not rapid changes.
Do not check the humidity level one time and think that everything is fine. Humidity changes daily, but a consistent humidity level is key to keeping your guitar in its best condition. So, glance at your hygrometer every day or so to determine if you need to humidify your guitar.
If you find that your guitar is experiencing low humidity levels either in its case or in the room where you store it, you will need to humidify.
The most popular guitar humidifier is the
It also comes in a package with the Oasis Hygrometer:
Oasis Plus+ Humidifier Combo (OH5 + OH-2)
These humidifiers fit inside most guitar cases. You can buy less expensive in case humidifiers but sometimes the cheapest ones leak, which can cause water damage to your guitar. If you live in an extremely dry climate, you might need two humidifiers; one for the guitar case and one inside the soundhole of the guitar. Most often one humidifier in the case is enough if you do not let the humidifier dry out. Some humidifiers recommend using only distilled water, which reduces the amount of mineral deposits that can accumulate on the humidifier. If you have a lot of iron, sulphur, or calcium in your water you should probably use distilled water whether the manufacturer recommends it or not.
If you store your guitar on a stand in a room, you need to humidify the entire room. The best selling room humidifier on Amazon is the Honeywell Germ Free Cool Mist Humidifier, HCM-350. Room humidifiers are available in any home improvement and most big box stores like Walmart. Almost all cool mist humidifiers require paper filters which usually run in the $10 – $15 range. It is important to change the filters as necessary to keep them clean. Sediments from the water can build up and clog the filters, making them almost useless. Warm mist humidifiers often do not need filters but can be more prone to sediment buildup and mold issues. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean, especially the inside, as you could potentially be shooting mold spores into the air from a moldy filter or water reservoir. Some room humidifiers have a built in hygrometer which allows the machine to pause or turn itself off when the humidity level is acceptable. Of course, this feature usually costs more.
There is one more way to humidify your guitar and some musicians swear by it. Others are terrified by the thought.
My thinking is that it is better than doing nothing. If you are too strapped for cash right now to buy a humidifier check out this low tech option: (Thank You Lawrence Jacobsen for posting this video on YouTube)
In the end, keeping your guitar at the correct humidity level is not something to put on your to-do list. It is something to be checked off on the already done list!
Don’t risk damaging your expensive guitar—if you haven’t already protected your guitar with correct humidity, do it right now!
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