Customers will often tell me when shopping for string that they want to switch to a lighter gauge of strings, or even switch from steel to nylon. I always like to ask “why?” when I hear this expecting the response, “it seems like my guitar is getting harder to play.” The distance between your strings and fretboard is referred to as your action. As a guitar changes due to climate and wear, your action will likely change. Switching to a lighter string will often remedy the problem, but it doesn’t normally address the root cause. Before you sacrifice your tone by switching to lighter strings, see if there might be more at play with your guitar.The question on everybody’s mind at this point should be, is my guitar getting harder to play?
Here are some ways to tell if it is.
Murphy’s Guitars is located in northern Utah, which is an extremely dry climate. Many people in the area don’t often realize it, but the woods in their guitars are losing moisture. The easiest and cheapest fix is the bow that will often begin developing in the neck. A normal bow is something that is hard to notice due to how gradually it happens, but can make fretting from the 4th to the 12th fret more of a chore than it needs to be.
If you think your neck may have too much bow put a capo (clamp that holds down strings to change the key)on your first fret, and hold down the highest fret on your neck. Slide a piece of paper between the string and the fret wire at the midpoint of the neck (usually about the 8th fret) the paper should barely have any wiggle room. If the string appears to be hovering above the paper, you’ll want to take it to your local repair shop (such as Murphy’s Guitars) and have them adjust the neck for you.
Note: I do not recommend trying neck adjustments unless you have been properly trained and supervised by a Luther or repair tech. (some shops will do small adjustments like this free of charge, or at a small expense, so why risk it?)
Let’s say you tried sliding the piece of paper in between the string and fret at the midpoint, and the string is resting against the fret. At this point you likely have a Take. Take it to your local repair shop, and have them take a look at it.
If you checked your neck and it appears to be normal, but your action (distance between strings and fretboard) is still higher than your would like it to be, the issue is likely in the body. Body repairs can range anywhere from a high saddle (an inexpensive fix), to major issues often caused by climate and conditions.
Bellying is one of the most common conditions on acoustic guitars that we see in our dry Utah climate. The tension from the strings paired with a lack of humidity will often cause the top of the guitar to arch up between the bridge (where the strings attach to the body) and bottom of the guitar. The top will also often begin to collapse inward near the sound hole. Various systems exist that will repair bellying, and it is often a costly repair. If you suspect your guitar is bellying contact your local repair shop or luthier. Another common acoustic ailment is a bridge that is lifting from the top of the guitar. The easiest way to tell if a bridge is lifting is to slide a piece of paper along the backside of the bridge where it meets the top. If the paper is able to slide underneath the back of the bridge, your bridge is lifting.
The neck to body angle is something that can be an issue on either electric or acoustic guitars, but the remedies for the two are night and day difference. The easiest way to spot a neck to body angle issue is by checking two places. First sight straight down the guitar from the bottom, and look to see if the neck appears to be straight in line with the body, or tilted upwards. Keep in mind, some guitars such as Les Pauls are built with the neck being slanted backwards slightly from the body. If there appears to be an issue check the joint where the neck of the guitar meets the body. If there appears to be any cracking, warping, or separation, you neck to body angle is likely off.
There are so many different electric guitar bridge systems out there I’d have to write an entire book on how to check for potential issues on each one. If you’ve exhausted all other possibilities, and your action still isn’t where you’d like it to be, the problem could very possibly be your bridge. The repair could be anything from a simple tightening or loosening of a screw to a major overhaul of your entire guitar. Be sure to take it to your local expert, and see what their thoughts are.
I hope this has been a helpful insight on spotting guitar ailments.
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