Instrument Maintenance: What do I NEED to Know?

Instrument maintenance is something musicians deal with throughout their careers, some more directly than others. For guitarists this, at a minimum, means being able to perform the most basic of basics, string changing, tuning, and cleaning the instrument periodically. Many stick to these basic requirements and farm out any other work that is required to people who specialize in instrument repair, either due to convenience, a firm belief that they can’t acquire the skills needed, or fear that they will irreparably damage their cherished instrument. If you are a dedicated player, however, the benefits of being able to do basic to intermediate level work on your instrument can yield many positives, not the least of which is the effect it has on your wallet. Today it is fairly easy to access information on how to set your intonation, adjust your truss rod, change pickups and various other relatively easy repairs and modification work you might desire to do yourself.

The first step in any of this is to do your research, whether it’s through browsing the internet, reading, or watching instructional videos. Along with the venerable YouTube information, companies like Stewart-MacDonald offer instructional videos and books for purchase on virtually any level of building or repair work you could desire along with a wealth of tools and supplies that provide virtually everything you need to do whatever level of work you desire. By far, from my own personal experience, the easiest approach to most of this is with an electric guitar. Acoustic instruments generally require a higher skill set and are not as user friendly, nor as forgiving for the novice.

It is very important to due your research before you start tinkering, so you have a solid understanding, at least intellectually, of what you are undertaking and how it relates to your current state of handiness. Doing your research will give you an understanding of both what is required from you physically, and what you will need to do the repair or modification. There will be tools that you need to do the work, and having the correct tool for the job is a need, not a luxury. Purchasing tools to do this type of work is a worthwhile investment, because once you start down this road and gain confidence, chances are you will continue to do your own work as long as you continue working as a musician. When you have what you need to do the work, start and take it slowly, following the steps carefully and referring back to your instructions as you go.

Many of us have friends or know people who already possess these skills and wouldn’t mind helping us learn to do these things. There are also places that offer workshops and instruction on doing instrument repair/building, if you’re willing to shell out the cash and make the investment. I worked at a music store for a couple years where my boss, the owner, Nick Bucci, was a luthier who built and repaired instruments on site. I benefitted greatly from being able to watch what he did, and then applying what I learned from him to instruments, mostly mine until my skills got to the point where I could do some work on other folks’ instruments. To this day I’m thankful for what I learned from Nick. While, since then, I’ve built some instruments from the ground up, through the process of this I’ve learned my limits in terms of what I’ll do myself and what I’ll farm out if the need arises. It does get to the point where you’ve got to decided whether you want to spend your time playing the instrument or building them – both skill sets require the same things, essentially practice and time.

Once you learn how, doing set up work on your electric instrument becomes a fairly simple process, and changing pickups in and out becomes a matter of budgeting the time to do so. If you find that you have an interest in learning how to do these things, then don’t be afraid. Start to do your research on what it is you want to do, and then have at it! As long as you are careful about it, keep in mind that most of what you don’t do right can be fixed. Some things are more finicky than others, for instance over-tightening a truss rod can potentially result in a major repair being required (actually witnessed an experienced repairman snapping one which was ugly), so remember to go slowly and don’t force anything! Anyway you look at it, doing your research, even if you decide to still hire someone else to do the work you need done, is going to reap benefits. When you understand how your instrument works on a deeper level, your understanding of what needs to be done and why can give you a better relationship with the person who ends up doing the work, and help you select who does the work required.

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