A student was complaining about the back of the neck of his guitar being “sticky.” I knew exactly what he was talking about because I think we all experience that sticky, nasty feel from time to time. It is difficult to ignore and definitely affects how well I play and my guess is that many others feel the same. This is much more of a problem in the summer here on Cape Cod when we have to deal with hot, humid weather a lot of the time. But some people just have sweaty hands and they have sticky guitars necks pretty much all the time. A guy who used to play in a band with me had this condition to the extreme and I wouldn’t even let him touch my guitar because of the way it would feel when he gave it back.
This is one of the small but significant annoyances that go along with playing the guitar but fortunately it is one that can be dealt with. I am a big, big fan of the Virtuoso guitar cleaner and polish (available on this site on the accessory page and through my online store, www.capecodacousticsstore.com) and the cleaner will restore that silky, fast feel to a neck in no time. Avoid using regular furniture polish though – all that will happen is that the guitar will feel good for a little while but soon it will be even stickier than before and that stuff is often difficult to remove.
Another annoyance that students ask me about all the time is “string noise” when fingers are moved on the fretboard. This one is harder to solve. In fact, I have a wonderful recording of Julian Bream, classical guitar genius, and you can hear plenty of string noise as he plays. So I guess if a master like Bream cannot avoid it then I shouldn’t be all that concerned. Do NOT use a product called String Ease that is sprayed on the strings to make them slippery. Yes you eliminate a certain amount of noise but you will also kill the vibration of the strings almost immediately making buying a new set of strings necessary. I don’t really know why they market this stuff; perhaps it is aimed more at electric guitars for which string resonance is not as much of an issue? Also avoid flat wound strings, which do not exhibit any string noise but sound dead and terrible on an acoustic, plus they put a lot more tension on the neck than is safe. They were originally designed for hollow body electric guitars used by jazz players who in many cases actually want that bassy, non-resonant sound.
The fact is, even with careful technique to avoid scraping your fingers along the strings as you move there will always be some string noise. All you can really do is minimize it.
I’ve talked about this next one before in my Tip of the Week, but another thing that can drive a guitarist crazy is a string that suddenly makes a snapping or clicking sound as you tune, raising the pitch considerably and well past the tone you’re trying to tune to. Then you loosen the string and the same thing happens. It makes it almost impossible to get that one string (or perhaps a couple) exactly in tune. Having good quality tuners on your guitar can help with this (I love Gotoh 510s and use them on my primary guitar) but that little click happens because the groove in the nut is just slightly to narrow for the string. A qualified guitar tech can carefully file the groove to negate the problem but do NOT try this yourself because unless you are very, vary careful you will open the groove too much and lower the string so it buzzes when it’s played. A better solution is to go to your local hardware store and buy some powdered graphite. Next time you change strings apply a tiny, tiny bit to the groove in the nut. Be careful not to apply too much as it will spread onto the fingerboard and is difficult to remove. However, just a tiny bit will make the string slide through the groove smoothly, making tuning a much easier and exact process. This problem seems to manifest itself with guitar that have nuts made out of plastic or the manmade material called Tusc. A perfectly cut natural bone or ivory saddle will not have this problem. Installing a bone nut also will improve the sustain and overall tone quality of your guitar, too.
The last thing I wanted to mention should seem logical but is often overlooked. Getting back to the Curse of Sweaty Hands, be sure you take the time to wash your hands and dry them carefully before you play. Most guitarists (myself included!) don’t do this enough and the result is drastically shortening the “life” of the nice new strings you just installed. I feel very strongly that guitars should sound the best they can and fresh strings are the single most important way to ensure they do. You want them to last as long as they can because a $2k guitar can sound like one that costs $200 if the strings are gunked up and dead. There is some debate about the practice of wiping down strings after you play – some guitarists feel it only serves to push minute bits of dirt and dead skin (ewww!) into the wraps and kills the string faster; others, myself included feel that running a clean, dry cloth both over and under the strings can only help make them last longer. Your call on that one!
We all have enough challenges in our playing technique, trying to make our guitars sound good. Dealing with these little bugaboos will surely make the guitar a joy to pick up and play, at least until you get to the hard part of that new song you’re learning!
Peace & good music,