Summer on Cape Cod: lines of cars waiting in vain for someone to leave the full parking lots at the beaches, grandparents buying ice cream cones for their visiting grandchildren (a good excuse to buy one for themselves too!), an ongoing contest between the states of Connecticut and New York to see which state can send the most cars to the Cape, and of course, hot hot hot steamy days. Days that I love as my old bones can’t deal with the damp cold of winter that we get around here in a few short months.
But in spite of loving the heat and not even minding the long, sweltering nights there is one aspect to the summer around here that I just hate. As the heat and humidity rise, so does the certainty that my wonderful acoustic guitars will begin to sound like someone stuffed a pillow into the sound hole! I don’t care if the guitar is made of rosewood, mahogany or maple – the story is the same. It’s no secret that wood loves moisture and will suck it out of the air. The result is a guitar that can’t vibrate and without the transmission of vibration from the strings that $2000 Martin begins to sound depressingly like a $200 Yamaha.
As a practical matter, this is actually a good thing for the most part. A well-humidified guitar is less likely to crack and the neck is usually more stable (although the action or relief can increase a bit). Better a humidified guitar than a dry one. The problem is, a dry guitar tends to sound much better. There is a good balance, which is generally found with a relative humidity level of about 45%. Unfortunately, the gauge in my studio has been varying between 70% and 90% lately. Now, I know I could run a dehumidifier in there but I feel that moving my guitars from a dry environment to a moist one, such as happens every Saturday when I play at the Daily Brew, and then back to a de-humidified room, over and over through the summer cannot be a good thing.
Beyond the dead sound coming from my very nice guitars I have to deal with the summer sticky neck syndrome. You know what I mean if you live in a humid part of the country: that annoying feeling that your hand almost gets stuck on the back of the neck when you move from one position to another. Even if you take care to play with clean hands (which you should) this condition will have to be accepted. Some players feel that this is less of an issue with guitars that have satin finished necks; I don’t think there is much of a difference between ones with gloss or satin finish. All you can really do is vigorously wipe the back of the neck with a clean, dry cloth both before and after you play. Or even in the middle of your session. And try to keep your hands dry with a towel close at hand.
What about your other hand? It’s bad enough that the guitar is sounding dead and unresponsive but sweaty fingers can kill a new set of strings in minutes. Another thing to beware of is how sweaty the inside of your arm gets where you drape it over the guitar. Be sure to wipe the guitar off when you’re done playing because over a period of time sweat can sink into the guitar finish when your arm lays and this can actually stain the wood – and in the long term your guitar won’t smell very good either! I’ve seen some “vintage” guitars with this problem and in spite of their pedigree I certainly wouldn’t want to own one.
If none of this bothers you, well, have at it and enjoy playing under the summer stars or down at the beach. After all, playing the guitar is supposed to be fun and what’s more fun that strumming some tunes outside on a summer evening? Just don’t be too particular about the sound you’re producing and do your guitar a favor – dry the poor thing off when you’re done!
Peace & good music,