Guitar Maintenance You Can Master At Home

One of the realities of playing a musical instrument is that they sometimes need maintenance. This can be especially true of the guitar, which not only has strings that keep the instrument under tension, and a finish that needs to be protected, but in many cases they have sensitive electronics as well.

If you’re a guitarist, you’ve probably done a little looking around yourself for maintenance tips (that search may have even brought you here!), and you’ve likely found hundreds of articles. Some may be fantastic and filled to the brim with useful information, but many more offer advice that is impractical, or requires tools the average musician doesn’t have. And some things, like fretwork, nut replacement, undersaddle pickup installation, and finish repairs, are really just best left to the professionals.

That being said, there are many things that you can do yourself, as long as you know your own limits, and have the proper tools.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few basic repairs that a serious guitar player can do on their own, as well as the tools needed.

Keep in mind that each of these repairs will be easier with a special guitar work mat with a neck rest, but a rolled up towel to support the neck will usually do in a pinch.

Rewiring a Guitar Jack

Installing pickups and wiring mods can be tricky, but learning to do common pot and jack repairs might be even more important, because they can save you time, money, and a lot of frustration – especially if you need it done right before, or even during a gig.

Buying and using a soldering iron can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re doing, but you can usually get quality tools that will last for years to come for less than $80.

A few tips for tools:

  • Take a picture of everything before you do anything!
  • Stick with a soldering iron, rather than a soldering gun, for your guitar’s electronics; a soldering gun will demagnetize your pickups.
  • You’ll need a chisel tip for the iron for using high-heat settings, and a point tip for more delicate work.
  • A good wire stripper and pair of tweezers will also make your life easier.
  • Only use standard 60/40 rosin core solder, which is 60% tin and 40% lead.

Set Intonation & Action

Setting the string action and intonation is an easy thing you can master at home. In fact, you likely already have the most important tool you’ll need for this: an accurate tuner. Pretty much any old electronic tuner will do the trick; you’ll only want a strobe-style tuner if you’re an absolute perfectionist.

There are a few other tools necessary for this job, namely screwdrivers and hex keys, but they’re inexpensive, and you probably already have them in your toolbox anyway. That being said, here’s a couple of thoughts and tips to keep the job as simple as possible:

  • Use the largest bit that will fit the screw. This will help stop the screwdriver or hex key from slipping out while you’re working, which can strip the screwhead, making your job much more difficult, or even worse, could cause you to slip and scratch your finish.
  • Get a set of extra long and extra short screwdrivers. Setting the intonation and adjusting the spring claw on many guitars requires a long screwdriver – six inches or more! The added length gives you the torque you need to set the claw, and allows you to stay away from the guitar body when setting bridge intonation.
  • You’ll need the short screwdrivers for taking off the pickguard or adjusting the pickup height. They allow for better control and keep you from slipping and scratching your paint.
  • Hex keys, or Allen wrenches, in both the standard and metric variety, are needed for all sorts of things, like adjusting the bridge saddles, truss rods, knobs, and a whole lot more.

Intonating an Electric Guitar

Setting the intonation on your electric guitar is simple. Hold your guitar as if playing it, and test the note at the 12th fret. If it’s flat, move the string saddle forward until it’s in tune. If it’s sharp, do the opposite.

It’s always best to do this with newer strings that have been stretched, but not abused yet.

Setting the Action on a Electric Guitar

This is a little trickier than setting the intonation, because there are dozens of variations, but you can do it with the right tools:

  • A string action gauge
  • A radius gauge

You could do it with a good ruler, but these tools make it much more simple.

The string action gauge is used to measure the distance between the top of the fret and the bottom of the strings, and gives you an accurate measurement to work with.

Always check with your guitar’s manufacturer, and make adjustments based on your preferences for things like string gauge and technique, but for most electric guitars, the “standard” action at the 12th fret is:

  • 2 mm (0.078 inches) on the low E
  • 1.6 mm (0.063 inches) on the high E

Once you’ve got this set, set the rest with the radius gauge. The radius is the curve of the fretboard:

  • Older and vintage-style instruments have a smaller radii, which means their fretboard curve is more noticeable. For example, older Stratocasters have a 7.5 inch radius.
  • Others have a flatter fretboard, with a radius of 12 inches or more.

These are only a few of the minor repairs or seasonal maintenance things you can learn to do on your own with your guitar. There are still many more things that you don’t necessarily need a professional for, like evaluating your neck relief, and making truss rod adjustments.

Of course, if you are unsure or don’t have the confidence in yourself to make the repairs on your own, or if they’re just too much for an amateur to handle, taking your guitar in to see a professional is nothing to be ashamed of! Not only is at an expensive piece of equipment, regardless of whether it’s acoustic or electric, but it also probably carries at least a little sentimental value!

No matter if you want to do the repairs yourself, or defer to someone with more experience, make sure you take care of your guitar.