A classic case of cracks due to low humidity.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong with an electric guitar. Sometimes it can be just through gradual natural wear and tear. And sometimes, it can even be through a fault – many times unknowingly – of the players themselves. Have you ever picked up your ax one random day and noticed it felt a little… off? The action a little too high? The frets buzzing a bit too sharp, even after you tuned it? Random cracks appearing for seemingly no reason? Well, if any of those things have happened to you, sounds like your guitar has been the victim of temperature and humidity.
Environment is Everything
Hands down, one of the easiest and best ways to prolong the life of your electric guitar is by storing it in a proper place. Conversely, one of the easiest ways to ruin the life of your guitar is by doing the opposite. I’m not talking about getting a case, a stand or a wall mount here (although it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get each of those things either, especially a case, lest your cousin accidently kicks it over and completely breaks the headstock off the neck, but I digress), I’m talking about humidity and temperature control.
In order to keep your guitar playing and sounding like the manufacturer intended, you’re going to have to keep your guitar within the range of 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity of about 50%. This is the same specific range that guitars are always made under. Making sure your guitar is in the right range temperature-wise is fairly simple as 60 to 80 degrees is pretty much the same as our own comfort zone – not too hot and not too cold. The humidity on the other hand is probably well out of the grasp of any of us without a hygrometer. So, how can you make sure your guitar is within good humidity? Buy a hygrometer, of course! These little devices are actually pretty inexpensive and are about as hard to come by as a thermometer. Simply go to any hardware store (a pet store even, although those might be pricier) and you’ll be sure to find plenty of electronic hygrometers at several sizes, although I do recommend getting a fairly small and portable one that you can through into your guitar case.
The reason why temperature and humidity are so important in maintaining a guitar has to do with wood and how they react to these types of variables. In an area with low humidity, the guitar’s wood will get to dry and will eventually crack. If the humidity is too high, the wood will absorb too much moisture, causing the guitar to swell up and buckle. As far as temperature goes, the cause of the most damage has more to do with a sudden shift in temperature rather than just the extreme heat or cold alone. For example, if you leave your guitar somewhere out in the cold for several hours and then suddenly bring it into a room temperature area, or have it out in the hot sun and suddenly bring it into an air conditioned place, you will seriously risk causing finish checking. This basically means the cracking of your guitar’s outer finish because it simply can’t expand and contract as fast as the wood beneath does. Not only that, a sudden shift in either temperature and humidity – along with the build quality and a change in string tension – can cause the even more serious problem of neck warping which basically means a twisted or bent neck that can ultimately render your axe unplayable and sometimes even unfixable (because it’s hard to correct and most likely not worth it in most cases). Essentially, a guitar exposed to too much humidity, and then exposed to dry period, will warp the neck because it will shrink and twist in a position where there is too much pull.
Another big problem caused particularly by excessive heat – such as that inside a trunk during a hot day which can easily exceed 150 degrees Fahrenheit – is the substantial loosening of glue joints. This will cause the loosening of the fretboard which in turn will cause the action of your guitar to become very high. Also, be aware that the problem simply won’t go away once the temperature returns back to normal. You should also know that most guitars aren’t covered for this type of damage. And speaking of excessive heat, leaving your guitar out in the sun – regardless of the temperature – is also something that isn’t advisable. Much like leaving a piece of clothing in direct sunlight for too long, leaving a guitar under the constant rays of the sun will ultimately bleach the finish permanently. It might not be as bad as neck warping but I’m sure no one out there wants an obviously sun damaged guitar.
One way to combat sudden changed in temperature and humidity – particularly when going from cold to room temperature – is by getting yourself a guitar case. By leaving the guitar inside its case until the case warms up to room temperature, you can avoid those nasty sudden shifts affecting your guitar. Another way is by NOT leaving your guitar in the trunk of your car or pretty much anywhere the elements may get outside of the proper temperature and humidity range. Anyways, it’s not at all that difficult, you just have to be proactive and aware about the importance of keeping your guitar within a proper range. Trust me, when more serious temperature related problems such as neck warping occur, you will kick yourself for not taking the time and make sure you have this under control.
If your storage area happens to be a little too dry, you can help raise the humidity to a proper level by getting yourself a guitar humidifier. This is basically a rubber-enclosed sponge that you saturate with water, squeeze the excess out of, and clip it onto the inside of your guitar’s sound hole or cutaways. If you happen to have a solid body guitar, simply keep it inside your case. If too much humidity is your particular problem, you can always buy yourself some desiccant powder. You might recognize this little product in its common packet form which is that little tiny bead bag you find in everything from new shoes to a new guitar case. These basically absorb any excess moisture in the air and should do the trick in protecting your guitar.