So the guitar was playing just fine before winter, but when you picked it up recently to strum out some favourites, it goes buzz buzz buzz. The strings are frapping out all over the place. Nothing but buzz and sadness. What happened? Did someone sit on it or what? Does it need a setup?
I can’t tell you how many of these guitars I see every winter, and it’s really astonishing! If your guitar sounds like the description above, it’s probably completely dried out due to the low humidity levels. Acoustic guitars especially need to remain in moderate humidity levels (45-54%), or they can lose too much moisture content and distort. For example, a hump can rise in the neck where the neck joins the body, often at the 14th fret. Another example is the guitar top can sink inwards. As the top sinks down, it pulls the strings down with it, which is one reason why the action drops so low. It can be drawn so far down that the strings are ON the fretboard. Sometimes you catch it early, and you just find a little string buzz at the 14th fret area. Catching these issues early can prevent long-term damage.
One of the most common signs of a dry guitar is one that develops sharp fret ends. When a guitar dries out, the fretboard shrinks slightly, and the metal frets will poke out along the edges of the fretboard. Protruding fret-ends can be corrected by re-humidification, fretboard conditioning, or fret filing.
Low humidity can cause wood shrinkage as it dries out, and eventually, this can lead to cracks. If you leave a guitar in a low humidity environment for an extended time, it can start to show symptoms such as:
- Low action/ string height
- String buzz
- Sharp fret ends
- Rippled (raised) wood grain and/or finish
- Cracks in the finish
- Cracks in the wood
- A hump in the fretboard where the neck meets the body (often at the 14th fret)
- Sunken guitar top (between the bridge and fingerboard)
- Failing glue joints
How To Revive a Dehydrated Acoustic Guitar
If you have any symptoms such as those noted above, the guitar needs to be humidified. It’s not a difficult or costly task, but it does require some ongoing effort. Get an in-case humidifier and place it in the guitar, and put the guitar in its case. Check it weekly and keep it damp. I use two on every guitar, and that seems to work relatively well in Alberta, Canada. I wrote an article a while back on the effects of humidity, as well as a blog post on dry winters for more info. Check them out!
If things get really bad, go down to the grocery store and buy some sponges and ziplock bags. Take a couple of bags, punch holes throughout them and place a moist sponge in each (make sure to squeeze out the excess water, so they’re not dripping). Put one or two in the soundhole, another at the neck joint or headstock, and close the case. Each week, get the sponges wet again. With severely dehydrated guitars, you’ll begin seeing an improvement anywhere on average from 2-4 weeks.