May 1939
volume LVII
number 5
page 346

The Care of Instruments

By George C. Krick

SOME YEARS AGO we were happy in the possession of a fine guitar that had just arrived from abroad. Its tone was superb, the workmanship beautiful. Four months later it was in the hands of an expert repairman, as the top had split in several places.

We had overlooked the fact that it had been made in a country where central heating plants in homes are still a luxury; and, while the wood used in its construction had been thoroughly seasoned, it was not prepared for a sudden climatic change.

Instruments of very light construction are easily affected by changes in atmospheric conditions and should be handled accordingly. To keep them for any length of time in a room with a temperature of seventy-five to eighty degrees is inviting disaster. During the winter season, whenever the instrument is not in use, it should be put in its case and placed in a room with a temperature between sixty-five and seventy degrees, with the case kept on or near the floor and not on top of the piano, and of course some distance away from a radiator. When traveling about in cold or stormy weather, it is advised to have the regular carrying case enclosed in a weatherproof covering to insure the safety of the instrument. While the guitars and mandolins with carved top and back are able to withstand greater wear and tear, on account of their heavier construction, it is well not to take too great chances with them, but to use the same caution as outlined above.

Be a Good Housekeeper

MOISTURE AND DUST left to gather on the instrument will eventually clog up the pores of the wood, regardless of the lacquer finish; and an occasional treatment with a little furniture polish is strongly recommended as this will help to preserve the wood, and in addition it will enhance the appearance of the instrument.

We have known players of the classic guitar who were of the mistaken opinion that the lowering the tension of the gut and silk strings before putting the instrument away for the night, would help to minimize their breaking; but long experience has taught us that keeping the strings at the same pitch will actually improve the tone of the guitar, as the wood of the sound board will gradually adjust itself to this string tension and on that account prove more responsive. The frequent lowering and tightening of strings make it difficult to keep them in perfect tune after returning them to pitch, and they will lose their brilliance of tone sooner than if kept at the same pitch.

Banjoists should keep a careful check on the "head" of their instruments, which at all times, should be kept stretched as tight as possible. After a spell of moist and humid or rainy weather, it is well to wait until the head is thoroughly dry before beginning to tighten it again. On the night of a concert engagement it is advisable to arrive at least a half hour before the performance, to give the instrument a chance to adjust itself to the temperature of the auditorium. A pick guard made of aluminum or tortoise shell, to protect the head against the pick, and also against the moisture of the right hand, is a good investment.

Selection and Care of Strings

NO MATTER HOW GOOD the instrument, unless the strings used are of a better grade, the guitar, mandolin or banjo will not give the player the satisfactory tone one might expect from it. We have met players who have spent seventy-five, a hundred or two hundred dollars for a guitar; but, when buying strings, they will try to save a few cents and then wonder why the tone is not brilliant and of as good quality.

Perhaps no string has given us as many headaches as the gut string for classic guitar. Until we finally find the right string, a great deal of experimenting is necessary, as some instruments sound better with thin strings and others require heavier ones depending on the thickness of the sounding board. In the beginning it is advisable to gauge the strings used and after carefully deciding which gives the best results, stick to that particular kind.

While violin strings can be used for first, second and third strings on the guitar, they frequently prove "false," especially in the higher positions; and so we prefer a gut string made expressly for the guitar. Some makers now offer these strings, guaranteed to be "true" in all positions.

As the fretted fingerboard of the guitar and the right hand action both contribute to the wear and tear, a string that is made of hard rather than soft gut and one that is of even texture without any yellow spots is preferable. Occasionally rubbing the entire length of the string from nut to bridge with a bit of oil will lengthen its life.

When putting on a gut string it has been customary to tie a knot at the end and to insert this in the slot of the bridge. If instead, a small loop is made and the knot tied into it and then inserted in the slot, breakage of strings at that point may be kept down to a minimum.

In selecting the wound silk bass strings the use of a gauge is again advisable, as a thick heavy string will produce a dull lifeless tone, while a string too thin for that particular instrument will lack sonority and carrying power.

The life of strings depends of course on the amount of usage; but when once they begin to lose their brilliance it is time to replace them. In the matter of replacing strings, the worst offenders are generally found amongst players of plectrum and Hawaiian guitars, the tenor banjo and the mandolin, instruments requiring metal strings. These strings do not break easily and players will argue, "Why buy new ones?" The main trouble with plain wire strings is that perspiration of the left hand fingers, together with moisture in the air cause them to rust, and, in addition, the wound wire bass strings do eventually gather dust, which after a time will deaden the tone. Wiping the strings regularly with a woolen cloth kept in the instrument case for that purpose, will help to delay this accumulation of rust.

On the plectrum guitar with carved top and back, also on the Hawaiian guitar, a heavy string gives the best results; the flat top guitar sounds best with strings of medium thickness. We are very much in favor of the polished strings used for some time on Hawaiian guitars and now available for all plectrum instruments. Their use facilitates plectrum technic and also helps to minimize the "squeak" often caused by some finger of the left hand gliding over one of the bass strings from a lower to a higher position.

During the past few years American string manufacturers have made great efforts to improve the quality of their product and we are thoroughly convinced that the best grades of American strings are superior to those from other countries.