We all want to take the best care of our guitars, and most of us do the best that we can. But there’s one persistent problem that seems to come up more than all the rest. Humidity. This is one of the most common issues that guitar players face when keeping their instruments in great shape. Let’s take away some of the mystery surrounding this woodland epidemic.
We all understand humidity to some extent whether we know it or not. Maybe you’ve taken a Florida vacation during hot summer days where the air felt sticky and moist. Conversely, I’ve lived through enough New York winters now to understand the havoc that dry air can wreak on a person. When we talk about this dryness and wetness, what we are talking about is humidity. As individuals, we’ve learned to deal with it and take precautions against it. With that in mind, we have to learn what precautions we need to take for our instruments as well.
On the most basic level, humidity is how much water you have in your instrument. We regulate this using a scale called Relative Humidity (RH). If you have a low RH, then your guitar will become dry, weak, and brittle. If you have a high RH, then your guitar will become bloated, dull, and even start to grow mold if not corrected quickly. What you want is a nice balance of humidity. Some manufacturers differ on exactly where it should be, but most fall right in the sweet spot of 4O-60% RH.
Why Should We Worry About Humidity? What are the Causes? Effects?
Having an imbalance of RH in your guitar can cause serious problems. Here in the Northeast, the most common issue I see is dryness. In Queens, there are a lot of pre-war apartments where the heat is controlled by the building. Often times tenants get too hot in the winter months so they throw open their windows to cool down the apartment. What those among them who play guitar often don’t realize is that the RH level plummets drastically when this happens. I’ve watched it with my own eyes using a hygrometer (more on this later). What this all translates to is a dry fragile guitar. The most common issues will be things like the bridge lifting away from the body as the string tension attacks the unstable dry wood, the neck may start to pull away from the body, the tops and sides of your acoustic could crack, necks could warp and become a problem to setup correctly, and more.
On the other hand, over hydrated guitars can be just as heinous. You may see the tops of your acoustics bubble out. The guitar will sound dull and bloated. And as mentioned before, you may even start to see mold. Not good.
Getting to 40-60% RH
Lucky for us, there are some great products to help cut out the guesswork. I’ve already mentioned one of them, the Hygrometer or Hygro-Thermometer. These read the RH level of the area that you put them in. The best versions that I’ve seen, such as the Humiditrak from Planet Waves, stay inside your case and will actually send notifications to your smart phone if the humidity is reaching dangerous levels. They also show you the temperature, and will even notify you if your case took any impact such as a drop or shock.
Taylor Guitars has great hygrometers as well. They have a digital readout on the face of the unit with a simple to understand percentage level. They come in a compact Mini version, and a Big Digit version. The mini version would work well in a hardshell case.
This is the environment that your acoustic may spend a lot of time in. With this, you could pop open the case and spot-check the humidity whenever you’d like. Now, the big digit version would be great to keep wherever your guitar collection is most concentrated. For those who want to be more discreet, the mini version will still work well in an open environment.
The Less Than 40% Solution
So you’ve got your hygrometer in place and found that you’ve been keeping your guitar in a dry environment (less than 40%). You’ve run your hand over the top of your instrument, and it feels like it’s sinking in. You’ve noticed that the bridge looks like it may be drying out and possibly starting to separate. Time to take action! You need a tool that pumps humidity back into your guitar.
We’ve heard of these devices, right? They’re called Humidifiers. One great option is from Oasis. This humidifier is filled with water, and then placed between the strings. The mesh tube allows vapor to get through while keeping the water trapped inside. As it runs out, you’ll see the tube shrink up, and that’s how you now it’s time to refill it.
On the other hand, if you’d like an option that doesn’t involve a healthy amount of water in your guitar, there are alternatives such as the humidifiers offered by Planet Waves. These are basically sponges that you soak, ring out, and then place inside of the provided casing. When the sponge is dry, then you simply repeat the process. I assure you, these products are not difficult to use; however, I would just suggest caution and to read all instructions before use.
The More Than 40% Solution
Once again, your hygrometer is in place, but now it’s reading high humidity. Your guitar sounds dull, and it’s starting to look bloated. Worst of all, you smell an odor from the sound hole, and you’re worried it might be starting to grow mold. Time to take action! The first step that you should take is finding a new place to store your guitar. Walk around with your hygrometer until you find a spot that reads 40-60% RH, and then leave your guitar there for a few days to acclimate and dry out. If you can’t find a good spot and you feel that storing your guitar in an excessively humid environment is your only option, then there are dehumidification packs that you can purchase for your guitar. I’ll introduce my favorite right now in the next section.
There is a great 2-Way Humidification System made by Planet Waves. This does a fantastic job at eliminating all of the guesswork. It’s a system that uses 3 humidity packs that you place in and around your guitar inside of its case. One goes up near the headstock. The other two hang in between the strings inside of the sound hole. If your guitar is taking on too much humidity, then the packs take in the excess moister. If your guitar is in too dry of an environment, then it pumps moister back out. When the packs are all used up, they become hard and crunchy to the touch. The life of the humidifier packs can vary. Though I’ve seen them last longer, I have found 3-6 months to be a safe estimate. After that, you don’t have to repurchase the entire system; instead, you simply buy the replacement packs.
This is a great system for maintaining your instrument. If your guitar is suffering from humidity issues and you need to get it back to 40-60%, then you’ll want to use one of the other products that I mentioned first, but after that, this 2-Way System will you help you tremendously.
Your guitar is an investment. It’s a motivator, and an inspiration to your creative endeavors. It deserves the best care possible. So, grab yourself a hygro-thermometer and see what’s best for your situation. You’ll be glad that you did. Especially when you’re still playing your guitar many years from now.