Ten Tips to Keep Your Axe Sharp

There’s an old parable of a woodsman chopping down trees in the forest. He labors for hours, chopping furiously, with little progress. As he toils, a passing traveler observes his situation.

“I couldn’t help but notice how hard you’re working, with so little to show for it,” the traveler says. “I can see your axe is very dull. Wouldn’t you be more effective if you stopped for a moment and sharpened it?”

“I have no time to sharpen my axe,” the woodsman responded. “I’m far too busy chopping down trees!”

All too often us guitar players let ourselves fall into the same trap. We become so preoccupied with the process of making music that we forget to maintain our tools, and before we know it our playing is hindered. The ironic thing is that, like the woodsman, the steps required to keep our axes sharp are generally simple, cheap, and can make a huge difference in the quality of our performance.

So, in the spirit of keeping ourselves unhindered to make more and better music, here are ten free or cheap tips for keeping your axe sharp.

10. Keep Your Winds Tidy

Strings that are wound around tuning posts in a messy or haphazard fashion can lead to tuning problems. Learn to wrap your strings with clean, concentric wraps. Always orient your windings from the inside of the post outward, and begin the windings so that the string makes first contact with the tuner at the lowest possible point. This will give it the most down-pressure as it passes over the nut. And for the love of everything tone-worthy, clip your string ends when you’re done! Not only are long, sharp, wildly flailing string-ends going to poke someone’s eye out, but they will generate weird rattles and overtones.

9. Don’t be Gross

A gunky fretboard produces extra friction. Not the rough, sandpapery kind, but the slow, gooey, sticky kind. This reduces your speed and makes bending and vibratos more difficult. It’s also gross. Get in the habit of wiping down and cleaning your fretboard every time you change strings. Keep the guitar or bass’s body clean too. Sweat and grime, especially in the forearm area, can get sticky and inhibit movement.

8. Intonate

A guitar that is not properly intonated is out of tune with itself. This becomes more obvious the further up the neck you play. If your open chords are in tune, but chords above the 12th fret sound out of tune, your intonation probably needs to be adjusted. Doing it yourself might seem intimidating, but’s it’s really pretty simple, and getting it wrong won’t permanently harm your instrument. Using an electronic tuner, compare the pitch of a harmonic played at the 12th fret to the same note fretted. If the fretted note is higher, the saddle on that string needs to be adjusted further from the 12th If the fretted note is lower, it needs to be adjust closer. After each adjustment check the notes again, and make further adjustments as necessary. Repeat this until the harmonic and fretted note are as close to the same pitch as possible. Do this for each string, and when you’re finished your guitar should sound more in tune across the entire fretboard.

7. Tighten Stuff

Stuff that isn’t tight rattles, and rattles suck. Common culprits include the nuts that secure electronics and hardware. To track down mystery rattles, start by checking the nuts and washers that hold your volume and tone pots, tuners, and output jacks in place. Ignore rattles long enough and components can become loose. Knobs and switches can begin to spin, which will twist and damage internal wiring. Eventually things can even fall out. Check that stuff each time you change strings. A word of caution when it comes to tightening stuff: don’t over-tighten stuff either. Over-tightening stuff can damage it or shorten its lifespan. Common candidates for over-tightening include Floyd Rose nuts and saddles, and locking tuner mechanisms.

6. Dampen Stuff

Still experiencing strange vibrations, even after you’ve tightened stuff? You might also need to dampen stuff. Ideally, strings should only vibrate between the nut and saddles. Vibrations in areas beyond those points create funky pings, rings, and overtones. If your strings are ringing behind the nut, or between the bridge and the tailpiece, dampen them with a piece of foam or felt. Or, if you’re feeling particularly stylish, a scrunchie. Another common culprit for strange vibrations is the tremolo springs, which tend to vibrate sympathetically when certain notes are played on the strings. A piece of foam wedged under them will shut them right up.

5. Set the Pickup Height Right

Pickups that are set too far below the strings can sound anemic. Pickups set too close can sound harsh. Worse, they can magnetically hamper natural string vibration and sustain. To make sure your pickups are set correctly, start by measuring the distance between the bottom of your strings and the top of the pickup’s pole pieces. Check that against the guidelines recommended by the pickup manufacturer. The optimum height for pickups varies based on the type of pickup, the player’s preference, and other factors, but the manufacturer’s recommendations are the best place to start.

4. Set the String Height Right

The height of the strings above the fretboard is known as the “action”. Some players prefer a low action, while others prefer it higher. There pros and cons to both. As the action is adjusted lower, fretting notes quickly becomes easier. However, bending and vibrato can become more difficult. If the action is set too low, strings will no longer have the clearance they need to ring cleanly, and will begin to buzz. Conversely, as the action is adjusted higher, strings will ring clearly, with no buzz. Bending a vibrato become easier. Too high, however, and fretting becomes slow and awkward. Don’t assume that because the action was set to your liking once, it will always remain so. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity, fret wear, and a host of other factors can cause an instrument’s action to change over time.

To get it back to good, the first and easiest thing to adjust is the saddle height. The procedure for adjusting the height of saddles varies a great deal, depending on what kind of bridge you have. On many bridges, the height of each saddle can be adjusted individually, usually with a small Allen wrench. On others, the Tune-o-Matic-style bridge for example, string height is adjust as a whole. Also, if your bridge allows it, be sure your individual string heights are set to match the curvature of the fretboard’s radius.

3. Lube It

When a guitar isn’t properly lubricated, moving parts like tremolos, springs, and strings can generate strange pinging or creaking noises as they struggle through their range of motion. That friction can also cause the guitar to go out of tune. To prevent all this, keep everything moving freely by applying graphite or some other lubricant in the nut slots, saddles, and tremolo posts every time you change your strings. Click here for more detailed tips on keep your guitar parts lubricated.

2. Shield It

If your guitar spends more time humming than a suitcase full of bees, it could be because it is not properly shielded. The electronics and wiring in your guitar are susceptible to radio frequency interference (RFI) from things like fluorescent light bulbs, dimmer switches, neon lights, and cell phones. You can protect them by using copper foil to create a grounded “cage” around those components that will defend them against RFI. Start by lining the control, pickup, and output jack cavities with the foil. Make sure it is connected to ground. Next, line the underside of the pickguard or control cavity cover. Make sure this foil contacts the foil in the cavity when the cover is placed in position. This will connect it to ground as well, and complete the cage. You can use conductive shielding paint instead of copper foil, if you prefer. It is easier to apply, but in my experience less effective. If you decide to use paint, make sure to apply multiple coats.

1. Clean the Pots

Do the once-silent pots and switches in your axe now snap, crackle, and pop like a bowl of Rice Crispies in a deep-fryer? This happens because over time these components can collect dirt, sweat, and gunk, and become oxidized. Often, all that is needed to manage this mischief is a spritz of contact cleaner. Contact cleaner is easy to find at most hardware or electronics stores. It comes in an aerosol can, along with a thin straw or tube for spraying it into small or hard-to-reach areas. Use the straw to get a small amount into the offending pots or switches, and then run them through their range of motion a few times. You should notice them immediately begin to move more freely, with less noise.

Testify, Paul Bunyan

Chopped down plenty of trees in your time? Tell us how you keep your axe sharp!

10 thoughts on “Ten Tips to Keep Your Axe Sharp

  1. Another unwanted rattle can come from loose truss rod. Had this on Fender® acoustic. I teach tree felling by axe and judge axe (felling) races at County shows. Most of my ‘Electric Lady’ guitars are made from trees I fell here in UK. Bridges supplied by Warmoth, of course!

  2. Wonderful article! And good job with #11 – Conditioning your fretboard. Here is #12 – Keep your truss rod adjusted properly. Learning to adjust your truss rod is not as scary as I used to think. When you live in a desert climate like I do, the thin profile bass guitar neck should be checked twice per year. When the weather is dry, the wood shrinks a tiny bit, making your neck “bow” just a little. So, you turn your allen wrench clockwise to straighten out the neck. Use only a small movement of the wrench, inspect, repeat. When the weather changes to moist, the wood “relaxes” and you need to inspect your neck relief to be sure it is not becoming “over straight”. A bend in your neck toward the strings is worse than a slight bend away from the strings. If your neck is “arcing” toward the strings, you need to turn the truss rod counter-clockwise to provide a little relief. Use only a small movement of the wrench, inspect, repeat.

  3. Good one Aaron!

    I also recommend changing strings every 6 – 8 weeks too. Even if you wipe down and use string polish, over time strings will stretch and dent (especially if played on stainless steel frets!) and start to sound dull. Changing to a fresh set every 6 to 8 weeks is a great way to keep the tone right where it should be.

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