Welcome to Flagstaff, AZ.
We have big skies, beautiful mountains, full seasonal changes, and a pretty harsh climate for string instruments! Our humidity can get down into single digits, and the wide fluctuations can severely irritate guitars and other things made of wood. Average humidity charts for our region are of no help in assessing the climate for guitar purposes because the primary concern is the wide variation from day to day, and our weather and thus humidity is highly variable. Please keep reading for tips to keep your instrument happy.
Without getting into a long discussion about the physics of "Relative Humidity" and how it's calculated, just know that the sweet spot for guitars and other string instruments is 40% - 50%. We constantly monitor the humidity of our shop with multiple hygrometers and room-humidifiers to maintain a proper environment for all the instruments we care for.
When a guitar dries out, all sorts of bad things happen. As wood dries it shrinks and the various parts in the guitar shrink in various directions, pulling on each other in different ways. This causes the entire instrument to fight against itself, making it tighten up and becomes less resonant. The neck angle will start to shift and the top will sink, causing the strings to get lower and start buzzing on the frets. Finally, the instrument will start to crack and become unplayable.
Here in Flagstaff, when the sky is clear and a breeze is blowing, the humidity can go into single digits. This is absurdly low, for humans and especially for delicate instruments made of wood. During certain parts of the year, the next day can bring monsoon rains and weather creating high humidity. These changes can be extremely rough on guitars. Keeping your instrument in a case will help insulate and stabilize it from these fluctuations. Or, you can get used to monitoring the outside weather and dedicate a room or area in your home to maintain stability with a room humidifier and humidity gauge. There are many different ways to humidify your instrument. Schedule a consultation to discuss the best option for you and your instrument. For more on humidity click here.
Let's dispel some of the most common myths & rumors...
- You should change strings one at a time to keep tension on the neck. Not true! Your guitar was built without strings, and most repairs require removal of all the strings, sometimes for an extended period of time. All strings need to be removed to oil and condition the fingerboard. Complete restringing and adjustments help keep your guitar from tightening up, tonally speaking.
- You don't need to worry about humidity issues because you have a really nice, well-made instrument. The opposite is usually the case. High-end, solid-wood acoustic guitars are always more sensitive to humidity changes. This argument sometimes works with electric guitars, but almost never with acoustics. Remember, stability is always the goal with any guitar to keep it playing properly.
- You can acclimate your guitar so it won't need humidification. This really depends on the guitar, and if you plan on trying this, expect to pay for some major setup work and crack repairs during the 5-10 years it will take for your instrument to "acclimate." Some old guitars seem to have stabilized to a degree, but they certainly had unstable lives at one point. Specifically speaking, however, no instrument can be truly acclimated to such a drastically variable climate. No matter the instrument, wood will warp and crack when exposed to extreme dryness and/or heat for a long enough period.
- Your guitar is beyond repair. Not true! Virtually every guitar is fixable, repairable, or re-buildable. We regularly fix mistakes and misdiagnoses from other shops and "repair techs" from all over the state of Arizona. Like many things in life, it often comes down to the cost and budget of the job at hand. We can do virtually anything imaginable with guitars, including build new necks and reconstruction. We can make your instrument sound better, guaranteed!
First, heat is much worse than cold. Not only does heat cause changes to happen more rapidly, it also effects the glue joints... and almost your entire guitar is held together by wood glue! Leaving a guitar in a hot car can easily cause braces to come loose and bridges to start pulling off, in addition to other detrimental problems. The back window or trunk of a car can reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer (even hotter in places like Phoenix.) Leaving your guitar in a freezing car over night probably won't do any damage (although it's highly unadvised.) But leaving it in a vehicle on a summer afternoon can cause hundreds of dollars of damage within an hour or two. Leaving your guitar case in the direct sunlight can have a similar effect. So can sitting around a hot camp fire and then moving quickly away and into the cold.