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Care and Feeding Of Your Archtop Guitar

Action / Strings / Finish Care / Lubrication / Storage / Amplification / Pickguards and Bindings / Restoration / Modifications / Packing and Shipping / Seasoning


“Among God’s creatures two, the dog and the guitar, have taken all the sizes and all the shapes, in order not to be separated from man” - Andres Segovia

Action: The bridges on our instruments are pre-adjusted to an average height for optimal tone, volume and freedom from fret buzz. (Typically this is .070-080" for acoustic instruments, or around 4 to 5/64" from the crown of the 12th fret to the bottom of the low and high "E" strings respectively. Semi-hollows and solid bodies may be up to .010 lower, aggressively strummed acoustics may need to be raised accordingy.) Once instrument is at pitch, you may wish to fine-tune string action to your individual taste. Raise or lower bridge wheels gradually, until you hear buzzing at your customary level of pick attack. Then gradually raise the bridge height until buzzing stops at normal playing volume. The higher the action, the harder the strings can be struck without buzzing. Keep in mind that strings at any height will buzz if they're hit hard enough. What you're looking for is the optimum compromise between your average playing attack and a string height that is comfortable for you. Expect to do some experimentation as you dial in your own best action. You may also adjust height periodically to compensate for changes in weather or playing demands.

To check your instrument for optimum action, consult our Setup page here.

Strings: For optimum tone, archtops respond best to medium to heavy gauge strings. Even the oldest archtop guitars are remarkably sturdy for the most part, having been built to accommodate high E strings of .014 or higher. We typically string acoustic archtops with round-wound phosphor bronze strings, gauged at .013-.056 from high to low "E". Strings of .011 or lighter are not recommended for acoustic archtops, as they don't produce sufficient load on the soundboard for optimum tone. Flat wound strings have a smooth feel, but produce a tone that is distinctly more muted, and are not recommended for acoustic instruments either. For electrics, we generally use round wound nickel strings of .013 or .012. If your action feels uncomfortable with medium gauge strings, have your setup examined by a professional. We find that our customers are often surprised to discover how easily heavier strings can feel on frets that are properly leveled, radiused, crowned and polished, and when the nut slots are precisely cut to proper depth and the bridge radiused to match the fingerboard exactly. (If you have no experienced repair person in your area, feel free to contact us for a pro setup, specifically tailored to the requirements of the archtop guitar. Call us at 206-325-3737 or email [email protected].)

When restringing, replace strings one at a time, to preserve precise bridge location, which determines intonation.To prolong string life, wipe strings with soft cotton cloth after use. String rust and scale may be removed with a small piece of 000 extra fine synthetic steel wool (3M Scotchbrite), available at most hardware stores. If your guitar has an Epiphone Frequensator tailpiece, make sure that the brand of string you purchase has a "D" string that is long enough to reach the tuning machine. (Approximately 42" for a vintage Emperor). It's not necessary to have the wound portion of the string threaded through the tuner shaft, as the string will tighten and tune just as securely on the unwound (plain wire) end portion of the string. Bronze strings will generally produce a brighter acoustic tone, while nickel-wound strings generally respond better to most magnetic pickups. Bronze strings may be amplified very successfully, however, with pickups that have adjustable pole pieces, or piezo pickups like the PUTW. See our Accessories page for more info.

Finish Care: Polish the finished surfaces of your guitar as needed with any good guitar polish, or a very fine non-silicone auto body polish like Meguiars #7 or #9. Polish rag should be soft and non-abrasive (flannel or chamois are ideal.) After polishing, remove any polish film with a separate clean soft cloth. Pickguard may be polished with Meguiar's #10 plastic polish. Never use any polish containing silicone, like Pledge; this will seep into the wood and make any future finish work very problematic. Unfinished surfaces like the fingerboard and bridge may be treated with a few drops of lemon oil when restringing. As vintage plating is usually quite thin, polish it gently with a clean soft cloth, metal polishes are to be avoided as they can pull cut through fragile plating very quickly.

Lubrication: Tuning machines and bridge wheels may be lubricated with a drop of Teflon lubricant (Tri-Flo or equivalent) or light machine oil (3-In-1 or similar) and adjusted by tightening or loosening screw at center of gear cog, if accessible. If tuner buttons are attached with a retaining screw, check and adjust the screw tension from time to time as well.

Storage: Protect the instrument from severe fluctuations in heat or cold. Never leave your guitar in a car trunk, especially in direct sunlight or cold weather. The instrument should be stored in its case away from exterior walls or windows, away from direct sunlight, heating sources, moisture or drafts. If bringing instrument indoors from cold temperatures, unlatch case and allow instrument to warm up slowly before removing. In very dry locations or seasons, an in-case humidifier (Dampit or equivalent) may help protect the body against cracking. Keep moisture away from the finish; humidifiers belong in the pocket of the case. Never leave the guitar with its case unlatched. Rest guitar in padded stand if playing is interrupted. If stand is not available, place upright in interior corner with strings facing wall. If guitar is to be displayed on wall, use interior wall only, to minimize damage due to temperature fluctuations.

Amplification: A number of excellent floating magnetic or piezoelectric pickups are available to amplify your instrument, while not dampening its acoustic tone. (To preserve the acoustic integrity of the carved top, never attach any pickup or knob which involves driving screws, cutting holes, or installing knobs or other hardware into the soundboard itself.) For info on pickup options, see our Accessories page.

Exclusive- Archtop pickup wiring and installation manual. Free with all pickup or wiring kit orders. Download sample here:

Exclusive- Archtop pickguard installation manual. Free with all pickguard orders. Download sample here:

Pickguards and Bindings: The unpredictability of vintage nitrocellulose plastic can cause deterioration of original pickguards and bindings. Symptoms of "nitro rot" include crystallization, flaking, shrinkage, warping, even weeping of moist droplets. It is utterly unpredictable which old guards may suffer: many guard from the '20 are in perfect shape, and we have found corrosive outgas from some guards less than 20 years old. (Susceptibility to rot is most likely due to the specific chemical composition of the original batch of plastic, and the long-term storage history of the instrument.) The outgas emitted from this process will cause serious damage to guitar finishes, metal platings, and case linings, and pickguards need not show any visible signs of deterioration to be producing these corrosive fumes. At the very first signs of plating or fret corrosion (often manifested as a green patina), the guard must be removed from the guitar immediately. Storing an instrument on a hanger or stand may reduce the concentration of nitro outgas, but even midly rotting guards can be so corrosive that even instruments stored outside the case can experience plating damage from simple proximity to a rotting guard. (If a rotting guard is to be stored, it must be secured in an airtight container and kept well outside the guitar case.)

No effective method for stabilizing or reversing nitro rot has ever been demonstrated. (Attempts to coat pickguards with glues or lacquers have no demonstrable impact on the underlying chemical decomposition.) Finish and plating replacement are very expensive and may be detrimental to resale value. A healthy new guard is your cheapest insurance by far. To assist in restoration, we are able to fabricate correct repro pickguards to vintage specs, and have original style materials and bindings in stock. See our Accessories page for more info.

Left: Guard rot on '30's Gibson L-10. Note extensive corrosion to frets and bracket. The buildup of nitro outgas in the case will damage all metal parts, including tuners and tailpiece, as well as the finish and case lining.
Right: Corrosive dripping from this rotted guard on an Epiphone Devon has melted the finish right down to the wood.

Restoration: Contemporary professional restoration and adjustment will allow virtually any well made instrument to play as well, or often better, than when it left the factory. We strongly believe that the guitars are first and foremost musical tools which should further the expression and creativity of the players who use them. Just as no vintage car owner would consider driving with bald tires, there's no reason for a vintage guitar owner to struggle with badly worn frets, agonizing string action, stripped tuning gears, or malfunctioning electronics simply because they may be the originals. Like a good fret job, a proper neck reset will add not only to the playability of a vintage instrument but its value as well. Similarly, it is the job of the binding and finish to protect the soundboard and the structural integrity of the instrument. Where it may be missing or damaged, we believe that responsible stewardship requires that it be carefully replaced, in a manner as close to the original as possible. Where the original clear lacquer overcoat may no longer be protecting the original wood stain, it is in the interest of the long-term welfare of the instrument to protect it as needed with a light clear overspray of authentic nitrocellulose lacquer. In examples where the wood itself may be at risk, or a newer finish has been poorly applied, a partial or complete refinish of the affected area(s) may be essential to ensure the structural integrity of the instrument itself. When such work is indicated, we will undertake it using only authentic materials and processes in a historically correct fashion. For more information on repairs or restoration on your instrument, please call us at 206-325-3737 or email [email protected].

We are fortunate to live in an era when technology and communications have advanced the state of the luthier's art dramatically in a very short time. High-precision techniques for finish restoration have helped debunk many of the old myths beclouding this subject. We have supervised any number of complete finish replacements over the years and can state from experience that such guitars are not only dramatically improved in appearance, but can also retain or even improve their overall tone and volume. Like many of our customers, we have discovered that in bucking old prejudices we can bring superb instruments back to vibrant new careers, and net a considerable savings in the process as well.

Modifications: As a general rule, the fewer modifications your instrument is subjected to, the better. However, certain minor enhancements, sensitively executed, can improve playability in major ways. Small additions we perform routinely include the installation of strap buttons and endpin jacks, which can greatly enhance playability with negligible impact on original condition. Likewise the professional installation of removable floating pickups, a common enhancement since the late 1930's, can greatly enhance the versatility of your guitar. Recent reissues of vintage style tuners mean that players may upgrade to smoother modern gear ratios while still preserving a vintage look, and without modifying mounting holes in the peghead. Obviously, when replacing any parts (except rotting pickguards), always make sure to keep the original parts safely tucked away for posterity in the accessory compartment of the case.

Examples of modifications we would strongly discourage would include anything that would alter the soundboard in any significant way. These would include the routing or drilling of any holes the top for the installation of permanently mounted pickups, knobs, switches or jacks of any kind. Likewise, the addition of a cutaway to a full-bodied instrument is extremely inadvisable. Irreversible, ill-considered operations of this sort will inevitably diminish the acoustic tone and volume of a carefully carved top, and will have a devastating impact on the resale value of the instrument. If you are tempted to alter a guitar in this way, please email or call us toll free at 877/850-1978. Chances are excellent we can find a player who'd love your instrument just he way it is, and will pay far more for it in unvandalized condition. And chances are equally good we can locate an instrument better suited to your needs, without the need for costly and counterproductive wood butchery.

Packing and Shipping: For a detailed, step-by-step pictorial guide to preparing your instrument for secure shipping, consult our Shipping page here.

Seasoning: Like trees, cars and us, guitars age. Even unplayed instruments will exhibit inevitable changes over time due to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, oxidation of plating, and chemical changes in plastic materials. If you are seeking an absolutely pristine instrument we respectfully suggest you look to the many fine modern builders who can deliver you a guitar in factory mint condition. If however, you prefer the sound of dry, aged wood, a well played-in soundboard, and the grace of vintage design and craftsmanship (often at a fraction of the cost), you'll appreciate that the important factor is not whether an instrument has experienced the inevitabilities of age, but how thoughtfully and competently it has been maintained.

As described above, plastic deterioration is just one of many natural processes your guitar will be subject to over its lifespan. Other consequences of maturity include fine spidery lines in the upper lacquer layers (known as finish checking, weather checking, or crazing), fogging or tarnish on metal plating, binding shrinkage, the opening of seams in the top and back, gradual changes in neck angle, and grainline cracks due to the natural drying of the soundboard over time. All of these processes are normal consequences of the aging process, and do not indicate abuse, or defects in manufacture or materials.

Small cracks along the grainlines of older tonewoods are quite common, and typically occur as a natural result of the aging process (unlike cracks that cross the grain, which are often the result of trauma.) As with finish checking, most string instruments will develop the odd hairline crack over time, especially in areas where temperature and humidity fluctuate over the year. Fortunately, the resealing of grainline cracks is a routine, straightforward procedure. Properly resealed, grainline cracks will usually be stronger than the wood surrounding them. We have never found any evidence to demonstrate there is any appreciable difference in tone or volume as a result of properly resealed grainline cracks.

Finally: When playing, keep the finish of the instrument shielded from belt buckles, jewelry, buttons, zippers or fasteners. The laminated hardwood necks of quality archtop guitars are extraordinarily stable over time. However, like all woodwork, instrument necks may respond with movement to fluctuations in climate and tension. This is normal, and all guitars will require routine adjustment to maintain action at absolute optimum. Fret leveling and neck adjustments of any kind should be performed only be an experienced technician.

Remember that your guitar is a work not only of audible craft, but visual art as well. Try to find a spot on an inner wall where you can attach a guitar hanger directly to a stud, or to the wallboard with a secure anchor bolt. (Those without small kids or large dogs may wish to use a guitar stand in a corner.) The more you see your instrument, the more it will invite you to play. The more you play it, the better it will sound. Now get practicing!

c.2010 -Joe Vinikow, archtop.com


Action / Strings / Finish Care / Lubrication / Storage / Amplification / Pickguards and Bindings / Restoration / Modifications / Packing and Shipping / Seasoning

Instruments /Accessories / Ordering / Tips / Friends / Selling Your Guitar / Previously Sold