Guitar Strings and the Great Outdoors
Playing an outdoor gig can be fun. Most guitarists spend their time playing and practicing indoors. So, when the opportunity arises to get some outside fresh air and sunshine, many guitarists will jump on it. This is especially true for players with short summers like Minnesota and Michigan. If you have played at an outdoor concert, then you are probably familiar with the issues that can arise. Temperature, humidity, pesky bugs, and rain all play a factor. If the proper precautions are not taken, you can end up with an instrument that will not play as easily as it did indoors. Many articles have focused on protecting an instrument from rain, wind, and harsh sunshine. Others have focused on getting your tone tweaked for an outdoor setting. Yet few, if any have discussed the issues around playability. This article will focus on the playability of an instrument outdoors.
When you step outside to play your guitar, one of the first things that will happen is a molecular change. Every material known to man has something known as the Coefficient of Thermal Expansion (CTE). The CTE is the measure of how much a material will expand or contract under specific temperatures. In the case of a guitar neck made of wood, the neck will slightly change in profile as it is exposed to different temperatures. This will have a direct impact on the action of the neck. A guitar, with low action, that does not have buzzing frets indoors might have frets buzzing when it is exposed to outdoor conditions. The frets, strings, neck, bridge and nut will all have their respected CTEs changing with the climate. You will certainly be reaching for the tuner more often at your outdoor gigs. While we are on the subject of tuning, let’s now turn our attention towards the strings.
There is one particular part of playing outside that does not get much airplay. When the humidity goes up, your hands will become a little stickier on the neck and fret board. There will be considerably more drag on the strings. Shifting positions on the neck will become more challenging. The tone and sustain of the strings might start to change as gunk from your fingers starts to build up on your strings. So what do you do? Here are some solutions:
1. Light mineral oil - There are some products on the market today that are used to reduce string drag. The best ones are made from light organic mineral oil. This type of oil does very well for two reasons: 1. It lubricates the strings without excessive build up. 2. It does not penetrate deep into the skin to soften calluses. When applying, it is best to wipe it on versus spraying. Trying to spray into a targeted area like a guitar neck, outdoors, is difficult. Again wiping the oil on will give better results.
2. Lemon oil on the fret board - If you are not keeping your fret board preserved with lemon oil today…do it. A light application of oil on rosewood fret boards will keep the wood from drying and cracking. The real benefit here is also reducing finger drag when shifting positions.
3. Handwipes - Don’t you just love the smell of those little handy wipe moist towel lets that come in little packets? Be sure to keep a few of those in your guitar case. They are great for wiping off sticky hands while you are outside, or just simply cleaning hands after stage setup.
4. Coated strings - There are pros and cons to using coated strings. In addition to their corrosion protection, another advantage is their ability to reduce finger drag in high humidity situations. They have their place in outdoor gigs.
What should be avoided?
Avoid using lotions on your hands. This might sound tempting at first as lotions can make things more slippery and comfortable. In the end, your fingers tips will soften, and the strings will get excessive gunk build up. The lotion will do no justice to your fret board as it will build up with gunk.
Contrary to popular belief, dry cotton cloths to wipe of the strings will not improve the problem encountered outdoors. Excessive wiping of the neck and strings with cotton cloths will remove any natural oils left behind from your hands. This will increase friction and cause more string drag. If you have a lot of sweating, that makes the fret board slick, then lightly dab the cotton towel on your hands and the strings. If you rub and wipe, that will surely remove any natural oils from your skin, strings, and fret board.
Finally, playing outside can also involve those pesky insects that want to bite us right in the middle of a song. While insect repellent is a good choice for preventing this scenario, it should be used with caution. The active ingredient in these repellants is often DEET or Picaridin which is fairly passive in toxicity to skin and non-corrosive to metals. However, these chemicals can become gummy when mixed with dirty fretboards. The result can reduce string performance. Also, if you have an instrument with nitro-cellulose lacquer, these repellents can wreak havoc when they come in contact with the finish. Again, use caution and care when applying insect repellents at your outdoor venue.
Hopefully, these few pointers will make your next outdoor gig more comfortable and rewarding.
About The Author
Professor StringTM is a leading expert in the musical string business. He leads a development group that specializes in guitar and bass string research for musicians. You can visit their site at http://www.professorstring.com.