Ask Charlie...

…and bring your guitar.

Hello Troubadourians! It’s summertime! That means you might asked to bring your guitar or other instrument to a party that isn’t in someone’s home. The beach is especially popular and a very dangerous place for your instrument. So is the trunk of your car. It is possible, under certain circumstances, for the interior of a car to get hot enough to damage your instrument. Acoustic guitars are especially vulnerable as they are under a considerable amount of tension—over 200 lbs. when tuned to pitch—and the glue that holds everything together can soften and things can move: really important things like bridges, tops, and necks. The rule of thumb for caring for musical instruments in potentially hot environments is that if you would be uncomfortable, so would your instrument.

Did I mention the beach? Obviously, sand isn’t at all good for your instrument. Nor is close proximity to bonfires (the same thing about heat in a closed environment from above apply here too). A lot of players have a “beater” instrument, one that is cheaper and possibly sturdier, or at least expendable should an accident happen. In answer to the obvious question: isn’t sturdier better? The answer in the case of musical instruments is no. In order to produce music with the richest possible tone quality instruments will have an inherent fragility. This is reflected in the thickness and type of wood used and even the construction methods. Vintage instruments were constructed using hide glue and it is believed that this contributes to the special tone that vintage instruments have. Many modern builders have returned to using hide glue in the effort to capture some of that vintage mojo. If your instrument was constructed pre-war. it was almost certainly made using hide glue. If you have a newer instrument, especially a high-end production or boutique model, you already know if it was made using hide glue because you almost certainly paid more to have it built that way. Hide glue dries harder and crystalizes differently from other glues, and these properties are believed to be strong contributors to that vintage sound. Hide glue is an adhesive made from the connective tissues, bones, and hides of animals (mainly cattle) that have gone to the slaughterhouse. It’s extracted by “cooking” raw stocks to obtain glue liquors that are filtered, evaporated to glue solids, and then dried before grinding. It is inherently difficult to work with and doesn’t last long on the workbench before it goes bad. (Now that you know what hide glue is are you still glad you paid extra for it?). I mention that type of glue only to remind you that your instrument is actually a lot of little pieces of wood that are glued together and too much heat can severely damage your instrument up to and including the thing literally coming apart at the seams. Low-end, sturdier instruments are built with other types of glue that while still susceptible to softening from heat, require a much higher temperature for them to come undone.

The other vulnerable component of your instrument is its finish. Most production guitars have a polyester-based finish that is often UV (ultra violet) cured. These finishes are fairly durable. Most Taylor guitars have this type of finish as they pioneered the development and usage of UV-cured finishes on guitars. But just as with hide glue, there are those seeking the most vintage type of finish possible. Most vintage experts believe that nitrocellulose lacquer is the best finish for acoustic and electric guitars. It dries in such a manner that lets the wood underneath the finish “breathe” and contributes to a richer, more accurate tone. Solvent-based lacquers that contain nitrocellulose, a resin obtained from the nitration of cotton and other cellulosic materials, debuted in the 19th century along with nitrocellulose’s other commercial applications. They were used to finish musical instruments such as guitars for many years. Eventually faster-drying and more durable versions of these lacquers were developed in the early 1920s and displaced much of the slower-drying paints and lacquers. The newer lacquers were extensively used in the automotive industry and on electric guitar finishes for the next 30 years until further chemical advancements replaced them. Pre-war acoustic guitars and electric guitars from the ’50s and ’60s—the so called Golden Era of electric guitars—have “Nitro” finishes, as the vintage aficionados call it. This type of finish is very reactive to the things that it comes in contact with, especially when the temperature is elevated. Have you ever wondered why old guitars smell like cigarettes or whatever they have been around for extended periods of time? Well, now you know, it’s their nitrocellulose lacquer finish. The finish can also react to things that actually touch it. If it were left long enough in a hot car, the nitro finish on an instrument can react with the lining of its case and melt into the fabric. Also, some cheap straps can react with the finish and leave an ugly blistered stripe where it was in contact with the instrument.

Now, with that out of the way, there are instruments, particularly guitars, that are made from carbon fiber and other materials that are extremely durable and essentially immune to everything mentioned above. Short of tossing them into a bonfire, they can survive pretty much every environment and keep on playing. One company whose instruments I’ve played and can recommend is Blackbird Guitars. They produce instruments in several sizes and shapes from Dreadnaughts to OMs ,and they all sound good and play well. Given their carbon fiber construction, they are virtually indestructible and never warp, crack, or have finish problems. No, they don’t sound like a vintage guitar, but they do sound better than many of the wood guitars that are made by some very respected builders. Granted, they aren’t cheap, but considering the risk of taking your $4000+ baby to the beach, they’re well worth it. You can leave them in the car and not worry about them coming apart (they might not even be out of tune) or dissolving into their case—assuming you keep it in a case (recommended but optional). If someone spills their beer on it, no problem. Just clean it off and it won’t even smell like stale beer… unless it spilled inside and you didn’t wash it out. The only problem that is that Blackbird guitars aren’t available locally. You’ll have to drive to LA Guitar Sales at 9028 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069 or on the web: https://www.blackbirdguitar.com/

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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