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Guitars and Dust

You've heard it, you've read it, but is it true: does dust really harm your guitar? No doubt about it. But maybe you wonder what kind of damage dust can do. And more importantly you may ask what you can do to protect your instrument.

Dust causes damage to different parts of your guitar in a number of ways. The problems may not be obvious at first. Although you can easily see some areas where dust collects, much of the damage occurs in the hard-to-see areas and at a microscopic level. Like the long-term damage cigarette smoking can have on your lungs, the damage happens slowly and cumulatively over time.

Dust Damage

Dust on outside surfaces can dull and damage the finish. Both high gloss and satin finishes are susceptible. Dust mixes with sweat, skin oils, dead skin cells, and other foreign substances on the surface of your guitar and forms a sticky, abrasive film. Not only is this film unattractive, but over time the finish can become dull and cloudy and the wood itself can be damaged.

The inside of your guitar is not immune. When dust accumulates inside the guitar body of acoustic guitars, it attracts and traps moisture. Eventually this will affect the sound by deadening the natural resonance of the wood. If your instrument is fitted with an internal pickup, dust can collect in and around the pickup, result in crackling, poor tone, or weak signal when you plug in.

The pickups on the outside of an electric guitar are even more vulnerable. The magnetic fields attract dust, the dust traps moisture, and moisture leads to corrosion. Dust or rust is bad news for electrical connections. You may experience popping or crackling noises, a weak or inconsistent signal, or the signal may even cut out completely. Having the pickups or the potentiometers on your volume and tone controls cleaned could land you with a costly repair bill.

Strings are also targets for dust. You may not be able to see the dust that has accumulated on your strings, but each time you play, you mix the dust with finger oils and grind this gunk into the windings. The result is a dead tone and reduced string life, and the more time you spend changing strings, the less time you have to play music.

Protecting Your Guitar

Inside and out, dust poses a threat to guitars. Protecting your instrument is easy, and keeping it free of dust and grime is a good habit to get into. Be sure to wipe off the strings and soundboard after you play. A case provides the best protection for storage, but many players find putting the instrument in and taking it out of the case inconvenient, time-consuming, and cumbersome. A guitar in a case is out of sight, out of reach, and much less likely to be played. Many players prefer to keep their guitars on stands to keep them handy.

If you leave your guitar on a stand, make sure to wipe it down before you start to play, or your fingers will grind the accumulated dust and dirt into the instrument. Another way to keep your instrument clean is to use a cover. Guitar covers may seem like a new idea, but they have been around in various forms for quite some time. Lots of players cover their guitars at gigs, especially outdoor performances, where dust and moisture are present.

While some players are content to use an old towel or sweatshirt to protect their guitar, they are unattractive and don't cover the entire instrument. Several guitar covers are available commercially. Look for a cover that provides full coverage, is easy to put on and take off, and is made of fabric. Avoid vinyl, as the plasticizers soften and discolor nitrocellulose lacquer finishes.

So is dust really hazardous to your guitar? Not immediately, but if you want your instrument to look nice and be playable five, ten, or twenty years down the line, the time to start protecting it from dust is now.

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