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
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
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 and making 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.
Hopefully, these few pointers will make your next outdoor
gig more comfortable and rewarding.