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Gravity: Threat or Menace?

 

Funny. It also applies to guitars and it's not usually that funny.

A favorite T-shirt among 80’s geeks was “Gravity: it’s not just a good idea, it’s the Law.” Funny. But gravity can wreak havoc on a guitar that sits under the bed for too long. You know that bookshelf you had in your college dorm room that you built out of cinder blocks and plywood? Do you remember what it looked like after four (or five) years of college. Yep. It sagged in the middle. Wood is not a stable substance. It has all kinds of imperfections that make it a less than ideal foil for constant forces like gravity. I inspected close to 100 vintage 335s, 345s and 355s in the past year and what struck me more than anything else was the number of them that had neck issues. Most of them weren’t major but all of them needed attention. A little tweak to the truss rod is to be expected in any guitar that has sat unplayed for any length of time but sometimes its more than that. The typical resting place for a “forgotten” guitar is under a bed, lying on its back. If it’s strung to pitch it will have two sets of forces working on it. The strings will try to pull the ends of the neck upward, while gravity pulls everything downward. If the upward force of the strings “wins”, you end up with a bow and a usually easy fix. That’s what the truss rod is for. If the guitar is not tuned to pitch or if the strings are missing and it lies on its back for years on end-decades, even-then you’re looking at some potential trouble. Gravity pulls the neck downward except where it sits in the neck rest. Result? A back bow or a hump at the fret where the neck rested-usually around the 9th. If the truss was already tightened when the guitar was put away, you may be able to adjust some of it out. If the truss was loose, you have a problem that the truss won’t fix. All is not lost. There are other remedies. A well known luthier/repair guru told me “you don’t play the fingerboard, you play the frets.” A fret level may take care of the problem entirely. It very often does and is neither invasive nor expensive. A moderate back bow will require other measures. A fret job-what they call a “compression refret”  can remedy this. It’s kind of technical, so I’m not going to go into a detailed explanation. A good luthier will know if that alone will cure what ails your guitar. If he says it won’t, then the next remedy is often planing the fingerboard to compensate for gravity’s wrath. Nobody wants to start taking wood away from their precious Brazilian board nor do they want to thin out the markers or the neck binding but that’s the collateral damage. There are luthiers who are adept at steaming or heating a neck to remove a bow or twist but it can be dicey. Wood is pretty forgiving but its also fickle. If you reshape the neck by heating, there is no guarantee its going to stay reshaped. I had some neck work done on a favorite acoustic of mine and it took a full year before the repair was deemed stable enough. They kept heating and the neck kept moving back to it’s distorted posture. The larger point is that you need to inspect the neck carefully before you buy. Most sellers don’t really know what to look for so when  you ask them if the neck is straight, you get the exact same answer every time. Yes. No one is going to say “Oh, yeah, the neck has a rise at the ninth fret and a back bow all the way to the nut.” ES-335s are no worse than any other set neck guitar-in fact they are generally pretty good. The 60-62 “wide flat” necks are prone to bows and twists because there just isn’t much wood there-less wood equals less stability. Remember those shelves? If you had made them thicker they would have sagged less. All 335’s that sit in a case for a long time are prone to the rise where the neck sits on the neck rest and all of them are prone to the rise that occurs where the neck meets the body which I wrote about some months ago. Most are caused by gravity and time. A neck problem is rarely a deal breaker but it is a serious consideration when negotiating a price. Decide with your hands and your ears. Sighting down the neck might show you a hump or a dip but if the guitar plays well, chances are someone has already compensated for it, probably with a fret level. If it doesn’t play well, you can walk away or you can use your approval period (if you can get one) to take it to your local luthier for an expert opinion. Show the seller what you see and then start negotiating. UPDATE: The question as to how to counter the forces of gravity has been posed. The answer is you can’t but I would suggest that, if you don’t play your guitars often, to store them upright. I lean mine against a wall in a closet (in their cases). I would say that storing them flat on their backs under a bed is perhaps the worst choice. I leave mine tuned to pitch but then I don’t ever leave a guitar unplayed for more than a few weeks.

The guitar closet at my house. This is pretty much the whole collection. You can see a few 335s and 345s in their cases, the Taylor 12 string and my tweed Tremolux (with a custom 2-10" baffle)and "El Grande"-a 54 Supro Spectator.

 

5 Responses to “Gravity: Threat or Menace?”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, thanks for the article! Seems there has been a long term debate re the best approach for storing an instrument that doesn’t get played very frequently. I.E., loosen the strings or store it with the strings at full tension…I’ve always stored mine at full tension and never had any problem but my guitars don’t go for years without being played…Also the guitars are not stored resting on their backs; the cases are upright in a nice, climate controlled closet!

  2. Butch says:

    Upright is the way to go. I have an old Gretsch where the neck has shifted slightly to the right from being stored for years in the case, on it’s side (not by me,) handle up. I also keep the last latches up the neck open, proping the last clasp inside the latch holding the case open a tad allowing air to exchange within. This really helps keep the guitar from self destructing by the off gassing of plastics and finishes.

  3. RAB says:

    That latch trick is a good idea!

  4. moxie50 says:

    Great subject. Always wondered about storing a guitar out of the case on wall hooks commonly available. I’ve heard caveats about this if on an outside wall, especially if an acoustic, having to do with possible tempurature difference at the back (wall side) and the front (room side) of the instrument. After reading this and prior cautions, I wondered if I was being cruel to hang my “66 335 on an inside wall hook, I play it frequenly. At least I guess I will stop storing the case across arms of a chair (no better that floor) and start standing it up. Only use hooks now for a $10 acoustic and Samick bass. Any thoughts??

  5. OK Guitars says:

    I think for short term storage, it doesn’t matter. If you’re playing it frequently, the forces of gravity won’t wreck your guitar but if you take it out once or twice a year, then you might stand it up to be safe. I don’t think a guitar should ever be hung on a wall out of its case for any length of time. Gravity, in that situation will affect the neck join eventually and sunlight will fade the finish.

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