Summer is upon us, and for many musicians this means outdoor gigs. Playing outdoors poses some unique hazards to acoustic instruments like guitars, mandolins, and banjos—hazards you caused by things you may not have even thought of or take for granted.
Here are three hazards that can damage your prized acoustic instrument during this summer’s outdoor gigs.
Bug Spray: Let’s face it, lots of outdoor gigs are played in the evening or later at night when the mosquitos are out en masse. Bug spray is almost a requirement if you don’t want to get eaten alive while you’re trying to play the gig, but if you have a guitar, banjo, or mandolin that has a nitrocellulose lacquer finish, bug spray can be just as much your enemy as it is your friend.
Unlike the modern catalyzed finishes like polyester or polyurethane, which are virtually impervious to solvents, nitrocellulose lacquer is solvent based. This means that nitrocellulose lacquer can react with things like alcohol (from a drink like a beer) or even the chemicals in bug spray. While spilling a beer on your lacquer finished instrument may leave a mark in the finish, there is a chemical in bug spray that will make lacquer finishes soft and sticky, and the finish never seems to harden again after contact with bug spray.
The areas primarily affected by bug spray are parts you tend to touch all time—the neck and the part of the body of the instrument where your picking arm tends to rest. The only way to repair a lacquer finish damaged by bug spray is to strip it off completely and refinish the affected area.
The best way to protect a lacquer finished instrument from bug spray is to wash the bug spray off your hands, and if possible, where a light long-sleeved shirt to keep the spray off the body of the instrument.
Your Car: People will often leave their instruments in the trunk or back seat of the car either while at work during the day or even at the gig if they want to enjoy the festivities before their set starts. Apart from the possibility of having your instrument stolen, the heat that builds up in a parked car is the biggest enemy an acoustic instrument faces, and it’s not great for electric guitars and basses either.
A car parked directly in the sun can reach temperatures as high as 170 degrees. This is hot enough to soften the glue holding your instrument together. While it’s not likely that your instrument will completely fall apart in such an environment, it can weaken glue joints enough for the pressure put on the instrument by the strings to pull the bridge loose, open body seams, cause braces to come loose, or even warp the neck if the glue joint between the neck and fingerboard softens enough for that glue joint to shift a little.
If you have to go to your day job before an evening gig, don’t leave your instrument in the car. Try to bring it inside with you. If you have no other choice than to leave your instrument in the car, try to park in the shade, and avoid putting your instrument in the back seat. The trunk will be safer. It’s not only more secure, it doesn’t tend to get quite as hot as the back seat of the car because there aren’t any windows to create a greenhouse effect.
Direct Sunlight: The summer sun beating directly on your instrument can heat it up causing glue joints to fail the same way leaving it your car can. If you have to leave your instrument on stage between sets, try to keep it in a shaded area. Standing in the sun while playing the gig is not as worrisome. Sure, you’ll probably be roasting if there isn’t any kind of overhang or shade on the stage, but your body should provide at least some shade for your instrument.
Watch out for these hazards this summer, and you can enjoy your summer gigs with less worry and prevent some potentially expensive repairs to your prized instrument.
Guitars that see a lot of gigs will likely suffer battle scars in the form of nicks and dings to the finish. In this video, luthier Robert O-Brien shows how to do simple finish repairs with CA glue.