A pencil is for writing, not lubricating a guitar!

Al Librero  |  January 15, 2013  |  Life / Music  |  0 Comments

I admit it. I’d been peeved. One of the problems with a fairly large and high-traffic forum such as PhilMusic is that anything you write can easily get lost in the ocean of posts and topics found within. Sure, some people do have the sense to at least attempt a forum search before posting stuff. But one thing I have noticed is that sooner or later, just when you think that a certain topic has been beaten like a dead horse, someone is going to come along and ask the same question again… and again… and again. It gets more annoying when you actually pour your heart out in these particular discussions out of your desire to help. You suddenly have this unshakeable feeling that all your efforts mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.

So, instead of wallow in the misery of my perceived insignificance, I will instead take on guitar-related issues here in my own blogsite instead of doing it everyday in forums like I used to. At least here, whatever I write won’t get buried by nonsense. Well, with my nonsense, sure. But not that of other people. And I am not even ashamed to say that’s what ultimately counts.

(This is going to be a long one. So, if you have a short attention span, the important parts are highlighted in green.)

Take the case of the nut and keeping a guitar in tune. At some point, guitar players figure out that one of the main reasons why their guitar goes out of tune after a big bend or a whammy bar dive is because sometimes, the strings doesn’t totally revert to its original position. One of the critical areas is the nut, where it is not uncommon for strings to bind, even if it is properly slotted, and made of good material. That, ladies and gentlemen, is due to friction coming into play. The Floyd Rose system includes a locking nut so it wouldn’t have to deal with nut friction (I know, writing that phrase feels awkward, lol).

In reality, it is not possible to totally eliminate friction, but it can be reduced. For the guitar, an obvious solution is replacement, especially if you have some cheap plastic or a poorly prepped bone nut. There are the roller nuts, like the LSR and the Wilkinson, where you’ve got metal bearings that help the strings roll over the slots more smoothly as they move. Problem is, they’re a bit expensive and aren’t drop-in replacements. Some wood has to be shaved off the neck to fit a roller nut assembly. I’m sure some people wouldn’t be keen on that.

An alternative would be to have a standard-size nut, but made of material that’s more slippery than the old one, such as graphite and slipstone. In theory you’d still have more friction compared to a roller nut, but much less compared to plastic or bone. Another popular option would be the Graphtech TUSQ XL, an artificial material embedded with some proprietary lubricant. Graphtech, will of course claim superiority over other material. I can’t really confirm or deny that, but I do have them on two guitars.

graphtechGraphtech nut and string retainers on Spirit 3.

Now, for those who do not want to replacing anything in their guitars, there is the option of applying any of the number of lubricants available on the market. There’s the popular but ridiculously priced Big Bends Nut Sauce. I’ve also heard of people using stuff they get from the hardware store like WD-40 and lithium-based lubricants. I have personally settled with a small tub of Guitar Grease I got from Stewart-MacDonald some years ago.

All those are well and good, to varying degrees. But what has gotten me peeved enough to prompt me to write this blog is peoples’ insistence in using pencil lead. It’s bad enough to be a cheap ignorant bastard. I used to be one. But a cheap ignorant bastard spreading bad advice. That is horrible, no matter how well-meaning the intention.

But pencil is made of graphite, right?

Jeezus, I used to think so. But I started thinking that back in the mid 1990’s. My parents couldn’t afford the Encyclopedia Americana or Britannica that I always wanted when I was a kid. I didn’t even have a pirated copy of Microsoft Encarta. Worst of all, I didn’t have anyone to teach me the do’s and don’ts of maintaining a guitar. Nowadays, nearly everything you need to know is a Google search away. It is one of our greatest gifts in the 21st century so far, so for the love of God, make use of it!

The Wikipedia entry for pencil is that first result you will get from a typical Google search. Let’s check that out (good thing this is just a blog — I’d never get away with this in the academe). Let us consider the definition of graphite pencil contained therein.

These are the most common types of pencils, and are encased in wood. They are made of a mixture of clay and graphite and their darkness varies from light grey to black. Their composition allows for the smoothest strokes.

Yes, the common pencil has graphite, but the truth of the matter is that the core of your Mongols is mostly made of clay, which I am sure you will agree is not a lubricant. Sure, maybe there are still pencils out there using pure solid graphite. According to the same Wikipedia entry, such things are not encased in wood. How many people are using pencils like that?

Your pencil lead shavings do work for a time. The graphite does kick in. But it doesn’t take long before the lubrication wears off. By then you will find it necessary to put in more shavings between the nut slots and the strings. The lubrication wears off, but the clay (or charcoal) accumulates, leaving you with a nut full of gunk which is very difficult to clean up. And as long as all that gunk is there, not only will you have tuning issues worse than before, you lose a lot of sustain, as well.

It was unfortunate that it took me a long time before I stopped being a cheap ignorant bastard. My luthier, Jun Castro, is a close friend, almost like a brother to me. That is why this is not a scene you would witness between him and most of his other clients. But he took me by surprised when he suddenly snapped at me when he saw pencil residue on the bone nut on one of my guitars which he cut himself.

When I was 17, I thought I was so clever using a #1 Mongol (left) on my guitar. Stupid, stupid kid.
Nowadays, I use something more proper (right), if at all.

Wag na wag kang gagamit ng lapis! Eto pakinggan mo… (Don’t ever use pencil! Listen to this.)

Jun then proceeded to demonstrate how my guitar couldn’t stay in tune even with light whammy use and how the higher strings sounded dead. He had to file down the nut slots just to get the residue off. It wasn’t an ideal move as overdoing it by even just a bit could lead to enlarged slots. Worst case scenario was that he’d have to replace the nut. Luckily, that would eventually be unnecessary, at least for that day. I felt so stupid. Needless to say, it was the last time a pencil ever got near any of my guitar nuts. I promptly switched to Graphtechs and never looked back.

These days, there is simply no reason for guitar players to not do any background research on whatever they’re buying or doing for their instruments. Just because someone recommended you something he or she has been doing for years doesn’t make it good advice. If you want to remain a cheap bastard, that’s still ok (sort of). The least you can do is stop spreading ignorance and do more research. You’ll find that some people use lip gloss or similar substances. The important thing is for you to find a product that does not build residue and does not harm the guitar, particularly the fretboard, the strings and the nut itself. Then I’d say you’re good to go.

While I may sound condescending at times here, it is also still my goal to help whoever are willing to listen. And I hope I achieve that here, and in succeeding blog entries. So until then, thank you for reading, and I hope you learned something!

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