This week I want to take a look at something Maury's has recieved a lot of questions about, the break-in process of an acoustic guitar.
What Makes a Guitar Break-In: Time and vibration
While there are two factors in a guitar breaking in, the one most talked about by players is vibration. A piece of wood contains countless cellulose fibers made up of hemicellulose and lignin which run in the same direction as the visible grain of the wood. When a guitar is played these fibers are forced to flex back and forth effectively breaking and becoming“looser”. This “loosening” allows the fibers to flex more easily meaning that they’ll require less energy to move and that they’ll move more when energy is applied than they would have before breaking down. In practice this helps a guitar to gain volume and to put out frequencies that wouldn’t have been possible when it was brand new.
But vibration isn’t the end of a story. As a guitar ages it’s going to lose some of it’s hemicellulose due to evaporation. Less hemicellulose means the wood flex more easily. It’s for this reason that luthiers will often tout the age of the wood that they’re using. So if you buy a guitar today, put it in a closet and don’t play it for a year, it’s still going to sound a bit more broken in than it did the day you put it away, regardless of the fact that you haven't played a note on it.
Cheating the system
Poke around on the internet and you can find a lot of claims about different methods of speeding up the break-in process. Some people opt for the homebrew method of placing your guitar in front of a large stereo speaker turned up loud. The idea behind this is that as the air from the speaker will cause the guitar to vibrate, letting it break-in without actually having to play it. There are also devices marketed which are essentially small vibrating electric motors meant to be mounted to the soundboard of the guitar to achieve the same result. Now as far as the efficacy of these methods, I really can’t offer an opinion. I can see them working in theory, but I haven’t used them personally.
Aging can also be done artificially. By a process known as torrefaction, manufacturers can cause the hemicellulose to evaporate much quicker than they would naturally, making a new piece of wood sound like an old one. This is done by baking the wood at carefully controlled temperatures for specific amounts of time. Martin’s own version of this is their VTS tops, originally Authentic Series exclusives that has been seen on more and more models each year.
Temper your expectations.
So now that we know what happens physically to a guitar when it’s broken in, let’s talk about what happens to the sound. It’s pretty much undisputed that a solid wood acoustic guitar will “open up” as it ages, but exactly what will change is completely dependent on the individual instrument. Variables such as different tonewoods, construction methods and body size will all affect how a guitar’s tone changes as it ages. The changes I tend to see most often are slight increases in volume, increased low end and midrange response and a longer sustain, both for the principal note and the harmonics. Most people would agree that these changes are almost exclusively for the better and I can’t think of one time where I’ve ever had a player tell me that their guitar, if properly maintained, sounded worse after break-in than before. The loosening of the wood generally helps to mature the sound of the instrument, leaving the player with a more subtle, nuanced sound than the instrument started with.
Some players talk about the “huge difference” in sound quality of a guitar has after a few months or a few years of play, but I think it’s important to take these opinions in context. The kind of people who take the time to write about guitars on the internet, myself included, are more than just players. We’re hobbyists. We pour over the minutia, read up on tonewoods, experiment with the tonal changes of strings and saddles and, basically, get really nerdy and hypercritical about the sound of our instruments. As a result this “huge difference” is probably subtleties being magnified by the kind of person who really cares about these subtleties.
The reason I stress this is because there is a danger in expecting too much from the break-in process and ending up with an instrument that doesn’t suit your needs. I’ve spoken in the past about how the D-28 “catches up” to the HD-28 in terms of low end and while I stand by this statement I feel like I should offer a little more detail. As a guitar breaks in it will very often gain more bass, but you shouldn’t expect miracles. The D-28 will indeed get a fuller, warmer tone after it’s played a bit but it’s still always going to sound like a D-28. This is really important to keep in mind when shopping for a new guitar. If you don’t love the sound on day one no amount of break-in is going to change that.
And that pretty much wraps it up. Be sure to tell us in the comments below your experiences with guitars breaking in have been. Have you noticed an appreciable difference from the day you bought your guitar? Have any personal tricks to speed up the process? Let us know!
Great "break-in" explanation for this lay person. My HD28, bought from Maury's new a couple of years ago, get's played daily. The tones keep getting better. Look forward to your emails. Thanks for taking the time to share.
Posted by Roger Sawyer on 04/21/2016 - 06:59 PM
Great explanation... I've found that the best way to break in a new guitar is by playing it every day.
Also important to experiment using different types of strings. (Not brands, but type)
Posted by Kelly on 05/02/2016 - 10:39 AM
Thank you for the explanation. What you said makes sense. New (and happy) customer, since a couple weeks ago. I like your comparison videos. They are a good length and I like that you don't process the signal - it provides a better comparison of the guitars.