Your Guide to a Clean, Mean, (Shredding) Machine
Maybe you have just bought your first guitar (or your fifth), maybe you feel your current guitars need a bit of a spruce up, but either way, guitar maintenance is vital to prolong the life, quality, and look of your prized guitars. Guitars are a fickle mistress, susceptible to the elements and often prone to damage, but with a little TLC on a regular basis, they’ll stay happy and healthy.
This is a basic guide to cleaning your guitar, both superficially for a quick spruce-up, or deep cleaning for a more thorough finish. It is not the type of guitar that you need to focus on when cleaning, but the finish of your guitar. Different guitars and their parts come in different finishes, and each type requires its own special care. Always ensure you check the labels of any products you use to ensure they are suitable for the finish of your guitar.
Cleaning your Guitar
Cleaning your guitar is the simplest yet most effective way of maintaining the health of your guitar. Sweat, dead skin, and the skin’s natural oils can all impact on your guitar’s appearance and quality of play. Not only will a dirty guitar be covered in unsightly marks and fingerprints, but there is a risk of corrosion of the frets and abrasion of the fingerboard when exposed to too much sweat and skin oils. Whilst not as harmful as sweat and oil, dust can still have a major impact on your guitar’s playability, building up in the crevices of the guitar. If you have an electric, then dust is one of the major causes of crackling when moving the guitar’s pickup selector or volume pot.
Good habits every time you play
We recommend always washing your hands before picking up your guitar and keeping a dry, clean cloth to hand to get into the habit of wiping your guitar down from stock to bridge after every use. Microfibre cloths work best, due to their super-soft material and high absorption. Check out Fender’s dual sided microfibre cloth, available from Amazon.
Warning: chemicals in household polish can severely damage your guitar, whatever its type. We recommend using a dry cloth, or sourcing a polish or cleaner designed for guitars. Check out our relevant recommendations in each section below.
A deeper clean
Deep cleaning your guitar every once in a while both improves its aesthetic and ensures a long and healthy life of quality play. You don’t necessarily have to remove your guitar strings beforehand but doing so does make the job easier and makes for a deeper, more thorough clean. We tend to recommend a deep clean with changing a guitar’s strings for a truly “like new” feel.
To start, wash your hands and prepare an area to clean your guitar. Cleaning in a well-lit space is preferable in order to see all the blemishes, but whether you set up on a table or workbench, or simply rest it across your lap, is up to you.
Cleaning the strings – if you’re not using this time to change your guitar strings, there are ways of maintaining the hygiene of your current ones. Regularly wiping down with a dry cloth will remove dust and skin cells, but you may need an industry specific product if your strings are particularly grime heavy. We recommend products such as Jim Dunlop Ultraglide 65 or GHS Fast Fret for cleaning your strings of any grime and extending their life, sound quality, and ease of play. Pinching the strings between your cloth-covered thumb and forefinger and running up and down their length will ensure all debris and particles are lifted away.
Cleaning the fretboard – this is the part of the guitar that sees the most wear and tear, and excessive build up of sweat, oil, and dust can cause permanent damage to the wood. Evaporated sweat and oil dehydrates the wood, causing cracks to appear or leaving permanent and unsightly marks. The type of guitar fretboard finish makes a big difference to how you clean and maintain it, so be sure to check.
Warning: always make sure to check that any specialist products you use are suitable for the specific finish on your guitar fretboard. Always check the product details. More than likely, your guitar fretboard is created out of beautiful, unfinished rosewood, ebony, or maple. Cleaning these woods are simple and have immediate results. You must remove your strings for the cleaning steps below.
If your fretboard has a finish or lacquer to it, do not use steel wool or lemon oil. Source a specialist product or stick with a soft, slightly damp cloth.
Maple fretboards show the most marks due to the lighter wood tone, but unfortunately conditioners or oils cannot be used on maple. One of the best methods for cleaning a maple fretboard is the steel wool method below, or a slightly damp cloth can be used (especially on satin-finished maple).
Fretboard conditioner – using a specialist fretboard conditioner isn’t necessary, but it really does make a difference. We like Hydrate by Planet Waves and Jim Dunlop Lemon Oil that not only aids cleaning, but hydrates the natural wood to prevent it from cracking. If you don’t want to use a fretboard conditioner (or you have a finished or maple fretboard), then a damp cloth and some elbow grease will also do the trick.
Steel wool – yep, this sounds harsh but as long as you get 0000 super-fine steel wool and your fretboard isn’t lacquered, then your fretboard won’t incur any damage. Any other grade will definitely scratch and ruin your fretboard, so make sure its 0000 super fine. Before you use steel wool, make sure that you cover your guitar’s pickups with masking tape to prevent the small metal particles from sticking to their magnets. Gently polishing the fretboard with the super fine steel wool in light, circular motions will lift even the most stubborn grease and grime. If you don’t like the idea of using steel wool on your guitar, then a soft-bristled toothbrush will also work.
A toothbrush or similar is ideal for cleaning the guitar bridge by removing the saddle and nuts and cleaning in all the crevices. It is common for dirt to accumulate where the bridge is adhered to the soundboard, so make sure you concentrate here. Cotton buds or Q-Tips are perfect for reaching inside the saddle slot as well as in the holes where the strings sit. Once you have gently scrubbed the fretboard and wiped the bridge clean, wipe away any debris with a soft, damp cloth.
Now you can move on to conditioning the fretboard – or buffing with a soft microfibre cloth if you don’t have conditioner or you have a finished or maple fretboard – which deeply cleanses and rehydrates the natural wood. Again, buffing the fretboard in small, circular motions yields the best results. Just to note, if you are using conditioner or lemon oil, be scant with the amount you use – a little really does go a long way and you don’t want to drown your guitar fretboard or cause warping problems. Once conditioned and buffed, the result should be a beautiful, deep coloured wood and satisfyingly shiny frets.
The final stage
The body of the guitar is the largest area and most susceptible to fingerprints, smudges, and any other marks your guitar may succumb to. Thankfully, the body is much easier to clean than the fretboard, however the finish on the guitar’s body (just like the fretboard) needs to be considered before using any products. All finishes benefit from cleaning with a super soft, microfibre cloth.
Gloss and poly-finished guitars – these finishes are easy to clean because they form a protective layer over the guitar body that prevents the wood from being porous or absorbent. A variety of industry specific guitar waxes and polishes (please don’t use household products, these will seriously damage your guitar) will buff your guitar up to a healthy sheen with minimal effort.
We recommend Jim Dunlop Formula 65 Guitar Polish as a good go-to polish for your gloss and poly-finished guitars. To reduce wasting the product, spray it directly onto a cloth, rather than the body of your guitar. Again, microfibre cloths are perfect for buffing away fingerprints and marks and leaving your guitar with that new-feel sheen.
Matte and Satin-finished guitars – a matte guitar should only ever be cleaned with a dry, super soft cloth. If you own a matte guitar you’ll notice shiny patches forming at the contact points, such as above the bridge or wear your picking hand rests) and using a polish or oil will only make this worse. Satin-finish guitars have a semi-gloss look but with a similar feel to their matte-finished cousins. As with a matte-finish, satin-finished guitars should only be cleaned with a dry cloth. If your guitar is in a need of a really good clean, then a slightly water dampened cloth can be used.
Nitrocellulose-finished guitars – though not as popular nowadays, Gibson and Fender do still use this old-school finish on many of their high-end and custom guitars. A nitro-finish is considered more breathable, as the wood is left slightly porous at the surface. The downside to this finish is that it really does wear over time, and due to its porous nature polishes, oils, or waxes cannot be used during the cleaning process. A slightly (and we mean slightly) water-dampened soft cloth is the best method for cleaning nitro-finish guitars.
Some notes on Acoustic Guitars
Cleaning your acoustic guitar is no different to cleaning your electric guitar. The majority of acoustic guitars feature rosewood or ebony boards, and you’re unlikely to find an acoustic guitar with a maple board. For the most part, ebony and rosewood acoustic guitars will benefit from lemon oil or guitar conditioner and a super soft cloth. The majority of acoustic guitars have a natural or satin-finish, however you may come across some with polyester or polyurethane finishes. For those with a natural or satin finish, apply the same general cleaning rules as you would to matte and satin-finished instruments – a dry, super soft cloth (or a tiny bit of water – if you have to) and some elbow grease.
Once finished, restring your guitar and prepare yourself for a beautiful aesthetic and a clean sound. Maintaining good habits and undertaking regular deep cleans will really benefit your guitar, prolonging its life and improving its quality of sound.