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 to help keep your guitars in optimal performance mode.
Help maintain 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.
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.
Good habits every time you play to help keep it clean
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.
Top tip: Before you Start think of the 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, especially when cleaning the body and fretboard (see below). Always ensure you check the labels of any products you use to ensure they are suitable for the finish of your guitar.
How to Clean Guitar Strings
Why clean your guitar strings?
- Grime can affect how the strings vibrate and change the tone
- Prolong the life of the strings (the oils from your fingers and bits of grime and dead skin can have a negative effect on your strings and so your guitars tone)
- Avoid changing them regularly by keeping the strings in good condition
How to clean the strings step by step:
- Position the guitar → the ideal position is on a flat stable surface. Make sure the guitar is secure enough to not fall off and wipe the surface down to remove any bits that may scratch your guitar finish. A cushion or block under the neck can help with both of these and take pressure off the head.
- Select rag/cloth & cleaning solution → you can use anything from a microfibre cloth, a paper towel or dish cloth but we prefer to use a special tool designed for string cleaning which are available at affordable prices and easy to use on the go. The key is to always make sure the cloth you use is clean, dry and soft. For solutions I would recommend using water for nylon strings. For steel strings recommend products such as Jim Dunlop Ultraglide 65, GHS Fast Fret or a similar product.
- Position cloth above and below strings (applying slight pressure) → Can either do all strings together or the strings individually. I think this depends on how much grime there is. For a regular clean I would do all the strings together but for a real deep clean I would do the strings individually, making sure to wrap the cloth all the way around each individual string.
- Slide up and down strings (from bridge to head)
NOTE: It is generally a good idea to retune the guitar after cleaning the strings as they may be pulled slightly out of tune during the process.
To lubricate your strings you can use the exact same method but use slightly different products.
How to Clean a Guitar 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 blemishes. The type of guitar fretboard finish makes a big difference to how you clean and maintain it, so be sure to check any products are suitable.
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 lacquer finish 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).
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.
Fretboard conditioner - using a specialist fretboard conditioner isn’t necessary when cleaning the fretboard, 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 it's 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.
How to Clean a Guitar Bridge
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.
How to Clean the Guitar Body - (Pay attention to your guitars finish)
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.
How to Polish Guitar Frets
The metallic hardware on your guitar can be prone to corrosion, and salts in sweat and skin oils can cause rust over time. The most susceptible pieces of hardware on your guitar are the bridge and frets (and the pickup if you’re an electric user) as these areas are handled a lot. The best method for cleaning the frets on your guitar is using a super soft microfibre cloth and some good old fashioned elbow grease. If you have it, a small amount of guitar polish can be used, but be sure to remove all excess product to prevent it building up and corroding the metal. Tricky to reach areas, such as between the strings and around the saddle) benefit from cleaning with a cotton bud or Q-Tip. For extremely affected or rusted hardware it is best to see a specialist, however removing the hardware parts from the guitar and using a small amount of WD-40 can address some rust and corrosion issues. Please be aware to remove the hardware before using WD-40, as this can seriously damage the finish on your guitar.
How to Clean Guitar Pickups
The pickups are what generate the sound of the guitar by ‘picking up’ the vibrations of the strings. To do this they need to have a clean magnetic top. If this gets dirty it can affect how well they work and so the tone of your guitar.
Fortunately cleaning your pickups isn't too hard and can help keep your guitar in great working condition.
Step by Step guide to Cleaning your Guitar Pickups
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.