How To Clean A Guitar

How To Clean A Guitar

To the uninitiated, cleaning a guitar sounds like a straight forward job, but as anyone who owns a guitar knows it’s so much more than that. There are certain “safe” cleaners that many “experts” will tell you it’s OK to use to clean your guitar, but our advice is keep away from them all. Only use cleaners and polishes specifically made for guitars, and only then with caution.

How To Clean An Acoustic Guitar

Before we get into the whys and the wherefores let’s get straight into our step by step guide to cleaning acoustic guitars. You’ll need: A lint-free cloth, lemon oil, guitar polish, and if possible a guitar case. Here’s how to use them to clean and protect your acoustic guitar.

  1. Invest In A Microfibre Or Lint-Free Cloth
    Any other cloths than these will leave your guitar looking dirtier and dustier than before you started. Lint-free or microfibre cloths won’t shed any fibres onto the guitar nor any threads that could get caught under the edges of the frets.
  2. Treat The Fretboard With Lemon Oil
    Acoustic fretboards are usually made from ebony or rosewood. They tend to be unsealed and unfinished. Unsealed and untreated fretboards are more likely to dry out, this can cause small pore-like openings where dirt and grime can get into the wood. The best and safest way to clean and treat the fretboard is with lemon oil.

    Many companies that specialise in guitar care and maintenance produce lemon oils for fretboards. Be sure to buy from a well-known brand to save any unwanted damage to your guitar. Never use lemon oil on maple fretboards as it can cause irreparable damage to maple.

    It’s OK to use on ebony and rosewood, and as there is so little lemon in lemon oil, it will not damage the fretboard or loosen the glue holding the frets in. The fretboard shouldn’t need oiling more than once or possibly twice a year. Be sure to get right up into the areas around the frets as this is where dirt and grime tend to accumulate.
  3. Give The Body A Polish Using A Specially Made Guitar Polish
    Be sure to use only a polish made specifically for guitars and use it only on acoustic guitars with lacquered (gloss finished) guitar bodies. If your acoustic has a satin finish don’t be tempted to use even a specific guitar polish. Satin finishes are not supposed to look shiny and are usually applied in as thin a quantity as the guitar maker can get away with. Using a polish on the satin finish could result in you removing the finish leaving the body in a worse and more vulnerable condition than before you got the polish out.

    Now we’ve established that your acoustic has the correct finish to use guitar polish on, just test a small unnoticeable area by spraying a little polish onto it. Buff with a lint-free or microfibre cloth and check for any damage. If it’s all good then continue applying a small amount of polish to all of the lacquered surfaces.

    Check that your cloth has no dirt or grit as this can damage the finish. Another thing to look out for is the age of your acoustic, if it’s an old classic guitar, we recommend checking with the polish manufacturer before using. As modern polishes contain chemicals that could damage older lacquered guitars.
  4. Keep The Strings Clean Using Something Like Fast Fret
    Unless you are changing your strings regularly it is recommended to clean them after every use. This will keep them sounding sharp, and increase their longevity.
  5. Protect Your Guitar With A Guitar Case
    When not in use you should always store your guitar in its case. This will prevent dirt and dust from sticking to it. Plus being inside a case protects the guitar to a certain degree from environmental fluctuations (temperatures, moisture, etc). On a completely unrelated issue, keeping your guitar in its case will also protect it from damage or accidental breakage.

How To Clean An Electric Guitar

Cleaning an electric guitar has many similarities to cleaning an acoustic guitar but there are a few extra points to remember. Here’s our step by step guide to cleaning an electric guitar.To successfully and safely clean your electric guitar you’ll need: 0000 gauge steel wool, a soft lint-free cloth, lemon oil, guitar polish and a cotton bud. Here’s what you need to do,

  1. Remove The Strings
    It’s easier to clean the body and fretboard once the strings have been removed. Maybe incorporate a cleaning session with a scheduled string change.
  2. Clean The Rosewood Or Ebony Fretboard Using 0000 Gauge Steel Wool
    Cover the pickups with masking tape to prevent any metal particles sticking to the magnets.Then clean any stubborn dirt by using a 0000 gauge steel wool and gently rubbing the wool in a circular motion all over the fretboard. Don’t worry about the frets as using such a fine steel wool will not harm the frets in fact it will give them a slight polish.

    Once finished remove any debris with a soft lint-free cloth and apply lemon oil to the fretboard. Take care not to use too much oil. A little goes a long way, and too much could possibly cause warping issues.
  3. Clean Maple Fretboards Using 0000 Gauge Steel Wool
    Due to their colour, maple fretboards get dirtier faster than rosewood or ebony boards. To make it even worse, conditioning products cannot be used on maple. The most effective way to remove gunk from maple fretboards is the 0000 gauge steel wool. This will remove dirt without causing any damage to the frets.

    If the maple fretboard has been lacquered, it should only be cleaned with a very slightly damp or dry cloth. But never use lemon oil on a maple fretboard.
  4. Determine What The Body Of Your Electric Guitar Is Made From
    As there are many different styles of electric guitars made by various manufacturers, the materials they are made from vary, and have to be cleaned using different products.
  5. Clean The Nitrocellulose Or Polyurethane Guitar Body Using A Damp Lint-Free Cloth
    These are the most common finishes on modern electric guitars, so let’s start with them. These bodies can be cleaned with slightly damp or dry cloths, or by a product specifically designed for use on these types. Just spray a small amount of the polish onto a lint-free or microfibre cloth and gently rub it in using small circular motions. 
  6. Clean The Matte Or Satin Guitar Body With A Soft Lint-Free Cloth
    As these types are lacquer-free, it is not safe to use anything other than a dry lint-free or microfibre cloth to clean them. 
  7. Polish The Bridge And Pickups
    The safest way to clean the bridge and the pickups is with a lint-free soft cloth or microfibre cloth and a minute amount of guitar polish. Be sure to remove all residue polish with a clean,dry part of the cloth. Hard to get at areas like between the string saddles can be cleaned using a cotton bud gently. 
  8. Wipe The Machine Heads (Tuning screws) With A Lint-Free Cloth
    Just wipe the tuning screws with a slightly damp lint-free or microfibre cloth to remove any dust dirt or grime.

Why Do Guitars Get Dirty?

Guitar Shop

The number one reason your guitar gets dirty is you. It’s a sad fact of life that as we play our guitars, we transfer sweat and grease via our hands onto the guitar’s surface. As this dries it attracts any dust in the air and that adds to the problem. Plus if we play in the street, park or any open air setting there is pollution etc floating about in the air all waiting to stick to our guitars. 

Playing under hot spotlights causes us to sweat, that sweat will have a detrimental effect on your guitar. It’s a foregone conclusion that guitars will get dirty and benefit from a regular cleaning schedule, and if it is regular, you’ll find it takes less time to maintain.

What Happens If You Don’t Keep Your Guitar Clean

Obviously the following problems won’t happen overnight, but given enough time and neglect, your guitar will develop problems. And problems that could have been prevented just by giving your guitar a quick clean. 

The oils in human skin coupled with the acids in human sweat can cause the wood on the fretboard to erode over time. Electric components can get damaged and eventually stop functioning. In fact, that loud buzzing noise you often get when plugging in or touching a jack lead will probably be due to a build–up of dust. The finish can also get affected by our sweat, and over years the finish will get eaten away by sweat.

How To Maintain Your Guitar

Here are a few tips to keep your guitar at its best and prevent any damage to your pride and joy.

  1. Wash Your Hands
    Every time you reach for your guitar, wash and dry your hands first.
  2. Give It A Wipe Down After Every Use
    Use a lint-free or microfibre cloth to wipe away all moisture, dirt or debris after every time you play the guitar.
  3. Keep It Locked Up
    Always store your guitar in its case when not in use. This will prevent any damage, dirt or dust and protect your guitar from any humidity problems.
  4. Never Leave Your Guitar Exposed To Heat, Damp, Cold, Or Sunlight
    These can all damage the finish of the guitar which will lead to the wood splitting. Plus if damp gets into pickups or controls you’ll be left with a large ornament – It won’t be playable just something to look at.
  5. Never Use Household Cleaners On Your Guitar
    These products do wonders around the home, but they are too harsh for the delicate wood and lacquered finishes of your guitar. Many household cleaners contain acids, bleaches, ammonia and other abrasive substances.
  6. Only Use Guitar Specific Cleaning And Polishing Products
    Products like lemon oil, guitar polish and cleaner, or Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes, which contain everything you need to maintain your guitar and keep it clean.
  7. Keep Strings Clean And Free Playing
    Use a product like Fast Fret to prolong the life of your strings, it cleans and lubricates your strings in one easy motion.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I use to clean my guitar?

The safest thing to use to clean any guitar is a soft lint-free cloth. It will wipe away dirt and gunk without causing any damage.

Can I clean my guitar with water?

If you do use water to clean your guitar, only use it to slightly dampen a soft cloth. Water will damage any unlacquered area of wood, corrode any metals and damage electrical components.

What household items can I use to clean my guitar?

The only safe household items to use to clean your guitar are cotton buds, cotton wool balls and a soft cloth.

Can I clean my guitar with pledge?

Pledge can be used to clean wood throughout the home, it should never be used on a guitar as it contains harmful chemicals that can damage a guitar.

Can I use furniture polish on my guitar?

Furniture polish will dry out any wood and it can also leave nasty looking stains as it dries, and should not be used on guitars.

Can you use Windex to clean a guitar?

Furniture polishes and cleaners will damage the guitar’s finish.

How often should you change guitar strings?

You should change your guitar strings every 3 months or every 100 hours of playing time. For best playing action and sound quality.

What happens if you don’t change your guitar strings?

Old guitar strings sound dull and flat. They make your playing sound inferior and eventually old strings will break.

What do you do with old guitar strings?

Guitar strings are made from nickel, bronze or stainless steel, they can be recycled.

Can you mix and match guitar strings?

Whilst it is possible to mix and match guitar strings, sets are designed to have a very similar string tension across the set. By mixing different types and gauges you will end up with an odd sounding set.

What temperature can damage a guitar?

The ideal temperature range for keeping guitars is between 21 to 24 C (70 to 75 F) anywhere either side of this range will cause harm over time.

Do heavier gauge strings stay in tune better?

Heavier gauge, thicker strings do stay in tune longer, and reduce fret buzz.

Disclosure: We are a professional review site that receives compensation from the companies whose products we review.

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