Cleaning your guitar correctly doesn’t have to be a chore because it’s simpler than you think. You can do it right at home and become further bonded to your beloved instrument.
Why Does a Guitar Get Dirty?
A guitar does not get old or dirty just because we got a little grease (or the occasional spilled drink) on it. We sometimes sweat or leave natural oils from our skin on the instrument, slowly breaking down the guitar’s surface.
Dust and pollen from leaving your guitar outside its case too long can also dirty up your instrument. Especially if you play often and under hot lights, your guitar could use a little gussying up.
If your sweat has a low pH balance (or high acidity), where you rest your hand or arm on the guitar might deteriorate over time. Sweat is probably the biggest threat to a guitar’s integrity because it contains natural minerals that can corrode a guitar’s metal hardware.
What Do You Need for Cleaning a Guitar?
Cleaning a guitar is like cleaning your kitchen or bathroom: you’ll need special tools and cleaners dedicated to only that task. Home cleaners and guitars should not mix!
To start, you’ll want a space to prop up your guitar. You can purchase a special stand, or you can just set it in your lap. Either way, put it in a well-lit place where you can see what needs cleaning. I prefer to set it up on a well-lit work table so I can see it from every angle.
Know what kind of material and finish your guitar has. Different materials will require other cleaners, cloths, and levels of polish. Sometimes, you might not even need a special polish: just a plain, dry, lint-free cloth. Ensure that your cleaners are water-based since they won’t leave a residue and are easier to wipe off.
A clean wiping cloth will clean your guitar better than paper towels or regular washcloths. Refrain from directly spraying cleaner onto your guitar. Direct contact may damage the hardware, so always use a cloth when applying cleaner. You might consider using a paint-cleaning clay, along with quick detailing spray (found at auto car stores) as a lubricant, to remove contaminants.
It’s optional, but a little wax and detailing spray never hurts. The wax hardens on your guitar after applying, protecting your guitar from oxidation and light scratches. Make sure your wax is 100% Carnauba for the best results. Don’t use too much since it might make the wax difficult to remove. I’ve found that using detailing spray on a more regular basis helps keep off fingerprints.
What to Avoid When Cleaning a Guitar
Do NOT use any cleaners with alcohol, ammonia, heavy waxes, bleach, d-Limonene, or silicon. It’s tempting to use common household cleaners, but anything too aggressive can damage a guitar. Again, only use cleaners meant just for guitars.
The natural acids in d-Limonene, for example, can break down finishes and cause the fretboard to deteriorate. Silicon doesn’t allow the wood to breathe and might make your guitar’s finish hazy. Alcohol simply dries things out and might create a cloudy effect on different finishes.
Do NOT expose lacquer finishes to surgical rubber tubing, synthetics, or plastic for too long. Several guitar stands or straps use these materials, but they might react poorly to lacquer.
Always keep your guitar strings clear of any harsh products. While you do have to wipe and clean your guitar strings from time to time, don’t use any oils, polishes, or damp cloths on them. Especially keep your strings clear when you’re cleaning the guitar’s hardware.
Don’t clean your guitar too often. Sometimes, having a little natural oil from your fingers helps keep the guitar healthy. I like only to clean my guitar twice a year. Plus, putting too much polish too frequently on your guitar can dampen your sound quality.
Always use a clean cloth for each step of the cleaning process. Some cloths might have too much dirt on them, and you can accidentally spread it to other parts of the guitar.
Steps to Cleaning a Guitar
Knowing how to clean a guitar takes a few simple steps, especially once you know what cleaning materials you need.
- Wash your hands: You can’t get a clean guitar if you don’t have clean hands first. Sweat and oil tend to build up on guitars, so you don’t want to add any more as you clean.
- Temporarily remove the strings: Unless the strings need replacing, you’ll only remove the strings to make cleaning the instrument a little easier. It’s a good idea only to remove a few strings at a time, not all at once. That way, you won’t screw up the guitar’s neck tension.
- Wipe off the fretboard: You’ll need a fine steel wool brush and lemon oil to restore rosewood, ebony, and pau ferro fretboards properly. Maple fretboards only require a slightly damp cloth. Make sure not to leave any residue behind.
- Polish the body: Poly-finish guitars require a little guitar polish on a soft cloth to make them new (again, do not spray the polish directly onto the guitar). Matte, satin, and nitrocellulose-finished guitars will only require a dry microfiber cloth to polish.
- Clean your guitar’s hardware: Usually, a little bit of guitar polish on a clean cloth will get the job done. Consider using WD-40 for a more thorough cleaning, or if you have stubborn grime to remove (make sure to remove the hardware from your guitar before using it since it can damage the guitar’s finish).
How to Clean a Fretboard
While it is essential to clean the whole guitar from time to time, pay extra attention to the fretboard. That’s the part of the guitar that gets the most sweat and oil buildup, which, if left uncleaned, can dehydrate and crack the wood. The fretboard and the bridge are often unfinished or unpolished, making them more vulnerable to damage.
Remember that different types of wood require other cleaning materials and methods. Make sure you know what you’re working with before you purchase cleaners.
If you want only to clean the frets, use a template that will cover the fretboard but leave the frets uncovered. That way, you can clean the frets without getting the product on the fretboard.
Some polishing products, like polishing paper for frets, might leave a residue behind. Clean that up with a vacuum when finished.
Maple fretboards are the simplest type of fretboard to clean. They have a light wood tone, so you cannot use conditioner products to clean them. However, because of that lighter wood tone, maple fretboards show marks, scratches, and dirt a lot more than other wood types.
To clean maple fretboards, you can use a slightly damp cloth. Again, use a special cleaning cloth instead of a household washcloth or paper towels. Some people use old T-shirts or socks, but I usually opt for something explicitly meant for cleaning.
You might also consider using a #0000 or #000 steel wool brush, which will polish the guitar without scratching the wood. Steel wool incorporates delicate steel fibers into the brush, so it’s a little tougher than regular cloth. An old toothbrush is a little softer, but just as useful, cleaning tool.
However, if your guitar has a lacquered maple fretboard, use only a damp or dry cloth to polish. While steel wool brushes and lemon oil work well for other woods, they’ll only take away the lacquered shine or dull the finish.
Ebony, Rosewood, and Pau Ferro
You’ll need more time and care for these three types of wood. You can just use some guitar polish and a clean cloth for the most part. Make sure to use a dry piece of cloth to buff the polish.
To rehydrate the wood, pat the guitar down with a little lemon oil. A generous amount gives a nice shine to the wood and restores it slightly. Be sure not to douse the guitar with the oil since it might warp the wood in large amounts.
If you’ve been a little slow to clean your guitar, consider using a steel wool brush for polishing. Before using steel wool brushes, cover your guitar’s hardware with masking tape. Sometimes, little fibers or particles come off the brush during cleaning, and they stick to the hardware if they’re not covered. Rub the brush against the guitar in small circular motions.
How to Clean Different Guitar Finishes
I’ve already covered how to clean a guitar fretboard. However, there are specific products and methods for cleaning the rest of the guitar, specifically their different finishes. Some people debate whether you should polish specific finishes at all, but for the sake of knowledge, here’s how you should treat different finishes.
Most guitars have this kind of glossy finish, whether in polyester or polyurethane, making the guitar look like glass. Cleaning this kind of finish is easy since the wood is not as absorbent of oil or other chemicals. Therefore, you can use almost any type of polish or cleaner (meant for guitars, of course, not your kitchen counter).
You might consider finishing the polish with a little wax, which not only adds another layer of grime protection but also makes your guitar just a tad prettier.
On the other hand, nitrocellulose-finish guitars are slightly more porous, meaning the wood can absorb more oil. These days, not many guitars have a nitrocellulose finish, so you’ll more likely find them on more vintage models. They can be very delicate since this finish reacts pretty strongly to sudden changes in temperature or humidity.
Unlike poly-finish guitars, you’ll need to exercise caution when cleaning a nitrocellulose-finish because it doesn’t take well to strong polishes and wears out quickly. At best, you can probably use a damp (but not wet) cloth.
Keep in mind that as a nitrocellulose-finish guitar ages, it will develop a sheen or patina. When polishing such a finish, go easy. The patina adds value to the instrument, so don’t try too hard to remove it. It might wind up devaluing your guitar.
Matte or Satin-Finish
If nitrocellulose or poly-finish guitars are a little flexible with their cleaning methods, then a matte or satin-finish guitar only needs a dry cloth. Both finishes have a hazier, almost unfinished appearance since you can often still feel the wood grain.
Matte-finish guitars develop shiny spots where you’ve touched the instrument the most. Unfortunately, polishes and waxes make the problem worse, so only using a dry wiping cloth produces the best shine. Do not buff the finish because that will make it blotchy.
Satin-finish guitars have a similar look and feel to matte-finish guitars, and once again, you should only use a dry cloth to clean them. If you need to clean off some tough gunk, you can use a slightly damp cloth, but do not use a wet cloth (water is, in a nutshell, a matte or satin-finish’s worst enemy).
How to Keep Guitar Hardware Clean
Preventing rust from forming on your guitar’s hardware is vital since the salts in sweat and skin oil can corrode the metal. You need to keep an eye on the bridge, the pickups, and the frets since most guitarists rest their hands on those places, and the hardware is simply not protected. Potentiometers and switches suffer the same problems.
Since a little guitar polish goes a long way, only use a slight amount on a clean wiping cloth. You can also use a cotton bud or Q-tip for hard-to-reach areas. Do not leave any residue on the hardware because the polish’s water and oil properties can still corrode the metal. Again, I like to use an old toothbrush as a gentle cleaning tool.
For a more intense clean, consider using a little WD-40. Bear in mind that WD-40 can damage your guitar’s body, so only apply the cleaner when you remove the hardware from the guitar. Use a toothbrush or a clean wiping cloth to apply to the hardware. Make sure everything has dried before re-attaching to the guitar.
How to Clean an Acoustic Guitar
Most acoustic guitars have rosewood or ebony fretboards, so you’ll only need a little guitar polish and some lemon oil to rehydrate the wood.
Acoustic guitars come in all the finishes I talked about, but you’ll most likely find a matte or satin-finish model. Since this finish is a little more porous, it supposedly creates a more resonant sound when you play. Again, remember that these finishes do not require any polish at all. Just use a dry cloth, and maybe some water if you need extra help.
How Can I Keep My Guitar from Getting Dirty?
No matter what environment you play in, your guitar will inevitably get dirty. But several factors can play a role in how often you’ll need to clean your guitar.
Always Wash Your Hands Before Playing
Many people forget to wash their hands (I sometimes do), but it’s imperative to do so before playing. Even if you haven’t touched any greasy or dirty surfaces, your fingers still contain many natural oils that seep onto your instrument.
Washing your hands also protects your strings from wearing out. Getting too much oil on the strings can affect the sound quality. Plus, you won’t have to change them out as often. Just make sure that your hands are dry before touching the instrument. Water damage is just as bad as oil damage.
Store Your Guitar Properly
It’s tempting to put your beloved instrument on display, especially if it’s a rare or beautifully decorated guitar. However, displaying your instrument comes with the price of more regular and vigorous cleaning.
It’s best to keep your guitar stored in a case. Sweat and oil are more damaging to a guitar, but dust can accumulate just as quickly. Luckily, you only need to wipe your guitar off with a clean cloth if you keep it covered.
Storing your guitar away is not a perfect solution to preventing dust buildup, but it’ll certainly save you time and money in the long run.
Control the Humidity Surrounding Your Guitar
Technically, you already do this when you apply polish to your guitar or when you store it away. Drastic changes in temperature or humidity can damage your guitar’s finish, so you need to keep such factors under control. The optimal humidity for a guitar is between 45 and 50 percent.
To prevent your guitar from cracking, you might use a humidifier where you store your guitar. Be careful: newer guitar models are slightly more prone to humidity cracks, mainly because they come from kiln-dried wood. When wood gets dried in a kiln, it speeds up the wood’s aging process since the older wood is, the more stable it is. Older guitars come from air-dried wood, which has naturally dried over several years, so it is naturally durable.
You can also buy a guitar humidifier to place inside of your guitar when it’s on display.
Wipe Down the Guitar A Second Time
It sounds like overkill, but feel free to go over your guitar once more after cleaning it. Maybe you missed a few spots, or maybe want to give it a little extra shine. However, you only need a damp or dry cloth, depending on your guitar’s finish, for the second go-over. You don’t need to over-saturate your guitar with a cleaner to make it look new.
Always Keep a Dry Microfiber Cloth on Hand
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is wipe down your guitar after every use. A clean microfiber cloth should get the job done just fine, with no water or oils needed.
In learning how to clean a guitar, you might come across a few alternatives besides regular guitar polish. However, I strongly recommend caution if you choose to give them a try.
Using White Distilled Vinegar as a Guitar Polish
I’ve already established that most household cleaners are too harsh for guitars. However, you can use white distilled vinegar since it does not contain ammonia or intense waxes. If you’d prefer for your guitar to not smell like a roadside diner, however, you can stick to regular guitar polishes.
Using Naphtha as a Guitar Polish
Naphtha is a fancy title for lighter fluid. It is also a gentle solvent that is safe for many guitar finishes. You might soak a Q-tip or cotton ball in naphtha, and you can clean rusty saddles and other hardware).
The reason why I recommend caution is because the fumes in Naphtha are toxic to humans. If you’re going to use it as a guitar polish (or use it generally), wear a mask and gloves. Plus, it is lighter fluid, so keep it away from open flames and cap off the bottle when finished.
While there’s plenty to keep in mind when cleaning your guitar, the tips above should help you keep your instrument in pristine condition.
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Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.