When was the last time you cleaned your guitar strings? If the answer is “never,” now is the time! It’s just as important to take care of your guitar’s strings as the rest of the instrument. Here’s how to clean guitar strings safely and effectively.
Why Should You Clean Guitar Strings?
Have you ever noticed how fantastic your guitar sounds with a brand-new set of strings? Those shiny strings haven’t yet been covered with oil, residue, and other contaminants. Older strings that aren’t cared for will change frequency and not have the same clear sound.
Of course, guitar strings will age, and they’ll have to be replaced and restrung from time to time. We’ll be covering string replacement a bit later in this guide. Between sets of strings, though, proper care and cleaning will help keep your guitar sounding sharp.
Even if you take great care of your guitar, your strings will eventually become dirty. Oil from your hands, perhaps a product from your hair, and everyday dust and dirt will coat your strings and change sound quality.
Keeping your strings clean will ensure that your guitar is always sounding its best. You don’t have to go crazy cleaning your guitar strings every time you play, but it’s a good idea to regularly maintain your instrument.
When you don’t clean your guitar strings, you also increase the risk of corrosion. Your guitar strings should last for about 100 hours of play. Oils and dirt can cause your strings to corrode faster, so keeping them clean will extend their life.
When to Clean Your Guitar Strings
Again, you don’t have to give your guitar strings a deep clean every single time you pick up your instrument, but we recommend you keep a microfiber cloth in your guitar case. Before and after each practice or concert, use the cloth to wipe down your strings gently. You might as well wipe down the head, neck, and body, too!
If you’re just picking up your guitar once per week or so, you’ll only need to give your guitar strings a thorough clean every other week or even once per month. If you play daily, plan to deep clean them once per week or more frequently.
Even if you only play your guitar on special occasions, it’s a good idea to take it out now and then to make sure everything is in good shape. You should condition the wood components regularly, and you can clean your strings at the same time. Be sure you use the correct product for each; wood will need different care than your guitar strings.
The frequency of your cleanings will depend on your habits, too. If you’re eating chips during guitar practice, wear thick lotion on your hands, or sweat a lot, you’ll need to clean your guitar strings more often.
If you’re playing your instrument and notice that your strings feel tacky or like there’s friction, give them a good clean. Humidity can make your strings feel sticky, too, so keep that in mind. While your guitar does need humidity, too much can harm your instrument and strings.
How to Clean Guitar Strings
If you take a look around the internet, you’ll see dozens of methods for cleaning your guitar strings. Some are great, but others might be harmful to your guitar strings. If you have any questions about your specific brand of strings, ask your local music store professional.
Let’s take a look at a few different ways to clean your guitar strings.
Some guitarists swear by rubbing alcohol to clean guitar strings. The idea is to use a cotton ball, a cloth, or an alcohol wipe and rub the alcohol up and down your guitar strings.
Using rubbing alcohol works pretty well. It’ll certainly help to get the oils, dirt, and other gunk off your strings. In fact, alcohol easily dissolves oils and is great if you tend to sweat a lot.
There are two problems with this method, though. The first is that the alcohol left behind can cause a shrill sound the next few times you play. The second problem is that alcohol is terrible for the health of the wood components of your guitar.
If you do choose to use alcohol to clean your guitar strings, we recommend following with a lubricant. This will help eliminate that shrill sound and will protect the health of your guitar strings. Really, you shouldn’t use alcohol though at any point when cleaning your guitar, not just the strings themselves.
It would be best if you kept your guitar conditioned, and alcohol is a drying agent. When you clean your guitar strings with alcohol, you risk harming the other parts of your instrument.
Boiling is another method some guitarists use to clean guitar strings. As with alcohol, there are pros and cons to boiling your strings, so let’s take a look.
First, boiling your guitar strings effectively removes dirt and even salt from the sweat on your hands. Oils will break up and will be removed from your strings. Your guitar strings will even expand with the heat, making it easy for contaminants to leave the windings.
But there are some downsides to boiling your guitar strings, too. First of all, it takes a long time! It’s much easier to clean your strings with a cleaner while they’re on your guitar. Boiling will obviously have you remove your strings before cleaning.
Secondly, if you have hard water, the mineral deposits can actually make your guitar strings even dirtier. Water from a municipal source can have chemicals that may damage your strings. Use bottled, distilled water if you do decide to boil your guitar strings.
Finally, exposing your guitar strings to high temperatures can alter the stress points. Paired with your strings becoming more brittle, this can be bad for the health of your strings.
If you do choose to give boiling your strings a try, begin with a clean pan and cold water. Coil your strings in the pan and allow the water to boil. Once your water is boiling, wait three to five minutes, then remove the strings with a fork or kitchen tongs.
Guitar Cleaning Tool
Next time you visit your local music store, be sure to check out the guitar cleaning tools they have in stock. There are quite a few different styles, so you’ll have plenty of options.
One guitar cleaning tool is just a stick with a microfiber cloth attached. These are great, but you can’t wrap the cloth around the strings entirely. Essentially, you’ll just be cleaning the surface and the underside of your strings.
Another tool is a little clip with a microfiber cloth inside. You’ll put the clip around your strings and run it up and down. This tool lets you clean both sides of all of your strings at once, and it does a better job of cleaning all the way around each string.
If you’re curious about the types of guitar cleaning tools available, just run a quick search. There are tools at a wide range of prices; some are from well-known brands, and others are generic.
Guitar Cleaning Solutions
When in doubt, you can always purchase a guitar string cleaning solution. There are dozens of cleaners and lubricants on the market. You can find them online, or you can support your local instrument dealer.
Many guitar players say that guitar cleaning solutions are more effective than other methods. Most are relatively inexpensive – under $10 or so – and they’ll last a while. You can even find all-in-one products that will clean and lubricate your strings in one step.
Cleaning your guitar strings doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Wipe them down before and after each session, then use a more thorough method on occasion. To further protect your guitar, it’s a good idea to lay a thin towel between the strings and the instrument’s body when you clean your guitar strings.
Keeping Your Guitar Strings Clean
All of the above methods help clean your strings when they get dirty, but you can work to keep your strings clean. Here are a few tips to help you keep your strings in great shape.
- Wash your hands before you play your guitar, but don’t use the wrong products.
- Avoid putting heavy lotions or creams on your hands before you play.
- Keep a microfiber cloth in your guitar case as a reminder to wipe down your strings.
- Don’t eat while you play your guitar.
- Keep drinks at a distance while you play to avoid accidents.
- Store your guitar in a case when you’re not playing it.
- Consider blowing out your guitar with compressed air.
- Avoid getting guitar polish on your strings.
- Don’t use household cleaners to clean your guitar strings.
Keeping your guitar strings clean is basic common sense. Treat your guitar with respect and care, and your strings will stay in good shape longer.
How to Tell When It’s Time to Replace Your Strings
Sometimes, cleaning your guitar strings isn’t enough. Your strings will wear down, and you’ll have to replace them from time to time. Several signs indicate it’s time to switch them out.
If your guitar needs to be tuned more and more frequently, it may be time for a new set. When you first string your guitar, you should only have to tune it once. The guitar will stay in tune if you handle it correctly. After a while, though, your strings will wear, and you’ll need to get new ones.
The next time you change your guitar strings, pay careful attention to the tone of the chords you play. Your guitar should sound bright, clear, and sharp. After a while, though, that tone will begin to dull. This is normal. Sometimes cleaning your guitar strings can remedy the problem. If not, it’s time for new strings.
When you don’t keep your guitar strings clean, you’re more likely to notice them changing color. Oils from your skin build up on your guitar strings over time and can cause corrosion. That corrosion will eventually lead to breakage. When you begin to notice your guitar strings changing color, it means they’re on their last legs.
Another key indication that it’s time for new strings is if they feel dirty, even after cleaning them. Your guitar strings should be smooth and slick to the touch. If they’re beginning to feel rougher or like there’s friction against your fingers, you need new strings.
Finally, stiff strings are a sign that you should have a new set of strings ready to go. Your guitar strings should feel flexible and springy. Stiff strings are an indication of corrosion and that their days are numbered.
If you’re serious about protecting your instrument, caring for your strings is critical. Keep them clean and replace them as needed to guarantee your best sound.
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.