Last Updated on May 31, 2023 by Teemu Suomala
Author: Tyler Connaghan
Tyler Connaghan is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Tyler has been playing the guitar since 2007. In between writing for guitar publications, he produces music for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster.
Expertise: music industry, producing, acoustic & electric guitars, songwriting
Bachelor of Science in Music Industry Studies, Music Industry
Editing & Research: Teemu Suomala
Playing guitar since 2009. Mainly focused on electric guitars, although jamming with acoustics too. Has played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years. That’s why he started this blog in January 2020 and started sharing his experience. Has produced content for several large guitar websites, such as Songsterr, Musicnotes, GuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.
Cleaning is usually seen as a tedious and mundane activity, encompassing a range of chores from vacuuming the floors to scrubbing dishes…
However, for musicians that cherish their beloved guitars and wish to keep them in pristine condition for many years to come, cleaning is a crucial routine to maintain longevity. In this guide, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about how to clean your guitar and what causes your guitar to get dirty in the first place so you can prevent it.
How to Clean A Guitar – Step-By-Step
1. Prepare Your Guitar for The Cleaning
It’s pretty much a fact of life that your axe will require a good cleaning eventually, regardless of how diligently you attend to it. While you can certainly clean a guitar with the strings on, opting for a more comprehensive cleaning may necessitate their removal.
Plus, it makes the process considerably more manageable. I often find it helpful to sync up my guitar cleaning schedule when my string replacement is due.
To begin, it’s important that you wash your hands and designate a suitable spot to clean your guitar. It’s best to choose a well-lit area that allows you to spot every flaw so you can give it the necessary care that it deserves. Whether you decide to set your guitar up on a desk, table, workbench, or place it on your lap is totally up to you.
What Equipment Do You Need for Guitar Cleaning?
Let’s take a look at some of what I believe is must-have equipment for any good guitar cleaning sesh:
- A Clean Microfiber Cloth – Microfiber cloths can be found just about anywhere and are great for cleaning your guitar without getting scratches on the finish.
- Cleaner and Polish – Get yourself some guitar-specific cleaning products instead of cleaners you have lying around the house.
- String Lubricant – If you decide to keep your strings on while you clean your guitar, make sure to use a string lubricant to keep them from rusting or corroding.
- Lemon Oil – This can be used on certain fretboards as a conditioner. But do not use lemon oil for maple fretboards.
Do You Need A Guitar Cleaning Kit?
Not necessarily, but it can be handy. Below you can see a couple of our favorites…note that some conditioners are not suitable for maple necks and fretboards.
Is Cleaning Acoustic Guitars and Electric Guitars Different?
It’s important to note that there are a few ways that cleaning electric guitars and acoustic guitars can differ, including:
- Finish – Compared to an electric guitar, the finish on an acoustic is typically thinner and far more delicate, meaning you may want to tread more lightly when cleaning an acoustic guitar.
- Electronics – Unless you have an acoustic-electric, you won’t find knobs, pickups, and switches on your acoustic guitar. However, when cleaning your electric, you’ll want to avoid getting any of your cleaning products on these electronic components, as they could be damaging.
While this article will dive more into taking care of electric guitars, we have another in-depth article on how to take care of an acoustic guitar.
2. How to Clean Guitars Fretboard
Arguably, one of the most crucial components to clean on a regular basis is the fretboard. It endures the greatest wear and tear, so neglecting its maintenance can lead to long-lasting damage, especially with long-term accumulation of sweat, dirt, grime, and dust.
Nothing depletes moisture in the wood of your fretboard quite like your sweat drying and evaporating. If left untreated, it can leave behind nasty blemishes, or, in the worst case, cause it to crack.
As such, it’s essential to know how to clean various fretboard materials commonly found on guitars.
Check our full how to clean guitar fretboard article.
Different Fretboard Materials
Rosewood / Ebony / Indin Laurel / Pau Ferro
If you have a guitar made of rosewood, ebony, Indian Laurel, or Pau Ferro, the cleaning technique you’ll use is translatable.
While there are plenty of fretboard cleaning products on the market, Jim Dunlop makes some of my absolute favorites. In fact, I’ve been using their guitar cleaning kits since I first picked up the guitar more than 15 years ago.
Note that while these cleaning products are great, guitars that have been neglected for quite some time may have accumulated a decent batch of grime. If this is the case for your guitar, you may need to use some steel wool.
In such cases, however, it’s important to use only 0000-grade steel wool, which features very small steel fibers that effectively remove dirt and grime without causing any fret harm or wear. When used correctly, it can even make your frets look like they were just polished.
If you do have to utilize steel wool, it’s imperative that you take precautions to safeguard the pickups on your guitar from the fine steel particles. One of the best ways to do this is to cover them using masking tape, as it’ll prevent the magnets from attracting any unwanted debris. If you’re getting really serious, you can wear latex gloves while applying your steel wool to keep from dirtying up your fretboard even further.
When applying your steel wool, move carefully up and down the fretboard in a circular motion. Once done, be sure to get rid of any debris still hanging on the surface.
Conditioning your guitar is the next step, which involves restoring wood moisture and giving it a deep cleanse so that it looks more refreshed. This is where your Jim Dunlop kit can come in handy, as it comes with a small bottle of lemon oil that works wonders for conditioning.
I usually like to apply these with the included applicator, though you can also use a toothbrush or cloth. You have to walk a fine line between using the right amount of oil and going overboard, as oversaturating the fretboard can do serious damage.
If you have a guitar with a maple fretboard, then you probably know how quickly dirt and grime appear compared to Ebony or Rosewood boards. Much of this has to do with the simple fact that the wood is lighter in color. If that wasn’t already annoying enough, the majority of guitar conditioning products, such as the Jim Dunlop kit, are unsuitable for maple.
So, how do you approach it?
Well, if your fretboard is unfinished maple, you can use the same steel wool to get rid of dirt and grime without doing any damage. On the other hand, you can also use a slightly damp cloth, which works particularly well on maple that is satin-finished.
In the case that your maple fretboard is lacquered, it’s important that you only clean it with a dry or lightly damp microfiber cloth. Steel wool can remove its shine, leaving your fretboard with a dull finish.
3. How to Clean Guitars Neck
Similar to your fretboard, it’s important to consider the type of wood that your neck is made out of to determine the best way to clean it.
Different Neck Materials
Maple necks are pretty popular, and similar to maple fretboards, can be cleaned with a dry, soft cloth. If you find yourself dealing with grime or dirt that just won’t come off, you can dampen your cloth a tad. As with a maple fretboard, however, avoid cleaning solutions.
Though roasted maple necks are the new kids on the block, they’re starting to become more and more popular with guitar manufacturers. The beauty of roasted maple is that it is slightly darker, bearing a resemblance to un-finished maple, though retains its moisture resistance. You can take the same approach to cleaning roast maple as regular maple.
Unfinished maple necks require a lot more maintenance, as they aren’t moisture-resistant. When cleaning an un-finished maple neck, make sure to utilize a dry microfiber cloth.
For Mahogany necks, you can use non-acidic mineral oil and wipe it down. Just be careful not to oversaturate it!
4. How to Clean Guitars Body
It’s pretty common for your guitar’s body to accumulate grease and grime as time goes on, though luckily, this process is far less complicated than cleaning the fretboard.
We’ll get into the different types of guitar finishes below and what techniques work best with each, though no matter the finish, it’s important to use a microfiber cloth. While you can pick one up at just about any store or on Amazon, it’s worth noting that Jim Dunlop also makes a handy little polish cloth made specifically for guitars.
Different Guitar Finish Types
Poly & Gloss-Finished Guitars
One of the most common finishes you’ll find on guitars is either polyurethane or polyester, both of which provide a glossy top layer for protection. This makes the cleaning process much easier, as you don’t have to worry about the wood absorbing any of your cleaning materials.
This also opens your guitar up to a variety of punishes and waxes, depending on your preferences.
As I said before, I’ve been using Jim Dunlop’s cleaning kit for quite some time, and the Formula 65 has long been my go-to. However, no matter what finish you’re using, spray it on your microfiber cloth instead of a directly on your guitar, then gently wipe the body down in a circular motion to keep spots from showing up.
If you want to take your guitar’s shine to the next level, you can layer it with a spray wax, which adds an extra layer of protection against dirt and grime to keep your guitar cleaner for much longer. Plus, the wax will give it a shimmery, professional look, that’s sure to turn heads on stage.
Again, apply your wax in a circular motion to get the best results.
Satin and Matte-Finished Guitars
If you own a guitar with a matte finish, it’s important to clean it carefully, as unlike glossy finishes, using waxes or polishes can make the situation much worse.
All you have to do is use a dry cloth to carefully wipe down the surface of your guitar. Doing so will get rid of any shiny spots that have appeared over time from the grease on your hands.
When it comes to cleaning satin-finish guitars, the process is fairly similar to that of matte finishes. I highly recommend using the dry cloth and avoiding any kinds of cleaning solutions. If you really need a deep clean, you can lightly dampen your cloth.
While nitrocellulose finishes are nowhere near as common as they used to be when Fender and Gibson were using them on their higher-end vintage guitars, you may have a guitar with this type of finish. The beautiful thing about nitrocellulose finishes is that they leave microscopic holes atop the wood so that it retains its porous character. Over time, the wood gets the chance to breathe and age, developing a unique patina.
However, because natural cellulose is such a delicate finish, it’s important to refrain from using harsh cleaners or polishes that can damage it. Instead, take the route of a very lightly damp cloth to wipe away any dirt or grime.
Check best guitar stands for nitro finish here.
5. How to Clean Guitars Hardware
Maintaining your guitar’s hardware is essential, though it requires a very careful approach to prevent corrosion in the long run.
Hardware components of a guitar that are most vulnerable to corrosion are the pickups, bridge, and frets. Over time, the saddles on your bridge can accumulate sweat and grime from your picking hand. If you have a guitar with open-coil pickups, these can be very susceptible to rust as well.
Now because the hardware on your guitar is so susceptible to oil and sweat from your skin, it’s important to clean it regularly. You can do so with a microfiber cloth and a very small dab of polish, though be sure to get rid of any residue from the polish to keep the metal from corroding.
When it comes to smaller areas that are more difficult to reach, which can vary depending on the type of bridge you have, you can use a Q-tip or cotton swab.
If you’re dealing with hardware that is very severely rusted or corroded, you might have to remove it for a more thorough cleaning. One of my favorite things to use for stubborn rust and grime is WD-40. You can apply it with a toothbrush once you remove the hardware from your guitar.
Lastly, if you’re dealing with gold hardware, you need to be careful not to rub the plating off. I recommend using a cotton towel and a precious metal rubbing compound to remove oxidation.
While polishing your guitar too often can be detrimental, polishing it every once in a while with the right product can give it a nice shine. I recommend using a product with pure carnauba wax that doesn’t have any petroleum ingredients or solvents.
You can take the same approach to polishing as you did with your regular cleaner, spraying it on a new microfiber cloth and gently wiping down your guitar.
If you’re working with a satin-finished guitar, avoid polishing or buffing it, as it may leave unsightly marks on the surface. Similarly, if you’re working with a vintage guitar, it’s best to avoid polishing it altogether too
How to Prevent Getting Your Guitar Dirty? – 5 Essential Tips
Now that I’ve gone over the intricate details of cleaning each part of your guitar, I feel it’s prudent to highlight some of the preventative measures you can use to keep grime from building up over time.
Wash Your Hands Before Playing
As a personal ritual, I wash my hands each time I’m about to pick up my guitar. Of course, I’m not alone, and just about every professional player I know does this too, so much so that it’s shocking when I come across musicians who carelessly handle their guitars after eating greasy meals, only to be puzzled by the unsightly smudges that they leave behind.
Not only does this effortless practice keep your guitar looking spic and span, but it also prolongs the life of your guitar strings. As a result, you’ll save both time and money, sparing you the hassle of frequently having to purchase new strings and replace them.
Wipe The Strings
If you want to prolong the life of your strings, there are plenty of great solutions out there. One of my favorites, as you may have guessed, is from Jim Dunlop — Jim Dunlop Ultraglide 65, to be exact.
All you have to do is apply a decent string lubricant onto the strings after long sessions to eliminate any grime from building up. This will give you dazzling-looking strings and a fresher, slicker feel for your next jam sesh. Plus, these products work wonders in eliminating dirt and dust that accumulates on the fretboard, providing you with a two-pronged solution for your cleaning needs.
Wipe The Guitar Regularly
While you don’t need to perform a deep cleaning on your guitar every week, I highly recommend wiping it down as often as possible. All you need is a dry microfiber cloth to give it a good wipe down after each playing session.
Storing Your Guitar
I hate to be the bearer of bad news if you are someone who is fond of showcasing your guitar on the wall or on a floor stand, but doing so leaves your precious instrument exposed to dust. And while dust is not as dire as sweat, the accumulation of it in the nooks and crannies of your guitar can eventually impair electronics and compromise their functionality.
The best thing you can do is keep your guitar stored in its guitar case when you’re not using it for long periods of time.
Pets & Kids
If you have kids or pets, make sure your guitars are out of reach, or at least not in the direct danger zone. Whether this means keeping in stored in the cases or keeping them high up enough so they can’t get to them, the last thing you want is your loved ones laying down an unexpected wrath of food or slobber on your axe.
How Does a Guitar Get Dirty?
Guitars can get dirty from a variety of sources, including oil and sweat from your hands, dust, and dirt from the surrounding environment, or other external factors like smoke and humidity.
Can I Clean My Guitar With Water?
I don’t recommend cleaning your guitar with water, as easy to damage certain parts of the instrument. Water can cause the wood to warp and any metal hardware components to rust.
Can You Clean Guitar Without Removing The Strings?
Yes, you can clean your guitar without removing the strings, though just make sure not to get any polish or cleaner on them, as it can impact playability and tone.
Are There Alternatives for Guitar Polish?
There are plenty of great alternatives for guitar polish, including lemon oil, vinegar and water mixtures, and baking soda paste.
Can You Use Dish Soap to Clean Guitar?
It’s not a good idea to clean your guitar with dish soap, as it can be abrasive and harsh, stripping away the finish or damaging the word.
How to Clean A Guitar With Household Items? – Checklist
–Microfiber Cloth – Get yourself a clean microfiber cloth to wipe away any dust, dirt, or fingerprints from the guitar’s body.
–Lemon Oil – One of these most effective natural conditioners or guitars is lemon oil. Simply apply a tiny amount of lemon oil to a clean microfiber cloth and rub it into the fretboard of your guitar (unless you have a maple fretboard).
–Vinegar/Water – Mixing equal parts water and vinegar creates a solid solution for cleaning your guitar’s metal hardware.
–Rubbing Alcohol – Rubbing alcohol is great for removing sticky residue or stubborn grime from the finish of your guitar.
Is it Okay to Clean The Guitar With Alcohol?
Rubbing alcohol can be used to clean some portions of your guitar, though make sure to approach it with caution. Rubbing alcohol is a very powerful solvent that has the potential to damage finish if overused. I recommend getting some alcohol wipes and ringing them out before gently applying them to any severely dirty parts.
How Often Should You Clean Your Guitar?
I recommend at least wiping down your guitar each time you get done playing it. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes and it’ll do wonders for the lifespan of your guitar.
More in-depth cleaning is wise to do every couple of months. And as I said earlier, syncing string changes with in-depth cleaning sessions is smart!
Is it OK to Clean Your Guitar Yourself?
As long as you are using the appropriate materials and cleaning techniques, you should absolutely clean your guitar yourself!
Conclusion on How To Clean A Guitar
Cleaning your guitar not only enhances its visual appeal but also makes it much more enjoyable to play. Plus, it’ll ensure that your guitar lasts long and will retain resale value if you ever decide to sell it down the line!
Hopefully this guide helped you out. If you have any questions, just leave a comment down below, we are here for you.
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