You are currently viewing How to Clean Guitar Fretboard – Step By Step

Last Updated on January 26, 2024 by Justin Thomas

photo reveals owner of guitaristnextdoor.com

Author: Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I love guitars and have played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years, and also, building a website interested me, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website.

I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have also been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as SongsterrMusicnotesGuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.

I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog (I guess that went the right way…).


You’re strumming away on your guitar, lost in the music, when suddenly you notice something…your fretboard is looking disgusting…sticky, stained, etc! Don’t worry, we’ve all been there

Over time, dirt, oils, and debris can accumulate, affecting the playability, looks, and tone of your instrument. 

Cleaning your guitar fretboard may seem daunting, but fear not! In this step-by-step guide, we will demystify the process and provide you with easy-to-follow instructions. 

We’ve got you covered, from gathering the necessary tools to cleaning different types of fretboards. So get ready to restore that sleek and smooth fretboard, allowing your fingers to glide effortlessly across those frets. Let’s dive in and give your guitar the treatment it deserves!

How Often Should I Clean My Guitar Fretboard?

You should clean your guitar fretboard every six months, or whenever you notice a buildup of dirt, grime, or residue, we recommend you use a specialty wood oil specifically designed for cleaning and conditioning fretboards.

displays a Guitar With Maple Fretboard
Maple fretboard.

Why It Is Important to Clean the Guitar Fretboard Regularly

  1. Optimal Performance

While dirt on the fretboard doesn’t affect the sound in a noticeable way, a clean fretboard ensures optimal performance. Built-up dirt, grime, and oils on the fretboard can dampen the strings’ vibration, resulting in a dull or muffled tone. By cleaning the fretboard regularly, you maintain the full responsiveness and clarity of each note, allowing your guitar to sound its best.

  1. Improved Playability

A clean fretboard enhances playability by providing a smooth surface for your fingers to glide across. Accumulated dirt and residue can create a sticky or rough texture, making it challenging to move between frets and execute techniques accurately. Regular cleaning eliminates these obstacles, ensuring comfortable and effortless playing.

  1. Longevity and Protection

Cleaning the fretboard regularly helps protect the wood from potential damage. Dirt and grime can gradually seep into the wood grain, leading to discoloration, warping, or even cracks. By removing these contaminants, you preserve the fretboard’s structural integrity and extend your guitar’s lifespan (storing your guitar properly also plays a role in this).

  1. String Life and Maintenance

A clean fretboard contributes to the longevity of your guitar strings. Dirt and debris can move up from the fretboard and frets to the strings, leading to faster string wear and potential breakage. Keeping the fretboard clean reduces the strain on the strings, ensuring they last longer and perform optimally.

  1. Aesthetic Appeal

Regularly cleaning the fretboard maintains the visual appeal of your guitar. A clean fretboard showcases the natural beauty of the wood, making your instrument more visually pleasing. It reflects your pride in ownership and attention to detail, enhancing your overall playing experience. (Check our full guitar cleaning guide).


Materials Needed for Cleaning The Fretboard

Displays a guitarist cleaning his guitar
  • Cloth or Paper Towel: Use a soft, lint-free cloth or paper towel to wipe away dirt and debris from the fretboard.
  • Fretboard Conditioner or Oil: Choose a suitable fretboard conditioner or oil to moisturize and protect the wood. Lemon oil is commonly used for this purpose (do not use lemon oil for maple fretboards).
  • Solvent(optional): A solvent like naphtha can be used to remove stubborn grime or sticky residue from the fretboard. However, exercise caution and ensure proper ventilation when using solvents.
  • Fine Steel Wool or Old Toothbrush (optional and depends on the wood and finish): For deep cleaning, you may use a fine-grade steel wool or a toothbrush to scrub the fretboard and remove tough buildup gently. Be careful not to scratch the wood.
  • Fretboard Guard or Masking Tape (optional): To protect the guitar body, neck, or frets from accidental contact during cleaning, you can use a fretboard guard or apply masking tape around the fretboard’s edges.
  • Guitar Polish (optional): If you want to give your guitar an extra shine, you can use a guitar polish specifically formulated for use on guitar surfaces. Ensure the polish is safe for your guitar’s finish and food.
  • Microfiber Cloth (optional): A microfiber cloth is great for gentle cleaning and polishing the fretboard. It effectively removes fingerprints and smudges without leaving lint behind.
  • Soft Bristle Brush (optional): A soft bristle brush, such as a small paintbrush or a dedicated guitar cleaning brush, can remove loose debris from the fretboard and hard-to-reach areas around the frets.
  • Toothpicks or Dental Floss Picks (optional): These can be handy for removing stubborn dirt or grime that may be trapped in the fret slots or other small crevices. Use them gently to avoid damaging the wood.
  • Cotton Swabs (optional): Cotton swabs are useful for applying oil or conditioner to the fretboard. They allow for precise application and help in reaching narrow areas.
  • Guitar String Winder (optional): While not directly for cleaning the fretboard, a string winder can be helpful if you plan on removing the strings for a more thorough cleaning. It makes the string removal and reinstallation process quicker and easier.

Steps-By-Step Guide to Clean Guitar Fretboard

For Finished Maple Fretboards (Usually Laquered)

YouTube video

It’s recommended to NOT use lemon oil for any maple fretboard, learn why here.

Step 1: Remove the Strings from the Guitar

We recommend you remove the strings to begin cleaning of a fretboard. This allows for easier access to the entire fretboard.

Step 2: Use a Solvent to Remove Dirt and Grime

Soak a cloth or paper towel in a suitable solvent (like naphtha) and lightly rub the fretboard surface. If you don’t have a suitable solvent, dampened cloth is also fine (note that wet cloth is not fine). This helps remove dirt and grime that has accumulated on the lacquered surface. Be gentle to avoid damaging the lacquer.

Step 3: Wipe the Fretboard

After using the solvent, wipe the fretboard with a dry cloth or paper towel to remove any residue left behind.

Check the full list of awesome guitars with maple fretboards here.

Step 4: Restore Shine and Protect the Lacquer

Apply some guitar polish onto a soft cloth and carefully wipe down the fretboard. This step restores the shine and protects the lacquer. Make sure to use a polish that is safe for lacquered surfaces.

Note: Avoid using steel wool or any abrasive materials on a lacquered fretboard as they can scratch or damage the lacquer finish.

Rosewood vs Maple fretboard? Why is this important?


For Unfinished Fretboards Such as Rosewood, Ebony, Pau Ferro, Laurel, Purpleheart, Jatoba Fretboards

Unfinished means that these woods do not have a protective coating of lacquer or polyurethane on them. 

YouTube video

Step 1: Remove the Strings from the Guitar

Similar to lacquered fretboards, start by removing the strings to facilitate easier cleaning.

Step 2: Gently Scrub the Fretboard

Use a toothbrush to gently scrub the fretboard between and up against every fret. This helps remove stubborn gunk and buildup without harming the natural wood. If there’s a really stubborn stain, light use of soft steel wool might be necessary, but be really careful and use common sense, since steel wool can damage the fretboard really easily.

Check the full list of awesome guitars with ebony fretboards here.

Step 3: Wipe the Fretboard

After scrubbing, wipe the fretboard with a dry cloth or paper towel to eliminate any dust or debris dislodged during cleaning.

Step 4: Apply Fretboard Conditioner or Oil

Apply a small amount of fretboard conditioner or oil to a cloth or paper towel. Rub it into the fretboard, making sure to cover the entire surface. This step re-hydrates and nourishes the wood, preserving its condition and appearance.

Step 5: Remove Excess Oil

After applying the conditioner or oil, wipe off any excess with a dry cloth or paper towel. This ensures that the fretboard is not left overly oily, which could affect playability.

Note: Don’t apply any alcohol or water to unfinished fretboards.


Cleaning Unfinished Maple Fretboard

YouTube video

  1. Remove the Strings from the guitar
  2. Apply fretboard cleaner suitable for unfinished maple to the fretboard (oil-based, MusicNomad F-ONE for example)
  3. Use a cloth to wipe the fretboard and spread the conditioner
  4. Wipe all the excess conditioner off with another clean cloth

It’s recommended to NOT use lemon oil for any maple fretboard.


Cleaning Unfinished Roasted Maple Fretboard

THE BEST video when it comes to cleaning roasted unfinished maple fretboards and necks:

YouTube video

  1. Make sure that the fretboard is actually unfinished roasted maple
  2. Gather tools, fine steel wood, tape, scissors, and a small knife
  3. Tape the pickups so that steel wool doesn’t stick to the magnets
  4. Tape the frets if you don’t want to apply steel wool to them
  5. Use steel wool gently to get rid of the stains and grease. Do not apply too much pressure since we don’t want to remove wood unnecessarily.
  6. Before you remove the tape covering the pickups, add another layer of tape to cover it so that the steel parts attracted by the magnets don’ fell off.

It’s recommended to NOT use lemon oil for any maple fretboard.


Replacing Guitar Strings (If Necessary)

After following the steps above and scrubbing away the gunk and grime off your fretboard, making it shine like a star. Now, imagine strumming those old, worn-out strings after all that hard work. It’s like wearing dirty socks with brand-new shoes, ya know? Trust me, it’s not gonna give you the best sound.

That’s why replacing your guitar strings is a good idea. Think of it as a fresh start for your playing experience. 

New strings bring out the best tone from your guitar and make it easier to play. It’s like a guitarist’s version of getting a new set of superpowers! Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know:

  1. Evaluate the condition of the strings: Before you replace the strings, check for signs of wear and tear, such as fraying, discoloration, or even rusty spots. Give them a good strum and listen carefully for any dullness or lack of clarity in the sound. If you notice any of these red flags, it clearly indicates that your strings need to be changed.
  2. Replace any worn-out or rusty strings: Grab a fresh set of strings that matches your guitar’s specifications. Carefully remove the old strings one at a time. Clean the fretboard and bridge area while you’re at it. Then, grab those shiny new strings and carefully install them from thickest to thinnest, making sure to follow the proper winding technique to ensure stability and tuning accuracy.

FAQ

Is it Okay to Clean Fretboard With Alcohol?

No, alcohol is too harsh and may strip away the natural oils from the wood, potentially leading to drying or cracking. It is best to use specialized products like fretboard conditioners or oils designed for guitar maintenance.

Does a Dirty Fretboard Affect Tone?

A dirty fretboard doesn’t affect the tone of the guitar in a noticeable way. In theory, the buildup of dirt, grime, and oils on the fretboard can dampen the vibration of the strings, resulting in a less vibrant and muted tone. But in reality, we are not going to notice a difference.

Can I Use Water to Clean My Guitar?

Using water to clean your guitar is generally not recommended, especially on the fretboard. Water can seep into the wood and potentially cause swelling, warping, or other damage. It is best to use appropriate cleaning products and methods specifically designed for guitars. However, use of slightly damp cloth is considered to be safe for finished fretboards.

What Can I Use to Clean My Fretboard Instead of Steel Wool?

If you prefer not to use steel wool on your fretboard (avoid using steel wool with most fretboards), there are alternative methods to clean it effectively. One option is to use a toothbrush with soft bristles. Gently scrub the fretboard, focusing on removing any stubborn debris or buildup.

However, exercise caution to avoid excessive removal of wood or damage to the frets. Always be mindful of the specific requirements and recommendations for your guitar’s fretboard material.

Which Oil I Can Use for Guitar’s Fretboard?

Mineral oil and linseed oil are commonly used in instrument fretboard oils. Each oil has advantages and disadvantages, but both are effective in accomplishing the task. As a matter of preference, some individuals lean towards linseed oil-based finishes because they are free from petroleum.

We recommend linseed oil-based finishes as they do not contain petroleum. However, ultimately, the choice of oil for your guitar’s fretboard depends on personal preference and opinion.

Is It Ok to Use WD40 to Clean My Fretboard?

No. WD-40 is primarily a lubricant and not intended for use on wooden surfaces. It may leave behind a residue that can affect the playability and sound of your guitar. It’s best to stick to products designed specifically for guitar maintenance to ensure the longevity and quality of your instrument.

How do I Clean Stains from a Fretboard?

  • Remove the strings: Start by loosening and removing the strings from the fretboard. This will give you better access to the entire surface.
  • Gather cleaning materials: You will need a few materials to clean the fretboard effectively. These include a soft, lint-free cloth, a small brush (such as a toothbrush), some lemon oil or a specialized fretboard cleaner, and fine steel wool (0000 grade).
  • Wipe the fretboard: Take the soft cloth and use it to gently wipe the surface of the fretboard. This will help remove any loose dirt or debris.
  • Clean with lemon oil or fretboard cleaner: Apply a small amount of lemon oil or a specialized fretboard cleaner to the fretboard. Be sure to follow the product instructions carefully. Use a soft cloth to spread the cleaner evenly across the surface, paying extra attention to stained areas. Allow the cleaner to sit for a few minutes to help loosen the stains.
  • Scrub with a brush: Take the small brush (toothbrush, etc.) and use it to scrub the stained areas gently. Work in small circular motions, being careful not to apply too much pressure, especially if you have an unfinished fretboard. This should help remove the stains.
  • Wipe away excess cleaner: After scrubbing, use a clean part of the cloth to wipe away any excess cleaner from the fretboard. Make sure to remove all traces of the cleaner to avoid any residue.
  • Re-string the guitar: Once the fretboard is clean and dry, you can re-string the guitar and tune it up.

What Household Items Can Be Used for Cleaning Guitars Fretboard?

  • Soft, lint-free cloth: This can be an old T-shirt or any cloth that won’t scratch the fretboard surface.
  • Toothbrush: A soft-bristled toothbrush can be used to gently scrub the fretboard and remove dirt and grime.
  • White distilled vinegar: Diluted white vinegar can be used as a mild cleaning agent for removing stubborn stains on the fretboard. Mix one part vinegar with two parts water and apply it with a cloth or soft brush.
  • Paper towels or tissues: These materials can leave behind lint or fibers, which can get stuck in the frets or under the strings. It’s best to use a soft, lint-free cloth instead. But if those are not available, paper towels and tissues won’t damage the frets or the fretboard.

What Household Items Can NOT Be Used for Cleaning Guitars Fretboard?

  • Harsh chemicals: Avoid using harsh chemicals such as bleach, ammonia, or solvents. These can strip the finish or damage the wood of the fretboard.
  • Abrasive materials: Stay away from abrasive materials like steel wool, scouring pads, or rough brushes. They can scratch or remove the finish from the fretboard.
  • Strong detergents or soaps: While gentle cleaning agents like mild dish soap can be used sparingly, it’s important to avoid strong detergents or soaps as they can be too harsh for the fretboard.
  • Alcohol-based cleaners: Avoid using alcohol or alcohol-based cleaning products on the fretboard as they can dry out the wood and potentially damage the finish.
  • Metal scrapers or sharp objects: Never use metal scrapers, knives, or any sharp objects to clean the fretboard. They can easily scratch or gouge the wood.
  • Vegetable oils, most Vinegars: These can damage the fretboard woods

Conclusion

We’ve learned some handy tips and tricks to keep that fretboard looking fresh and sounding awesome. Let’s do a quick recap:

First things first, gather your cleaning arsenal. Grab a soft cloth, a small brush (like a toothbrush), and some specialized fretboard cleaner. These goodies will be your best friends in this cleaning adventure.

Remember, gentle is the name of the game. Be gentle to your fretboard while scrubbing away the dirt and grime. Take your time and avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive materials that can do more harm than good.

Regular cleaning is the key to a shiny and smooth fretboard. Make it a habit to wipe down your fretboard after each playing session. Trust me, it’s worth the effort. A clean fretboard looks sleek and improves the playability and sound of your guitar.

So, my fellow guitar enthusiasts, let’s make a pact to keep those fretboards clean and shiny. Regular guitar maintenance will ensure that your guitar remains your trusty companion for countless jam sessions and performances.

How transform into a Party Jukebox everyone Admires in 5 days?

Now, grab that cloth, give your fretboard some love, and enjoy the sweet sounds that’ll come out of your freshly cleaned guitar. Keep rockin’!


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Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I also noticed that most guitar websites don’t do a really good job, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website. I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as Songsterr, Musicnotes, GuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar. I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog(I guess that went the right way…). Expertise: guitar learning techniques, electric guitars, and guitar amplifiers. You can connect with me on LinkedIn or just email me.
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Hugh O'Connor

Rosa String Workshop cleans fretboards with a razor blade – though he does say it needs practice to do it correctly!

Tyler Connaghan

I would be way too afraid to use a razorblade, though I often use thick picks to get at grime stuck in the frets!