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How To Clean Your Guitar

Last Updated: December 04, 2022 / by Joseph Evans

Whether you are a professional guitarist or one who plays a tune when the urge hits you, maintaining a clean guitar is the right thing to do. All that sweat, dirt, and dust accumulates, which means some elbow grease to clean it every now and then. Two things are certain when you regularly clean your guitar. It will probably last you a lifetime, but more importantly, it will keep producing the right quality sound.

The really good guitars are made to last. Everything, from the wood, fretboard, to tuners are all made from the best available materials. That said, these guitars will not take every abuse thrown at them.

The materials may be strong, but they are made specifically for their purpose. They are not meant to be sturdy. A guitar can break, the finishing will crack, the strings will corrode, and, significantly, the guitar will lose resonance if it is not properly cared for.

Cleaning your guitar is good for all the right reasons. But be careful when you do decide to clean it. Yes, it can get rid of that annoying buzz, but it can also do more harm than good if not done the right way. From the cleaning materials you choose to the way you actually proceed to clean the instrument, there are a few things to keep in mind. However, 2 of the most important rules are:

  1. Do not use abrasive cleaners
  2. Do not apply water or detergent cleaners directly onto the guitar

The Cleaning Process

Cleaning a guitar really is a labor of love. You want to be slow but thorough.

Your aim is not just to remove dirt. You also want to restore the guitar’s shine and luster.

To make sure you remove all the dirt, it's a good idea to remove the strings first. This gives you unrestrained access to the fretboard, an area where a lot of dirt tends to gather.

But be sure not to remove all the strings at once as it may compromise the neck tension if you don't.

Another reason you want to remove the strings before you clean the guitar is not to expose them to oils and detergents you use for cleaning.

Strings, especially the cheaper ones, have a delicate metal coating which, if removed, may cause the strings to corrode.

guitar shouldn't have to be cleaned more than twice per year. Ideally, you should give it a good clean every time you change your strings. And when you do, make sure you're as thorough as possible.

The Body

The older guitars had a nitrocellulose lacquer finish that ages beautifully. Unfortunately, they tend to be more porous due to cracks. This finish produces good resonance but will crack easily when exposed to sudden temperature changes.

Newer models now sport polyester, and acrylic finishes that are also easier to clean and maintain. These finishes are believed to be more eco-friendly and mostly have either a gloss or satin feel.

Save for cases where the body of the instrument is really dirty, you will mostly need to just wipe it with a slightly damp cloth. Use a non-abrasive water based cleaner for fingerprints, streaks, and other dirt that may be harder to clean off.

Avoid using abrasive cleaners that may scratch and damage your guitar’s finish. After removing dirt, use a dry, lint-free cloth to buff and restore your instrument’s shine.

The Fretboard And Bridge

To do this, use a soft, lint-free cloth that and dampen just a bit to wipe off the dirt.

Water or distilled vinegar works best for dampening the cloth.

The trick here is to moisten the cloth and not the instrument. Any moisture on the guitar may seep into the wood and disturb the instrument’s resonance.

For the more stubborn dirt that collects in the crevices on the fretboard, you can use a child’s toothbrush, small plastic scraper, or extra fine steel wool.

Be especially careful with the magnetic pickups on electric guitars and avoid any liquid, or steel wool fragments coming into contact with them. That will upset the magnetic fields around the pickups.

Small Hardware

An area most guitarists neglect are the tuning keys. Bring them back to their original shine by wiping and shining them with a soft cloth. Use a gentle cleaner if you have to.

Pickups on electric guitars are also an important area to clean and restore. Important as they are to the production of sound, these need extreme care when cleaning. You may need to undo and remove them to clean them more thoroughly, especially if they have rusted. Again, use a gentle rust dissolver to remove the rust.

Vintage Guitars

A good vintage guitar can sell for a tidy sum. It's no wonder they require such special care when cleaning.

A scratch-free body and perfect resonance determine if they are a valuable vintage or just some old guitar. Be careful with fluids seeping into the lacquer finish cracks.

The moisture will seep down to the wood below and alter the instrument’s resonance.

Caution On Polishing

It is perhaps best to avoid using any polish on these vintage guitars too. Polish tends to fill the cracks and cause the same effect above.

Also, polish will destroys the instrument’s coveted patina, a product of the aging process, which is an important characteristic for vintage guitars.

Polish also builds up and will disturb the instrument’s mechanical stability, dampening its resonance in the process.

Polishing your guitar to get that lustrous shine may be good for aesthetic purposes sometimes. A good polish to use on the delicate wood of your guitar is carnauba wax, but some other variations also work. 

Cleaning It The Right Way

Remember, not cleaning your guitar often may not have a big effect on the sound it produces, but cleaning it the wrong way will definitely affect your guitar.

Still, a grimy guitar isn’t exactly the perfect backdrop for a hit song, or something you want to be seen carrying around. Other than some occasional and thorough cleaning, give your guitar some TLC by keeping it in its protective case when not in use, and you'll have a good companion for years to come. 

About the Author: Joseph Evans

My name is Joseph Evans and I am a guitar playing, freelance writing, online teaching music lover based in Seattle, WA. Growing up in a musical family naturally lead to obtaining my Bachelor of Music (BM) in Composition & Music Theory degree, after which I taught and traveled my way across Europe for 7 years before returning back home to settle in beautiful Seattle. On a typical day, you would find me playing my guitar, pottering around in the vegetable garden, going on long hikes, reading and/or writing.

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