There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to how to clean your guitar. Everyone eventually has a preferred method that comes with experience. But what about when you are just starting out? Today we will go over products, methods, and the ins and outs of cleaning your guitar like a pro!
How To Clean Your Guitar: Tools
Just like cleaning your car or anything else, you want to have the right tools for the job. Everyone is different when it comes to brand names and such. So without being brand specific, let’s first go through the basics.
Later, I will go over the brands that I use and trust and how to use them. But the following is the basis of building your tool kit.
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- Microfiber towel/wipe
- String cleaner
- Toothbrush/small soft brush
Microfiber towel: You can find these in the cleaning section or the car care section of just about any big box store. They are usually pretty inexpensive and come in packs of 3. I use them exclusively for good reason.
Your towels that you have at home will work if that’s all you have. But this is the thing: They will leave lint all over your guitar because of the thread count. Also, they may scratch your guitar.
So if you are in a bind, don’t use a bathroom towel. If you need to use a home item, you can always cut up an old t-shirt! It works much better than a regular bath towel and poses zero risk to your precious instrument.
Polish: There are about 20 or 30 guitar companies than make guitar polish. I always gravitate to one or two brands (which we will explore later). But really, any polish you find at the guitar store will work.
Never use household furniture polish or Windex! This can seriously damage your guitar’s finish. It can also weaken the finish over time, especially the darker colors, causing them to crack.
Guitar polish is pretty cheap. You don’t want to risk messing your finish up over $7!
*WARNING: Do not use polish on a flat/matte/satin finish guitar. It will ruin the finish and make it “shiny”. For matte finishes, just use a clean cloth. If there is sweat or dirt buildup, use a damp cloth only.
String Cleaner: There are a couple different brands of string cleaner. Whichever you choose, it’s smart to use it after any extended time of playing. This will stop your guitar strings from corroding and getting sticky.
If you use some of these cleaners on brand new strings, it can act as lubricant. Some people like this feeling, as it makes it easier to slide up and down the neck. For some people, it feels greasy.
If you are not interested in string cleaner, it is still a good idea to wipe the strings down after every time you play. The strings can collect sweat and dead skin cells, making your strings a shorter time.
*Pro Tip For Keeping Your Strings Clean: Always wash your hands before playing! This will assure you don’t transfer any oils or dirt from your hands. Believe it or not, we do this in the studio when recording!
Toothbrush/Soft Brush: Personally, I found a small brush with super soft bristles at a hardware store. But for years I used a “super soft” tooth brush! Why do you need a brush, though?
The brush is a great way to get into small spaces like the bridge of your guitar, or the sides of the pickups. Dust loves to hide and buildup here. Dead skin from palm muting also likes to hang out in your bridge (eww!).
It is actually a good idea to have two of these. One for the bridge and body of the guitar. and one for your fretboard. The fretboard loves to collect dirt over time, but you rarely spot it when the strings are on your guitar. No one wants a dirty fretboard!
Cleaning Your Guitar: The Top 3 Polish Picks
Over the years I have tried many different companies and manufacturers when it comes to polish. Some are definitely better than others, but this is very subjective. These are my top 3 favorites that I still use today.
If the one you use is not listed, don’t worry. These are just the ones that I like. They all basically do the same thing. The main issue I have with some brands is the amount of residue that they leave behind.
The residue can leave your guitar feeling…sticky. I really dislike this feeling when resting my arm on a guitar. The residue will also just attract more dirt, keeping you in a cycle of constant cleaning.
Let’s check out the brands I use, and the ones most recommended by guitar techs all over the world!
#1 Music Nomad
Music Nomad came out of nowhere about 8 years ago. I had seen the products at the music store several times. My guitar tech eventually turned me on to them.
Their polish is the best for me because it leaves less residue than most other polishes. It also smells absolutely delightful!
You can buy a bottle by itself or you can choose to buy their “Polish Set”. I personally like the set, as it comes with two microfiber cloths and a finishing polish that really cleans up guitars with a darker finish. Finishing polish is like car wax, and adds a layer of protection.
#2 Dunlop 65 Series
The Dunlop 65 brand of polish is used by plenty of professional techs. It leaves very little residue and their finishing polish can prevent small scratches on darker finishes. Guitar techs for your favorite artists have used Dunlop for years. It is the “go to” brand.
Dunlop’s full set comes with microfiber cloths, string cleaner, and finishing polish. This is a pretty inexpensive set of products that will last you a long time and comes with everything you need to get started.
Like Music Nomad, the Dunlop set comes with everything you need to keep your guitar looking clean, like the pros.
#3 Ernie Ball
Ernie Ball is no stranger to gear and accessories. They make everything, even actual guitars! Ernie Ball polish was the first I probably ever used. It is also the least expensive option on our list.
This isn’t to say it lacks in quality at all! Ernie Ball has a light formula that works like our other two options. It leaves little residue and keeps your finish protected.
Every bottle comes with a cool microfiber cloth with the Ernie Ball logo on it. I find that a microfiber towel usually lasts as long as one bottle of polish.
This polish is also safe to use on acoustic guitars as well as your electric. This is because the formula is very mild and light. This makes Ernie Ball the “one size fits” all of guitar polish.
Cleaning Your Guitar: String Cleaner
I have only really used two string cleaners in all the years I have played guitar. That being said, both are very good, yet very different. Which one you pick will depend on your personal taste and needs.
I cannot express to you how much money string cleaner has saved me. I have pretty acidic sweat, and this makes my strings die prematurely. This is very apparent when I am playing on stage, under hot lights.
Once I started taking the extra seconds it requires to clean my strings, I saw my string life double. You don’t need a string cleaner per se. You can also use a cloth to wipe your strings down after you play.
I prefer to use the string cleaner, and these are the two I have used the most!
#1 Music Nomad String Fuel
Music Nomad makes the list again and this is my personal favorite. String Fuel comes in a big blue applicator that is contoured to be used on any size guitar neck. It easily covers my 7 string guitar and my basses.
The Music Nomad String Fuel is not greasy and leaves no residue on your strings. The applicator is hollow, and inside it stores a small microfiber cloth! The cloth is perfect for wiping down your strings right after you play.
My favorite thing about String Fuel, is the applicator is refillable. You can buy a small bottle of String Fuel to refill your applicator several times. The refill bottles last me about a year!
Just like the polish, this stuff smells amazing. There is no chemical smell at all.
#2 GHS Fast Fret
Before Music Nomad came around, I used GHS Fast Fret for years. GHS is used by most guitar techs and has been a staple of guitar care for years. Each applicator comes in a small metal tube that includes a cleaning cloth.
Fast Fret works on all kinds of strings, acoustic and electric. It leaves a small bit of residue, but this is a good thing. The residue acts as lubricant for your fingers, hence the name.
Fast Fret can also be used as a fretboard cleaner/conditioner. It gets all the dirt and grime off of your fretboard and naturally dries into a protectant.
Fast Fret is not refillable like Music Nomad, but to be honest with you, it lasts forever. Each applicator usually lasts for about a year! I could get a year or more out it using it on multiple guitars.
The only reason I switched to Music Nomad, is Fast Fret leaves the residue. But lots of people like the residue and the feeling it provides when playing. I would try both of them if you are trying string cleaner for the first time.
Now you know the products, and everything you need to get started. But what about actually cleaning the guitar?
How To Clean Your Guitar: Step By Step
I have a method to my madness so to speak. Everyone has their own routine that they develop. But if this is your first time, let me get you started!
Cleaning your guitar is important for many reasons. Sure, having a beat up, “battle damaged” guitar is cool. But that has nothing to do with cleanliness. Even “reliced” guitars are kept clean.
Neglecting your guitar can have some really awful repercussions:
- Hardware damage/erosion
- Finish cracks
- Color degradation/change
- Fretboard cracks
- Instrument value/resell decline
No one wants to see their “baby” get damaged or ruined! Let’s go through my personal steps that I take when it’s time to clean my guitar.
#1 Remove The Strings.
It is a good idea to get in the habit of cleaning your guitar every time you change the strings. Not only because of the time frame involved, but because it is much easier to clean your guitar without the strings in the way.
You don’t need a fancy workbench. Any table will do if you put down a towel or t-shirt. This will prevent any scratches to the finish. It is also a good idea to have a nice, bright light. I like to clean my guitars next to a window, but I also have a clamp style desk light.
#2 Check Your Fretboard
Now that we have the strings off, it is much easier to see your fretboard. This is a good habit to get into every time you change your strings. depending on how often you play your guitar, the fretboard can get really dirty in a short span of time.
This is especially true when it comes to darker woods like Rosewood and Ebony. Dirt can easily hide in dark woods! Checking your fretboard for dirt should be a part of your routine maintenance. Dirt can sneak up on you fast.
Dirt on your fretboard can also dry it out and damage the wood over time. It is not easy to replace your fretboard, and dirt can cause cracks and hairline fractures in the wood.
If you find that your fretboard is dirty, now is the time to break out your brush. Be very gentle when cleaning. You can use your string cleaner to assist you, or you can use Naptha if you have some serious dirt.
Make sure you wipe down the neck when you are finished with a clean cloth.
*Pro Tip Warning: If you have a maple fretboard, do not use products on it! This can damage the wood. If your fretboard is maple, use a damp cloth to clean it. No other product is needed.
#3 Polish The Body
Now that you have your strings off, and you have checked your fretboard, it’s time to start cleaning your guitar. I always start by polishing the body of the guitar with my microfiber cloth.
Be sure to get the sides and the back of the body, anywhere you have paint/finish. it is easy to forget the back once you have your guitar on the workbench.
It is also easy to forget the headstock. This is a good time to wipe off all the dust that collects near your tuning machines and truss rod cover, If you have a painted headstock, then polish is fine to use also.
Do not polish a matte/flat/satin finish. If you polish a matte finish, it will start to make the finish glossy. This cannot be reversed. If you have a matte finish, use a damp cloth to clean only. If you are unsure, ask your retailer or Google your guitar model.
#4 Check Your Hardware
The bridge of your guitar can get real funky, real fast. This is especially true if your hands sweat a lot. Now is a good time to inspect your bridge, screws, and the knobs on your guitar.
It is time to break out your brush again. I like to use the brush on the bridge, and get in between the string saddles. After you have brushed out the dirt and dust, wipe it down with your microfiber cloth.
If you inspect your bridge and there is rust, then it is ok to use a dab of WD40 on a clean cloth. But use this sparingly. You don’t want to get WD40 on the finish of the body.
This is an excellent time to wipe dust off of your pickups also!
Cleaning Your Guitar: It’s Important!
Now that you have built your guitar toolkit and you have gone through all the steps, you have a clean guitar! Doesn’t it feel nice?
Nothing feels better than a clean guitar with a fresh set of strings. But the most important part is your guitar will last longer, adding years to the life of your instrument. Not to mention, if you ever wish to sell it, a clean guitar will hold it’s value.
Making your cleaning routine a habit will ensure that your guitar will be with you and looking great for a long time. It will also help you spot any issues that need to be addressed.
On top of all the benefits…you will look awesome on stage!