How to Clean a Guitar Properly (Without Ruining It!)

Cleaning your guitar isn’t just about cosmetics, and getting it wrong can do more harm than good. Knowing how to clean a guitar properly will increase its longevity and save you money on avoidable repairs.

How to Clean Your Guitar Properly

We are going to walk you through some steps to ensure you take the best possible care of your guitar.

Why Cleaning Your Guitar Is Important

A guitar becomes layered with oil and sweat from your arms and hands along with dust in the air around it. Sweat and oil build up most on the top of the body, the back of the neck, and of course, the fretboard. Anywhere that your skin contacts the guitar is a problem area that can’t be neglected. If ignored, it can cause serious problems cosmetically such as rusting your hardware.

A clean guitar looks and feels better, meaning you play better.

Preparing to Clean Your Guitar

Wash your hands — It may sound obvious, but sadly for many guitarists, it isn’t.

Remove the strings — If you are giving your guitar a light dusting, then obviously leave them on. For anything more thorough involving cleaning products, take the strings off. It makes the job easier and prevents any cleaner or polish from getting onto your strings.

What To Avoid

Over-cleaning — Cleaning too often can be as bad as not cleaning at all.

Household cleaners — General cleaning products contain chemicals that are very bad for your guitar. Stick to specialized guitar cleaning products.

Silicone — Avoid any products that contain silicone, because it has an adverse effect on your guitar’s finish.

Prevent Sweat, Oil, and Dust from Building Up

Get into the routine of giving your guitar a light dusting after use. We mentioned already that over-cleaning can be a bad thing, but by that, we mean aggressively over-cleaning.

The idea here is that by giving just a light dusting after use, you can limit or avoid the need for a deep clean. A light clean can be as simple as breathing on the finish to create a fine mist and wiping it gently away with a soft microfibre cloth.

Preventing a nasty build-up on your guitar is far better than removing it.

Different Types of Finish

It’s important to know and understand what kind of finish your guitar has. Different finishes have different qualities; some are harder than others, some softer, some crack naturally, etc.

Understanding how your guitar will react to cleaning is the only way to make sure you use the correct method and products.

Nitrocellulose

Nitrocellulose is a soft finish that can look incredible but can be prone to checking (fine cracks) and discoloration from changes in the temperature. Many vintage guitars from the 1950s – 1960s as well as some high-end modern or custom guitars have a nitro finish. Another problem is that it can start to blister when in contact with rubber (such as on a guitar stand) for too long, so you have to be careful about how you store it when not in use.

If a nitro finish is heavily checked, any cleaners/polishes used could reach the wood underneath, causing serious damage. That could also widen the cracks or even make the finish start to flake.

Nitrocellulose lacquer tends to be found on expensive guitars, so you have to be aware anything you do can potentially devalue your instrument. When not in use, keep the guitar in its case to preserve its condition further.

Try to store it somewhere that will limit extreme changes in temperature or climate because any moisture the guitar soaks up can cause the wood to naturally expand, which leads to discoloration and/or checking. In most cases, we suggest you avoid using any cleaning products on a nitro finish.

Method:

Heavily checked finish — If your nitro finish is showing signs of heavy wear, then a dry soft microfibre cloth should do the trick. Lightly dust the guitar with the dry cloth after playing, but be gentle. Don’t apply too much pressure; let the cloth do the work.

Slightly checked finish — You should take the same care as above, but this time you can use a slightly damp cloth. Do not take a soaking wet cloth to your nitro finish; when we say slightly, we mean barely damp.

Think damp enough to create more moisture than breathing on the guitar’s body but not much more. Apply ever so slightly more pressure than you would on a heavily checked finish, and be careful on any problem areas. It will help tackle any sweat and oil, then take a dry part of your cloth and lightly dust to finish.

Pristine nitro finish — If you are lucky enough to have a brand new or vintage guitar with a pristine nitro finish, you can polish it if you like. However, you have to remember how thin the lacquer is; every time you polish it, you are wearing away the finish a little.

While it may look great, over time, it can be detrimental if done too often. Take a light polish like the Music Nomad Guitar Polish, and apply a very small amount to your cloth, then apply with great care to your guitar.

Once the polish has been fully applied, you can take a dry cloth to very delicately buff it out.

Polyurethane and polyester

Polyurethane lacquer has been widely used since the 1960s as a cheaper and more robust alternative to a nitro finish. It provides an even, glossy finish that is far more durable for deep cleaning. Because it’s thicker, it doesn’t show the same signs of checking; instead, it tends to chip if damaged or mistreated.

Polyester finishes are even thicker and more durable than a polyurethane finish. It’s also more resistant to scratches or discoloration than polyurethane, which makes it even better for cleaning.

Most mass-produced guitars these days have one poly finish or the other to accommodate the life of a gigging musician. Either one can be cleaned or polished in the same way.

Method:

The Jim Dunlop Formula 65 Guitar Polish and cleaner is commonly used on a poly finish, and we recommend pairing it with the Jim Dunlop Platinum 65 Spray Wax. Take the polish and spray it a few times onto your cloth before wiping it over the guitar.

Apply a firm pressure when wiping down the guitar to remove any sweat and oil. Once finished, repeat the process with the wax spray, and your guitar will look good as new.

Matte or satin finish

A matte finish looks incredible on the right guitar, but the downside is that you end up with shiny areas over time. That happens to the areas that your skin touches most; sweat wears down the finish, and you are left with a shiny patch.

It can’t be avoided completely, but keeping your hands clean and daily light dusting can help. We recommend sticking to a soft dry cloth on a matte finish to avoid adding to the shine.

Satin is somewhere between a matte and glossy finish. If possible, we suggest using just a dry soft cloth for light dusting, but a damp cloth may be used for deeper cleaning.

Method:

Matte finish — Take a dry microfibre cloth and lightly dust the guitar after use or daily if not being stored in a case.

Satin finish — Do the same as you would for a matte finish, but if it requires a more thorough clean just slightly dampen your cloth. Wipe the guitar down with minimum pressure, and follow up with a dry part of your cloth.

Cleaning the Fretboard

The fretboard takes the most punishment in terms of sweat and oil build-up from playing. That makes it one of the most important and sensitive areas to clean. Sweat dehydrates the wood and can leave unwanted marks on a fretboard or cause it to crack.

For most common fretboard materials, you can use some 0000 steel wool to get rid of any unwanted dirt or grime. As long as you use 0000 steel wool, you won’t cause any damage to the frets or the wood. Next, you have to rehydrate the wood and bring it back to as new condition.

Method:

Wearing gloves to protect your hands, lightly rub the steel wool in a circular motion on the fretboard. Do this until you have covered the entire fretboard, then wipe away any leftover dirt or grime.

Now apply a cleanser like Jim Dunlop’s Guitar Fingerboard Kit to revitalize the wood. Apply a generous amount to a slightly damp cloth, then wipe down the fretboard firmly. Lemon oil is also a common alternative used to clean the fretboard and is applied in the same way.

This method is fine for most fingerboards; however, a maple fingerboard that has been lacquered should be cleaned with a damp cloth only. Steel wool or lemon oil will remove the lacquer’s shine, leaving a dull finish.

Cleaning the Hardware

Metal is prone to corrosion, and sweat is a highly corrosive substance, so you have to be careful cleaning your hardware. If your hardware isn’t showing signs of rust or corrosion, then a soft cloth and a small amount of polish should keep it in check. If there are signs of rust, then it’s best to remove the hardware and use a stronger cleaner.

Many luthiers swear by Naptha (lighter fluid) or WD40 to give your hardware a deep clean. Apply either to a slightly damp cloth and very firmly rub down your hardware. These substances are very bad for your guitar, so you must remove your hardware before applying them.

How Often Should I Clean My Guitar?

Daily light dusting or dusting after use is a great routine to get into. As far as deep cleaning goes, you have to be more careful. As a general rule, it’s good to go for a deeper clean only when you have to replace the strings. You’d be removing them to clean anyway, and it stops you from doing it too frequently.

Featured Image: Pixabay License, by Free-Photos, via Pixabay


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