Cleaning Your Guitar Without Doing Damage

Keeping your guitar clean is one of the best ways to guarantee its health, prevent costly repairs, and increase its longevity. While the relic movement is cool, it doesn’t give you a free pass from properly caring for your guitar.

But if you clean your guitar improperly, you could end up doing more damage than you would simply by playing it. So what exactly is “proper care?” We waded through all of the sales and marketing speak to get to the real issue – how to clean your instrument without doing damage.

To answer this question, we enlisted the help of Matt Brooker, a Technical Advisor for repair shop supplier Stewart MacDonald. StewMac fields repair calls from all over the country, and many StewMac employees even run their own instrument repair shops.

Matt talked with us about the best practices for cleaning your guitar’s finish, hardware, and moving parts.

Polishing Your Guitar’s Finish

How to care for a glossy finish is the main question StewMac receives about cleaning. We all know that there's nothing like that brand new instrument look before the glossy finish fades under countless finger smudges. Once your guitar is a bit too filled with character, it's time to reach for the polish to bring back that old luster.

But wait – not just any polish will do. It's important to make sure that you're using the correct product based on your instrument's finish. StewMac recommends a silicone-free cleaner. They make a product called “Preservation Polish,” which is safe for all finish types.

"Once your guitar is a bit too filled with character, it's time to reach for the polish to bring back that old luster."

The silicone and micro-grits in aggressive polish restores the shine by sanding away the scratches in a dirty finish. However, these silicone-based products add a layer to the guitar’s existing finish, making repairs really difficult – glues and new finish have difficulty attaching to the new layer of silicone. Instead of polishing your guitar’s finish, you should be cleaning the finish.

Matt warns that nitrocellulose finishes are always delicate, so take care to not be too aggressive with your cleaning. If you have a very dirty finish of any type, Matt recommends naphtha, which is a denatured alcohol and the main ingredient in lighter fluid.

While naphtha is safe on tricky nitro finishes, it's important to be extra careful. Nitro takes a very long time to cure, and Matt estimates that most Gibsons are shipped with less than 6 weeks of drying time.

As a Gibson owner myself, I use just my breath and a dry cloth to clean the back of my new guitar's neck for about two years. After two years, the finish is settled enough to graduate to a damp rag for cleaning. Matt suggests using Preservation Polish when a more thorough clean is needed. Remember: nitro is always sensitive, so less is more in all cases.

Another common question is how to clean a matte finished guitar. Matt recommends using grit-free polish with light pressure to clean matte, semi-gloss, and satin finishes. He stresses that satin finishes do not become glossy if they are cleaned properly. With these finishes, it is especially important to stay away from aggressive polishes, as the grits will mar a satin finish and silicone will build up upon the finish unevenly.

Cleaning Your Fretboard

Fretboards are by far the areas on guitars that require the most consistent cleaning. Finished maple boards need little more than to be wiped down with a dry or damp rag between string changes, while unfinished maple boards are best left alone. For rosewood, the level of grime determines the course of action.

StewMac Fingerboard Guards

For very a dirty rosewood or baked maple board, Matt suggests wiping it with a damp naphtha rag before using fine steel wool to remove the grime. He emphasizes that steel wool can be especially messy around pickups, so make sure that you’re careful.

Matt also notes that naphtha tends to dry out the surface of the wood, so it’s best to follow up with a light lemon oil application. Under normal conditions, this should only be done once or twice a year.

Matt believes that taping off the fretboard to clean the frets is more work than necessary and recommends using StewMac Fingerboard Guards instead. For light fret cleaning, 3M flexible polishing papers in the finest grit are the perfect product.

Taking Care of Hardware

For hardware, Matt suggests using a soft-bristle toothbrush to brush away most grime between string changes. For heavier grime, Matt advised giving the parts a bath in naphtha and a few drops of 3-in-1 oil or Tri-Flow. The naphtha will lift off rust and general grime, and the oil will add a bit of lubrication to the parts.

It is especially important, Matt warns, to take extra care with the plating on all hardware – particularly gold. Removing the golden hue by over-polishing is easier than you think. A damp rag is usually all that is needed to restore the shine to most plated hardware.

Using the Right Lubricants

Moving parts, such as vibrato/tremolo units and truss rod nuts, are often neglected until it’s too late, and they’ve become stiff and corroded. For cleaning and lubing the contact points of Strat and Floyd-style tremolos, Matt suggests using a tiny bead of Tri-Flow.

"Cleaning an instrument is best done sparingly, but proper care will keep it functioning at its highest capacity for years."

I’ve used 3-in-1 oil to lightly lubricate a stiff Bigsby arm, as well. Also, a tiny bit of vaseline on a truss rod can save hundreds of dollars on future repairs – a dab on a Q-tip is all it takes. Always start with a tiny amount of lubrication before adding more if needed. Be safe, and always have a rag around in case you miss!

Cleaning an instrument is best done sparingly, but proper care will keep it functioning at its highest capacity for years. After all, your instrument should last longer than you do. Be smart, use the right products, and you’ll never have to deal with rusty parts and cloudy, sticky finishes.

Matt’s Final Warning

A customer once brought in their original 1959 Les Paul ‘Burst to Dan Erlewine’s shop. Before Dan could stop him, the customer covered the guitar in aggressive car polish and polished like his life depended on it.

When he was through, all of the patina was gone, as was the vintage vibe. The customer had paid $180,000 for this guitar, and his misguided cleaning attempt depreciated the guitar so much that he was only able to resell it for $60,000.

The lesson? Always avoid working on a vintage finish.

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