Cleaning your acoustic guitar is an often overlooked but important maintenance task that will help you to get the very best out of your instrument from both an aesthetic, tone, and playability perspective. In the following article, I’m going to cover how to clean an acoustic guitar the right way, the products, and tools that can help, along with some essential maintenance tips to stop your guitar from getting into a mess in the first place. So if you are anything like me and want to keep your guitars in the very best of health stay tuned.
To keep your guitar clean Always wash your hands before working on your guitar, then clean using warm water. If your guitar is proving difficult to clean try Lighter fluid (Naptha). It is an effective cleaning agent and won’t damage Nitrocellulose or Polyurethane finishes. You should also consider using a fretboard conditioner after cleaning to prevent the neck from drying out.
Before getting started look for a space that you can easily operate in without being cramped for room as the probability of bumping the guitar or dropping something on it is much higher.
While this might sound obvious, don’t think, you’ll just be extra careful and this won’t happen to you, it happens a lot more than you may realize.
Protecting the Guitar
There’s nothing worse than going to the effort to maintain your guitar, only to scratch the surface or put a dent in the body or headstock in the process.
This is simple to avoid provided you clean the space you are working in e.g. remove any abrasive elements and make sure you have a clean work mat or towel to place under the guitar.
Also, be sure to support the neck so the guitar doesn’t have the capacity to slide around. You can purchase neck rests from $20 at vendors such as stewmac.com or your local music store, or it’s not all that difficult to make one yourself. If you don’t have a neck rest, you can also use the neck support insert from a guitar case if your case happens to have one, or a guitar wall hanger can also serve this purpose provided it is stable.
You should also ensure any material you use to clean the guitar is free of debris that could otherwise scratch the surface of the guitar. Take particular care if using rags also, the last thing you want to do is place your guitar down on a rag that has been used with paint thinners.
Beginning the Cleaning Process
Once you have settled on a workspace, it’s time to get to work.
The buildup of dirt, sweat and assorted grime on your guitar affects different parts of the guitar differently. With this in mind, I like to break up the job into three specific tasks:
- Cleaning the Fretboard
- Cleaning the Finish (Body and rear of the neck)
- Cleaning the Hardware (Tuners)
We’ll start with arguably the most important component of the guitar concerning playability, the fretboard.
How to clean an acoustic guitar’s fretboard
Chances are, especially when dealing with acoustic guitars, that your fretboard will be made from either Rosewood or Ebony, along with your bridge.
If this is the case, the timber will be untreated e.g. there isn’t a protective finish applied, and as a result dirt, sweat and grime can build up over time resulting in damage (more on this shortly).
Rosewood is becoming less common due to export restrictions but many of the Rosewood alternatives e.g. engineered or composite materials will benefit from the same techniques used to clean rosewood.
If your guitar’s fretboard is made from maple, it will be sealed with a protective finish and therefore will not be as susceptible to drying out, however, it will still benefit from a clean, to improve playability.
- Clean rags
- Paper Towel
- Solvent (Lighter fluid e.g. Naptha or Zippo is best but is also flammable so take care)
- 0000 Steel wool (always use the finest grade available)
- Fretboard Conditioner
Eccrine glands produce sweat, we have these all over our body e.g. under the arms, on the soles of our feet, and importantly, the palms of our hands. When our hands touch the fretboard, sweat (along with dead skin cells and other wonderful stuff) is transferred to the neck of the guitar and accumulates near the fret wires. This residue also builds upon the strings and affects the tone of the guitar, not to mention the life of your strings.
Sweat is essentially water and sodium (along with a bunch of Proteins, Urea, and Ammonia ). As the moisture content evaporates the sodium (salt) remains and begins drying out the timber and corroding the metal fret wires.
This affects the timber’s ability to expand and contract as it normally would due to limited moisture content. This accelerates the deterioration of the timber and is known as dry rot.
Dry rot, over time, will result in loose frets as the timber near the fret wires deteriorates and in some cases may lead to cracking of the fretboard, resulting in expensive repair work.
To address this issue, the fretboard needs to be kept clean from contaminants such as sweat. The fretboard should be conditioned to prevent the timber from drying out.
Step 1) Wash your hands
Anytime you touch a guitar ideally you should wash your hands first. This will reduce the amount of sweat and grime that would otherwise be transferred to the fretboard.
Step 2) Remove the Strings
Secondly, we need to remove the strings. Generally, if cleaning a guitar you will also perform a string change so there should be no need to take care with the strings, other than preventing the strings from scratching the body as they are removed.
I like to simply loosen the tuning pegs and then clip the strings near the bridge using pliers or a similar cutting tool. I’ll then use the bridge pin tool (usually found on a string winding tool) or set of pliers to carefully lift the bridge pins out and remove the ball ends.
Once this is done, you can unwind the strings from the tuning pegs and discard them.
Step 3) Clean the Fretboard
When cleaning the fretboard, I recommend using the bare minimum concerning cleaning products, at least to begin with e.g. avoid using scrapers or solvents unless you have to.
I like to start by applying a very small amount of warm water to a rag. The moisture helps lift the grime. This is followed by wiping down the area with a paper towel.
Paper towels are more abrasive than cloth and because of this are more effective at removing build-up. It will also absorb the remaining moisture content on the surface of the fretboard.
Start by working on a small section of the neck at a time, before moving on.
Step 4) Using Solvents and Scraping
If the grime on the fretboard is proving difficult to remove you may need to apply a solvent to loosen further and then use a scraper to manually scrape the build-up of gunk and grime away.
This is often the case if the neck hasn’t been cleaned previously, or the owner of the guitar sweats prolifically.
Acceptable solvents to use are:
- Lighter Fluid
- Guitar Polish
- Mineral Spirits
Lighter fluid is particularly effective in my experience and won’t affect Nitrocellulose or Polyurethane finishes if you mistakenly get some on the body of the guitar.
Avoid these products
Do not under any circumstances use common wood polishes or nail polish remover (acetone). Both products contain ingredients that may potentially damage the finish of your guitar.
Once you have applied a small amount of solvent to the fretboard, let it sit for 60 seconds, so it is absorbed sufficiently, and then begin scraping away some of the heavier build-ups. Pay attention to build up close to the fret wires.
I use a dedicated scraping tool for this job but an old credit card in most cases will also suffice. Be careful not to press too hard on the fretboard, as this can result in dents.
Step 5) Polish the Frets
Once you are satisfied with your results from cleaning the fretboard you can move onto polishing the fret wires.
For this task, we need to use fine-grade steel wool (0000 grade). When using steel wool, despite it being of a very fine grade you should still move the steel wool in the same direction as the grain of the fretboard timber to prevent scratches.
You can also use a fretboard guard to protect the timber with even more surety. These are inexpensive and can be purchased from specialist luthier supplies outlets.
Once you have rubbed the fret wires to a smooth finish consider following up with an eraser to remove any marks left behind by the steel wool.
You should always be careful when using steel wool on a sealed maple neck. Any polishing of the neck itself will result in your once glossy finish becoming a matte finish as the gloss is removed.
Once complete, carefully remove any remaining fibers left over from the steel wool to prevent scratches. Steel wool tends to shed fibers fairly easily when used in this manner. I often use a small vacuum to ensure all fibers are safely removed.
Step 6) Condition the Fretboard
If you have used a solvent to remove build-up on your fretboard I recommend using a fretboard conditioning product afterward. Solvents tend to draw out the natural oils contained within the timber and over time this can lead to cracks developing in the fretboard.
It’s also a good idea to use a fretboard conditioner even if you haven’t used a solvent to clean the fretboard occasionally e.g. every six months if you play regularly to prevent the timber drying out.
You can generally find fretboard finishing oils (most are Linseed Oil-based) in your local music store or online. You won’t require a great deal each time you apply it, so the bottle will typically last for years. Music nomad products e.g. F-One Oil (as pictured above) do a good job.
To apply your fretboard conditioner, wipe a very small amount directly on the fretboard using a clean rag. Let it sit for 1- 2 minutes and then thoroughly remove all excess.
You can then polish the fretboard in its entirety using a clean rag. And that’s it job done! Provided you followed the steps outlined above your fretboard should have taken on a new lease of life and will feel more comfortable to play.
Cleaning and conditioning the bridge
While the bridge is definitely part of the guitar body, as it is also likely constructed from Rosewood or Ebony so it’s a good idea to wipe down the bridge and apply conditioner also. This prevents any problems with the structural integrity of the bridge which is important as the bridge must handle quite a bit of tension from the strings and is the last point of contact for the strings.
How to clean the body of an acoustic guitar
Guitar finishes can become streaky and dirty over time. This is due to dirt, dust, sweat, and oils from your hands and arms becoming trapped under a thin layer of surface oil on the finish. Dust, including dead skin cells, will also begin to accumulate beneath the strings between the soundhole and the bridge and on the headstock beneath the strings.
This build-up of dirt and other abrasives increases the chances of the surface of the guitar becoming scratched when handled, and the longer it is left the more difficult it becomes to clean.
- Microfibre cleaning cloth or clean polishing rags
- Paper towel
- Solvent (Lighter fluid e.g. Naptha, Zippo is best but is also flammable so take care)
- Steel wool (fine grade e.g. 0000) if your guitar has a matte finish
- Fine grade sandpaper (e.g. 600 grit wet and dry) if the neck has a gloss finish
What finish is used on the body of the guitar?
Acoustic guitars are mostly finished using one of the following types:
- Nitrocellulose lacquers (commonly referred to as Nitro)
- Acrylic lacquer
- Water-based Lacquer
- Polyurethane Varnish
- Resin Varnish
- Acrylic Varnish
- Oil-based Varnish
Shellac is mostly used on high-end classical guitars. In most cases, acoustic guitars will be finished in Nitrocellulose Lacquer.
Although Polyurethane tends to dry harder and as a result offers better protection, many purists believe this affects the tone of an acoustic guitar negatively compared to Nitro.
The list of finishes above is more informational than practical. If you can’t identify the finish of your guitar, don’t worry. It’s best to avoid using common cleaning agents in any case except the few I have listed below which won’t harm the finishes listed above.
Avoid common cleaning and polishing products
It is best to avoid using common cleaning and polishing products when cleaning the finish of your guitar. The most common finishing product used on acoustic guitars, Nitrocellulose Lacquer breaks down over time as the ingredients e.g. cellulose evaporates resulting in a thin and more delicate finish. Like cleaning and conditioning the fretboard, start with the bare minimum e.g. a dry paper towel, and only move on to using a liquid product if required.
Acceptable products include:
- Naptha, Zippo
- Deionized Water
- Warm Water
- Dedicated Guitar cleaning products e.g. Colortone products sold by vendors such as StewMac.com
- Guitar Polish (avoid using abrasive automotive polishes)
Cleaning the body, much like cleaning the fretboard is a process. The steps below detail this process in the correct order.
Step 1) Inspect the Guitar
Before we go about cleaning the finish on your guitar body it is important to inspect the guitar for any exposed timber. Moisture can be absorbed by the fibers of raw timber and can cause swelling.
Look for places where the finish may have worn through or is chipped. Obviously, be very careful near the soundhole and keep moisture well away from the internal cavity of the guitar body.
If you are aware of or happen to notice exposed timber upon inspection be sure to make a note of the affected area and avoid moisture coming directly into contact.
Step 2) Begin Cleaning
Bunch a clean, dry rag into a ball about the size of your fist and begin polishing a small section of the body, moving in a circular motion.
Inspect your efforts by first looking at the area you have worked on for any noticeable change and compare the remaining area of the guitar you have yet to polish.
Secondly, inspect the rag you are using to see if any of the grime on the body of the guitar has been transferred to the rag. If none is present you may need to consider something stronger, in the form of a liquid solvent. If however, you are seeing improvements in the finish continue this process for the entire body and rear of the neck.
Step 3) Using Solvents
Try using warm water first by moistening the rag ball you have been using in the previous step. Just be sure not to use excessive moisture.
If after a second inspection of the area and cleaning rag you are not seeing any of the dirt and grime transfer to the rag you have been using, you can try using Zippo or Naptha which breaks down oils and can be more effective at removing dirt and grime if warm water is not sufficient.
Step 4) Polish the Guitar
Once you have removed much of the dirt and grime on the guitar body you can polish the guitar. Bear in mind, polishing with any type of polishing compound will affect the finish, and may cause it to soften over the course of a number of years as the product is absorbed into the finish.
With this in mind, I would recommend a dry polish first and see if you can achieve a good result without using a polishing compound.
Start by polishing the surface using a tight circular motion and then remove any excess with an additional clean rag, in much the same way as you would polish a car. Continue inspecting the rag for the transfer of grime and dirt.
Step 5) Using a polishing product
I use polishing compounds to clean my guitars only very rarely. Generally, it is the mild heat (be careful if using a buffing machine for example as excessive heat can damage guitar finishes) generated by the polishing motion that will tend to help remove much of the grime found on the body of the guitar. That’s right, rather than a dedicated polishing compound it mostly comes down to good old elbow grease.
If you do happen to use any form of guitar polishing compound start by polishing a small section of the guitar on a less prominent section and be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Step 6) Addressing the rear of the neck
Ensuring the rear of your guitar neck is smooth and silky aids playability, especially chord transitions and fast runs up and down the neck.
A build-up of grime will cause the neck to feel ‘sticky’ due to the excessive build-up itself or the resulting damage to the finish as a result of the build-up.
If only addressing the rear of the neck it is advised to clean using a small amount of warm water followed by additional solvents as required.
But since we have already cleaned the body including the rear of the neck we can skip this step and move right to reducing the friction on the back of the neck using fine grade steel wool, or depending on the finish very fine grade sandpaper. Be careful, however, as we need to avoid sanding through the finish and exposing the raw timber of the neck.
If your neck has a matte finish (non-glossy finish) it is best to use fine-grade steel wool and gently rub the rear of the neck in the direction of the grain, repeatedly testing until it feels smooth and silky and optimal for moving quickly over the neck.
If your guitar utilizes a gloss finish, use very fine-grade sandpaper e.g. 600grit wet and dry sandpaper. Just like using steel wool, sand with the grain, and regularly check your progress to avoid sand throughs.
Once you have completed this step you have completed cleaning the guitar body. That leaves us just one final step, cleaning the hardware.
How to Clean Acoustic Guitar Hardware
Cleaning the hardware on your acoustic guitar, (unlike an electric guitar) is really just a case of cleaning the tuning pegs both at the front (spool and buttons) and the rear housing (if the tuners do not use exposed gears).
Why you should keep your tuners clean
Despite this being a minor job, it’s an important one as maintenance of your tuning keys will keep them in good working order longer and ensure the guitar maintains tuning stability over time. Depending on the state of your tuners, this may simply require a wipe down with a clean rag. However, you can also apply a metal polish (brass polish if your tuners are made from brass) which will leave a protecting coating, preventing dust and other build-ups, at least in the short term.
Step 1) Wipe the tuners down using a dry rag
To remove dust and other particles, simply wipe the tuners down using a dry rag. In most cases, this will suffice and your tuners will look greatly improved.
Step 2) (If required) Brush any debris from the gears
If the gears are exposed you may need to use an old toothbrush or specialized cleaning brush to remove any dust that would otherwise affect the gears.
Step 3) Apply a metal polish
Add a small amount of metal polish (or brass polish if your tuners are made from brass) and polish the spool, button, and housing of the tuners. While you should take care to avoid getting any polish on the headstock, in reality, provided you remove it quickly it won’t have a detrimental effect on the guitar’s finish.
Once completed, you can put on a fresh new set of strings and the entire job will be completed. Congratulations, you have just given your acoustic guitar a professional clean which will ensure it looks great, plays great, and sounds great for much longer.
Cleaning your acoustic guitar may not be the most enjoyable way to spend time with your favorite musical instrument but it’s a job you should consider doing a couple of times per year or based on your own observations concerning grime and build-up you notice the fretboard and body. Keep in mind this is not just about aesthetics, you can improve the playability of your guitar and reduce the possibility of requiring expensive repair down in the future.