How to Clean an Acoustic Guitar Fretboard, Body & Strings with Common Household Items

How to Clean an Acoustic GuitarWhen was the last time you cleaned your guitar?  Not just a wipe down, but a full-on, deep clean like detailing a car.  Stumped?  You didn’t think a guitar needed that kind of care?

Get your gloves on and be prepared for a scrubbing down.  A good clean will help your guitar always look its best, sound true, and last longer.

We’ll tell you how it should be done with professional cleaners or some general household items.  If you want to cherish your investment, baby your guitar from top to bottom!

 

Get Setup!

Give yourself a good hour to correctly clean your guitar.  You’ll need a clean space to lay the guitar out and get your supplies in order.  You may want something soft like a towel to rest under the neck of the guitar for proper balance.  If you have an acoustic-electric guitar, you will want to cover up the sound hole with masking tape or something similar to make sure no particles from the steel wool or other cleaning compounds get into the sound hole.

Some professional items you may want for the process includes:

  • Fretboard conditioner
  • Polishing system
  • Wax polish
  • Lint-free microfiber cloth

 

Some general household items to gather:

  • Low tack tape
  • Soft bristle paintbrush
  • Steel wool
  • Q-tips
  • Old toothbrush
  • Duster/paper towels
  • Dish soap

 

How to Clean an Acoustic Guitar Fretboard

The first step is to remove all the strings.  Some people may be concerned with the release of tension by removing all the strings at once, but manufacturers will tell you it won’t hurt the guitar.  Once the strings are off, you’ll notice the fretboard will more than likely need a cleaning.  Use low tack tape on the body of the guitar alongside the fretboard on both sides.  Use the same tape to cover up the sound hole.

Run your fingers along the fretboard and get a feel for positive roughness and maybe some greasy spots.  You might also see grime and grit that won’t easily come off.  Now’s the time to breakout the steel wool and conditioner.  Most of the time, your fingerboard will be unfinished and probably made from rosewood.  Use a 0000 super-fine grade steel wool – anything more abrasive will scratch the fretboard.  You can use the steel wool alone to remove grime by running it down and up the fretboard in quick, light motions.  Use the paintbrush to brush away steel wool particles.

If you’re using a conditioner, apply a small amount to the polishing cloth to help with the cleaning, hydrate the wood, and prevent cracking in the future.  Rub it along the entire fretboard.  Use a clean part of the cloth and buff off the excess.

You can also apply this same method of cleaning to the bridge.  Remove the saddle and use q-tips for those hard to reach places like in the string holes and saddle slot.

How to clean a guitar with household items?  If you have an old toothbrush in your bathroom vanity, pull it out now.  Apply the conditioner and use the toothbrush to buff the fretboard and frets.  Wipe down any residue conditioner with a paper towel and the results should be a shiny, deep-colored, and restored fingerboard.

Professional products: You can purchase a guitar fret polishing system that only cleans the frets without touching the fingerboard.  It includes a template that covers the woods and exposes the frets.  An included polishing paper removes corrosion, dirt, and grime.

Planet Waves Fret Polishing System

What About Lemon Oil?

During your quest to find the best guitar cleaning kits and products, no doubt you’ve come across the ‘lemon oil debate.’  Is it good for fretboards, or will it kill the wood?  It’s a debate that shouldn’t be a debate at all since the term ‘lemon oil’ is very general.

Dunlop 65 Ultimate Lemon Oil Fretboard CleanerPure lemon oil is bad for your guitar – end of story.  It’s great for disinfecting and cleaning in the house, but it’s very acidic and will dry out your guitar fretboard.  Most lemon oil guitar products have very little lemon oil, maybe 1% or less, if they contain any real lemon at all and are made up of mostly mineral oil.  These are the products that are typically safe for use on fretboards.  They’ll remove grime and grit, leave a gorgeous shine, and smell great.  Apply a small amount to a paper towel or cloth and rub it into the fretboard.  Use a clean side of the cloth and buff out the excess.

However, you never want to use any lemon oil products, with or without real lemon at all, on a maple fretboard.

Stay away from household and furniture wood cleaners.  Your guitar isn’t a piece of furniture, and it may be too abrasive for your precious tonewood.  If you’re tempted, use it at your own risk.  Additionally, some guitar products may contain petroleum distillates.  You’ll need to correctly air out your cleaning rags and cloths after the cleaning process.

Here’s a couple lemon oil products you may want to check out:

 

What About Vinegar?

White distilled vinegar is a great household cleaner that can be used on fretboards.  However, while effective, will you really enjoy the smell of a pickled guitar?  Okay, you won’t be using that much to be giving off an odor.  Long story short – it’s okay.  However, if you want a quick wipe to do the job, Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes are incredibly convenient.

 

How to Clean an Acoustic Guitar Body

Sometimes, all you need to clean the guitar body is a wipe down with a cloth, not a paper towel, a cloth.  A paper towel may be too abrasive.  Guitar polishing cloths are easily bought online, or you can use an old cotton t-shirt that’s been through the wash more times than you can count.  But, the main point here when cleaning the body is not what type of guitar it is, but what type of finish.

Polishing Body of a Guitar

 

1

Raw/Unfinished Bodies

This section also includes vintage guitars.  Don’t use waxes or oil-based cleaners on a guitar that has a raw wood finish.  These products can cause shiny spots on your guitar over time.  The safe bet is to dampen a lint-free cloth with water and give it rub down with an appropriate amount of elbow grease.

If you really want to give it a new and vibrant look and get rid of the heavy grime that’s settled into the body, you’ll need to sand it down.  However, removing the natural patina (nice way of putting discoloration) that’s developed over years of playing to make it look like a glossy, shiny, and modern instrument will devalue your vintage guitar.  To avoid having to get out the sanding equipment, a little bit of naphtha which is a high-flash solvent (lighter fluid) and gentle on the guitar will do an excellent job at cleaning out the stubborn stuff.  It’s safe to use, and a lot of luthiers have it in the shop.

 

2

Satin/Matte Finishes

Use a water-based cleaner on these finishes if you want a little more kick than just plain water.  You always want to apply product to the cloth and not directly on the guitar unless the specific solution you have is safe to do so.  Don’t go overboard with wax or heavier cleaners as they will leave shiny splotches on your guitar body.  You don’t have to worry too much during this process since it does have a protective, waterproof finish, but it just doesn’t get buffed or polished later to assume a reflective finish.

 

3

Gloss Finishes

Water and some dish soap can easily do the trick here.  Spray some onto a cleaning cloth and get to work wiping and rubbing down the soundboard, sides, back, and neck.  Yes – don’t forget the neck!  A clean neck feels amazing and makes for better playing.  Store-bought solutions like Music Noman All-in-1 cleaner and Taylor Guitar Polish are excellent and safe to use, and they’re also great for finishes with lacquer, polyurethane, and varnish.

 

How to Wax a Guitar Body

Most guitars can benefit from a light coat of wax to keep those fingerprints and splotches off and easy to remove.  There’s a ton of waxes on the market, but a household and automotive item that’s safe to use is Turtle Wax Express Shine.  Ensure you avoid silicone-based and abrasive waxes and solutions for ‘detailing’ your guitar.  It’s safe for satin through to high gloss guitars.  Spray once onto your lint-free cloth and spread it across the entire body.  Open your cloth to the dry side and buff the guitar where you applied the wax – don’t forget the back of the neck.

 

What to Avoid

By now, you’ll realize there are a whole lot of products you can use and improvise with, but at the same time, there are products that you shouldn’t go near.

  • Household furniture products/cleaners
  • Silicone
  • Bleach
  • Lacquer thinner

 

How to Clean the Inside of an Acoustic Guitar

While the strings are off, now’s the time to give the sound hole some maintenance love.  The inside isn’t treated with any finishes, so be sure that you haven’t accidentally sprayed any cleaning products or even water on the inside.

All it needs is a sock on the hand or a small towel/cloth and give it a brush down from any dust bunnies, cobwebs, or pennies that have found their way in there.

 

How to Clean Acoustic Guitar Strings

Changing out strings is a good time to give your guitar a thorough clean.  However, a deep guitar clean only needs to be done a couple times a year, and if you play quite often, string replacement should be happening a lot more frequently than that.  Not sure if you’re ready for a string change?  Check out our “When to Restring an Acoustic Guitar” guide to spot the signs.

Music Nomad String Fuel CleanerBut, what if your strings are relatively new and you don’t want to replace them just yet?  You don’t want to install new strings on a dirty fretboard.  They’ll pick up the grime from the fretboard when playing and will go dead 30% sooner than they would’ve if it had been cleaned.  Now that your fretboard should be clean, let’s go over how to clean acoustic guitar strings.

Many people recommend using regular alcohol like isopropyl, but it’s still an alcohol.  It’ll do a great cleaning job in getting between the coils of steel strings, but some of that is going to seep down into the fretboard that we know will dry it out, especially if you’re doing this often.  Additionally, don’t be surprised if your strings shriek after using alcohol on them – it’s a side-effect.

While we’re not against using string cleaners and solutions, they can’t compare to a new set.  They may be able to squeeze out a little bit more string life, but if the strings are rusted, no amount of cleaning can restore them.

However, there are some string cleaners that can certainly add their touch to breathe life into some strings that may soon need to be changed out.  Before then, get rid of the grime, sweat, and oil with Ernie Ball String Cleaner Wonder Wipes, Music Nomad String Fuel Cleaner and Lubricant, and GHS Fast-Fret String Cleaner.

A clean cloth will work too.  Use a dry lint-free microfiber cloth and pinch the guitar string and run it the cloth up and down from the bridge to the nut.  Be sure not to pinch the string out of its position at the nut.  Do this for each string.  Then place the cloth underneath all the strings and run it up and down on top of the fretboard for an extra wipe down.

 

Professional Guitar Products VS Household Items

Guitar products can get expensive when you’re tallying up the numbers for this and that when you’ve got multiple components that need their own supplies.  But, while you can get away with using some household items to get the job done, some can be harmful to the instrument you’re trying to protect.

Sometimes, all you need is what comes in a guitar maintenance kit.  Usually a full tool and repair kit is included that helps you to get the strings off and back on.  A small bottle of cleaner is included, and of course, the appropriate polishing cloth.  With the tools and Wonder Wipes included in the Ernie Ball Musician’s Tool Kit, all you’ll need to come up with is a spray bottle of water to help clean your guitar.  Then again, the Wonder Wipes can do that too.

The Dunlop System 65 Maintenance Kit includes five cleaners for the strings, neck, and body.  They’ve taken away the guess work in what products to use and have put them together in one guitar cleaning kit for value and your convenience.

Dunlop 6500 System 65 Guitar Maintenance Kit

 

Care for Your Guitar

A deep clean will always be easier if you’ve done maintenance cleaning over time.  Feel free to display your guitars on the wall or stands if the room is properly humidified.  If not, always store your guitar in its case.  Give it a good 10 second wipe down to remove smudges and the like before storing it away.

The small acts sure go a long way in having your instrument last a long time sounding and looking its best.

While I don't have an arts degree in music, I have spent enough time around musical instruments & musicians to pass on some useful information. When I'm not rocking out to a sick beat on my stereo, you will find me sitting on a bean bag, in the corner of my room with a guitar trying to emulate the prowess of the great Mr Eric Clapton.