How to Clean an Electric Guitar Using Household & Professional Items

With all the money and time that you’ve put into your electric guitar, give it a tune-up with a good cleaning to preserve its longevity and playability. 

Whether it’s cleaning the electric guitar body, wiping up the frets and fingerboard, and even giving the strings some brushing up, I have a tip or two about it. 

But, you can’t use any ol’ spray and mix on your finish.  Learn what products work best for your type of electric guitar finish and what household items may do the trick in a jiffy. 

Why Clean an Electric Guitar?

How to Clean an Electric Guitar

There’s a lot to be said when it comes to cleaning your guitar.

It could be legitimately argued that you could be doing more damage to it than if you were to leave it alone. 

However, when your fingers start turning black, the neck feels sticky, the guitar body no longer shines, and overall tone sounds dull, it needs a bath – figuratively speaking. 

What’s the harm in cleaning your electric guitar? 

Over time, polishes and waxes tend to build up on the body that can possibly dampen resonance and tone.  And, then there’s the argument of whether cleaning products actually help to protect the finish as compounds and buffing can effectively wear down and remove it.  Regardless of the arguments with truth to them, I reckon giving it an occasional clean is beneficial, not only in restoring its shine, but in removing all the dirt and muck that dampens tone. 

It’s also a good time to look over the guitar and check for any cracks or hardware that needs addressing or replacing.

How to Clean an Electric Guitar Body

While there are multiple types of guitar finishes, they’ll generally fall into two categories: gloss or satin/matte.  Depending on what type of finish you have on your electric guitar will determine what products you should use.

How to Clean a Gloss Finish Electric Guitar

Tools Needed:

  • Guitar duster
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Cleaning product

Cleaning products safe to use on a gloss finish would be any guitar-specific wax and polish like this Music Nomad All-In-One spray, or you can purchase a cleaning and maintenance set like this Dunlop System 65 Kit that comes with fingerboard, neck, and body finishing products. 

Microfiber towels are the safest materials to use on a glossy finish.  They’re super soft, lint-free, will remove grime and fingerprints, and they won’t scratch the finish.  First, lightly brush the dust off the surface as dust has harsh particles that does scratch the finish.  You can do this with a small duster or one made specifically for guitars like this Music Nomad Cleaning Tool.  Always apply the cleaner to the cloth and begin lightly cleaning the surface and around grooves of the hardware.  Lightly buff with the dry side to remove any haze or excess cleaner to restore the body to its glorious shine.

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How to Clean a Satin Finish Electric Guitar

Tools Needed:

  • Warm water
  • Cloth

When you clean your electric guitar, don’t underestimate the cleaning power of good old water.  A non-glossy finish will wipe down great with a bit of warm water to damp a cotton or microfiber cloth.  Don’t soak the cloth or drown the electric guitar.  Just a nice wipe down will be enough to remove the grime from the body. 

Avoid using cleaners for glossy finishes on a satin finish as it can cause stain spots due to the polishing and wax ingredients. The last thing you want to see is spots through the finish of your $1500 electric guitar!  If you insist on using a cleaning product for a satin or matte finish, look for a water-based cleaner like this Music Nomad Guitar Detailer, or you could try Gibson Guitar Polish that is “Safe on all finish types.”

How to Clean the Neck of an Electric Guitar

Again, this part of the cleaning process will depend on the type of finish that is on the back of the neck.

Tools Needed:

  • Microfiber cloth
  • Naphtha
  • 0000 steel wool
  • 600-grit sandpaper
  • Trash bag
  • Painter’s tape

What if the neck of your electric guitar feels sticky? 

If the neck has some friction to it where it’s preventing rapid movement or it feels like you just wrapped your hand around a lollipop, it might need more than just a wipe down. 

Over time, sweating, not washing your hands before playing, oils, and dirt contributes to a layer of grime that makes the neck feel sticky no matter how much you wipe it down.  Here’s where you start to clean your guitar regardless of the finish on the neck. 

Protect the body of the guitar by wrapping it in a trash bag and painter’s tape to seal it at the base of the neck.  Go into the garage and pull out the naphtha.  It’s a lighter fluid that is an excellent cleaning solution to remove that stubborn stuff.  Use a microfiber cloth and apply naphtha.  Gently rub down the neck to remove surface dirt, oil, and all that bad stuff.  You’re not rubbing to polish or distressing the finish – just softly picking up the grime. 

How to Clean a Guitar Neck with a Satin Finish

After you clean your electric guitar neck with naphtha, use 0000 steel wool to remove buildup on the back of the neck.  Move in one direction along with the grain.  Between strokes, check the condition of the neck for smoothness, and when it’s no longer catching, it’s done.  If you find steel wool offensive, don’t hate.  Use the green side of a dish washing sponge instead.

How to Clean a Guitar Neck with a Gloss Finish

After the you clean your electric guitar neck with naphtha, use 600-grit sandpaper to remove buildup.  Move in one direction along with the grain.  Between strokes, check the condition of the neck for smoothness.  You don’t want to get too enthusiastic about sanding as you’ll wear down the finish to the wood.  How to fix this?  You’ll have to reapply a new finish.  Slow and light strokes is key.  You can use 400-grit sandpaper if it’s extra sticky but be conservative. 

How to Clean Your Electric Guitar Strings

Guess where sound starts?  With your strings.  It might be one of the most unappreciated aspects of cleaning your electric guitar as it’s cheap and easy enough to buy a new set of strings.  But, you’ve worked so hard to get them broken in and feeling exactly the way you like them.  You can stretch more life out your strings if do a little preventative and maintenance cleaning with them. 

How do strings get dirty in the first place?  The main source – your hands.  Whatever is on your hands will transfer to the strings and to the fingerboard.  That residue stays on there and builds up.  The result is dampened sound, tone, and shortened sustain. 

Preventative String Care

Tools Needed:

  • Microfiber cloth
  • Small towel
  • Soap and water

Wash your hands.  Done.  Keep a small towel in your electric guitar case for drying and wiping down your hands mid playing session or mid gigs to keep from transferring excess sweat onto the strings.  The quick and easy way to clean your electric guitars strings after every use is to grab a soft cloth like you’d use around the house or a microfiber cloth.  Fold it in half and simply rub it up and down the strings 3-4 times.  You don’t need to press very hard as the strings will make contact with the fretboard.  If using a microfiber cloth, go ahead and give the back of the neck a quick wipe down, too.

Cleaning Guitar Strings

Tools Needed:

  • Soft cloth/microfiber cloth
  • String cleaning tool

For a deeper clean, use a microfiber cloth and fold it in half and half again to create a small square.  Now pinch a string and lift it slightly to get a good grip.  Start from the body end and move it all the way to the nut.  Be careful not pull the string out of its slot.  You’ll be surprised to see how much grit comes off just one string in a couple days.  Repeat 2-3 times for each string. 

Once that’s done, open the cloth and place it under the strings to give the fretboard a brief wipe down.  Slide the cloth from the nut down to the end of the fretboard 2-3 times.  Again, no need to be heavy-handed.  Retune your guitar. 

You can always try out some guitar string cleaning wipes like these Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes that have a lubricant formula that cleans and conditions.  Be careful not to smear the fretboard unless you’re taking the strings off.  Be sure to spot wipe with a dry microfiber cloth where it has touched the fretboard to remove any excess moisture from the wipes.  There are also string cleaner tools with treated applicator pads like  Music Nomad’s String Fuel Cleaner and Lubricant, GHS Fast Fret, or Fender’s Speed Slick Cleaner.  They’re designed to be convenient and quick to use, but if your strings are that dirty, it might be time for a replacement anyway. 

As a side note, it’s best to avoid isopropyl alcohol to clean your guitar strings.  It may be effective, but you’ll indefinitely get some onto your fretboard which can dry it out.  The alcohol also sits in the strings causing them to squeal – and not in the good way.  With safer, alternative string cleaning products out there, leave the isopropyl on the shelf. 

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How to Clean a Fretboard on an Electric Guitar

Look at the frets.  Notice grey or black grimey stuff around them?  Yeah, that’s oil, dirt, skin cells, and who knows what.  If you’ve been cleaning your strings, it’s likely you’ve given your fretboard a bit of a wipe down or spot clean at the same time which goes a long way in helping to keep gunk from building up.  But, if you’ve never thought about it until now, your fretboard is likely filthy. 

Fretboards will come unfinished or finished.  While most fretboards are left unfinished, there are a few with a lacquer finish on them that is also sprayed over the frets.  It’s best to use a damp washcloth and give it a wipe.  Do not use any of the methods described below on a finished fretboard or you will damage the finish. 

What is the Fretboard Made From? 

Rosewood and Ebony electric guitar fretboards are common, and they’re easy to clean with the following process.  However, Maple is different.  You can clean your guitar fretboard with some 0000 steel wool, but you don’t want to use any cleaning solution on it.  Oils aren’t necessary to apply to a Maple fretboard.  The wool wire scrubbing itself is a good method to keep it in tip-top shape. 

How to Clean an Unfinished Fretboard

Tools Needed:

  • Microfiber cloths
  • 0000 steel wool
  • Fretboard cleaning solution
  • Lemon oil (optional)
  • Masking tape
  • Neck support

Lay the electric guitar down onto your workspace and use a guitar neck support or something that can keep it in place while you work.  Loosen and remove the strings.  Protect the pickups and nut by applying masking tape around them.  The metal shavings can magnetize to the pickups and you don’t want the nut damaged by any of the cleaning tools. 

Now, you can either apply a wood oil soap or a specific fretboard cleaning product, like this Music Nomad F-One Fretboard Oil Cleaner and Conditioner, directly to the steel wool or rub dry to just lift the dirt.  Be gentle and move in the same direction as the wood grain.  Give the frets a light rub at the same time to lightly polish them and remove the tarnish to clean them up.  Wipe the fretboard down with a microfiber cloth to pick up excess moisture and dirt. 

Now, you have a dry fretboard.  If the fretboard solution contains a conditioner, you might not need any additional oil such as lemon oil.  If you choose to use lemon oil, use it sparingly so as not to leave the fretboard greasy as it will transfer to the strings.  Remove the masking tape and apply 1-2 drops of fretboard oil to the cotton cloth. 

Gently rub the cloth over the fingerboard and apply more oil as necessary.  Generally, 1 drop per fret is the guideline, but stretch this out so as not to overdo it.  Once all frets are done, go back and wipe and buff off excess oil.  If you feel the fretboard needs another coat, repeat this process again.  Again, you don’t want to over oil your fretboard as it can loosen the slots the frets sit in and cause issues.  This treatment should last longer than a year.  String up your new strings, and you’re done. 

This is just one method you can try as everyone has their own way of cleaning their guitars.  You could also check out D’Addario’s Planet Waves Hydrate Fingerboard Conditioner or their Lemon Oil

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How to Clean a Guitar with Household Items

Really, a microfiber cloth, water, naphtha, and 0000 steel wool should already be household items.  But, if you’re considering cleaning your guitar with furniture polish like Pledge, lemon essential oils, WD-40, or paper towels and anything of the like, get ready for a spanking.  Granted, there are some out there that use these everyday tools and have seen no negative wear and tear – yet.  Leave the house stuff for the house.  Why? 

WD-40, a miracle, multi-purpose spray that protects metal.  If it works for everything else, it should work for your strings, right?  Wrong.  Just like using Windex, it might be effective, but it’s dangerous for the fretboard.  Don’t use the stuff on your strings.  Just stick with a dry cloth, dedicated string cleaning wipes, or buy a new set. 

Musician Cleaning His Electric Guitar With a Cloth

Paper towels, socks, old Tees – they’re a no-no when it comes to cleaning your guitar with a finish.  They’re not soft enough to prevent scratches as the fibers in the material or even dust itself will cause damage.  Stick with microfiber – it’s the safest option. 

What about lemon oil?  The real stuff – no good.  It’ll produce a bone-dry fretboard in the bad way.  Lemon oil for guitars rarely contains any real or pure lemon oil at all.  It’s mostly mineral oil with maybe less than 1% of real lemon oil that conditions the wood. 

But, if you’re insistent on finding some household products that could do the job of cleaning your electric guitar, make sure you look at the label to avoid these ingredients:

  • Alcohol
  • Solvents
  • Silicone
  • Acetone
  • Ammonia

So, after all the no-nos, what household product can be used on a guitar?  Vinegar.  White distilled vinegar works great for cleaning fretboards and it’s safe.  The downside?  You’ll smell like a pickle. 

Clean Less, Play More

Less is more.  It can’t be said enough that a good clean of your electric guitar should last a long time, but it’s really about preventative care.  Wash your hands before you play.  Use a dry microfiber cloth to wipe down spots and strings after playing and keep your guitar in its case when it’s not being used. 

When it’s time for a clean, it’s amazing what just a damp cloth can do.  There’s no need to go overboard cleaning an electric guitar as too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.  Use preventative measures, deep clean less, and play more!   

Further Reading:

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For me, music is a form of magic. It has the ability to transport you to another time and place with just a few soft notes, drifting on the wind. It can invoke joy, excitement, sadness and even fear. Music can strengthen communities and bridge cultural differences. Our lives are truly enriched by the music entwined within them and I look forward to helping make your musical journey a magical one.