How To Clean Your Guitar – Complete Guide

No matter how great a player you are, and even with the most expensive, state-of-the-art guitar, you must maintain your instrument to ensure you can play your best.
How to clean your guitar

Part of that maintenance— in addition to checking the truss rod, changing out batteries for your active pickup, and changing the strings— includes cleaning your axe.

Let’s look at some basic steps for how to clean your guitar, whether it’s an acoustic, a nylon-stringed classical, or a face-melting electric.

Cleaning Your Guitar

Whatever you play, many of the steps in cleaning it are similar to those for other guitar types. A critical thing to remember is to be gentle with your guitar and pay attention to the details. The better you care for your instrument, the longer it will work well.

Preparing For Guitar Cleaning

Before cleaning your guitar, be sure you have the tools you need and a good place to do the job.

Gathering the necessary tools and materials beforehand saves you from chasing down item after item while you’re in the middle of the work. Put together:

  • Soft, lint-free cloths that are clean and free of abrasive materials. Without a lint-free cloth, you risk scratching your guitar’s finish.
  • A small brush or toothbrush allows you to scrub hard-to-reach places. Just because you can’t get your fingers into a small space doesn’t mean it doesn’t need cleaning.
  • Guitar polish is not the same as a household cleaning spray. If you find yourself tempted to spray some Pledge on your wooden instrument, resist that urge. You can find guitar polish made for your specific guitar type, so look for it.
  • Lemon oil is optional. But something like this lemon oil will help preserve and condition the rosewood of your fretboard, especially on an acoustic or classical guitar.
  • Electric guitar strings are built differently than those for an acoustic guitar, so opt for a string cleaner for your axe. You can easily remove grime and extend the life of the strings.
  • Wax for classical guitars is optional but will lend shine and protection. Wax specifically made for a guitar is the only choice here.
  • A string winder and cutter makes changing strings exponentially easier. If you plan on a change to go along with the cleaning job, have these on hand. Even if you’re not cleaning your guitar today, you should have a string winder in your gig bag.

Where you work is important, too. Cleaning your axe on your bed is less than ideal since you’ll have too soft a work surface, but then doing it on the kitchen table presents too hard a spot and is high enough off the ground that if it fell, there would be problems.

If you have a space like a garage workshop, use that. But the kitchen table isn’t completely off-limits. Grab a padded neck rest and lay it on the work surface. This pad will support the guitar’s neck, hold the instrument in place, and provide some padding between the guitar and the work surface. 

Cleaning An Acoustic Guitar

All set? Let’s go.

  1. Remove dirt and dust from the body using that soft, lint-free cloth. If you want to remove the strings for the cleaning process, now’s the time. And after you’ve removed the dust, look more closely for dirt and grime. Near the bridge, the nut, and on the tuning pegs, you’re likely to find some deposits since your skin touches those places a lot.
  2. Do the same to the fretboard. Your fingers will have deposited some schmutz on it and it collects up against the frets. Gently scrub it away with the toothbrush or the cloth.
  3. Condition the fretboard. Conditioning is an optional step, but if you choose to apply lemon oil (specifically formulated for guitar cleaning), do so with a different soft, clean, lint-free cloth. Be sure to run the oil in well and remove any excess.
  4. Polish the guitar body. Again, this step is optional, but it will make your instrument look and feel great. Use a guitar cleaner, though, so you don’t damage the finish with some random household cleaner.

Cleaning A Classical Guitar

Since a classical guitar has much in common with an acoustic, the cleaning process is similar.

  1. Remove the strings if you wish, then clean dirt and dust off the body.
  2. Clean the fretboard using a soft toothbrush (dry) or the same cloth you wiped the body with.
  3. Condition the fretboard, which is still optional.
  4. Your classical guitar has a different finish than an acoustic, so if you want to polish it, apply a light coat of classical guitar wax. As with the polish for the acoustic guitar, this step isn’t necessary, but it will help your guitar look terrific, and there’s always that saying about how if you take care of your things, your things will take care of you.

Cleaning An Electric Guitar

Although the electric guitar has six strings and a fretboard, it’s still pretty different from the acoustic and classical models.

I know this goes without saying, and might cause you to roll your eyes and slap your forehaead in disbelief, but unplug it before you clean it. It’s like any other electrical appliance— you cut the power before you start working on it.

Next, follow the steps outlined above— remove the strings if you want, wipe down the body, then the fretboard, and use a lint-free cloth for all of it.

Your electric guitar likely has more metal hardware than acoustic or nylon-stringed classical guitars, so don’t leave it out of your cleaning routine. Spend time wiping the knobs, bridge, saddles, and tuning pegs to remove skin oils. 

Your electric guitar is more likely to have chrome or chrome-adjacent hardware than an acoustic, and if you don’t keep that hardware wiped down, it will eventually mellow to a dull patina. Maybe you’re after that, but most of us prefer for the shiny hardware to remain shiny.

A string lubricant may be warranted, especially if you don’t like the squeak your hands are more likely to make on electric strings than on acoustic or nylon ones. A good lubricant will help cut that down.

Finishing The Job

Once everything is clean, restring your guitar. Remember that your strings probably need some time to settle after you put them on, so try not to do all of this an hour before a big gig.

And finally, wipe off any new fingerprints or smudges that appeared during the restringing process.

Additional Maintenance Tips

We all know that one guy who finishes a gig, throws his axe in a soft-side bag, grabs his amp, and bails. And we know that when he gets home, his guitar stays in the case until the next gig or rehearsal.

Don’t be that guy.

When it’s time for him to play a showcase or other high-stakes gig, his guitar will be a mess, and he’ll need way more time to get it shipshape than if he had maintained his instrument regularly as you do.

Wipe It Down

Keep an old t-shirt or a (never-before-used) cloth diaper in your case, and then get in the habit of wiping down the entire instrument after every practice session, band rehearsal, and show. Once it’s a habit, you won’t even think about it, and your guitar will remain cleaner for longer. It will also take much longer for your fretboard to develop that dreaded schmutz. 

Store Your Guitar Properly

If you have one of those guitar hangers at your house to display your instrument, that’s great, provided it’s not in a dusty area or a spot in the home that’s too humid (more on humidity in a bit). That hanger will keep the instrument off the floor, where it will be less likely to get bumped or tripped over.

If you keep it on a guitar stand at your house, opt for the most secure one you can find, preferably something with a crossbar or elastic band that will prevent the guitar from falling forward out of the stand. 

The best thing to do is keep your guitar in a hard case. You don’t necessarily need one of those heavy airplane cases, but even a hard, ABS-plastic case will offer protection from bumps and bruises.

If you must carry and store your guitar in a soft-sided case, get the one with the most padding. Many of these cases are little more than nylon or canvas envelopes and can protect your guitar from not much other than wind.

Check Your Strings

No matter how well you wipe down your guitar, after any playing session, oils will begin to build up on them. Depending on how often you play your instrument, you will need to get on a schedule for replacing your strings.

Time to change strings

Unless you’re playing for long periods on a daily basis, you can probably get away with changing your strings every three to six months, or sometimes longer than that. Regardless, it’s always good to develop a habit where you change your strings fairly regularly, as strings will deteriorate over time whether you play or not. You might even decide on a schedule. It doesn’t have to be a tight schedule. Just decide on which interval suits you and then stick to it.

Keep An Eye On The Truss Rod

While a classical guitar won’t have a truss rod (the tension applied to the neck by the nylon strings isn’t high enough to warrant a metal reinforcement), your acoustic and electric guitars do.

The truss rod is a metal rod that runs the length of the neck and allows you to counter any bowing or twisting your guitar neck may begin having due to the high string tension.

Depending on your guitar’s make and model, the truss rod access may be at the end of the neck, above the nut, or it might be accessible through the sound hole. Access on the headstock may be covered by a screwed-on plate, but this is easily removed.

The truss rod turns with an Allen-style wrench. If you can see a bend in the neck, or if you’re noticing tuning and intonation issues (especially if these issues get worse as you play higher and higher notes), your truss rod may need adjustment.

To do this, turn the truss rod, using the Allen wrench, one-eighth of a turn counter-clockwise. Then leave it alone. Let the guitar settle before turning it anymore. And it needs to settle, too, before you play it to determine if the issues are fixed yet. 

Truss rod manipulation takes patience. Some players give the rod a bump on a regular basis, such as perhaps performing a one-eighth turn on the first Friday of every month. For more info on how to do this, check out our guide right here.

The Fickle Nature Of Humidity

Your acoustic, to some extent, and especially your classical guitar want consistent humidity levels. Remember that most of these guitars are made from wood, a porous material easily affected by humidity or the lack thereof. If you live in an especially dry area, you might wanna invest in a humidifier for your case. If you live in a more humid area, like Florida, having a dehumidifier in your practice room might be a good idea. 

That’s good advice even if you don’t own a guitar. But too much moisture will cause swelling, and not enough can lead to cracks forming in your guitar’s finish or even the wood itself.

Don’t Neglect The Battery

You may have active pickups on your electric, and more and more often, acoustic and even classical guitars have an onboard amplification system that requires battery power.

The last thing you want is for your active pickup to stop being active because your battery died in the middle of a gig.

Many active pickups take 9V batteries, but not all of them do. Find out what your pickup needs and then commit to keeping a schedule for installing a fresh one. 

Do you know what can hardly miss? Changing your battery every time you change your strings. Unless you leave your guitar plugged in all the time (which will cause the pickup to draw power from the battery even when you’re not playing), a new battery every six months will likely be more than sufficient to make sure you don’t run out of juice at a bad time.

Final Thoughts

I hear you, loud and clear. Maintenance sucks, right? Especially if you have more than one guitar. Clearly, not everyone takes pride in the appearance of their guitar, the same way some neglect their cars and other posessions. This is probably the part of our hobby that gets most frequently ignored and overlooked.

But please know this. A clean and well kept guitar will feel, sound and look awesome, so the experience of playing it will be awesome too. And not only that, costly damages to your beloved instrument can be kept at a minimum if you look after it.

Keep your instrument clean and it will reward you with years of playing experiences. Clean your guitar regularly, make sure you use soft cloths and approved cleaners, and remove dirt, smudges, and fingerprints as soon as you can.

Then keep to a regular maintenance schedule. The more time you spend preventing big issues from arising with your guitar, the less time you’ll have to spend dealing with issues when they do arise.

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