How to Clean a Guitar Fretboard

Today, I start with a two-part series on cleaning your guitar.  This part covers how to clean a guitar fretboard, bridge, and tuning keys.  Next week, I’ll go over how to clean the body of the guitar and its finish.  So, read on for some tips on how to get started with properly cleaning an acoustic guitar.

Why?  And Can I Do It Myself?

First, let’s address the question of why clean your guitar.  Obviously, you’ve invested quite a bit in your instrument, and making it look good is more than just a matter of pride.  For me, I’d be reluctant to pick up a dirty instrument and just starting playing it.  But it goes much beyond that.  A clean guitar will last longer, need fewer repairs, and honestly, will sound better.  And, I might add, will be more fun to play.  And isn’t that the whole point…

Is this something you can do yourself?  Absolutely!  It does take a bit of time, and you need to do it correctly, but you can do it.  So, here’s how.

Materials

A number of products are sold as cleaners, or conditioners, for your guitar.  Unfortunately, many of these can actually do harm to the finish or the wood of your guitar.  So, avoid any products that contain d-Limonene, lemon oil, alcohol, or silicone, as these are harmful.  d-Limonene is extracted from citrus rind, and actually contains acids, which can act as a solvent and break down any finish applied to the wood.  Lemon oil has the same problem.  Alcohol tends to dry out the wood, and when applied to the finish can cause it become cloudy.  Silicone may actually be the worst of these.  It causes the wood to stop breathing.  It can cause the finish to become cloudy, like alcohol.  And it is almost impossible to get off.

Instead, here are the products I recommend:

Planet Waves Hydrate
(available from Amazon here)how to clean a guitar fretboard

Music Nomad Fretboard Oil Cleaner and Conditioner
(available from Amazon here)how to clean a guitar fretboard

Microfiber cleaning cloth – Many companies make a cleaning cloth suitable for guitars, including Gibson, Planet Waves, Fender, Dunlop, Music Nomad, Ernie Ball, and Cordoba.

Fretboard

Before I start in on how to clean a fretboard, some clarification might be in order.  Fretboards made of dark wood, like ebony and rosewood, are typically unfinished.  However, maple fretboards usually have some sort of finish applied.  The same holds true of the bridge.  Which means, you treat them differently.  Now, on to cleaning…

The fretboard is the one wooden part of any guitar that is most in need of keeping clean.  As you play, sweat, dirt, and dead skin cells will come into contact with the wood of the fretboard.  There’s nothing you can do to prevent this.  Your only option is to keep it clean.  If you don’t, you ultimately run the risk of damaging the wood.  Two things can happen.  The moisture, salt, and acid buildup around the frets can cause dry rot in the wood.  When this happens, the frets can loosen, resulting in some expensive repairs.  Trust me, you don’t want this to happen.  Second, as your sweat dries, it can pull moisture out of the underlying wood, causing it to dry out.  Eventually, this can cause the wood to crack, resulting in another expensive repair.  So, let’s keep it clean…

Here’s my Taylor’s fretboard before I cleaned it.  While it doesn’t look real dirty, the soft cloth I used to clean it came out dirtier than I expected.  Also, notice the discoloration on the frets from contact with the strings.

how to clean a guitar fretboard

 

Step 1

Remove all the strings.  Yep, you heard that right.  When I first started playing, I read that you should never remove all the strings at the same time.  It would cause damage to the neck because of tension from the truss rod.  Well, that’s actually not correct.  Guitar repairmen and luthiers do it all the time.  So, remove the strings.  It’ll be okay.  Here’s a link to a recent blog with the arguments, both pro and con, for removing all the strings at one time.

Step 2

Clean the wood of the fretboard.  I prefer to use a toothbrush with soft bristles, but make sure it is brand new.  I don’t trust any possible residues from toothpaste or your saliva.  Plus, you can scrub as hard as you want and it won’t damage the wood or the frets themselves.  Apply a fretboard conditioner (see the list above) and work it in as you scrub with the toothbrush.  Use a paper towel or soft cloth to clean up the loose gunk and any excess conditioner.  I don’t recommend using a microfiber cloth for this, particularly if the fretboard is quite dirty.  You’ll get the gunk on the cloth, and if you intend to use this cloth for cleaning any other part of your guitar, you’ll run the risk of spreading this gunk on other parts.  A paper towel or soft cloth can be discarded after it gets dirty.

how to clean a guitar fretboard

Optionally, you can use steel wool to clean the fretboard.  Important – only use 0000 steel wool.  Anything else and you run the risk of damaging the wood or the frets.  Also, if you use it on a fretboard with a finish, like is typically used with maple fretboards, it will make the finish cloudy.  As steel wool is used, it will break down somewhat, leaving very small metal filaments.  The best way to clean these up is with a vacuum cleaner.  If you don’t, they can cause damage to other parts of your guitar.  They can scratch the finish of the body, cause your pickup to corrode (if you are using an electric guitar or have attached a pickup), and affect your sound if they get on the strings.  See, this is why I prefer using a toothbrush.

Step 3

Polish the frets themselves.  If you are using steel wool, go over the surface of the frets to clean them.  Do this as you are cleaning the wood.  Steel wool makes the frets really shine, I must admit.

If you have used a toothbrush for the wood, then you will need another approach for the frets.  Fortunately, there are products designed just for this.  Two that I like are listed below.  Each one consists of a hard cover to protect the wood and a way to polish the fret, either with a cleaning compound or a very fine polish paper.  Just place the cover over each fret, making sure no wood is exposed, then polish the fret.  Once you are done with all the frets, either use a vacuum to clean up the very fine residue from the polish paper, or wipe off any excess cleaning compound.

Planet Waves Fret Polishing System
(available from Amazon here)how to clean a guitar fretboard

Music Nomad Fret Polishing Kit
(available from Amazon here)how to clean a guitar fretboard

Bridge

With the strings all off, remove the bridge saddle carefully.  Clean the bridge using a toothbrush and conditioner as described above for the fretboard.  Wipe everything down with a clean cloth or paper towel, making sure there is no excess conditioner.  Again, don’t use a good microfiber cloth for this.

how to clean a guitar fretboard

Here’s the bridge on my Taylor after conditioning:

how to clean a guitar fretboard

Obviously, the above only works for a wooden bridge.  If you have a guitar with a metal bridge, read the following section on cleaning tuner keys.

Tuning Keys

Sweat and acid from your skin can eventually damage the finish of your tuning keys, allowing the metal plating to corrode, possibly resulting in rust.  Over time, this can impact their function.  So, keeping them clean is something else I recommend.

Before you get to the point of the metal plating corroding, simply wipe down exposed metal surfaces with a soft cloth or a microfiber cleaning cloth.  If corrosion has begun, you will need to remove the tuners.  The reason for this is that the best materials you can use to clean the metal are only safe on metal.  They will actually damage the wood or finish of your guitar if any of it gets on the instrument.  WD-40 works well on the metal parts.  Or you can use a similar oil type product.  Just make sure you clean all excess oil off the part before re-installing on your guitar.

Re-string your guitar.  You’re now done.  Way to go!

Finish

You’ll notice I didn’t mention how to care for the finish of the body.  I’ll get to that next week.  In some respects, the finish is a more complex issue.

In the meantime, your guitar is now in better shape and ready to be played.  Get to it!  Music makes the world a better place, so get back to playing.  The world needs it!

Rock on!

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