How to Properly Clean an Acoustic Guitar
When you view your acoustic guitar as an investment you want to properly care for it. I know I do. And I’m not talking about simply wiping it down with a cloth. I’m talking about a proper, deep clean that would make your mama proud.
Here I’m going to walk through not only the best practices for cleaning an acoustic guitar, I’m also going to share with you the best products to use and, more importantly, which products not to use.
Caring for Your Guitar | The Basics
Before we dive into the proper cleaning methods I think it’s important to first lay the foundation for proper guitar care. If you follow these simple rules, cleaning your guitar will be an enjoyable experience.
To start, it is highly recommend that you store your acoustic guitar in its case when you’re not playing it. I know how tempting it is to want to display your guitar on a wall or on a stand in your room but unless you use a room humidifier for your guitar it’s best to keep it in the case. Not only does this keep the guitar properly humidified, a case also naturally protects your guitar from accidental scratches and dings.
The second “rule” to help with proper guitar care is to change your guitar strings at appropriate intervals. I use the phrase “appropriate interval” because it’s different for everybody. For me, somebody who plays his guitar regularly every week (although perhaps not every day), I change my strings once every 2 months or so. The more often I play, the more often I change the strings. The reason this is an important aspect of cleaning your guitar is because strings gather finger oils, dead skin cells and dirt over time and if not changed will transfer all of this gunk to your fretboard.
Finally, it is recommended that you wipe down your guitar after each playing. I personally keep a soft rag in my case that I use to wipe smudges off the finish and clean my finger oils off the strings. It takes me all of 10 seconds to wipe it down while I’m putting my guitar away but that 10 seconds goes a long way when I’m ready to do a proper cleaning with my guitar.
Step 1: Cleaning the Fretboard
When it comes time to deep clean my guitar I usually set aside about an hour for the process. The first thing you’ll want to do is remove all of your strings. I’ve heard some people express concern over this being a strain on the guitar neck, which is used to supporting over 200lbs worth of tension, but most guitar manufacturers agree that it won’t damage your guitar to take off all the strings at once.
Once all the strings come off it becomes quite clear which part of your guitar needs the most attention – the fretboard.
Photo by PremierGuitars (link below)
More than likely, your guitar fretboard consists of a beautiful, unfinished rosewood. Cleaning this rosewood and the frets isn’t difficult but there are a few tips that can make it go faster.
Steel Wool & Conditioner: the easiest way to get rid of most of the gunk buildup on your fretboard is to get some good guitar conditioner and 0000 super-fine steel wool (the package I linked to here is less than $5 and should last you for a really long while). It’s important that you only use super-fine steel wool as anything other than this can scratch and damage your fretboard.
Fretboard conditioner isn’t absolutely necessary (you can just use the steel wool by itself) but it helps the process along. Not only that, conditioner also helps to hydrate the natural wood to keep it from cracking. I use Hydrate by Planet Waves for this process and it works well. Dunlop makes fretboard polish that I’ve used before and works just as well.
Once you’ve finished scrubbing the fretboard with the conditioner and steel wool, make sure to vacuum or wipe away any excess particles from the wool.
Old Toothbrush: believe it or not, there is a good use for your old toothbrush! I usually reapply some fretboard conditioner and buff it in using the old toothbrush. Unlike steel wool, you can apply as little or as much pressure as you want using a toothbrush without fear of damaging the fretboard, which is nice.
When you’re finished make sure to wipe down the fretboard with a paper towel or a guitar cloth, removing any excess conditioner. The result should be a beautiful, deep-colored wood with shiny silver frets that will make you smile!
Note: for those who don’t feel comfortable using steel wool on your guitar, the toothbrush can work just fine polishing the fretboard while it’s recommended you use the Planet Waves Fret Polishing System to polish the frets without touching the wood.
Second Note: if you have a fretboard that does have a finish (they aren’t common, but they do exist), please disregard all of this information and treat this wood as I share in step 3 below.
Step 2: Cleaning the Bridge
After you finish the fretboard you can move onto the bridge, which is cleaned similar to the fretboard. Remove the saddle and nuts, using the conditioner and toothbrush from above to give the bridge a good scrub. I also take this time to clean the dirt that has accumulated all around where the bridge is glued to the soundboard of the guitar.
I use Q-tips (cotton swabs) to clean inside the saddle slot as well as inside the string holes. Follow this by wiping it down with paper towel or guitar cloth and you’re good to go!
Step 3: Cleaning the Finish
The final stage of cleaning your guitar is the part that will go most noticed by those around you – cleaning the finish on your guitar. Over time you’ll get sweat smudges and dirt spots, which if they aren’t properly cleaned on a regular basis could damage the finish on your guitar. Don’t just use anything to clean and polish the finish, however.
What NOT to Use
Although products like Pledge and other furniture cleaners are used to clean wood, it is absolutely not the right product for cleaning your guitar. If you’re not going to use a guitar-specific polish, check on the back to make sure that what you’re using doesn’t contain lemon oil, alcohol or silicone – all of which can permanently damage your guitar finish.
Which Guitar Polish to Use?
The truth is that water works just fine to help polish your guitar. You don’t have to get all fancy with store-bought polishes if you don’t want to. Just lightly wet your guitar cloth and add a little elbow grease.
That said, I still do use a wax polish and you’re likely going to want to as well. While there are plenty of guitar-specific polishes on the market, most professional guitarists (and even guitar manufacturers) recommend something as simple as automotive wax. I know it sounds crazy but if you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe it when high-end maker Taylor Guitars tells its guitarists to use Turtle Wax Express Shine on its guitars. The reason it’s so popular is because it works well on both glossy and satin finishes.
During the time that I am cleaning the finish on the body of my guitar I also take the time to clean the neck and headstock of the guitar.
Step 4: Final Touches
Before I restring the guitar there are just a couple little things that I personally like to do. You won’t find these in any other cleaning guide but I think it’s important!
First of all, while I have my sound hole wide open, I like to clean the inside of the guitar which accumulates dust and cobwebs. Don’t use water to do this (the wood inside is unfinished and water will damage it). I usually take a paper towel to grab the dust bunnies that have inevitably collected along the edges.
Second, I like to make sure that my battery is changed (I have an acoustic-electric) and I check to make sure that the nut on the quarter-inch plug is tight. This requires me to stick almost my entire arm into the sound hole, something that is absolutely impossible if there are any strings on the guitar.
That’s it! Restring the guitar and enjoy how beautiful it looks and feels.