How To Clean An Acoustic Guitar: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide

How to clean an acoustic guitar - complete guide

Cleaning my acoustic guitar is one of those things I personally look forward to. I always clean my guitar thoroughly when I put new strings on it and there is just something exciting about the smell and feel of a clean fretboard and polished guitar, and the bright, crisp, clean tone of a brand new set of acoustic guitar strings. Along with my daily cleaning routine, I give my guitars a thorough cleaning about three to four times each year. Giving your acoustic guitar a thorough cleaning is a fairly simple procedure. One which gets quicker and easier the more frequently you do it.

To clean your acoustic guitar, you’ll first remove your strings. Use a dry cloth to remove loose dust or debris. Then use guitar cleaner (I use naphtha) for the more caked-on grime. Wipe down the entire guitar in this way and then restring after satisfied with its cleanliness.

There’s a lot more that goes into each of these steps that I’ll cover below, especially if you’ve never had to restring your guitar before or would like recommendations on which techniques work the best or are looking for tricks of the trade.

Does Your Acoustic Guitar Need To Be Cleaned?

acoustic guitar standing uprightThis ultimately comes down to player preference but, there are myriad pros to cleaning your acoustic guitar and maybe three reasons to avoid it. First, you may want it looking grungy for the aesthetic appeal. Second, if you’ve got an extremely old guitar with a delicate finish you may want to avoid moisture or touching it unnecessarily to avoid flaking off the finish or removing the patina. Third, well… I can’t really think of a third reason, but I’ll bet someone knows of one.

The list of reasons to clean your guitar are as long as my short arm. Most importantly, a clean, well maintained acoustic guitar will last longer, perform better, and look nicer than a guitar that is all gummed up with skin, spit, oil and beer. A clean soundboard will vibrate more freely and uniformly. A clean fretboard will keep your stings cleaner and thereby your acoustic guitar will sound better. Oil, sweat, and salt will break down wood over time causing deep washboarding on your fretboard. Over time, oil and sweat will seep into finish cracks causing them to swell and crack more. Further, dirt and skin will collect in the cracks making them more obvious. A guitar’s finish is intended to keep moisture and dirt away from the wood. Keeping it clean helps preserve the finish allowing it to better do its job.

How Much Does It Cost to Clean A Guitar?

Cleaning a guitar yourself can be as cheap as free or perhaps as much as $20. It just depends on how much you want to spend. Warm, soapy water and a clean, soft rag will usually do the trick (especially if you employ a frequent cleaning routine). You can remove all but the trickiest debris with this free method.

If you have something more difficult to remove, say the backing from a sticker or some sort of unidentifiable dried substance, you might need to go down to your local hardware store and pick up a bottle of Naphtha (pronounced naf-tha or nap-tha) which will run you about $10 for a quart and will likely last you a full decade. Naphtha will remove the stickiest, stankiest, grunkiest, gunk from your guitar finish. It’s also safe to use on bare wood because it evaporates extremely quickly.

You can also use an over-the-counter guitar cleaner and polish like Dunlop 65 or a lemon oil (I’ve used Kyser Guitar Polish for decades, about $5) to clean and polish your acoustic guitar. These cleaners will loosen harder-to-remove accumulations of bodily debris as well as put a nice, protective coat on the finish. This protective coat will help repel oil and dust making it easy to wipe off during your daily cleaning routine that you plan on starting immediately after reading this blog.

Guitar Cleaning Supplies

What you will need to clean your acoustic guitar:

Steps To Clean Your Acoustic Guitar

  1. Use your fingers or a string winder to loosen the strings until you can easily remove them from the tuning machines (if you are replacing the strings just loosen them several turns and cut with a pair of wire cutters).
  2. Pull each of the bridge pins (Hint: most string winders have an integrated bridge pin remover) or untie the strings from the bridge and remove the strings. Set the bridge pins aside in order, so the same bridge pin goes back into the same bridge pin hole.
  3. Place one dry cloth securely over the opening of the can of naphtha or your preferred acoustic guitar cleaner. Tip the can upside down and let a little bit of the cleaner soak into the cloth. Or just dip a corner of the cloth in a bit of warm, soapy water.
  4. Use the wetted area of the cloth to thoroughly wipe down the entire acoustic guitar.
  5. Pay extra attention to the nooks and crannies as well as areas where skin comes into contact with the guitar such as the neck and lower bout of the body. This is where sebum (oils excreted from skin) tends to mix with sweat and skin and accumulate.
  6. Using a second clean, dry cloth wipe the entire guitar down to get rid of any excess cleaner or water. Make sure the guitar is 100% dry. I’ll place mine in front of a box fan for a few minutes just to be sure.
  7. Apply a small amount of paste wax (Renaissance is my go-to), auto polish (I like Mother’s or Meguiar’s) or guitar polish to the finish.
  8. Rub the polish in with a very soft, lint-free cloth, let it dry for a few seconds and then wipe it off to bring out a freshly polished, bright finish.

Restring your acoustic guitar, tune and you’re good to go. Once you’ve cleaned and polished it you can remove a majority of the dirt and grime by giving your guitar a quick wipe down with a microfiber cloth every time before and after you play. The clean, polished surface will tend to repel moisture and keep dust and dander from sticking to it. Wiping this easy-to-remove debris off every time you play will help keep it from building up and will make your next cleaning a breeze!

How To Clean Acoustic Guitar Strings

The best way to clean your acoustic guitar strings is by maintaining a simple cleaning routine. This will preserve your string far longer than any other method. Wiping your acoustic guitar strings with a dry cloth every time both before and after playing keeps your strings clean, dry and corrosion free. Keep a microfiber cloth near your guitar. On your guitar stand, in your case, or on your mic stand are all great places to keep it. Give the strings a quick once over whenever you pick up your acoustic guitar and again before you put it away.

Other methods of cleaning strings have extremely limited benefits. These methods will remove some sebum and other gack from your strings but they won’t remove corrosion. Further, the improvements in tone are extremely short lived and none of these alternative methods are anything more than a band-aid until you replace the strings. If your acoustic guitar strings have gotten bad enough to try one of these methods they need to be replaced. There are no substitutes for a new set of strings. None. Zip. Zero. Nada.

If you find yourself in a pinch you can restore a bit of life to your stings by boiling them in water for 15 mins, scrubbing them with warm water and dish soap, or wiping/soaking them in Isopropyl alcohol or Windex. Another issue is that every time you remove a set of strings you suck a bit of their life out of them. It’s kind of a two steps forward one step back situation when you remove strings to help them sound better.

Further reading: The Best Way To Clean Guitar Strings: An Easy To Follow Guide

Cleaning Your Acoustic Guitar Tuners

Acoustic guitar tuners, or tuning machines, are one of the most important parts of any guitar. Well-cleaned and properly maintained guitar tuners operate more smoothly and do a far better job of keeping your guitar in tune. There are even benefits for the tone deaf. Clean, shiny tuners also make your acoustic guitar look more desirable. Finally, keeping grime and debris off of the outside of the guitar tuners helps keep it from getting inside them which can make them difficult to turn or cause unnecessary wear.

acoustic guitar headstock

Guitar tuners can typically be cleaned by taking a clean cloth and putting a bit of naphtha or other solvent on it. Begin by wiping the knob and working your way toward the housing, removing grime, dirt, and any grease that has leaked from the housing. If your knobs and housing are chrome they can be polished with a dab of metal polish to bring out a like-new shine.

However, there are few different types of guitar tuners and their different parts are made from different materials. Each style will require slightly different methods to properly clean them.

Sealed tuners can simply have the housing wiped down with a solvent like Naphtha, a guitar cleaner, or a cloth dampened with a bit of warm soapy water. If they are particularly greasy you may want to use a stronger solvent like Naphtha.

For open tuners you can use a toothbrush or other soft bristled brush and a cleaner to clean the grime from the gears. It is essential that you lube the gears when you are done cleaning with Vaseline, paste wax, or a store bought guitar grease. Turn the gears back and forth several times to work the lubricant into each of the teeth and down the entirety of the worm gear.

For closed (but not sealed) tuners, remove them from the headstock. Over a dirty towel or shop rag, use a small syringe or pipette to inject Naphtha into the small hole in the housing and let it drain out. Do this a few times, working the knobs back and forth, until it appears clean. Inject a liquid lubricant into the housing using the same method and then wipe the tuners thoroughly and replace them on the headstock.

If this is your first time, you’ll want to also read our dedicated article on Cleaning Guitar Tuners.

How To Clean Your Fretboard

Fretboards tend to be the nastiest, dirtiest part of our acoustic guitars. Just like the rest of the guitar they collect dust, fingernail bits, cigarette or vape smoke, resin, etc. This combines with sweat and the sebum our skin excretes and creates what I call “gack”. The gack gets ground into the strings and fretboard and becomes a magnet for more dust, skin, and szechuan sauce.

acoustic guitar fretboard

A daily routine of wiping down your strings before and after you play mops up a good amount of the debris on our acoustic guitars and prevents most of it from accumulating on the fretboard. Over time, though, it builds up and becomes a dark, nasty noticeable mess. Fretboard cleaning should be performed every time you change your strings. It is pretty senseless to put new strings on your acoustic guitar only to start pressing those bright new strings right into the gack you left on your fretboard.

To clean your acoustic guitar fretboard you will need:

Steps for cleaning your acoustic guitar fretboard:

  1. Remove the strings.
  2. Dampen one cloth with warm water or fretboard conditioner.
  3. If using water, wring as much water out of the cloth as possible.
  4. Wipe the fretboard thoroughly between and up against every fret.
  5. Frequently move to a new spot on the rag as it gets soiled.
  6. Frequently use the other cloth to dry any water or excess oil that remains on the fretboard as you clean it (water left on the fretboard can damage the wood. Further, older instruments may not have stainless steel frets and can rust)

When you are satisfied with how clean the fretboard on your acoustic guitar is, you can follow up by wiping it down with a quality lemon oil, mineral oil or other fretboard conditioner and then restring with your favorite new strings. Personally, I like Dr. Stringfellows Lem-Oil (Now Kyser) and have used it almost exclusively for 25 years without issue. There are many fretboard conditioners available and most are simply mineral oil which are safe for use on ebony, rosewood, and lacquered fretboards. If used on a lacquered fretboard be sure to wipe it off thoroughly as the oils will not be absorbed by the wood. To reiterate, they are not safe to use on unfinished maple fretboards. Also, do not use food-based oils (olive/walnut/canola etc).

If your fretboard is particularly nasty, you can use a razor blade held vertically to lightly scrape the area that is being difficult.

For a more in-depth guide, check out our Cleaning An Acoustic Guitar Fretboard article.

How to Clean Your Acoustic Guitar Bridge

acoustic guitar bridge

Routine daily cleaning of any guitar is fundamentally the same. Remove dust, moisture, and grime before it mixes with sweat and oils. As it builds up it can make your guitar look and sound dull and boring.

What you will need:

  • Two (2) clean, dry, lint free cloths
  • Warm water and a drop or two of liquid dish soap

Steps to clean your guitar bridge:

  1. Mix dish soap into a cup of warm water.
  2. Remove the strings from your acoustic guitar and set the bridge pins aside, keeping them in order to ensure they are replaced in the same holes.
  3. Place a small piece of painters tape on the front of the saddle so that you replace it in the same direction and remove it.
  4. Wet a small area of a clean, lint free cloth in the warm water and dish soap mix. Thoroughly wring the water from the cloth.
  5. Wipe the entire bridge giving extra attention and elbow grease to the area where the bridge is attached to the soundboard.
  6. Frequently dry the bridge as you clean it. If water remains on the wood or finish it can cause damage.
  7. A damp, soft bristled toothbrush can be used to address heavy or dry deposits and difficult to reach areas.
  8. Ensure the entire bridge and soundboard are completely dry then reinsert the saddle and restring your guitar.

Make certain that the saddle is reinserted in the correct direction or it will throw your intonation off making it difficult to play in tune. If your acoustic guitar has an undersaddle pickup it will need to be pulled up and out of the way to keep it from getting damaged or wet. Undersaddle pickups are fairly expensive and delicate equipment and should only be removed by an experienced technician. Do not attempt to remove it from the saddle slot if you do not know what you are doing.

Also check out: How To Clean A Guitar Bridge: Acoustic Vs Electric

How To Clean Your Guitar Case

cleaning a guitar case

There are, for all sense and purpose, only two types of guitar cases but how you clean them can be vastly different. Guitar cases and gig bags are both designed to protect your acoustic guitar. Therefore they are typically made from materials that are pretty durable and can withstand a bit of water. You can easily clean the outside of nearly all guitar cases and gig bags using household cleaning items. Just check the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions before starting.

For most cases a rag and a bit of soap and water is all you’ll need.

Steps to clean your guitar case:

  1. Start by thoroughly vacuuming the inside of the guitar case. If you have access to one, an air compressor is an effective way to blow out the nooks, crannies and pockets.
  2. Mix one or two drops of dish soap in one cup of warm water.
  3. Wet one cloth in the water/soap mixture and thoroughly wring out as much water as possible.
  4. Wipe down the entire outside case giving special attention to anything sticky or caked/dried on. Anything that does not easily wipe off with soap and water can be addressed with the toothbrush or scrub brush.
  5. Using the other soft, dry cloth, wipe the entire case down paying particular attention to ridges, edges, and seams where water can collect.

If there is a stain or accumulation that isn’t coming off easily you can also address it with a soft bristled cleaning brush or old toothbrush.

Though the above steps will work for both soft and hard cases, soft cases and gig bags are typically washing machine safe or can be washed in a tub. Check the manufacturer recommendations before attempting to machine wash.

How to clean a soft case or gig bag

What you will need:

  • A washing machine
  • Laundry detergent

Keep in mind that gig bags are a bit stiffer than most clothing items and won’t easily fall into balance. You will need to keep an eye on the washing machine to make sure the drum is balanced, especially during the spin cycles.

  1. Unzip your gig bag and open all the pockets removing all of their contents.
  2. Place in the washing machine and do your best to try and balance the bulk of the case around the inside of the drum.
  3. Set your washing machine on a gentle cycle using warm water for the wash and rinse cycles
  4. Hang the gig bag in a well ventilated area, preferably outside. Drying time will vary depending on humidity/aridity and temperature but allow it to air dry for at least 48 hours. Make absolutely sure the case is completely, 100% dry before putting the guitar back in it. If the foam is even slightly damp it will damage your guitar.

Some high end guitar bags or soft guitar cases contain thicker, stiffer, and much better quality foam and will not fit easily in a washing machine and will therefore need to be washed in a bathtub. DO NOT PLACE A HARD CASE IN A BATHTUB!

And yes, we do have an article for further reading: How To Clean Your Guitar Case

When Do You Need To Replace Your Acoustic Guitar Strings?

Acoustic guitar strings aren’t made to last forever. The more you play them the quicker they will wear out. Think of it like an oil change. You should change your oil every 3000 miles. If you only drive 3000 miles per year, you really only need to change it once a year. But if you drive 3000 miles per month, you should change it monthly.

Acoustic guitar strings have a similar limit. You should change your strings about every 100 or so hours of playing. But this is just a general rule of thumb. If you play 3 hours per day you’ll need to change them monthly. If you only play about 2 hours a week, you might get a whole year out of them.

What it comes down to is player style and maintenance. If you keep a daily cleaning routine, are a fingerstyle player, and you’re not super picky about tone, your strings might last you as much as 300 hours. However, if you’re a heavy pick player, smoke, and are heavily focused on tone, you might be changing strings far sooner than 100 hours.

Ultimately, when you begin to notice that your acoustic guitar strings are starting to look and sound dull, then it is time to spend a few bucks and put on a new set of strings. Lucky for you, we have a guitar string guide to help you decide which strings are best for you!

How to restring your acoustic guitar:

Before you start, you may want to pick up a string winder and wire cutter. Or, I really like this 3-in-1 guitar winder and cutter tool.

  1. Using your fingers or preferably a string winder, loosen the strings until they are easily removed from the tuning machine posts.
  2. Remove the bridge pins or untie the strings from the bridge and remove the strings. Set the bridge pins aside in order, so the same bridge pin goes back into the same bridge pin hole.
  3. Remove the strings and discard.
  4. This is always a good time to give your acoustic guitar a really good clean and polish. You can do a much better job with the strings off.
  5. Lay out the new strings in order of size.
  6. Begin with the low E string and place the ball end of the string into the bridge pin hole and insert the appropriate bridge pin. Make sure the string sits properly in the string slot of the bridge pin.
  7. Keeping your thumb firmly on the bridge pin to keep it from popping out, pull up on the string to seat it firmly against the bridge plate beneath the bridge.
  8. Insert the other end of the string into the string hole in the tuning post.
  9. To get the proper amount of winds, make a fist with one hand and set it pinky finger down at the fifth fret. Pull the guitar string through the tuning post until it rests lightly across your thumb and index finger.
  10. Wind the string, wrapping it one time over the excess string then wind the remainder below the excess string pinching it between the winds, be careful not to cross the string over itself.
  11. Before you fully tighten the string ensure the saddle is in its proper place and that the string is in the appropriate nut slot.
  12. Tighten the string until it sounds a tone but do not bring it up to pitch.
  13. Repeat steps 6-12 in the following order: High E, A, B, D, G. This more evenly disperses tension on the neck and bridge.
  14. Once all the strings are in place, bring your acoustic guitar up to tune. As you do so, give each of the strings a bit of a tug by pulling them up a couple inches at the 12th fret. Give them a small wiggle, helping them seat and stretch. This will allow them to hold their tune better.
  15. Once tuned, snip the excess string off as flush as possible with the tuning post.

I recommend never leaving the excess string. Trim each string flush to the tuning post. Leaving strings dangling is potentially very dangerous. The unwound strings are extremely small and sharp. A high e string is thinner than an insulin needle.

Acoustic Guitar Care And Tips

guitar care cardThe most important tip for caring for your acoustic guitar is to lightly clean your guitar before and after you play it. Every time. Take a few seconds before you play to wipe your acoustic guitar and strings from headstock to lower bout. Remove any dust and dander that have lighted on your guitar between playing sessions. Make sure you get the fretboard and strings as well so that you don’t grind the dirt into your strings as you play.

After you are done playing, wipe your acoustic guitar down again. This time getting any perspiration off of your instrument. Make sure you get any sweat off the strings to help prevent oxidation. This seconds-long cleaning routine will keep gunk and gack from building up on your guitar and strings. Your guitar will look and sound better for longer.

View complete guitar care instructions

Final Thoughts

Acoustic guitars are very often a prized possession. Good ones aren’t cheap and you can’t put a price on an heirloom guitar or one that has sentimental value. Keeping your guitar clean and maintained will help your guitar last decades or even longer. It may even allow you to pass on a cherished heirloom. Basic cleaning and maintenance of an acoustic guitar is inexpensive and easy to do and the benefits are myriad.

To help you find the best gear and cleaning supplies for your guitar, visit this page: Recommended Guitar Gear

Andy Query

After years of doing repairs for friends and family as a side hustle I started Ibex Custom Guitars and repair out of my shop in Garden City, Idaho. Along with repairs I build custom electric and acoustic guitars, ukuleles, and cajóns. I apprenticed for five years under Master Luthier John Bolin of Bolin guitars where we built custom guitars for some of the biggest names in rock & roll, including ZZ Top, Steve Miller, and Joe Perry to name a few.

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