Most animals can’t play guitar with their filthy hands, but homo sapiens can. The human hand is one of the things that outright distinguishes us from most of the rest of the animal kingdom. Our hands, though vastly different than most of our distant evolutionary relatives, also have many things in common. For instance, we share most of the same bones. And just like our animal cousins, our hands can be really filthy. And that filth gets transferred to our guitar pickups when we play guitar.
Most guitar pickups can be cleaned by wiping them thoroughly with a clean cloth dampened with a touch of soapy water (damp, not wet!) or a bit of non-abrasive household cleaner such as 409. Use an old toothbrush to scrub between the posts and give the spots that have a build up of grime a little extra elbow grease. Then simply wipe the guitar with a clean, dry cloth to make sure no moisture is left behind. If you have metal covers on your pickups, a dab of metal polish will bring them to a nice shine.
Cleaning your guitar pickups is fairly simple under normal circumstances (normal meaning you haven’t spilled beer on your guitar or had a plate of hot and spicy baked buffalo wings tossed at it). From active to Z-coil, this quick and easy procedure should be enough to sufficiently remove the oils, dirt and grime from your guitar pickups.
It’s always a good idea to clean your pickups when you change your guitar strings. The strings will already be off and you’ll have unobstructed access to the pickups. Let’s go into some further detail and extra tips below.
How to clean guitar pickups
What you will need to clean guitar pickups:
- Two clean, dry cloths
- Non-abrasive household cleaner (or dish soap and warm water)
- Old toothbrush or other small soft bristled brush
If using dish soap and water, mix one drop of dish soap with approximately one cup of warm water.
Steps for cleaning guitar pickups:
- Remove guitar strings.
- Spray a small amount of household cleaner on a clean, dry cloth (do not spray directly on the guitar pickups).
- Using the damp area of the cloth, wipe the guitar pickups giving extra attention to build up.
- If your pickups have external posts or are extra grimy use a toothbrush or other small, soft bristled brush to scrub between and around the posts.
- Use a dry cloth to remove any extra moisture from the guitar pickup.
- Restring your guitar and post a selfie.
Under normal playing circumstances this should be sufficient to get your guitar pickups clean. However, if something has been spilled on the guitar or the grime is particularly thick, it may be necessary to remove the guitar pickup rings or even the pickups themselves to clean down, around, and underneath.
Quick note here: we have guitar strings on our recommended product page if you need them.
How to polish guitar pickups
Plastic pickups can not be polished and therefore you should not even attempt it. Just clean them using the above steps and go about your business. If you have pickups with metal covers they can be polished to a bright luster.
What you need to polish guitar pickups:
Steps for polishing guitar pickups:
- Put a small dab of metal polish on a clean, soft, dry cloth (approximately the size of the eraser on a pencil).
- Rub the metal polish on the guitar pickups in small circular motions, covering the entire surface multiple times.
- Give the polish about a minute or so to dry to a chalky film (the more you use the longer this will take).
- Using a clean area of the cloth buff away the chalky residue from the guitar pickups, paying particular attention to areas around screwheads and pickup rings.
Again, this is easiest to do when you change your guitar strings since they will already be off the guitar giving you unrestricted access to the surface of the pickups.
What else can I use to clean my guitar pickups?
There are many products you can use to clean your guitar pickups. The cheapest and most accessible is simply dish soap and warm water. But you can also use other household products like 409 and Windex. In my shop I use naphtha. It is an excellent grease cutter that evaporates very rapidly and leaves no residue. However, it is extremely flammable and extra care must be taken when using it.
If you are cleaning your guitar’s finish you can use that cleaner to wipe your guitar pickups as well.
Whatever you use, DO NOT use abrasive cleansers, “scrubby” pads, or steel wool as these will leave scratches in both plastic and metal and will leave them dull or even remove the plating.
Are rusty guitar pickups bad?
Not necessarily, but let’s at least say it isn’t good. For the most part, it isn’t bad either. And some guitarists swear chicks dig rusty pickups. I’ll stay away from commenting on the latter. In general, the only issue with rust on your pickups is aesthetics. I’ve never seen rust that was so bad that it affected the sound or performance of the guitar’s pickups, though it is not unheard of. If the rust is so bad it is affecting the sound or performance of the pickups, you are loooooong past due for new pickups. There isn’t much you can do beyond a full restoration and rewind.
The question to ask yourself is – Do you think it looks – ahem – on fleek, and adds to the patina? If the answer is “Yes”, then don’t worry about it. If the answer is “No”, and you want your guitar looking as mint as it can, then great, there’s a solution for rust on your pickups!
What you need to get rust off guitar pickups
- Baking soda and water
- Shop towel
- Something to scrape the rust off (dental tools are optimal but a pen knife or small straight blade screwdriver will work as well)
Steps for getting rust off of your guitar pickups:
- Place a small amount of baking soda (about ¼ tsp) on a piece of wax paper or aluminum foil and mix water until it thickens into a paste that is roughly the consistency of cake batter – thick, but not runny.
- Apply the baking soda paste to the guitar pickup poles or other areas with rust.
- Leave to dry for about an hour.
- Using a shop towel, wipe away the baking soda “batter” and scrub at the rust that is flaky and comes off easily.
- Gently scrape at any remaining rust using the tip of a small knife or dental tools, being careful to confine your scraping to the area of rust.
- If rust remains, repeat the steps above.
When you get down to it, the best way to keep your guitar pickups clean and rust free is by keeping with a dedicated routine of washing your filthy hands and wiping your guitar and pickups down before and after you play. This will help keep resting dust from mixing with sweat, skin, oil, pick dust and what not from building up on the pickups. It will also remove moisture like sweat, spit, and beer and prevent rust from starting. By maintaining this routine, your guitar pickups will be much easier to clean and polish when it comes time to throw a new set strings on your guitar.