Cleaning guitar strings helps preserve the fresh, clear tone of a new pair of strings for a longer period of time before it’s necessary to replace them. There are few things finer than the clarity of tone found in a brand new set of strings and cleaning guitar strings is not an alternative to replacing worn and tired strings. The simple act of playing your instrument will eventually wear out your strings. However, properly cleaned strings will extend the life of your guitar strings and save you money over the long haul.
Basic cleaning of guitar strings is actually as simple as dusting your instrument. Literally, just wipe them off when you are done playing. This one simple step will extend the life and quality tone of your strings significantly.
What do I need to clean my guitar strings?
- A clean cloth
- About 8 seconds of free time
That’s it. For day-to-day cleaning you can use a piece of cloth cut from your drummer’s old Nickleback concert shirt or you can dish out for a good microfiber cloth but all you really need is something dry to wipe the dust, grime and fluids from the strings before and after you play.
- Start by laying the cloth out flat and tucking it under the strings near the bridge (See large top image)
- Just like pulling on a pair of skinny jeans, slide it all the way up to the nut
- Fold the cloth over so it lies both under and on top of the strings
- Place your hand over the cloth and wipe down to the bridge (See image to right)
- Repeat once or twice and Bob’s your uncle
Frequently wiping down your strings will help prevent them from getting gunked up and each cleaning polishes the metal a tiny bit removing some tarnish. It’s not unheard of for some guitarists to quickly wipe their strings off after each song.
Why do I need to clean my guitar strings?
To be frank, like any organism, humans are pretty nasty. We are constantly oozing oils from our skin called sebum, we spit when we talk, sweat when we’re overheated, drip mucus, and over any given two to four week period we will shed our entire outer layer of skin. Thankfully this process involves tiny particles called dander flaking off and is not like a snake shedding. It’s been estimated that we shed about 30 – 40 thousand skin cells every hour.
Here’s a math problem for you. Take a five piece band x two hours of practice in close quarters = a disturbing amount of skin cells.
Strings will collect what I like to call ‘gack’ – the human debris that builds up on a guitar. It’s a special mélange of skin cells, bodily fluid, szechuan sauce, resin, dirt and dander that accumulate and get ground into the strings and fretboard as your hand slides up and down the neck of your guitar. Keep this graphic image in mind if you’re ever tempted to play another person’s guitar with your teeth.
When you play guitar you may sweat, cry, spill beer, and sometimes even bleed on your instruments (ever been poked by a poorly trimmed high E or been tagged by the headstock of an overzealous bass player?). These and other fluids mix with sebum and the dust, pet dander and fine particles of skin that wear off your calluses while you play. If let be, this hand gack will quickly build up in the windings of the strings preventing them from vibrating uniformly over the length of the string resulting in an inconsistent tone and dead spots with little resonance.
An excellent analogy is the oft-ignored filter in the vent hood above your oven. They are usually covered in a fuzzy amalgamation of cooking oils, soot, dust, spices, gravy and bacon grease. If one were so inclined to pop it out and clean it every time they cooked it would take a long time for the filter to get a good build up of grime on it. However, most of us ignore the filter until it affects the performance of the vent and by then it’s often just easier to replace the filter than to try and get it clean. With that analogy in mind, the importance of frequent cleaning both before and after you play to extend the life of your strings should be becoming as clear as the tone you
hope to maintain.
How do you remove tarnish from your guitar strings?
So what do you do if you haven’t been maintaining your strings with frequent cleanings? Or perhaps you haven’t picked up your instrument in a long time and the strings have tarnished or become really filthy?
Oxygen and moisture in the air combine to cause a chemical reaction in the exposed metal of strings. The result is a dull, slightly oily feeling film that grows on your strings. This film, or tarnish, has the same deadening effect on the vibration of the strings. This, combined with gack, is a fatal 1-2 punch to tone.
Unfortunately, isopropyl alcohol will not make much difference to the corrosion. I tried a number of methods from rubbing each string vigorously for 20 minutes to wrapping up the strings and soaking them for up to 15 minutes then rubbing vigorously. I do not believe any of the tarnish was removed and what little difference that is observable could have been achieved without isopropyl alcohol. As you can see from the images, the benefit achieved is minimal and certainly doesn’t justify the cost of isopropyl alcohol or the time to unstring, polish, and restring. The best solution is prevention. Take the eight seconds to wipe down your strings and this will help fend off the corrosion. If you haven’t been taking the preventative step and your strings are very old, you will be better off just spending the $10 or so to buy new strings. However, if they are just really dirty, if money is an issue or you need a quick fix until you can get to the music store, you can give your strings a deeper cleaning with isopropyl or rubbing alcohol to remove the gack but you are SOL when it comes to removing the tarnish. Isopropyl alcohol dissolves the oils and loosens the build up so that it can more easily be wiped away, leaving your strings very clean.
Too clean, actually. You will find that your fingers moving across the strings will produce a very shrill, piercing noise for a short time after cleaning. A sound not dissimilar to the incessant barking of an Asthmahound Chihuahua. A few minutes of playing will adequately address this auditory issue. If only it were so easy with chihuahuas, amiright?
How to clean strings with isopropyl alcohol
Warnings: ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL IS EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE! Do not use isopropyl alcohol near an open flame and use in a well-ventilated area. Further, do not use solvents / alcohol based cleaners while the strings are on the guitar. Most of these cleaners will damage your finish and / or fretboard. Isopropyl alcohol is a solvent which will damage lacquer and dry out wood.
What you need:
- Isopropyl alcohol
- A clean rag or cotton ball
- A well-ventilated area in which to work
- Remove the strings from your guitar
- Wet a small section of your rag or cotton ball with isopropyl alcohol
- Using the wetted area, wipe down each string several times
- Repeat until wiping no long leaves residue on the cloth or cotton ball
- Wipe each string with a clean cloth to mop up any excess isopropyl alcohol
- Restring, and play for a few minutes until the barking stops
What about coated or treated guitar strings?
Never use solvents or chemicals on coated or treated strings. As stated antecedent, isopropyl alcohol is a solvent and has the potential to damage and thereby negate the benefits of these types of strings. The purpose of these string treatments is to prevent build up in the windings and oxidation and therefore issues requiring cleaning with isopropyl alcohol should not arise. Coated or treated guitar strings should simply be wiped down before and after each use to remove dirt and oil from the protective coating.
Like any piece of equipment that you value – be it a car, a chisel, or a guitar – regular maintenance is key to high performance and longevity. If someone in Idaho can strap themselves to the back of an angry brahma bull for eight seconds, you can spend eight seconds maintaining your strings. It will greatly increase the life and tone of your strings, save you money, and make playing your guitars exponentially more enjoyable and rewarding.