Cleaning Guitar Tuners: From Knobs To Gears, Old And New

Guitar Tuners

Guitar tuners, traditionally called tuning pegs and also known as tuning machines, are one of the most important parts of any guitar. Keeping them clean not only makes your guitar look better, it also keeps the guitar tuners working effectively and is key to proper and accurate tuning. Keeping grime and debris off of the outside of the guitar tuners helps keep it from getting inside them.

Depending on what style guitar tuners you have, they 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 several 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.

There are basically three general styles of tuning machines: open, closed and sealed. The outside of all three can be cleaned in the same manner. If doing simple, routine maintenance of your tuners, they can remain on the guitar and the guitar can remain strung up. If you are experiencing difficulty turning your knobs or you have significant debris and grime buildup on the tuning machines you will likely want to remove the strings and take the guitar tuners off.

Sealed Tuners

Sealed tuners are the easiest to clean so I’ll begin there. Sealed guitar tuners are made with the gears contained in a sealed enclosure with a permanent lubrication. These tuning machines should not be soaked in a solvent as it will dilute the lubrication and they do not have a simple or easy way to be relubricated.

What you will need:

  • 2 clean, dry cloths
  • A bowl to contain small screws, washers and nuts
  • Naphtha or another type of solvent
  • A soft bristled brush or toothbrush (optional)

Steps for cleaning a sealed guitar tuner:

  1. Remove the strings.
  2. With the appropriate sized wrench and screwdriver, remove the tuning machines. Use a small bowl or other type of container to make sure you do not lose track of any the small parts.
  3. Place a small amount of solvent on your cloth.
  4. Thoroughly clean the knobs, housing and capstan (post).
  5. Use a soft bristled brush or toothbrush to work loose any difficult debris that doesn’t wipe off.
  6. Dry the sealed tuners thoroughly with a clean, dry cloth.
  7. Reattach the guitar tuners to the guitar and restring.

Cleaning open guitar tuners is a bit more intensive and will remove the lubricants from the worm and pinion gears and they will therefore need to be relubricated.

Open tunersOpen Tuners

What you will need:

  • 2 clean, dry cloths
  • 2 small dishes. One for soaking parts (optional), one for containing small screws
  • Naphtha or other type of solvent
  • A soft bristled brush or toothbrush (optional)
  • Lubricant

Steps for cleaning an open guitar tuner:

  1. Remove the strings.
  2. Remove the tuning machines with a small Phillips-head screwdriver. Use a small Tupperware or other type of container to make sure you do not lose track of any the small parts.
  3. Place a small amount of solvent on your cloth.
  4. Thoroughly clean the knobs, housing and capstan (post).
  5. Optional step –  For a thorough cleaning, disassemble the open tuning machines and submerge them in a shallow amount of solvent. Use a soft bristled brush or toothbrush to work loose any difficult debris that doesn’t soak or wipe off.
  6. Dry the parts thoroughly with a clean, dry cloth.
  7. Reassemble the open tuning machines.
  8. Lightly lubricate the gears and work them back and forth several times to spread the lubricant over the gear surfaces.
  9. Reattach the guitar tuners to the guitar and restring.

If you disassemble your guitar tuners do so one at a time to assure you reassemble them with the same parts. Each piece wears uniquely and if you put a different worm and pinion gears together they may bind.

I highly recommend avoiding lubricating with Vaseline, grease, or paste wax. Each of those will sufficiently do the job of lubricating and reducing friction, however they are sticky and will attract dirt and grime. If you use one of these types of lubricants you will be needing to clean your tuning machines again in short order. I recommend using a “dry” lubricant like Triflo or a teflon lubricant that contains a rapidly evaporating carrier.

A spot of WD-40 will also work if you find yourself in a pinch. Spray a small amount on a Q-tip and apply to the worm and pinion gears. Do not spray directly on your guitar tuners as it will go everywhere and will leave you cleaning it off of the rest of your guitar.

Closed tunersClosed Tuners

Closed guitar tuners do not allow for easy access to the gears inside the housing and need to be cleaned in a slightly different manner.

What you will need:

  • 2 clean, dry cloths
  • 2 small dishes. One for soaking parts or containing solvent (optional), one for containing small screws
  • A syringe or pipette
  • Naphtha or other type of solvent
  • A soft bristled brush or toothbrush (optional)
  • Lubricant

Steps for cleaning a closed guitar tuner:

  1. Remove the strings.
  2. Remove the tuning machines with a small Phillips-head screwdriver. Use a small Tupperware or other type of container to make sure you do not lose track of any the small parts.
  3. Place a small amount of solvent on your cloth.
  4. Thoroughly clean the knobs, housing and capstan (post).
  5. Optional step –  For a thorough cleaning, submerge the closed tuning machines in a small bowl of solvent. Use a soft bristled brush or toothbrush to work loose any difficult debris that doesn’t soak or wipe off the outside. Using a syringe or pipette draw up some solvent and squirt it through the small access hole in the housing. Flush solvent through several times until the knob turns smoothly and easily.
  6. Lightly apply a “dry” lubricant such as Tri-Flow or a teflon lubricant into the housing through the small access hole. Work the knob back and forth several times to spread the lubricant over the surface of the gears.
  7. Reattach the guitar tuners to the guitar and restring.

How do you clean a tarnished guitar tuner?

If your guitar tuners have chrome or stainless steel knobs or housings you can use a metal polish like Brasso or I prefer Semichrome Polish. Just place a three or four millimeter dab on a clean dry cloth and follow the manufacturer specifications to remove tarnish and oxidation and buff your guitar tuners back to a like-new shine.

How do you fix a stiff guitar tuner?

Guitar tuners typically get stiff due to a buildup of dirt and grime as well as a lack of proper lubrication. Most cases of a stiff tuner can be addressed by following the optional steps found above and thoroughly cleaning the gears and relubricating them. However, in some instances it may be a bent shaft or worn or broken gears that are causing the issue.

Damaged shafts or gears on open and closed guitar tuners can be replaced if you have the exact same parts. It is imperative that the replacement parts are exactly identical. Mismatched parts will be difficult if not impossible to turn or will wear out very quickly. If you aren’t sure, replace the entire tuning machine. There is not a standard for parts in guitar tuners and every brand, make and model can potentially have different specifications.

By maintaining a cleaning routine your guitar tuners will likely last as long or longer than your guitar. Keeping them clean and lubricated keeps them working properly, will help keep your guitar in tune and makes winding new strings on your guitar a breeze.

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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