One of the first things a luthier learns is that the human body is pretty gross. The first time you are handed an electric guitar that hasn’t been cleaned in a while, you realize that you are looking at an unnerving amount of human DNA that has been ground into the wood and built up on the guitar. It is imperative to get it cleaned off to prevent damage and expensive repairs.
To begin cleaning your electric guitar, first remove the strings. Use a clean, soft cloth to remove the loose dust and debris that will easily wipe off. For more difficult areas, apply a small amount of electric guitar cleaner to a clean cloth and scrub. Wipe down and polish. Restring and you are done for the next few months!
Electric guitars can be extremely expensive, as can repairs to fix damaged hardware and finishes. A properly cleaned and maintained electric guitar will need fewer repairs, will perform far better and potentially last you a lifetime. Cleaning and maintenance routines are simple and inexpensive and the return is invaluable.
We have a lot to cover in this guide. Use these links to jump to a specific topic:
Why You Should Clean Your Electric Guitar
Cost To Clean
Steps To Clean
Cleaning Electric Guitar Strings
Cleaning Guitar Tuners
Cleaning Your Fretboard
Cleaning Your Guitar Bridge
Replacing Guitar Strings
Why Should You Clean Your Electric Guitar?
Failure to clean your electric guitar can be an expensive endeavor. Electric guitars are typically played much more vigorously than their acoustic counterparts. The styles of music electric guitars are designed for is typically high energy. More often than not, this results in the player sweating much more.
Sweat combines with the dust and dander in the air and on the electric guitar, skin that is wearing off your calluses, tiny bits of guitar pick, smoke, oils, and whatever gets spilled on your hands – all creating a disgusting coagulation. When not frequently cleaned off, a noticeable gray substance begins to accumulate in the places where you touch your electric guitar. The neck, fretboard, strings, hardware and lower bout start to get filthy, sticky, and grimy. Every time you play your electric guitar, a little more of this ‘gack’ builds up where you touch the guitar.
This gack will retain some of the moisture as well as the salt from sweat causing your strings and hardware to corrode. Over time it can also cause significant damage to the finish, paint and wood. If the wood on your fretboard is even slightly damp, it is softened and pressing a string into it causes small bits of damage to the wood. This erosion eventually wears away at your fretboard under the strings, culminating in a very expensive repair job, where the frets have to be removed, the fretboard sanded flat, the bridge or even neck angle adjusted to compensate for a thinner fretboard, and finally a refret. This can potentially run you a few hundred dollars.
Further, salt and moisture on your bridge will cause the moving parts to seize and become difficult or even impossible to adjust. Adjustment screws can literally snap off when pressure is applied, resulting in the need to replace parts or even the entire bridge or saddles.
And it doesn’t stop there! Sweat can run into the potentiometers (pots) causing corrosion inside of them. This results in cracking and popping when adjusting tone and volume and can even cause them to fail to work completely.
Thankfully there is a simple and cost effective way of preventing all of this damage.
Clean your electric guitar. It’s really that simple. By removing any moisture, oils and dirt from your instrument, you prevent the majority of the build up that causes damage.
And the best part is that cleaning your electric guitar is cheap, since you will be doing the work yourself!
How Much Does It Cost to Clean An Electric Guitar?
Depending on how you clean your electric guitar, it can cost anywhere between free to around $100 to purchase all the cleaning supplies and tools to clean it yourself. This is far less money than taking your electric guitar to a music repair shop or professional luthier, where the cost could be anywhere between $50 and $120 per visit!
For the cost of a little time, effort, and buying the initial supplies and tools, you can save some real dinero by doing it yourself! This can add up, especially considering that your electric guitar may need to be cleaned 1-3 times year, depending on how often you play.
You can keep your electric guitar clean with simple household items. If you are inclined, you can buy fairly reasonably priced electric guitar cleaning and polishing products that also contain ingredients for preventing buildup allowing grime to be more easily removed. In most cases a bottle of these cleaners will last you a decade or so. It only takes a small amount to clean a guitar. Over the life of a bottle it will literally only cost pennies per cleaning.
For the best results though, we recommend using quality products and the right tools for the job.
Recommended Cleaning Supplies and Tools
Each of these are links to buy directly from Amazon, for your convenience.
- General cleaning cloths (around $7)
- Lint-free polishing cloth (around $7)
- Naphtha (around $30 for a 2-pack, but recommend buying one from your local hardware store for around $10)
- Renaissance Wax Polish (around $25)
- String winder and cutter (around $10)
- WD-40 Contact Cleaner ($around $21)
For a cheaper option to Naphtha and Renaissance, that also works amazing, you with the Dunlop System 65 Body & Fingerboard Cleaning Kit – this includes the guitar cleaner and polish, for around $13.
Household Cleaning Supplies
You probably have these supplies already sitting around your house or shop. So if you’re in a pinch, these options will work, and definitely better than not cleaning your electric guitar!
- Instead of cleaning cloths, you can use old t-shirts or clean shop cloths.
- Instead of a commercial guitar cleaner, you can use soapy water.
- For restringing, you can use a pair of pliers and separate wire cutters.
Steps To Clean Your Electric Guitar
Before getting directly into how to clean a dirty electric guitar I must cover how to maintain your electric guitar so that when it comes time to clean it more thoroughly, it will be easy.
Maintaining a frequent cleaning routine of wiping your electric guitar down with a clean, dry cloth before and after playing keeps your guitar cleaner and reduces the need to do more heavy-duty cleaning. Wiping your entire electric guitar down before you play removes dust, dander, smoke and other detritus that has lighted on your guitar since the last time you played. If left in place it mixes with the moisture from sweat and oils and starts to build up on your electric guitar and gets ground into the string winds as you play. It’s far easier to wipe it off before you play and has the opportunity to mix with moisture. Wiping it down immediately after use helps prevent oils, skin, sweat and other fluids from drying on the surfaces and in the corners and crevices of your electric guitar.
A simple cleaning routine will help keep your guitar clean and shiny, but time and use will start to dull the luster of your finish and grime will eventually build up, especially in the harder to clean areas around hardware and under strings. There will come a time when you will need to do a thorough cleaning of your electric guitar. It is quickest and easiest to do it when you already have the strings off of your guitar. Combining the chore of cleaning with the joy of a string change is a no-brainer.
What You Will Need To Clean Your Electric Guitar:
- Two clean, dry cloths or lint-free shop cloths
- One very soft, lint free cloth or microfiber cloth
- Naphtha, soapy water, or your preferred guitar cleaner
- Optional: Electric guitar polish or a paste wax
Steps For Cleaning Your Electric Guitar
- Using your fingers or a string winder, loosen each of the strings and remove them from the tuning machines posts (if replacing strings, simply loosen a few turns then snip with a pair of wire cutters).
- Wipe the entire electric guitar with a dry, soft cloth to remove any loose dust and debris.
- Place a dry cloth securely over the opening of your preferred electric guitar cleaner and wet an approximately quarter sized area of the cloth. If using soap and water, simply dip a corner of the cloth in the liquid.
- Use the wetted area of the cloth to thoroughly wipe down the entire acoustic guitar.
- Pay extra attention to the edges of the hardware such as the bridge, knobs, switches and pickups. The areas where skin comes into contact with the guitar such as the neck and lower bout of the body are also areas that will need extra attention. These areas are where sebum (oils excreted from skin) tends to mix with sweat and skin and accumulate.
- Using a second clean, dry cloth wipe the entire guitar making sure there are no damp spots or areas with excess cleaner or water. Make sure the guitar is 100% dry before placing it in a case. Setting your guitar in a stand in front of a fan for a few minutes is a good way to make sure it is fully dry.
- Optional: Apply a small amount of paste wax (Renaissance is my go-to), auto polish (I like Mother’s or Meguiar’s) or your favorite guitar polish to the finish and hand buff your guitar to a nice shine. This will also keep unwanted substances from sticking to the finish and thereby making your next cleaning easier.
- 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 electric guitar, bring it up to tune and Bob’s your uncle. Going forward, it will be a cinch to keep your guitar clean as a majority of the dirt and grime will easily wipe away when you do your routine daily wipe down. A clean, polished electric guitar finish will tend to repel moisture and dust and dander will find it difficult to stick to. 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!
Cleaning Your Electric Guitar Strings
Should you be cleaning your electric guitar strings? Yes! Your guitar strings are the most important element in the tone created by your electric guitar. Cleaning your electric guitar strings is the most crucial step to preserving the tone from new strings as long as possible. The daily cleaning routine described previously is key to keeping your guitar strings clean.
Wipe your electric guitar strings down before and after you play, every single time. If you are a heavy sweater or have oily skin you may even consider wiping down your strings between songs.
What Do I Need For Routine Cleaning Of Electric Guitar Strings?
- A clean flannel, cotton, old t-shirt or microfiber cloth
You can pretty much use any piece of cloth to clean electric guitar strings as long as it won’t leave lint or fibers on the strings and it is clean and soft. You won’t want to use denim or an old shop rag. You just need something clean, soft and dry to wipe the dust, grime and fluids from the strings before and after you play.
Steps to Clean Electric Guitar Strings:
- Tuck your clean, dry cloth under the strings near the bridge or saddle and then fold it over the strings.
- Pinch both sides of the cloth and slide it up to the nut and back down to the bridge.
- Repeat a few times until you are satisfied the strings are clean and dry.
This is the most simple and inexpensive way to clean and preserve your strings. Keeping them clean will greatly increase their life expectancy and will keep your guitar sounding bright and preserve the tone for longer.
For an easier time wiping down the backside of the strings, you may want to check out the Nomad Tool Set – it works great for reaching all the difficult areas.
How To Clean Guitar Tuners
There are essentially three basic types of electric guitar tuning machines: Open, closed, and sealed. Each takes a different method to clean. Further, you have plastic, wood, metal and bone buttons that also have separate cleaning methods.
With the exception of open tuners, basic cleaning of the outsides and buttons can simply be accomplished by wiping them with a clean, soft rag and your favorite cleaner. A little elbow grease should remove even the worst of the grime.
Sealed tuners should not be opened and cleaned. If you are having issues with a sealed tuner you should take your electric guitar to a luthier.
Cleaning open tuners and the insides of closed tuners are more involved and require lubricants.
Clean open tuners by wiping them thoroughly with Naptha on a clean Q-tip. Wet the Q-tip and get in and around each worm drive and pinion gear. As you clean, turn the gears to make sure you clean all areas. When satisfied with their cleanliness, add a small amount of lubricant and work the gears back and forth several times to make sure you have lubricated all areas. You can use an electric guitar tuning gear lubricant such as Guitar Grease, or a dry lubricant like Tri-Flo. Or, for the more budget minded, a very small dab of Vaseline will do just fine.
A closed tuner can be cleaned by filling a pipette with Naptha and injecting it into the tiny hole on the casing. Work the gear back and forth several times until it starts turning freely. Wipe up any Naptha that flows out onto the finish to prevent damage. Once the gears feel like they are turning freely you can spray a small amount of lubricant into the same hole. Again, work the gears back and forth several times to spread the lubricant over all surfaces and wipe up any excess. If you know what you are doing and feel comfortable taking the cover off, you can do so and use a small dab of Vaseline on these as well. DO NOT TRY TO REMOVE THE COVER ON A SEALED TUNING MACHINE!
For a deeper dive, you may want to also read our full article on cleaning guitar tuners.
Cleaning Your Fretboard
As we have established above, the human body is a messy organism and leaves its waste on your electric guitar. Some brainy mugs estimate that every cell in your body will be replaced 11 times over during your life. Some cells get replaced every few days, others last our whole lives. For the most part, you will not end your life with the same cells you started with, and a good chunk of those will be on your fretboard. You will want to get this grossness off of your electric guitar fretboard before it starts working itself into your strings and killing your tone.
For light electric guitar fretboard cleaning you will need:
- Warm water or fretboard conditioner (if your fretboard is unfinished maple, please read all warnings)
- Two clean cloths
Steps for lightly cleaning your electric guitar fretboard:
- Remove the strings.
- Dampen a soft cloth with warm water or a fretboard conditioner.
- Wipe the fretboard thoroughly. Clean up against both sides of every fret.
- Frequently move to a clean spot on the rag as it gets soiled.
- After cleaning each area, use a second cloth to dry any water or excess oil that remains on the fretboard. Water left on the fretboard can damage the wood and cause frets to loosen. Further, older instruments may not have stainless steel frets and can therefore rust.
Finish by working a quality lemon oil, mineral oil or other fretboard conditioner into the wood. I personally use Kyser’s Lem-Oil (was called Dr. Stringfellows) and have used it almost exclusively for more than 25 years without issue. There are many fretboard conditioners available and most are simply mineral oil which are safe to use on most 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. Do not use food-based oils such as olive, walnut, avocado, or canola oils. These oils will make your fretboard sticky over time.
You do not have to use an oil conditioner on the fretboard but using one will help keep future debris from building up. It also conditions the wood and helps keep it from drying out. When wood dries, it shrinks and this can cause the frets to get loose or the sharp fret ends to protrude from the edge of the fretboard.
If you’ve got an especially nasty guitar fretboard with debris that doesn’t want to simply wipe off, the process is still fairly simple.
For heavier electric guitar fretboard cleaning you will need one or more of the following:
- Toothbrush, dry cloth and warm water
- Triple or four aught (000, 0000) steel wool
- Razor blade (Warning: razor blades are really, really, really sharp. Use caution and care)
When using a razor blade use extreme caution and only use it where the debris is located. Use very light pressure, making sure you don’t scrape the wood. Do not use a razor blade to scrape the entire fretboard. For the rest of the fretboard use steel wool. Steel wool is fairly abrasive and should not be used on fretboards that have been stained or painted. If you use steel wool on a lacquered fretboard be careful to not ‘sand’ through the finish. Steel wool will dull a lacquered finish which will need to be polished once you have completed the fretboard cleaning. This can be accomplished with fine micro-mesh and lacquer polish. I recommend using an old, soft toothbrush for lacquered fretboards and using a whole lot of elbow grease to get it clean.
For a more info, read our full article on cleaning guitar fretboards.
How To Clean Your Electric Guitar Bridge
Routine cleaning is necessary to keep your electric guitar bridge clean. The bridge is one of the hardest to access areas and you will get a great deal of buildup in this area, which is difficult to just wipe away. A little bit of grime and gack will get missed by your quick daily cleaning and over time it will accumulate and become noticeable. Anytime you replace your strings is a great time to give your bridge a thorough cleaning.
What you will need:
- A clean, dry, lint free cloth
- An old toothbrush
- 1 cup of warm water
- A drop or two of dish soap
- Drinking straw (optional)
Mix dish soap into the warm water
Steps To Clean Your Guitar Bridge
- Loosen and remove your electric guitar strings.
- Dip the soft bristled toothbrush in the water/dish soap mix. Shake as much water as possible from the brush. You don’t want water getting under your bridge. It’s very difficult to dry.
- Scrub the bridge and saddles thoroughly. Spend extra time on the areas under the saddles and especially where the bridge meets the body. This is where most of the accumulation will be.
- Frequently dry the areas that you have cleaned with the dry cloth. Use your thumbnail and the cloth to lightly scrape away gack as it loosens.
- Use the drinking straw to focus air in tight areas and blow out any water that can’t be wiped away with the dry cloth. If water is not removed from metal surfaces or the finish it can cause rust, corrosion, and/or discoloration.
- After the bridge and saddles are completely clean and dry, then restring your electric guitar.
If your electric guitar bridge has rust on it, the saddles, or the adjustments you can soak them in white vinegar to remove the rust and make your bridge taste great. The adjustment screws are typically what you use to remove the saddles so if they are rusted you may have to remove the entire bridge and soak it for a few hours in white vinegar. Thanks to the magic of chemistry, this reverses the oxidation process and literally turns the rust into water and salt. After three to four hours you can remove the parts from the vinegar bath and gently wipe the rust away with a cloth or paper towel. Don’t attempt this if you aren’t comfortable removing the bridge parts.
Note: You will have to adjust your string height and intonation if you remove any parts of the bridge.
Your electric guitar bridge has many moving parts, springs and screws that allow you (or your luthier) to adjust the height of the strings and to set the intonation. These can easily get moved while cleaning the bridge and can affect both the sound and playability of an electric guitar. Be careful working around these parts or you will be seeing a luthier to finish the job.
Without maintaining a proper cleaning routine it is very likely you will be replacing your bridge sooner rather than later. Sweat contains salt and it will eat away at the metal. It may take a few years, but eventually the small adjustment screws will seize up and can even snap off when trying to make adjustments. This can result in a couple hundred dollars for a new bridge and labor to install it.
Need To Replace Your Electric Guitar Strings?
Electric guitar strings will likely need to be changed after every 100 or so hours of playing. For your average player who practices 30 mins per day that means roughly twice per year. It’s a simple and, in my opinion, pleasurable task that gets easier and faster every time you do it. It’s a great time to clean your guitar and when you’re done, it sounds great!
Begin by removing your old guitar strings. Unwind each string until it can be easily removed from the tuning machine post. To remove each string from the bridge simply push the string back through the holes until you can grab the ball end and pull the remainder of the string through.
On Strat type guitars with floating bridges, the strings will be removed through the back of the guitar. There are also a number of floating bridges that have locking saddles. To remove the strings from these simply loosen the screw and remove the string from each of the saddles.
To restring, simply reverse the process. Put the new strings back through the bridge and wind wind them back on the posts. Take care to not overlap the string winds on the tuning posts and don’t wrap them too many times. A good rule of thumb is to wrap the wound strings about three to four times and the unwrapped strings about five to eight times. The lighter the string gauge the more wraps it will need to properly stay in place.
Make sure to trim the string ends as close to the tuning post as possible. Long string ends are all fun and games until someone loses an eye. No joke. It happens.
I like this handy 3-in-1 winder/cutter tool from D’Addario since it has a post winder, pin puller, and wire cutters all together in one handy tool.
If you’re looking for a new set of strings, you may be interested in our “What electric guitar strings are best for beginners” article.
Ultimately a few seconds of care every time you play will help extend the life and luster of your electric guitar. A dirty electric guitar will break down over time. Moisture is the worst enemy of your guitar and it needs to be removed every time you play. If you are an active player and you sweat a lot you may even consider wiping your guitar down between songs. Your luthier likely charges somewhere between $60 and $90 per hour for labor. Keeping your guitar clean will reduce the number of times you need to go see them.
Routine cleaning is simple and effective for keeping your guitar in better condition. Keep a dry, soft cloth nearby your guitar. I keep one on my guitar stand. Give your guitar a once over with the cloth every time you play. Get the dust, dander and other dry particles off of your guitar before you play and wipe off the sweat, dander, and beer when you are done. It literally only takes seconds and will save you both time and money in the long run.
Yes, this is a long article but I wasn’t able to get totally in depth. So if you’d like to learn more, check out our other Electric Guitar Cleaning articles. You may want to check out our articles for cleaning acoustic guitars too since there’s some overlap.
You may want to check out our recommended guitar gear as well.