Guitar Care Warning: You May be Loving Your Guitar to Death

Warning: You May be Loving Your Guitar to Death

Last Updated: July 15, 2018

Hey, we love our guitars, right? We want to take care of them so they continue to give us a lifetime of joy and self-expression. However, when it comes to guitar care and our efforts to pamper our axes, it’s possible to overdo it–using too much stuff too often, or even using substances that are actually harmful to the guitar.

Let’s review some of the guitar care mistakes I’ve seen (and made) over the years, as well as some of the crap you should never use on your guitar.

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BAD: Over-Oiling or Using the Wrong Stuff on the Fretboard

At some point I’m sure you’ve heard that your guitar’s fretboard should be oiled.

If your guitar has an unfinished (non glossy) rosewood or ebony fretboard, it’s true that it may benefit from an occasional application of a fretboard-safe oil. However, it should only be done about once a year (or less), and then only if it really seems to be dry or you’ve somehow stripped it of moisture, such as when you do a deep cleaning like the one I demonstrate in this blog post on fretboard cleaning. To give you an idea: I oil my fretboards only about 2-3 times in a 5-year time span.

Using too much oil and/or oiling too often can eventually lead to maintenance issues or even damage. I’ve seen or heard of frets, binding, or inlays coming loose in extreme cases. You don’t need to drown the fretboard–just a light application is all that’s necessary to bring some of the rich color back to the wood.

Also, if you’re going to oil your fretboard use the right kind of oil, and then only use a tiny bit. Wipe it on, let it set for about a minute, then wipe ALL the excess off the wood with an absorbent cloth or paper towel.

GOOD: Guitar Fretboard Cleaners & Conditioners

Music Nomad F-ONE Fretboard Oil Cleaner and Conditioner

What I use now: Music Nomad F-ONE Fretboard Oil Cleaner & Conditioner

Ernie Ball 4276 Wonder Wipes Fretboard Conditioner, 6 Pack

Tried ’em, liked ’em: Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes Fretboard Conditioner

Bayes Mineral Oil - Excellent, cheap way to oil fretboards

What I used to use: Bayes Mineral Oil Wood Protectant

Keep WD-40 away from your guitar

Keep WD-40 away from your guitar

BAD: Using WD-40 on Strings or Any Other Part of Your Guitar

Hey, it knocked out those squeaky door hinges and made your bike wheels spin forever, so it must be great for the moving parts of your guitar too, right?

Wrong.

For brevity, I won’t go into detail on the issues with WD-40, but it’s best for beginners to just keep it away. Leave WD-40 to the pro’s who know what they’re doing and how (and where) to use this correctly when they’re working on guitars.

I was appalled recently to discover a how-to article on the Internet where the author gives an in-depth demonstration (and endorsement) of how he uses WD-40 to clean his guitar strings. Don’t do this. It actually will clean your strings quite nicely, and will make them feel nice and slick. The problem is what happens as your fingers transfer any leftover residue onto the fretboard, neck, and finish as you play. You may think you were careful and wiped off all excess WD-40, but why take that risk?

GOOD: String Cleaners Made for Guitars

If you’re wanting to clean your guitar strings to squeeze a little more life out of them, then at least use a proven, guitar-safe string cleaner like Music Nomad String Fuel Cleaner & Lubricant or GHS Fast Fret. I used GHS Fast Fret for many, many years (it lasted for freaking ever) until I discovered the Music Nomad products (which I love, if you couldn’t tell). You can also just wipe your strings with a dry cloth every time you finish playing/practicing as I demonstrate in this blog post.

Or, if your strings are old, just replace them.

Music Nomad String Fuel Cleaner and Lubricant

One Good Option: Music Nomad String Fuel Cleaner & Lubricant

GHS Fast Fret String Cleaner & Lubricant

Another Good Option: GHS Fast Fret String Cleaner & Lubricant

Don't use household paper towels on the glossy finish of your guitar

Don’t use household paper towels on the glossy finish of your guitar

BAD: Using Household Paper Towels, T-shirts, Socks, Shop Towels, Etc.

Regular ole paper towels, like those you buy at the grocery story, are okay for wiping your strings and the bare wood of the fretboard, but never use them on any of the glossy parts of your guitar. They’re just not soft enough and can leave tiny scratches in the finish. I don’t exactly know why, but whatever they put in these paper towels just isn’t soft enough for most guitar finishes. Also, to be safe, avoid using t-shirts, socks, washcloths, shop towels, etc. on glossy bits, even if they’re 100% cotton.

When it comes to the glossy finish of your guitar, I’d recommend only using microfiber towels. I’ve been using a Music Nomad Microfiber Guitar Polishing Cloth for all my cleaning and polishing. I use that one because not all microfiber towels are created equal, and with the Music Nomad cloth was manufactured it FOR guitars.

Another great cloth to use for cleaning glossy guitar finishes (and everything else, for that matter) is a cotton cloth baby diaper. That’s right, for years I’ve been using Gerber Birdseye 3-Ply baby diapers for cleaning everything from metal parts to the fretboard to the glossy finish. I love those things! Just be sure you wash and dry it 3-4 times before you use it. That’ll help soften it up even more. Don’t use fabric softener when washing them.

Lemon Pledge: Great for Furniture, Terrible for Guitars

Lemon Pledge: great for furniture, not recommended for Guitars

BAD: Using Household Furniture Polish

I sometimes see people bragging on guitar forums, “I’ve used Lemon Pledge on my guitar for years, with no problems!” My question to these people is always the same: How many “years” are we talking here? Get back to me after you’ve used Lemon Pledge on the same guitar consistently for about 15 – 20 years and let me know how that worked out for you.

Here’s the deal: It depends on what your guitar’s finish is. If I ask you what your guitar’s finish is and you have to think about it or look it up, just stay away from furniture polish. Otherwise, you’re playing Russian roulette with your axe.

First off, avoid any kind of polish or cleaner if your guitar has a “satin” (non glossy) finish, or feels like it’s just natural wood (these are usually finished in some kind of oil or oil/lacquer mixture). Really, the safest way to clean a satin finish is with a cotton cloth slightly damp with warm water, followed by a dry cloth to remove any leftover dampness. If your guitar has a “natural” wood finish, I’d recommend consulting a pro first and asking them what you should do.

GOOD: For Glossy Finishes, Use Cleaners and Polishes Made for Guitars

For glossy finishes, use a proper guitar polish–stuff specifically made for guitars. There are a number of good ones on the market these days, and here are a few that I’ve used and recommend:

Music Nomad Guitar One All-in-1 Cleaner, Polish, and Wax

What I use now: Music Nomad Guitar One All-in-1 Cleaner, Polish, and Wax

Dunlop Platinum 65 Guitar Cleaner-Polish

Also good stuff: Dunlop Platinum 65 Cleaner-Polish

 

Never use regular household cleaners on your guitar

Nothing you see on the shelves at a grocery (or similar) store should be used on your guitar.

BAD: Using Other Household Cleaners

To some it may seem obvious, but I’m just going to come right out and say it anyway: do not use household cleaners such as bleach, Pine Sol, Windex, Fantastic, etc. on any part of your guitar, unless it’s a total junker you really don’t care about.

You’ll be especially tempted as you pass by the furniture & wood cleaning section (this is where you’ll find the lemon Pledge) in your grocery store. Don’t be swayed by all the marketing lingo about how these products “nourish wood”, “safely clean wood”, “condition and protect wood”, etc. Just keep on walking. The fact that these products work great on wood furniture and floors does NOT mean they’ll be good for your guitar.

Not Sure? Avoid These Ingredients

If you’re ever unsure whether something is good or bad for your guitar (including guitar-specific products), just inspect the ingredients and make sure they don’t contain:

• Silicone
• Solvents of any kind
• Acetone
• Alcohol

Finally, Never Underestimate Good ole Warm Water

I’ve given you some great, guitar-safe alternatives to consider in this article.

However, all the fancy guitar cleaners and polishes on the market today have created somewhat of an over-inflated perception of how necessary they actually are. Don’t get me wrong, I love the products that I use and have recommend here, but the reality is that good ole warm water, a soft cloth, and some elbow grease can work wonders on a dirty guitar. Just be careful that the rag isn’t soaking wet. You only want it slightly damp with water.

For tougher grime in small areas, you can do exactly what mom did to you as a kid: wipe the spot with a dab of saliva. NEVER spit on someone else’s guitar, but when it comes to your own axe, don’t be afraid to daub a little spit on a rag to rub off the tougher gunk.

For Further Reading on Guitar Care:

Here are a few reputable, reliable resources I’ve found where you can learn more:

12 replies
  1. JB
    JB says:

    Appreciate the article and thought provoking ideas. My thoughts from an old guy: I bought a 1982 Les Paul Standard, black in 1982 and have had it ever since. Used nothing but simple Turtle Wax paste (was the recommendation from several manufacturers back in the day and still today). Used it on the guitar at least once a year the last 35 years and the guitar looks like brand new, including the hardware, the pickguard, neck (not fretboard), tuning pegs and head-stock including the logo. Nobody back then knew anything about guitar waxes or that “silicone” based waxes were not cool. Looking back, I’m glad I used that polish because the guitar has held up tremendously well without any issues at all. I also get compliments on how great that guitar plays and sounds. I’ve had no binding problems, no wax buildup, no issues with the guitar sounding like it is in a blanket, no problems with small ding repairs, and none of the other hype.
    As mentioned, I have never run into a problem with refinishing or filling a spot on a guitar that was previously waxed with a silicone based product. There are products made to rid a surface of silicone, even a small spot and it only takes a few seconds. This step should be used even if you don’t use silicon based waxes so the process is the same. I have also taken guitars and repainted the whole guitar that was previously waxed with turtle wax and have had zero issues. And certainly no “fish eye” paint problems some mention. If someone has that, they don’t know how to prepare a surface for painting or they are using cheap products.
    So in my opinion, use your best judgement. I think people have overreacted about wax and I can never find THAT person who can base an actual problem from using silicon based waxes on guitars, and when I think I have found that person I find other underlying issues beyond the wax they were using.
    Just for kicks, this is straight from Taylor Guitars owner’s manual today: “Taylor guitars built after 1995 have our UV-cured, polyester-based finish. The good news for you is this finish is extremely tough. You can use any brand of guitar or even car polish on these areas of the guitar.
    The consumer does understand more about wax ingredients now but we also know more about how to get rid of things like silicone too.
    Regarding Microfiber towels….Just make sure to use a high quality one. Cheaper synthetic blends can be okay but some are not well made and can introduce issues into a clear coat finish. If you are buying 15 towels for 5 bucks, I’d look something else. I’ve found good ones are 2-5 bucks each. One relative good bang for the buck is the Chemical Guys MIC_506_12 Professional Grade Premium Microfiber Towels (I have no affiliation). If you are just cleaning grime from non-painted surfaces, the cheaper ones are fine.
    BTW, we the consumer, did not have microfiber towels in the 80’s and most of the 90’s and my guitar looks great just using cotton. Also note, Pledge has been used on some of our antiques for over half a century without any issue. Not saying use it on a guitar, but make sure you choose something based on fact and not an opinion or slick advertisement for a product.
    Rock on!

    Reply
  2. Nika
    Nika says:

    hey, can damp rag make frets rusty? I have tried using wet cloth to clean strings and they got really rusty. Awesome article by the way

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      You can use a damp cloth on your frets, but you really shouldn’t. If you do, just be sure you immediately dry the fret. A wet rag isn’t going to immediately cause the frets to rust, but with repeated use it could over time.

      If you have legitimately dirty frets that need a good cleaning, use a proper metal polish/cleaner like Music Nomad’s Frine Fret Polish. There are other ways to properly clean really dirty frets or to simply polish them, but they take longer and reqiure a bit more skill. Just get the Frine and you’ll be a happy camper.

      Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      No sir, silicone is NOT okay, so I’ve removed the Ernie Ball polish from this post. Thank you for pointing this out, because back in the day, they didn’t disclose that the product contained silicone. Now, I see it listed on their website. I’m really surprised that a company like Ernie Ball would put silicone in one of their guitar products. They must’ve gotten enough pressure from the guitar community to finally disclose it as an ingredient. Really, they should just remove it from the formulation.

      Just to be clear: silicone won’t actually damage your guitar finish. Where silicone becomes a problem is later–if you ever need to have dings or dents repaired or filled-in. If you’ve used silicone products, they turn these relatively simple finish repairs into a huge hassle. The silicone is nearly impossible to remove from small dings and cracks, and is so slick that the new finish just won’t stick. So, you’re stuck with dings and dents, unless you completely strip ALL the finish off the guitar and re-paint it.

      Reply
      • Donald
        Donald says:

        Agreed. Because it shines easily people tend to reach for it. Also, as an aside, I will not use silicone products on my furniture. Same thing, once it gets into a crack or touches raw wood, trying to remove it is futile. Not to worry though, I don’t dust all that often, but I do occasionally. We live in the desert. Dusting is a waste of time.

        Reply
      • Hunter
        Hunter says:

        You are right about silicone being a potential problem with future refinishing. However, us painters always clean thoroughly with a wax and grease remover before even sanding, it is best to stay away if you can, but it won’t be too big an issue if you go to a reputable painter.

        Reply
        • Guitar Answer Guy
          Guitar Answer Guy says:

          Thanks for the info Hunter. However, I was referring to small (and usually quick) ding and dent repairs, not bigger or more involved refinishing. If there’s silicone residue present, it can make what’s normally a relatively quick and simple drop fill… well… not so quick nor simple. Also, I shouldn’t have said “impossible” in my other reply. It’s definitely possible, but small finish repairs become far more involved than they need to be.

          Reply
  3. Don Kennedy
    Don Kennedy says:

    So how does one know if your strings are dirty and need cleaning or if you just need to replace the strings. I really don’t knowingly play with dirty hands (fingers). I’m embarrassed to say that I have not really ever “cleaned” my strings. Sometimes I have wiped them with a wet cloth, but that’s it.

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Unless you have a keen eye (or feel) for these things, it’s hard to tell if your strings are dirty unless they’re REALLY dirty–like, obviously rusty or feeling tacky/gritty. Your fingers won’t slide as easily as they once did, when the strings were new. Sometimes, the evidence is audible: the strings begin to lose some of their brightness and/or sound dull. This is totally subjective, of course. There are folks out there that characterize this as “mellowing.” Personally, I don’t like my strings “mellow.” I like my strings to sound bright and crisp, and have a little bite.

      If your strings get to the point that you can actually SEE or FEEL the dirt/grime/rust, or they don’t sound as good (to you) as they once did, I recommend simply changing them, not trying to clean them. You can extend their natural life by giving them a quick wipe with a dry cotton or microfiber cloth after you play. I demonstrate that in this blog post: Don’t Forget to Wipe… Your Strings. Just doing “the ‘OKAY’ method” will extend the life of your strings a good amount.

      However, if you insist on keeping and trying to squeeze a little more life out of a set of dirty strings, you WILL need to clean them…

      I don’t recommend using a wet cloth–not wet with water, that is. You’ll need to use an actual string cleaner like those I list here, or you could use a little dab of pure, clear mineral oil on the cloth. The oil won’t induce more rust, nor will it damage your fretboard if any gets on there. In fact, it’ll just condition your fretboard. I personally don’t use string cleaners. I prefer to just change my strings every 2-3 months. So, they never really get a chance to get very dirty in the first place. I mainly do this because I can hear when they lose that bright, crisp “bite” I mentioned above.

      Hope that helps.

      Reply

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