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Last Updated: December 22, 2019
Before you squirt any polish on your guitar, you need to clean it first.
Revolutionary concept, right?
Well, if this was common sense I wouldn’t be seeing legions of people, day after day, reaching for a bottle of guitar polish to “clean” their dirty guitars.
If there’s any significant dust or dirt sitting on your guitar’s glossy (or satin) finish, you’re just going to smear it around–essentially micro-sanding your lacquer or, worse, outright scratching it. This is why dark-colored guitars can develop dull, hazy areas after a few years of well-intentioned polishing.
So, don’t use a guitar polish as your very first (or only) step in cleaning. First, remove any significant dust, dirt, sweat, and oils. In this post, I’ll show you how easy (and cheap) it is to clean your guitar without any specialized cleaners.
Behold! Lurking Dust and Dirt
So, that guitar in the photo up there? The surface looks pretty clean, doesn’t it? Seems like it would be safe to just spritz on some polish and give it a quick wipe, right? Don’t count on it. Let’s remove the strings and adjust the lighting so you can see exactly what’s lurking on that seemingly clean finish:
Get that otherwise clean-looking guitar under the right light and all kinds of crap is revealed. Not only did I find a ton of dust, I found a small metal flake, dog hairs, and a smudge from my dog’s nose. And this is just the front of the guitar!
Whoa! If I’d just squirted guitar polish on there, I’d have been smearing all that stuff around on my finish. The dusty stuff and dog hair probably wouldn’t have done any obvious damage that could be seen with the naked eye, but that mysterious flake of metal definitely would’ve scratched my pristine, glossy finish.
Quick Note About “Natural” Wood Finishes
The basic cleaning method I’ll outline here is for guitars that have a hard gloss or matte/satin lacquer finish of some sort. If your guitar has what appears to be a natural finish, skip to the end–to the section titled “If Your Guitar Has a Natural Finish.” You do NOT want to use water or cleaning products on a guitar that has some type of natural (non lacquer) finish, because they can soak right into the wood and permanently stain it.
Cleaning Your Guitar’s Finish
I’m not going to go into heavy-duty, advanced cleaning or finish restoration techniques in this article. This outlines “basic cleaning” of a guitar that’s dusty, smudged with fingerprints, and may have some minor sweat and oil build up where you’re forearm and hands have been touching it. I also won’t be covering fretboard cleaning. That’ll be another blog post… coming soon.
The Supplies You’ll Need
Despite all the great guitar products on the market, you probably already own (or were born with) everything you’ll need for basic guitar cleaning:
- Bottled water. Home-filtered water may work too, I’ve just never personally tried it.
- Cleaning cloth. I prefer the a microfiber cloth for its high pile and extra softness.
- A very soft-bristle brush. I love my Music Nomad Tool (pictured here), but a soft kabuki face brush works well too.
- Your hot breath. Don’t worry, I’ll explain below.
- Saliva. Seriously, stay with me here.
Really, this is all you need for basic cleaning. Bottled water, a microfiber cloth, and a very soft-bristle brush. I use the Music Nomad String, Body, & Hardware Tool.
1. Remove Loose Dust and Dirt
Remove your guitar strings and use a very soft brush to gently sweep over the entire guitar to remove larger particles of loose dust and dirt. Be sure you get between the pickups (if it’s an electric guitar) and between all the tuning pegs. Use the bristles to get down into little crevices and corners.
I want to clarify what I mean when I say “soft brush.” A standard paintbrush from the hardware store just won’t do here–regardless of how soft they may feel to you. My favorite type of bristle is soft, natural sable. For years, I used a women’s makeup brush–the biggest type, which I think is used to apply blush.
Or, an even better tool is the Music Nomad String, Body, and Hardware cleaning Tool. It’s actually 2 cleaning tools in one, and I love mine for sweeping away dust and dirt, as well as getting into hard-to-reach places while the strings are still on the guitar.
One note of caution: because they’re so fine, these sable brushes can occasionally shed a bristle here and there. If this happens, just blow them off the guitar before moving on.
So, grab that brush:
Grab your soft-bristle brush and get ready to go to town.
Sweep briskly over all areas, regardless of whether you can actually see dust or not. Be sure to sweep the dust all the way off the edge of the guitar–don’t just blindly flail the brush around:
Take advantage of the soft bristles to get into little cracks and crevices. On Strat-style electric guitars, don’t forget to dust inside the guitar’s horns:
Don’t forget about your guitar’s headstock. Use the bristles to get between the tuners on both the front and back of the guitar’s headstock:
2. Remove Remaining (Stubborn) Gunk
Now that we’ve removed all the loose stuff, let’s remove any remaining fingerprints, sweat, and oils (and, in my case, a dog’s nose-print).
This is where your microfiber cloth, hot breath, water, and maybe even a little spit come in. However, never spit on someone else’s guitar. That’s just gross. Only use saliva when cleaning your own guitar.
When removing stuck-on gunk with a cloth, don’t use a rubbing or buffing motion–we’ll do that later. At this stage, use the microfiber cloth in a “scooping” motion, like this:
Don’t rub or buff yet. Use a scooping motion to safely LIFT and pick up dirt.
I like to try using the cloth completely dry first, but I’ll occasionally fog spots with my hot breath. 90% of the time, simply fogging a dirty spot then immediately removing the condensation with a microfiber cloth will remove the gunk:
A microfiber cloth and your hot breath are often ALL you need to clean a guitar.
If that’s not working and you’ve got something that’s really refusing to let go, slightly dampen a spot on the cloth with a bit of bottled water. Let me emphasize again: slightly damp.
1. Wet a microfiber cloth with bottled water.
2. The cloth should only be slightly damp.
3. Blot the damp spot against a dry spot on the towel.
4. Use the damp towel in a scooping motion to remove gunk
Finally, if water isn’t doing the trick, you can moisten the cloth with a bit of your saliva. Though it grossed you out, mom was onto something when she licked her finger and wiped that sticky smudge off your cheek. Saliva is nature’s universal gunk remover, and it makes a pretty good solvent for removing organic buildup like the sweat and oils.
Continue this routine until you’ve removed all obvious dust, sweat, and oil from the guitar. Once you’ve done that, it’s now safe to give your guitar a light buffing with a different/clean microfiber cloth. Once all that’s done, THEN it’s safe to use your favorite guitar polish.
Okay, NOW You Can Polish Your Guitar (Gloss Finishes)
NOW you can safely apply your favorite guitar polish. However, I generally advise using polish only a few times a year (about every 3-4 months if you play your guitar a lot). My favorite polish for gloss finishes is Music Nomad’s Guitar One Cleaner/Polish/Wax. However, if you’re guitar has a matte or satin finish, you’ll want to use Music Nomad’s Guitar Detailer for Matte & Gloss Finishes instead.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, do not use water, polish, or cleaners (or saliva) on your guitar if it has a “natural” finish. Though these natural finishes have been sealed with an oil or oil-varnish mixture, it only gives the wood a basic level of protection. This means that whatever you put on the wood could potentially find its way in… permanently.
Now, I love a natural finish, but over time the areas that come into frequent contact with your body will begin to discolor (get darker), and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. You can use a dry microfiber cloth to wipe the guitar down after you play, but that’s about it. Sometimes, plain (clear) mineral oil can be used to remove superficial stains on smaller areas. However, just about anything you use to try and remove stains from a natural finish can potentially make that spot darker or lighter than the surrounding areas.
This is just the nature of natural finishes. If you buy a guitar with a natural finish, do so accepting the fact that the guitar is going to pick up some mojo over the years. Be proud of that mojo.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security and think you can use JUST guitar polish as a cleaner. You might get away with it for awhile, but eventually it’ll bite you–as your guitar gradually develops a dull haze or very fine scratches that you can’t remove.
But what about the products labelled as “cleaners” you ask? After all, the Music Nomad Guitar One I recommend here says it’s an all-in-one cleaner, polish, and wax. What the heck? Technically, you can use the Guitar One product as a cleaner, but you should still dust-off your guitar first. Then, when you’re using the Guitar One to do the heavy cleaning, just be sure to use the “scooping” motion I outlined above. That’ll ensure you’re lifting dirt off the guitar, and not just smearing it around.
Send Me Your Questions
What questions did I leave unanswered? Let me know in the comments section down below and I’ll do my best to help ya out.
Bobby Davis is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
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