How to Clean Guitar Strings
You’ll Be Surprised How Easy It Is
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Last Updated: November 18, 2019
Wiping your guitar strings, fretboard, and neck after you play is one of the fastest, easiest, and cheapest things you can do to:
Get in the habit of doing this simple maintenance task, and not only will you have to change your strings less often, you’ll extend the life of your guitar and avoid bigger repair/maintenance bills down the road. When gunk builds up in the porous wood of your fretboard or begins to erode the lacquer (if yours has a lacquered fretboard), it’s a lot more expensive to have cleaned and restored.
As with many things, it depends–on how long you play, how much you sweat, and how dirty your hands were when you sat down to play. For now, let’s assume your hands don’t sweat excessively during play.
Washing your hands before you play (if practical) is just one more measure you can take to extend the life of your strings and guitar.
If you only play for 15 minutes or less, you can get away with not wiping your strings and neck every single time and/or just use “the okay method” I’ll outline below.
If you play for more than 15 minutes, then you’ll want to give your strings and neck a good wipe after each practice/play session. How thorough you need to be depends on just HOW LONG you play.
All you really need is a soft cotton washcloth–the same type you use in the shower. I prefer washcloths over old cotton t-shirts because I feel the little terry cloth loops do a better job of grabbing dirt and debris off the strings and fretboard. Store the towel inside the guitar case, or near wherever you tend to play guitar so that it’s handy when you’re done playing.
You may be wondering about string cleaners. Don’t worry, I’ll talk about those later in this article and recommend a few you can try.
Don’t have much time? This method is not only quick, it won’t knock your guitar out of tune (as does “the best method” covered later). The downside is that it’s simply not as thorough–but definitely better than nothing if you want clean guitar strings.
Just use a plain ole (clean) washcloth. No need for fancy wipes or microfiber towels here.
The fretboard gets some contact with the towel as well, thanks to the terry cloth material. Despite the “action blur” here, I’m not wiping very fast. You don’t need to press hard either–light pressure is plenty.
You can use a little more pressure here, all the way up and down the neck 3-4 times is plenty. Notice the little yellow sticker on the back of my headstock? That tells me when I last changed my strings (helpful if you have a lot of guitars).
And that’s it! Done! Toss the washcloth in the accessory compartment of your guitar case and go about your day.
Note: Don’t use this same cloth to wipe the body of your guitar–especially if your guitar has a glossy finish. It’s not soft enough, so dedicate this cloth to string and neck cleaning only. If you want to wipe your guitar’s body after playing, use a separate cloth (preferably microfiber or soft suede) instead, and keep that cloth dedicated to just the body.
If you’ve got a little more time, or your strings and fretboard are especially dirty, this is the way to go. NOTE: This will knock your strings a little out of tune, so you’ll have to retune afterward.
As you get close to the nut (where the strings pass over headstock to the tuning pegs), be careful not to pull the string out of the string groove.
If it’s an acoustic guitar, you can use the soundhole to make it easier to get the cloth under the strings.
Do this sitting on the floor or couch–not setting on a chair like I am here. I only did this to pose for the photo, and I nearly dropped my guitar.
… slide the cloth all the way to the nut.
… then back down to the bridge. Do this 2-3 times.
If you’re a beginner, you probably play on the lower part of the neck the most, so this area will tend to get the dirtiest.
You can use a little more pressure here. Again, all the way up and down the neck 3-4 times is plenty.
That’s it, really. That’s all you need for clean guitar strings. Toss the washcloth in the accessory compartment of your guitar case and be on your way.
Note: As I said up above, don’t use this same cloth to wipe the body of your guitar–especially if your guitar has a glossy finish. It’s not soft enough, so dedicate this cloth to string and neck cleaning only. If you want to wipe your guitar’s body after playing, use a separate cloth (preferably microfiber or soft suede) instead, and keep that cloth dedicated to just the body.
I generally don’t recommend commercial string cleaners. Not because I think they’re bad or don’t work, but because I just don’t think they’re totally necessary. I feel that if your strings are really old or really dirty, you should just change them–because old strings can sometimes start to cause tuning and intonation issues, and really dirty strings just aren’t worth the effort… unless you’re using expensive 24k gold plated strings.
However, string cleaners aren’t just a gimmick. They do have some limited effectiveness and are a good option if you want to squeeze a little more life out of your strings or just avoid changing them for a very long time. However, they’re not going to revitalize a severely rusted-out set of old strings. These cleaners are good for removing everyday sweat and grime only.
That said, if you feel like you want to try a string cleaner, I’ve used GHS Fast Fret off and on since I was a teenager. It does a good job and leaves the strings feeling slick again.
Do you clean your strings? If so, do you use a string cleaner, or some other method? I’d love to hear how you keep your strings clean and shiny, so let me know in the comments below.
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