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
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?
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.
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.
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:
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:
• Solvents of any kind
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:
- Premier Guitar – Guitar Shop 101: The Great Guitar Cleanup
- Premier Guitar – Guitar Shop 101: Safe Ways to Clean Your Guitar’s Finish
- Acoustic Guitar – How to Clean Your Guitar
- Music Nomad Equipment Care – How To: Tips and Advice