The B&H SuperStore is not a well-known retailer of musical instruments. It’s true that our audio department has offered synthesizers, keyboards, controllers, and digital pianos for a long time, but we’re probably not the first place you think of when you’re thinking about guitars, basses, or their care and maintenance. B&H does carry a modest lineup of stringed instruments, as well as a few products for their care and cleaning. Here are some simple tips for cleaning and polishing your prized stringed instrument, if that’s the way you roll.
Tee Shirts or Diapers?
There is a great deal of advice online about cleaners and polishes for guitar finishes, and each guitar player you ask will have a different opinion about them. Most luthiers (the people who build and repair guitars) will tell you that the best cleaner is simply a soft, damp—wrung out, not dripping wet—cotton cloth, such as an old tee shirt. Use it to wipe skin oil, grime, and smudges from your guitar and then use a soft, dry cloth to absorb excess moisture and buff. Old baby diapers that have been washed many times serve this task perfectly.
If you have any trepidation about cleaning with used diapers, there is a multitude of microfiber polishing cloths on the market that are quite soft and designed expressly for this purpose. Just be sure not to use the knobby microfiber cloths that are normally used for dusting and polishing furniture, because the rough texture of those will leave scratches in the finish of your fine guitar. I can verify this from personal experience, so don’t do it! You can use flat, shiny cloths or soft, chamois-like ones. Lens-cleaning cloths are extra gentle on finishes.
If the damp cloth/dry cloth method or the microfiber cloth won't remove the built-up gunk to your satisfaction, then perhaps you need to be somewhat more aggressive and address the situation with a cleaner and polish.
Cleaners and Polishes
There are many guitar-cleaning solutions and polishes that can clean and shine your guitar if you feel that a damp cloth is not quite effective enough and you need to get EVERY last spec of grime off your beautiful axe (a topic that still comes up in therapy every so often). Most of these will remove gunk, fingerprints, smudges, and skin-oil buildup, and shine it up simultaneously. Some polishes are designed to fill superficial scratches in a nitrocellulose or catalyzed lacquer finish, or at least make them less obvious. You can find polishes that will buff out to an incredible shine. But before you buy, read the label to see what’s in it. If there is silicone in the formula, move on, and look for something else that is silicone-free. Silicone will take grime off your guitar, as well as some finish, but it can build up in out-of-the-way places, such as the neck-heel joint or along the edge of the bridge. If you ever need to have a part of, or your entire instrument refinished, new finish will not adhere to the silicone buildup. Some cleaners and polishes are available as complete care kits, which provide polish, fingerboard conditioner, and a polishing cloth.
Lacquer Checking? Hold the Polish!
Here's a caveat for owners of vintage instruments: If your guitar has pronounced lacquer checking, do not apply a white cream cleaner or polish. Lacquer checking presents as cracks or fissures that go through the finish and can be seen easily when light strikes the lacquer checks from a certain angle. (California luthier Frank Ford, of Gryphon Stringed Instruments, in Palo Alto, CA, publishes a website on repair and care for luthiers and musicians, which offers a clear image of lacquer checking on a guitar, similar to the image just below. Mr. Ford is the Professor Dumbledor of guitar repair and restoration.)
White cream or liquid cleaners and polishes can seep into the checks, will not dissolve (they remain white), and are nearly impossible to remove. This looks a great deal worse than plain lacquer checks and can reduce the value of your vintage instrument so, unless you can guarantee that you will never need to sell your beautiful, lacquer-checked, mojo-flecked guitar and you don’t give a hoot—don’t do it!
Many polishes contain carnauba wax, which is safe for most finishes, and will leave a deep, rich shine. On guitars that have polyester or catalyzed urethane finishes (check with the manufacturer’s website or customer service department if you don’t know), for local touch-ups you can even use a light polish designed for use on shiny plastics. DO NOT use such a product on a nitrocellulose lacquer finish. Ever. It's always prudent to do a little test patch in an out-of-the-way spot, on the side or back of the guitar, before you slather polish all over it.
Applying Cleaner and Polish
Here’s a tip, if you decide to use a cleaner and polish: Do not spray or squirt it directly onto your guitar. Put a small amount on the cloth and work the cloth gently in a circular motion in small areas on the surfaces of the guitar, then wipe off and buff with a soft, dry cloth. Work in sections this way. Avoid smearing polish or cleaner on the raw wood of the bridge, along the edges of the pickguard, and in joints such as where the neck connects to the body of the guitar. If you do see polish in these areas, wrap a thin, soft cloth around a toothpick and use it to clean out the polish, or gently use a clean, soft-bristle toothbrush. Following these simple guidelines will render a clean, shiny finish without problems such as polish building up or becoming stuck in cracks or joints. Again, use cleaners and polishes only if the damp cloth method isn’t enough to get the grime off.
Don’t Fret Over Your Fretboard
If the fretboard of your guitar is made of real wood, you can clean it lightly with 0000 steel wool. Wipe or brush off the little steel filings with a cloth or soft brush, and then rub a few drops of fretboard-specific lemon oil or other bespoke fretboard oil into it. Just use a few drops—don’t overdo it—on your cloth, rub it along the fretboard, let it be absorbed for a minute or two, and then wipe down the fretboard with a clean cloth. You only need to do this once a year, preferably in cold weather, when heating systems come to life, the relative humidity starts to dip below 45%, and the air is dry. This should keep your fretboard clean, conditioned, and less prone to shrinking or cracking.
However, one of our readers suggests that the filings from steel wool (which is magnetic) can drift into electric guitar or bass pickups and affect their performance. In addition, I would not advise the steel wool approach for maple fingerboards, which are frequently treated with some form of finish. For electric guitars and basses, I would recommend a cleaner conditioner such as GHS Gorgomyte Fret and Fingerboard Cleaning Cloth. Made from a non-abrasive material that has been treated with a mild cleaning/conditioning agent, these cloths will remove finger oil, grime, and grit from your guitar’s fretboard, polish up the frets, and leave the wood with a subtle luster. For maple fretboards that have finish on them, do a small test patch, and beware of areas on older guitars where the finish has worn off. Follow the instructions on the package.
The wound steel strings of an acoustic or electric guitar have tiny spaces between the windings that tend to collect oil and gunk from your fingers. Build up enough of this finger effluvia and your strings start to go dead and sound dull quicker than you can play “Beaumont Rag.” It’s OK and still manly to clean your strings after you play (just like it’s OK to wipe your guitar down after you sweat, drool, or spill beer on it) and you have one or two options in this regard. You can just wrap your all-purpose microfiber cleaning cloth around the strings and wipe them down, top and bottom, or you can go a little more handy-dandy with a bit of liquid string cleaner and lubricant.
And you know those nickel chrome buttons on the tuning machines on your guitar that show every arch, loop, and whorl of your fingerprints? Just wipe those incriminating prints off with your microfiber cloth.
Unless you play guitar in a grunge band and like your instrument heavily relic’d, or you are Willie Nelson, you might want to keep your guitar looking its best—for the guitar’s well-being, your own enjoyment, peace of mind, your public image, or like me, to keep your neatnik tendencies at bay. If you follow these simple cleaning steps, your instrument should look its best, with strings that will give you more play time between changes. And if you do decide to sell it someday, a potential purchaser will look at that pretty guitar and think, “This person took good care of their guitar.”
Do you have any cleaning techniques of your own to share, or questions? Post them below, in the Comments section.