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The oils from your skin. Dust. Spilled beer. There’s a multitude of things that can add to the grime and gunk on your fretboard, and due to the slow accumulation of these things, you probably won’t notice the buildup until it’s really time to clean it. Even if you prefer your guitar with a couple scratches, long strings, and half-peeled stickers, we’re talking about maintaining and improving the sound of your guitar – the glimmer is just a bonus. If left untouched, that grimy buildup will eventually make its way onto the strings, dampening their ability to resonate, and dulling the sound of your guitar.
Sure, there’s some great cleaners and conditioners on the market built for this, but why go that route when you probably have everything you need in your cabinets already? In the end, knowing what not to use is really more important than choosing from the options of what you can use. So, take a deep breath, give your axe a kiss, and let’s make that baby shine.
You don’t want to try this with the strings on. Pinched fingers, stretched strings, and cleaning products getting into undesirable places are just a few of the reasons you’ll slap yourself for trying to do this the lazy way. Thus, anytime you change your strings is a good time to clean the fretboard – killing two birds with one stone is always the way to go, unless you’re an ornithologist.
Now the common debate is whether removing all your strings at once will affect the overall tension on your guitar. Some say yes. Many say no. I say better safe than sorry when operating on your loved ones. Yes, this entire process will take a little more time if you take off half your strings, clean underneath them, put them back on, and then repeat for the other half. But eliminating the concern that you’re doing something to potentially harm your guitar is worth the hassle.
Yes, it matters. There are three main types of wood common on fretboards and a handful of less common woods, all of which have their own degrees of natural oils within and require their own unique care.
The most common fretboard wood is known for creating a soft, warm tone. It has its own natural oils in it which help create its rich, reddish-brown color, and means it is almost always left unfinished. No lacquers, no finishes – leave her be.
A dense, harder wood which manifests more of a snappy, punchier tone, maple has very little natural oils and needs a layer of lacquer to keep it from warping. When applying a finish to it, make sure it matches whatever was used prior to bring out the yellowish shine.
A dense, yet smoother wood than maple, ebony is known for creating a more neutral tone, and its dark oils create a heavy gleam that is usually left unfinished.
When in doubt, check the brand and model of your guitar, and it never hurts to scope the manufacturer’s guidelines for what can be applied to your fretboard. Other potential wood types used on guitars include:
Now that you know what type of wood you’re working with, let’s grab those essential items that are either sitting under your sink or in your basement.
If they sincerely don’t recommend putting these things in your ears, then this is the real reason to own them. They’re the best at getting into those crevices lining the frets, and a puff of cotton is gentle on any kind of wood.
You know, like the kind they give you to clean your glasses. You want to go as gentle as possible on your wipe-down, and even seemingly delicate fabrics can hold a hidden abrasive. If you don’t have a microfiber cloth lying around, an old flannel shirt or that t-shirt you won at trivia night will do the trick just as well.
Admittedly, the kind of steel wool we’re talking about here is probably not the kind you have in your home already to clean anything else. But extra fine #000 or #0000 is fine enough to get those extra gunked-up spots without scraping the finish. If cleaning an electric guitar, do make sure to cover up your pickups with a cloth because the tiny particles of the steel wool could get attracted to the pickup magnets.
If your fretboard only needs a light cleaning, then water may be all you need. As is this case with many of these products, a light touch is key. Lightly dampen a cloth and rub it on your frets, making sure to dry it off soon afterwards so no residual moisture is left.
Murphy’s is the most common one sitting under kitchen sinks. Note – this is a completely different product than vegetable oil. Please don’t grease up your frets like you’re about to grill on them. Do make sure you wipe it all off, as it can leave a crusty residue if not fully removed.
Not lemon juice! Lemon oil is a lightly concentrated formula and is great to use on unfinished woods since it will restore their natural oils.
Yes, really. It’s great for breaking up oils and evaporates quickly. Obviously, don’t use it around open flames unless you’re preparing for your best Hendrix impression.
“Distilled” is the key word here. If nothing else is working on those extra gnarly spots, then a very small amount of distilled vinegar on a cotton swab could be the savior you’re looking for. Again: Very. Small. Amount.
Unless you’re so paranoid about dirt that you want to literally strip off the top layer of wood, never use bleach. It will cause outright destruction.
It works on all the other wood in your house, so… No! Most furniture cleaners contain solvents that will eat into a finish. Fight the urge to use it on your fretboard.
It’s right there in the name. It might as well be called Fretboard Eater.
A common mistake used by some but will only leave a sticky residue and make your wood dirtier than when you started.
One last time: ONLY USE DISTILLED VINEGAR in very, very small amounts.
While frequently used to remove gunk from the body of a guitar, its abrasive nature can damage the frets themselves.
The abrasive agent they contain will completely strip the finish off your guitar.
With any of these products, moderation is key. It’s better to have to add more of something than accidentally ruining your guitar with too much of a product. In the end, how frequently you’ll need to clean your guitar all depends on how frequently you play it. Know your instrument. Forge an intimate relationship with it. Love it and care for it properly, and it will surely love you back.