Ultimate Guide to Cleaning [Acoustic/Electric] Guitars

Hello everyone and welcome to my Ultimate Guide to Cleaning Guitars. This is an in depth and detailed on guide on the most efficient ways to clean your guitar. I’ll be going over both Acoustic and Electric style guitars. Every important piece you need to pay attention too and giving strict instructions on exactly how to handle your instrument with the utmost care.

Guitar Care

The first thing i’m going to start by saying is that there is an important role when it comes to just caring for your guitars. Cleaning them is something you need to do daily but taking care of them is a life time job.

The first major difference comes in the wood the guitar is made out of. Every single guitar is different and has its own style and feel that comes from the wood that makes it.

And being wood you have to make sure nothing happens to damage the guitar body itself. So avoid leaving them in extreme hot or cold temperatures otherwise the wood will warp and the guitar’s shape and sound will suffer.

Another important thing to note is the way you stand your guitar when not in use. Most people just lay it down some where or lean it against the wall but there is a proper way to have a guitar when its not being used.

Having an issued stand to either let it sit up at a specific angle or hanging from a wall are the best ways to have it. There is no risk of messing with the guitars shape or the woods durability this way.

Being a stand the guitar has not stress put on it to keep it holding up, the stand takes care of that. But having it against a wall puts slight pressure on the guitar and that’s just enough to mess with the head of the guitar which can alter the way it sounds.

There are many things that can affect the way a guitar is built, how it looks, and how it sounds. So you can’t expect to keep all of them from happening.

The most common are the two I listed above so knowing those you should be in a good spot for taking care of your guitar. Once you’ve taken care of it you’re ready to start learning how to properly clean the instrument.

Supplies - What you'll need

When it comes to cleaning the actual guitar itself you may think all you’ll need is some kind of spray and a rag to wipe it down. And most people will do just that and be satisfied with the half banked results.

But to really clean your guitar you need to avoid using any kind of harming sprays in fear of warping the wood. And you don’t want to just wipe it down, you wanna get into all those creases and indents to really flush out any dust or dirt that’s in there.

Rubbing Alcohol

So the first thing you’re going to want and probably the most important is rubbing alcohol. It’s used a lot for cleaning jewelry and you can pick it up at any drug store for pretty cheap.

Rubbing alcohol is for the metal parts of the guitar. The head stocks pegs and tuners, the guitar strings themselves, the fret bars, and depending on what kind of guitar you have you can even use it on the bridge if its metal as well.

Its suggested to use rubbing alcohol because its less damaging to the guitar and can get it clean easier than other substances. But don’t use the alcohol on the wood of the guitar that can damage the paint and if enough is used damage the wood.

So stick to metal when using the alcohol and make sure you don’t use to much of it. In order to pace how much you use there are things that can be used in tandem with it.

Cotton balls and Q-Tips

Something very important to know about cleaning any kind of guitar is that Q-Tips are your friend. Having the cotton tip and being on a small stick makes it very easy to get into the hard to reach areas.

So having a few of them set aside is a great idea before you start cleaning. As for cotton balls, they’ll be used less than the Q-tips but they serve a purpose all the same.

Both of these are rather cheap and can be bought almost anywhere so they shouldn’t be to hard to find. Now stepping away from the metal parts of the guitar we’re going to talk about the supplies you’ll need for the actual body itself.

Soft cloths and Polish

Coming back to people using any old rag and some water to clean their guitars. The best thing to use for cleaning the body is a soft cloth.

The softer you can get the better because it’ll keep from scratching the finish on the guitar while you clean it. It doesn’t have to be very big, just big enough to where you can use it comfortably.

As for what to use on the guitar that can be a little tricky. There are dozens of products out there for polishing a guitar and you could always go out and buy one of those.

But if you’re looking to use something around the house a common method is using white distilled vinegar. A lot of people use this because it doesn’t damage the finish on the guitar and its easy to get your hands on.

Tip: You can use the cloth and vinegar on the body, the neck, the fretboard and have no worry of it damaging the wood or finish of the guitar.

Caution: Make sure not to apply too much pressure while cleaning, you don’t want to rub or power wash it you’re just gently polishing the wood.

Acoustic Vs. Electric

Now we’re gonna start getting into the real details of cleaning a guitar and exactly what needs to be done. But the first thing to know is what kind of guitar you’re cleaning.

Acoustics and Electric guitars are made very similar but have a lot of differences that make changes to how their cleaned. For example, most acoustic guitars have wooden bridges so you can’t use rubbing alcohol on them like you can on an electric.

You have to know what your doing with the type of guitar you have. This guide is going to explain how to clean both guitars with out causing any damage to them but still using the same supplies listed above.

Another thing to watch for is the type of Acoustic or Electric you may have. This is more for Electric guitars but it still applies if you’re an Acoustic owner.

If you’re using a hollow body guitar you may want to double up on Q-Tips and to clean the edges of the holes in the guitar. Don’t go to deep just to the edges of the crease.

A solid body is fairly easier to clean and that’s not saying hollow bodies are difficult. Having a solid body just lets you have a steady rhythm while you polish it cause there are no holes or grooves you have to skip over.

Now if you’re someone who owns something like a banjo or a steel guitar cleaning is a whole different process that I wont go to far into detail about. You can use the same supplies you have just in different methods.

For a banjo you wanna stay away from the vinegar and just use the cloth to polish it dry. And steel guitars can still put the vinegar to use but use significantly less than you would on an Acoustic or Electric.

Cleaning your instrument comes with the territory of taking care of it. You want to make sure while you’re cleaning it you’re being careful and not trying to rush through it.

You gotta pay attention and make sure everything you’re doing isn’t giving off any red flags while you’re doing it. If you think you’re doing something wrong then stop before any harm comes to it.

The process of cleaning

Step 1. Remove the strings if necessary

The first thing you want to look at when cleaning your guitar is whether or not you’re cleaning one with strings on it. Chances are you probably decided to clean your guitar when you decided to change the strings so that’s a good thing.

But this step doesn’t apply to everyone some people go to clean their strings regularly and decide to clean the whole guitar as they do it. Now there is no strict rule about removing the strings because you absolutely do not have to do so.

Removing the strings only makes it easier to clean and polish the fret board, neck, and bridge. But you can keep the strings on it’ll just be a little more difficult to get around them while you clean.

Step 2. Ready your cleaning supplies

The next thing you want to do is make sure you have everything you need to start cleaning your guitar. Have your guitar sitting on some kind of flat surface whether it be a table or a bed.

Make sure you have rubbing alcohol ready with your Q-tips and cotton balls. And keep your soft cloth clean of any lint or dust as best you can.

Once your supplies are ready you’re going to start at the top and work your way down. The head is the first place we’re going to be cleaning on the guitar.

Step 3. The Head Stock

On the head stock you have three different places you need to clean. The pegs, the tuners, and the head itself.

The pegs are the metal pieces that the tops of the strings are attached to. If your strings are still on then you wont be able to clean these fully so you’ll have to deal with only getting some of them.

Take a Q-tip and apply just a little bit of the alcohol to it. Dab the Q-tip on the top of each peg and gently wipe in a circular motion.

If you’re strings are off then use the clean side of the Q-tip and gently wipe the sides of each peg. If you want to clean inside of the holes that the strings go into your best bet is to just dab at it with the Q-tip then dry the area and gently blow on it.

Next you want to clean the tuners and you’ll be using the same method. Get a Q-tip with alcohol on it and swab the tuners on both sides.

Make sure to clean around the backs just for efficiency sake. Once the tuners are clean grab a soft cloth and wipe down the head ridding it of any dust or dirt that may have accumulated on it.

Once its been wiped down use another end of the cloth, or another soft cloth in general, and dab a corner of it with vinegar. Apply the cloth to the head and gently polish in a circular motion.

Make sure you get every inch of the head on the front and back.

Caution: Don’t forget not to apply too much pressure as you do it.

Step 4. The Neck and the strings

Cleaning the neck of the guitar can be the easiest or the hardest part depending if you decided to keep your strings on or not. You’re going to need all of your supplies for this part so be ready with everything you got.

We’ll start with those of you who have your strings taken off. Grab a Q-tip and get a little bit of alcohol on it, just enough to cover it.

Take the Q-tip and gently clean each of the metal bars separating each fret. There should be anywhere between 19-25 frets depending on how long your neck is so feel free to take your time doing this.

The bars of the frets get neglected by a lot of people while cleaning but they shouldn’t. The bars help with the guitars sound and its much crisper when they aren’t scoffed up with gunk.

Once you’ve cleaned all the fret bars (you’ll probably need a few Q-tips for this part) grab your cloth and wipe down the neck cleaning it of any dust like you did with the head stock.

Once its been wiped down take a corner and apply just a little of the vinegar or any polish you maybe using. Go to the first fret and clean it gently.

You can do circles or vertical swipes on the frets just make sure you’re gentle so the cloth doesn’t snag or catch on the wood. Do each fret carefully and patiently because depending on how old your guitar is you maybe dealing with a bunch of dead skin that’s built up on the wood.

Each fret may take a few minutes on its own to clean and you may have to stop in between the same fret to let it dry and go back to it so you aren’t rubbing the wood raw. To help get any obvious dead skin off you can rub your finger against the wood but not to hard, pressure is bad in this scenario.

Now if you’re someone who kept your strings on then its going to be more difficult for you to clean your frets efficiently but its not impossible. Just follow the same methods as above but you’ll have to gently lift your strings to get under them.

Once the frets are nice and clean you can start cleaning the strings. This is where your cotton balls come into play and you will need a lot of them.

Take a cotton ball and hold it against the open end of the alcohol bottle. Tip the bottle to where you just get a small splash of it on the cotton ball.

You don’t want to flip it over and soak the ball completely you only need a little. But you will be doing this to several different ones because they’re going to gunk up very quickly.

The strings are the most fragile part of any guitar and they should be cleaned every 4-6 weeks anyways. So if you’re cleaning strings that aren’t brand new then expect a lot of dead skin covering them.

Take the cotton ball and place it against one of the strings then trap it between two of your fingers to where you’re holding the string inside of the cotton ball. Make sure the wet part is on the string.

As you hold it gently slide the cotton ball back and forth on the string in short strokes. You’re going to work your way from the head down to the bridge on the string and its going to take more than one cotton ball per string.

Once you see the cotton ball starting to get dark with dirt switch to a new one and continue the process. This is the lengthiest part of cleaning a guitar but also the most important.

Once you’ve got each and every fret clean flip the guitar over and dust down the back of it. You don’t really have to polish down the back of the neck that is entirely up to the person cleaning it.

While you’re at it, go ahead and wipe down/polish the back of the body. It’s a big open space and in most cases has nothing on it so it should be easy to get clean real quickly.

Step 5. The Body

On the body you are met with several different areas that need to be cleaned and we’re going to go over them all in different steps. This one is specifically about the biggest area of the guitar.

Take your cloth and wipe down and dust or grime then take a corner and apply your polish. Gently rub the body in a circle motion making sure you go around the length of the whole thing.

If you’re working on a hollow body this is where those Q-tips come in handy. Take a dry Q-tip and use it to dust the inside of the holes of your guitar.

Make sure not to drop any inside of it, all you’re doing is gently dusting the edges of the holes to keep it clean. Once you’ve polished down the body you’ll be moving to the other pieces.

Step 6. The Pickups

Now this is specifically for Electric guitar or Electric Acoustics. If you’re cleaning an acoustic all you’ll have is a big hole in the middle and no pickups to worry about so skip this section.

The pickups are the part of the guitar that give off sound when plugged into an amp. Now most people just think that they’re what make it sound the way it does and changing them gives a different sound and that’s true.

But if a pickup is all dusty and full of gunk its actually going to affect the sound quite heavily. So cleaning a pickup depends on the style you have but its all pretty much the same.

Take a dry cloth and dust off the outside of the pickup the best you can then grab a Q-tip and try to dust around the edge best you can.

If you’re like me and you have a guitar with bulky pickups that can get dust underneath them you make want to take the pickup out completely and clean it by hand.

Its a simple process just a complete of screws then you can pull it out and dust the entire thing with no worries. Just make sure you keep a hold of it and don’t disconnect any wires attached to the pickup.

Step 7. The Bridge

The bridge is the bottom part of the guitar that the strings are put through. On most electrics its a metal bar, on acoustics it’s typically wood, one some guitars its a plastic peg. So this is where it can get a little confusing on how to clean it.

If its anything that’s not metal then ignore alcohol completely. Just take a soft cloth and dust off the bridge the best you can.

Use your polish if you so desire but only a little bit. You don’t need to have the bridge looking super sharp for anything just have it in a presentable manor.

If your bridge is metal then break out your cotton balls and get just a splash on them like you did for your strings. Take the cotton ball and dab it across the bridge.

Once its been cleaned a bit with the cotton balls and alcohol take your soft cloth and gently wipe it down to dry it. It should only take a couple of seconds to dry then you can apply another clean if you want to.

Last step - Guitar tweaks

At this point you’ve cleaned every major part of your guitar and it should be looking sharp and new. But before you do anything with it take a moment to see if any adjustments need to be made.

You just cleaned it so why not add any tweaks that might make it play a little better or sound crisper. There are a few simple things you can do to adjust that.

One thing you can do is adjust the bridge of the guitar. All bridges can be adjusted and doing so changes the tension on your strings or the placement making them higher or lower.

Doing this can change the sound giving different tones that can affect the way the strings sit. Just make sure you don’t raise it to high, applying to much tension can shorten your strings life span by quite a bit.

Another thing you can do is adjust the neck of your guitar. If you have an Acoustic or Electric with an adjustable neck then doing this every so often isn’t such a bad idea.

By adjusting the neck you can change how close the strings sit to the frets on the guitar. This is mostly for personal play style and feel than anything.

Some players like having the strings close to the frets for easier maneuvers while others like the strings further away because it adds some extra pull to the strings when you play.

But over all this is the most effective way to clean your guitar with out causing any harm or damage to it. Remember to store your guitars somewhere when they aren’t in use to increase their longevity.

I hope this guide was helpful to those of you guitarists out there. Until next time.