The fretboard on your guitar is an essential piece of it. The strings vibrate against it to produce the sounds you hope to play to create music. You have to press your fingers against the fretboard depending on the chords and notes you need to perform, leading to the buildup of grime and dirt.
Fretboards become dirty quickly because of how much contact they have with your hands and fingers. The buildup may eventually get to your strings, making them almost unplayable.
Most manufacturers make fretboards out of wood, but some are fully lacquer, for instance. There are specificities for cleaning the latter surfaces. There are also variations in how you should maintain finished versus unfinished woods. All of that information and more are in the information provided below.
How Do You Clean a Guitar Fretboard at Home?
When you want to learn how to clean fretboard surfaces, you will feel relieved knowing you can engage in the process at home. You only need basic supplies like oil-based soaps, Naphtha or lighter fluid, guitar polish, and microfiber cloths or paper towels. Ensure that you have a clean space so that your guitar or fretboard does not become dirtier during the cleaning process.
How often you need to perform a deep clean on the guitar fretboard depends on how much you use your guitar. Someone who has a gig every night or teaches guitar classes, for instance, will need to perform at least a monthly cleaning.
If you only use your guitar a couple of times a week or even only a few minutes a day, you can probably get away with cleaning guitar fretboard surfaces less often. You can also minimize the required frequency by wiping down the guitar with a damp or microfiber cloth after every use.
You can aim to do a deep clean after every three re-strings if you follow preventative practices like washing your hands and wiping down the guitar after each performance. Ultimately, you will use the soaps and oils while scrubbing the gunk off of the fretboard when you engage in this process.
Safe Home Products to Use in Cleaning Your Guitar Fretboard
If you do not have access to guitar polish and fretboard oils, as mentioned above, there are specific household products to use. Learning what is safe or unsafe will help you have a less stressful fretboard cleaning experience.
It may seem common sense, but water is one of the most beneficial products you can use when you want to learn how to clean fretboard surfaces. It does not contain toxins, and you only need to use a little bit to get the job done. Dampen a cotton ball or cloth and scrub the surface. Water will not work as well with a thick layer of gunk, however.
If you play guitar, you likely have a pick. Any sturdy plastic object, however, can help you clean your fretboard. Scrape off any dirt you see with the naked eye with your guitar pick or other plastic product. After, scrub the rest with a cleaning liquid for this method of learning how to clean your fretboard.
The information above listed oil-based soaps as a valuable option for cleaning your fretboard. You do not have to use one made specifically for guitars, however. Make sure that it has vegetable oil in it, add it to a cloth, and scrub. You will immediately notice the shine the soap will leave behind.
Just because you can use lemon oil does not mean you can use lemon juice. You need this type of product as it is low in acidic concentration. Only use a small amount to remove debris and shine the wood or total lacquer.
Naphtha or Lighter Fluid
Finally, lighter fluid and Naphtha have benefits to the cleanliness of your fretboard. Only use a little bit at a time, but act fast because it will evaporate. Clean up the residue of this product right after, and be sure to moisturize the guitar as it will dry the instrument out.
Mineral spirits are best if the gunk on your fretboard is sticky. When using this product, make sure you only lightly scrub. You should not use them all the time either and avoid any mineral spirits that contain paint thinners.
Steps on Cleaning Your Fretboard (Step-by-Step)
Steps differ on cleaning fretboard surfaces, depending on the material used on your guitar. They also differ on the types of products you want to use to complete the process and how dirty the fretboard is.
Using Household Products
When using any of the above household products, you will follow the same basic steps. Again, when using mineral spirits, only scrub lightly.
- Remove the strings.
- Scrape off any visible dirt with a plastic pick or card.
- Dampen a microfiber cloth or cotton ball with the liquid of your choice.
- Clean off the surface with a dry cloth.
- Use a Q-tip with water to clean hard-to-reach spots, then wipe the products off.
Cleaning Excessive Build-Up
There are some added steps when there is excessive build-up. See the below list to learn more.
- Remove the strings.
- Protect the sound hole and metal hardware pieces by covering it with painter’s tape.
- Use a plastic card to scrape each fret.
- Vacuum up the scraped-off debris.
- Rub the fretboard with steel wool.
- Vacuum steel filings.
- Remove tape.
- Use an oil-based soap or other product to remove any leftover debris and moisturize wood, if appropriate.
- Wipe off the fretboard with a dry cloth.
Cleaning Unfinished Wood
Some argue that fretboards made from unfinished wood are the best. The steps below work no matter if you use ebony fretboard, rosewood, or another material.
- Take off the strings.
- Place a thin line of oil-based soap on the fretboard.
- Scrub the fretboard with steel wool in a circular motion.
- Wipe off the surface with a paper towel.
- Use the steel wool again.
- Wipe the fretboard with a Naphtha-soaked paper towel.
- Work oil into the fretboard with a dry cloth.
- Buff the fretboard with a microfiber cloth.
- Wipe off the leftover residue with a cloth.
Cleaning Finished Wood
Maple is a popular type of wood that often has a clear finish over it to give fretboards a beautiful color. You may find it easier to clean this type of surface, however.
- Remove any strings.
- Spread oil-based soap over the fretboard.
- Use a dry cloth to scrub the surface, not wool steel.
- Wipe the soap off.
- Scrub the fretboard with steel wool, using a guard over the surface.
- Wipe the finish with a Naphtha-soaked cloth to polish the guitar.
- Spray guitar detailer onto a cloth and wipe it on the fretboard to add even more polish.
Cleaning a Totally Lacquered Fretboard
Some fretboards are completely lacquer. Most musicians prefer to use the former two options, but this one is the easiest for cleaning purposes.
- Take off the strings.
- Spray guitar detailer onto a dry or microfiber cloth.
- Polish the fretboard using the cloth aforementioned.
- Finish off any areas where the lacquer is flaky with a razor blade or knife.
Maintaining and Preventing Your Fretboard from Getting Dirty
As mentioned above, how often you need to clean your fretboard depends on how often you play your guitar. By no means should you minimize how often you engage in what you love. Make sure, however, that you wipe down every surface of the guitar, including the fretboard, after every use. You can use a microfiber cloth or another soft, dry cloth to ensure you do not accidentally create a scratch on the surface.
Microfiber cloths immediately pick up many of the oils on the fretboard without requiring you to use a cleaning product. Use any of the products found in the above information if you notice excessive buildup, however.
Make sure, in between shows or jam sessions, that you store your guitar in its case. Remove the strap, putting it in a different compartment, as it will contain additional oils that could get on the fretboard. Make sure that you do not leave your guitar, in the case or not, in a warm or damp location for too long either.
Finally, try to wash your hands before you play your guitar, every time. You will use your fingers to press the strings to the fretboard. If there is excess gunk on your hands, it will migrate to your guitar when playing.
Products You Shouldn’t Use in Cleaning Your Fretboard
Though many household products are beneficial when considering the best way to clean guitar fretboard surfaces, there are many that you should never use. Consider those below.
Furniture polish gives a shiny finish to wooden amenities in your home. On a guitar, however, it may dry out the fretboard. It will also cause damage to any lacquer.
You should know to avoid bleach on most surfaces unless they are white. It will immediately change the color of the wood or the stain used in the finish on your fretboard.
Vinegar is almost a super product when you need to clean any surface in your home. Some musicians do choose to use it on their fretboards due to its strength. Vinegar, however, has a foul smell that will stay on your guitar for weeks and months to come.
Toothpaste is only beneficial for the frets themselves as they are metal. If you want to clean the fretboard, it could ruin the wood. Make sure you use painter’s tape or a guard over the wooden surfaces when using toothpaste. You want to avoid damage.
Acetone and nail polish are some of the harshest cleaners you can use. If you scrub a lacquered fretboard with these products, you will likely peel some of the finish and destroy it. Some do risk it, however, by mixing the substance with water.
Some musicians resort to sandpaper if steel wool and other approved substances do not work. This product will scratch up the wood, however, removing any finish that exists. You can polish the frets themselves with sandpaper if you would like, but again, make sure you have a guard or painter’s tape down.
Water is one of the most uncomplicated cleaning products to use when cleaning fretboard surfaces of any kind. Dampen a clean cloth with the liquid, ensuring that you do not soak it. Too much water can cause the wood to rise, becoming damaged in the end.
When using the damp microfiber cloth, you will have to apply a little bit of pressure. This effort will remove most of the dirt that exists on the fretboard. After, experts use a toothbrush, wet with just water, to clean the close areas around the metal frets.
If you have a lacquered fretboard, look for any cracks that exist in the finish first. If water gets into the openings, it can cause the wood underneath to swell, as aforementioned. It could also leave a stain under the finish, giving your fretboard a discoloration that you do not want to have.
Some individuals even recommend that you only use the polishes and oil-based soaps and cleaners a couple of times a year. They believe that the natural oils on your skin will provide the right amount of moisture. With this in mind, these musicians choose to use only water for their semi-monthly cleanings.
Do not use standard household cleaning wipes when cleaning fretboard surfaces. Most of these have bleach or vinegar in them, each of which can ruin the finish or the wood. The former especially leads to discoloration as well, which is impossible to correct in most cases.
You can use water-based baby wipes when cleaning your guitar’s fretboard. Do not use alcohol-based products, however, as the harsh solution can lead to damage. Before using the baby wipes, wring out some of the water. Again, you do not want excess liquid seeping through cracks in the finish or swelling the wood.
Manufacturers do have wipes made specifically for cleaning and finishing guitar fretboards. There are even some that condition the surface, adding back moisture for a beautiful appearance. Some of these products contain a blend of linseed, orange, and linseed oils to eliminate any grime and add a natural polish to the fretboard.
If you purchase the wipes made for fretboards specifically, make sure each has an individual package. When you get one out to clean a surface, you do not want to run the chance of drying out all of the others. These will last you for a few years’ worth of cleaning if you take proper care.
Oil can help to re-moisturize the wood, giving it a more polished look. You only have to use a small amount, no matter the kind you choose. Dampen a microfiber cloth enough that you can clean the entire surface of the fretboard without leaving behind residue.
Lemon oil, not lemon juice, is one of the top products available. It will give your fretboard a natural glow and will seal the finish, helping it avoid stains. It will remove any grime and debris, protecting against future piles of dirt with the sealant aforementioned.
Mineral oil, so long as it does not have additives, is beneficial too when cleaning your fretboard. It is best for unfinished woods, including rosewood and ebony, as aforementioned. You can pick this product up from most grocery and drug stores, as it is also a medicine used for digestive issues.
A small amount of vegetable oil can also clean guitar fretboard surfaces. When you purchase oil-based soaps, most come from this product. Vegetable oil is heavier than the previous two options, so for this one, you need to make sure that you only use a small amount on your microfiber cloth.
When you clean a fretboard with water, you want to make sure the cloth is damp. You do not want the product to soak, however, as excess moisture ruins the wood. It can even get under cracks in the finish, causing swelling and other concerns.
When you use oil on your fretboard, you will also dampen your cloth with it. You do not need near as much of this product as water. It will more quickly leave a residue behind. This fact means that the cloth should barely be wet before using it.
Some individuals do choose to use cotton balls and Q tips for the harder-to-reach areas. You will want, again, only enough water to dampen the material, not to soak it. For the oil, you will barely want any. The same is true when you decide to use a toothbrush for the corners against the frets.
When you decide to use the microfiber cloth, cotton ball, or Q tip, you will have to scrub hard. Since you use so little moisture, this method is the only way to remove dirt and debris. If there is excessive grime, you can scrape off the top layer first with a plastic card.
Only use a fretboard conditioner when the surface is super grimy and has excessive residue. Otherwise, the conditioning process should occur about once a year. You will scrub the fretboard with a cloth after applying this product to it.
After you complete the scrubbing process, you likely wonder what to do about the residue. To start, you will want it to remain on the surface of the fretboard for a while. The waiting period will allow the conditioner to do its job of polishing and cleaning the wooden surface.
After you wait a few minutes, you should wipe off the residue of the conditioner with a paper towel or a dry microfiber cloth. Do not let it sit too long, however. It could add too much moisture to the wood. It will also make the surface sticky and uncomfortable.
Some individuals do let the conditioner air dry, however. This process may work if you only use a small amount of the product to start. If you notice that the fretboard becomes sticky, however, you may have to use steel wool or another cleaning liquid to remove the excess conditioner on the guitar.
Most individuals choose not to use antibacterial wipes on their guitars, including the fretboards. Alcohol can leave behind hazes and stains, causing discoloration on the wood and finish. You could test a small area on the guitar’s back if you want to see how it affects your specific instrument.
Antibacterial wipes are also paper, meaning you can scratch the guitar when aggressively cleaning with it. It can cause damage to the wood as well as the lacquer. You can buff out any of the scratches in the finish using steel wool or guitar polish.
If you want to use this type of product, you can consider a water-based baby wipe. These are softer and do not have the harshness of alcohol or bleach concentration. You may want to wring out some of the water from the wipe. You want to avoid excess moisture from getting into the wood.
There are also cleaning wipes made for guitars specifically. These contain natural products such as lemon or orange oils which are safe for the wood and any finish. They already have the right amount of moisture so that the wood on your guitar does not swell.
When in the process of learning more about cleaning guitar fretboards, you may wonder about using soap and water together. An oil-based product will provide the best results, and some are specifically for these instruments. Only use these annually or as needed, as mentioned, however.
Some musicians believe that mild dish soap can prove to be beneficial when cleaning your guitar, however. It does leave behind a residue, so make sure to wipe it off as soon as you complete the process. You can mix one or two squirts in a bowl of warm water, dipping your cloth in it after to start cleaning.
After using the mixture, most individuals will go back over the spot with plain water. Doing this will eliminate some of the residues and ensure you get rid of all of the grime. As is typical, only use a small amount of water to ensure that you do not add more moisture than necessary.
If later you notice that you missed some of the residues from the soap, you can use Naphtha. It will remove the grime in as little as a couple of minutes. After using the product, wipe it off again with a clean microfiber cloth. You will immediately notice how shiny and clean the surface of your guitar is.