‘Yay, cleaning! I can’t think of a better way to spend my free time!’ said about three people in the entire history of the world. When you’ve got a bit of downtime to spend with your guitar, one of the last things you want to do is clean it. Playing is the thing. Alas, if you don’t do basic maintenance – such as fretboard cleaning – your tone will go to the dogs. So, suck it up, break out your soft cloth and get those fingers working.
Why you need to clean your fretboard
Regardless of the type of guitar you play, your fretboard will gather dirt. The oil from your skin, sweat, any grime you happen to have on your fingers, and all the generic crud it comes into contact with on a daily basis will start to build up. While, to the naked eye, it may not look that dirty, over time this amalgam can become heavy and sticky. This means that your tone will be out, and if left long enough your playing will start to stutter as your fingers begin getting stuck on the neck and strings. Nice.
5 steps to clean your fretboard
- Slack and remove the strings. If you use a travel guitar or folding guitar, you might find it easier to remove the neck.
- Start with a clean, damp soft cloth, ideally cotton – an old t-shirt will do. Scrub vigorously, in small circles. If you perform regular maintenance and wipe down your strings after each use, then this may be enough to get your frets clean. If not…
- Apply a dedicated fretboard cleaner and repeat the scrubbing. Working in circles will help prevent scratching and avoid rubbing any excess grime into the grain of the wood. Rub dry with another cotton cloth.
- Focus on the edges of the frets and fret join. Use a cotton wool bud to get into the tight edges. If something is really stubborn, try using a toothpick – carefully. Rub down again.
- If you’re working with an unfinished guitar, now is a good time to apply some lemon oil to keep the wood hydrated. Lacquered don’t need this step.
- Now to the frets themselves. Using the softest possible wire wool pad (0000 graded) start scrubbing each individual fret until they start to shine. If any areas prove difficult, wipe down with a fret cleaner, then dry thoroughly with a paper towel.
- Apply a small amount of fret oil, then buff, buff, buff with a microfibre cloth until you can buff no more!
- Wipe each fret with a paper towel once more, just to be certain that no excess oil remains.
- Re-position the strings and you’re done.
How often do I need to clean my frets?
That depends on how – and how much – you use your guitar. If you quietly practice at home for 15 minutes a week, then you’ll be safe leaving it a while. If you frequently work up a sweat at gigs and aren’t in the habit of post-performance wipe down, then you’ll need to clean much more often. Likewise, if you travel with your guitar and it’s exposed to the grime of the road. Use your common sense and look out for a build up of dirt. For most players, though, a monthly clean is a good idea.