A Clean Fretboard Needn’t Cost the Earth
Guitars get grimy. It’s just one of those facts of life, and we’ve only got ourselves to blame. All the gunk, sweat, and dead skin from our fingers eventually ends up on our fretboards.
It only takes a couple of practice sessions for those little snowdrifts of caked-on debris to build up against the frets and across the wood.
Leave things to slide long enough, and you may even experience the dreaded green patina along the sides and ends of the metal, leaving your once shiny axe looking like it was salvaged from a swamp.
Granted, there are many companies out there that manufacture guitar-specific cleaning products, but not all of us can afford such luxuries, and why should we need to if there are perfectly good solutions lying about the house.
Can You Clean Your Fretboard with Household Goods?
It’s good news on this front, folks. You can indeed get that soiled fretboard looking squeaky clean again with things you’ve likely already got to hand. You may have to dig pretty deep in your cupboards and rifle through that “misc” drawer that everyone has in their home (I have 6), but persevere, and you shall find the tools you require!
Let’s take a look at what you’ll be hunting for…
Sometimes fresh water is the only substance you’ll need to revitalize that dirty fretboard!
- Scissors and Some Strong Cardboard
You can use these bits and bobs to make a fret guard.
- Microfiber Cloth or Cotton Wool
Microfiber cloths and cotton wool are the perfect materials for clearing out all that grime from the frets, but you can use pretty much any soft fabric. I personally tend to use a clean black suit sock.
- Disposable Gloves
A bit of hand protection never goes amiss! You’ll usually find disposable gloves in the cupboard under the kitchen sink.
- Masking Tape
You may need to use masking tape to protect your pickups from particulate metal, but more on that later.
- 0000 Steel Wool
You’d be forgiven for thinking that steel wool would be the last thing you’d use to clean a fretboard, but as long as it’s fine and fluffy enough, it’s one of the best tools in your arsenal.
- Guitar Pick
Guitar picks are perfect little shovels for clearing heavy grime.
- A Non-Metal Nail File
This will help spruce up the metal of the frets.
- Vegetable Oil Soap
If you’re dealing with some serious dirt, you’ll need a gentle solvent to help lift it. Many people have something like this Murphy Oil Soap Wood Cleaner lying around the house. It’s derived from 98% natural ingredients and contains zero harsh chemicals, making it the perfect substitute for pro cleaning products.
- Mild Mineral Spirits or Naphtha
In the absence of soap oil, gentle mineral spirits or naphtha can fill in, but they shouldn’t be used over long periods. They’re more of an every once in a while fix to a dirty fretboard.
- Lemon Oil (Unfinished Fretboards Only — Excluding Maple)
Okay, so cards on the table…this one isn’t really a household item, but it’s cheap, and one bottle will last a lifetime. I use Jim Dunlop 6554 Ultimate Lemon Oil.
How To Clean A Guitar Fretboard With Household Items — A Step-By-Step Guide
Now that your treasure hunt has concluded, it’s time to put your finds to good use!
Step 1. Finding a Safe Work Space
You’ll need to keep your guitar cozy during the cleaning process. I recommend using a flat, stable surface covered with a plush blanket.
Step 2. Remove Your Strings
Your strings are only going to get in your way, and you’ll need to fit some fresh ones after the cleaning process anyway, so strip the old ones, and throw them away — devils be gone!
Step 3. Masking Your Pickups
There are going to be some metal filings floating about, and as your pickups are basically just specialized magnets, you’ll need to cover them with masking tape to prevent them from accumulating debris.
Step 4. Cleaning the Frets (Metal Bits)
If you plan on using steel wool, you won’t need to clean the frets (the metal bars) separately from the fretboard (the wood). If, however, you’re not going to use steel wool, you may want to address the frets individually.
Before you file your frets, you’ll need to protect the wood by making a fret guard. You can do this with any sturdy piece of card, a pen, and some scissors.
Cut a hole in the middle of the card big enough for the fret to poke through, then patiently grind away any tarnishing with the nail file.
Step 5. Cleaning the Fretboard
Unfinished Fretboards (Rosewood, Ebony, Pau Ferro, etc.)
- Put on your disposable gloves.
- Add a very small amount of your solvent of choice to your 0000 steel wool.
- Rub the frets and fretboard up and down with your steel wool.
- Use small circular motions on particularly stubborn areas.
- Wipe away any remaining debris or solvent.
- Drip a minute amount of lemon oil onto a microfiber cloth, and wipe your fretboard down to hydrate it. This final step need only be done once a year.
Unfinished Maple Fretboards
- Unfinished maple boards don’t play well with solvents, so you’ll have to use your 0000 steel wool dry. If the soiling isn’t too severe, you can use a damp cloth instead.
- Use cotton wool or microfiber cloth for spot cleaning.
- Wipe away residual debris with a microfiber cloth.
Finished Maple Fretboards
- Use a guitar pick to remove heavy soiling.
- Ever so slightly dampen a microfiber cloth, then run it up and down the fretboard.
- Spot clean remaining dirty areas with microfiber cloth or cotton wool.
- Wipe away debris.
Warning — Do not use solvents or lemon oil on a finished maple fretboard, as they will dull the lacquer.
There you have it, folks. With the exception of a little lemon oil, you can find all you need to spruce up that fretboard of yours around the house.
Once you’ve given it a good once over, you’ll find that not only does your guitar look nicer, but it plays like a dream, too!
Unfortunately, we can’t completely prevent our fretboards from accumulating grime again, but there are three golden rules we can follow to slow the process down significantly…
- Washing our hands before we play.
- Wiping the fretboard and strings down after playing.
- Keeping our guitar in its case when not in use.
Better yet, treat your guitar to a spot of TLC every time you change your strings, and you’ll never have to administer any intensive fretboard therapy ever again!