Cleaning Your Fretboard

A general discussion and repair article on the process of cleaning your fretboard and frets.

Cleaning Your Fretboard
1
As you progress towards becoming an advanced guitarist, you may start to notice build-up around the frets as well as a dry and sometimes tacky feeling fret board (depending on the size of your frets.) This accumulation can affect playability especially when bending and holding vibrato. It can also lead to serious drying out of your fingerboard eventually creating irreparable chips and cracks.

Choosing the Right Cleaning Product

Many misconceptions lead people to believe that all products with a high percentage of lemon oil will help seal the guitars wood. What you will learn from this article is contrary to this: these products can actually damage your guitar even further. Properly cleaning your frets and fingerboard is important because it helps restore the vital oils needed for the wood to breathe as well as maintaining an optimum playing surface.

When you are in the process of purchasing a sealant for your fretboard you may come across products labeled "100% lemon oil" however, this is more a brilliant form of false advertisement than the truth. If you were to look closer at the ingredients you would find these products also contain many other chemicals, one example being silicone and another being heavy waxes.

You can buy concentrated lemon oil but it contains a high percentage of de-limonene which can be used to lift some industrial glues and can easily ruin your binding and markings. Instead, I recommend using mineral oil which can be found in high quality furniture application products or can also be purchased on its own. Furniture oil is for the most part scentless and contains petroleum distillates which are harmless to the wood and are far superior to any product that contains waxes, another by-product commonly found in cheap sprays that can gunk up your frets and fret board even more. A very well known example being "Lemon Pledge."

Cleaning Process

Once you have found a product with mineral oil that contains no silicon, no wax and has as minimal chemicals as possible, you can begin the process of cleaning your fretboard. Start by taking off your strings carefully without scratching your finish. If you have wire cutters then cut your strings at the twelfth fret after loosening them from your tuning pegs. Be sure to completely remove the strings from your workplace because used strings once cut are ofter very sharp which can damage the finish of your guitar.

As a general rule, maple fingerboards usually need very little cleaning due to the lacquer applied in the factory enabling a strong barrier against grime and humidity. Rosewood and ebony boards most certainly require oil applications once a year because these are untreated woods, but it can vary depending on how much you play. I believe using a plastic credit card along with a toothpick is the best tool to scrape gunk from where the frets meet the fingerboard. This is because plastic tends to be the softest tool against wood which is essential especially when dealing with an important area of your guitar.

The toothpick is handy because it's not going to damage your fingerboard and you have similar precision of a metal blade without the chance of damages. Be very slow and cautious; never rush any type of work with your guitar.

When dealing with fret cleaning, you can simply mask off the wood around each fret up your fingerboard using painters tape exposing only the metal fret and non of the wood. Make sure to tape off your magnetic pickups as they tend to attract metal shavings from the steel wool. Using light steel wool (000 grade) will delicately remove any grime on the surface of the frets.

Once this is finished you can remove the tape and carefully blows off the surface of the fret board. Next you can apply your oil. Dip a fine cloth or old t-shirt in your preferred oil and use as sparingly as possible with just the smallest of shine to your board. If you happen to apply too much, do not under any circumstance, use water on an untreated fingerboard such as rosewood or ebony but instead wipe off the excess and you should be fine. Restring your guitar to the desired tuning and intonation using an electronic tuner and you are on your way again.

Educating yourself on caring for your instrument is just as vital as learning how the instrument plays. With just a few simple steps and procedures you will largely improve both your instruments sound and ensuring a long life for your guitar.

35 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    ihartfood
    You have to take the strings off eventually, just do it when you change the set. Yes leaving the strings off for extended periods can allow the neck to warp, but this only takes about an hour.
    CoyT
    Very helpful article. One question though...I've read that taking off all the strings can harm a guitar, because the neck is so used to the amount of tension. So I guess that's not true? I've been meaning to clean my fretboard but that has kept me from doing so. I'm referring to an acoustic, if that makes any difference.
    Josher.K
    removing all the strings is fine. If you leave them off for too long the neck might warp back and you might have some tuning stability and action issues (should fix itself when you put strings back on it, just might take a while). Just make sure you don't cut the strings off when they are at tension, make sure they are completely floppy before you cut them.
    Danjo's Guitar
    Miyagi84 wrote: dunno if this is the best way to do it, but I've been doing it for awhile and it seems to work. get a soft tooth brush and water, and brush off the gunk that piles up on the board and frets, then, after, remove my guitar strings one by one, replacing one at a time to not damage the guitar since it is used to the tension of the strings in tune. I don't trust cleaners because they can damage the wood.
    Water isn't good for wood dude.
    slash&roses
    It's like anything with tension, you have to gradually remove your strings slowly. Theoretically you should remove your strings Low E first, Top E second, A Third, B, 4th, then the D & G to compensate tension evenly but as long as you unwind your strings slowly you will be fine. If you are just wanting to replace strings without cleaning, remove a string and replace it with a fresh one to maintain tension from the other 5 tuned strings
    dbudday
    I wouldn't cut all of the strings off quickly all at once, but removing all of them is fine. I generally loosen all of my strings so that they are slack, cut a string and remove it, then do the next one, etc... That way, the truss rod and neck can slowly adjust to the changing tension... And start with the thickest string first... going to the thinnest. It probably wouldn't be good to just cut all of the strings off all at once while the guitar is in tune...
    valennic
    AlanD wrote: Gargomyte cloth. Cleans all stringed intrument fret boards and conditions those thats need it. You cut a tiny square off the cloths and work loose the grime then go over the frets with micro fiber or something similar.
    Yes. Gorgomyte is the SHIT. I love it. I have yet to find anything that works better for the job, the frets come out smooth as butter and shinier than all hell.
    slash&roses wrote: It's like anything with tension, you have to gradually remove your strings slowly. Theoretically you should remove your strings Low E first, Top E second, A Third, B, 4th, then the D & G to compensate tension evenly but as long as you unwind your strings slowly you will be fine. If you are just wanting to replace strings without cleaning, remove a string and replace it with a fresh one to maintain tension from the other 5 tuned strings
    Honestly unless your guitar is made of paper mache you can take the strings off in any order you choose, and you can go as quickly or as slowly as you want. It take s a lot more than some people seem to believe to harm a guitar. They're not made of paper, they're generally very sturdy instruments. Now on the other hand, cutting the strings off while the damn thing is in tune is not only dangerous for your health, but dangerous for the guitar. That sudden change of tension can cause stress cracks and pain cracks in your face from the strings exploding outward.
    Miyagi84
    dunno if this is the best way to do it, but I've been doing it for awhile and it seems to work. get a soft tooth brush and water, and brush off the gunk that piles up on the board and frets, then, after, remove my guitar strings one by one, replacing one at a time to not damage the guitar since it is used to the tension of the strings in tune. I don't trust cleaners because they can damage the wood.
    Jackie Lawless
    Miyagi84 wrote: dunno if this is the best way to do it, but I've been doing it for awhile and it seems to work. get a soft tooth brush and water, and brush off the gunk that piles up on the board and frets, then, after, remove my guitar strings one by one, replacing one at a time to not damage the guitar since it is used to the tension of the strings in tune. I don't trust cleaners because they can damage the wood.
    water ruins the wood dude... kind of the exact opposite of what you want to do..
    craig.clark.940
    Water also causes the wood to expand leaving the glued side with no way to exspell the moisture. So you have a problem now with the wood expanding and that is really hard on the glue holding it to the neck. Remember there is lots of info on line. The one I am going to try myself is Turpine using a soft toothbrush. It cleans and seals the wood all in one step. Does not attract dirt skin residues and other items your guitar may be exposed to. Does not get sticky and lasts well. You don't want a finish on the board just a sealer. One more thing NEVER used a product with silicone in it at any amount. It spreads and just keeps spreading and gets all over everything it comes in contact with. It also attracks everything we are trying to keep off the board.
    ne14t
    Dunlop Fretboard 65 is the only "lemon oil" to purchase the large 4oz bottle of it is like $4 don't waste your time with anything else. I usually do it once a year, you have to be cautious not to over oil the fretboard either, so don't do it too frequently. As dbudday mentioned you actually can use zippo fluid, its Naphtha (white gas) which is what a lot of the real nice cleaning solvents are.
    kingking22
    stopped reading at "restore the vital oils needed for the wood to breathe ".Wood is dead, it does not breathe. It does not need oils. All that's required to clean the dirt off is a good smooth cloth and some water. Simple.
    ryonfuqua1
    They are not saying that the cells of the wood are continuing respiratory function. The fibers of the wood need to be kept in good condition and remain open to stay clean, provide a good playing surface, etc. Part of that process involves releasing the gunk that collects there and having air get in to maintain the integrity of the wood. Keep it as much like it was coming out of the factory. Also, water is bad for guitars. If you are cleaning your guitar with water in any way and it is still playing it is doing so in spite of how you are caring for it, not because of how you are caring for it.
    ed.haworth1
    what about Murphys oil soap on the body ? I use a little of this and a polishing wheel on the fretboard . A lacquered fretboard . Old english on my satin finish , just got to wipe of the excess . Pretties the up good !!!
    Dyingdeth
    What Horsecrap about not taking the strings off for long periods of time. I took all my strings off my Les Paul at more or less the same time for about a week. The neck DID NOT warp, I have absolutely no problems with it. I even took it to an Luthier and he said there was nothing wrong with it and that people forget that guitars are left without strings in the factories for months and theres no neck warping.
    SQLOwns
    I got a Gibson SG not too long ago for my birthday. I clean it with a sponge and water/dish soap (to kill germs and bacterium)...not scented dish soap (because of the chemicals)..I can towel dry it mostly or use a hair dryer (remember to keep it on low setting). After about 15 minutes its ready to play again.
    Kee689
    that is how you will kill your guitar. Water + guitar = not a good idea. Plus hairdryers will dry out your wood (guitars need some moisture to keep them in proper shape)
    snaggleyoda
    Really, wd40 anywhere near electronics is a disaster in the making. I have seen it pit solder joints & conformal coatings. It is quite corrosive.
    foyyy
    Rosewood is an interesting one because it's naturally oily, and over time sweat and oils from your fingers should treat and seal the neck. If you use lemon oil or similar on them it wipes away and replaces your finger oil, and from then on you'll have to continue using the lemon oil rather than your fingers doing it for you automatically as you play. I can't remember exactly where I heard this originally, but it made sense at the time. A little googling confirms that PRS, for instance, predictably recommend their own cleaning solution but note that rosewood fingerboards are essentially treated by being played. This is probably the grossest advice I have every given out online, but on my rosewood fingerboard I've had most success using a lightly-worn (but dry, obviously) sock. This buffs away grime using your own natural oils. Sounds/is gross, but it works a treat. The results are basically indistinguishable from cleaning my other guitars with lemon oil. My other non-rosewood guitar and my girlfriend's guitar I clean with Planet Waves (d'addario) lemon oil cleaner and conditioner. Just a couple of drops on a polishing cloth is good for 4-5 frets so it lasts for ages, and it smells lovely.
    RickyThomson
    I remember using furniture polish (mr sheen) on one of my first guitars. No idea how bad that is for the wood, but it seemed to do the job on a cheap guitar, plus it smelled nice which was a bonus as i smoked back then lol. I always found that using a guitar pick is the most effective tool for scraping crap off the fretboard. Probably more useful, as your picks are probably nearer to your guitar than any credit card aswell.
    akasheh15
    I used a damp(kinda wet) cloth to try and clean my finger board, (rosewood classical guitar) It got rid of the grime and dirt but the wood seems to have changed colour/ gotten a bit lighter. Or maybe it was just because it was that dirty before, any ideas as to what's up?
    mariatrepanie
    I change my guitar strings every 4-6 months and when I do that I am conditioned to clean my fret-board with tooth-brush and water and use nothing with chemicals or oil. Steel wool gets under the frets even the lowest grade My other guitar is Maple so I dare not use oil of any kind. My oldest and my favorite guitar has Ivory on my frets now who would want to ruin the Ivory on the fret-board with any kind of steel wool...Not Me!!
    Jack Lovering
    I recently (2 weeks ago) bought a 2nd hand guitar, built in 2002. I don't know whether the previous owner has conditioned and cleaned the fretboard recently but it seems to be in good condition so it must have been done at some point in it's lifetime. Would it be advisable to clean it anyway, or is overdoing it on the rosewood fretboard a big problem?
    suvabrata.manda
    ^ OMG. Just no. You're heading towards disaster. You can use WD 40 on strings, screws(if they seem to rust), or the frets WITHOUT touching the fingerboard OFC. Not anywhere else, not even pickups.
    megaluisdeth
    What I do is I loosen the Strings from the thickest to the thinnest. Then take them off. After that I apply Dunlop Lemon Oil fretboard cleaner on 2 frets then use a soft tooth brush to scrub it clean(scrub lightly). I never had any problems.
    KG6_Steven
    Silicone? I'd like to see the MSDS for those guitar fretboard products containing silicone. Most guitar products do not contain silicone, since it makes any refinishing efforts a pain in the butt. In almost all cases, if a luthier suspects silicone has been applied to a guitar, they will not do any finish work. The fretboard conditioner I use has a lemon scent, but the ingredients do not mention anything about waxes or silicone. I doubt it contains silicone, as I just had one of my guitars refinished by the manufacturer, after some defects appeared.
    AlanD
    Gargomyte cloth. Cleans all stringed intrument fret boards and conditions those thats need it. You cut a tiny square off the cloths and work loose the grime then go over the frets with micro fiber or something similar.
    SEALSniper1152
    better than fine steal wool is a polishing cloth, usually used for silverware. works great for all the metal on the guitar, you just have to remember that they are removing a tiny amount of metal, so don't use a polishing cloth (or any abrasive cleaner or method for that matter) on anything that is plated.
    dbudday
    also, masking the frets for steel wooling isn't necessary as I know several luthiers that actually use steel wool to smooth and clean the wood on the fretboard - JUST MAKE SURE YOU'RE USING 0000 STEEL WOOL - it's used to finish wood, so it should be ok. If you're filing or re-crowning frets, then I would absolutely mask the fretboard. ** One of the best cleaners I have found for fretboards...actually finishes too...is zippo lighter fluid on a rag. It dries quickly and leaves no residue and it won't harm any finishes because of it's chemical makeup...
    stonyman65
    slash&roses wrote: stonyman65 wrote: DO NOT USE STEEL WOOL, especially grade 000 steel wool as suggested. Use high-grit sand paper, about 800-1500 grit. Not only will it do a better job, but you don't have to worry about steel fibers getting into your electronics and killing them. Also, don't use steel wool to clean the fretboard either, just lighter fluid and a brush. Steel wool is WAY too abrasive to use on a fretboard.
    http://www.y outube.com/watch?v=RUPAAxqGwgs What happens with the grain bits when they come off the paper? I'd be a lot more worried with where those are going.
    Well, if a guitar was on that bench, It'd be going into the magnets in the pickups. I'm not just saying this stuff because someone else does. I had to spend $200 to get 2 new pickups because of steel wool killing them by those fibers getting into the wire and shorting it out. I don't want that to happen to other people if I can help it. Bottom line is if you use steel wool on a guitar, your taking a chance by possibly damaging it. There are better tools for the job.
    slash&roses
    stonyman65 wrote: DO NOT USE STEEL WOOL, especially grade 000 steel wool as suggested. Use high-grit sand paper, about 800-1500 grit. Not only will it do a better job, but you don't have to worry about steel fibers getting into your electronics and killing them. Also, don't use steel wool to clean the fretboard either, just lighter fluid and a brush. Steel wool is WAY too abrasive to use on a fretboard.
    http://www.y outube.com/watch?v=RUPAAxqGwgs
    What happens with the grain bits when they come off the paper? I'd be a lot more worried with where those are going.
    stonyman65
    DO NOT USE STEEL WOOL, especially grade 000 steel wool as suggested. Use high-grit sand paper, about 800-1500 grit. Not only will it do a better job, but you don't have to worry about steel fibers getting into your electronics and killing them. Also, don't use steel wool to clean the fretboard either, just lighter fluid and a brush. Steel wool is WAY too abrasive to use on a fretboard.
    http://www.y outube.com/watch?v=RUPAAxqGwgs
    bWildered1
    Would WD40 be suitable for cleaning and conditioning a rosewood, or any other, fretboard?