Many players of the classical guitar wipe their instruments with a cloth once in a while and call it done. Others examine their fretboards frequently for minute traces of gunk and go after them with an array of products. Between the two extremes lies a sane and balanced method of classical guitar care.
For an instrument that gives us so much pleasure over a long period of years, a classical guitar doesn’t need too much attention. But our fingers do deposit their sweat, oils and dirt onto the strings and fretboard. Dust and normal wear and tear do affect the top of the guitar (especially those unreachable parts under the strings between the sound hole and the bridge). Periodic cleaning of the body, fingerboard and the headstock is the key. With a few minutes more, some folks also polish their guitars to keep them anew.
Here are a set of ideas, some of which I have used and found effective, but many more that I have found online. It is to set you going so that you can formulate your own strategy of what will work for you. From these tips, you should be able to put together your very own classical guitar cleaning kit.
Cleaning and polishing the fingerboard: Basic care
Personally, I have found using a moist cloth to clean the fingerboard very effective and simple to execute. I do this when I change strings and wipe off any excess moisture with a dry towel. Some players use a moist cloth and a moist, soft toothbrush to get rid of gunk buildup. And moist means just that – moist. Not wet.
A lot of folks online talk of the merits of lemon oil. Pure lemon oil is not a good thing for wood but the commercial variety of lemon oil is mainly mineral oil (which is good) with a lemon fragrance. On dark woods like rosewood and ebony, it works particularly well but on lighter woods like maple, it blackens.
So before using lemon oil, ask yourself: What is my fingerboard made of?
Apply lemon oil to the fingerboard with a cotton cloth, although some prefer a fine microfiber cloth. Just a little goes a long way. Wiping the oil off with a clean cloth after the application is a must.
Mineral oil is basically a non-drying oil that cleans and conditions the fingerboard. It soaks into the wood and acts like a solvent to bring dirt and moisture to the surface. It also prevents the fingerboard from absorbing excess moisture.
Check the popular and inexpensive Dunlop Lemon Oil that you can get off Amazon. Again, it’s ideal for rosewood/ebony fingerboards, not for maple.
Claims about lemon oil “moisturizing” the fingerboard are overblown. It is a common misconception that oil “humidifies” the wood. Oil does not moisturize, only water does that. Incidentally, if you’re interested in products to humidity your case, read my article Humidifiers for Classical Guitars for the full details.
But mineral oil can help you clean up the fingerboard as also give it a light coating or protective sheen. If a dry fingerboard is the main issue, applying mineral oil won’t solve it. You have to take charge of relative humidity conditions. A well regulated and humidified guitar is the solution.
Oil and water don’t mix, folks. To keep moisture in or moisture out, use oil. Otherwise, manage humidity using water based humidifiers, or dehumidifiers, not oil.
There are those who think lemon oil isn’t the ideal solution. They instead prefer a light wipe of naphtha, turpentine or similar solvent and then wiping that off. Some luthiers apply a few drops of raw walnut or linseed oil and again wipe it off after the application. You really don’t need to ‘feed’ the fingerboard because the wood is already dead!
Remember that oils will remove oily smudges and won’t have any effect on water soluble dirt. Water-based cleaners (which look semitransparent) will clean up water soluble dirt best.
So there it is, the basics of cleaning your fingerboard. Take your pick from lemon oil, naphtha, turpentine or similar solvent and linseed or raw walnut oil. Or just good old, plain water. Apply with a cloth and then wipe off. Seriously, how complicated is that?
Cleaning and polishing the fingerboard: More tips
Cleaning the fingerboard and polishing the frets just a couple of times a year prevents grime buildup and tarnishing of frets. There are quite a few commercial products available that can help.
One of the popular ones is Gorgamyte, which is a treated cloth. A little patch of it can clean the entire fingerboard. You rub it on the wood as well as the frets. It cleans and oils while also polishing the frets to a good shine. You can see the grime come off as the cloth turns black as you use it.
Wipe the fingerboard with a clean, dry cloth and you’re done. It leaves a light coat of oil and is a good, simple routine to follow when changing strings. You can check out Gorgamyte at Amazon.
What if there is already some excess buildup of grime and you need something stronger?
The popular product Goo Gone works well on hard-to-clean spots and grimy dirt. Put a little on a cloth and wipe. This is incidentally the general idea: don’t apply anything to the guitar directly. Put it on a cloth and use that to wipe.
Goo Gone is not a strong solvent as solvents go but gets the job done for a lot of guitarists. A French polish guitar is NOT something you want to apply such solvents to, though. Here’s the Amazon link to Goo Gone if you want to check it out.
A widely used solution for removing grime and overall cleaning is extremely fine steel wool. The 0000 grade is usually the recommended grade and is great for quickly polishing frets and even the fingerboard. To avoid scratches, use the steel wool in small strokes between the frets moving toward the neck in the direction of the wood grain.
It’s common practice to use mineral oil (or any of the basic solvents discussed earlier) to clean the fingerboard and then use steel wool to clean out stubborn gunk, polish the frets and fingerboard. You can follow it with another light rubbing of oil. Wait for fifteen minutes and rub it down with a clean cloth.
Doing this every few months will keep your fingerboard fit and fine. Here’s a popular brand of steel wool of 0000 grade at Amazon.
Cleaning classical guitar strings
Every classical guitarist is aware that bass strings go dead much before the trebles. So much so that players are known to change their basses twice as often as they do their trebles.
Often, though, it’s not that the bass strings have actually died or worn out beyond repair. They have just become dirty with all kinds of detritus stuck in their winding. Finger oils, finger sweat and dirt have lodged themselves in an unholy mess, that’s all.
Instead of affixing new bass strings, it’s possible to breathe new life into them. It takes a little effort but the results are cool. Remove the bass strings and coil them loosely like the way they came in their original packs. Place them in a large basin or in a sink and submerge them in tepid water. The water shouldn’t be hot (the nylon inside will go out of tune.) Even room temperature water is fine.
Add a quarter cup of ammonia to the water and let the strings soak for about 15 to 30 minutes. Take care you don’t touch the ammonia. The ammonia-water mixture breaks down crud in the windings on the strings. Use a cloth and pull each string through it a couple of times. Rinse the strings with cold water. Pull each string through a dry towel.
When you put the strings back on your guitar, you will swear they sound better than when they were new. They don’t squeak as much, which is a good thing. The washed strings also work well for recordings.
What about treble strings? You don’t want to use any kind of chemical or solvent on nylon strings. Just grip a treble string with a clean cloth using your fingertips and scrub up and down the length of the string. Nothing else is needed. Your trebles will sing for a long time. Some players make it a point to wipe their strings before every playing session.
Cleaning and polishing the body of a classical guitar
The simplest and most effective solution for cleaning the guitar body is a clean, soft cotton cloth. There is some talk of microfiber cloth causing minor damage to the body with its essentially abrasive quality, however mild.
This seems to be an opinion than a fact. For I know many players, including myself, who have been using a microfiber cloth for years with no damage to report. You may believe otherwise and that’s fine too.
As with the fingerboard, the body too can be first cleaned and given the rub with a moist soft cloth and then wiped with a dry cloth. That takes care of dust and minor stains quite well. They come loose and get mopped up by the dry cloth. As you wipe down, particularly on the top and back, you may notice some spots: fingerprints, smudges, and other dirt marks.
These often respond nicely to a trace of moisture. Blow some warm breath onto the surface as you might on a mirror to clean it. Condensation will allow you to wipe the dirty area clean easily.
Online forums humorously refer to ‘elbow grease’ being the best solution, referring to sheer physical effort, applied using a soft, barely moist cloth. Everything is soluble in water to some extent and bad stuff can be wiped off the surface eventually this way. So get to work on the top, back and sides of your guitar with some elbow grease!
For really stubborn stains on the surface, add a couple of drops of dishwashing liquid to a pint of warm water. This will help break up the grease or stain. Again, don’t apply lavishly, a moist cloth will do the job.
Some players think that protection to the body at the top of the lower bout, where the right arm rests, is an important spot for polishing because that area witnesses a lot of ‘action’. A preferred solution is to use Renaissance Micro Crystalline Wax in that area. You can check it out at Amazon.
Thanks to some online confirmation, it has come to light that I’m not alone in using an old cotton T-shirt to wipe the guitar body. In fact, some say the more laundered it is the better it is, for it will be free from lint.
This is a popular choice, folks. It may be all you need. Without the disadvantage of paper towels, which can potentially scratch a guitar’s finish (lacquer or French polish, especially.)
For hard-to-reach areas such as under the strings, shove the T-shirt under there to wipe off the surface dust.
Cleaning the surface of your guitar is of course different from polishing it. Cleaning is a routine task that anyone can perform and should be done after long playing sessions to remove sweat and finger oils. If you have acidic sweat and oils in your body, cleaning should be done after each session, including wiping down the strings.
Gerlitz Smudge Off is a good product containing no silicone. Spray a little on a cloth and wipe the area clean. It takes off grease, grime and fingerprints. Check it out on Amazon.
Polishing, on the other hand, is a very fine abrasion process that physically changes the finished surface. For glossy finish (typically polyurethane) guitars, owners have a natural tendency to preserve and enhance the gloss.
A good commercial polish should do the job. The very popular Music Nomad All-in-One cleaner-cum-polish is a good choice at Amazon. This type of polish tends to be good with other finishes like lacquer and varnish as well. Not with matte finish guitars, though.
On guitars with a matte finish (sometimes called ‘satin finish’), you may find those drops of dishwashing liquid in water work better than just plain water. Again, remember to apply such solutions onto a cloth first and use the cloth to wipe the surface clean.
And a final reminder: Do not use household furniture cleaning products like silicone-based cleaners, bleaches and lacquer thinners. Remember the other extreme that is held up as the ideal by many: water. It’s the universal solvent of the gods, as one forum member eloquently proclaimed.
So don’t experiment with unknown commercial cleaners and polishes; it’s simply not worth it unless you’re qualified in some way to judge chemical stuff or you are a luthier. Stay with the popular polishes, the names that thousands have used and ratified. Go with the crowds.
And have yourself a classical guitar you’ll feel proud to play every time you pick it up. Hopefully, you’ve picked up a couple of tips from here with which you can put together a cleaning regimen and a classical guitar cleaning kit of your very own.
To take care of your own nails with a proper regimen, check out my article Nail Care Products for Classical Guitarists.