How To Clean a Guitar Fretboard

If you’re like me, you might go through periods of time when you just don’t give your guitar the TLC it needs. Maybe money is tight, so new strings and cleaning supplies are hard to come by. Maybe it’s just one of those things you’ll, “do next time.” Either way, guitars get dirty with use, no matter how often (or little) we take the time to clean them. The oils in our skin are harmful to the finished and unfinished woods of our instruments (not to mention the dirt and actual skin our fingers leave behind). So, it’s best to regularly take the time to show your instrument some love. Afterall, we owe it to them.

I’ve seen some nasty fretboards -layers of gunk lining fret bars, ebony and rosewood fretboards turned grey or green, crystalized mineral deposits on fret bars (that poor, poor Les Paul) -the horrors abound. Hopefully yours isn’t in terrible shape, but if it is, fear not -you can rehabilitate it. You’re just going to need a few things, and some time and elbow grease.

To start off, let’s categorize. There are two “types” of fretboards, and they should be treated a little bit differently.

Glossy/Shiny/Finished Fretboards

These are usually made from maple, and are easier to clean because the glossy finish doesn’t allow dirt and oil to penetrate into the delicate wood grain. You should never use something like steel wool, a scraper, or acidic oils on your glossy fretboard, because it will quickly turn the glossy finish into a satin finish. That being said, cleaning a glossy fretboard is actually pretty easy. All you’ll need to do is:

1 – Remove your guitar strings

2 – Apply water to a cotton cloth (only enough to slightly dampen, not wet)

3 – Apply some simple elbow grease

4 – Finish off by applying a good guitar polish (the same one you use for the body of your guitar will do the trick)

5 – Restring your guitar, and that’s it!

Unfinished/Satin/Natural Fretboards

If your fretboard isn’t glossy, it’s probably made from ebony, rosewood, or pau ferro, and is unfinished. Unfinished fretboards tend to collect the most dirt, salt and harmful oils because the wood grains are exposed. Unfortunately, the process for cleaning these fretboards is a bit longer, but the end result is absolutely worth the little bit of effort.

You’re going to need just a few things:

  • Some fretboard oil/cleaner/conditioner. I would recommend something like D’Addario Lemon Oil, Dulop 65 Lemon Oil, or F-One Oil by Music Nomads
  • It’s important to note that you should never use regular lemon oil. Regular lemon oil is highly acidic, and will damage your fretboard (or any wood for that matter). Anything over 2% concentration can potentially damage your instrument. It’s best to just stick with the guitar-specific stuff.
  • Steel wool (grade #0000). This is the MOST abrasive material you’ll ever need to use on your guitar. You can find it here.
  • A clean cotton cloth
  • Some masking tape
  • A place for your guitar to safely rest while you work (like one of these mats, and one of these neck rests)
  • A dust mask (if you don’t like to sneeze and/or cough)
  • A plastic scraper, like a credit card

I’ll be honest, not all of this stuff is essential to cleaning your fretboard. If you’d rather sit on your couch and clean your fretboard, go for it. I’ve done it. Most of this stuff is precautionary, as this process will get messy -especially when we get to the steel wool, and that stuff gets everywhere.

Cleaning Your Guitar Fretboard Step-by-Step

1 – Remove your guitar strings. You can use some string cutters, a pair of dykes, or wire cutters and remove your strings one by one. If you’re like me, you can just use a string winder and unwind each string individually.

If your string manufacturer doesn’t recycle old strings (like D’Addario for example), make sure you cut them into small pieces before you throw them in the trash. It’s the least we can do for the environment. You can also save your old strings and sell (if you have A LOT) or donate them to a metal manufacturer that might repurpose the material.

2 – Take some strips of your masking tape and cover all sensitive parts like pickups, or anything metal that you don’t want coming into contact with steel wool (fret bars not included). This prevents unwanted wear. If you’ve got an acoustic guitar, covering your soundhole is also a good idea because steel wool fibers will get everywhere, and you don’t want that stuff floating around inside your guitar.

3 – Now lay that beauty down on the mat and neck rest, or just on your lap on the couch (we already said it’s okay to get comfy), and take a moment to appreciate the fact that you’re a guitarist.

4 – Next, scrape. Take your credit card, or sharp plastic edge, and begin to scrape with the wood grain. This is almost always going to be along the length of the neck (from fret to fret).

The only time it’s okay to scrape against the grain is when you’re scraping directly against the fret bars. A lot of grime gets caught against the fret bars, so you’ll need to use a sharp edge to reach it. It might be helpful to cut a sharp corner out of your credit card (one that you definitely won’t use again), or even a toothbrush.

Be careful not to apply too much pressure because you don’t want to dent or damage the wood (just enough pressure to see that the dirt and grime is coming off). Once you’ve finished scraping every fret, wipe down your fretboard with a dry cloth, or a dust brush. Now you can either move on to the next step, or repeat the scraping process again (depending on how dirty your fretboard is).

5 – Break out your grade #0000 steel wool and scrub each fret individually. Don’t worry about the steel wool coming in contact with the fret bars -it’ll leave a nice polished look when you’re done. There’s no need to apply a lot of pressure when scrubbing with the steel wool -a medium amount of pressure is all you’ll need, and you’ll be able to see it working its magic.

The steel wool will draw nearly all of the moisture from your fretboard, along with all of the dirt, salt, and harmful oils, so be sure to give it a good dusting before moving on to the next step. Your fretboard might look a little pale, but don’t worry, that only makes the final step more satisfying.

6 – Now that your fretboard is clean, you need to use your fretboard conditioner to replace all of that stuff you just pulled out of it. Apply 2-3 drops of your oil to a cotton cloth and gently rub it into each fret, re-applying 2-3 drops to your cloth as needed. There’s no need to apply a ton of oil in this step -use just enough to make your fretboard look shiny (just a light coat will do). Allow the oil to sit on the fretboard for 1-2 minutes, and then wipe it clean, remove the masking tape, restring your guitar, and you’re ready to play again!

I recommend cleaning your fretboard every time you do a string change. This makes cleaning a regular habit, keeps the process relatively short each time, and gives you the opportunity to build a more intimate relationship with your guitar. The more you take care of it, the more it will take care of you!