Whether you have been playing guitar for years or just starting out, one of the easiest pieces of maintenance you can do yourself is to polish your own frets. Electric guitars, specifically, will benefit from this little bit of maintenance. In this article we will cover the basic steps, materials and tools you will need to do this yourself and save a few bucks and only spend a few minutes of your time.
If you can change your own strings, you can polish your own frets. There is no difficult trick or technique to it, but you do have to have the strings removed.
On lower budget guitars typically the fret materials and prep are not always perfect and doing this can give you a better sounding electric guitar and looking better as well. My first electric was an example of one needing a polish. One of the tell-tale signs you can look for and test on your guitar is to press down and bend one of the wound strings (E-A-D) and while bending up and down listen for any noise. This done without the guitar plugged in.
Ideally you will not hear anything if the frets are smooth. On mine, the string sliding on the fret sounded like it was grinding quite a bit. Once you are plugged in this can translate poorly into the sound and playability of your guitar.
Now, if you are buying or playing high end guitars that come delivered to you with all the little details and aspects done to perfection this may not be necessary right from the get-go. But over time, use and skin and grime will begin to build up on your frets and a good cleaning and polishing in between string changes will renew your instrument’s sound and looks without having to take it in for service. So, lets get into what you will need. There are several kits out there you can get for around $20 or less that will include most or all of what you need, just make sure it includes polish, polish cloths, fine grit sandpaper, fret guards.
Additionally, you will need to lay your guitar down correctly, so you do not cause any damage while working. Have a soft but firm surface to work on, like a bath towel on a kitchen counter or desk. You do not want to damage the finish of your instrument on a hard surface. Secondly, you will need a neck support.
The guitar needs to be supported from the bottom of the neck, under the fret board, so that the headstock is not the point of contact when working. A thick towel folded up, a roll of paper towels, padded block of wood, anything that can softly support the neck of the guitar, so you do not put pressure on the upper neck and headstock of your instrument.
Once you have your guitar laid out properly and have the old strings off you can get to work polishing. It is a straightforward operation. Guard your fretboard, either with masking tape or the handheld guards in a kit. You want to avoid having sandpaper make contact with the fretboard. If you are using tape, lay the strips right up to and touching the frets on both sides so no fretboard is exposed. If you are using a handheld guard you will have to hold in place while working.
Depending on how rough the frets are you can start with a cleaning solution type polish if it is in a kit to get surface gunk off. Slightly coarser grit paper will accomplish this as well (e.g., 450). But be careful you do not take too much material from the fret. You will have to be the judge.
The lower the number on the paper the heavier sanding it delivers and the more material it removes. If there is visible grime and corrosion start with 600 or 800. If they are new but just need a touch up, start with 1000 or 1500.
Make a few passes with each grit working your way up to 2500 or so. It does not need to be exact, but you are generally trying to remove the least amount of fret material necessary in order to achieve a nice smooth, shiny finish.
Once it is looking nice and smooth with the fine grit paper, finish the job with a few passes with a fine cloth and a dab of liquid polish before a final wipe down with a clean, dry cloth. Lastly (or firstly, you can do this at any point while the strings are off), take a look for build-up of skin, gunk, oil, etc. right where the frets meet the fretboard. If there is visible residue you can take the corner of a razor blade, or a thicker sewing needle and very gently scrape any gunk from the joint across the fretboard.
Again, being incredibly careful not to damage the fretboard. This would be applicable to a heavily used instrument, not a brand new one. Do this on all your frets and restring and you are done.
That is really it. Nothing complicated, just having the correct materials to do the job and a small amount of patience. I personally recommend buying a kit with fine grit paper, pre-prepped cloths, polishes, etc. as buying separate packages of sandpaper of different grits will almost certainly add up to far more money spent than is necessary, especially since you aren’t going to be using a ton of the paper.
Plus, you would have to buy polish separately as well. It’s much more efficient to get a kit. That being said, I personally don’t like the handheld guards that come in the kits. It can be awkward holding it in one hand while trying to polish with the other hand. I much prefer to just tape the entire fretboard at the beginning with masking tape and go to work with both hands free.