How to Clean a Guitar Fretboard

There’s nothing like the feeling of a brand-new guitar. Not only do the fresh strings sound great, but there’s something wonderful about a sparkling clean guitar without a single fingerprint in sight. 

After a few weeks or months of playing, though, a guitar rarely stays that way. One area of a guitar that’s especially prone to dirt accumulating is the fretboard.

How to Clean a Guitar Fretboard

Dust and oil from your fingers can easily collect underneath the strings, and because getting underneath those strings to clean is time-consuming, many guitarists neglect this part of their guitar maintenance. 

Now, you might be thinking, how hard can it be to clean a fretboard? If you’re only dealing with a few weeks’ worth of dust or oil, it’s not that difficult.

However, if you’ve left your guitar in the corner of a room for several months, you’d be surprised at how much there is to clean. 

Luckily for you, if you have a dirty fretboard, we’re here to show you exactly how to rectify the situation. Whether you own an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar, before you know it, it will look as good as new! 

Tools for Cleaning a Guitar Fretboard 

Before you start removing the strings from your guitar, there’s one important thing you need to do: get all the necessary tools ready for the cleaning process. 

If your fretboard isn’t too dirty, you might think you can get away with wiping a wet cloth over it a couple of times, but if you really want to get your guitar clean, you’re going to need some extra utensils. 

Firstly, you should get your hands on some soft cloth, ideally made from cotton. This will help you to wipe down your fretboard without damaging it. You will also need some fine-grade steel wool so that you can remove any oil and stubborn dirt without causing scuff damage. Buy some high-quality fretboard oil

A guitar neck support and some string cutters are essential, as is a roll of masking tape. Finally, you will need a dust mask to ensure that you don’t inhale any dust or dirt particles released into the air while cleaning. 

You should also get an old plastic card that you don’t use in order to scrape off some dust and dirt before you start using the steel wool. 

When you have all of your tools ready, it’s time to get to work!

Cleaning a Guitar Fretboard

This is a step-by-step guide to cleaning a guitar fretboard properly. Before we dive into the process, though, you should consider the necessary safety precautions. 

It’s best to clean your fretboard outside as much as possible. This is because you’re going to be handling very fine steel wool, which can easily shed during use.

These pieces of wool will be very difficult to clean up inside your home.

Additionally, because of the dust spreading from cleaning the fretboard, it’s a good idea to be in a well-ventilated space, or ideally, outdoors.

This applies even though you’ll be wearing a dust mask because it’s important to be as careful as possible when it comes to your respiratory health. 

Without further ado, here is the full step-by-step process for cleaning a guitar fretboard!

1. Set Up Your Workspace 

The first thing you’ll need to do is set up your workspace. As we mentioned, this should probably be outside, unless the weather conditions or your spatial situation make this impossible.

If you can’t create a workspace outside, make sure to open up as many windows as you can to ensure that dust is able to leave the room. 

It’s best to have a work mat underneath your guitar to ensure that it doesn’t rub against any hard or abrasive surfaces. If you don’t have a work mat, you can make do with a towel or folded tablecloth – just make sure you’re okay with whatever you use getting messy. 

Arrange all of your tools where you can reach them and ensure that you have everything you need so that you don’t have to get up and find things in the middle of your cleaning session. 

2. Remove the Strings 

Once your workspace is ready to go, you will need to remove the strings from your guitar. This process can be dangerous if you don’t do it correctly, so make sure to follow these instructions. 

Before you use your string cutters, make sure to loosen the tension in your strings. If you don’t, the strings will snap back with a lot of force, and you could get hurt. Once the strings are loose enough, you can use your string cutters to remove them, leaving your fretboard exposed. 

If your guitar has a floating tremolo, it’s best to put something underneath to block it. The easiest thing to use is probably a washcloth folded up. This will top the tremolo from falling into the cavity or grating against the body of the guitar. 

3. Apply Protective Masking Tape 

Now that you have removed your guitar’s strings, it’s time to put masking tape on the areas of your guitar that you want to protect from accidental damage during the cleaning process. 

We recommend applying masking tape to the pickups if you’re cleaning the fretboard on an electric guitar. If you have an acoustic guitar, you’ll need to apply the tape to the soundhole so that the steel wool you’ll be using later doesn’t shed inside it. You should also cover any metal components on the guitar in case they get scratched. 

You don’t have to put masking tape on the fretwire because steel wool will help to add some shine to this area rather than damaging it, which is a great bonus you can enjoy as a reward for cleaning your fretboard! 

Don’t be afraid to be quite liberal with your use of masking tape. In fact, we recommend buying a pack of several rolls so that you have enough to last you for several cleaning sessions in the future without having to limit your coverage. 

4. Scrape Individual Frets 

Now you need to look at area of your guitar that could be prone to scratching or trapping steel wool sheddings. Get out an old card or whatever plastic instrument you’re going to be using to scrape the initial layer of dirt from your fretboard. 

First, identify which way the grain of the wood in your fretboard is going. You will want to follow the direction of the grain instead of going against it because the latter can cause damage. 

Using the edge of your card, take one fret at a time and scrape with the grain. The one time it’s okay to go across the grain is when you come right up against a fret because dust and dirt can accumulate in larger quantities here. It can also be more difficult to remove this dust. 

If possible, don’t use a card with sharp corners. If your card does have pointed corners, try to use the flat edge of the card and not the points because these might scratch your fretboard. Some people like to use a guitar pick for this step of the process, but again, be careful. 

Apply just the right amount of pressure to lift any dust and dirt from the fretboard without leaving any dents. This will usually only require gentle pressure, so don’t be tempted to press down too hard. 

5. Vacuum and Repeat 

After scraping the majority of the dust and debris off your fretboard, you’re likely to have some mess to clean up. The best way to get rid of the debris is to use a vacuum cleaner to clean it up. 

Be very careful of where you direct the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner because you don’t want to accidentally hoover up any of the tape on your guitar or do any damage to the body through intense suction. Only point the nozzle at the specific areas of the guitar (and around the guitar) where dust has settled.

If you feel that you haven’t lifted as much debris as you can with the card, you can repeat step 4 followed by this step before proceeding to the next part of the process.  

6. Rub with Steel Wool 

Now is the time to get out the steel wool. The purpose of this is to lift off any of the remaining dust and dirt that you couldn’t remove with the card. 

Remember, it’s very important that you use the finest-grade steel wool you can find. This is #0000 steel wool. Anything coarser will definitely leave noticeable scratches on your fretboard.

Even this fine-grade steel wool will leave some scratches, which can’t be prevented even if you follow the grain of the wood. However, the scratches left by fine-grade wool will be invisible, unlike those left by a coarser product. 

What you want to do is tear off a piece of steel wool. Using an entire ball of steel wool is going to make your cleaning technique less precise, which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to be careful. 

It’s also important not to press too hard. Just apply a medium amount of pressure. If you notice some color of the wood coming off, don’t panic! There’s a step at the end of this guide that will restore your guitar to its original color. 

7. Vacuum Again 

After you’ve finished rubbing the steel wool over the fretboard, you’ll notice that there’s a lot to clean up again. As well as clumps of dust, debris, and oil, you’ll be left with steel wool shavings.

Luckily, because you’ve already put masking tape over the areas of the guitar that you don’t want debris to accumulate in, it should be easy to vacuum up everything in a short amount of time. 

Once again, it’s important to be very careful when using a vacuum cleaner to clean up your guitar. If you prefer, you can simply blow away all the leftover shavings, but you’ll then need to clean the mess up from the surrounding surfaces. 

How to Clean a Guitar Fretboard (1)

Pay particular attention to removing all the steel wool shavings from the tape over the soundhole because, otherwise, when you peel the tape away, there’s a risk of the shavings falling into the hole, which would undo all of your careful planning. 

8. Remove the Masking Tape 

You will now (hopefully) have removed all the dirt you need to from your guitar fretboard, but your task isn’t over yet! 

Before you do the finishing touches, you should remove the masking tape from your guitar. Ideally, you should be using low-tack tape, but nonetheless, you should peel it back carefully to ensure that you don’t remove any paint from the guitar in the process. 

Take this time to do one final check to make sure that all the debris, including steel wool shavings, has been removed from the fretboard because if you complete the next step without thoroughly removing the steel wool, it will be difficult to reverse. 

9. Apply Fretboard Oil 

Some of the wood color may have been removed from your fretboard in the cleaning process, and you may be left with some very light scratches from the steel wool. Luckily, there’s an easy way to correct this, and that’s by applying fretboard oil. 

Fretboard oil is a fantastic product that will restore moisture, shine, and color to your guitar’s fretboard with minimal effort. 

Unlike previous stages in this process, you don’t need to rub in any specific direction when applying fretboard oil. The most important thing is to be conservative with your application so that you don’t soak your fretboard in oil and end up with a big mess to clean up.

Apply the oil to one fret at a time, using just one or two drops per fret. The best way to apply this oil is to put the drops onto a cotton cloth and transfer it to the fretboard.

This helps to minimize any excess or spillage. You should end up with a thin, even coat of oil all the way down your fretboard by the time you have finished. 

10. Wipe Clean 

When you have applied oil to every fret on your fretboard, go back up to the top and start gently wiping away any excess oil with a soft cotton cloth. 

Use a buffing technique rather than a rubbing technique here because you don’t want to risk removing any of the necessary oil, especially if it hasn’t fully dried. 

11. Restring 

Finally, your fretboard is completely clean and restored to its original condition! Now all you need to do is restring the guitar, and you’re all done!

Keeping Your Fretboard Clean 

Knowing how to properly clean your guitar’s fretboard is important, but ideally, you’ll want to keep it as clean as possible between cleaning sessions so that you don’t have to do this too often. 

The best way to prevent dust and dirt from accumulating on your guitar strings and fretboard is to keep your guitar securely in a case when you’re not playing it.

It doesn’t really matter if you use a hard or soft case as long as the body and neck of the guitar are covered up. This way, dust won’t settle on it. 

It’s also critical to remember to wash and dry your hands thoroughly before you pick up your guitar. This will prevent excess oils or dirt on your fingers from getting on your fretboard.

It might be a good idea to quickly wipe down your strings after each session just to remove any oils or sweat that have built up while you play. 

If you stick to this routine, you’ll still need to clean your fretboard occasionally, but you won’t have to do it as often. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Can You Use Water To Clean A Fretboard?

If your guitar’s fretboard only has a light coating of dust on it, you might be able to solve the problem using a damp cloth and nothing else. However, dirt and oil are a bigger issue and will probably need more than just water to remove. 

Basically, it’s best to follow the instructions we’ve given in this article. This is the best way to ensure that you end up with a clean fretboard and don’t have to repeat the cleaning process too soon. 

Can You Clean A Fretboard With A Toothbrush?

Some people like to use a toothbrush to clean their guitar fretboard, and in some cases, this can work well because toothbrush bristles are not too abrasive and won’t scratch the wood, but they will clean effectively for the most part. 

With that being said, if your fretboard is very dirty, you may be better off using steel wool. While steel wool is more likely to leave scratches, you can minimize the damage by using #0000 wool, and you’ll ultimately be able to take much more dirt off your fretboard this way. 

It should go without saying, but if you do decide to use a toothbrush to clean your fretboard, please make sure that it’s a brand new, unused one that hasn’t been exposed to any chemicals or products, including toothpaste. 

Can I Use Olive Oil To Clean My Fretboard?

If you don’t have any fretboard oil in your home, and you want to start cleaning your fretboard straight away, you may be tempted to try and use other kinds of oil that you have in your home. 

However, you should not use olive oil on your fretboard. You also shouldn’t use any other kind of cooking oil, including coconut oil, lemon oil, or vegetable oil, because these products are acidic and will further strip the wood of your guitar rather than restore it. 

Final Thoughts 

Cleaning your guitar’s fretboard to a high standard can feel like an overwhelming task, but if you follow the steps outlined in our guide, it doesn’t have to be! 

The most important thing is to make sure that you have all the right tools for the task ready beforehand and easily accessible while you clean to speed up the process.

It’s also crucial to make sure that you clean in the correct environment (outdoors or well-ventilated) to make sure that you’re not cleaning your fretboard at the expense of your health! 

Whatever you do, don’t forget to cover up any scratch-prone, metallic areas of your guitar with masking tape, as well as the soundhole on an acoustic guitar, to ensure that you don’t accidentally do any damage in the process of scrubbing your fretboard. 

Thank you for reading and good luck with the process!

Howard Matthews