Table of Contents
If you play guitar as often as we do, your fretboard may start to look like…well, a warzone.
But not to fret! Your dirty fretboard CAN be restored to its original glory.
In this ultimate guide to cleaning your guitar fretboard, we’ll provide the step-by-step instructions to get it looking like new again. We’ll recommend a few specialty fretboard cleaners, but you can also get a clean fretboard with household items, too.
Plus, we’re including tips that will help keep it clean in the future. We even added a few videos at the end so you can see these tips in action (on both electric guitars and acoustic guitars, as well as various finishes).
Let’s get started!
Step 1: Identify Your Fretboard Type
Before you start cleaning your fretboard, determine the type of wood it’s made of. The most common types are ebony, rosewood, or maple. Each requires a specific cleaning approach and materials.
Not sure which type of fretboard you have?
- Ebony fretboards are known for their dark, dense grain and smooth feel. They’re typically found on high-end guitars and require a delicate touch when it comes to cleaning.
- Rosewood fretboards have a warm, rich tone and a beautiful grain pattern.
- Maple fretboards are typically found on Fender-style guitars and have a bright, snappy tone. They’re known for their smooth, glossy lacquered finish.
Step 2: Remove the Strings
To access the fretboard easily, remove your guitar strings. You can either take ’em all off in one go (it’s useful to do this during a routine re-stinging or when you break a string) or do it half and half, to maintain some tension on the bridge- whatever you prefer.
Step 3: Protect Your Guitar
Cover sensitive parts of your guitar, such as pickups and sound holes, with low-tack masking tape to prevent any accidental scratches or damage during cleaning. This will also help keep the filings from steel wool from getting lodged any place they shouldn’t be!
Step 4: Start with a Gentle Cleaning
Use a fine-textured microfiber cloth soaked in warm water to gently clean the fretboard. Wipe it down from top to bottom, then dry it before the water evaporates. For maple fretboards, use a dry or slightly damp cloth.
Step 5: Tackle Stubborn Grime
For any remaining grime and oily stains, use very fine steel wool (0000 grade) and a fretboard conditioner (make sure it’s suitable for your wood type). Gently wipe the affected areas in a circular motion, without rubbing or scrubbing too hard, especially on older guitars or finished maple fretboards.
Step 6: Clean Along the Frets
For dirt between your guitar frets or saddle, dip a trusty a q-tip dipped in warm water to reach every last nook and cranny. Then give it a gentle wipe with a soft microfiber cloth.
Step 7: Condition the Fretboard
Apply a small amount of oil (e.g., almond oil, mineral oil, or linseed oil) to darker tonewoods like rosewood, ebony, and pau ferro fretboards. Allow it to soak in for several hours or even a day before replacing the strings.
For maple fretboards, use a pump polish specifically designed for guitars, like Gibson or Dunlop 65, to maintain a clean and shiny surface.
Step 8: Polish the Hardware
Clean your guitar’s hardware, such as the bridge, pickups, and tuning pegs, with guitar polish like the Boss Guitar Detailer to prevent corrosion. To clean the pickups, use a dry cloth or just a bit of guitar body cleaner, being careful to avoid any liquid cleaners.
Step 9: Clean the Guitar Body
For guitars with a shiny finish, give them a little extra love with products like the BOSS BGD-01 Guitar Detailer or the Dunlop Formula 65 Guitar Polish & Cleaner. And for those of you with a matte or satin finish, opt for a simple but effective dry cloth to clean the body. It’s important to avoid liquid cleaners that can clog the wood’s pores.
Bonus Tip: Baby Wipes
It might sound odd, but for a quick and easy fretboard cleaning solution in between deeper cleaning sessions, grab some baby wipes! Just make sure to pick the sensitive kind without any added perfumes or chemicals. The moisture won’t damage the wood, and it’s an effective way to remove grime from your fretboard using common household items.
How to Keep Your Fretboard Clean (After You Clean It)
Here’s some tips to prevent your fretboard from getting dirty now that it’s nice and clean:
- Wash your hands before playing: To prevent unnecessary dirt and oils from transferring to the guitar, always wash your hands before playing. This will help maintain the instrument’s cleanliness and appearance.
- Quickly wipe down the guitar after playing: Use a soft t-shirt or other soft, clean cloth to remove any skin oils, dirt, and dust from the guitar. Make sure to clean the tuning machines as well.
Condition every few months: Condition Rosewood, Ebony, and Pau Ferro fretboards every few months with lemon oil to prevent cracking.
7 Things to Avoid When Cleaning a Guitar
- Avoid using chemicals that may damage the wood, such as ordinary household cleaners.
- Do not use lighter fluid/naptha on your guitar body.
- Avoid using 100% lemon oil on your fretboard.
- Avoid using wire wool on gloss maple boards.
- Use extra care with older, worn maple boards as the polish can seep into cracks and stain the wood.
- Avoid using liquid cleaners on Matte or Satin finish guitars.
- Do not use excessive oil when conditioning your fretboard.
Complete List of Products Needed
We’ve put together this list of essential products that will help you keep your guitar looking like new. Some are optional, and always make sure to use the appropriate products for you guitar’s finish.
- Soft cloth (microfiber)
- Sensitive baby wipes
- Q tip
- Very fine steel wool (0000 grade)
- Fretboard conditioner (e.g Gobi Labs)
- Lemon oil (remember, NOT 100% lemon oil! Kaiser Lemon is good)
- Guitar polish (e.g., Boss Guitar Detailer, Dunlop Formula 65 Guitar Polish & Cleaner)
So, there you have it – the ultimate guide to cleaning your guitar fretboard. By following these expert-recommended steps, you’ll keep your guitar in top shape and sounding great.
Below, we’ve compiled a few awesome videos that will guide you through each step of the cleaning process. There’s videos from Gibson, Fender, and Martin here, as well as some fretboard-specific videos we like. Enjoy!
In this video, Gibson’s Master Luthier Jim DeCola shows you how to clean, oil, and condition your guitar’s fingerboard for a smoother playing experience and improved stability. A well-maintained fingerboard not only looks and feels better, but it also prevents the wood from expanding and contracting due to moisture fluctuations.
To start, remove the strings and protect the body of the guitar with a sheet of leather or cloth. Apply fingerboard oil (such as Gibson Fretboard Conditioner or lemon oil) generously to a clean rag and work it into the fingerboard, ensuring it is fully saturated. Let the oil sit for a few minutes to penetrate the wood.
If your fingerboard is particularly dirty, use a toothbrush or synthetic steel wool (such as a white Scotch Brite pad) to scrub alongside the frets and remove any gunk. Remember to work with the grain direction to avoid scratches.
Once the oil has been left to soak in for a few minutes, wipe off any excess with a clean, dry rag. Remove the protective covering and admire your freshly oiled and conditioned fingerboard, now ready for restringing. Your guitar will play more smoothly and be more stable, thanks to the oil stabilizing the wood.
Hi, I’m Jim DiCola, master luthier for Gibson guitars. I’m going to show you how to clean, oil, and condition your guitar’s fingerboard.
Cleaning, oiling, and conditioning your guitar’s fingerboard is very important. For one, it’ll make your guitar look and feel better. Having that oil in the fingerboard replenished will make it play like butter. It’ll give the fingerboard a rich, deep tone in the wood, and it’ll also make the guitar more stable because once that oil is penetrated in the fingerboard, it’ll be less likely to expand and contract due to moisture fluctuation, climate change, and so forth.
The first thing we’re going to do is to prepare the guitar for this process. I’ve already removed the strings and put low-tack tape on the bridge posts to keep that bridge from moving since there’s no string tension. Next, I’m going to protect that body surface. The oil from the process can sometimes make a mess and get on the body, not terribly damaging, but it’s best to protect it if at all possible.
I like to use a sheet of leather that I cut out specific for this purpose. If you do it often enough, you may want to do the same. You can also use a rag, paper towels, anything like that to protect the body’s surface. Since I do this all the time, I prefer the leather since it’s reusable and very robust. I’ll also use low-tack tape around that fingerboard, and that will not only keep it in place but it will prevent debris and so forth from getting under this mask and again, keep that body surface clean and protected.
Next, I’m going to use fingerboard oil. Here, I’m using Gibson fretboard conditioner. This is available at many music stores. It’s a type of lemon oil. If your store doesn’t carry this, you can also use a lemon oil like you can get at your local hardware store. You can even use mineral oil or even baby oil that you find at the drugstore. They’re all mineral oil products. They just have different scents and different viscosities and colorings, but they’ll all protect your fingerboard just the same.
I like the Gibson lemon oil fingerboard conditioner because that yellow also helps enhance that color and give it a nice warm tone. When I apply the oil, I like to have a rag specific for that, and I like to keep it in a ziplock bag. That way, it keeps that rag from picking up dust and contamination, which could possibly scratch your fingerboard surface. I want to apply that oil generously to that rag. So, here you can see me work that into that fingerboard. You can already see how deep and dark that will start to get. You want to apply it generously, but you don’t want to be messy. You don’t want this the oil running off the fingerboard onto the neck, but you do want to saturate that fretboard. So, apply a little at a time and re-wet as needed, working it in alongside the frets to fully saturate that fingerboard.
Once it’s fully saturated the fingerboard to where it’s kind of wet laying on top of the fingerboard, I like to let it sit a few minutes, maybe even five minutes, just so it penetrates as much as it can. If you do it too quick, it’ll sit on top of the surface, and then you’ll wipe it dry, and it really hasn’t penetrated and really done the work that it needs to do. So, keep it on there so it’s fully moist and allow it to sit, maybe up to five minutes, to fully penetrate into that fingerboard.
If your fretboard is especially dirty, over time, you can pick up a lot of gunk and funk that will sit in that fingerboard. You can use a toothbrush, an ordinary toothbrush, and work that oil in. You can re-wet the brush as needed and then just scrub alongside the frets. The bristles from that brush will get up next to that fret wire and remove any gunk. Once you treat the entire fingerboard to that process, then you can come back kind of with the grain and work it back in. But you can see how I’ll get on one side and then rotate on the other side of that fret and repeat. That will make sure all that dirt and funk that has penetrated the grain and inside the crevices of the fret wire is removed.
Another tip, if your fingerboard again is gunky with that stuff, in addition to the toothbrush, you can also use a synthetic steel wool. In this case, I’m using a white Scotch-Brite pad. It’s equivalent to the four odd or four zero steel wool, but it’s far less messy. So again, I like to put the oil on the Scotch-Brite and work it in. And now here, you don’t have to put as much. You can see it lays on wetter because it’s not being absorbed into that rag like a polishing cloth, and you can scrub that fingerboard. That’ll remove all that debris in the fingerboard, and it’ll polish up your fret wire. So if you go in the grain direction lengthwise, that’s recommended. However, you may have instances where you kind of have to go against the grain to pull out some of that dirt, but then follow it up going with the grain direction. That’ll ensure that you don’t have any cross-grain scratches in the fingerboard. It’s very fine and unlikely that will leave objectionable scratches, but it’s just good safe practice.
Once you’re done cleaning and polishing with that Scotch-Brite, again, just like oiling it with the rag, let it sit for a few minutes. And after that, then you can wipe it clean with a dry rag. Again, keep it in a ziplock bag. That’ll make sure that it doesn’t pick up any dust or debris or anything that could scratch your fingerboard or your guitar.
Here you can see that the oil’s been sitting on this fingerboard for several minutes, so it’s penetrated about as much as it will. That means the job is done. Now I’m going to use a clean rag, and I’m going to wipe off all the remaining fingerboard oil that’s sitting on the surface. And again, I’ll try to wipe alongside the fret wire to make sure there’s no puddling or standing oil so it doesn’t create a mess. You want to wipe it dry, and you’ll see that it’s a much deeper, richer shade of rosewood from what it looked like previously.
After that, we can remove the mask, clean up any residue along the side of the fingerboard, and now it’s ready for restringing. You can see how deep and rich the rosewood looks compared to how it was before. So again, the guitar will play a lot smoother and more effortlessly, and it will be more stable because of that oil stabilizing the wood.
Thanks for watching. Be sure to check out the next episode of Gibson’s Guide to Guitar Setup and Maintenance.