The guitar neck and fretboard are some of the most important and delicate parts of the guitar to keep clean. Grease, dirt, and grime can easily accumulate on a fretboard, reducing the tone and playability of the guitar.
Keeping your guitar clean is essential to maintaining the feel and playability of your instrument, as well as protecting it for years to come!
If you’re wondering how to clean the gunk off your guitar neck – whether you have an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or bass guitar, here’s how to do it:
- Set up your workspace. Lay down a towel or two on a table, and get a neck support or a rolled up towel to prop the neck up. Lay your guitar on the towels with the neck on the prop, so that the guitar is stable and the neck is elevated off the table. Gather your cleaning supplies nearby for easy access (read on for a list of suggested cleaning tools).
- Choose your cleaner. Depending on what type of fretboard you have, choose the appropriate cleaner. For unsealed/unfinished necks (usually rosewood and ebony fretboards), use an oil based cleaner such as lemon oil or another mineral oil. For finished/ sealed necks (such as maple necks), use the same guitar cleaner that you would use for the guitar body.
- Remove/loosen the strings and cover the body. If you are changing the strings, you may remove them completely. If you wish to keep the same strings on, reduce the tension on all of the strings until they can easily be removed from the nut and secure them on the sides of the neck, exposing the fretboard.
To avoid getting the fretboard cleaner on the guitar body, place a towel over the body of the guitar, leaving only the fretboard exposed. It may be helpful to tape the towel (using a low residue painter’s tape) to secure it in place around the fretboard.
- Assess the grime. Determine just how dirty your fretboard is, and assess the condition of your frets. This will help you determine what cleaning tools you will need.
- Remove grime using cleaner/conditioner. Apply some of the cleaner to a microfiber cloth and rub it onto the fretboard. Allow it to soak in for a few minutes until the grime easily lifts off with a cloth. If there is a lot of grime to remove, you may need to apply more oil and use a toothbrush, Q-tip, or a cotton swab to gently scrub the fret edges. When possible, gently scrub with the wood grain to avoid any obvious scratches.
- Clean the frets (optional, if you have corroded frets). Tape up the fretboard (with a low residue painter’s tape), leaving only the fret wires exposed, protecting all of the fretboard wood. Using some fret erasers or a white Scotch-Brite pad, gently rub the fret wires until the corrosion is removed or the fret condition is sufficiently improved.
- Buff the fretboard and remove excess oil. Once the grime is removed, gently wipe off all the remaining excess oil, and buff the fretboard with a microfiber cloth.
- Re-tune your guitar. Now that your fretboard is all clean, re-tune your guitar and jam away!
Let’s dive into exactly how to clean your fretboard and frets by following these detailed steps:
How to Clean Your Fretboard and Frets – Detailed Steps
Here are the different steps for cleaning your fretboard and frets. The method to clean the frets and fretboard will more or less be the same (regardless of your fretboard wood type).
However, the cleaning products used will be different for unsealed fretboards (fretboards without a lacquer finish, such as rosewood and ebony fretboards) or sealed fretboards (fretboards with a lacquer finish, such as maple fretboards).
Set Up Your Workspace
Any time you do maintenance on a guitar, it is a good idea to clear a table and give yourself ample space to work with.
Lay a towel or blanket down on your table to avoid scuffing or otherwise denting the finish of your guitar, and add a neck rest under the neck to elevate it (you can use a rolled up towel under the neck if you do not have a neck rest for your guitar).
Make sure that the guitar is laying in a stable position and won’t wobble or roll.
Gather all of your cleaning supplies to have on hand nearby. Here is a list of suggested cleaning tools that will help make your fretboard cleaning a breeze:
- Microfiber cloth
- Fretboard cleaner
- Lemon oil, mineral oil or baby oil for unsealed fretboards
- Guitar cleaner or guitar polish for sealed fretboards
- Painter’s tape, or low residue masking tape (optional)
- Bamboo kebab skewer or wooden chopstick (optional)
- Toothbrush (optional)
- Q-tips (optional)
- White Scotch-Brite pad (optional)
- Fret erasers (optional)
- Clean 1” paint brush (optional)
Choose Your Cleaner
Choosing the correct cleaner is one of the most important parts of cleaning your fretboard.
When using cleaning products on a fretboard, never directly decant the cleaner onto the fretboard.
You should first apply the cleaner to a microfiber cloth, and then rub the cleaner on the cloth into the fretboard. If the fretboard cleaner comes in a container that has a built-in applicator, you may use the applicator as directed in the instructions.
Many fretboards are unsealed (or unfinished), meaning they do not have a protective lacquer on them like the rest of the guitar. This makes them more susceptible to humidity and moisture fluctuations.
Using an oil conditioner helps stabilize the wood, while also cleaning and bringing out the natural beauty of the wood.
Rosewood and ebony fretboards are generally unsealed, so if your guitar has one of these, you should clean and condition it with an oil cleaning product, such as lemon oil, mineral oil or baby oil.
I strongly recommend buying a specific fretboard oil from a reputable brand, or a recommended product from your luthier to avoid harsh or incompatible oil formulas.
For all my unsealed fretboards, I clean and condition them with the Dunlop Formula 65 Ultimate Lemon Oil. It is easy to use and apply, and provides great results.
Sealed (or finished) fretboards are most often made from maple. These fretboards can be cleaned with a regular guitar cleaner, or even with a mildly damp cloth. If using only water, be sure to immediately dry the fretboard very well.
My preferred guitar cleaner is the Dunlop Formula 65 Guitar Polish and Cleaner. This cleaner is perfect for lifting oil and grime from both your guitar body and its sealed fretboard.
We’ve got a whole article on guitar polishes if you’re interested in learning more!
Remove or Loosen The Strings and Cover the Body
Once you are all set up to clean your fretboard, you must remove or loosen the strings to gain access to the fretboard.
If you are changing your strings, you may remove all of the strings at this point. Be sure to have your string changing tools handy (check out this article if you do not know how to change your strings). We’ve also got a related article on how to cut guitar strings.
If you want to keep your existing strings on, remove all tension from the strings so that they can easily be pulled to the sides of the neck with some slack (3 strings on either side of the neck).
You might even want to try and clean your guitar strings at this point (while under some tension) so that you can tackle the fretboard on its own without having to go back later.
Be aware that if you have a two-piece bridge (such as a Tune-o-matic on a Gibson), the tail piece will become loose and fall off its posts if it is not under tension from the strings.
If this happens, it can dent or scratch your guitar’s finish. With this in mind, it is a good idea to tape the tail piece to its posts before loosening off the strings.
- Pro Tip: Using your kebab skewer or wooden chopstick, thread the stick between the back of the neck and the loosened strings. This will pin the skewer between the strings and the back of the neck, keeping the strings beneath the fretboard, giving you unobstructed access to the fretboard to clean. Make sure you have enough slack on your strings so that the chopstick or skewer does not make an indentation in the neck (or protect the neck with a bit of cloth or a rag).
However you decide to do it, make sure that the fretboard is fully exposed with the strings secured off to the side.
Once the strings are out of the way, you can cover the body of the guitar with another towel or blanket. This is especially helpful if you are planning on cleaning the frets, since fret erasers and other mild abrasives may produce a bit of dust or a small amount of debris.
Assess the Grime
Understanding just how much cleaning the fretboard needs is important to understand how to go about cleaning it.
If there is a small amount of dirt, oil, and grime, you will not need to use much cleaner, or any special tools. Just the cleaner and a microfiber cloth should suffice.
It is likely that the most heavily used frets (from the nut to about the 10th fret) will have some amount of grime buildup in the middle of the frets, as well as beside the fretwire.
You will be able to tell if there is grime built up if there are noticeable ridges on the fretboard (usually under where the strings usually sit) and the wood grain is not obvious.
For getting rid of heavy grime, you may use a very mild abrasive tool, such as a toothbrush, Q-tips, or a cotton swab to gently work away the grime.
Take note of the fret conditions at this step if you also want to clean your frets while the strings are off. I would suggest doing any fret cleaning/ polishing after you have cleaned the fretboard, as sometimes the fretboard cleaning will sufficiently clean the frets.
However, if there is still noticeable corrosion on your frets, you may want to specifically clean your frets after cleaning your fretboard.
Remove the Grime Using Cleaner/Conditioner
The grime on your fretboard is a combination of dust, dirt, and finger oils (among potentially other things) that have stuck to the fretboard. Thankfully, most things that get stuck to the fretboard are easily removed using an appropriate cleaner.
Apply your chosen fretboard cleaner to a clean, microfiber cloth (or use your cleaners specific applicator) and allow it to saturate the grime for about a minute. Gently work at the grime with the cloth until it is cleared and the wood grain is visible underneath.
I tend to clean two or three frets at a time, starting at the nut and working my way up the neck.
If there is a lot of grime, use a bit more oil and let it penetrate the grime. You may use a toothbrush (please use one for fretboard cleaning only!) to gently scrub at the grime to lift it off of the wood.
Once the bulk of the grime is removed, wipe away the residue with your cloth.
If there is still some grime along the length of the fretwire, use a Q-tip dipped in cleaner or a toothbrush to gently clean the edge of the fret. Be careful not to scrub hard across the fretboard grain, as this may scratch the wood, leaving obvious marks.
If you are not planning on polishing your frets, skip the next step.
Clean The Frets
If you want to go the extra mile and polish your frets, this is the best time to do it.
Cleaning your frets from mild corrosion is a great way to enhance your playing experience. Fret polishing helps smooth the surface of the frets so that slides, bends, and chord transitions can all be performed without any extra noise caused by surface imperfections in the frets.
Please be aware, that this is not a substitute for a fret leveling, dressing, or more drastically fret replacement. If you have severely pitted or eroded frets, it is best to take your guitar into a luthier to have them assess any major fret work.
Before you begin any polishing, it is important to protect the fretboard from the abrasives used in fret cleaning. To protect your fretboard, simply apply some painter’s tape to the fretboard as close to each fret wire as possible, so that all of the fretboard wood is covered, leaving only the fret wire exposed.
Once the fretboard is taped, you are ready to clean your frets!
When polishing frets, I would recommend using fret erasers. Fret erasers are small, rectangular, rubber erasers with various sized polishing compounds embedded in them.
When rubbing these erasers on a fret, it acts as a fine abrasive to gently remove any rust, smoothing out corroded areas and polishing the fret wire (think of them as fine sandpaper in the form of an eraser).
Fret erasers typically come in a range of grits, where a low numbered grit is used for large material removal (used at the start of the fret cleaning), and higher numbered grits are used as a finishing grit to polish the fret surface (used at the end of the fret cleaning).
I have had good success with these fret erasers from Baroque.
Start with the lowest numbered grit, and do a pass of gentle scrubbing, one fret at a time. Gently rub the eraser on the fret wires until all the visible corrosion is gone, and the fret has a uniform luster.
If you are unsure when to stop, take a look at an uncleaned fret and notice the difference in finish on the frets. The cleaned fret should appear a bit shinier and more “metallic”, whereas the uncleaned fret will appear more dull.
Once you have finished all the frets with one eraser, move on to the next grit number up, and polish all the frets with that eraser. Continue increasing the grit (further polishing the frets) until you have used all the erasers in your set, or you are content with the finish on the fret.
As you use the fret erasers, you will notice that they shed some debris like a regular eraser does. I like to use a clean paintbrush to gently sweep any of this debris off of the fretboard, keeping my work area clean.
If you do not want to use fret erasers, you may use a White Scotch-Brite pad as an abrasive pad to remove corrosion on your frets. This may not achieve the same level of polish that the erasers do, however it will certainly remove minor corrosion.
Some people suggest using 0000 steel wool as a fret/fretboard polisher, however, I would recommend against this. Steel wool tends to shed fine metal pieces as the wool breaks down, which can be a skin irritant, and also very frustrating to clean up if it gets anywhere near your pickups.
White Scotch-Brite pads are a very similar level of abrasive as 0000 steel wool, but are much easier to clean up, and less of a general hazard around your guitar.
Once the frets are cleaned and polished to your liking, remove all of the tape and discard.
Buff the Fretboard and Remove Excess Oil
Now that all the dirt and grime is lifted from the fretboard and the frets are all clean, you may reapply some of the oil or conditioner to the fretboard with the microfiber cloth or applicator.
If it has been a while (more than 6 months) since you last oiled your unsealed fretboard, you can apply your oil conditioner and let it sit for 3-5 minutes to allow it to penetrate the wood grain.
You do not need the oil to pool on top, just wipe on enough to see a thin film. Clean it up by wiping off all the excess oil and buffing gently with a clean microfiber cloth.
This step is not necessary every time you clean your fretboard, I tend to do it after a big clean or if it has been a while since it was last oiled. You can alternatively give the fretboard one last wipedown with some oil, then immediately buff clean as a final conditioner.
If you are cleaning a finished neck, apply some conditioner to a microfiber cloth and gently buff. There is no need to let the conditioner sit, as a finished neck is non-porous.
Re-tune Your Guitar
Congratulations, your fretboard is now clean and happy! All that’s left to do is to re-tune your guitar and get playing!
If you taped your two-piece bridge, get the strings under a bit of tension before removing the tape.
How to Clean a Guitar Fretboard – FAQs
If you haven’t cleaned a guitar’s fretboard before, you can also check out these other common questions so that you get it right and get the best results.
How often should I clean my guitar fretboard?
You can clean your fretboard as often as you’d like when doing a surface cleaning (meaning you do not let the oil soak into the fretboard).
When doing a quick surface cleaning, you can simply apply a thin coat of the cleaner with a microfiber cloth, remove the grime, and then wipe/buff the fretboard clean.
It is a good idea to clean your fretboard any time you change your strings, doing a deeper conditioning when the fretboard appears dried out or very pale (usually every 2nd or 3rd string change).
- Read More: How Often Should I Change My Guitar Strings?
It is not recommended to deeply oil/condition your fretboard more frequently than once every 6 months to a year, as too much oil in the fretboard can actually be detrimental to the wood.
What can I use to clean my fretboard?
Especially when cleaning unsealed/unfinished fretboards (such as ebony or rosewood), it is best to use an oil conditioner that is specifically formulated for cleaning and conditioning fretboards. Most of these cleaners use lemon oil and/or mineral oil.
For cleaning a sealed/finished fretboard (such as maple), you can use the regular guitar cleaner/conditioner that you would use on the body.
If you are in a pinch and need to clean your fretboard but do not have any access to these products, you can simply clean your fretboard with a soft, mildly damp cloth, then immediately dry it.
It is important to avoid any water pooling or accumulating (especially) on unsealed wood, so be patient and take the cleaning slowly to ensure that you do not get the fretboard too wet.
Can I clean a guitar fretboard with the strings on?
You can absolutely clean a fretboard while keeping the strings on.
If you do not want to change your strings, simply detune the strings completely (make sure the strings have a LOT of slack) and move them to the sides of the neck.
You can thread a chopstick or bamboo skewer between the back of the neck and the strings to keep the strings off of the fretboard while you are cleaning it.
If your guitar has a two-piece bridge (such as a Tune-o-matic bridge), be sure to tape the tail piece to the posts before de-tuning your guitar, so that it does not fall off and dent your guitar finish.
Should you oil a guitar fretboard?
For unsealed/unfinished fretboards (such as ebony and rosewood), fretboard cleaners and conditioners are typically made from lemon oil or mineral oil.
Oiling a guitar fretboard is not required in most climates, however it is an effective way to clean and condition the fretboard wood every few months or even years.
Never use WD-40, cooking oils, or hardening wood finishing oils when conditioning your fretboard.
When in doubt, buy an oil specifically made for cleaning and conditioning fretboards.
My recommendation would be Dunlop Formula 65 Ultimate Lemon Oil.
What household items can you use to clean a guitar fretboard?
There are a few household items that are great for cleaning fretboards.
Old (but clean) toothbrushes, Q-tips, and cotton swabs work great to gently lift dirt and grime from fretboard wood. Paper towel can also be useful in a pinch, but it will leave a bit of fiber/lint behind.
A clean rag or a microfiber cloth dampened with a bit of water or very dilute mild detergent can be used to clean a fretboard in a pinch. Never allow water to pool on an unsealed fretboard, so dry as you go.
If you want to use a scrubbing pad to remove dirt and grime, use a fine pad such as a white Scotch-Brite pad and light pressure.
Some things to AVOID:
- Mild abrasives such as 0000 steel wool may be used, however, this isn’t usually recommended, since steel wool tends to leave small bits of steel behind (which can be a pain to clean up).
- Never use cooking oils, WD-40, or rubbing alcohol on your fretboard.
- Never use melamine foam (like a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser) directly on the fretboard wood. These can be used to polish frets, however the wood must be taped or guarded.
- Do not use wood furniture cleaners such as Pledge
- Some luthiers swear by cleaning fretboards with razor blades, however, this technique should be left to more practiced hands. There is a high likelihood of scratching or otherwise damaging the fretboard when scraping off grime with a blade, I do not recommend this method in general.
Can you use water to clean a fretboard?
Yes, water can be used to clean a fretboard, however only use it to lightly dampen a rag, towel, or microfiber cloth when cleaning, and dry thoroughly as you go. Never apply water directly to your guitar or allow it to pool on the guitar’s surface.
Cleaning a fretboard is a rewarding process that can revitalize the tone and playability of a guitar. It is a useful skill for guitarists of all levels to have, in order to keep their instruments in optimum playing condition.
When in doubt, seek out specific cleaners and conditioners for cleaning fretboards and take it slowly.