If you’re wondering how to clean guitar strings – whether you have an acoustic guitar, electric, guitar, or bass guitar, here’s how to do it:
- Wash your hands. The most important step is to wash your hands. Dirty hands have oil and dirt on them which will transfer back to the strings – making cleaning the strings much more difficult.
- Use a clean, dry microfiber cloth. Pinch the strings one by one and run a lint-free cloth along their length multiple times until the cloth becomes clear of grime.
- Use a guitar string cleaner. Dab your preferred and guitar-safe cleaner onto a clean part of the cloth and repeat step 2 until the cloth appears clean. Wipe off the strings with another clean, dry cloth.
- Lubricate the guitar strings. This step is optional but some guitarists like to keep the strings and fretboard lubricated as part of their string care routine after cleaning.
- Retune your guitar strings. Tugging, pulling, and the removal of grime are sure to set the strings out of tune. Retune the strings so you’re ready to play next time!
Let’s dive into exactly how to clean your guitar strings by following these detailed steps:
How to Clean Guitar Strings – Detailed Steps
Here are the different steps for cleaning your guitar strings in detail. This method works for any type of guitar strings.
However, each stage might take more or less time depending on the level of crud on the strings.
Wash your hands
The best way to clean guitar strings is to start off with clean hands. So wash your hands with normal soap and water and then dry them off thoroughly.
Your hands touching the strings are how they got dirty in the first place and uncleaned hands will inevitably transfer more dirt and oil to the strings.
You don’t have to gown up like you’re going into surgery. Just wash your hands to ensure the best results. You also don’t need to apply hand sanitizer – more on that in the FAQ below.
Use a dry microfiber cloth
Grab your guitar and lay it flat on your lap, desk, or workbench. Whatever you do, be sure the neck is supported with a pillow or proper neck support cradle.
Starting with the first string, grab a clean and dry lint-free cloth – typically a microfiber cloth – and wrap it under the string and then close it on top. You should be “pinching” the string between your fingers in the cloth.
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Then, gently move the cloth up and down the whole length of the string. Repeat this process until the cloth comes back clean and you are no longer removing visible dirt.
Repeat this step with all the strings until you have clean guitar strings: pinch, slide, check, repeat. It’s okay to lightly tug and pull on the strings – we’ll retune later. You could stop at this stage and you’d have done a decent job cleaning the strings.
Go ahead and check the guitar tuning before playing. However, you can continue on to “deep clean” them.
Believe it or not, rusty guitar strings can often be brought back to life using this method. Of course, rust indicates corrosion so it’s best to have an extra set of strings on hand just in case.
This also should go without saying, but remember to remove the guitar capo so you can clean as much of the string surface as possible and don’t create extra tension on the strings.
Instead of a cloth in your hand, you can also use a guitar string cleaning tool like this popular MusicNomad The Nomad Tool or this String Cleaner by ToneGear. However, these are more for touch-ups to get under the strings. I find my fingertips and a cloth work best.
Pro Tip: A microfiber cloth makes a really useful gift for guitar players because they are so handy to have around!
Use a guitar string cleaner
To get even more dirt off the guitar strings, you can use a proper guitar string cleaner that is safe for both strings and fretboards.
String cleaners are often made using mineral oil which is safe for woods and finishes around/behind the strings.
These products often have a microfiber applicator on them to allow you to apply the cleaner up and down the strings. Fast Fret even comes with an applicator and a cloth.
One downside is that these applicators make it hard to clean the area between the fretboard and the underside of the strings.
This is where a string cleaner tool can come in handy. You can also grab a fresh microfiber cloth, apply a little string cleaner to the strings, and resume the “pinch” method string by string. I like this because it means I get all around the string – I’m meticulous like that.
When you’re done, be sure to wipe up any excess string cleaner on the fretboard. At this point, you could also be done cleaning the guitar strings and jump to retuning them.
Lubricate the strings
If you want to take this cleaning one step further, you can then apply guitar string lube to the strings and/or neck. A good guitar string lubricant- like Fingerease Guitar String Lubricant – works to coat the clean strings and neck.
This silicone-based lubricant reduces string squeak, friction on your fingertips when plaguing, and overall tension along the neck and fretboard.
You definitely don’t need to do this step but some guitarists swear by lubricating their strings so you can also try it out if you haven’t already.
Just spray it on as directed, let is set, and you’re good to play. Silicone-based spray is safe for basically all woods and finishes but always read the label and do your research for your guitar.
Retune your strings
Lastly, with clean strings, you’ll want to check the tuning of your strings. The removal of dirt as well as all the tugging and pulling may have brought the strings out of pitch.
So, grab your guitar tuner and get tuning those clean strings back to where they should be.
How to Clean Guitar Strings FAQs
If you’re new to cleaning guitar strings, you can also check out these other common questions so that you get it right and get the best results – aka clean strings and a great-sounding guitar.
How often should you clean guitar strings?
It depends. A good answer is: as often as you like. A more helpful, truthful answer would be: after each time you play.
Every single time you touch those strings you are transferring dirt and oil to them. You may not be able to see it, but it’s there…. building up over time.
The same goes for cleaning your guitar overall. A good guitar cleaner/polish will help remove dirt and dust from other parts of the guitar with regular cleanings.
If you wash your hands before playing and clean the strings after each session, you will definitely prolong the life of your guitar strings. They will also sound lively all the time as opposed to dead and dull.
The good thing is that you don’t have to remove the strings to clean them. In fact, strings under a bit of tension are much easier to clean all around with a microfiber cloth. This means you can clean your guitar strings very often without too much extra effort.
Cleaning guitar strings should be as important to the health of your guitar and overall enjoyment of the instrument as having a guitar humidifier for it.
What should I use to clean my guitar strings?
To re-cap the above steps to cleaning guitar strings, all you technically need is a clean microfiber cloth. This will do most of the job and will be adequate for most guitarists.
If you want to make sure your strings get a thorough cleaning, you can toss in a string cleaner and/or string lubricant (sometimes these are the same product).
You can also get yourself one of those fancy guitar string cleaning tools – but they are mostly good for touch-ups after playing.
A good string cleaning to revive old guitar strings is done with a solid, lint-free microfiber cloth.
What household items can you use to clean guitar strings?
Basically nothing. There are a number of household chemicals like vinegar, rubbing alcohol, bleach, soap, etc. that people like to use on their strings, fretboard, and other parts of the guitar.
These types of cleaners have harsh chemicals and/or are unpredictable when they come in contact with different guitar components and finishes.
You really don’t need to overcomplicate the guitar string cleaning process and risk damaging your guitar.
Can you use rubbing alcohol to clean guitar strings?
No, you shouldn’t. Rubbing alcohol (or isopropyl alcohol) – even a small amount – can vastly dry out the fretboard wood. As a solvent, it may strip paint and/or the finish of the guitar even if you are super careful.
Similarly, naphtha (lighter fluid) which is petroleum-based and hand sanitizer are not recommended for similar reasons.
Yes, they help to remove dirt and grime from strings but so does a regular cloth and/or trusted guitar string cleaner. The risks of using a harsh chemical like rubbing alcohol do not outweigh the benefits here.
Furthermore, with regular cleanings and proper guitar playing methods (like washing your hands before playing) guitar strings shouldn’t get dirty enough to require a highly volatile chemical on them.
What is the best guitar string cleaner?
If you’re going “one step further” with cleaning your guitar strings, there are lots of great guitar string cleaners out there. These tried and tested cleaners – like Fast Fret – are safe to use on strings and fretboards.
That said, there a few rules to using these types of string cleaners/lubricants:
- always read the labels because different fingerboard woods like maple can be finicky
- always use sparingly
- always wipe up the strings (and inevitably the fretboard) after finishing, because excess moisture is not recommended
Below are a few of the top choices for the best guitar string cleaners on the market. Some come with an applicator while others require a cloth to get the job done.
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How do you lubricate guitar strings?
To be fair, lubricating guitar strings is often synonymous with “cleaning” the guitar strings.
Most cleaners above have a certain degree of mineral oil in them to help clean the strings and hydrate the fretboard. This oil also helps to lightly lubricate the strings to avoid that “squeaking” sound of clean strings.
That said, lubricating the strings is about more than just squeaking. It also helps to reduce friction and tension on the strings as you play.
A popular string lubricant is Fingerease Guitar String Lubricant. It’s silicone-based so it’s fast to apply and hailed safe for strings and wood finishes close by.
Can I use WD-40 on guitar strings?
No. Going back to the “household items” argument, WD-40 is a petroleum-based product (somewhat similar in compound to naphtha) that might be good for metals but is potentially reactive with guitar finishes.
The benefits of cleaning the strings with WD-40 do not outweigh the risks to the wood around them.
Furthermore, it’s oil-based so even when you think you’ve removed it from the strings, it may still be there to negatively interact with your guitar’s fretboard.
How long should I boil my guitar strings?
For starters, boiling your guitar strings is often not worth the effort unless you are talking about boiling bass guitar strings.
This is because bass strings are more expensive to replace than a simple package of acoustic or electric strings.
Bass strings should be boiled for no more than 15 minutes in a large pot on the stove top. When done, carefully remove the strings with tongs from the boiling water and place them on a towel or paper towel-covered plate.
Once the strings are cooled to the touch, use a microfiber cloth to dry the strings completely to avoid any potential rusting. Also, make sure the bass strings are completely dried off before re-stringing your bass.
If you’re wondering how to clean bass strings without boiling, it’s the same process as mentioned in this post… just repeated multiple times because the strings are larger and have the tendency to pick up and hold more grime.
Does lemon oil damage guitar strings?
It shouldn’t – but don’t go overboard with the application of oil. Lemon oil is really just mineral oil with a lemon scent (often artificial).
Mineral oil is the main ingredient in many of the cleaners mentioned above. That’s why it’s okay for use (sparingly) on most fretboard woods – especially rosewood and ebony.
So, lemon oil shouldn’t harm the strings. However, excess oil that is applied and not properly wiped up can deaden the strings. Think about it: any additional weight between the windings is going to change string vibration.
In summary, there are a few steps you can follow when it comes to cleaning guitar strings. Just remember that simple is often better – a microfiber cloth and a regular cleaning schedule might be all you need to keep your strings healthy and your guitar sounding great!
As always, Happy Strumming,
For more guitar guides, check out these detailed buying guides and how-to posts: