Guitar Workshop – Keep Your Guitar Clean
Are you suffering from gunk? This month we’re lifting the lid on one of the shameful secrets of the guitar world, fingerboard hygiene.
Take a look at the fingerboard on your instrument. Can you see a row of six elliptical mounds of grime between the frets? Tish, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. What on earth produced this muck? Well, you, basically. No matter how clean you think your hands are, grease and sweat from those digits will leap onto the strings, deteriorating the wraps, and will eventually be compressed onto the surface of the fingerboard. Of course there can be additional contributing factors, namely beer, nicotine, sandwiches…
The resultant effects of dirty strings are all too familiar: dull notes, poor intonation and that general ‘my-strings-are-cheesewire’ feeling. But before abandoning your playing to set up as a free cutting service for Monsieur Camembert’s Cave du Fromage, take heart: this can be avoided (or at least reduced). Set aside a one-off hour-long session to clean your fingerboard, and get into the habit of preventative measures.
But first things first. Remove all the strings and throw them away. On guitars with fulcrum vibratos (Fender vintage, unrecessed Floyd Rose, Wilkinson, etc) place some thick card, a few business cards or plastic credit cards (expired only), or the vibrato’s backplate under the back of the vibrato – this will stop it being pulled back by the springs when you remove the strings.
The most common types of timbers used for fingerboards are rosewood, maple and ebony. The rosewood and ebony boards are usually ‘unfinished’ (although a light oil can be applied for some moisture protection and to enhance the look and condition of the wood) while the near-white maple is typically more heavily protected by a clear or tinted finish.
As you may expect, there are different methods of cleaning the different types, so let’s start with the finished fingerboard, which is usually made of maple. You may have read articles or books encouraging you to use soap and water to clean the grime which collects between frets. I’ve witnessed the effects of water on wood and modern finishes – it’s not advised. White spirit applied with a soft rag is much safer, as it dissolves grease and softens dirt with no danger of damaging the fingerboard or finish. Ball up the cloth into a small pad and dip it into the white spirit. Using small circular motions, you should find that all the dirt lifts straight off the lacquer. The most difficult area to clean will be on the very edges of the frets. A cocktail stick with a piece of cloth on the end will get into the tightest of corners.
There’s a good chance that, if the fingerboard is dirty, the frets will be tarnished. You can kill two birds with one stone at this point, as both the frets and the fingerboard can be polished in one hit, with Brasso. This product is not like other liquid abrasives; its cutting abilities are aided by ammonia, which makes it perfect for polishing metals and modern plastic finishes. Apply the Brasso onto a soft cloth and rub the entire top surface of the fingerboard – in line with the frets, not along the length of the neck. Obviously, the harder you rub, the shinier your frets will be. Always finish off with a quick wipe from a clean cloth. When you are satisfied with your efforts, restring and set up the instrument.
Working on these is a little more involved. To achieve that ‘factory look’ on your frets and fingerboard, you may need to go shopping first. You’ll need…
• Masking tape (insulation tape is not the same thing)
• 600 and 1200 grit wet and dry paper
• A straight razor blade (double or single-edged type)
• OOOO wire wool (that’s very fine)
• A small bottle of fingerboard oil
With the exception of the oil, you’ll get all of this at a high-street auto store. Single-edged backed razor blades should be available from an automotive paint supplier. If you can’t get those, standard double-edged blades are fine, although you must wrap sufficient masking tape around one edge. This is not only a safety precaution: it allows you to identify the edge that was last used. The double-edged blade will feel more flexible and may well be more suitable for beginners trying this method for the first time. As to the fingerboard oil, we recommend Manson’s Fingerboard Oil, a lemon oil-based preparation which works very well, and the small bottle will last a very, very long time. Alternately look for almond oil (in the ingredients section of your supermarket).
On this type of fingerboard, you should take the precaution of taping up the areas of the guitar which could be marked in some way. The headstock, pickups, and the portion of the body around the neck joint are favourite targets for over-enthusiastic polishing.
Now take the razor blade in hand; the idea is to use it as a miniature scraper. But first, a word of warning: some guitar manufacturers would have you believe that your fingerboard really is either rosewood or ebony. Imagine that sinking feeling as you scrape off a top layer of coloured dye to reveal a very much lighter coloured wood underneath. If you’re not sure whether your board is pukka, always get a second opinion. Alternatively, scrape a little right behind the highest fret, rather than anywhere more important, to see if the colour changes dramatically.
Take the blade between the thumb and forefinger of both hands, and hold it at roughly 80 degrees to the fingerboard surface. Remember, as you scrape back and forth between the frets (with the grain), you are merely trying to remove the dirt from the fingerboard. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that there is a risk of scalloping the board if you don’t think about what you’re doing. I’ll repeat that: think about what you are doing. Don’t worry if the fingerboard has any inlays of pearl or some other material. So long as the blade is sharp, it will deal with them.
By now, you may be horrified at what you’ve just done. Don’t panic. All those wood ‘shavings’ will soon be a vague memory. Take the OOOO wire wool and rub furiously along the length of the fingerboard, frets included. I know what you’re thinking, trust me.
At this point, the wire wool will have cleaned away any shavings and debris which may have been compacted along the length of the frets. You will also be aware that the frets now have a matte finish, thanks to tens of thousands of tiny scratches.
Wipe the board down with a clean cloth. It will make you feel better. Take the masking tape and, very carefully, mask the fingerboard so that only the frets are showing. This will mean that once you get as far as the 8th or 9th fret, you will have to start cutting the tape in half in order to keep things neat.
Using an old pair of scissors, or the edge of a work surface if you’re feeling flash, cut two or three 50mm squares of 600 grit wet and dry paper. This will be plenty. Wrap the square around your finger and rub along the length of each and every fret. Only move onto the next fret when all of the scratches left by the wire wool have disappeared.
Fingers sore? I have news for you. Do exactly the same thing now with the 1200 wet and dry. Don’t cheat yourself. If you have knowingly left scratches, you will feel them later when you bend strings.
Now it’s time to get the wire wool out again. The fine OOOO grade will remove any traces of the 1200 grit wet and dry paper, and will leave the frets looking like chrome, and you will probably feel quite pleased with yourself. It’s crucial, however, that you don’t get too carried away. The next part, although extremely straightforward, needs patience.
The masking tape must now be removed, but you have to lift the two ends towards the centre. This method prevents the lacquer on the edge of the fingerboard from chipping off.
The worst is now over. Wash your hands and find a clean, soft cloth. Put a few drops of the fingerboard oil onto the cloth, and wipe well into the grain of the fingerboard. Turn the cloth over and buff the whole neck. It’s important to remove the excess oil as, although it protects the fingerboard, it can actually cause the strings to deteriorate. Wait half an hour or so for the area to dry, give it a final buff with an oil-free cloth, and re-string.
Follow these instructions and you’ll have a neck which looks like a million dollars. The chances are that it’s better now than it was when the guitar was made, as most manufacturers cannot afford the time for such luxuries. So what can you do to keep it looking that way? Regular maintenance is the key. Keep a small towel or cloth in your case or gigbag so that you can give your hands a wipe before, and the strings a wipe after you’ve played. Fastfret and other cleaning and lubrication products are fine – but keep it clean in the first place and you’ll find your strings last longer. Keep it clean, and clean it often… you know it makes sense.
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