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Chatter: Gary Brawer - Keep It Clean!

November 5, 2013
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Get the Most from Your Guitar Tech by “Speaking Repairman”

LAST TIME AROUND WE DEALT with cleaning painted finishes, so let’s move on to caring for unfinished wood and metal. The thing about cleaning metal on guitars is that there can be dirt but also green or black oxidation. I always say, no one knows more about polishing metal than a biker, and over the years I have used all kinds of metal polish that I got from bike shops. A while ago I was hipped to using ammonia to clean metal guitar parts (thank you, Kirkwood Rough). If you can remove the metal from the guitar—ammonia can mess up some finishes—try soaking the parts in ammonia and scrubbing with a toothbrush to get all the gunk out. Be sure to wear gloves and have proper ventilation. I have found that this method will usually not hurt whatever plating you have left and it will do an amazing job bringing the metal back to life.

There are some cool cloths on the market that are impregnated with cleaners and some with abrasives. They will clean and polish metal really well, but be careful not to rub the plating off, especially with gold hardware. When I am done cleaning a metal part, I coat it with a thin layer of something like WD-40 to protect it from sweat and further oxidation.

Even though we always recommend changing one string at a time, when you do have the strings off, it’s a good time to clean and oil the fingerboard. When it comes to maintaining a fretboard, there are a few different schools of thought. You can use 0000 steel wool to clean and polish the fingerboard and frets—it leaves a slick feel and gets rid of dirt. (If you have a finished fingerboard you can use tape or the StewMac Fingerboard Guards to protect the finish as you polish your frets.) Beware: As the name suggests, steel wool is metal and it will get into your pickups and cavities. Compressed air is the best to clean it off, but you can also use sticky tape. A good alternative is 3M Synthetic Steel Wool or Scotch-Brite. You can also clean the ’board with solvents like Naphtha or commercial fingerboard cleaners like Jim Dunlop 01/02 and a toothbrush or rag.

Unfinished fretboards—which are generally rosewood or ebony and occasionally maple—will benefit from being oiled after you clean them. The type of oil you put on after can affect the playing feel, though, as some oil ends up being sticky. We have been using oils from StewMac, Dunlop, Big Bends, and Music Nomad at the shop. It is best to wipe it on and wipe it off so you do not saturate the fret slots. You’ll also notice next time it will be easier to clean a fretboard that has been oiled. An all-in-one cloth that came out recently and has found its way to many tech benches is the Gorgomyte Fretboard Conditioning Cloth from GHS. It will clean and condition all at once.

We all spend plenty of time working on our guitars’ sonics and not nearly as much on the cosmetics. If you want your instrument to perform consistently and look great in the process, however, take a few of these tips to heart. Guitar cleanliness is next to guitar godliness.

Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.

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