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How unsanitary does a guitar get sitting out in the open?

old guitar

It can get pretty gross, actually.

While the idea of picking up an old, beat-up Fender Stratocaster and strumming away on it is a very romantic notion, the reality is that unless it's cleaned first, the entire guitar is a cesspit of filth.

What are the most unsanitary parts of an electric guitar?

In this order:

  1. Forearm rest area
  2. Fretboard
  3. Back of neck
  4. Back of guitar body
  5. Tuner keys
  6. Volume knob
  7. The 5 and 6-string bridge saddles

Here's a further description of each. All of these go on the assumption that the owner never cleans his guitar (and there are a lot of guitar players like that out there).

Forearm rest area

This is the #1 place where sweat is transferred to the guitar body, so much so that it actually mars the finish even on urethane coated bodies. Sweat upon sweat upon sweat is caked here again and again and again. Yes, it is as disgusting as it sounds.

Fretboard

Every guitar player knows this one. Gunk cakes up and there's just no way of avoiding it. On a maple fretboard you can clean this with a toothbrush and Windex since the finish is sealed (meaning it is the sealant is dirty and not the wood itself). On a rosewood fretboard, use of a cleaning cloth with warm water will usually break up gunk on the wood. If not, you'll have to buy a Dunlop System 65 cleaning kit and clean your fretboard per the instructions that come with it.

In my experience, ebony is the worst for gunk buildup. The wood looks nice, but it attracts finger gunk like a magnet. And it doesn't matter if you wash your hands every time before playing, that stupid ebony board will gunk up so quickly it's not even funny.

Back of neck

The fretboard gets all the finger gunk while the back of the neck gets all the palm gunk. Fortunately this is easy to clean using just warm water and cleaning cloth.

Back of guitar body

On older guitars, "buckle rash" doesn't necessarily happen due to a belt buckle. In fact, most of the time it doesn't. It usually happens from the guitar player playing the instrument shirtless, and/or wearing thin shirts and having sweat come through the fabric and on to the guitar.

Tuner keys

It is incredible how many guitar players don't clean these things. All it takes is a squirt of Windex on a paper towel to shine up tuner keys in less than 30 seconds.

This very specific area is, by the way, the #1 place where you would pick up filth on your hands in the guitar store. You'd think it would be from the strings but it's not. The tuners have a larger flat surface where some greasy, disease-ridden moron put his grubby fingers all over it. To avoid touching filth like that, ask a sales guy for a polish cloth and wipe down the tuners yourself. He'll get one for you, not to worry.

Volume knob

This is always the dirtiest knob on any electric guitar because it's the knob used most, so it's easy to understand why it discolors faster than the others.

5 and 6-string saddles

Many players rest their palm on the bridge, and this can cover the 6-string saddle and sometimes the 5-string saddle as well.

Look at any used guitar that has gold hardware and notice that the bridge will always have the gold worn off on the 5 and 6-string saddle. Now you know why.

How to clean filth off a guitar to make it sanitary again?

This basically involves taking the guitar apart and putting it back together again. And when I say "take apart," that doesn't mean the entire guitar (ex: you don't have to take off the neck.) Just dissemble most of it, clean, then put back together.

On a Fender or Squier Stratocaster, you do the following for a complete cleaning:

  1. Take off the strings and throw them out.
  2. Take off the bridge completely.
  3. Take off all string saddles, clean each saddle, and use a pipe cleaner through the hole where the string goes through to clean that properly.
  4. Use a pipe cleaner to clean out the bridge block where the strings go through.
  5. Clean the bridge. Windex and paper towels work here.
  6. Reinstall string saddles to bridge.
  7. Unscrew the pick guard and put the screws to the side.
  8. Wipe down the entire body, front and back, and under the perimeter of the pick guard. You will probably find the most gunk under the guard.
  9. Reinstall guard to body.
  10. Reinstall saddles to bridge.
  11. Reinstall bridge to body.
  12. Pop off the 3 control knobs, clean those as best you can, reinstall.
  13. Raise the pickups as high as they will go, clean them, then lower them back to where they were (note: Yes it would be more proper to remove the pickup casing entirely to clean it that way, but this way is faster.)
  14. Wipe down the neck, front and back. Use either warm water or cleaning solution in the System 65 kit mentioned above.
  15. Fret cleaning is optional. I would only do it if they're really dingy and/or are showing green, in which case you should mask off the wood and perform light polishing using 0000 grade steel wool (a very fine grade steel wool that feels like cloth.)
  16. Remove the tuners and clean each one by one. Use Windex and paper towels again. Use a pipe cleaner for vintage style slotted tuners to get inside the slot easily. Reinstall tuners when done.
  17. Install a new set of strings, tune, get the pickup heights set properly, and you should be done.

How often it is required to do a "total cleaning?"

The general rule of thumb is that if you can see gunk, you need to clean it.

For most people, that means a guitar with regular play needs a complete cleaning roughly once every 3 to 6 months. And that's only if you think it needs it.

What about nitro finishes?

The old "secret" to cleaning a nitro finish is to use Meguiar's products. Namely, Meguiar's M7 Show Car Glaze followed with Meguiar's M34 Glaze Final Inspection. Yes, car stuff. Works well. Those two used one after the other is a longstanding standard process to maintain nitrocellulose lacquer finishes. In fact, it almost works too well. After cleaning with those two solutions you won't even want to put so much as a fingerprint on your guitar finish. I'm not joking.

As for how well it Meguiar's works on checked nitro finishes, that I don't know. Maintaining a checked finish is a weird animal because you have a finish that has visible deterioration, so... how clean should you go? That's an uncertainty. Personally, on a checked nitro finish I would just use warm water and a cleaning cloth. But on nitro that hasn't started cracking yet, then oh yeah, give 'er the Meguiar's treatment for a better-than-new shine.

Should you use Meguiar's on urethane finishes? You can, but it's total overkill. Because urethane doesn't check and is much tougher than nitro, you can use Windex and then apply regular car wax for a super shine on a urethane coated body. As for the neck, I wouldn't wax that because that can lead to gunk which can be difficult to clean off. That, and a waxed neck just feels weird to the hand.

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