How often should you clean a guitar?
Probably not as often as you think you should.
There are actually a fair amount of guitar (and bass) players out there who, quite literally, almost never clean their guitars. They just let all sorts of gunk build up on the instrument and maybe only truly clean it once every few years.
Well, I clean my guitars a little more often than that, but not by much.
My Squier Jazzmaster, the guitar I play most, doesn't go in a case and instead stays on a stand since it gets played often.
Does this mean the Jazzmaster gets a layer of dust on it sometimes? Yes. Do I care? No, because it just gets wiped off later.
How often do I perform a "total cleaning" of my Jazzmaster? Rarely. The guitar is meant to be played, and when a guitar is played, it gets dirty and that's the way it is.
What is a "total cleaning"?
A total cleaning, at least to me, requires a partial disassembly of the guitar just to make sure every single part of it gets cleaned properly.
Fortunately with the Jazzmaster, a total cleaning is fairly easy since every part of the guitar is loaded on top. With other guitars that have everything loaded on top (like a Les Paul,) those are also fairly easily to give total cleanings to. With a Strat however, you're dealing with both front and rear areas to clean up.
Since I don't have any guitars that have a nitrocellulose finish, otherwise known as "nitro finish", my total cleaning process is as follows:
- Take off the strings.
- Remove string tree(s), if any. Clean up with microfiber cleaning cloth, then set aside.
- Remove all tuning keys, clean up the same way as the string tree(s), set aside.
- Wipe down headstock dry with polish cloth, front and back.
- If there's gunk on the headstock, wash off with water and non-abrasive microfiber cleaning cloth.
- Clean nut slots using dental floss. For stubborn gunk, drip a drop of water in the slot and run the floss through it.
- Inspect fretboard. If there's no gunk, wipe down with water, dry, skip to step 9. If there is gunk, go to step 8. (Note: If you're the type that likes to "rejuvenate" rosewood, the best kit for that is the Dunlop System 65 kit.)
- Wipe away the gunk off the fretboard using water and microfiber cloth. This may take a while depending on how much finger gunk is present. A few passes may need to be made.
- Inspect the back of the neck by running your hand along it. If it feels smooth and there is nothing sticky from dried sweat, leave it alone. Otherwise, clean with water and microfiber cloth.
- Lightly polish each fret using 0000 grade steel wool. This is a steel wool so soft that it almost feels like cloth. You use this on frets so you can polish them while at the same time barely taking off any fret wire material. Be sure to wipe down the fretboard dry with microfiber cloth when finished. It is suggested to use this steel wool while wearing kitchen gloves, for the reason that some of you out there may have hands that don't "like" touching steel wool.
- Reattach tuning keys and string tree(s). At this point you're done with the neck.
- Examine strap buttons. If you see gunk on the screw head, clean off gunk with microfiber cloth and water.
- Take out all pick guard screws. Inspect each screw. If there is any gunk on any screw, lightly clean the head and only the head with a microfiber cloth and water, and do not polish screws with the 0000 steel wool. Set screws aside when done.
- Clean pick guard plastic using microfiber cloth (and water, if necessary.) Set guard aside afterward.
- Remove bridge and any other component that is exposed. Clean using microfiber cloth.
- Remove knobs and other switchgear, and once again, clean using microfiber cloth and water if necessary for stubborn gunk.
- Wipe down the FRONT of the body dry with microfiber cloth. Use water for areas with stubborn gunk.
- Reattach everything, but don't string up yet.
- Wipe down the BACK of the body with microfiber cloth, and again, use water for stubborn gunk areas.
- String up, tune up, done.
- Pick guard screws are only meant to be hand-tight. DO NOT use a power tool for pick guard screws, especially if your guitar is made of basswood (very soft stuff and really easy to strip a screw hole.)
- Keep water and other liquid away from the pickups. Or if you have to use liquid around pickups to clean up stubborn gunk, do so carefully. You don't want water getting in there.
- If there's a part on your guitar you don't feel comfortable taking off to clean it, don't take it off. Only remove parts to clean that you're comfortable with, and only if it's necessary.
Things you can't do a damned thing about
Remember that part I said about not polishing screw heads? It's to specifically keep those nice, shiny screw heads from turning a reddish-black - as in rusted. Sure, the screw still works fine, but it looks awful. If you want to avoid rusted screw heads, don't polish them. Clean them, yes, but don't polish.
Screws can and will corrode and you can't stop it. But you can slow it by not accelerating the process with unnecessary polishing.
Gold turning into steel color
Gold hardware just sucks, because when it wears off it looks so bad. Whether it's a tuning key, pickup casing, bridge, knob, screw or whatever it is, that gold will turn into a steel color if you play your guitar even semi-regularly.
Can anything be done about this? Other than not playing the guitar, nope.
For any electric you play normally, there is absolutely no way you will ever keep any plastic on it scratch-free. You will get scratches on pieces of plastic you thought un-scratch-able.
That plastic truss rod cover on your Les Paul? Scratched. Don't think it is? Look again. How did it get scratched? You used a paper towel to "clean" it and not a microfiber cloth like you were supposed to. Oopsie...
...but don't feel bad about it. Seriously, don't, and I'll tell you why. Plastic is just a material type that when used on a guitar cannot be kept scratch-less. Plastic sucks like that. Get used to it.
The unclean-able volume knob(s)
A master volume knob is the most-used control on an electric guitar. As such, it will get dirty before the other knobs.
White volume knobs, such as on Strats, all eventually get to a point where they become permanently stained. Can you do anything about it? In fact, yes. You could use certain solutions to break away the grime and whiten it up again. The problem however is that any silver/bronze/gold/black lettering also gets removed in the process, resulting in an all-white knob. Yes, that's bad because now the knob looks like a piece of Styrofoam. Not good at all.
In other words, expect the white volume knob on your Fender or Squier Strat to get perma-stained at some point, if it isn't already. It just happens.
Black volume knobs, such as on Les Pauls, aren't necessarily unclean-able, but do typically suffer from being dulled. All the handling of them over the years takes away all the shine where no amount of cleaning brings the shine back, and nothing can be done about that.
So... how often should you clean your electric?
I have a bit of a weird-yet-not-weird answer to this.
Some people want an absolute time frame, such as "every month" or "twice a year" or something like that. That's not the answer you'll get out of me for this question.
The way I answer it like this:
If your electric even after a fresh string change feels stiff with "scratchy" frets, a sticky neck and there's gunk on the instrument that prevents you from playing it well, then it's time to clean it up.
If on the other hand your guitar, even if dirty, does feels correct, don't clean it. Or do clean it, but just lightly with a microfiber or polish cloth.
For your main guitar that you play regularly, don't obsess over keeping it clean because that's just a waste of time. Clean the guitar only when it's truly necessary, and spend the rest of the time playing it, because that's what it's there for.