How To Clean Guitar Strings Properly, Acoustic & Electric Strings
If you’re reading this now, it’s quite likely you’ve already read up on replacing your guitar strings.
The need to replace strings is an inevitability, but cleaning your strings can prolong the life of your strings, right?
True, but you still need to make sure you’ve got the right tools for the job and know how to use them.
In this guide, we look at how to clean your acoustic or electric guitar strings properly. We also answer common questions and present alternative methods for cleaning your strings.
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When Should I Consider Cleaning My Guitar Strings?
Over time, your guitar strings will begin to show signs of wear and tear – especially if you spend a lot of time playing your guitar.
Since excessive grime can wear down your strings faster, you can prevent some wear and tear, and therefore breakage, by cleaning your guitar strings.
It should be noted, however, that wear and tear is normal, and so is breakage. Cleaning your guitar strings may lengthen the life of your strings, or at the very least restore some of the tone you’ve lost, but you should not think of cleaning your strings as a substitute to replacing your strings, which you will still need to do!
We’ll talk about some of the signs you should look out for a little later if you’re not sure when to replace your strings.
That said, when your strings have lost some of their life, and they’re starting to sound a little duller, that’s certainly a good time to consider cleaning your strings.
Keep in mind that dulling can occur for a variety of reasons. For one, there are liquids, oils, and other gunk on your fingers that tend to accumulate on the strings. For another, playing your guitar in general can lead to more dulling. Sweating on your guitar can also lead to the same result.
Whenever you notice changes with your guitar strings, it would be a good time to clean them.
How Often Should I Clean My Guitar Strings?
For best results, consider cleaning your strings every time you play, both before and after. That might sound like a lot, but it doesn’t take much effort.
Wipe down your strings with a microfiber cloth before playing and wipe down the entire guitar after playing.
Washing your hands before playing your guitar can also be a huge help, since your fingers tend to accumulate grease, oils, sauces, dirt, grime, and so on.
If you don’t want to clean as often that’s up to you, but you certainly won’t get the same results as someone who cleans their strings religiously.
What Tools Do I Need To Clean My Guitar Strings?
When it comes to cleaning your guitar strings, there are a variety of solutions out there.
These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Fender guitar string cleaner
- GHS Strings FAST FRET
- Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes string cleaner
- D’Addario XLR8 string lubricant/cleaner
- MusicNomad String Fuel
- Dunlop 6582 Ultraglide 65 string conditioner
- Tone Fingerease guitar string lubricant
- And others
Generally, the use of household cleaners for cleaning guitar strings is not recommended (although we will look at alternative methods a little later).
So, pick up one of the products mentioned above, or something like it, and you should be good to go.
In addition to a cleaner, it would be wise to have a microfiber cloth to wipe down your strings with. Other types of cloth or paper towel are not recommended for use with guitars, since they can scratch the neck, headstock, or body of your axe.
Some popular choices for microfiber cloths include the following:
- Ernie Ball polish cloth
- Fender Premium Plush microfiber polishing cloth
- D’Addario micro-fiber polish cloth
- MusicNomad MN203 microfiber polishing cloth
Again, there are many others out there (some by lesser-known brands) that should work fine.
With your string cleaning solution and microfiber cloth, you are basically taken care of.
How To Clean Your Guitar Strings
There honestly isn’t much to it but let me walk you through the basic process.
Set your guitar on a desk or a table and secure it. Don’t put it anywhere it has the chance to fall or bump into anything else (it’s a good idea to have a support for the neck too – otherwise the guitar may not sit squarely on a flat surface). Always take good care of your instrument.
Take out your microfiber cloth and wipe down your strings from top to bottom. It can help to handle one string at a time.
That’s about all you need to do for your daily maintenance regimen.
That said, you may want to use one of the string cleaning solutions mentioned earlier, especially if you have a gig or recording session coming up.
Most guitarists like to go into those situations with a fresh set of strings. But if the strings on your axe are relatively new, and you think they’ve still got some life in them, a quick cleaning with a string solution can give them the life they need for your next performance or recording session.
Simply follow the directions printed on the bottle (or wipes) and give your strings a thorough cleaning.
That’s it! You’re good to go!
This method works for both acoustic and electric guitar strings.
Note: You can use your string cleaning solution as frequently as you want. But it may not be necessary to use with every cleaning.
Alternative Methods To Cleaning Your Guitar Strings
There are some interesting alternative methods to cleaning your guitar strings and even breathing fresh life into them.
Some of these methods are honestly a little over the top, but they can produce decent results.
Ultimately, it depends on how committed you are to preserving a set of strings, and I’ll be honest when I say I’m not that committed.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t guitarists who are, though. They might be interested in saving some money, or they just don’t want to waste resources unnecessarily. I get where they’re coming from too.
So, here are some alternative methods as well as some thoughts on each.
Boiling Your Guitar Strings
I’d never heard much about boiling guitar strings until the internet started to go mainstream. I’m sure this is an old trick, and maybe even a good one, but I think you’ve got to be mighty committed to a set of strings to even want to boil them.
Although this method is favored by bass players, some guitarists use it too. The idea is that since the strings expand in the boiling water, this releases the oil and dirt from the strings.
Boiling your strings can improve the sound of your strings and even extend their life. But it won’t restore your strings to “brand new” condition.
Some guitarists even boil a set of new strings before putting them on their guitar. Crazy! This can apparently help with tone and tension. Boiling can also cut down on the need to stretch your strings (as much).
If boiling your strings is something you’re interested in, you will need a saucepan, some tin foil, a fork, kitchen tongs, and a clean cloth towel. Your strings should also be coiled before you begin.
For detailed instructions, we recommend Googling the topic.
Cleaning Your Guitar Strings With Rubbing Alcohol
As noted earlier, we generally don’t recommend the use of household cleaners or chemicals for cleaning your guitar strings. Your best bet is to use a solution like the ones mentioned above.
That said, rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol can work. It will get the grime off your strings.
Apparently, when cleaning your strings with rubbing alcohol, your strings will produce a shrill shrieking sound, so beware.
Rubbing alcohol also isn’t particularly good for your guitar (one the main reasons to avoid conventional cleaners and solutions). The best thing you can do for your guitar is to ensure it is properly humidified.
In dry environments, this is especially important. In wet environments, it may be a good idea to dehumidify slightly (but only slightly).
Anyway, rubbing alcohol is not a terrible idea, and it does work, but there are better methods, especially if you’d like to keep your guitar in good working shape.
How Do I Clean The Rest Of My Guitar?
Naturally, your guitar can also accumulate dust, dirt, oil, and anything else it touches. And it can also benefit from a little care.
Again, a microfiber cloth tends to do the trick.
But as with string cleaning solutions, there are also guitar cleaning solutions, like the following:
- MusicNomad MN103 Guitar ONE All-in-1 cleaner, polish, and wax
- Martin 18A0073 instrument polish and cleaner (ideal for acoustic guitars)
- Fender Custom Shop guitar cleaning spray
- Jim Dunlop 65 guitar polish and cleaner
- D’Addario Shine guitar spray
- And so on
Take advantage of these.
We do not recommend the use of Windex or other household cleaners on your strings or guitar.
Guitars can benefit from lemon oil (i.e., the neck), but other types of cleaners and scratch and damage the finish. Take note.
Guitar cleaning solutions are generally a safe bet. There are also specialty fretboard cleaners, but with most guitars, you can use a standard guitar cleaner.
Is It Absolutely Necessary To Clean Your Guitar Strings?
No, it is not necessary.
As noted earlier, it can prolong the life of your strings. It can even help them sound better for longer.
If your strings are starting to sound dull, you can bring some of the original shine back by giving them a good cleaning.
That said, it’s entirely up to you how much effort you put into cleaning your strings.
I admit that the amount of effort I put into it is “not much.”
I know that my strings will eventually break, and I will need to replace them. That’s just the reality of it.
I tend to use my strings for longer than most do, mind you. If I’ve got an important gig or recording session coming up, I will switch them out. Otherwise, I tend to play on the same strings for a long time.
Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.
When Should I Replace My Guitar Strings?
Over time, your guitar strings will begin to lose their shine and twang. They will also sound and feel lifeless.
To some extent, strings are still usable in that state. But this is the first sign you should replace your strings.
You should also be mindful of the following signs:
- Wear and tear. You might notice discoloration or even indentations in the strings. The strings might not break immediately in this state, but they certainly aren’t going to hold up for long.
- Broken strings. Once one string breaks, the others are soon to follow. Might be a good time to do a complete restring.
- No tone. There’s no tone left in the strings. You’ve given them a good workout already. Might be time for a replacement.
- Tuning instability. If you notice that your guitar’s tuning is often unstable, and even your intonation seems off, it might be time to get new strings on your axe. Strings that don’t hold tune are terrible for gigs and recording sessions.
How Often Should I Replace My Guitar Strings?
We’ve covered this topic at length in another guide. We’d suggest referring to that guide for a more detailed look at this topic.
Generally, if you’re a beginner and don’t tend to play that often, then you can get away with not replacing your strings for three to 12 months.
If you play several hours per day, it would be wise to replace your strings every one to three months. If you play more often, then you might consider every two to four weeks.
At the pro level, guitarists tend to get new strings put on before every show.
Some guitarists, regardless of what level they play at, will keep playing the same strings until they break them. And this works fine for them.
How Do Guitar Strings Get Dirty In The First Place?
It mostly has to do with your fingers, palms, and hands touching your guitar in general. Obviously, washing your hands before playing your guitar can help a lot, but it doesn’t completely prevent your strings from getting dirty.
As you’re playing your guitar, your hands will transfer sweat, oils, and dead skin. When you stop and think about it, this combination is quite deadly for strings.
First, your strings will be covered by the elements. Then, they will begin to corrode because of the moisture.
Given enough time, the strings will start to deaden, and their responsiveness will suffer. And the residue will continue to collect on the strings unless they are wiped down frequently. The sound quality of the strings as well as their sustain will begin to suffer as result.
There is also a “point of no return,” where it’s barely even worth cleaning your strings anymore. So, if you’re going to clean at all, you’ll want to make it a habit.
If you clean your strings and there’s no effect, it might be time to replace your strings.
Ways To Clean Guitar Strings, Final Thoughts
Although learning to replace guitar strings is an essential skill, learning to clean them is not.
It’s not a bad idea to get in the habit of cleaning your strings, though. Your strings play a major role with your tone, so if you take good care of the strings, they will take good care of your guitar’s sound.
Either way, you are now equipped with everything you need to know around cleaning strings.
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