I always think that cleaning a guitar fretboard is a little bit like looking after a child! You love it, you spend quality time with it, you want to take care of it.
What I’m talking about here, specifically, is cleaning the fretboard – that is, the wooden face of the neck where the frets are, the bit under the strings that has the metal frets going across it.
In this article, I’m going over the best ways to clean, nourish and polish your guitar fretboard depending on the type of wood of the guitar.
Table of Contents
Reasons why you should keep your fretboard clean:
- To keep the wood in good condition – it’s a natural substance, so may need a little TLC to prevent cracks and dryness
- To minimize corrosion – all that gunk on the wood will start to harm it and sweaty frets are not the best idea either
- To make it look its best – clean polished wood looks better right?
- To improve string contact with the frets (as they will be cleaned as well) – the cleaner they are, the more “solid” the contact from the string will be, improving sound and sustain
A great time to clean your fretboard is when you are changing the strings. I always do this, and this means I just need to give it a quick clean up and polish as it never gets a chance to get really dirty. If you clean the fretboard each time you change the strings, it will require less cleaning, it will be quicker to do and it will keep the wood and finish in superb condition.
Identify the kind of Fretboard wood (very important)
What we’re looking for here, is to know whether it is a Maple/finished fretboard, or one that is unfinished (which will generally be some form of Rosewood, Ebony, or other exotic wood species.
- Maple is light-colored wood and is frequently finished with a glossy coating of some type.
- Rosewood is much darker.
- Ebony is very dark to black in color.
I will show you some examples here, but if you are in any doubt, skip the extra activities in the section that is specific to Rosewood, Ebony, and other exotic woods.
Even better, check your documentation or on the web to be quite sure you know what type of wood and whether the fretboard is finished (often, the neck is finished, but not the fretboard. This is extremely rare for Maple though, the fretboard will usually be finished unless it’s roasted maple).
Examples of Maple Fretboards
Here is a Fender Stratocaster that has a maple fretboard that is finished (see the light color and glossy appearance?
Fender American Stratocaster Plus:
And here is a Fender Telecaster that also has a finished Maple fretboard
Fender American Telecaster Deluxe:
This one is a bit different, it is a roasted maple (which makes it look slightly more like caramel) that is finished with gunstock oil (still Maple, so stick to the Maple approach for cleaning)
Limited Edition Blueberry Burst John Petrucci Signature:
Examples of Ebony and Rosewood Fretboards
Here is a Ebony fretboard example
Ernie Ball Musicman John Petrucci JPXI:
And here are some Rosewood example’s
Paul Reed Smith Custom 22 – 1993 Vintage:
Finally, this is another Rosewood fretboard (it’s actually called Kingwood, but that is just a very specific species of Rosewood)
Duvell elite kingwood 6:
Cleaning For All Wood Type Fretboards
(if your fretboard has massive amounts of gunk)
Sometimes, a fretboard can be so mucky that you can physically scrape stuff off with your fingernail! – gross… This might be true if you’ve never cleaned your fretboard or because you might have purchased a used guitar that has never been cleaned. The reason doesn’t matter, getting it cleaned up is the point!
What you’re looking to do here, is to scrape the worst off without damaging the fretboard or frets. Use something like an old credit card or a flexible guitar pick. The idea is something that is slightly bendy, hard enough to scrape but not hard enough to scratch.
This also means, don’t put loads of pressure on or use a corner. Scrape in the direction of the neck length (with the grain of the wood), and just try to remove the worst with this method. This is not the final clean-up and polish.
How To Clean And Polish A Maple Wood Fretboard?
Once you’ve got any major gunk off, you now need to get the fretboard and frets really, really clean. Honestly, the best way of doing this is to use Naptha or Mineral Spirits and some kitchen towels or lint-free cloths.
Do not use ethanol/alcohol as this is too harsh. Make sure that you’re not close to a fire (or smoking) whilst you are doing this and it’s probably best to do this outdoors.
Just put some Naptha or mineral spirit on your cloth and rub away the dirt, frequently changing cloths or parts of the cloth, these should then be thrown away after use as you won’t be using them again. Be sure to get right into the fret edges with this (both sides), you can use your fingernail behind the cloth to get into that corner or dig out your old credit card or guitar pick again.
Finally, use your guitar polish of choice to give the whole fretboard and the frets a really good shine. Apply the polish and use a clean kitchen towel or cloth to buff it up. Be sure to buff both in the direction of the neck for the fretboard as well as along the frets to make them gleam!
Note, for roasted maple necks use the same method, and once in a while apply a new coat of gunstock oil if you are confident that it was used originally to seal the neck (some of Musicman signature guitars have this). You may also want to use the finest wire wool (0000) to gently polish the fretboard prior to applying new coats of gunstock oil.
If you do use 0000 finest wire wool, I strongly advise covering the guitar pickups with some painter’s tape to avoid micro-particles of the wire wool being captured by the magnetic poles of the pickups.
How To Clean And Polish Rosewood and Ebony Fretboards?
The main difference here is that these types of fretboards are unfinished (so there is no protection on the wood) and have an exposed grain. Ebony, especially, does need particular care as it has a tendency to dry out over time.
You can use a combination of Naptha or Mineral oil on a kitchen towel or lint-free cloths, finest wire wool (0000) to really remove all the dirt. Again if you do use 0000 finest wire wool, I strongly advise covering the guitar pickups with some painter’s tape to avoid micro-particles of the wire wool being captured by the magnetic poles of the pickups.
Be sure to rub in the direction of the wood grain and get right into those fret edges as much as possible, pretty much like what you do with Maple fretboards, the only difference here is that you might need to use the finest wire wool to clean out the grain of the wood a little.
Nourishing and polishing
You need to nourish the oh-so-precious wood.
For most Rosewoods, this is something you need to do every 6 months to a year depending on the age of your guitar and the climate; for Ebony, you may need to do this more often – I’d say, go for every 4 to 6 months for Ebony.
Basically, you are wanting to avoid the fretboard wood from drying out too much and cracking, so really hot and dry climates are where you need to be very careful, more so with Ebony as it can be prone to shrinking if it gets too dry.
For this, use Lemon oil or equivalent, get out the kitchen towel again, and rub a little in the direction of the wood grain all over the fretboard and leave for an hour or so to soak in. Once soaked in, get a cloth and polish up the fretboard as well as the frets (don’t use any additional polish here, you don’t need it).
I use, and highly recommend, a product called: Gorgomyte, which basically does everything in one hit for Rosewood or Ebony fretboards. You cut off a piece about 2 by 2 inches (5cm) and use it to clean and nourish your fretboard in one go! So, no need for Naptha/Mineral-spirit, cloths, wire wool, or anything, just a small square of the miracle
It has a gentle abrasive that really cleans up the wood grain and then leaves a nourishing oil on the fretboard that you wipe off later and polish. It comes with instructions of course, but just follow the grain with it rubbing firmly, leave for an hour and polish up with a cloth, simple as that. It really is a brilliant product.
I use this on all my Rosewood and Ebony fretboards and it really does a job on them.
- Clean the fretboard regularly, I suggest every time you change your strings
- There is an extra step for unfinished fretboards (Rosewood, Ebony, etc). Nourish the wood, don’t forget to try Gorgomyte.
- Roasted maple may need gunstock oil as appropriate.
I hope you’ve found my article on cleaning a guitar fretboard useful and informative, cheers.