It’s not the Earth that we Inherit…


The blondes tend to show the dirt and this one had plenty. Cleaned up nicely, it did.

The blondes tend to show the dirt and this one had plenty. Cleaned up nicely, it did. Cleaner or polish will get into those checks and raw wood, so don’t slop it on the guitar. Put it on a cloth first.

…it’s the dirt. Talk about obscure references, anybody know that one? Pause… OK, it’s a line from the Broadway show Camelot (“The Seven Deadly Virtues”). And speaking of dirt, doesn’t anybody ever clean the crud off their guitars? You can call it “mojo” or “character” or “honest player sweat” but it’s still dirt and it isn’t particularly good for your guitar. I’ve had a slew of ’em lately that must have 50 years worth of grime, tobacco residue and plain old BO. I’m not real big on cleaning or polishing my guitars either but a bit of maintenance now and then won’t hurt. A damp old tee shirt is a good start but if it’s really gross, then you’ll need a bit of chemistry. I use a product called Virtuoso Cleaner which, generally, does a good job getting rid of the dirt and leaving the finish alone. You can also use naphtha which, by the way, is essentially lighter fluid so don’t accidentally set your 335 (or yourself) on fire because you were smoking a cigarette while cleaning your guitar. Naptha will not react with the finish but will dissolve a lot of things (sweat, grime, grease, etc).

But, before you just slop any chemical on, don’t. Try it somewhere like on the back because it can cause some problems. Like making your guitar look dull and horrible (or duller and more horrible). There are two reasons that I’ve found that render most cleaners pretty well useless. One is easily fixed and that is when there is so much dirt and crap on the guitar that the cleaner takes off just one layer of it and leaves the guitar looking worse than when you started. If you keep at it, you will eventually take off the dirt but it may take a lot of Cleaner and a lot of elbow grease. Or you may have a bigger issue and that’s oxidation. When the elements act on the lacquer, the results are not very pretty. The finish will get dull and look a lot like Gibson’s VOS treatment (which I really don’t like). Cleaning won’t do much for oxidation but if you want to remove what looks like a dull film from your guitar, you’re going to be removing some finish. That’s what polish generally does. It won’t be a significant amount of finish but it will take some. Your guitar will still black light correctly-the finish under the oxidation is still old lacquer and you really won’t be diminishing the guitars value although some might argue that point. I think vintage dirt is like old strings. Worthless. Finally, there is some controversy about using anything with silicone in it. Ask any luthier about that. Avoid it.

There are some other things to note as well if you’re going to try to clean your old guitar up. If the guitar is checked, be really careful not to use anything that’s going to get into the wood. Checks are cracks in the finish and sometimes they go through to the wood and any liquid can get in there and stain the wood. It probably won’t affect how the guitar plays but it can look really horrible. So, don’t squirt the cleaner directly on the guitar-instead put it on that old tee shirt and then apply it. That should keep it from seeping through the checking and into the wood. You should also be aware that if you don’t clean it,  all that dirt is going to make the finish wear faster if you play that vintage beauty. You’re going to rub it deeper into the finish and it’s going to act like sandpaper and take off even more finish. Dirt is abrasive stuff and abrasive stuff and vintage guitars should avoid each other like the plague.

In general, I have no problem cleaning a guitar but I usually won’t polish it and I never buff a guitar with any kind of machine or tool. I’ll go at it pretty vigorously by hand but that’s about it. A nitro finish is pretty thin and the last thing I want to do is screw that up.

When I have to clean, I use this stuff. I don't sell it, so don't go all "paid commercial plug" on me.

When I have to clean, I use this stuff-usually the Cleaner. I almost never use the Polish. I don’t sell it, so don’t go all “paid commercial plug” on me.

9 Responses to “It’s not the Earth that we Inherit…”

  1. RAB says:

    Good comments as usual on cleaning an already dirty guitar. Prudent and good guitar hygiene practices will keep the guitar from getting into that sad state to begin with and make the fiddle more enjoyable to play! Who wants to play a cruddy guitar? A clean guitar can still have mojo! Keep a soft flannel polish cloth in your case and wipe down the strings and the back of the neck and top of the body after each set. When you get home from the gig (or the next day) use a bit of non-silicon based polish or cleaner to keep the back of the neck nice and slick!

  2. stefan says:

    Another very interesting post. What do you think of treating the fretboard with lemon oil? Personally, I don’t do it too often. Maybe once a year. Opinions on this differ wildly (like top-wrapping & pots). I am wondering how you Charlie and other people reading this blog treat their fretboards (if at all).

  3. RAB says:

    Stefan, good question. I “treat” my vintage fingerboards with a bit of Dr. Duck’s Axe Wax about every third time I change strings. Just wipe some on then off after letting it rest for a few minutes. I think any more frequently and you might risk the board getting sticky feeling? I suppose climate has something to do with how often you need to treat the board, I.E. in very dry climates…not a problem in generally moderate California! RAB

  4. Rod says:

    I always think the rosewood likes to be oily but everyone has their own opinion. I put lemon oil polish on with a 1/2″ paint brush maybe every six weeks. The oil soaks into the board, the carrier solvent (which evapourates fairly quickly) is good at keeping strings sounding lively. Never use it on lacquered maple boards though as it will cause discolouration.

  5. goetz says:

    I’ve read in a few places that oiling your fingerboard should only be done rarely…like every couple of years … because it will tend to soften it and cause problems.

    Rod, are you putting it on your strings too? It sounds as if you are oiling the fingerboard with the strings in place.

    Does ‘Fingerease” contain silicone or is it mineral oil like “Fast Fret”? Also, has anyone tried re-invigorating those Fast Fret sticks with more mineral oil?

  6. Gus says:

    Interesting post Charlie. Do you (or anyone else) have any tips for cleaning the hardware on a vintage Gibson? Particularly tune-o-matic bridges / saddles and nickel pickup covers. The nickel dog ear P90s on my ’65 ES-330 are starting to look a bit tarnished. I know that’s why they switched to chrome in the first place but is nickel salvageable, looks-wise? Cheers!

  7. RAB says:

    Gus, obviously its your guitar so you can do whatever you want with it but folks spend tremendous time (and money!) trying to achieve that aged nickel patina! There are plenty of vintage hounds who’d love to trade you nice shiny chrome parts for your aged nickel parts (smile…)

  8. Gus says:

    Haha, true RAB! The guitar gets some pretty heavy use and I’ve noticed it get even duller in the last coupla years. I guess I’ll just keep wiping it down with a cloth after gigs, unless anyone knows of a product to use.

  9. RAB says:

    Gus, yes, the wipedown with a cloth is recommended after each set. Then, as I suggested, when you get the fiddle home or the next day after the gig if its too late (!!) use a bit of a premium polish or cleaner on the back of the neck. It helps keep the back of the neck smooth and prevents stickiness (WHICH I HATE!). Also, if the guitar body has been sweated on (!) apply the same polish or cleaner to remove that munge…then let the guitar wear its patina (and occasional gig-bumps!) with pride, earning the “relic” look naturally…

Leave a Reply

Optionally add an image (JPEG only)