I play guitar quite a bit, and even though my guitar playing had wound down compared to where it was about six or seven months ago, I still take the time to pick it up to practice, or do the occasional gig.
I am fairly particular about the condition of my precious guitars, and however cheap they are, I love them to bits. I make sure my strings are in good condition, the electronics are working fine, they’re not dusty and of course, the fretboard is in good condition.
Over time, a guitar’s beauty fades and some stuff corrodes, the paint becomes dull and it just kinda decomposes. This is specially true on the fretboard because this is where you make the most contact with a guitar. Given that our skin contains oil, it leaves residue on anything it touches and that includes the strings of your guitar, the frets and the fingerboard. This is why I often clean my guitars every after two string changes – to keep the fingerboard from developing mold, and ward off corrosion on the frets because I am kinda OC like that. What I’m about to show you can be done by your friendly guitar tech, but if you’re short on cash and just want to learn something new, you can try this out on your own.
Disclaimer : I do not claim to be a guru on this, but this is what I do for my guitars. YMMV.
So exactly what do you need to clean your fretboard? It’s not rocket science and all of what I use can be had very easily. I’d only ever dealt with rosewood fingerboards – do not ask me much about maple ones. I don’t think you can use lemon oil on maple fingerboards without risk of staining it.
- masking tape
- sandpaper (800/ 1200)
- metal polish
- Dunlop Lemon Oil
- an old toothbrush
I will use my Ibanez GSR295 5 string bass for this because this was the only one that I have pics of pretty much all I did for it. See below the condition of the fretboard and frets so you can have an idea of what I did, and what the cleaning process did for me. Old strings, dry and dirty fingerboard and very old strings – a perfect place to start cleaning up. Those who know me well would know that I like my guitars to be really clean and in good form, and you’d hardly believe that I gigged this bass with Ikuzo Iwa and Laura quite a bit before the clean-up.
Let me get started…
Cover the fingerboard
You really want to do this because you’ll be removing corrosion off the frets, and using some metal polish. All that gunk you’re removing isn’t cool for your rosewood fingerboard. Use the masking tape to cover up the fingerboard, and leave the fretwires exposed.
This bass guitar was apparently kept for over three years inside a hardcase. See how much corrosion had developed on the fretwires. I masked the fingerboard completely so I can work on the fretwires.
Sand the fretwires
With the fingerboard all covered up, you can start sanding down the fretwires. Depending on how much corrosion had developed, you’ll have to choose the correct grit sandpaper. For this one with fairly heavy corrosion, I initially used 800 grit sandpaper. Sand down lightly, following the contour of the fret. Once you’d removed the corrosion, you can follow up with a finer grit sandpaper, and I think I used 1000 or 1200 grit for that. This process will make the fretwire more even and make the surface of the wire smoother…
Polish to add bling value
My current guitar tech (Papi’s Guitar Shop) and good friend Mico suggested against this move of mine, and you might want to proceed at your own risk. I used Glo metal polish to to make my frets shiny after all of that sanding down. However, Mico says that Glo is too abrasive for this purpose. I hadn’t really checked around for an alternative for it. But as of the moment, I like how it makes my frets look nice and shiny. Use a clean rag to apply it over the fretwires, and use it in moderation. After it removed all the last remnants of corrosion, make sure to wipe down with another rag for maximum bling. You can also use an appropriate sized buffing wheel to make the job easier.
After you’d finished making the frets shine, you can start cleaning the fingerboard. With an old toothbrush, lightly brush across the surface of the fingerboard, and especially make sure to clean along the edges of the fretwires and the wood. This is where most of the dirt and grime gets accumulated on the guitar. After you’d worked that out and loosened up the stuff, make sure to wipe down the wood using a clean rag. When it’s all clean, you can now apply Lemon Oil (I personally use Dunlop 65) over the wood. This helps condition the wood, and keep it from drying and cracking. Apply in moderation – too much may loosen the adhesive from the frets. With the oil already on there, use another toothbrush to brush off any remaining stuff on the edges of the fretwires and wood. Wipe off the excess oil and dirt that came with it off the fingerboard.
And now you have shiny frets, and a cleaner fingerboard! It smells good too, and I especially love the scent of lemon oil over a newly cleaned fingerboard. Re-string your guitar (for this one, I changed to a pack of Warwick stainless steel strings courtesy of my bandmate), tune up and enjoy!
After the clean up, I took my bass out on a gig with Laura and the rest of the band up in Baguio. It was an amazing 24 hour round trip gig / cajoling around, and would’ve been better had I not caught a fever on the day itself. Check these out, not vids nor better pics though – well at least I haven’t found any yet.
Some of you may be asking about the benefits of this clean up. While you can definitely play with corroded frets and a dry fingerboard, polished frets allow for smoother playing. Smoother playing translates into more joy poured into playing, but this can differ between one person to another. Also, oiling the wood prevents cracking (especially true for rosewood) and lengthens the life of your fingerboard, while making it smell good – a largely subjective thing because I love the smell of lemon oil. However, as good smelling as lemon oil is, you don’t have to do this frequently. Perhaps you can do this process every year or so, or when the need arises.
I’ll update this entry or write a new one if I learn something new about cleaning up the fretboard.