News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

How should I go about polishing my old guitar? J. S., Louisville, KY>

Although this is a rather broad question, it is an often-asked question at our shop and is pertinent to all guitar players. Since no two people perspire the same, the guitar you play could need anything from an occasional dusting to a total disassembling and thorough cleaning.

I decided to examine the different work stations at the Guitar Emporium to find out what is used to clean the guitars that come into our shop. Along with an assortment of materials, I also happened upon differing opinions and favorite techniques. The materials used for cleaning included: Gibson guitar polish, clean cotton rags, 0000-gauge steel wool, lemon oil, 3M brand polishing compound. 3M brand plastic polish, Meguiar's #3 through #7 polishing and rubbing compounds, Gruhn Glaze, lighter fluid (naphtha), Goo Gone, warm water, Happich's semi-chrome paste, and toothbrushes.

For simple maintenance and polishing, I believe less is more. I also believe that "when in doubt, check it out." Most guitars simply need dusting and polishing. I wipe off any surface dirt and use Gibson spray polish, which is primarily water with a foamy cleaning agent in an aerosol can.

Try to avoid constant polishing, for this might create a wax build-up. The best example I have this is from a friend who in the early 70s acquired a late 50s Les Paul that had literally been 'stored' in the trunk of a car. It was extremely dull and tarnished, but all it took was a slightly damp soft rag and a lot of elbow grease to bring back the original luster to the lacquer finish. To this day it still shines like new with a very appealing natural shine, not a heavy and thick plastic-like build up. The nickel hardware was treated with a very slight amount of semi-chrome paste and today still has a nice natural shine.

Keeping the guitar wiped off is the key. Otherwise, sweat will build up and cause the top layers of lacquer to oxidize, creating that dull, cloudy look.

Since time is so valuable and costly, we use products to help speed up the cleaning process on very dirty and dull guitars. Gruhn Glaze, Meguiar's, and 3M brand are all polishing compounds in a liquid or paste form that we use to cut through the grime and oxidized top lacquer layers. A complex job requires taking as many parts off the guitar as possible, to insure a thorough job. Obviously a flat-top acoustic will be easier to clean than a solid body electric. Lemon oil is used for dried out rosewood fingerboards and bridges.

We start with removing fingerboard grit with fine gauge steel wool. Once it is thoroughly cleaned and wiped off, we apply lemon oil, if needed, to restore the proper moisture content. Lacquered maple necks, found on some electric guitars, require less maintenance, though keeping the fingerboard clean makes for a better feeling and playing neck, I believe. Since electric guitars have magnetic pickups, it is important to keep steel wool fibers off the pickups. Masking tape works well for this.

Metal parts can be cleaned up with Happich's semi-chrome paste, and trust me - "a little dab will do ya." Goo Gone and lighter fluid are great for removing old stickers that may adorn that treasure you just found at a yard sale. Naphtha, the primary ingredient in lighter fluid, can also be used for removing oxidized layers of lacquer. But be careful. I find the fumes from it can also remove those top layers of your brain cells, too. I don't know about you readers, but I need all the brain cells I have left!

Since most guitars made prior to 1970, and some made since, have a thin nitro lacquer finish, it's important to be careful. You don't want to rub through that finish. You need not worry about standard guitar polishes or even a household polish such as Lemon Pledge. They may create a build-up, but they won't cut through the finish. Polishing and rubbing compounds have more cutting power, so go easy. Remember, when in doubt, check it out. Ask someone more knowledgeable. Or perhaps you could test an area less critical or noticeable, such as under the pickguard.

I don't sweat much, so I rarely clean my guitar. (Maybe I'm just lazy!) For the past 10 years or so, I've played a '65 Fender Jazz Bass. It's never been polished. I've cleaned the fingerboard when changing strings, but that's it. But I know some people who can ruin a set of strings in five minutes or less. So, depending on the chemical composition of your perspiration, guitar maintenance can be simple or a big chore. Many newer instruments, especially electric guitars, have a harder, poly finish, and aren't as apt to cloud up or wear thin. Although they are designed to hold up and be maintenance friendly, I still prefer the older nitro-type finishes that have a natural, hand-made feel and appearance.

Well, there you have it - a somewhat in-depth look at cleaning your guitar. Just remember, less can be more. A little dusting, cleaning, and polishing can go a long way. But if that '58 Tele or '39 L-5 you just picked up at the flea market looks a tad grimy and cloudy, check it out first before you begin your clean-up odyssey.

If you would like more info on guitar maintenance, Stewart Macdonald's Guitar Shop Supply in Athens, Ohio, has a catalogue with numerous videos and manuals on this subject. Contact them at (800) 848-2273.