Keep Your Guitar Hardware Clean

Keeping your guitar or bass clean is important. Now there are those of you out there who don’t care too much about how your guitar looks (and that’s cool if it’s your thing) but that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about actually keeping your guitar working.

Guitar Screw Corrosion

We’ll leave the wood and finish to another day and consider your guitar’s hardware right now. You might be surprised by how many instruments I see where the hardware is utterly wrecked, inoperable and—sometimes—fit only for the scrapheap.

Your sweat is a guitar killer. Not to judge, mine is too. Over time, it eats into metal.

Really.

Given time, the acids and salt in anybody’s sweat will corrode through any metal bit of your guitar it can reach. Some people’s sweat is more acidic than others and will do the job much more quickly.

Screws

Guitar Screw Corrosion

Guitar Screw Corrosion

Guitar Screw Corrosion

These images show what a little sweat and a little time can do to the screws in your guitar. Once they get to this point, it’s pot-luck if they’ll screw out for replacing. Odds are pretty good that it’ll be impossible to get a grip or that the head will simply shear off when turned. This latter usually means the shaft has to be drilled out and that’s no fun.

Bridges

Bridges are under a player’s hand almost all the time and they take quite a beating from sweat corrosion. The most frequent issues are siezed saddle-height screws and intonation screws on Fender-style bridges.

Fender-style bridges can be completely destroyed by dirt and corrosion

Cleaning fluid can sometimes free up seized saddles.

It’s sometimes possible to save your original saddles and free-up the screws but don’t rely on it. An old Dan Erlewine trick involves soaking the parts in a cleaning solution of 3 parts naptha or lighter fluid and one part light oil (think Three-In-One or similar). This can sometimes free up siezed screws.

Remove the hardware from the guitar first and. if possible without damaging parts further, use a wire brush to brush off any loose crud. For particiularly nasty gunking, I’ll sometimes heat the parts a little before soaking them (NOT red-hot, of course). 

A very serious word of caution at this: Naptha/Lighter Fluid is (obviously) massively flammable. It’s also very unpleasant to breathe. You don’t want it on your skin and you certainly don’t want it in your eyes. If you’re going to try this, take proper precautions. Wear gloves and goggles. Work outside to avoid fumes. BE CAREFUL. This stuff is dangerous—treat it as such.

After a day’s soaking, carefully dry the parts (and carefully dispose of the rags you use—they’re now flammable too). If you’re lucky, the screws will be free to move.

Pickups

If your pole-pieces or screws begin to corrode, that corrosion can carry on, eating its way down into the innards of your pickup. Once your coil wire (and its insulating coat) begins corroding it's re-wind or replace. 

Pickup pole pieces and screws/slugs can carry corrosion into the coil

Corroded pickup poles can cause the coil wire to break down


PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE

I’m guessing you want your guitar to last a while before you have to scrap it or buy new hardware.

I’m also guessing you’re dreading the advice to carefully clean every part of your guitar after every use.

Well, that’s obviously the best thing to do. However, let’s be practical—that’s not what you, or anyone, really wants to do. So, I’ll suggest the following steps as a compromise.

  • If you tend to sweat a lot during gigs or rehersals, throw one of those absorbant cloths in your case and do a very basic wipe-down after you play. Seriously, I’m talking ten seconds here. It won’t kill you and it will help you not kill your guitar.
  • Buy a cheap toothbrush and leave it in your case. Whenever you change strings, give your bridge and other hardware a good brushing. Pay attention to the nooks and crannies. You don’t need to go nuts—just take one minute to do it and you’ll help prevent the build-up of crud. Just make it part of your string-changing ritual.

Easy, eh?

Save a guitar and save a repair guy from thinking, “Eeeewwwwwww!” ;-)