Musical Instrument Hygiene

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Leah Kruszewski
Musical Instrument Hygiene

How do you clean your instrument?  How often do you normally clean it, and is it usually for aesthetic reasons, sanitation reasons, or both?  Are you taking any extra precautions lately to clean it more often or more thoroughly?   

Fortunately, online music lessons can generally continue as usual in spite of travel bans, school closings, event cancellations, and quarantines.  At Lessonface, it’s always a blessing to be able to continue with music lessons when a student or teacher is a bit under the weather, without having to worry about spreading illness.  But right now is an especially good moment to avoid touching hands, tuning students’ guitars, and sharing small studio breathing spaces.  

Though my in-person lessons are on pause at the moment, I often teach visiting students who are traveling through Seville.  Since many don’t bring their instruments on vacation, I provide a loaner guitar during class. One recent visiting student refrained from shaking hands when he arrived (understandably), but picked up my loaner guitar without hesitation.  That particular guitar had been used by several other students over the past few days and, while I wipe it down when I notice smudges or grime, I certainly don’t habitually disinfect it.  

That student inspired me to research how to properly sanitize a guitar, but I had surprisingly little success.  I was amazed by how much information and how many products I found for polishing guitars for aesthetic reasons, and how little information exists on safe ways to clean them from a sanitation perspective.  Ideally we would wash our hands every time we sit down to play our guitar. However, that’s a hard rule to follow one hundred percent of the time, and students would probably consider it an excessive demand under normal circumstances.  That leaves us in a difficult position, as most common household disinfectant products damage guitar finishes, and typical guitar ‘cleaners’ are for polishing rather than disinfecting.  

Even though I found little conclusive information provided by experts, I thought I’d share what I did collect and let others make their own judgement calls.  I am NOT an expert in either medical matters or guitar finishes.  If anyone reading knows more about either of these subjects, please feel free to correct me and/or contribute better information!  

Probably safe for you and your guitar, but not proven disinfectants

Dry, soft cloth

If your guitar has a matte finish, this is probably your only option for the body of the guitar.  It won’t disinfect, so maybe it’s best to just not use these guitars in situations where they’ll be passed around among players.

Water, mild detergent, and a soft cloth

Water with a bit of mild soap is safe for most glossy guitar finishes.  Take care to dampen the cloth only slightly, so that it’s not dripping or soggy, and wipe down the guitar with a dry cloth afterwards.  

White distilled vinegar and a soft cloth 

White distilled vinegar is safe for most finishes on all parts of the guitar.  Just like with detergent and water, the cloth should be slightly damp, but not soggy or dripping.  However, the disinfectant properties are limited, and another obvious downside is the smell. I haven’t tried this method, so I can’t advise how long the odor lingers.  

Possibly more effective at disinfecting, but use with caution

Naphtha: effective at cleaning, safe for most finishes, yet flammable and hazardous to your health.  

Naphtha is essentially lighter fluid.  The liquid and fumes are harmful to your health, so plan on using a mask and gloves if you go this route.  However, the upside is that it does clean well, and won’t damage most finishes.  

Rubbing alcohol: definitely disinfects, and will definitely damage many guitar finishes.  

Rubbing alcohol is probably safe for certain parts of the guitar (for example, strings, tuning pegs, plastic pickguards) if you’re cautious to apply it to only those areas.  I don’t recommend this, but I have tried it (first on a small spot) on the body of my Yamaha student guitar, which has a very durable finish, and it didn’t cause any damage. However, I wouldn’t let rubbing alcohol anywhere near the body of my concert guitar, which has a much more delicate finish. 

Do not use

All sources advise against the following products, as they will damage many guitar finishes: 

  • Products containing silicone

  • Heavy waxes

  • Lacquer thinner

  • Bleach

  • All-purpose cleaners like Pine Sol and Windex

  • Furniture polish 

Know your guitar

Every resource I found emphasizes that every guitar is different.  What works fine on one guitar may seriously mess up another. Also, while I would be willing to try some of these methods on my loaner guitars (which are decent student models, but nothing special), I would be much more cautious with my concert guitars.  Luckily I’m not as worried about sanitizing my nicer instruments, because I’m usually the only one who plays them. 

Here are the sources for the above information:

Please jump in with your own advice and expertise on cleaning any musical instruments!  I just researched guitars, but I'd be curious to hear what other instrumentalists do as well.  

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