Having an uneven tone? Hearing a muffled sound? A build-up of dirt and grime by the pickups can very well be the issue. That’s why it’s important to keep your guitar pickups clean.
So in this article, I’ll take you through step-by-step how to clean your guitar pickups and get them to sound great again!
We will also go through all the types of cleaners that I found to work great on pickups.
So, without further ado, let’s do this.
How to clean guitar pickups
Here is the complete guide on how to clean your guitar pickups
- Take off the strings
Trust me you are not gonna want to skip this step. Cleaning pickups with strings on is still doable if you loosen the strings and move them to the side. However, it’s still hard so it’s recommended to just take them off quickly. (Some people just clean the pickups every time they switch strings or clean the strings).
- Wipe down the dust
Simply, take a soft dry cloth and wipe off anything you can. The cleaner you will put on will clean more effectively with dust out of the way. If not, you would be scrubbing the dust into and all around the pickup.
- Polish the pickup
Once the dust is off you can use guitar polish to get your pickups to look brand new. Apply a drop of the polish onto a soft cloth and start rubbing into the pickups in a circular motion. Just like you would polish a guitar. See polish alternatives.
I like using polish the best since it gets rid of grime nicely while also making the pickups look shiny. It’s just like polishing frets.
Tip: If you’ve got some really stubborn dirt, you can use something with soft bristles like a toothbrush, and lightly scrub off the dirt. Don’t use steel wool or anything too harsh, even with a toothbrush be gentle so you don’t make any scratches.
- Dry the polish
Use a cloth to remove the excess polish on your pickups. Then, you’re done!
Other cleaners that work on pickups
Besides using polish, I was interested in finding out any other ways that pickups can be cleaned.
Believe it or not, I did find other things to use that are easier to access than polish and still work great.
- Soapy water
The combination of soap and water is great for cleaning pickups. The soap is able to remove dirt from the pickups nicely. You can learn more about soap on metal here. If you are gonna use a strong soap make sure not to get some on the guitar’s body (see here) or use a mild soap.
WD-40 is not only great for removing dirt and grime but it also is great for deoxidizing metals. In simpler terms, it’s great for rust. Like they mention on their website here.
- Isopropyl Alcohol
Isopropyl alcohol is a commonly used cleaning agent. Alcohol is also great for absorbing water. (water can oxidize metal creating rust see here). For all the chemistry nerds out there check out a forum on Reddit here. There are some interesting answers on how alcohol dries up water.
However, you should be careful not to leave alcohol on the guitar’s body when cleaning the pickups. As mentioned before, it can even dry up the guitar’s wood. See here.
I know this answer is way too obvious I’m sorry for that one. I’m just trying to say there could be times when we overestimate the dirt on the pickups. It could be all it needs is a wiping with just water. See here for cleaning your guitar with water.
Before you make a wrong move when cleaning your guitar, see what you can and can’t use to clean guitars.
Cleaning the magnet
Sometimes you can find a build-up of dirt and grime by the magnet. Pickups need those magnets for the sound (we will speak more about how that works later). Too much dirt from the magnets can cause issues.
So, to remove dirt from the magnets you can use something like a slotted screwdriver (the flat one) and scrape off whatever you can. If you want the magnets to pop you can give it some silver polish. They will look and sound great.
If you are gonna do this make sure you do it before you polish the pickups or just protect the pickups since the dirt that you scrape off the magnet will fall onto the cover.
Cleaning rust on the pickups
It’s very common for metal pickups to become rusty just like any other metal in contact with moisture see here. You can use something like WD-40, or you can unscrew the pickup and give it a vinegar bath.
However, taking off the pickup may be a little complicated so I wouldn’t mess with it unless you know what you are doing. If you don’t know what you are doing, take it to a professional to take it off for you.
Why it’s important to clean your pickup
Before I can answer why it’s important, we need to go off-topic for a second to explain how they work.
How pickups work
I’m no scientist but I’m pretty sure I can get the idea over.
Basically, the magnets on the pickup interact with the magnets in the string creating a magnetic field. When the string vibrates, it’s picked up by the magnets and is translated into a language (electrical signals) the speakers understand so they can play it accordingly.
There’s a lot more to it, but that’s all we need to know for today’s discussion. If you want to learn more see here.
Why it’s important to keep it clean
Since the pickups are the things that “pick up” the sound, it needs to be clean so there’s no disruption. If there is a disruption you can expect to hear uneven tone, reduced output, and dull sound.
How to prevent a build-up of dirt on my guitar pickups?
By taking a clean, soft cloth and wiping it every so often it will prevent the dirt from building up.
Can I use alcohol to clean my pickups?
Alcohol is good to use on metal however it’s not the best for the guitar’s body. So it’s pretty risky.
Will dirty pickups affect the tone?
Yes. As mentioned before, the pickups are responsible for translating the vibrations into electrical signals. If they’re dirty you may hear dull sound, uneven tone, and reduced output.
There ya have it! That’s how you clean your pickups. Just to recap we spoke about the steps needed to clean them and even tips to clean the magnets and some rust. Refer to this page if you ever come upon it (don’t wish it though).
A tip to prevent a build-up of dirt is to wipe it down every so often. Failing to do so can affect the tone. If you don’t wanna mess with any of that and save yourself a trip to the luthier, we really recommend wiping it down every so often.
Hope you enjoyed!