Guitar string cleaning: What you can and can’t use

It’s extremely important to keep your guitar strings clean. Dirty strings can believe it or not affect the sound and tone of the guitar. That’s why I applaud you for trying to clean your guitar strings.

The process of cleaning your guitar strings is quite simple. However, minor details can hurt your guitar.

For that reason you should be asking yourself: What can I use to clean my guitar strings?

We have researched and even tested a couple of different things to use to clean your guitar strings. We have listed them below and explained each ingredient whether you can use them and what to look out for when using them.

So, let’s get started.

What you can and can’t use on guitar strings

testing ingredients on my guitar

Guitar strings are much stronger than the body of the guitar in regards to what cleaning it can handle. There are a bunch of things you can’t use on a guitar body than you can use on the strings.

However, guitar strings aren’t indestructible. These are the things that can hurt your guitar strings

What you cant use to clean guitar strings

  • Steel wool
  • Acidic Solutions
  • Alcohol-based solutions
  • Harsh chemicals (like bleach and ammonia)
  • Greasy rags
  • Lemon oil

What you can use to clean guitar strings

  • String cleaner
  • Isopropyl Alcohol
  • White Vinegar
  • Baking soda with water
  • WD-40
  • Mild Soap
  • Water

A closer look at the ingredients

Now we will explain each ingredient further.

Steel Wool

The recommended cloth to use is a microfiber cloth while cleaning your strings or even if you are polishing your guitar. Guitars are fragile you need to use soft cloths. That’s why steel wool is not good for your guitar strings. They can be very harsh on the metal making it more susceptible to rust and corrosion over time.

Something strong enough can even hurt the string’s coating if it has one

Acidic Solutions

Acidic solutions are at a very low pH level which makes the metal more vulnerable to oxidation and corroding. I’m no chemist but you can check out an article here that explains this.

Acid can also ruin the guitar’s finish. The finish of a guitar is what protects the raw wood from being exposed to dirt and moisture and it also gives it a nice shine. If any of your acidic solutions manages to get to your guitar (which is very possible) it can be a nightmare.

Also, if your guitar strings have a coating (which protects them from dirt and grime), the acidic solutions can break that down leaving your strings vulnerable to more dirt and grime.

Alcohol-based solutions

Alcohol is known for drying out things. That’s why it’s forbidden when it comes to your guitar’s body. Your guitar needs a certain amount of moisture for it not to fry it out. That’s what humidifiers are for. Alcohol can dry out the guitar. You can see an article about alcohol being diuretic here (this article talks about how it can dehydrate skin but the same idea applies).

Harsh chemicals (like bleach and ammonia)

Bleach, ammonia, or any other harsh cleaning agents can be too strong. It can discolor, corrode, and even break down the metal of the strings.

If it can do that to metal, I’m pretty sure I don’t have to mention what it does to wood.

Greasy rags

Greasy rags won’t necessarily hurt the guitar strings themselves. It’s more of a counterintuitive issue. The whole point of you cleaning your guitar strings is to rid them of their dirt and grime (I hope). If you use a greasy rag you’re just putting the dirt and grime back into the guitar. It just doesn’t make that much sense.

Dirty strings can make it harder to play them and it can even throw off the tone of the strings eventually making them sound dead.

Lemon oil

Lemon oil is usually used to condition your guitar’s fretboard to add moisture. Now, this isn’t necessarily bad for metals but if your strings have a coating then the lemon oil can break it down. This will leave your guitar strings exposed to more dirt and grime causing you to clean them more often.

String cleaner

The way we recommend you clean your strings is with a specific cleaner made for strings. It’s made with safe materials while making it just enough to remove dirt and grime. You can’t go wrong with them especially since most string cleaners are cheap. You can check one out here.

Isopropyl Alcohol

Unlike ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol is more of a mild solvent that can remove dirt quite efficiently. It’s definitely not as dangerous as ethyl alcohol is. Some still mix it with water to dilute its intensity a little. But, I have used isopropyl alcohol to clean my strings and had no issues.

To learn more about the difference check out Isopropyl vs ethyl.

To use alcohol to clean the body see here.

White Vinegar

White vinegar is known to be a great multipurpose cleaning solution (learn more about that here. Here, one must be careful though. As mentioned before acid can hurt the strings and vinegar is acid! That’s why it would be beneficial to dilute it a little with water so it’s not so intense.

Baking soda with water

Baking soda is also known to be a great ingredient for cleaning. One time I used baking soda for something that was really stuck onto something and it worked. Anyway, use water to make a solution and maybe you can start rubbing it in your strings with a toothbrush. You can see us use baking soda in our polish alternatives


WD-40 is great for guitar strings they even specify it on their website here.

Mild Soap

Notice how I said mild soap. Things like dish soap can be too harsh. Even mild soap can be troublesome. Mixing it with a touch of water can be beneficial for it so it’s not too harsh and it will help with the texture.


Now, there is no real issue with using water. Since it doesn’t really have cleaning ingredients it won’t do a great job to get stubborn grime off your guitar strings anyway. For a quick wipe-down (which is recommended every so often) water would be fine

However, be careful! Water or any moisture for that matter can cause the metal to oxidize and end up corroding. This is was causes rusty strings.

So, always remember, never leave your strings wet!

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it! That’s what you can and can’t use on your guitar strings.

Again, I applaud you for thinking about cleaning your guitar strings, but make sure you are doing it the right way! You can refer back to this page when you need to clean your strings on what cleaner to use.

If you want to learn what you can use on a guitar generally see here.

I hope you’ve learned something!

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