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On a steel-string acoustic guitar, how do you prevent gunk from building up on the strings? Every time I play, the strings, particularly the B and E strings, will literally (okay maybe not literally) slice the skin off my (left-hand) fingers, and in a matter of days the strings (again mostly the B and E strings) will be full of gunk, making the strings not vibrate as much and overall sound quite dull. I know it's not rust because I have rust on my electric guitar strings, and it doesn't come off as easily.

It is quite hard to clean all of it, as a lot, though not most, is on the lower frets, so the only option is to clean it with a rag or something similar. That doesn't manage to get all of it, however, and the strings still sound dull compared to when first put on.

I've tried many strings, from extra-light to medium, same result. Perhaps it's the texture? The only ones I haven't tried are Elixir's and similar coated strings. I play nylon-strung guitar quite frequently and have had none of these problems, though I suppose you would assume so considering it has half the tension.

I'd rather not have to clean the gunk. I know people who don't have this problem, so I would hope there's a solution to prevent this altogether.

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  • Have you tried wiping down the strings every time after you play them? What about washing your hands before you play? – Todd Wilcox Feb 15 at 21:19
  • I have tried washing my hands before I played, but it didn't appear to help. I don't wipe my strings after I play, but can you be specific on what you mean by wiping? – Shidouuu Feb 15 at 21:22
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    Take a soft cloth and wipe any finger oils or other residue off the strings right after you play instead of waiting for that stuff to build up and stick – Todd Wilcox Feb 15 at 21:28
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    When you wipe the strings, yes you do want to wipe the top and between the strings and fretboard. – Todd Wilcox Feb 16 at 2:55
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    I think your real issue is not gunk on the strings, but that the strings "will literally slice the skin off [your] (left-hand) fingers". The gunk on the strings is a side effect. – Edward Feb 16 at 6:39
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How do you stop gunk from building up on guitar strings?

  1. Wash your hands before you play. If you sweat a lot, keep a clean towel handy for periodically drying your hands and wiping down strings between songs/exercises.

  2. Allow your hands to dry out completely before you play. Do not play when your hands have been soaked, such as right after bathing, washing dishes, etc. Your soaked skin will be soft and more prone to injury and sloughing off onto your strings, plus the moisture could promote oxidation.

  3. Wipe down strings and fretboard after you play. You can access the fretboard and underside of strings by slipping a soft, clean cloth (microfiber works great) between them at the guitar body, then sliding up the neck. Be gentle: snug is okay, but don’t cram it in there.

  4. Periodically clean and condition your fretboard. This will remove collected gunk that could transfer to your strings, as well as keep the fretboard wood from drying out and becoming more susceptible to wear and collection of that gunk.

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  • I guess there's no avoiding cleaning the strings, huh? – Shidouuu Feb 15 at 23:49
  • If they’re dirty, you need to clean them, but if you practice the other suggestions, they won’t get dirty so fast. I hardly ever wipe my strings down or need to clean them, and they’re not generally all that dirty when I change them. I do clean and condition my fret board every few string changes or so. And while I’m not religious about washing my hands before playing, if they’re noticeably dirty, I do. Another thing to consider is lotions or hand moisturizers you might use that could be rubbing off, along with skin cells. I don’t use them at all. – wabisabied Feb 16 at 0:20
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Shidouuu,

There is no avoiding cleaning the strings.

If you posted a question to an automotive advice forum such as "My windshield is covered in dead bugs, how do stop bugs from accumulating on my windshield?," you would get two flavors of responses;

  1. Stop driving or,
  2. Clean the windshield, often

I recommend you keep a soft terrycloth nearby to where you practice, and a spritz can of Finger-Ease. Finger-Ease is a product designed to be wiped onto the strings after you play, and it removes salt, sweat, and all manners of problems. And it will extend the life of your strings.

If you can't find that product, a little application of an automotive spray shine won't hurt one bit.

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  • Thanks for the advice, I'll make sure to try finger-ease – Shidouuu Feb 16 at 15:34
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I have not experienced the issue you have as seriously as you describe. But there are a couple things to keep in mind.

(1) You should have clean hands when you play. Wash them a few minutes before playing.

(2) If you start getting sweaty or oily as you play, stop and wash again.

(3) Don't put hand lotion on before playing. This may not be "gunk" or "dirty" but it can damage the finish of the guitar and will ultimately cause some gunk build up.

(4) Wipe you guitar down after you play, with a soft towel, rag, old flannel anything really.

(5) If you find that you need to wash more than once during a practice session then you need to wipe down your guitar multiple times as well.

(6) If the build up is severe over time change the strings. I could go years without breaking one but they should be changed more frequently.

I have nothing to say about the gunk causing your skin to get sliced. Are you taking long breaks between practicing? I'd think that you would have some callus.

If you have gunk build up on the frets then you haven't been keeping the ax clean. It happens and that's life. We need to take care of our equipment. Just like putting gas or oil in a car, you need to clean the guitar. The only choice you have is to take the strings off and thoroughly clean the frets and restring. You could find a tech at a music store or a luthier who can do it for $$. Then be more vigilant about cleaning after and the problem may not come back.

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  • Alright I think I may have been exaggerating a bit, but the skin does get cut off quite frequently. I'd assume I have callus too as I've been playing for 2 years, but I dunno. Maybe I have a mountain of dead skin instead – Shidouuu Feb 16 at 15:40
  • Calluses can dry up and peel off. – user50691 Feb 16 at 15:49
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Years ago I read an article about cleaning strings that advise using a Blitz cloth after each performance before putting the instrument in its case. A Blitz cloth is used by soldiers to clean their brass but it works very well on guitar strings also. You can find them in military surplus stores or online. When cleaning strings, loosen them enough to be able to lift them out out their nut slot and bridge slot and wipe the slots down too. Then take an old cotton rag ( and old T-shirt works well) and wipe the fretboard between the strings while they are still slack to remove sweat and grim from the fingerboard. I read this and now use it to keep my instrument clean and sounding nice.

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  • Interesting, what's special about those cloths? There seems to be one for strings, even – Shidouuu Feb 17 at 20:42
  • They are treated with cleaning agents, don't use them to clean the wood, just the metal parts and strings. Also safe for nut slots and bridge slots. – skinny peacock Feb 18 at 1:28

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