…it’s the dirt. Talk about obscure references, anybody know that one? Pause… OK, it’s a line from the Broadway show Camelot (“The Seven Deadly Virtues”). And speaking of dirt, doesn’t anybody ever clean the crud off their guitars? You can call it “mojo” or “character” or “honest player sweat” but it’s still dirt and it isn’t particularly good for your guitar. I’ve had a slew of ‘em lately that must have 50 years worth of grime, tobacco residue and plain old BO. I’m not real big on cleaning or polishing my guitars either but a bit of maintenance now and then won’t hurt. A damp old tee shirt is a good start but if it’s really gross, then you’ll need a bit of chemistry. I use a product called Virtuoso Cleaner which, generally, does a good job getting rid of the dirt and leaving the finish alone. You can also use naphtha which, by the way, is essentially lighter fluid so don’t accidentally set your 335 (or yourself) on fire because you were smoking a cigarette while cleaning your guitar. Naptha will not react with the finish but will dissolve a lot of things (sweat, grime, grease, etc).
But, before you just slop any chemical on, don’t. Try it somewhere like on the back because it can cause some problems. Like making your guitar look dull and horrible (or duller and more horrible). There are two reasons that I’ve found that render most cleaners pretty well useless. One is easily fixed and that is when there is so much dirt and crap on the guitar that the cleaner takes off just one layer of it and leaves the guitar looking worse than when you started. If you keep at it, you will eventually take off the dirt but it may take a lot of Cleaner and a lot of elbow grease. Or you may have a bigger issue and that’s oxidation. When the elements act on the lacquer, the results are not very pretty. The finish will get dull and look a lot like Gibson’s VOS treatment (which I really don’t like). Cleaning won’t do much for oxidation but if you want to remove what looks like a dull film from your guitar, you’re going to be removing some finish. That’s what polish generally does. It won’t be a significant amount of finish but it will take some. Your guitar will still black light correctly-the finish under the oxidation is still old lacquer and you really won’t be diminishing the guitars value although some might argue that point. I think vintage dirt is like old strings. Worthless. Finally, there is some controversy about using anything with silicone in it. Ask any luthier about that. Avoid it.
There are some other things to note as well if you’re going to try to clean your old guitar up. If the guitar is checked, be really careful not to use anything that’s going to get into the wood. Checks are cracks in the finish and sometimes they go through to the wood and any liquid can get in there and stain the wood. It probably won’t affect how the guitar plays but it can look really horrible. So, don’t squirt the cleaner directly on the guitar-instead put it on that old tee shirt and then apply it. That should keep it from seeping through the checking and into the wood. You should also be aware that if you don’t clean it, all that dirt is going to make the finish wear faster if you play that vintage beauty. You’re going to rub it deeper into the finish and it’s going to act like sandpaper and take off even more finish. Dirt is abrasive stuff and abrasive stuff and vintage guitars should avoid each other like the plague.
In general, I have no problem cleaning a guitar but I usually won’t polish it and I never buff a guitar with any kind of machine or tool. I’ll go at it pretty vigorously by hand but that’s about it. A nitro finish is pretty thin and the last thing I want to do is screw that up.