Parent article: Best Guitar Pickups
I noticed that there isn't a ton of information out there on how to clean guitar pickups. And while I think the wrong ways should be fairly obvious (soap and warm water are out), the most optimal methods aren't really discussed. On all my electric guitars, that area gets really dusty and - after awhile - that dust sort of thickens and literally needs wiped away.
Inevitably, it impacts the pickups which - if you know how guitar pickups work - need to have a clean magnetic top to properly transmit the vibrations of your guitar strings.
For this reason, I think it's helpful to know how to clean guitar pickups, at least at a basic level.
And it's simpler than you might think.
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Step by Step
For starters, we'll look at four simple steps to clean your pickups, regardless of the type of electric guitar you're dealing with. This method works best with covered humbuckers, but can also work with single coil rails.
- Remove the strings (best to do when changing strings)
- Use a soft, dry cloth to wipe away the dust and dirt
- Use compressed air to clean the cracks and crevices of the pickup
- Wipe with cloth one more time then put strings back on
With the compressed air can (something like Dust-Off for electronics will work fine) make sure you hold it far enough back from the pickup before spraying. This isn't a totally crucial part of the process, but helpful if you want to be thorough. Otherwise, your easiest solution is just the dry cloth in a sort of dusting/polishing role.
What about rust or oxidization?
If you have excessive rust around your pickups, you might be tempted to clean that off as well. Keep in mind, a small amount of rust isn't necessarily going to compromise your tone. Some people prefer it from an aesthetic perspective, like the Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickup sets.
Should you decide to clean the rust, try a rust remover solution like Evapo-Rust which is non-acidic and non-toxic.
Just dab a small amount on a cloth and use it like a polish on the pickup's magnetic poles. Avoid getting any of this on the paint or the body of the guitar.
From there, you'll need a different (dry) cloth to wipe away the remaining rust remover and loose particles.
Am I better off just replacing the pickups?
If the dirt or rust has gotten so bad that the aesthetics of your pickups are significantly damaged, or maybe they just don't sound as good anymore, it might be time to replace them.
Checkout our best guitar pickups roundup for help in that area.
In most cases, I'd say cleaning your pickups should be an issue of maintenance and not a last-itch effort to "resurrect" their sound. If a pickup is so old, rusted, and dirty that it no longer sounds as good as it once did, it's almost certainly time to replace it. This is especially true if they're the stock pickups that came with the guitar.
For some reason those tend to build up rust and grime a lot quicker than the nicer pickup sets, especially the humbuckers.
But in terms of how to clean guitar pickups, start with a soft dust cloth and go from there.
If you want to be really thorough you can add the compressed air and perhaps the rust remover, if things are really dire.
Otherwise, a little bit of dust and dirt isn't going to cause you a ton of trouble.
As far as how often to clean your pickups, I'd recommend just doing it whenever you take the occasion to change strings, perhaps once every three months or so.
Do you have questions about how to clean guitar pickups the right way?
Everyone's situation is different, so if you have a question I didn't address here, feel free to drop me a line in the comments section below.
I'm always happy to help as best I can.