No big shocker here, but 99.99% of the guitars on the planet are made from wood. Wood is just about the perfect material for a guitar due mostly to its strength and tonal characteristics. However, it isn’t bulletproof by any stretch of the imagination.

A properly applied finish is the ticket to help protect the instrument and add some visual flair. Some finishes are more ‘stain-like and let the natural beauty of the wood shine through (very common on acoustic guitars). Other guitar finishes can be solid colors or have a pattern effect (like a sunburst). That gives an impression that natural wood alone can’t do.

Maintain your guitar’s finish

Regardless of whether you spent $200 or $2,000 on your guitar, it is an investment that will serve you well as long as you take care of it. Proper finish care is an essential part of your overall guitar maintenance plan. Let’s take a look at the best ways to maintain your guitar’s finish and keep it in tip-top condition.

Types of guitar finishes

Before we get into the details about how to best care for your finish, it may be best to review the significant types of guitar finishes.

Overall there are two kinds: nitrocellulose and polyurethane. Nitrocellulose (often called ‘nitro’). Nitro is a traditional finish found on older instruments and selects newer ones. Polyurethane is a more modern guitar finish that tends to be harder and more durable.

Nitrocellulose guitar finish

Nitro finishes have a reputation for aging gracefully. However, they can be more susceptible to temperature changes (resulting in finish cracking). Also, believe it or not, the rubber from many guitar stands can adversely affect some nitro finishes.

Nitrocellulose guitar finish

Nitrocellulose guitar finish

Overall, it’s essential to know which type of finish your guitar has. Some of the finished care products available are intended to work best for one type or the other.

Polyurethane (Poly)

It is a very popular finish known for its high-gloss look and durability. It’s a plastic-based guitar finish that is not as “fussy ” as Nitro. It is usually applied as a thick coating and is known to last a long time without the cracking issue that Nitro is well known for.

How to Maintain your Guitar’s Finish

The following are simple methods that you can do to maintain your guitar’s finish.

Wipe it down

Playing your guitar will inevitably dirty things up a bit on your guitar’s finish. Sweat, dirt, dust, fingerprints, and other nastiness can build up over time. Not letting it build up is the first step towards looking out for the health of your guitar’s finish. It can be as simple as wiping your guitar down every time you’re done playing it.

Guitar cleaning cloths

Always try to do this, regardless of whether you’re doing a little guitar practice or having a full-out sweat-fest during a live gig.

“It is the most delightful thing that ever happens to me, when I hear something coming out of my guitar and out of my mouth that wasn’t there before.” James Taylor

A high-quality microfiber cleaning cloth is one of the most useful – and most inexpensive – guitar accessories that any guitar player should have. It’s important to note that just any fabric may not serve the proper purpose. Sure, a regular towel is better than nothing. However, be aware it may leave tiny scratches and swirls in the finish (similar to those found on your car after taking it through an automatic car wash).


And we can’t have that, now, can we?

Could you clean it up?

Keeping things wiped down certainly will help your guitar’s finish looking great. But sometimes, you have to take things a step further. A complete cleaning a few times a year will help keep any residue from building up over time.

There are many cleaning solutions, and products on the market specifically made for guitar finishes. Using other kinds of harsh chemicals or cleaners may do irreversible damage. So it’s always best to use the right tool for the job. These types of cleaners will help to break up dirt and grime mildly. You will find the best results when using them with (surprise!) a clean and fresh microfiber cloth or towel.

Polish it out

Sometimes you have to go past simple cleaning and apply a good polish to bring your guitar’s finish back to like-new condition. Keep in mind, though; there is a big difference between cleaning and polishing.

Guitar polish kit

Cleaners use chemicals to help lift grime off, making it easier to wipe off. Polishing your guitar’s finish is a bit more aggressive as the polish compound itself will have a very light abrasive effect. This will not only get the dirt off, but it will also help take out minor imperfections (like swirls and scratches). It will bring back a shine that may be difficult to achieve with just a cleaner alone.


Think of doing a proper polishing job as putting a coat of wax on your car. Your guitar’s finish will have a brightness and ‘snap’ to it similar to when you bought it new.

When all else fails…do nothing!

So far, everything we have been discussing is all about keeping the finish on your guitar. Take out recommendations and put them into practice to keep your guitar looking the best it possibly can.

But what if you don’t care?

Getting that worn, dirty, and road-weary look is undoubtedly a trend nowadays. Called “relicing guitars,” it’s a process where you can either buy a used guitar that already looks like it’s been well played. Alternatively, take a brand new instrument and make it look years older than it is.

Eddie Van Halen’s iconic ‘Frankenstein guitar

But that all costs money, right? If grunge is your thing, then play away and let your ax get as nasty as you want it to be. Remember, Eddie Van Halen’s iconic ‘Frankenstein’ is covered with cigarette burns on the headstock. We’re pretty sure he didn’t carefully wipe it down after every gig!


So…yeah. No wiping, cleaning, or polishing is required here!


One of the best ways to keep your instrument looking its absolute best is to take care of its finish. Knowing whether you have nitrocellulose or a polyurethane finish can make a difference in which processes and products are best suited for your instrument.

Proper guitar finish care is not complicated. It can be as simple as doing a simple wipe-down after you’re done playing to a complete polishing job to get it looking as it was ‘fresh out of the box.’ None of these processes cost a lot of money, but you may have to put a little elbow grease into it to get the best results.

The flip side of all the above is this – the beauty of a guitar is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder, right? You can go entirely to the other end of the scale and let your finish get as dirty and worn as you may want it to be. And you can do that without doing a single thing. To get that funky and worn-in vibe!