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How to Clean Guitar Pickups (Easy Beginners Guide)

Your guitar pickups are an essential part of your electric guitar. So, knowing how to clean guitar pickups is an essential part of guitar maintenance, as it protects them from rust and corrosion that can affect how they work.

Guitar pickups should be cleaned with guitar polish that does not contain wax, silicone, or petroleum. Always use a polish meant for guitars. Remove the strings, clean the pickups carefully, and remove any rust. Pickup maintenance is vital for guitar longevity.

As a guitarist for over 15 years, I’ve put this guide together to show you how I clean and maintain my guitar pickups to keep them both looking and working great.

Affiliate disclaimer: This page contains affiliate links for products that I’ve tried and tested. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. Learn more here.

Remember: guitar pickups are not cheap to replace, but they are cheap to maintain – so learning how to properly clean and care for them will keep your pickups looking great and working for years to come.

There are many different types of guitar pickups out there, with many different designs. Fortunately, the process for cleaning them is very similar – the only difference depends on whether or not your pickups have covers.

So, use these links to jump to the correct section for you – and let’s get your pickups sparkling like new!

How to clean guitar pickups with exposed pole pieces

Pickups with exposed pole pieces are easily identifiable because nothing is covering the pickup, and each of the six magnets is exposed below the strings.

If you look down at your guitar and find that the pickups and pole pieces have become dirty, tarnished, or even rusted, then it’s time to break out the polish and give them a good clean.

How to clean guitar pickups

The good news is that even if your pickups have somehow become very tarnished, there’s always a way to clean them up.

That being said, a regular pickup cleaning routine will keep your pickups from becoming heavily rusted or tarnished, so I recommend following this guide every time you change your guitar strings (which should be about every three months!).

Equipment needed for cleaning guitar pickups

To clean your guitar pickups, you will need:

  • Guitar polish (note: must be silicone and wax free)
  • Guitar strings
  • Lint-free microfiber cloths
  • Silver Polish
  • Compressed air
  • A flathead screwdriver
  • Masking tape
  • Q-Tips

Here’s the equipment that I used with links to where you can buy them:

Equipment for cleaning pole piece pickups

Step 1: Remove the guitar strings 

The first step when cleaning guitar pickups is to remove the strings from the guitar. This process is important because the strings make reaching the pickups to clean them properly very difficult.

Not only this, but old guitar strings are covered in grime and dirt, which can transfer back onto your pickups, so it makes sense to switch them out.

Be sure that you have a set of strings ready to replace the strings you take off before you begin this process.

I use D’Addario NYXL guitar strings on all my guitars. You can pick up a pack here from Amazon.

D'Addario strings

To remove the strings from the instrument, simply loosen the strings by turning the tuners on the headstock until the strings come free from the machine head. 

Pull the guitar strings out of the machine head, and remove the strings from the bridge by either pulling them through the back of the body or unclipping them from the saddles, depending on the hardware on your guitar. 

With the strings removed, you now have easy access to the pickups, which makes cleaning them far easier. 

However, if you’ve recently changed your strings and would rather not remove them – it’s possible to move them out of the way rather than removing them completely. 

To do this, simply loosen the strings at the tuners, push the top strings to one side of the neck and the bottom strings to the other until they are pushed over the top of the nut and keep them in place with a piece of masking tape.

Guitar strings with tape
I’ve recently changed the strings on this guitar, so I taped them to the side

Top tip: While your strings are off, it’s a good time to clean your guitar fretboard.

Step 2: Clean the pickup with a lint-free microfiber cloth

Once the strings are removed and you can reach the pickups easily, the next step in the cleaning process is to simply wipe the pickups with a microfiber or lint-free detailing cloth. 

This will remove any surface dust and grime from the pickups, and it will allow you to see any deeper than dirt that needs to be cleaned away.

The cloth needs to be lint-free otherwise, you’re going to get small pieces of lint on your pickups which could get into the inner workings.

This process may take some time and some hard pressure to clean any surface dirt, but it makes the remainder of the cleaning process far easier. 

Step 3: Carefully clean the pickup body

Most of the dirt on a pickup will be from sweat and dust and is usually on the top surface of the pickup, which means it’s unlikely that there’ll be much dirt on the sides or body of the pickup.

That being said, it’s still important to check the sides and body of the pickup for any dirt that’s worked its way in.

The pickup’s body is the sides of the pickup where the copper coil is wrapped around the magnetic poles. This is a very delicate area, so be careful when inspecting it and cleaning it. 

Wiping down a pickup

The copper wire that forms the pickup coil is not typically exposed as it’s usually covered by either a plastic cover or some form of electrical tape; therefore, the coil should be protected.

If you find any dirt here, simply wipe it gently with your detailing cloth, and it should come off without any problems. 

If the coil happens to be exposed, be careful not to touch it, as this may cause harm to the pickup. 

Instead, clean off any dust and surface dirt by using compressed air. This can be done without touching the delicate parts of the pickup, but it must be done very carefully to avoid damaging the components.

A quick blast of air will be enough to remove any wayward dust.

Using compressed air to clean guitar pickups

Step 4: Remove surface dirt and rust

Now it’s time to turn your attention to the main surface of the pickup, where most of the dirt and grime collect – this is the easiest part of the pickup to clean!

Any surface dirt and grime that wasn’t removed by simply rubbing the pickup with the microfiber cloth should be removed with a cleaning product. 

The best way to do this is to use a guitar cleaning polish. Other cleaning products that are meant for household use shouldn’t really be used on guitars, so be sure to only use guitar polish here.

I use D’Addario guitar polish on all my guitars – it’s great at removing surface dirt and leaves a clean, streak-free finish. You can pick up a bottle here on Amazon.

Use a guitar polish that does not contain any petroleum, wax, or silicone, as these substances can cause damage to the finish of the guitar and its hardware, and they will leave behind a nasty residue that is very difficult to clean properly.

To remove the dirt from the pickup, simply rub a very small amount of guitar polish onto your microfiber cloth and scrub the dirt away.

Using guitar polish to clean pickups
You only need a small amount of polish!

Don’t worry about getting the polish on the magnetic poles – they won’t be affected by the cleaning compounds. 

Step 5: Remove stubborn dirt and rust

If any stubborn dirt, tarnish, or rust remains on the pole pieces after this process: it’s time to use the flathead screwdriver to scrape it away.

Now, I’ve used several methods of rust removal (including using vinegar and WD-40) and have found this to be the most effective by far.

That being said, you shouldn’t have to do this every time you clean your pickups – as having a regular cleaning routine will stop future tarnishing and rusting.

To remove the tarnish or rust from your pickups, first place masking tape on the cover, leaving only the poles exposed. This will stop any particles from falling down into your pickup. 

A pickup covered with masking tape

Now, use the flathead screwdriver to scrape away any rust or tarnish. You won’t have to press hard, a simple light scrape across the surface of the pole piece will be enough to remove the rust.

Note: Don’t use steel wool to clean your pickups. I’ve seen it recommended by a few places, and it’s not the tool to use for this job. It’ll produce small particles that will stick to the pickup magnets and can get inside the inner workings of the pickup.

Once you’ve done this, apply a small amount of silver polish to the top of the pole piece using a q-tip. Then, use your microfiber cloth to polish it off.

Using silver polish to clean pickup

If the pole piece looks dull after cleaning it – don’t worry! We’re going to polish it to a shiny finish in a couple of steps.

Once all the rust is removed: wipe down the pole pieces with a clean microfiber cloth.

After you’ve repeated this for every pole piece, you can remove the masking tape.

Step 6: Clean off any residue

The penultimate step in this process is to clean off any residue left behind from the previous steps.

This residue will be from the tape or any leftover cleaning products that you used along the way. 

This step will ensure a great-looking finish on the pickups. 

To do this, just take a clean microfiber cloth and rub the pickups clean.

Step 7: Polish the pickups

The final step in cleaning guitar pickups is to polish the pickups. This polishing process is simple and quick, and it will help keep your pickups clean and make them look great!

You’ll want to clean the pickup top and body first. To do this, place a very small amount of your guitar polish onto your cloth, and rub it onto the surface of the pickup until the surface is covered.

Now, here’s the secret to getting a guitar store finish – wait for a minute or two until the polish has started to dry. It’ll start to look hazy and filmy.

Once it’s like this, switch to a clean part of your microfiber cloth and rub it away with small circular motions.

This process of polishing with a guitar polish will leave all of the surface components of the pickup clean, polished, and shiny, and will prevent dirt and sweat from sticking to the pickups as easily!

For the pole pieces, apply a very small amount of silver polish to the top of the pole piece using a q tip. Then, like with the polish, let it dry for a minute or two.

Once it’s started to dry, polish it off with your microfiber cloth. You’ll be left with pole pieces that shine like new!

polished guitar pickups

How to clean guitar pickup covers

Some guitars are fitted with pickups that have metal pickup covers. Pickup covers help protect sensitive pickups from damage (and also affect how the pickup works).

The pickup covers prevent the pickups themselves from taking on too much dirt, grime, salt, dust, and sweat.

But, this means that all of this dirt ends up on the covers – and the material that these covers are made from collects this dirt very easily. 

Small smudges, sweat spots, dust, and minor dirt can make some pickup covers look filthy, so let me show you how to clean them.

Equipment needed for cleaning guitar pickup covers

To clean your guitar pickup covers, you will need:

  • Guitar polish (note: must be silicone and wax free)
  • Guitar strings
  • Lint-free microfiber cloths
  • White vinegar
  • Q-Tips

Here’s the equipment that I used with links to where you can buy them:

Equipment for cleaning pickup cover

Step 1: Remove the guitar strings

The first necessary step for cleaning pickups with covers is the same as the first step for cleaning exposed pickups: remove the guitar strings. 

Without removing the strings from the guitar, accessing the pickups and pickup covers are very difficult. Take the time to remove the strings before attempting to clean the pickups and covers, and the process will be much easier. 

Again, I use D’Addario NYXL guitar strings on all my guitars. You can pick up a pack here from Amazon.

D'Addario guitar strings (cleaning pickup)

If you don’t need to remove the strings entirely, loosen the strings and move them to the side, as we learned previously.

Top tip: While your strings are off, it’s a good time to clean your guitar fretboard.

Step 2: Clean the pickup cover thoroughly

Once the strings are out of the way, clean the cover thoroughly by polishing it with your guitar polish.

The polish should be more than enough to remove any dirt and grime on the covers, as they are typically made from materials that do not rust at all. 

I use D’Addario guitar polish on all my guitars as it’s great at removing surface dirt and getting a mirror shine on metal pickup covers. You can pick up a bottle here on Amazon.

Using polish to clean a pickup cover

Be sure to use a polish that does not contain wax, silicone, or petroleum, as these will leave a residue on the pickups and cause even more dirt to stick to them usually. Only use a polish that’s meant for cleaning guitars, as these will work well without damaging the hardware in any way.

Apply a small amount of the polish to your pickup, and buff it out with your microfiber cloth.

If the polish doesn’t remove all of the dirt, or if you have any rust, you can apply a very small amount of white vinegar to a q-tip and rub it into the rust.

Important: Don’t use excess amounts of vinegar on your pickup covers, as it may run down under the cover and cause severe damage to the hardware. 

This should begin breaking down the rust, allowing it to be wiped off. But, be sure not to let any run down the sides of the pickup, as it can damage the internal hardware.

After leaving the vinegar on for 30 minutes, wipe away any surface rust.

Using vinegar to clean a pickup cover

If this doesn’t work, then you might consider removing your pickup covers entirely and then soaking them in a white vinegar solution for a few hours – or just replacing them with new covers!

Step 3: Remove any residue from the pickup cover

Once the covers have been cleaned thoroughly, take the time to remove any leftover residue that may still be present and visible on the surface of the covers. 

Simply rubbing the covers with your microfiber cloth should be enough to get a clean surface finish and get the cover looking fresh and clean. 

Step 4: Polish the pickup cover

The final step here is always to do one final polish on the covers to make them look as clean as possible before installing a new set of strings. 

Apply a very small amount of the guitar polish to your pickup and spread it across the surface. Then, wait a minute or two for the polish to begin to dry – it’ll begin to appear hazy or filmy!

Pickup cover with polish

Next, rub off the polish with a clean microfiber cloth, using small circular movements. This will be enough to get them looking shiny and fresh, and ready for the new strings to be installed!

How to clean guitar pickups

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How to clean guitar pickups