There’s lots of information out there on how to do specific procedures on your guitar, but there’s really no high level, bird’s-eye overview of what you can expect over the next 20+ years that you’ll own your guitar.
Before You do Anything Else
If you just bought a new guitar (and especially if you ordered it online), have your guitar set up properly by a qualified guitar technician or music store. If you don’t know what a “setup” is, check out my article:
Getting a setup will ensure your guitar is as physically easy to play as possible. That way you can focus on learning instead of physically fighting the guitar.
A setup will run about $40 – $60 depending on where you go.
If you bought your guitar in a music store, they may have already done a setup for you. If you’re unsure, call them and confirm by asking: “Did my guitar get a full setup before I brought it home?”
Good guitar stores will perform a full setup and install new strings as part of the purchase price. You’ll usually know if they’ve done this, because rather than letting you take the guitar home right off the wall, they’ll tell you they need anywhere from a few hours to a few days to get the guitar ready. Most of the time, that means they’re doing a setup for you.
Every Time You Play
Wash your hands. Even if you think your hands are clean, wash ‘em anyway. It’s okay if you occasionally forget, but the more diligent you are about washing your hands before you play the cleaner your strings, fretboard, and frets will stay and the less work you’ll have to do later.
Check yourself. If you care about your guitar’s finish, double-check yourself for things that might scratch the guitar like buttons, bracelets, rings, zippers, belt buckles, etc.
Tune up. Check the guitar’s tuning, and tune it if needed. It’s easy to be lazy and settle for playing a guitar that’s slightly out of tune but, it’s a bad habit to get into. Just tune. It only takes a minute and the more you do it, the better and faster you’ll get at it.
Wipe the neck and strings. With a clean, soft, dry cotton rag or microfiber cloth, give the neck and strings a quick wipe. Keyword: quick. This shouldn’t take more than about 30 seconds. To see exactly how this is done (and how easy it is), see my article:
Wipe the body. With a different (soft, cotton or microfiber) rag, wipe the spot on the front edge of the guitar where your forearm was resting during play. No guitar polish is needed–simply fog the area with your breath and wipe… repeating 2-3 times. If you like to play guitar with your shirt off, you’ll want to wipe the back of the guitar too. Basically, wipe anywhere there was skin-to-guitar contact.
Wipe metal bridge components. If you’re playing an electric guitar with a tremolo or metal bridge parts, it doesn’t hurt to give them a quick wipe as well, to prevent buildup of corrosive sweat and salts that our hands leave behind. If you have metal volume/tone knobs, wipe those too if you touched them. Even if the metal parts are black or coated in some other color or finish, wipe them anyway.
Every 4 – 6 Months
Remove Old Strings
To be clear, 4-6 months is really just a “ballpark” time frame for changing strings. How often you should actually change strings depends on how much you play and other factors. For a more precise guide on how often to change your guitar strings, have a look at my article:
Wipe the Fretboard, Frets, and Back of the Neck
While all the strings are off, take this opportunity to give the fretboard, frets, and the back of the neck a quick wipe with a clean, soft, dry cotton rag. Keyword: quick. This is not meant to be a deep cleaning. We want to get through this string change and get back to playing asap. You should be able to do all these tasks in under 5 minutes.
First, lay the cloth on the fretboard and run it quickly up and down the fretboard a couple times, end-to-end. If there are any spots that are especially dirty, wrap the cloth over your finger and give those spots special attention, rubbing with the direction of the woodgrain. If you can’t quite get it all off, don’t worry. You’re going to do a more thorough fretboard cleaning at the 1-year mark anyway. Next, quickly buff each fret. Lastly, give the back of the neck a quick wipe as well.
Brush Dust & Dirt Off Body & Headstock
Next, carefully brush or blow off any loose dust, dirt, hair, etc. that’s sitting on the surface. If you use a brush, don’t use a standard paint brush–most aren’t quite soft enough for a glossy guitar finish. My favorite brushes for sweeping away surface debris are a women’s powder brush or a specialized tool like the Music Nomad String, Body, and Hardware Cleaning Tool.
If you don’t have a very soft brush, you can get by with just blowing in really short, hard bursts. The key is to remove the big nasty stuff first, so you don’t just smear it around and potentially scratch your glossy finish.
Give the Body a Quick Wipe
Using a different rag than the one you used to wipe the fretboard, frets, and neck, give the body a quick rubdown. A soft microfiber cloth is my first choice for this, but my next-favorite type of cloth for general cleaning and polishing are 100% cotton cloth baby diapers. No joke. Wash and dry baby diapers 2-3 times before you use them on your guitar to ensure maximum softness (never use fabric softener when washing any guitar rags).
You can follow-up with a good guitar polish if you choose, but guitar polish really isn’t necessary at this stage.
Install New Strings
Once the basic cleaning is done, string it back up with a new set of strings, and don’t forget to stretch them thoroughly so they’ll stay in tune. If you don’t know how to stretch strings you can read my tutorial:
If it’s an electric guitar, set intonation if necessary. If your intonation was fine before the string change and you’re using the same brand and gauge fo strings, then you’re probably fine and don’t need to set intonation.
There’s more guitar info here: Lifetime Guitar Maintenance Schedule [The Definitive List] (guitaranswerguy.com)