Updated: May 5
I have recently noticed that many bassists don't clean their fingerboards and leave massive build-ups of finger residue all up and down the playing surface. It's disgusting, especially when you play someone else's instrument and get stuck in the middle of a shift by a speed bump-sized glob of gray finger filth. Revolting, I know.
Clean your fingerboard.
What's The Best Way To Clean My Fingerboard?
There are a few ways to do this, some of which involve chemicals. I personally forgo those methods in favor of one less expensive and less risky: steel wool. The only catch is that the steel wool must be grade 0000 super-fine. Anything coarser is likely to damage your fingerboard (or your hands). You can buy a fairly substantial bag of this stuff at any Lowe's, Home Depot, Walmart, etc. for around five dollars and it was last you a lifetime. Maybe two.
Cleaning the fingerboard is as simple as taking a piece of steel wool and rubbing it along the built-up area until all the gunk is gone. Be advised that this method results in a good deal of dust from the steel wool being thrown around, so keep a towel nearby to clean it up. See photo below.
Now, you may notice some lines and dings on this fingerboard. Rest assured those were already there and not from anything I did. The bass I used to demonstrate this process was, ahem, a "characterful" instrument with a "well-loved" fingerboard that hadn't been cleaned or maintained in a long time.
Why Not Just Use Cleaners/Chemicals?
You could, but many cleaning solutions smell bad, cost more than steel wool, and might damage your varnish if spilled on the instrument. I would also be hesitant to leave a bottle of cleaner in my bass case- a piece of steel wool, which weighs less and won't spill, can be easily carried in a small bag and stored in the extra pocket of your case.
Do Other People Use This Method?
Yes. I know other bassists, guitarists, and luthiers who suggest cleaning your fingerboard this way.
What Else Can I Do To Keep My Fingerboard Clean?
Simple things like washing your hands before playing and wiping down your strings/neck/fingerboard are great ways to help minimize build-up and preserve the well-being of your instrument. Those with oily skin might be at a slight disadvantage in that regard, but following the same steps can help avoid some of the massive lines of finger dirt.
Keeping your bass in good playing order isn't something that needs to be difficult. Basic steps, inexpensive materials, and some occasional elbow grease are all that is necessary to maintain an instrument that is happy, healthy, and free of sticky patches of finger grease.
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