There’s nothing more frustrating than plugging your guitar into your amp one day and hearing crackles and pops screaming out of your speakers, either from turning a knob or simply plugging in your quarter-inch cord.
This exact situation happened to me last week while demonstrating my wah-wah pedal to elementary students at my school. Because I couldn’t clean everything at that moment, I ended up having to find a quick video on YouTube to demonstrate.
Sometimes, those sounds are the result of failing hardware or bad wire connections. There are plenty of capable (and inexpensive) substitutes to electrical contact cleaners that are branded to be specifically made for guitars.
Before you fork out a large sum of money to your local repairman, try these simple DIY hacks at home. They are quick and simple, and can fix many hardware issues!
Table of Contents
- Causes for Snaps, Crackles, and Pops in Your Guitar Gear
- Cheap and Effective Products to Clean Your Guitar Electronics
- Procedure for Cleaning Pots and Switches
- Procedure for Cleaning the Output Jack
- Other Gear that Can Be Fixed with the Same Procedure
Causes for Snaps, Crackles, and Pops in Your Guitar Gear
Most often, those annoying crackling sounds come from dirt, dust, and oil in your switches, pots, and output jack.
“Pot” is short for potentiometer. They are the mysterious gizmos beneath your pickguard that your tone and volume knobs connect to and control.
You might not think much dust and grime can get through your pickguard to the wiring wizardry inside your guitar, but you’d be surprised!
A friend of mine working at a local music store told me he has found dozens of picks inside electric guitars while doing maintenance. If picks can work their way in, imagine how many dust molecules can too!
Cheap and Effective Products to Clean Your Guitar Electronics
‘Electrical contact cleaners’ are cleaning products made specifically for fine electronic mechanisms.
Many cleaners marketed for guitar maintenance can be very expensive. However, general cleaners are much cheaper, and many can be used as DIY alternatives for your guitar. But not every cleaning product is appropriate for electric guitars.
NEVER use WD40, bleach, vinegar, or water. WD40, bleach, and vinegar are strong enough to wash away impurities, but too corrosive to use with small guitar parts. Water takes too long to evaporate, and can cause rust.
I always use Caig DeOxit Faderlube, and so do many other guitarists I know. DeOxit is stored in a pressurized spray can and lasts for a very long time. CRC QD Electronic Cleaner can be a good alternative.
If neither DeOxit or CRC are available, 99% isopropyl alcohol (nothing less than 99%) or acetone (same as nail polish remover) can be used as substitutes. Both are liquids.
If you use a spray bottle, you should consider buying an extension straw if one isn’t already provided. A straw will help focus the liquid on one area, while a can without a straw will be messier.
If using Isopropyl alcohol or acetone, you will need something to dab it with. Cotton is okay, but could leave behind fibers. A fine-haired brush would be a better option, allowing for better reach without the risk of leaving hairs behind.
Procedure for Cleaning Pots and Switches
Let’s take some precautions first. When cleaning your guitar, make sure you are away from flames and other heat sources, and do it in an open space, preferably outside. All the cleaning materials listed above can have fumes, and some are highly flammable.
Onto our first step!
Before we can start cleaning, we need to actually access the pots and electronics, which are attached to the underside of the pickguard.
First, get your strings out of the way, either by removing them entirely or at least unstringing them from the headstock.
Unscrew the Pickguard
Next, unscrew the screws from the perimeter of the pickguard. However, DO NOT TOUCH the screws next to the pickups.
The pickups, like the other electronics, are connected directly to the pickguard. You will not need to bother with them while cleaning, but you do not want to make more work for yourself by taking them off.
Take Out the Pickguard
Once you have unscrewed the pickguard, GENTLY pull it up and turn it over. While the screws are out, there are still several wires attached to the guitar body (including one to the jack output). You may be able to turn the guard over, but remember it will still be tethered to the body with fragile wires.
Believe it or not, once you’ve got the pickguard loose, the hardest steps are behind you! The actual cleaning process is fast and simple. Make sure you have several rags on hand in case you spray or drip too much liquid.
Simply spray or dab into the space between the pots and the pickguard. The pots are the circular pieces of metal directly under the knobs.
After it has soaked for a few seconds, turn the knobs as far as they will go in each direction for several minutes. This lubricates all the surfaces of the pots, ensuring that every area is cleaned.
Once fully lubricated, let everything sit for a few minutes so the contact cleaner can dry. Sometimes I respray with a rag underneath so I can wash out any large debris.
Some of my friends actually rinse their guitars twice; first with CRC then with DeOxit. Though this approach costs more money using two cleaners, they say it helps your guitar stay cleaner for a longer period of time.
Put It Back Together
After cleaning, make sure everything is wiped dry and clean before screwing everything back into place.
Procedure for Cleaning the Output Jack
Cleaning the output jack is faster than cleaning the inside of the guitar. Spray or dab a Q-tip with your cleaning solution. While cotton can leave debris on the pots, since the jack has less surface area and more contact with air, I don’t think the risk is as bad.
Simply swab the Q-tip in and out of the jack several times. The jack is actually open on both ends, so make sure you push the Q-tip all the way through the other end.
You can also manipulate the jack itself to help with pops and crackles. Unscrew the plate from the guitar body and gently turn it over. Remember, there is still a wire connecting to the pickguard.
You will see the opening on the other end of the jack tunnel. Additionally, you will see a small metal tab making a large curve before ending with a short 90-degree turn. Gently pushing the tab’s end inward will make sure the plug fits securely without wiggling.
Other Gear that Can Be Fixed with the Same Procedure
This part is short and simple: any gear that uses output/input jacks, pots, or switches can be cleaned the same way.
Since guitar amplifiers and effect pedals have pots, if they have knobs and input/output jacks, they can be taken apart and cleaned with the same products and procedure. Just be sure to do research about their mechanics to ensure you don’t accidentally break them while opening them.
I try to clean my guitar every four to six months so that it can last longer and play better. Even if your guitar is not making weird sounds, regular cleaning is a great preventative action to keep gear from getting wonky.
It may not be super fun now, but hey, it’s more fun than having your gear bail during a live set!
Unfortunately, if these steps don’t fix cracking and popping, it may be time to invest in new pots or jacks. Even if you do a fantastic job cleaning your equipment, nothing is going to fix a piece of hardware that is inherently worn out or broken.
But look at the bright side – maybe with some research, you can find a better one and slightly increase your instrument’s quality!
Ultimately, taking good care of your equipment and being conscious about how you use it will determine how long you’ll use it. Treat it like an investment, be proactive – and of course, always, ALWAYS have fun!