How To Clean Rusty Guitar Pickups

how to clean rusty guitar pickups

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Maybe you just bought a used guitar online and when it finally arrives, it’s in worse shape than you expected, with rusty pickup pole pieces, scratches on the cover and dust and dirt everywhere.

You want your new-to-you axe to look its best, so now you need to figure out how to clean rusty guitar pickups.

You can clean guitar pickups by brushing away loose dirt, then using a gentle cleaning solution or penetrating oil and a cotton swab or super fine abrasive to remove corrosion. Rust on a guitar pickup likely won’t cause any harm or change the tone, but it’s understandable to want to keep them looking good.

Let’s look at whether you should worry about rust at all, then go through the process of cleaning guitar pickup step by step, as well as look at why you need to understand how your pickups got dirty and rusty in the first place.

Does Rust Affect Guitar Pickups?

If you come across a guitar whose pickup is covered in rust, corrosion and scratches, your first question might be whether the pickup will work at all.

For the most part, though, they will. It takes a very specific kind of corrosion to actually affect how a guitar pickup sounds.

First, a quick note on terminology. Rust is a kind of corrosion, but not the only kind.

Rust specifically refers to the reaction where iron or steel corrodes and creates iron oxide, commonly known as rust. Other materials, from other metals to plastic and ceramics, can also experience corrosion, though.

For the most part, the kind of surface rust and corrosion you’ll find on old guitars, even quite battered ones, actually doesn’t affect the tone very much. There are a lot of variables to the strength of a magnetic field, and the tiny amount of material loss from rust is unlikely to swing things.

That is especially true if you find rust on the screw-adjustable pole pieces or the steel slugs on a Gibson-style humbucker pickup, for example. The real magnetic force of pickups comes from the magnets and winding, after all, as opposed to the screws.

There are some exceptions here, though. First, if the screws are so rusty you can’t adjust them, that could have a real impact on the sound, because you won’t be able to adjust string-to-string balance on the pickup.

Second, if the screws that adjust the height of the pickup get so rusty you can’t move them, you could run into similar issues.

Finally, if any screws are so rusty that they might be losing structural integrity, you should carefully replace them, in care they damage things by falling apart.

Even on a Fender-style single coil pickup, where the pole pieces are magnetic, corrosion is unlikely to make a difference, at least depending on the kind of magnet used.

The Alnico — short for what the magnets are made of, which is a combination of aluminum, nickel and cobalt — and ceramic magnets commonly used in guitar pickups are quite corrosion resistant. Other magnets, such as rare earth magnets like neodymium, are much more sensitive, and can lose magnetic strength quickly when corroded.

One place to be extremely careful about corrosion is the copper wire in the pickup windings. While most wire is coated with something to reduce corrosion, and things like potting a pickup also help prevent it, there are instances where moisture gets into the coil.

If you don’t catch that and get the pickup repaired, usually by re-potting the pickup, you might have to replace it, as corrosion in the coil can cause a pickup to fail as the magnetic field is interrupted.

If a pickup has a metal cover, it might also start to show signs of corrosion, which shouldn’t cause a problem, but might depending on the material.

To keep from interfering with the pickup’s coils, metal pickup covers should be made of a non-ferrous material — that is, not iron based, and therefore less likely to have a big effect on a magnetic field. The most common choices are nickel silver and brass, with each slightly altering the tone.

If you notice something that looks like rust on your guitar pickup cover, that could be a sign it’s made from ferrous metal. Try removing it and seeing if you notice a difference in tone.

This video looks at how pickup covers can affect tone.

How To Clean Corroded Guitar Pickups

Now that you’ve looked at what kind of rust and corrosion you’re dealing with, you need to make a decision: Do you want to clean them?

You definitely don’t have to. The longstanding popularity of so-called “reliced” guitars, where new guitars are artificially aged to make it seem like they’ve seen decades of road wear, shows that a bit of grunge and grime can be appealing.

As an aside, it also shows that you’re fine leaving your rusty screw pole pieces as they are, since you can buy a new pickup with a warranty that has the same rust on the screws.

How much more appealing is it, then, when that wear actually did come from use, as in the case of the theoretical used guitar I mentioned at the beginning? As long as the parts are working well, there’s a lot to be said for honest wear.

With that said, though, there’s a reason not every guitar sold is heavily reliced — many people think a clean and shiny guitar is the way to go.

As long as you’re careful, there’s no reason you can’t clean up your pickups and have your guitar looking fresh after just a bit of work.

  • Lay your guitar flat on its back and make sure its neck is well supported
  • Remove the strings — a newly shiny guitar deserves shiny new strings, after all 
  • Use a direct light source to carefully examine the pickups for damage
  • Using various sizes of brush, clear away any dust, dirt or other loose debris from the pickup, being sure to carefully brush everything away from other components
  • Use a microfiber cloth to wipe down the surfaces of the pickup
  • If you notice any residue on the pickup, use a small amount of a solvent like naphtha — sold as lighter fluid — on a cotton ball to wipe down the surface

How To Remove Rust And Corrosion From Guitar Pickups

Once the pickup is clean and free of loose debris, it’s time to focus on removing the corrosion. There are multiple methods you can use for this.

We’ll walk through the steps of one way and discuss some alternatives, as well.

  • Prepare the surface you’re going to work on by masking around the corroded or rusty parts using painter’s tape
  • If the pickup has adjustable screw pole pieces, make careful note of their position and then raise all of them until they are well proud of the surface of the pickup
  • Mix baking soda will a small amount of water to create a thick paste
  • Cover the surface of the rusty or corroded item with the paste
  • Use a toothbrush to scrub the surface of the part, using the paste as an abrasive
  • Wipe the paste residue away carefully and examine the part for more rust
  • Repeat as needed for each part
  • After you’ve removed the rust from the surface, move to a very fine abrasive, like super fine, 0000 grade steel wool or emery paper
  • When satisfied with the rust removal, clean the surface with a cotton ball soaked in naphtha
  • Finish the process by very lightly wiping down the pickup with a microfiber cloth impregnated with 3-in-1 oil or a similar lubricant, to help slow future corrosion

Baking soda and water mixed into a paste is one suggestion for a cleaner, but you have plenty of other options, as well. One way to try to remove surface corrosion is to dip a cotton swab into vinegar and carefully rub the swab onto the rusty part.

A commercial rust remover like Evapo-Rust is another option, and penetrating oil applied with a fine abrasive can work, too.

You need to be careful about both what you use to clean a guitar pickup as well as how you apply it. Chemicals like rust removers can make quick work of corrosion but they can also make quick work of your guitar’s finish or the chrome plating on your guitar’s bridge.

Rather than applying those kinds of chemicals directly to the pickup, dip a cotton ball or cotton swab in the liquid and gently brush it on the surface you’re trying to treat.

In addition to the damage the chemicals might do to the guitar, you also want to be careful because you’re working with liquids. Too much liquid will destroy the electronics of your guitar, and removing rust is pointless if you end up ruining the pickup or the entire guitar in the process!

There are some articles that suggest using a syringe to gently spread a mixture of lemon juice and salt on a pickup part to remove rust. While that mixture would work — the acid from the lemon juice and the abrasiveness of the salt would remove rust well — it’s also a bad idea to try.

A little bit of liquid can short out the connections of a pickup or it could cause a short somewhere within the coil. While you’re not likely to destroy your guitar using this method, it’s also tempting fate when there are just as effective methods that don’t involve applying liquid directly to the pickup.

How Can I Keep My Guitar Pickups From Getting Rusty?

Like I covered earlier, for the most part, you don’t have much to worry about when it comes to rusty and corroded guitar pickups because the corrosion is unlikely to cause permanent damage or affect the tone.

With that said, though, it’s important to understand what happens to the instrument to make sure everything stays in good shape.

One thing to understand is that just handling and playing a guitar can contribute to corrosion and rust. The oils from your skin and the chemicals in your sweat affect everything from the strings to the fretboard and the hardware, including pickups.

There isn’t a lot you can do about that, apart from making sure you wash your hands before you play and that you wipe down the instrument when you’re finished.

If you — or any of an old guitar’s many previous owners — neglected those things, then you’re likely to have issues like rusty and corroded pickups. A lot of things can make that worse.

Go back to the original idea of a used guitar bought sight unseen. If that guitar spent a long time sitting in the window of a smoky pawn shop, it’s going to be much rustier than one that was always stored properly.

If you’ve cleaned up a guitar thoroughly and don’t want to have to do that again, there are some things you can do to help.

  • Always store your guitar in a case, preferably a hard shell case that offers both physical protection and temperature and humidity protection
  • When putting your guitar away, cover the pickups with a soft cloth
  • When changing strings, brush away debris from the pickups and wipe them lightly with an oil impregnated microfiber cloth

Conclusion

A lot of things affect the tone of your guitar, from the strings you choose to your left and right hand technique to your pickup and amp choice.

It makes sense to think that the state of your pickups might change the tone, as well. After all, think of how great those worn-in guitars that inspired so many modern “relics” sound!

The truth is, though, most of those guitars sounded great when they were brand new and their state of cleanliness doesn’t really enter into the equation. But there are some situations where a rusty or corroded pickup might cause you some trouble.

For the most part, though, whether you want a rough relic with rusty pickups or a shiny, new looking instrument, your playing and the instrument itself are the biggest things that affect its tone.