Electric guitar frets are generally made out of nickel. The good thing about nickel is that it doesn't rust, but it does oxidize. Over time the sweat from your fingers and the grease and dust from the fretboard show their wear on your frets. You may have noticed your frets turn a darkish, dull color over time. They can even turn green if you don't play your guitar for a long time. This discoloration is just the nickel fret oxidizing. No one wants to have dirty, dull frets, so how do you polish your frets to make them look new again? It's easy; let's get started.
It's important to protect your fretboard when you are polishing your guitar frets. The sandpaper, steel wool, and buffing wheels can damage or misshapen your fretboard if you are not careful. They can also damage your inlays. That is why I always tape off the fretboard before I polish guitar frets. I like to use 1/2" scotch tape for the lower frets and 1/4" tape for the higher frets. Here's the secret to taping off your fretboard. Stretch out a piece of tape and let it hang about an inch off both sides of the fretboard. Then tilt the against the fretboard on one side and snap/rip it off flush with the fretboard. This will leave one end of the tape hang off the edge of the fretboard, so you can easily remove the tape after you are done working on the frets. I also like to put one line of tape connecting the tape that is hanging off the fretboard.
Do not wrap the tape around the neck or down the side of the neck. I repeat! Do not do this. When you go to peel the tape off the edges of the fretboard and the back of the neck, it can actually remove or lift up pieces of finish. Trust me. You don't want this happening. Keep the tape on the fretboard and you'll be in good shape.
Many people use a hand sander or buffing wheel to polish their frets, but you don't have to. You don't actually need any tools-- just some sandpaper and steel wool.
After the fretboard is taped off, I usually like to hit the frets with a high grit sandpaper like 1,000-grit. This will take all of the built up oxidation off the frets a lot faster than the steel wool will. Just lightly sand the frets with 1,000 or higher sandpaper. You don't want to reshape the fret. All you want to do is knock off the oxidation. Be careful not to sand too much into the fretboard. Although 1,000-grit sandpaper is pretty mild, it can still sand through the tape and into the fretboard.
After a light sanding, I break out the steel wool. #0000 steel wool is the finest grade and will leave your frets looking the shiniest. Tear off a piece of steel wool about the size of a cotton ball and polish the frets until you can't see and lines from the sandpaper anymore. I usually polish the frets once with a dry piece of steel wool. Then I get a new piece and dip it in some Murphy's Oil Soap. This will lubricate the steel wool as you polish and it will brighten the fret.
This next step is totally optional. You should be able to get a nice polish on your frets with just some sandpaper and steel wool, but for those who want to take their polish to the next level you can use a buffing wheel. Since most people don't have access to a buffer or buffing wheel, you can get a tiny felt, buffing wheel attachment for a dremel tool. This will do the same thing. Put some compound on the wheel and buff the frets. Just be careful not to go too crazy with it. You can damage your fretboard or even the finish on the sides of the neck if you nick them with the dremel.
Your frets should have a high-glossy shine on them by now, so you can remove the tape on the fretboard. All you have to do is pull the tape that is hanging off the edge of the fretboard and the rest of the tape should come right off. Aren't you glad you used my taping secret?
I generally like to clean and condition the fretboard after I polish the frets. What is the point of having shiny frets without a nice clean fretboard? After the tape is removed, drip some oil soap on the fretboard. You can use the same piece of #0000 steel wool to rub the oil soap into the wood and clean the fretboard. Then wipe the excess oil soap off the fretboard with a rag. Make sure to wipe the frets off really well. You don't want to get the frets dirty right after you just cleaned them.
That's it! That's all there is to it. Your frets are shiny and polished. Your fretboard feels nice and conditioned and you didn't even have to buy any tools! I hope this article helped and hope your frets turn out great!
Do not use oil soap to clean frets on a maple fretboard. Do not clean a maple fretboard with oil soap either. The oil can stain the light colored wood. It will be almost impossible to get out. It's better to just polish the frets with dry steel wool.
Also, be extremely careful polishing frets on guitars with finished fretboards. You don't want the sandpaper or steel wool to scratch up the finish on the fretboard. Make sure you tape it off extremely well.