I am new to the guitar and have been practicing playing acoustic guitar on a regular basis. Whilst I am still building calluses on my fingertips and getting used to the pain I have also noticed that my fingers and tips are often stained a blackish gray after playing.
I wasn’t quite sure why this was, so I did some research to find out why and if there was anything I could do about it.
Why Do My Fingers Turn Black When Playing The Guitar?
There are three reasons why your fingers and fingertips turn black when playing guitar:
- Stain from the fretboard which contains black dye.
- The type of guitar strings react with your body chemistry or humidity in the air.
- Dirt buildup on the strings
Many new guitarists choose a guitar that has steel strings and a fretboard that may contain black dye, but how do you know which ones will stain your fingers? And what can you do about it?
There are actually a number of factors to consider and ways to establish what is causing the issue. Once you know this you can eliminate the staining or reduce how much it happens.
Why Your Fingers Turn Black
Ebony & Rosewood Fretboards
Some guitars have an ebony fretboard but there are varying degrees of quality of ebony. When you spend a lot of money you will get often the purest form of ebony (older trees from high altitude) which means less brown and gray streaks that naturally occur in the wood.
In order to give the appearance of a uniform finish and make the guitar look more expensive guitar manufacturers dye the fretboard.
The quality of ebony used in the manufacture of the guitar will often dictate how much dye is on the fretboard. So as a general approach to a new guitar, a cheap guitar = more dye that will rub off on your fingers (ebony does not have a finish applied to it)
The dyes used during manufacture tends not to be waterproof. So when you perspire you fingertips become damp and then react to the dye used on the wood. As a result the dye comes off the fretboard on to your fingers, and as you move up and down the fretboard you will rub and spread that dye over the strings.
Rosewood freboard guitars are often dyed to look like ebony so the same issue can occur with dye on your fingers and spread across the strings.
Typically the type of strings that cause staining to the fingers and fingertips are:
- Bronze (Brass) – 80& Copper and 20% tin (Which is actually brass, bronze is misnomer)
- Phosphor Bronze – Copper alloy wrap wire with 8% tin and some phosphorous.
- Aluminium Bronze – Copper and aluminium
- Silk and Steel – These tend to now be nylon wrapped around a steel core wrapped with silver plated copper.
- Steel and Nickel – Some are pure steel or pure nickel and others, usually the top three strings are steel but nickel plated.
The gray / black tinge you get on your fingers comes from oxidation from the moisture in your fingers or the humidity in the air reacting with the tin, nickel and chromium.
The green tinge you might get on your fingers comes from oxidation due to the copper / copper alloy.
The harder you play the more evident it will be but dont panic, you can wash it off your fingers with warm soapy water.
Build Up Of Dirt
Playing a guitar overtime causes a build up in dirt on the strings and the fretboard.
If you’re not cleaning your hands before you play then this is likely to happen quicker. Dirt will build up in the grooves of the strings, eventually corrode, and this can damage your fretboard.
It is recommended to change the strings when you first buy a second hand guitar as you do not know whose hands and what was on them was playing it before you.
How To Test What Is Causing Your Fingers To Turn Black
If you own a guitar with a fretboard made of rosewood or ebony then you will need to take the strings off. You can then rub the fretboard with a microfibre cloth, if any dye comes off then you know that the issue lies here.
If this is the case then take the time to replace the strings so that any dye that may have ended up on the strings will not transfer back to your newly cleaned fretboard.
If you rub down the fretboard and no dye comes off or you know that you don’t have a rosewood or ebony fretboard then the issue lies with the strings.
If it is the strings you can try cleaning them first. You don’t need to spend money on commercially made string cleaner you can simply do the following:
- Firstly: Use a slightly damp face cloth, fold it and run it up and down the strings lightly 3 or 4 times from saddle to nut and back and this will take a lot of the dirt of.
- Secondly: Grip each string tightly with the cloth around it and move up and down the string from saddle to nut and back.
- Thirdly: open up the face cloth and slide it up and down behind the strings from saddle to nut and back.
How To Stop Your Fretboard and Strings from Making Your Fingers Turn Black
Cleaning your fretboard with a solution that contains mineral oil like Fastfret may act as a solvent for the dye. So when you ‘clean’ it may make the situation worse. It can lift off some of the dye and then by rubbing the fretboard you are moving around the dye and not actually dealing with the issue.
As mentioned earlier, your guitar may have a lot of dye that was applied during the manufacture.
Steps to eliminate dye coming off:
- Remove the strings
- In a well ventilated area, rub the fretboard down between each fret with a paper towel or low pile microfiber cloth and a very small amount of Naptha lighter fluid. This will remove the excess of dye.
- The Naptha lighter fluid will evaporate within seconds and then you are free to apply an oil dressing (contains linseed oil)although real ebony doesn’t require it.
If you are cleaning a rosewood fretboard this might be a better choice as it does not contain linseed oil which tends to darken the wood over time as it oxidises).
- The oil dries within 24 hours and will then be smooth to the touch.
- Fit new strings (this way you eliminate the issue of any dye on your strings getting back on your hands or your newly oiled fretboard).
- You are now ready to play
The type of strings can affect how much staining you get on your fingers as previously mentioned.
To prevent this from happening the best method would be to use coated strings. These are strings that are coated with teflon. This prevents direct contact with the fingers and so there is no build up of grime and the sweat of the fingers and humidity of the air cannot react with the strings.
So the benefit is that they last longer, won’t stain your fingers and the noise from sliding fingers is reduced as the grooves of the strings are no longer in contact with the fingers.
The strings will, however, alter the tone of the sound generated when playing as they have reduced power and sustain.
If you are beginner you are unlikely to notice much of a difference in the sound and if you have ‘acidic’ fingers which we talk about in another post, then you will likely notice the benefit and durability of these type of strings.
Wash your hands before each time you play. Making sure that there is no grime and dirt on your fingers will prevent quick build up on the strings and fretboard. This will prolong the life of the strings so that you will not have to pay for new sets as often.
If you want a product to extend the life of the strings, help with callouses and speed up your movement up and down the fretboard then try this Finger ease product. It is highly rated by many for a reason.
Once applied this coating also means that it stops direct contact of the moisture in your fingers with the strings, which for those people that have high acidity in the fingers is of great benefit.
This also means you don’t have to use the coated strings if you have acidic fingers, it effectively changes all strings in to ‘coated’ strings without changing the tone of sound.
Why Do My Fingers Turn Purple When Playing Guitar, Is This Related?
If your fingers turn purple it is unlikely to be the fretboard or strings. It is more likely to be ‘pooling of blood’ in your fingertips which could be down to a number of reasons. It could be down to technique and too much pressure on your finger tips, circulatory problems, medication or just due to older age when you tend to bruise easier. If you suspect circulatory problems then you will need to seek the advice of a competent physician.
How Do I Prevent Black Dye Coming Off The Fretboard In The Future ?
Keep you guitar in a hard case with a guitar humidifier / dehumidifier. This will prevent changes in the natural humidity affecting the dye in the fretboard. Also make sure you clean your hands each and every time before you play. When you need to replace your strings, make sure you take the opportunity to clean down the fretboard.