Why Do Some Guitarists’ Fingers Smell Like Garlic?

Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images / Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

It’s tough to be a cool guitarist when your fingers smell like garlic. It sounds odd, but a profusion of players have reported a stinky, garlic-like odor wafting from their fingers when they finish playing. What the heck is going on?

First, this is a real problem—especially in warm weather. Sweaty palms and even sweaty backs of the hands may be familiar, but some people also experience sweaty fingers. Just as no two fingerprints are alike, no two sweat gland formations are the same, and some fingers have larger and more sensitive sweat glands, according to researchers at Australia's University of Wollongong.

The combination of strings, wood guitars, and less than stellar hand-washing are the main contributors to this garlic smell. This is heightened if the guitarist uses metal or coated guitar strings, but even those who use traditional gut or silk strings may notice the same garlic smell because of sweat on the fret board and the wood.

How to Prevent the Smell

"I would always take a cloth—even an old T-shirt—and wipe the strings down,” suggests Richard Robinson, who has customized and repaired instruments at The House of Guitars in Rochester, New York for more than 40 years.

Besides that garlic smell, there are other reasons to clean the strings and your hands, says Robinson. “When I work on guitars I see the actual dirt and perspiration on the strings and finger boards. That’s what causes deterioration...I wish they would wash their hands."

There are several ways to clean the fret board, according to Robinson. One of the best is to use #0000 grade steel wool to wipe it down. Just be sure to cover the pickups on an electric guitar (or the sound hole pickups on an acoustic instrument) with painter's tape to keep them free of steel wool fibers, warns John LeVan, a guitar tech and author of Guitar Care, Setup & Maintenance.

Perhaps, most importantly, do not use household cleaning products on your strings or guitar. “Don’t use Windex,” says Robinson, who has heard guitar players recommend it to each other. “Some people use linseed oil, too, and that creates a gummy build-up. Avoid that. I know other people use lemon oil. A little bit is okay, but anything with citrus in it will eat the wood. And don’t use Pledge, either!” Guitar manufactures make cleaning products that are specially designed for the instruments, and it's wise to use those.

To borrow a tried-and-true phrase: Handwashing and guitar maintenance each day keeps the garlic smell away.