How to Sand a Sticky Guitar Neck

How to Sand a Sticky Guitar Neck

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you own a guitar that you are overall quite happy with, but you don’t play it as much as you want because it has a gloss neck with a sticky feel. Your fretting hand keeps ‘catching’ the neck as you try to slide it along, and at times playing the guitar can be a frustrating experience.

This is commonly referred to as sticky-neck syndrome. It mostly occurs on guitars with a gloss finish, and it makes it more difficult to precisely position the fretting hand. This especially happens when the hand is slightly sweaty.

On one of my guitars, the Epiphone LP Tribute Plus, I had the same problem. By sanding the finish on the back of the guitar neck I was able to fix it and significantly increased the guitar’s playability.

Close-up of high-gloss polyurethane lacquer on the back of a guitar neck.

Before showing you how to sand the guitar neck, I will give some more information and answer several frequently asked questions:

How to fix sticky-neck syndrome

To fix the sticky guitar neck, we need to make the surface of the neck more coarse. We can do this by lightly sanding the finish. A coarse surface makes it more difficult for the skin to stick to the lacquer. Without the skin sticking to the lacquer, the fretting hand can move more easily along the neck.

What do you need to sand the guitar neck?

The most important thing are the Micro-Mesh Sanding Sheets. These are cushioned abrasive sheets that allow for very uniform sanding.

The Micro-Mesh sheets consist of a flexible cloth with silicone carbide grit. The flexible cloth makes it perfect to fold around a guitar neck. The sheets are also less messy than sandpaper, which often has the grit coming off during sanding.

The rest of the tools and materials are listed further down the page.

Can you use steel wool to sand the guitar neck?

In theory, yes. Some people successfully use fine steel wool to make the lacquer finish more coarse.

However, when using steel wool to sand, a lot of the fine steel wool fibers come loose. If these steel fibers end up on or around the pick-up magnets of an electric guitar they can cause problems, are very hard to remove.

Therefore, for sanding the neck of an electric guitar I do not recommend using steel wool.

Another reason not to use steel wool is that the final coarseness of the finish is easier to control with Micro-mesh sheets or even sandpaper, which usually come in packs with a variety of grits.

Is the sanding reversible?

Yes, the entire process is reversible, as long as not too much of the lacquer is sanded off. The remaining lacquer can be sanded back to a gloss finish with finer and finer grits and a polishing compound.

The downside of re-polishing the lacquer is of course that the neck will get its stickiness back.

I don’t care if it is reversible. Can I just sand the lacquer down to the wood?

Yes, you can. You can use coarse grit Micro-Mesh sheets to remove the entire gloss finish and sand down to the wood.

Does this also work for other finishes, such as nitrocellulose lacquers?

As far as I know, yes. I only have experience sanding necks with polyurethane lacquers however.

How to sand a sticky guitar neck

What you’ll need

Preparing the guitar

The back of the guitar neck on a Les Paul Tribute Plus electric guitar.
Start by placing the guitar face-down on the guitar neck rest. You can remove the strings or keep them on, it is fine either way. If the guitar neck is particularly dirty I recommend wiping it down at this point to remove sweat, dirt and grime.

Taping off the headstock and body

Two hands applying blue painter's tape on the headstock of a guitar.
Tape off the headstock above the neck. We only need to sand the neck, so to make sure that we do not sand too far we cover off the areas that we do not want to sand. Blue painter’s tape works well for this. The 3M brand does not leave any residue.
Close-up of a high-gloss back of a Les Paul Tribute Plus guitar with blue painters tape covering the neck joint area.
Tape off the body near the neck. One layer of painter’s tape should be enough.
The back of a guitar neck with blue painters tape applied on either end to prepare for sanding.
The guitar neck is now ready to be sanded. If you want, you can also tape off the fretboard binding at this point. I did not do this because it seemed like more trouble than it was worth. In the end it turned out fine with the fretboard binding lightly sanded as well.

Sanding the neck

A stack of Micro-Mesh sanding sheets next to a black bowl of soapy water.
Prepare a bowl of soapy water. The Micro-Mesh sanding sheets can be used dry or wet. I recommend wet sanding with them.
The water acts as a lubricant and keeps the sanding residue in suspension. It also prevents the sanding residue from clogging the sanding sheets too much.
A hand holding a Micro-Mesh sanding sheet and sanding lacquer on the back of an electric guitar neck.
Start by sanding the neck with a 2400-grit Micro-Mesh sheet. To wet the sheet dunk it briefly into the water/soap mixture. After that, use circular motions to sand the polyurethane finish all along the neck. Using light pressure while sanding is enough. We do not want deep scratches or to take too much of the coating off.
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The Micro-Mesh grit sizes are different from regular sandpaper grit sizes. Here you can find a conversion table. This is not relevant to the rest of this article, but it is useful to keep in mind when using the Micro-Mesh sheets in other projects.
A hand holding a Micro-Mesh sanding sheet covered in white polyurethane lacquer residue.
Regularly rinse the Micro-Mesh sheets. The sheets clog up with sanding residue over time. To make sure that the abrasive surface stays in contact with the lacquer, I suggest rinsing them often.
A hand using a cloth to wipe away polyurethane lacquer sanding residue from a sanded guitar neck.
Wipe down the back of the guitar neck frequently. The best option for this is a microfiber cloth.
Wiping down the neck removes the sanding residue. It also prevents the neck from getting too wet over time. It is important to not have any water drip down towards the fretboard.

Moving up in grit

A hand holding a used 4000-grit Micro-Mesh sanding sheet in front of a guitar.
Each time all of the scratches from the previous grit are sanded away, move to the next finer grit. I ended up sanding the neck up to 4000 grit (2400 -> 3200 -> 3600 -> 4000).
At 4000 grit the neck felt smooth, but not sticky. This is what I was looking for, so this is where I stopped sanding.

Cleaning up

The back of a sanded matte guitar neck on an Epiphone Les Paul Tribute Plus electric guitar.
Wipe down the neck one last time and check the end result. If you run your thumb over the gloss lacquer on the body and then over the sanded neck, the difference in feel should be very clear. It should be easy to drag the thumb over the neck.

After this, it is just a matter of removing the painters tape. There will be a clear contrast visible between the sanded and unsanded portions of the guitar. If that is an issue, you can always blend the transition line by sanding it gently.

In order to revert the lacquer finish back to the original gloss state, you can polish it with the finer Micro-Mesh sheets (6000 -> 8000 -> 12000 grit). If necessary, you can also use a polishing/buffing compound afterwards.

A summary of the sanding process

  1. Wipe the guitar neck down to remove any sweat and dirt.
  2. Tape off the headstock and guitar body near the neck.
  3. Prepare a bowl of soapy water.
  4. Wet sand the gloss finish with a 2400-grit Micro-mesh sheet.
  5. Gradually move up in grit until the desired finish is reached.
  6. Wipe the neck down to remove any sanding residue.
  7. Rock on!

Conclusion

As you can see, it is not too hard to fix sticky neck syndrome yourself. With Micro-mesh sheets and a bit of elbow grease, sanding the neck finish takes about 30 minutes. The process is reversible as well, as long as you don’t sand too much of the finish off.

I only had to do the sanding once on my guitar neck. The effects have so far lasted over a year.

2 thoughts on “How to Sand a Sticky Guitar Neck”

  1. Thanks, this is great information. I’m considering trying it on my Epiphone LP. One question – when you were finished sanding, was there a sharp contrast between the sanded surface and the original gloss surface where the neck was taped over near the headstock? In other words, did you find that the line between the satin and gloss regions was subtle, or did it stick out like a sore thumb? Thanks again!

    1. Hey Tom! There definitely was a contrast on my guitar. If you want to prevent that, you can simply blend the transition with some light sanding after removing the tape.

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