Electrical Contact Cleaner

Cleaning Up Your Act

Though not particular to making music or playing the guitar, unwanted noise when turning dials and knobs or flipping toggle or blade switches has been, can be, and might always be, a problem for anyone involved in making adjustments to electronic/electric devices. Most things now have no physical connection needed in order to transmit data from one module or database, to another – technology communicating seamlessly, wirelessly – but many times even pieces of tech need to be plugged into something else in order to function as data gathering or storage devices.

And where there is physical, metal-to-metal contact, given the metals and substances used in connectors, there can be a problem with corrosion, dust or oxidation getting in the way and causing errors.

Weak and Noisy

The problem is especially true when dealing with sound-producing devices being hooked together. The great majority of electronic musical devices – guitars, basses, keyboards, even microphones and other collections of amplifying/sound reproducing systems, i.e. PA systems – still need plugs, jacks and some sort of cabling to interconnect them. Physical connectors, made of metal, allowing digital or analog signals to pass through.

But add time and oxygen in the air – or any other corrosive such as the salt and oils in perspiration – and these connections can become, well…less than optimal. Pick up an electric guitar or bass, plug it in, and perhaps you’ll hear that scratchy sound, that irritating extra noise that has nothing to do with music.

Or if your plugs and jacks in the instrument and amp are fine, sometimes you’ll turn a knob – either on the instrument or amp – and you might hear another scratching noise.

A Feverish Frustration

When I began playing electric instruments through an amplifier, the random (or sometimes not random) noise coming from scratchy volume and tone pots (potentiometers) was maddening. Luckily for me my father had been into electronics beginning in the 1930s or so, starting with the ‘crystal sets’ every boy apparently had in those days. He became a radio enthusiast, a HAM radio operator, was in the Signal Corps in the Army during the 40s, and afterwards worked in the telecommunications industry. His hobby and love in life was still, however, electronics and tinkering with all things electric.

–Which, in my case, afforded some experience in the cleaning of potentiometers and switches. He had an array of liquid (bottled), and aerosol contact cleaners to do the job. When I started playing electric guitar and bass and ran into the scratchy-pot problem I began borrowing some of these noxious solutions to clean the insides of the switches and whatnot.

And they did work.

The only thing was, they only worked for a limited amount of time. They seemed to clean – and dry – the contacts inside the potentiometers, and pretty soon carbon dust build-up from the contacts would again start creating noise.

Over the years, maybe 20, I tried all brands of contact cleaner available from radio parts shops and electronics stores. There was a certain amount of hope involved in each brand purchased, but I was always disappointed.

The problem was compounded when I discovered fuzz-boxes, distortion pedals, echo units, chorus pedals, flangers, volume and wah-pedals. All those plugs and jacks and connecting cables! It was a good thing I was handy with a soldering iron (another gift from my dad), but…really….

And when I finally had too many effects units to quickly setup at gigs or rehearsals and made my first and second pedal-boards, things got even worse: worse because now the pedals were screwed down to the board in close, compact proximity, and in order to squirt contact solution into the jacks and work the plugs in and out a few times, I had to basically disassemble the entire board.

The cleaners I had at the time did work, but it was something that needed to be done about once a week.

The Best

Years after I’d stopped actively gigging and had gotten into home recording, I found a brand of contact cleaner I’d never heard of before. It was mentioned on some home-recording site if I remember correctly. I ordered it, tried it, and, well, never used anything else since.

CAIG DeoxIT.

CAIG has an extremely wide range of cleaning/conditioning products for just about every imaginable application and industry, but I ordered a spray can of DeoxIT D-Series and one can of the DeoxIT Gold. That was it. I still have the first two cans I ever bought because though the stuff is expensive, it just lasts, and you won’t find yourself going through cans and cans of it. I only wish I’d discovered the brand back in the frustrating days of pedal-board maintenance, but better late than never, right?

And I think the reason the stuff lasts (I mostly just use the Gold, now) is because it doesn’t clean and dry the wipers and contacts: it cleans and conditions the internal working parts, preventing build-up and oxidation. Knobs turn more slickly, switches glide and don’t crunch; wonderful. And no noise. Oh, you’ll get a bit of clicks and whatnot depending on the actual age of the pots and switches, but other than that, it’s slick and sweet.

And quiet.

I don’t remember all the brands I’ve tried over the years – stuff from Radio Shack and various other electronics parts stores – but I’ll never spend another cent on anything else.

And, if like me, you have a few guitars or basses you’ve had stored away for a few years – or if you’ve just bought a fixer-upper to be a project guitar – one that spent a lot of time in smoky bars and clubs in the 80s – I still heartily recommend CAIG products to clean things up. I mean, most pots and switches don’t need replacing; just cleaning.

Doesn’t hurt to know how to solder though.

That’s it, and enjoy new-sounding potentiometers and switches with a little help from CAIG.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com