Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore onstage with one of his many sticker-covered Jazzmaster® guitars. Stickers are easy to apply to an instrument, but not so easy to remove cleanly and neatly.
Let’s say you’re one of those highly individual guitarists or bassists who likes to personalize your stringed weapon of choice by plastering it with stickers. It’s a great way to make your instrument a distinctive one. It’s also fun, and it makes a certain statement about you as an artist.
Putting them on is easy—you just slap a sticker on and you’re in business.
Getting them off, on the other hand is not so easy, and considerably less fun than putting them on. Removing stickers that you don’t want on your guitar any more can be tricky to do without harming the guitar’s finish. For one thing, simply peeling them off is seldom if ever accomplished cleanly and in one piece. And peeling always seems to leave icky and unsightly adhesive residue on the guitar surface.
Probably the best way to remove stickers from a guitar without harming the finish—residue and all—is to use naphtha, which works well on all finish types, including nitrocellulose lacquer. The term “naphtha” actually refers to several rather volatile liquid hydrocarbon mixtures. Common products made with it include lighter fluid for wick-type lighters such as Zippo lighters, shoe polish, various cleaning fluids and solvents, and fuel for portable stoves and lanterns (camping gear, mostly).
You can get naphtha at hardware stores and even in some grocery stores. But by all means, be careful with it. The stuff is highly flammable—no surprise, since it’s basically lighter fluid. So do not use it near an open flame.
All you need to do is take a small piece of cloth and saturate it with naphtha. Then gently rub the sticker and surrounding area (letting the cloth sit on the sticker for a few seconds can help loosen the adhesive). If you must peel the sticker, do so slowly and gently, because peeling can also lift the finish, too. Better to not peel the sticker at all.
Paper stickers will pretty much turn into sticky gunk that can be wiped away fairly quickly and easily; vinyl stickers will require a little more time and effort. Naphtha should do the trick in both cases, though.
Once a sticker is gone, it’s possible that the finish surrounding where the sticker used to be will appear lighter. That’s because a guitar’s finish will gradually fade and lighten to some extent with exposure to sunlight and fluorescent lighting, while the unexposed finish beneath the sticker retains whatever (darker) color and shade it had when the sticker was applied. Little to be done about that short of having the entire guitar refinished, but the finish itself should remain unharmed by this sticker removal method.