As you begin your guitar-playing journey, there are a few important questions that you will probably ask. One of the most essential for the health of your guitar and the quality of your sound will be: how often should I change my guitar strings?
As you have probably learned already, there are a lot of opinions surrounding the types of strings to buy and their proper use. In fact, it is one of the most divisive parts of playing the guitar. When and how you change your guitar strings will ultimately be a personal choice depending on factors like the type of sound you prefer and your budget (strings can get expensive).
Even with the debate over string changing, today we will give some important information about why to change strings and how to tell when your guitar strings need to be changed.
Why Do Strings Need to be Changed?
Many factors go into the deterioration of our guitar strings. Most importantly, guitar strings are (usually) made of metal. If you’ve ever seen rust on a car after a snowstorm, then you know how metals can corrode and rust.
Rust is less likely to be a problem with your guitar strings, but corrosion is inevitable. Corrosion is caused by a variety of substances and can eat away at your strings. This causes them to discolor, have thin spots (which increases the likelihood of breaks), and unravel.
Also, old strings, in general, sound less good, have trouble staying in tune, and can break at inopportune times—like in the middle of a concert.
How to Extend Guitar String’s Life
While having to change your guitar strings eventually is inevitable, there are a couple of things that you can do to extend your strings life.
- Wash your hands before you play
As mentioned above, corrosion will affect your guitar strings no matter what you do. One major source of moisture and acidic materials is our hands. Washing your hands and drying them thoroughly before you begin playing can help remove some of the substances that cause you guitar strings harm.
- Wipe down your strings before and after you practice
This is another way to protect against the corrosion of your strings. You will want to use a thin, micro-fiber or cotton cloth will work the best. This will help remove some of the corrosion-causing materials from your strings. The ultimate goal here is to prevent a build-up of unwanted dust, grit, etc.
You can buy guitar specific cloths like Planet Waves’ Micro-Fiber Polish cloth or Moozikpro’s Polishing Cloth—Better Than Microfiber. But, any cloth that you would use to dust your house or clean your car would work perfectly fine (as long as it’s clean, of course.)
- Use a conditioner on your strings
String conditioners can help slow down corrosion on your guitar strings by putting a layer of oil on the string surface. You put a little of the product on a clean cloth—see above—when you wipe down your strings after playing. Some of the best companies for string conditioners include Dunlop, Music Nomad, and Planet Waves.
- Use coated strings
Strings corrode at different rates, the ones that corrode the slowest are coated strings. Some people swear by coated strings since they mean that you don’t have to change strings as often. However, coated strings do affect your sound, so your choice to use them or not will have an aesthetic component as well as a practical one.
How to Tell When Strings Need to be Changed
There are a number of ways that you can tell when it’s time to change your guitar strings. Remember there are no hard and fast rules. But, in general, if your strings exhibit any of the following characteristics, you may want to consider changing them for new ones.
A string breaks
This one is obvious. If a string breaks you will need to replace it. You can choose to either replace the broken string or the whole set.
Your decision will be determined by where you were when the string broke. If it breaks in the middle of a performance, then change that one string and keep playing. If it breaks at home, then you may want to consider changing all of your strings.
A dull tone
Old strings will have a very dull and muted tone the older they get. This can take the form of less harmonic reverberation or just a lackluster response to your playing. Some people prefer this sound, especially those that play rhythm guitar or jazz. But, if you want a bright tone, you will have to change your strings more often.
Dirty, discolored, or flaking strings
Dirty feeling strings are a sign that you have a lot of unwanted build-up, which means you should make a change. Dirty strings feel rough and have a lot of friction when you slide your fingers down them.
As string corrode they turn black, which is a sign that they need to be changed. Coated strings do not change color, but the coating will begin to flake off.
Kinks in your strings
The metal in your frets and the metal in your strings rubs against each other as you play. Eventually this contact will where the string down where it is in contact with the fret. The kinks that result cause problems with your tone and can make it easier for the string to break.
It has been a long time since you changed your strings
If it has been over a year since you changed your strings, you will probably want to put new strings on your guitar. Likewise, many guitarists prefer to change their strings before a performance, which can help their tone and cut down on the possibility of breakages.
How to Change Your Strings
Changing your guitar strings is easier than it sounds. Every player has a slightly different system, which varies depending on whether your strings are steel or acoustic. But, we’ve listed a good basic procedure for people just getting started changing their steel guitar strings.
- Loosen your old strings by turning the tuners. Then remove the strings by continuing to loosen them until they can be pulled out of the tuning pegs. You can also cut them to speed up this task.
- Remove the bridge pins underneath the sound hole of the guitar. You may need a pair of pliers or tweezers for this step.
- Remove the strings completely.
- If you remove all of the strings at once, you can use the opportunity to clean your fretboard. For this you should use only guitar specific cleaner. Do not just use generic cleaner you have around your house, as this could damage the wood of your instrument.
- Decide which order you will replace the strings. Since you can only put one string on at a time, you should either go from the bottom to the top or the top to the bottom. We don’t recommend that you start putting the strings on in the middle of the fretboard.
- Put the knobby end of each string into the peg hole and then put the bridge pins.
- Stretch the string to the top of the guitar and insert the end into the hole in the key peg.
- Tighten the peg to put tension on the string. You don’t need to tune yet, you just want enough tension so that the string will not fall out of the peg. Always turn the peg to the right when tightening.
- Put the rest of the strings on the guitar.
- Tune to your normal pitches.
- You may need to cut the excess off of some of the strings using wire cutters. Make sure to leave about 1/8 of an inch behind.
Note: It may take a little bit of playing for your new strings to break in and keep the tuning correctly. This is to be expected and does not mean that you did something wrong.
At the end of the day, it is up to you as to how often you change your guitar strings. Only you can know the idiosyncrasies of your guitar, playing habits, and ideal sound. You could be like many guitarists and only change a string when it breaks. Or, you could change your strings every day. In general, most experts recommend the following timeline:
- Change daily if you play more than 10 hours a day
- Change weekly if you play more than 50 hours a week
- Change monthly if you play more than 100 hours a month
- Change every 2-3 months or at 100 hours, whichever comes first
- Change every six months if you play more than 200 hours per six months
- Change yearly if you only play 200 or more hours a year.
Most amateur players will fall in the middle of this timeline and should probably consider changing their strings every 2-3 months. However, as mentioned above, how a when you change your strings is a personal decision. There is no one right or wrong answer.