It might surprise some but over the longer-term acoustic guitar strings tend to become one of the biggest expenses when it comes to acoustic guitars. Especially if you play regularly and are forced to change strings often. So today, we’re going to be looking at acoustic guitar string maintenance, and how to preserve the life of your strings (and save money) without sacrificing tone.
Key Points: How to maintain guitar strings
Wash your hands before playing and wipe down the strings after use with a microfiber cloth. Whenever changing strings also clean and condition the fretboard and if you go through strings regularly try coated strings which hold their tone and tend to last longer.
Wash your hands
I know, it sounds simple but do you always wash your hands prior to playing guitar?
This is something often discussed in the classical guitar world, but far less for acoustic guitarists. It isn’t always practical I know, but, if you can manage to do so, washing your hands will cut down on a lot of the natural oils and sweat and general grime left on your strings after playing, that would otherwise make their way into the string windings (unless using flat wound strings) and onto the fretboard.
Wiping down your strings
Another simple thing guitarists can do to preserve their strings is to wipe down the strings after use.
As noted above, when playing guitar sweat, dead skin cells and general grime from our hands is left on the strings and fretboard (not to mention the body of the guitar as well). If you don’t wipe down the strings after use that residue remains on the strings and builds up over time, each time you play the guitar.
The reason this is a problem is because sweat and natural oils from the skin contain salt.
Once evaporation occurs the salt remains and begins corroding anything metal within its immediate vacinity, including your guitar strings, tuners, and fretboard wires. If you play electric guitar this can also impact the hardware of the electric guitar including the bridge and saddles.
Salt is also bad for the fretboard and bridge and bridge pins of the acoustic guitar as it can cause the wood to lose moisture and dry out affecting the natural expanding and contracting process.
By simply wiping down the strings before we pick up the guitar we can cut down on a lot of that residue that would otherwise cause the strings to begin to corrode.
How to clean your strings
1. Firstly loosen the strings, so you can access the underside of the strings easily.
2. Next place a cloth or similar item under the strings against the fretboard.
3. Begin wiping down the strings with a microfiber cloth. I recommend keeping one of these, either in your guitar case or in the room you normally play guitar in.
Just wiping down the strings after playing will make a big difference, but if you really want to step things up apply a small amount of rubbing alcohol. Just take care to avoid this getting onto the fretboard (remember, use a cloth under the strings) as it can contribute to the fretboard drying out.
Use a string cleaner
There are many dedicated string cleaning products for string available, some of the best include:
- Music Nomad Premium String Cleaning Set
- Planet Waves XLR8 String Lubricant/Cleaner
- The Nomad Tool Set
These are specifically designed for guitar string maintenance and can reduce the time involved in cleaning your strings, but, you don’t really need to purchase a dedicated string maintenance product or tool if you prefer to use a microfiber cloth and if required rubbing alcohol.
Clean and Condition your fretboard
If you are changing your strings I also recommend cleaning your fretboard. I wouldn’t bother doing this unless changing strings but if you make a ritual of cleaning your fretboard every time you change your strings you will reduce the build up of grime on the fretboard which obviously also has a negative impact on your strings.
Most acoustic guitars utilize a rosewood fretboard. Rosewood is unsealed and therefore prone to a build up of grime and loss of moisture. This not only looks less than disireable but can also affect your playing.
It’s up to you if you are comfortable removing all 6 strings when changing strings. Some like to only remove 2 strings at a time to maintain tension on the neck. Personally, I prefer to remove all 6 strings to property clean and condition the fretboard and then check the intonation and action if things don’t feel right, but if you prefer, simply remove 3 strings at a time and clean the fretboard in sections.
Cleaning the fretboard
Before you begin, it’s a good idea to mask the nut and headstock and also the area surrounding the neck joint on the body to avoid getting cleaning product on the finish of the guitar. Start with warm soapy water and a clean rag and lightly dampen the rag and begin cleaning the fretboard by wiping it down. Don’t use too much moisture, for one it’s not needed and secondly it’s just a bad idea to saturate the timber of your guitar.
Pay particular attention to the areas on either side of the fret wires as this is the most likely place for grime to build up. This will also contribute to corrosion of the fret wires just as the strings so cleaning this regularly will also preserve your fret wires.
If you are finding the grime difficult to remove you can also try using an old toothbrush or similar brush to loosen some of the grime up before returning to the rag. Otherwise, very fine grade still wool is also useful, just be sure to wipe the fretboard down thoroughly to remove any remaining fibers once completed.
Conditioning the fretboard
There are any number of fretboard conditioning products available. Never use a household timber conditioner or polish. These are specifically made for furniture and in many cases will do more harm than good and may damage the finish of the guitar and may also lead to your fretboard drying out.
I personally use F-One oil from Music Nomad but based on popular opinion, any of the products specifically designed for fretboard conditioning will suffice. The method itself is fairly simple, apply a very small amount and begin wiping down the fretboard. Work in sections e.g. 4 to 5 frets at a time. You will see a major difference to begin with as the Rosewood absorbs the conditioner.
Don’t forget humidity
Humidity is an important concern for acoustic guitars. Too dry and the guitar can lose moisture content and increase the chances of cracks developing. Too much moiisture and the guitar can begin to lose tonality and sound dampened due to the higher moisture content in the wood soaking up some of the sound. Martin guitars, take this seriously, maintaining between 45-55 percent humidity in their factory for this exact reason.
High humidity also affects your guitar strings. Anytime you combine high moisture content with metal you are increasing the chances of rust developing and I’m sure if you have played guitar for any period of time you have experienced strings that have started to discolor and rust. You might even see the evidence on your hands after playing.
Lastly, regardless of how well you treat your strings they simply won’t last forever and at some stage will need to be replaced.
I’ve written an article here on how often you should change your strings, but this differs based on how well you treatyour strings and how often you play, and of course how much your hands sweat.
Rather than this being based on time, go by what your ears are telling you. You will notice when your strings lose their liveliness, generally the strings start to sound ‘dead’ and lose a lot of clarity compared to new strings. This is due to a build up of grime and oils that dampen the natural sound of the strings. This added mass reduces the responsiveness and sustain of the strings, making them sound dull and lifeless.
Below are some additional signs to be on the lookout for:
- The guitar feels unresponsive
- Tuning instability issues
- The strings look worn or tarnished
- Lack of sustain
- Visible grime on the strings
While some of these are obvious, it still pays to pay close attention to the state of your strings but use your ears as your guide mostly, and remember when changing strings to change the entire set each time or the guitar will being to sound unbalanced due to a mix of old, dead sounding strings, and new, bright sounding strings.
Can you boil guitar strings?
Yes. Eddie Van Halen famously used to boils his strings as he preferred the feel of older strings but wanted them to sound their best.
This isn’t something you can do over and over, as over time repeatedly boiling the strings will increase their chances breaking. But, you can boil your strings up to three times without any problems occurring.
Simply boil up a pot of water and leave your strings in the pot for approximately 10 – 15 minutes. Obviously take care when handling the strings after removing them from the boiling water and let them cool down before trying to reinstall on your guitar.
Use Coated Strings
Depending on your preferences (some guitarists prefer uncoated strings as they sound less dull) you might also try using coated strings, as coated strings have corrosion resistant properties and tend to last longer, maintaining their tuning stability and sustain.
Many manufacturers now use offer coated strings, including Ernie Ball, Elixir, and Martin. I personally prefer the sound of phosphor bronze uncoated strings but as they say every guitar has an ideal set of strings, so if unsure experiment, you might just find coated strings sound great. Coated strings have improved quite a bit over time as well, so in the past if you didn’t like how they sounded, it might also be worth your while giving them another try.
Guitar string maintenance is an important aspect for maintaining the tone of your acoustic guitar. It’s an often overlooked aspect but nontheless can keep your guitar sounding great for longer and reduce your running costs. The single most effective thing to do is also the least expensive, and that is to always wash your hands before playing your guitar and ensure you wipe down the strings after playing each and every time. Keep a microfiber cloth in the same room, or your case, and it will serve as a reminder and eventually become habit. Doing so will reduce many of the problems associated with grime, sweat and natural oils from occurring in the first place and cut down on the overall sets of strings you go through each year, leaving you more money for that next guitar acoustic guitar!