It’s no secret that older acoustic guitars tend to sound better with age, however, the same cannot be said for acoustic guitar strings, which tend to sound dull and more difficult to play as they age. With this in mind, how often should you be changing your strings?
The time between string changes differs based on how often you play and if you are practicing or performing. If you play live you are going to be changing your strings every show. If you play guitar at home, you may be able to get away with changing your strings every 2 – 6 months. If you don’t play regularly you can leave them on until you break a string.
It’s impossible to give an answer that will apply to all guitarists.
Even within the groups listed above, there are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to restringing e.g. coated v non-coated strings, string gauge, how much you sweat, how well you maintain your strings, how many hours per day you play, and your preferred tone.
In the following article, we’re going to discuss how often you should change your guitar strings. We’ll also discuss what causes string deterioration and how to make your strings last longer.
What causes guitar strings to age?
The rate at which your strings deteriorate depends on several factors, including:
- How often do you play guitar?
Playing increases the chances of breaking a string (duh). Your playing style will also impact how much wear and tear your guitar strings may endure.
- Do you maintain your strings?
Do you use a string cleaner or string conditioner? Do you wipe your strings down after use?
- How much sweat do your hands produce when playing?
Dead skin cells and sweat contain salt which causes corrosion resulting in dirty strings
- What type of guitar do you play?
Steel-string acoustic, or nylon string classical guitar? The types of strings used will differ in terms of how fast they deteriorate.
- Do you play with coated or uncoated strings, flat or roundwound strings?
Coated strings last longer. Roundwound strings do not last as long as a flat wound but are far less common.
- Do you play with your fingers or a pick?
Your attack on the strings affects how much they deteriorate.
- What string gauge do you prefer?
Heavier gauge strings are under greater string tension but lighter gauge strings will break more often.
- What are your tonal preferences?
Fresh strings generally sound brighter.
- Do you live in a humid environment?
Local conditions can affect how quickly your strings age.
- How high is your action?
Action aka string height influences string tension which affects the life of a guitar string.
All things being equal, however, the main reason guitar strings deteriorate is due to the number of hours the guitar is played and how well they are maintained.
Oils in the skin that come into contact with the strings, combined with wear and tear from regular use result in guitar strings becoming less responsive and dull. Not to mention in many cases becoming more difficult to keep in tune and more prone to string breaks.
Oils in the skin that come into contact with the strings, combined with wear and tear from being played regularly cause guitar strings to become less responsive and dull. Not to mention in many cases becoming more difficult to keep in tune.
How to Tell when Your Strings Need Changing?
Loss of brightness, resonance and sustain
The first obvious sign that acoustic strings need replacing is if your guitar is beginning to sound dull e.g. a loss of tone as the strings over time begin to lose their brightness. Normally at this time, the guitar will also begin to feel less responsive, with a distinct lack of sustain. Acoustic guitars rely on their ability to resonate and as strings age, the tonal qualities of the guitar will be affected. This is more noticeable with acoustic strings compared to electric guitar strings, often meaning a shorter string life.
There’s not a lot to say here, that I haven’t written about here. Just keep in mind fresh strings require stretching and retuning once installed on the guitar but once acclimatized tend to hold their tuning. Older strings however become more unstable and less reliable. If you notice your guitar isn’t staying in tune restringing may help.
Guitar strings that require changing will show obvious signs of corrosion. Corrosion refers to the oxidization of surface metals e.g. the metal loses electrons to oxygen and forms an oxide on the surface of the metal.
Corrosion is not the same thing as rust and depends on the make-up of the strings themselves. For example, the lighter gauge strings (high E and B) solely consist of steel and as a result, will rust over time. The wound strings (G, D, A, and Low E) consist of steel cores wrapped with a resonant alloy such as brass or bronze. They do not contain iron and therefore will not rust. However, they will become tarnished, which in most situations can be cleaned off.
People often mistake dirty strings due to a buildup of gunk from fingers as corrosion, especially on the wound strings. In either case, if your strings are looking discolored it probably means it’s time for a string change.
Strings that have visible kinks are more likely to break. Kinks occur due to the string being pressed against the fret wires (also metal) due to regular playing e.g. hours of practice or performing live.
As the strings stretch over time and lose some of their capacity to hold tension the kinks will often become more noticeable as they will not appear directly above the fret wires.
Should you change all your strings when you break a string?
We’ve all done it, but generally speaking yes. Having strings of different ages and different levels of wear and tear will result in the guitar producing a less balanced sound. In most cases, the lighter strings will be replaced more often than the heavier gauge bass strings and will sound brighter relatively. So yes, if you can, you should change your complete set if you break one, especially if performing live or in a recording environment.
How often should you change nylon guitar strings?
As a general rule, you won’t need to change your nylon strings as frequently as you change your steel strings and different gauges of nylon tend to deteriorate at different rates.
For example, the lighter/treble strings on a classical or flamenco guitar (high E, B, and G) don’t deteriorate all that much compared to the wound bass strings (D, A, and Low E) which due to the higher amplitude of the strings can show visible signs of deterioration e.g. the winding is coming apart, or the strings become marked by the fret wires.
The treble strings can also become stretched over the fret wires, becoming thinner where they make contact and leading to string breakage over time.
In most cases, classical guitarists change their strings when they see a visible change or the strings feel more difficult to fret.
How to make your guitar strings last longer
Now that we know what to look out for with regard to how often you should change your guitar strings, let’s look into a few tips to help maintain your strings for longer. Most of these are fairly straightforward.
Cleaning your strings after use
The easiest thing you can do to preserve your strings is simply to wipe them down after use. This removes the corrosion-causing oils left on the strings by your hands and in general, keeps your strings sounding better for longer.
While there are specialist products available, including string cleaners, keeping a microfibre cloth in your guitar case will generally suffice.
Cleaning your fingerboard when you change strings
Not enough guitarists do this. But, if you clean the fretboard every time you change your strings, you will reduce the amount of oil and dirt contributing to string corrosion. Warm water on a clean rag (don’t oversaturate) generally does the trick.
Wash your hands
Simply washing your hands before you play guitar will result in less grime and build-up on your strings.
Use string conditioners
Using a string conditioner such as Music Nomad’s F-ONE Fretboard Oil Cleaner and Conditioner can help preserve your guitar strings by reducing dirt and oils on the surface of the guitar strings along with the fingerboard. This is the product I use and recommend.
Use Polymer Coated Strings
Coated guitar strings such as Elixir Polyweb, Nanoweb, and Elixir Optiweb sound better for longer than uncoated strings due to their corrosion resistance. They also tend not to build up as much grime and gunk from your hands and for guitar players are easier to clean.
In general, if you prefer not to replace your strings often regularly coated strings are a good option. Just keep in mind that coated strings are not known for their brighter tone, instead offering a warmer, mellow tone. However, for many, the pros far outweigh the cons.
Improve your guitar storage
Another simple fix you can do to preserve your guitar strings is to keep your guitar in a case where it won’t attract additional oils and grime. You can read my article on acoustic guitar humidity and storage here.
Regularly maintaining your guitar
If you regularly break strings in the same place e.g. if your high E string snaps halfway up the neck of your guitar consistently you may have a fret wire that requires rounding with a file. Other components can also contribute to string breakage including the nut and the tuning pegs but in the majority of cases, it will be caused by a fret with a rough edge on your instrument.
Fret dressing addresses this type of concern, and while it is a skill that can be taught, if you don’t know what you are doing you will be far better served to take your guitar to a luthier and to have it done properly.
While it’s impossible to provide an answer to how often you should change your guitar strings, as every guitarist is different, there are obvious signs to look out for and many ways you can preserve the life of your strings. Most of these are simple enough to do but many guitarists either aren’t aware or simply don’t bother to do them.
Keep in mind, the quality of your strings, like all components on your acoustic guitar, has an outsized impact on how good the guitar sounds, so it makes sense to take good care of your strings or consider changing them more often instead of using the same strings for months at a time.