It’s no secret that older acoustic guitars tend to sound better with age but the same cannot be said for guitar strings, which tend to sound dull and become more difficult to play as they age. How often should you change strings?
If you are playing live or recording music you are going to be changing your strings every gig or studio session. If you are mostly practicing guitar at home, you can stretch out your string changes to somewhere between 2 – 12 weeks. If you don’t play regularly you can leave them on until you break a string or indefinitely.
It’s impossible to give an answer that will apply to all guitarists. And of course, even within the groups listed above, there’s a lot to consider with regard to changing strings e.g. you might prefer the feel, brightness, and tuning stability of fresh strings and want to change them more often.
Alternatively, if you prefer a warmer tone e.g. if you play a lot of jazz, for example, you might change your guitar strings less often. If on the other hand you regularly break strings you might only change a set when you break one.
In the following article, we’re going to discuss how often you should change your guitar strings based on your own playing habits. We’ll also learn what contributes to string deterioration and how to make your strings last that little bit longer.
What causes guitar strings to age?
The rate at which your strings deteriorate depends on a bunch of different factors, including:
- How often, you play guitar e.g. string breaks, and how much wear and tear your guitar strings endure
- How well you maintain your strings e.g. do you regularly wipe your strings down after use?
- How much sweat your hands produce when playing? Oils in the skin cause corrosion
- The type of guitar you play e.g. standard acoustic, flamenco or classical
- If you play with coated or standard strings
- Your attack on the strings and if you play with your fingers or a pick
- String gauge e.g. do you use a heavier gauge string? lighter gauge strings will break more often
- Your preference with regard to tone and the style of music you play e.g. new strings generally sound brighter
- Local conditions e.g. humidity
All things being equal, however, the main reason guitar strings age 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 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 your strings need replacing is if your guitar is beginning to sound dull. Normally at this time, the guitar will begin to feel less responsive, with a distinct lack of sustain. Acoustic guitars rely on their ability to resonate to produce music and as strings age, this kind of problem is more noticeable on the acoustic guitar compared to the electric guitar.
There’s really not a lot to say here, brand new strings due to being new 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 a change of strings may help.
Guitar strings that have overextended their welcome 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 as rust and depends on the make-up of the strings themselves. For example, the treble strings (high E and B) consist of steel and as a result, will rust over time. The bass strings (G, D, A, and Low E) consist of steel cores wrapped with resonant alloys like brass and bronze which do not contain iron and therefore do not rust. However, they can become tarnished, which in most situations can be cleaned off.
People often mistake grime and a buildup of gunk from fingers as corrosion, especially on your 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 far more likely to break. Kinks occur due to the string being pressed against the fret wires (also a metal) due to regular playing.
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 enhance some frequencies (in most cases, the treble strings will be replaced more often than the bass strings) more prominently than others resulting in a less balanced sounding guitar. 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?
A nylon string is not held under the same amount of tension as a steel string.
As a general rule, you won’t need to change your nylon strings as frequently as you change your steel strings and the different gauges of nylon tend to deteriorate at different rates.
For example, the treble strings on a classical or flamenco guitar (high E, B, and G) really 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 compared to standard 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 notice a drop in tonal quality, 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 brighter for longer.
While there are specialist products available, keeping a microfibre cloth in your guitar case will generally do a good job.
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
String conditioners 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 standard strings due to their resistance to corrosion. They also tend not to build up as much grime and gunk from your hands and are easier to clean. In general, if you prefer not to replace your strings regularly coated strings are a good option. Just keep in mind some guitarists complain of a lack of brightness when playing with coated strings, 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 does have the capacity to affect your tone and quality of the music produced so it makes sense to take good care of your strings. As always if you have a question or comment, we look forward to hearing from you in the comments section below.