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 feel more difficult to play as they begin to deteriorate. But how often should you change strings?
- If you are a professional musician playing live or recording music in the studio you are mostly going to be changing your strings every gig or studio session.
- If you are an experienced guitarist (recording or playing live on a semi-regular basis) you will probably want to change your strings every time you play live or are in the studio.
- If you are mostly practicing guitar at home, you can stretch out your string changes to somewhere between 2 – 12 weeks.
- If you are a beginner, or don’t have a practice schedule or play regularly at all but still like to pick up the guitar sporadically you can leave them on until you break a string or indefinitely.
As you can see, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer that will apply to all guitar players. And of course, even within these groups, there’s a lot of different aspects to consider with regard to changing strings e.g. you might prefer the feel of new strings on your instrument or the brightness and tuning stability new strings afford you and want to change them more often.
Alternatively, if you prefer a warmer tone, consisting of more bass frequencies 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.
Mostly it just depends as there are a lot of different variables to take into account.
In the following article we’re going to learn how to tell how often you should change your guitar strings based on your own playing habits, to ensure your strings are not causing your guitar to sound less than stellar. 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. 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 strings (e.g. Elixir) or standard strings
- Your attack on the strings and if you play with your fingers or a pick
- The gauge of string you play e.g. 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, whereas Jazz musicians prefer a warmer tone
- The brand of guitar string you use e.g. is it coated or standard?
- The importance of avoiding string breakage e.g. If you are recording or playing live
- 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 you look after them.
Oils in the skin that come into contact with the strings, combined with wear and tear from being played regularly cause the strings to lose their pop and become less responsive and dull. Not to mention in many cases being 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 feel less responsive, sound dull and and won’t sustain as long. Acoustic guitars rely on their ability to resonate to produce music and older strings are more noticeable compared to an electric guitar.
But because the changes are incremental, many players may not notice the gradual loss of brightness and resonance but some strings can start degrading pretty quickly, within hours, especially if you play with a lot of attack on the guitar, so keep an ear out.
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 really over extended their welcome will show obvious signs of corrosion. Corrosion refers to the oxidisation 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 treble strings (high E and B) consist of steel and as a result can 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 on the surface. However they can become tarnished and this for the most part can be cleaned off.
People often mistake grime and a buildup of gunk from fingers for corrosion, especially on your wound strings which catch a lot of that stuff. In either case, if your strings are looking discoloured it probably means it’s time for a string change.
Strings that have visible kinks are more likely to break. Kinks occur due to being pressed against 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.
How often should you change nylon guitar strings
Nylon strings are not held under the same amount of tension as steel strings.
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, retaining their resonance, tuning ability and sustain. Most of these wont demand hours of your time and are fairly straight forward.
Cleaning your strings after use
The easiest thing you can do to preserve your strings is simply 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 that may contribute to string corrosion. Warm water on a clean rag (don’t over saturate) 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 PRS String cleaner, GHS Fast Fret and Dunlop 65 string conditioner can help preserve your guitar strings by reducing dirt and oils on the surface of the guitar strings along with the fingerboard.
Use coated strings
Coated 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 I personally play coated strings all thetime and belive 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.
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 off 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 is a skill that can be taught but if you don’t know what you are doing, you will be far better served taking your guitar to a luthier and having it done properly.
So while we outlined in the beginning of this article that 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 do have the capacity to affect your tone and quality of the music produced so it makes sense to take good care of your strings and they might just hang in there a little longer for you.
As always if you have a question or comment, we look forward to hearing from you in the comments section below.