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How to Restring an Acoustic Guitar

How do you restring your acoustic guitar? Most guitarists I know simply remove the old strings, install a fresh set, tune up, and start playing. But, there are things you can do when restringing that will help prevent string slips and increase tuning stability amongst other advantages. I’ll explain this in more detail below, but if you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick rundown.

The best way to restring an acoustic guitar is to first install the ball end of the string into the bridge pin holes and install the bridge pins. Pull the string through the tuning peg hole until there is no slack and then push the string back through the hole approx. 2 inches (approx. distance from the nut to 2nd fret wire). This provides enough excess guitar string to allow 3-4 winds around the tuning peg. Next, while guiding with your finger, wind the strings ensuring each subsequent wind is lower than the previous. This increases the break angle of the string across the nut which helps improve tuning stability and prevents string slippage.

While the information above is a decent summary of the restringing process, there’s a lot more to restringing which we’ll discuss in our step-by-step guide below, but first, we need to decide if we even need to change strings.


Removing the old strings

Removing the old strings

Do you even need to restring your guitar?

I’ve written an article on when you should change strings on an acoustic guitar, but in simple terms, if:

  • Your guitar is not staying in tune,
  • You are seeing corrosion or a buildup of grime on your strings,
  • You are noticing kinks or indentations on your strings.

it’s a safe bet your guitar will benefit from a fresh set of strings.

The simplest way to do this is to place the guitar on a flat surface and unwind the strings using a string winder. String winders, despite their inexpensive price, can save you a lot of time, this is the one I use and recommend.

If you don’t have a string winder, just loosen off the strings by hand until you can bunch them together in one hand near the soundhole of the guitar and then cut them using a sharp set of string cutters, or wire cutters.

Make sure the strings are sufficiently loose before cutting or the string tension may result in the strings kicking back and potentially going through the tip of one of your fingers, which can be painful and make you feel pretty silly. (Don’t ask me how I know this). Once the strings are removed, get rid of them so there’s no confusion between your old and new strings.   Next, now’s a great time to clean the fretboard and headstock.


Cleaning the Headstock and Fretboard

Cleaning the Fretboard

You can read my complete guide to cleaning your acoustic guitar here, but in simple terms, whenever the strings are removed from the guitar you can more easily clean the fretboard, bridge, and headstock. This will not only look and feel better it will help increase the life of your strings.   The age of the guitar and how regularly it is played will determine how much work is required. But, if your fretboard has a lot of grime built up around the fret wires, take a toothpick and scrape away as much as possible.  

The grime you are removing is actually a combination of dirt, oils, dead skin cells, and sweat from your hands, which can corrode the fret wires.  You can also use a small amount of Naptha or Zippo lighter fluid which helps break down oils and grime on the fretboard but won’t react with your finish if you happen to get some on the body of the guitar. It also dries quickly, and won’t cause your fretboard to swell.

Most acoustic guitars come equipped with a rosewood fretboard and bridge. The other common fretboard material used on acoustic guitars is Ebony.

Both timbers are dense hardwoods, ideal for the wear and tear a fretboard has to endure from our fingers. Other materials are becoming more common, however.   Pau Ferro, and Walnut, due to shortages and restrictions on Indian Rosewood, are now regularly used on both electric and acoustic guitars. In any case, the advice below works equally well on all fretboard timbers with regard to cleaning, however, if your guitar has a sealed maple fretboard you can safely skip the conditioning section.

You can also use a clean cloth and warm water to clean the headstock and body of the guitar (lighter fluid can also be used here), especially around the tuning posts which are normally difficult to clean while the strings are on the guitar.


Conditioning the Fretboard

Conditioning the Fretboard

A dry fretboard can ultimately result in cracking, and loose fret wires. The more dried-out wood becomes, the more it expands.

Conditioning the fretboard is a job I’d recommend doing at least every 6 months, depending on how your fretboard feels and how often you clean it. I currently use and recommend Music Nomad F1 cleaner and conditioner.

Applying Conditioner to the Fretboard

A little goes a long way, so a bottle will last you a very long time.   Whichever fretboard conditioning product you use,  follow the manufacturer’s recommendation on how much product to apply and then apply directly to the fretboard. Work this into the wood using a clean cloth until the wood appears darker in appearance and has absorbed most of the conditioning product.

Don’t be tempted to use cooking oils e.g. vegetable oil as it will, over time, become rancid. Stick with dedicated fretboard conditioning products where possible as they are specifically designed to be absorbed into the fretboard and protect the fretboard timber.


Lubricating the nut slots

Lubricating the Nut Slots

I like to add a small amount of graphite to the slots of the nut of the guitar. This lubricates and allows the strings to glide more easily when the tension is adjusted on the string, making tuning the guitar far more responsive and preventing the string from catching and going out of tune while playing. This is especially the case for your wound strings (G, D, A, and E strings).  

The simplest way I have found to do this is to take a graphite pencil (ensure it is sharp) and draw it directly into the nut slots. The only drawback is your nut will become discolored, but you can also purchase white graphite if you prefer.

If your strings are catching regularly, this is, for the most part, a temporary solution only and I’d advise you either replace the nut if you know what you are doing or take your guitar to a guitar tech or luthier who can either file the slots or install a new nut for you.


Restringing the Guitar

The brand and gauge of acoustic guitar strings you use are completely up to you but if you change the gauge e.g. you want to try lighter or heavier gauge strings keep in mind this will result in a change to the amount of tension placed upon the guitar’s neck and may require truss rod adjustment to ensure reliable playability in terms of having a playable action and a lack of fret buzz.   You can refer to the video here to see how I go about installing new strings. I’ve also listed the steps below.

  • Install the ball end of the string into the bridge hole and insert the bridge pin on top of the string ensuring the string is running within the channel on the side of the bridge pin.
  • Pull the string upward firmly until there is no slack between the bridge pin and string.
  • Next, thread the opposite end of the string through the hole running through the center of the tuning post on the headstock.
  • Pull the string tight, so there is no slack in the string whatsoever and then pull the string back toward the bridge introducing approx. 2 inches of slack into the string.
  • Kink the string at the bridge post.
  • Begin turning the tuning machine, using your finger to guide the string onto the post and ensuring each subsequent wind is lower than the previous wind.
  • Once the string has sufficient tension applied cut the excess string at your desired length. (I personally recommend keeping them quite short for aesthetic purposes).

Using the method outlined above ensures the string is firmly locked in place as each wind of the string on the string post lowers the string on the tuning post making the string far less likely to slip.

Having the string as low on the post also increases the break angle of the string across the nut. This increases tuning stability and also reduced the chances of the strings buzzing within their respective nut slots.

Increasing pressure on the nut in this way could, conceivably, increase the sustain of your guitar as more tension is applied to the nut resulting in less energy from the strings being absorbed by the nut.

Once you have completed the steps above, do the same for all strings on your guitar. A string winder can really help speed up the process.


Stretching your Strings

You are probably accustomed to new guitar strings going out of tune regularly. It’s an inconvenience that you don’t necessarily have to put up with if you stretch your strings before playing. This was a tip I learned from Ace Frehley (Kiss) in an interview he did for guitar world magazine many years ago and while a fairly rudimentary tip, it’s incredibly useful and saves you needing to constantly retune new strings.  

There are different approaches but I recommend tuning the guitar to concert pitch and then pulling the strings upward from the fretboard 3 – 4 times before moving onto the next string. Be careful with your high E string (the thinnest string) as it can break if doing this with too much enthusiasm.

Next, tune the guitar back up to concert pitch and repeat the process at least twice more. While it can be a boring task, it’s far better than having the guitar constantly go out of tune when you have new strings on the guitar.


How to increase the life of your strings?

You can read here about how to maintain your strings, but the most beneficial thing you can do to increase the life of your strings is simply washing your hands before you play.  Most people won’t do this, but when you consider how much your hands come into contact with the strings and fretboard it’s easy to see, especially if you are prone to sweating, how much this can affect the life of your strings.


Summary

Learning how to restring an acoustic guitar following the steps outlined above will preserve the life of your strings and fretboard, along with providing increased tuning stability, reduced string slippage. You will also increase the break angle across the nut which helps prevent buzz from the nut slots (if the strings sit loose with their respective slots) and may also increase sustain, making the process well worth taking the time to do each and every time you restring your guitar.

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About Marty

My name's Marty, I've been into guitars for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about acoustic guitars, music, and home recording.