When it comes time to change guitar strings most of us simply install a fresh set without giving it a lot of thought, but there are advantages to restringing your guitar correctly and having a repeatable process you can use every time you change your strings. In the following article, we’re going to show you how to restring an acoustic guitar the right way, which will prevent your strings from slipping, increase tuning stability and improve intonation. So, if you’ve never given a lot of thought to how you go about restringing your acoustic guitar before, stay tuned!
The best way to restring an acoustic guitar is to first install the ball end of the string and bridge pin. Pull the string until there is no slack. Next, pull the strings through the tuning post hole and then introduce 2 inches of slack, to allow at least 3-4 winds around the tuning post. Next, wind the strings, guiding with your finger to ensure each subsequent wind is lower than the previous one. Doing so will increase the break angle of the string across the nut which will help keep the guitar in tune, prevent string slippage and reduce the chance of your strings buzzing within the nut slots.
Restringing an Acoustic Guitar the Correct way
While the information above is a decent summary there’s a lot more that goes into a successful acoustic guitar string installation that can (and I would argue should) be done, including cleaning the fretboard and headstock (when the strings are off the guitar is the best time) and introducing a couple of small some tweaks to help the strings stay in tune even when brand new. First, however, we need to remove the old strings.
Removing the old strings
Do you even need to restring your guitar?
I’ve written an article here on how often you should change strings on an acoustic guitar, but in simple terms, if:
- Your guitar is sounding dull and lifeless e.g. lacks brightness and sustain,
- Your guitar is not staying in tune,
- You are noticing corrosion or a buildup of grime on your strings,
- You are noticing kinks or indentations on your strings.
If you notice any of the issues mentioned above, it’s a safe bet your guitar will benefit from a fresh set of strings.
The simplest way to do this is to unwind the strings until they are sufficiently loose that you can bunch them together in one hand near the soundhole of the guitar. Next, cut them using a sharp set of pliers. Make sure the strings are sufficiently loose before cutting or they may kick back and cause injury (don’t ask me how I know this 🙂 or damage the finish.
Once the strings are removed, discard them so there’s no confusion between your old and new strings.
Next, we’ll clean the fretboard and headstock.
Cleaning the Headstock and Fretboard
You can read our complete guide to cleaning your acoustic guitar here, but in simple terms, whenever the strings are off 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 of the build-up as possible. The grime you are removing is actually a combination of dirt, oils, 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 manage to get some on the body of the guitar. It also dries extremely 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 (seen on the Fender Redondo for example) and Walnut, due to shortages and restrictions on Indian Rosewood are being seen more often 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 for example, your guitar has a sealed maple fretboard you can safely skip the conditioning section.
You can also use a rag 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 with strings on the guitar.
Conditioning the Fretboard
A dry fretboard can ultimately result in cracking due to a lack of moisture in the wood. The drier wood becomes the more it also expands which can lead to additional problems including loose fret wires as the timber around the wires expands.
Conditioning the fretboard is a job I’d recommend doing every 6 months, depending on how your fretboard feels and how often rehydration is required.
I recommend using Music Nomad F1 cleaner and conditioner. There are a number of fretboard conditioning products available, however, and all offer many of the same benefits.
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 rag until the wood appears darker in appearance and has absorbed most of the conditioning product.
Don’t use common oils you may have around the house e.g. vegetable oils as they will over time become rancid. Stick with dedicated fretboard conditioning products where possible as they are specifically designed to be absorbed into the fretboard timber and protect the fretboard timber.
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, especially the wound strings (G, D, A, and E strings)
The simplest way to do this is to take a graphite pencil (ensure it is sharp) and draw 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 luthier who can either widen the slots or install a new nut for you.
Restring an Acoustic Guitar
The brand and gauge of 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 good action and a lack of fret buzz.
You can refer to the video below 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 firmly 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 winding the string onto the post, 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 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 post lowers the string on the tuning post making the string far less likely to slip.
Having the string as low on the tuning post also increases the break angle of the strong 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 also may 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 (as you can see in the video my winder snapped shortly before filing the video).
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 stole from Ace Frehley (Kiss) in an interview he did for guitar world magazine many years ago and while 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.
Next, tune the guitar back up to concert pitch and repeat the process at least twice more. While it can be a mind-numbing 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.
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, and improved intonation. You will also increase the break angle across the nut which helps prevent buzz from the nut itself (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.
If you have a tip or questions consider leaving a comment below and joining the conversation.