How to Restring an Acoustic Guitar

Most guitar players already know how to restring an acoustic guitar, it’s hardly rocket science. But, did you know there are a couple of simple things you can do each time you restring your guitar that will increase tuning stability, prevent the strings from slipping, and in some cases increase sustain? In the article below we’ll go over each of the steps in detail. But first…

Do you even need to restring your guitar?

As part of your maintenance schedule, you should change your strings regularly. 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.


Removing the old strings

Removing the old strings

The simplest way to remove your old strings 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 (one by one) 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, it’s the perfect time to clean the fretboard and headstock. But first, get rid of your old strings so there’s no confusion between your old and new strings.  


Cleaning the Headstock and Fretboard

Cleaning the Fretboard

You can read my guide to cleaning your acoustic guitar here, but in simple terms, whenever the strings are removed from the guitar it’s a good opportunity to clean the fretboard, bridge, and headstock.

This will not only look and feel better from a playability perspective, but it will also 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 a combination of dirt, natural oils, dead skin cells, and sweat from your hands, which can cause corrosion of iron alloys such as steel strings and fret wires.  

You can 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 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 skip the section on conditioning.

Cleaning the headstock

You can use a clean cloth and warm water to clean the headstock and body of the guitar (lighter fluid can also be used here. Take care to clean 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 result in problems such as fret sprout, and in some rare instances may crack, although I’ve yet to see this myself.

Essentially the drier wood becomes, the more it contracts aka shrinks. When this occurs the fret wires can protrude from the edges of the neck (neck sprout) and your frets may become loose.

Conditioning the fretboard is a job I’d recommend doing every 6 months, although this depends a lot on the climate you live in. 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 it directly to the fretboard.

Work this into the wood using a clean microfiber 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 as they are specifically designed to 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. Some nut slots might be a little on the tight side. You will notice when tuning the strings feel like they are catching. Using graphite in this way lubricates and allows the strings to glide more easily when the tension is adjusted on the string.

This makes tuning the guitar far more responsive, and the guitar is more likely to stay in tune for longer.

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 that your nut will become discolored, but you can also purchase white graphite if you prefer.


Restringing the Guitar

The brand and gauge of acoustic guitar strings you use are completely up to you but if you change the gauge keep in mind this will result in a change to the amount of tension placed upon the guitar’s neck and may require some adjustment to ensure reliable playability.  

You can refer to the video above 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, use your finger to guide the string onto the post, and ensure 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 keep mine quite short.

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. Some say this increase sustain, I’ll let you be the judge.

Otherwise, this method aids tuning stability and reduces the chance of the strings buzzing within their respective nut slots.

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


Stretching your Strings

Most guitarists are 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 tune 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 on to the next string. Be careful with your high E string (the lightest gauge string) as it will break more easily.

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 to simply wash your hands before you play and then wipe down the strings with a cloth once finished playing.  

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

And that’s it. While a simple process, taking the time to add in the steps outlined above can make a big difference to the guitar’s ability to stay in tune, not to mention preventing string slippage. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out some of my other articles on acoustic guitar maintenance here.

Marty

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My name’s Marty. I’ve been into guitars, songwriting, and home recording for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about everything I have learned along the way.