I recently got my first acoustic guitar and am having lots of fun with it, learning Delta blues and some fingerstyle pieces. I’ve started to play a bit in open-D tuning, and honestly it freaks me out a little to retune my guitar so often! Is it safe for the guitar? Am I making the strings weaker, or more prone to break while I’m playing? If they break while I’m playing or retuning the guitar, could it hurt me? I’ve never broken a string before. Am I worrying unnecessarily?
—Julian, via email
Gentle reader, welcome to the world of acoustic guitar! It sounds like you are generally adjusting well and learning new things—but you have some fears that are a bit out of proportion. I’d like to help you lay them to rest. It’s great that you’re trying out open D; it’s lots of fun and can make more songs accessible to a new player. You’re wondering if it’s safe for the guitar, the strings, and the player to switch back and forth between standard and open tunings.
It’s common for new players to feel scared about breaking strings while playing or tuning. Let’s start here: I guarantee that this will occasionally happen during the course of your life as a guitar player, and more often if you switch tunings. You’re playing the thing, not staring at it, right? But unless something is a bit off, you’ll really have to play it hard to make that happen. I’d like you to come away from this article with some knowledge about how to do things right, and knowing that when you do break a string, it’s not going to be that bad. I promise!
Minimizing the risk is simple: start with a guitar that is setup and strung well, with good-quality strings that aren’t too old. Age is the most common cause of breakage—if your strings are oxidized or worn, it’s time to change them! Another reason you might break a string is a rough surface touching it at some point. This could be a saddle with an extra-sharp takeoff point or a tuning machine with a burr that rubs against the string. It will become clear if you keep breaking a string at the same spot. If you’re feeling nervous, take your guitar in for a routine setup and mention the problem to your tech.
Occasionally, a string will be faulty—a plain steel string could pull its winds down by the bridge, or have a kink that makes it prone to breakage, but this is pretty rare. In fact, only someone like me, who restrings dozens of guitars a week, really has to think about that. A good rule is to slowly tighten a string up to pitch (always up, not down, to the desired note); you won’t over-tighten it that way.
So, we’ve established that you will break strings, but there’s good reason not to be scared. Think about how you hold a guitar while you tune it: in your lap, with the soundhole facing away from you. If you do break a string, it will almost always be one of the higher ones, and the tail would tend to snap outward, perpendicular to the guitar’s top, definitely not up toward your face. Unless you like to smell the soundhole while you tune, you’ll be safe. And when a string breaks, it doesn’t snap exaggeratedly out and whip everything in its path; it snaps with some power, and once the tension is released, it goes slack. It’s a non-event, I promise. You hear a twang!, feel a bit surprised, and then kind of shrug your shoulders.
I hope you can learn to be comfortable embracing a tiny bit of risk as you learn to play your acoustic guitar—the rewards are worth it!
Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie and an active blues performer.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.