When to change strings is an age-old question with no clear answer, and one that I still field regularly from repair clients. I wish it were as simple as changing the oil in a car every 3,000 miles, but guitarists are, needless to say, a bit more unpredictable than cars.
Q: When it comes to changing guitar strings, my own experience is that after about 60–100 hours of play I have an itch to scratch. But is there an industry standard regarding the interval between string changes? —George Peck
A: There are a few reasons why strings need to be changed. The first, and simplest, is that some players just love the bright zing of a brand-new set, and I’ll admit I would probably fall into that category if it weren’t so costly to change strings every two days! Then again, as a builder and repairperson, I put fresh strings on almost every instrument I handle, so it’s easy to get accustomed to the charm they offer.
At the physical level, there are a few reasons why strings eventually need replacement. Even a set that is never played will experience corrosion from oxidation and humidity. Plain strings will develop rough spots, and bronze wound strings will age to the sickly greenish color that loves to linger on fingertips. Not much can be done about this, although my personal experience suggests that playing regularly seems to slow this process, perhaps due to a combination of fingertip oils and friction polishing from the fingers themselves. Just another good reason to practice more!
The next common string killer is the accumulation of dirt, oils, and dead skin cells that finds its way between the windings of the strings. This is the same delightful grime that builds up on the fretboards of well-loved guitars. The late luthier Charlie LoBue called this “schmunda,” and I know a few repair specialists who tack on a “DNA surcharge” on instruments that are heavily caked with it. Not unlike tartar in the teeth, this joyous substance works its way into the tight string windings and hardens into a stiff, brittle solid.
Over time, this can add mass to the strings, reduce their flexibility, and generally load down their free vibrations. As a young musician, I used to periodically soak my expensive bass strings in alcohol to dissolve this gunk, squeezing a few extra months of life from the strings before replacement. In a more low-tech approach, one player I know used to aggressively pull and snap each string against the fretboard a few times in a row to dislodge some of the built-up gunk. Though I was initially skeptical, I admit that I heard an improvement in the liveliness of his wound strings after this treatment. That said, I did also see him break one by yanking it a bit too hard, which was a bit counterproductive!
This brings us to our last consideration, which is the metal of the string itself. Plain strings are made of a single simple strand of wire with a ball end twisted on, whereas wound strings are constructed with a single core strand, which is overwound with bronze wire to add a controlled amount of mass. Manufacturers have careful recipes of core and wrap diameters, and string tone and feel are dependent on these relationships. Anyone who has ever put on a new string knows that the string goes through an initial period of stretch, during which it will go flat until the string has reached a stable length.
This is a basic property of the material, and in fact the string needs this elasticity along its length to sound musical. As the string oscillates, its length changes, and a string that was unable to stretch to accommodate this would sound stiff and unmusical, with out-of-tune harmonics. However, most metals share a weakness—when subjected to repeated cycles of flexing and relaxing, their molecules will rearrange, forming structures which are harder but more brittle. The common term for this is metal fatigue. As string cores age and experience the wear and tear of regular play, they lose their elasticity, and can begin to sound “off.” Harmonics and upper register notes will be out of tune, and overall tuning stability may begin to suffer. The string is also more likely to break at this point, since the core has become more brittle. The good news is that most players are likely to change their strings before they get to this point—though not all of them, if my repair experience is any indication!
String manufacturers have invented an arsenal of technologies to combat these problems. In the last 20 years, the biggest new development has been a range of coatings that offer a barrier between the string and the outside world, protecting the string from both environmental corrosion and fingertip grime. Industry pioneers W. L. Gore & Associates introduced their Elixir brand in 1997, and since then many other companies have followed suit with their own approaches to coating strings. D’Addario, for example, developed a technique of coating the wrap wire before winding the string, whereas Elixir was covering the entire string with a jacket of protective Teflon.
Coated strings have many fans and some detractors. They tend to lack the brilliance of a brand-new set, but their longevity is a godsend for many hardworking players who need to wring a few extra gigs out of each set. The polymer coatings also reduce the squeaking finger noise on wound strings—a welcome effect for some players. New alloys are being introduced that claim to be less susceptible to long-term cycle fatigue, and corrosion-resistant packaging is becoming increasingly common, giving the strings a safe storage environment right up until the moment they are put on the guitar.
However, as with so many of these questions, I have to return to the simple truth that the answer will vary from player to player. At my old job, I frequently had to change the strings on my employer’s gig guitars, as he had sweat that would kill strings in about a week. Unfortunately for me, his gigs involved five guitars, three of them 12-strings! My motorized string winder spared me a serious case of tennis elbow back in those days. By contrast, some of my own guitars have strings that are several years old and still sound sweet and musical, but I have a very light touch and play without a pick, so my strings don’t have to endure too much.
There is no way to pin down how frequently strings should be changed, but it’s safe to say that if they look dirty, feel rough, or sound dull or out of tune, it’s well past time to give your guitar a fresh set. (Check out the January/February 2021 issue of AG for a simple and reliable way to put strings on your guitar. This method has served me well for over 20 years, and makes it just as easy to remove the old strings as it does to put them on.)
I’ll close by saying that every time I put fresh strings on an instrument, I kick myself for not doing it sooner. New strings never fail to improve the playing experience, and always bring out little nuances of the guitar that I’d had time to forget. Life is short—don’t play dead strings!
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.