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Changing your guitar strings is a very common (and important) part of regular guitar maintenance. Using the analogy of a car, changing guitar strings is very similar to changing the oil in your car.
When should you change your guitar strings? The short answer is, it depends, as your mileage may vary depending on a few different factors. Fortunately, there are some tell-tale signs that will indicate when you should change your strings.
The Cause of Dead Strings
When a metallic substance is exposed to levels of moisture over time, a process of oxidation will begin, which corrodes the integrity and structure of the metal. Because guitar strings are fundamentally made from metallic materials, they will experience the same process.
Corrosion occurs naturally on strings due to being exposed to oils from your skin as well as any external environmental factors. While wiping the strings down after a playing session is a good practice and may extend the life of your strings, they will eventually degrade to a point beyond usefulness.
Another element in the overall lifespan of a guitar string is the fact that the strings are being continuously pressed into the frets of the guitar. Over time, the strings will begin to wear and lose their integrity as the frets will wear indentations into the strings.
The biggest factor in string life really comes down to how much you play. Strings that experience longer playing times will inevitably wear out faster, while strings that are unplayed or played lightly will take longer to wear out. Personal preference also plays a small role in determining when the strings need to be changed.
Longevity of Different String Types
Strings that remain unopened in the package can last years as the packaging prevents the strings from being affected by natural environmental factors. This is why it is advised to never open a package of strings until you are going to be putting them on your guitar. This ensures that you will have a fresh set every time you change your strings.
However, the type of strings you use on your guitar can also determine how often you need to change your strings. When browsing your favorite music shop, you might notice that there are fundamentally two types of guitar strings: standard metallic strings and coated strings. What’s the difference?
Standard Metallic Guitar Strings
Standard metallic guitar strings are exactly what you might think of when it comes to guitar strings. Depending on whether you are playing an acoustic or electric, these are some of the materials you are likely to find in the composition of your strings:
- Nickel-plated steel
- Stainless steel
- Zinc-plated steel
- 80/20 bronze (composed of Copper and Zinc)
- Phosphor bronze
- Aluminum bronze
- Alloy 52
Because each metallic element has its own unique corrosion timetable, the natural rate varies. 80/20 bronze strings (typically found on an acoustic guitar) oxidize much faster than stainless steel, which is notorious for its corrosion-resistant properties.
For the most part, the extremely casual guitar player will likely be able to use a set of strings for 3 months at most, with the dedicated player having to change their strings more often (such as every 2 weeks). Guitar strings that remain unplayed could last up to 6 months depending on environmental factors, such as air quality and moisture levels.
Coated Guitar Strings
Coated strings are made with a protective coating that covers the outside of the string. This design helps to protect the string from skin oils, grime, and natural environmental factors.
The coating material does tend to vary depending on the manufacturer, which lends a different playing feel and experience than what is found with standard metallic strings. Although the coating does tend to reduce the treble of the overall tone of the guitar, these strings can be ideal for the beginner and the casual player.
For the most part, coated guitar strings can last up to 3 times longer than standard metallic strings. In fact, it is not unheard of to have a set of coated strings last nearly a year, especially for guitars that are lightly played and stored in ideal conditions.
Signs That You Should Probably Change Your Guitar Strings
While you can certainly leave your guitar strings on for a long duration of time, there are some definite tell-tale signs that you need to change your strings. This is especially true if you play quite frequently.
The first sign you may notice is that the tone of your guitar becomes dull in sound and lacking in resonant sustain. This may be hard to pinpoint if you are a beginner on the instrument, but it is very apparent compared to the bright and crisp sound that a fresh pack of strings provides.
Another sign you might notice is that your strings start to feel grimy. You might even notice that your fingers smell a little funny after playing the guitar. A well-worn set of strings simply does not have the feeling that a new set provides.
If you’ve had your strings on for a while and encounter issues tuning your guitar or staying in tune, it might be time to change your strings. Over time, used strings lose their integrity due to being played and tuned under tension on your guitar. This is similar to how a rubber band loses its elasticity after being continually stretched.
You might also notice that your strings have indentations from being pressed into the guitar frets. This is not ideal and could play into the tuning stability issue often seen with old strings. You may also find your notes tune sharp while fretting, as you will be effectively pushing the string further into the neck of the guitar to make a note ring out.
Coinciding with the last point, you might notice that the action of your guitar is a little off. While there is a possibility that your guitar may need a routine set up, chances are likely that a fresh set of strings can remedy the issue.
If you happen to break a string and your strings have been on for a while, it might be wise to change the rest of your strings. This will give your guitar strings a consistent feel across all strings.
Changing all the strings at once will also make your tone sound balanced, as having one new string amongst old strings will make the new string sound brighter, with more sustain compared to the old strings.
Lastly, your strings may be visually oxidized or look old. Situations like these can call for an application of string cleaner in cases where the oxidation is minimal, as the strings may clean up back to normal. However, in any other scenario, it is highly recommended to replace them with a fresh set of strings, as playing on rusty strings is not enjoyable.
How Frequently Should You Change Your Strings?
The reality is that there are no set rules when it comes to how often you should change your strings. This is mostly because every guitarist is largely different from one another in the amount of time they spend on their instrument, as well as the composition of their sweat and skin oil.
Casual players may be able to get away with a string change every month or two (or longer if using coated strings). However, frequent players will likely want to change their strings as often as they see fit. Professionals that make their living playing on stage will likely change their strings before every performance.
A good rule of thumb is that your guitar should always have a playable set of strings, no matter how frequently you play. This will help keep your guitar in good shape and allow you to play whenever inspiration arises.
When To Change Guitar Strings, Final Thoughts
Changing strings on a guitar is a necessary endeavor and one that tends to be shrouded in mystique to beginners. After you spend a good amount of time frequently playing the instrument, you will be able to develop a sense of feel and preference for when your guitar strings need to be changed.
Last Updated on January 13, 2022.
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