Mmmm – that fresh string smell. The whiff of clean metal, the aroma of virgin steel, the scent of...
...Ok, ok, so they don't actually smell of all that much. So instead, let's wax lyrical about that fresh string SOUND. The dulcet, shimmering, ringing tones of youthful alloy, vibrating like a newly blossomed flower dancing in the morning breeze. With poetry this good, GuitarHead really should be considered for the Nobel Prize in literature.
New strings seriously change your playing, tickling the creative muse when writing, fuelling and inspiring greater performances, or just simply dragging you out of a lethargic non-practising rut. But they sadly won’t retain that zingy freshness forever, no matter how long you can stretch their increasingly tired-sounding lifespan until the inevitable breakages that will force a string change upon even the laziest of guitarists. And some of the most frequently asked questions we receive all revolve around delaying that annoying scenario.
Why don’t strings last forever?
Because they eventually snap.
Why do strings eventually snap?
Very simply, because they’re taking a regular beating through a number of different factors. These mainly involve cleanliness, moisture/humidity, temperature, and the amount/type of usage that the guitar receives.
Let’s dispense with this last point first of all. The lifespan and health of your strings will be unavoidably affected by the way they’re frequently manipulated, simply by tuning them, picking them, bending them, and even just repeatedly pressing them against the rock-solid strips of metal you’ve got hammered into your fretboard.
Whilst we COULD throw some advice in this area, which could probably be summarised as “ease off”, we'd rather focus on areas that don't affect your day to day playing. Every guitarist is at their best when thrashing the instrument however the hell they want to, and this article isn’t about stifling your creative output. Be honest, it's doubtful if you'd listen anyway. So, moving on...
Prevention is easier than cure. So why not start out by fitting strings that are designed to last longer? Fortunately, manufacturers are WAY ahead of you here.
Coated strings, featuring an incredibly thin protective covering over the metal, have been a thing for years now. Products from Elixir, featuring their various Nanoweb and Optiweb innovations, are currently amongst the world’s most popular strings, and there are many similar choices from other manufacturers. Alternatively, you could consider the ever-increasing ranges of reinforced strings which simply take longer to break – examples include Ernie Ball Paradigm (with RPS, or Reinforced Plain String technology) or D'Addario NYXL (featuring a high carbon steel core) amongst any other options for acoustic, electric and bass. And for the bling factor, why not consider the Optima range of 24-karat gold-plated strings. Hey, gold doesn’t rust!
The Less Obvious
Whenever you’re not strumming away on it, the best place for your guitar to happily rest is within its case. Not leaning against a corner of your room, suspended from a wall hangar, lying flat on your floor/bed/trunk of car etc, or even sat comfortably on a guitar stand.
What’s this got to do with string health? Easy. A case isn’t just the best protection against physical damage to a guitar. It’s basically a clean room, a place of safety against humidity or moisture, and any excessive fluctuations in temperature.
These may seem like trivial factors, but think about it. Humidity involves water, and strings are made of metal, and metal + water = rust. Similarly, changes in temperature will cause things to expand and contract – things like wood and metal (which is what most guitars are made from), and a great way to wear out strings is to expand and contract their length, whether you’re playing them or not. Finally, a clean room keeps out dust and other particles, all of which can easily settle on strings and compromise their squeaky clean appearance and performance. And since we’re talking about cleanliness...
Michael Jackson said “Take a look at yourself and make the change!” Very good advice. So take a look at your hands right now. Eeewwwww!
We human beings are, through evolution or design, pretty disgusting creatures. The skin of our bodies produces sweat, oils, and all manner of other incredibly undesirable exudations that vary wildly in levels of acidity. And since all of these grotty fluids can seep out of our hands, they will unavoidably get onto our guitar strings, causing them to rot and rust – sometimes within hours.
It gets even worse though. Ignoring whatever lotions, moisturisers or ointments that you might have applied to your sweaty little paws already today (none of which your strings will enjoy any more than the sweat), just think about where those paws have been since you woke up this morning. Holding a nice greasy fried chicken wing? Stroking a cat that’s been gleefully rolling around on a grimy pavement? Or simply exploring one of your own nostrils? Don’t think that food oil, street dust, or even your own snot is gonna do the health of your guitar strings any favours.
So the first and most simple practical method of extending the life of guitar strings is to WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE YOU PLAY! This really will make an enormous difference.
Even more filth!
We’re not done with the dangers of dirt here. Because whilst your hands provide the filth risk factor from above the strings, your guitar fretboard is lurking right beneath them. Take a close look at it right now. Once again, Eeewwwww!
Dirt will build up easily on guitar fretboards, both in the grain of the wood and (particularly) in those tight little corners right by the actual frets. This grime will transfer to your fresh shiny new strings JUST as easily as the unspeakable muck on your fingers and palms. So whenever you’re doing a full string change, take a brief moment to completely clean the front of that beautifully exposed neck. There’s every chance this simple piece of housekeeping will mean you don’t need to do the next full string change quite so soon...
Slightly less filth
Our recent “13 Guitar Case Essentials” article hopefully inspired most of you to think about carrying these two essential items around with your guitar AT ALL TIMES;
So simple, but oh so effective. And don’t think you need a specialist Gibson-branded item woven from some exotic material – a simple face cloth or old towel will do. Bonus marks awarded for using a bar mat stolen from your last gig venue...
Wiping your strings down after every time you play will genuinely make the greatest single difference to their longevity. Try and get the cloth underneath as well as on the top of strings if possible, as muck/sweat will accumulate on both sides. And if you doubt how effective this advice might be, simply take a look at the colour of the cloth after you do the wiping. Yet again, Eeewwwww!
Unsurprisingly, there are also guitar-specific products to help you with this invaluable maintenance task. Devices such as the Nomad Tool (by Music Nomad) or the String Cleaner (by ToneGear) are custom made to clean above and below the string.
The range of things designed to clean, condition or lubricate guitar strings - and sometimes cover ALL these purposes - is huge. And that’s before you even consider various generic oils, alcohols and other liquids that many guitarists swear by (even WD40, which we wouldn’t recommend).
Here’s three famous products that are worth thinking about applying to your strings directly before/after playing if you really want to increase their life expectancy;
- GHS Fast Fret - the original classic, and sold as a wooden-handled applicator for ease of use. Designed and marketed more as a string lube than cleaner, but does a fair job of both. Also check out Planet Waves XLR8, a more modern equivalent with a larger applicator.
- Dunlop Ultraglide 65 String Conditioner – another long-standing classic string treatment for those who prefer a liquid, although this also now comes with an applicator lid.
- Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes - individually wrapped lubricated disposable wipes, available in packs of 20. Less cost-effective than other conditioners but incredibly convenient, and those thin sheets can also be pulled beneath the strings.
FYI; note that manufacturers of coated strings generally don't advise using string cleaning products - with no specific practical or chemical reason given. We even tried to get an answer from Elixir as to why, but received the standard company line of "do not recommend"...
The most common conventional methods for improving string life-expectancy have now been discussed. But guitarists are weird creatures, so it won’t surprise you to hear that a few offbeat solutions frequently get banded about. Such as;
- A Guitar Setup: Weird but true. The easier a guitar is to play, the less work for the player, hence less sweat, equalling less corrosion to the strings. Bear in mind that even a cheap guitar could be made to feel like a million dollars with just some simple work by a good technician - check our “Introducing the Guitar Setup” article to learn more about this.
- A sprinkle of Johnsons Baby Powder: Even weirder, but apparently quite popular around Nashville. Supposedly keeps hands dry, with the added bonus of making the strings and neck feel more slippery. Probably smells nice too...
- White Spirit: A technique that’s genuinely used by a few bassists, who remove the strings from the headstock end, firmly wipe them down with a spirit soaked rag, and re-attach. We’d suggest avoiding this method, particularly if you’re a smoker.
- Boiling: Yes, you read that right. There really are people who frequently remove their entire set of strings, boil them in a pan of water for around 15 minutes, and re-attach them to the guitar. What’s even crazier is that this technique DOES actually make dead strings sound incredibly bright, although their life expectancy is possibly reduced to minutes...
Rust on the strings? Accept defeat - it’s too late to do anything. Take them off and give them a simple funeral. Unless you like the sound and feel of rusty strings, in which case carry on playing. Just make sure you're up to date with your tetanus jabs.