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String Change Basics: Part 2

I’m back again,

Welcome back to our straightforward, no-nonsense (ok, nearly no-nonsense), non-illustrated guide about how to perform guitar string changes.

Hopefully, Part 1 has given you the low-down on why and when re-stringing your guitar is a good idea. So, let’s get going with the practical stuff…

Just to warn you, I’m gonna be a little long-winded this week.  This could easily be split into a Part 3 but then you’d be left hanging with a half-strung up guitar and nowhere to go.  That just wouldn’t be very nice, right?  You’ll need to get this all done in one shot.

What equipment will I need to change strings?

The essentials:

  • New strings
  • Pliers (and a wire cutter if your pliers don’t have this built-in)
  • Guitar tuner

The very useful

  • String winder (aka ‘peg winder’)

We’d also recommend somewhere comfortable to work that won’t damage the guitar or anything else. Lay it on a table or bench with a towel under the entire instrument and a cushion or pillow beneath the neck.

All at once? Or one-at-a-time?

Opinions differ about whether you should remove all your guitar strings in one go before re-stringing;

  • Advantages: with no strings on the guitar, you can completely clean the fingerboard using a guitar cleaning oil or similar product. This will also help keep new strings cleaner for longer.
  • Disadvantages: your guitar is used to supporting the weight of a full string set – a sudden and complete loss of tension may cause some movement in the neck or action.

This is really your decision to make. One common suggestion is to usually complete changes one string at a time, and occasionally do the full removal and clean the neck and other parts that are hard to get at when all of the strings are on.

Removing the old strings

This is the easy part…

  1. Loosen the old string. It doesn’t have to be floppy and hanging off, just loose enough so there’s no discernible note being produced when played. You could snip strings in half with the pliers at this point, but it’s not 100% necessary.
  2. Remove string from the head end of the guitar. This will involve un-wrapping it from the tuning peg. At this stage of looseness, it should easily unravel, although there’s like to be a little kink right at the end that will need persuading. Be careful with the string end – remember it’s basically a length of wire, and lengths of wire usually terminate in a sharp point.
  3. Remove string from bridge end of the guitar. The method here will depend on the type of guitar you have:

Electric

Strings are usually secured to the bridge end of electric guitars in two different ways. ‘Bridge mounted’ instruments (think Gibson Les Paul) have strings threaded through from the back of the bridge. ‘String-through’ instruments (think Fender Stratocaster) have the strings threaded through from the back of the guitar’s body where they poke out from the front through the bridge. In either case, the old string will simply thread its way back out the way it came in.

Steel-string acoustic

These are usually pushed through holes in the bridge, going inside the guitar body, and then secured with little pegs called ‘bridge pins’. The pins are easily removed, ideally using pliers, after which you simply pull the string out.

Other common methods for bridge pin removal include;

  • String winders. These are usually fitted with a notch designed for levering out bridge pins.
  • A spoon. Use this as a lever, but make sure you protect the guitar body with something like a towel (or a beer mat if you’re doing this at a gig).
  • Your teeth. Clench the pin between your jaws and pull it out. This is a very common method for folk and blues players. (have you seen the state of those guys teeth? Don’t try it).

I’m kidding.  Really.  You DO know I’m kidding, right?

Make sure you put the pins somewhere safe after removal – any you lose will prevent you from re-stringing the guitar completely!

Nylon-string Classical/Flamenco guitar

Pretty self-explanatory – the string is tied to the bridge with a looped knot threaded through itself. This should be easy to untie.

Be careful when disposing of the old strings – a good idea is to coil them up so they don’t poke out through garbage bags. And remember, metal can usually be recycled.

Identify the correct string before you begin attaching them

Obvious you may think. But REALLY annoying if you get halfway through and then realize that’s an A string that you’re winding onto the peg meant for the G…

Fortunately, string manufacturers help you out here, and (usually) label the packets pretty carefully. If they’re not in individual wallets with the string name, number and gauge clearly marked, they’ll most likely have color-coded ball-ends which you can identify using instructions on the packet. Oh, and don’t throw either those empty wallets or packet away immediately – they’re a good way of storing the old strings before you bin them.

Attaching the new strings

Basically, read the previous string removal steps in reverse order. First, you need to attach your new string to the bridge…

  • Electric: whether it’s string-through or bridge-mounted, simply thread the new string back through where the old one came from, either from the back of the guitar body or the rear end of the bridge. And make sure you poke it through the correct hole!
  • Steel-string acoustic: Poke the ball-end of the string through the correct hole on the bridge – perhaps making a slight kink (no more than 45°) about an inch from the end before you do – this makes the ball-end less likely to give you problems. Then re-insert the pin, making sure the groove is facing towards the guitar neck. Hold the pin down whilst you pull on the string until you feel it catch, then push the pin tightly into position. A gentle tug on the string will ensure it’s locked into place, although don’t be surprised if the peg pops out. If this happens, simply repeat the process until you’re satisfied that peg ain’t going nowhere! And don’t worry – bridge pin replacement can take practice.
  • Nylon-string Classical/Flamenco guitar: Having untied the old string, you’ll need to tie on the new one. Thread about 15cm of new string through the correct bridge hole, front to back. Then loop it under the main section of string, bring it back to knot under the resulting loop a few times, and finally pull the main string section to gently but firmly tighten the knot.

Surplus string

Most guitar strings are WAY longer than you’ll need them to be, which can be annoying whilst attaching them to the tuning pegs. To make life easier, this is the point where you can choose to trim them down initially. Hold the string against the guitar all the way up to the relevant tuning peg and measure around a hand’s width beyond – that’s where you can make a cut with the pliers and take off the top end section. Or not. We know this procedure can be a nerve-racking experience for the first few times!

Winding on new strings

This part is pretty much the same for all guitar types.

Start by threading the string through the hole in the tuning peg post, from inside to outside. If you’ve already trimmed the string down then you’re looking for just an inch or two to poke through the hole. If you haven’t then pull enough of the string through so that the main part runs over the neck properly – not too tight, but roughly in place. Either way, make sure the string is running over the correct part of the bridge saddle and the correct groove in the headstock nut.

Professional guitar technicians have the experience, skill, and confidence to start winding straight away at this point. But if you’re concerned about the string trying to slip back through the hole in the post as you begin to tighten things up (and this does happen) then two common tricks to avoid this are;

  • Make a kink in the string where it comes back out of the hole in the post – basically just bend the protruding part into a V-shape, holding it roughly in place
  • Pass the string round the back of the post so that it goes under itself, then fold the end back over the top. Think of this as an ‘extreme’ kink – less pretty but slightly more secure.

Now the actual winding begins, and this is where the convenience of a string winder becomes clear. You’re going to start turning the tuners themselves to wind the string around the tuning peg post, usually in an anti-clockwise direction (if you’re looking directly at the tuner from above) or whichever way you usually twist the thing to tune upwards, and it’s gonna take a LOT of turns. Try to ensure that the string wraps itself around the peg below the hole – ideally not covering up the preceding wraps as it goes, although this isn’t a major problem if it happens. And remember we’re not tuning to correct pitch at this point, just simply getting the string attached firmly and as neatly as possible.

Repeat this process with the rest of the strings. Ideally, you’d have 2-3 wraps around the posts for the low strings (E A and D) and around 6 for the high strings (G B and high E), but this isn’t an exact science.

Stretching and tuning

Nearly ready to play! But brand-new strings contain a lot of slack and have a habit of stretching quite a bit, which will put them back out of tune pretty quickly. Fortunately, this is something we can try to take the edge off by ‘pre-stretching’

  • Use the tuner and get the string to its normal pitch.
  • Pull-on the string firmly but gently. Now check the tuning again.
  • Repeat the above process as many times you feel necessary. Basically tune, stretch, tune, stretch, tune…

After about three times through this sequence, you’ll notice the string starting to finally behave.

Final Trim

If you didn’t complete the trimming part earlier on then you’re now holding a freshly re-strung, perfectly tuned guitar that looks like it needs a visit to a barber’s shop. Those bits of string hanging off the headstock don’t look cool in a ‘guitar hero’ kinda way, they look stupid. And dangerously sharp. Do yourself (and anyone standing nearby as you play) a favor – grab the pliers and trim those things right back.

Finished!

And you’re all done. For a beginner this can feel like a chore – patience is definitely required. But practice makes perfect (and we guarantee you’ll get plenty of that), so what may have just taken you half an hour will soon be taking less than six minutes.

This really is the simplest way to improve everything about the way a guitar sounds, so go and enjoy that beautiful fresh string smell. Just wash your hands first, otherwise, you’ll be repeating this process way too soon…

Wrapping It All Up

So…that’s it!  Yeah, it was a lot of reading, but it changing your strings really is as simple as it sounds. I’m gonna be moving on to a different topic next week, so until then – stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

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