String Change Basics: Part 1

String Change Basics: Part 1

Welcome to our straightforward, no-nonsense, non-illustrated guide about how to perform guitar string changes. Why have we not included pictures? Well, because…

  1. If we’ve written it properly, you should hopefully be able to understand this process without the need for photographs.
  2. We don’t have the budget for photographs (hey, it’s a free email…)

Anyways, let’s get to business.

Why do I need to change my strings?

For a number of reasons;

  • You’ve broken a string. Even Gorilla tape won’t fix that.
  • New strings make your guitar sound better. The same way fresh clothes make you smell better. Probably.
  • Your strings sound dull. Some guitarists like this. Some don’t.
  • Your strings look dirty. This is an unavoidable eventual result of the cocktail of dirt, dead skin and oils from your fingers. Eww.
  • Your strings have gone rusty. This is an unavoidable eventual result of strings being made of metal. Metal rusts. But hey, you’re up to date with your tetanus shots, right?
  • Your strings have become worn. Yes, really. They’re made of metal and you keep rubbing them against other bits of metal. Why wouldn’t they get worn?

Strings are like any consumable item – tissues, tires, toothbrushes – none of these are meant to last forever. For that reason alone, it’s always worth keeping spares handy just in case.

And remember that guitar strings are usually sold in complete sets, with many guitar shops only stocking the thinner strings as individual items. Since the thinner strings are more likely to snap, we’d suggest keeping a few spare individual high E and B strings along with at least one complete set in your guitar case.

When should I change them?

Now, this depends on the kind of guitarist you are;

  • Professional gigging or studio player; every gig or session.
  • Occasional amateur live performer; every few weeks. But particularly if you’ve got an important gig coming up (do you REALLY want to risk older strings that are more likely to snap midway through your set???)
  • Occasional home player; at least once every 2 months should be ok.
  • An infrequent player who sometimes remembers they own a guitar; your choice. We’re certainly not going to try and lecture someone this laid-back…

But to all players, some words of advice. Give your strings a wipe, or even use a string cleaner such as Fast Fret, every time you finish playing your guitar. You’ll find that this makes them last much longer. And make a habit of keeping your guitar in a case rather than on a stand or hanger, or even leaning against a wall – basic exposure and air humidity will affect string quality after time.

And what strings should I buy?

Oh, brother…now there’s a loaded question.

Talking about brands at this point could be a minefield – guitarists tend to feel even more strongly about string choice than instrument choice. There are die-hard fans of Ernie Ball, Rotosound, Martin, and all the other major string manufacturers, and these fans are definitely creatures of habit. I’m not ashamed to include myself in that description either – all of my 6-strings are currently equipped with D’Addario, both acoustic and electric, and I honestly couldn’t explain why.

So, talking about string types seems simpler. And here you have some very distinct choices:

  • Electric guitar: metal strings, most commonly a steel core wrapped in nickel-plated steel on the 6th – 4th string, and plain steel on the 3rd – 1st. String set gauges determined by the weight of the 1st string – most commonly .010-.046 gauge, followed by .090-.042 and then .011-.048 (which also has windings on the 3rd string) in order of popularity. The heavier the gauge, the heavier the string. More exotic materials such as stainless steel are available, along with developments in coatings to increase lifespan and/or tone. Polished tape-wound ‘chrome’ strings are available for the jazz traditionalists amongst us.
  • Steel-string acoustic: also metal strings, again with a steel core but wrapped in most commonly in bronze or phosphor bronze wire. Alternatively wrapped in aluminum bronze, brass, a combination of silk/nylon/copper layers, colored coatings made from advanced polymers – the choice of materials and finishes here is overwhelmingly big. Gauge sets tend to be heavier than electric strings – the most common being .012-.054 and with other weights extending in both lighter and heavier directions.
  • Nylon-string Classical/Flamenco acoustic: fortunately, no longer made from actual animal guts (yup, that really used to be the material of choice), these strings are usually formed out of nylon or other synthetic fibers. Which is excellent news for vegetarian or vegan guitarists worldwide…

Multi-filament cores are wrapped with either nylon or metal for the 6th-4th strings, and plain strings make up the 3rd-1st. Generally sold rated by tension rather than gauge – low, normal and high are the main options, but (as with steel-strung acoustics) there are many others. DO NOT use steel string acoustic sets on your classical guitar as it’s not designed to cope with the weight.

What actual set to go for as a new player is going to be a game of experimentation. Lighter = easier on the fingers. Heavier = more sustain. Electric strings on a steel-string acoustic = practically no volume and funny looks from everyone. And listening to every other guitarist’s opinion on the matter = a headache.

But take heart from this; you’re going to be getting through so many sets of these things that it makes sense to try a few different brands, weights, and even materials out. It won’t take long before you find something that works for you. And look on the bright side – in terms of $$$ the guitar player has it so much cheaper than anyone shopping for violin or double-bass strings. Don’t even ask how much it costs to change the full set on a harp.

Halfway point

And that’s it for now. Part 2 is where it’s all gonna get terrifyingly practical for the new guitarist as we actually perform a string change. Unless you got over-excited by the title and have already started taking the old strings off – in which case you’ve basically crippled your guitar playing for the time being. Ummmmm…sorry.

See you next week.  Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

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