Image by Joel Bombardier
Is your guitar not sounding as bright as it used to? Are your riffs coming out sounding muddy? Maybe it’s time to change your guitar strings! Or maybe not…
Over time a guitar’s strings change in tone due to stretching and fatigue. A brand new set of strings will always start out with a bright tone and fade to a soft tone the more they are played.
There is no magic number of days, months, or hours of play. Your ears tell you when it’s time to replace your guitar strings.
If you prefer the crisp bright tone of a set of new strings then you will probably change your strings frequently, maybe on a monthly basis. If you like the soft tone of a set of broken-in strings then you probably wont change them very often. It all comes down to your musical style and tone preference.
I have a different preference for all of my guitars. On my Les Paul I love the way my riffs sound through a set of brand new strings. However, on my acoustic guitar I like this warm tonal spot that is half way between new and old. Because of that I change the strings on my electric guitar a lot more frequently than on my acoustic guitar.
Do I Ever Have to Change My Guitar Strings?
If none of them break then no, you really don’t. I know people who don’t even think about changing their strings and would never choose to. But what if you don’t have a choice? There are some factors that could be a clear sign that you should change your guitar strings.
The Sound. This is an easy one. If you don’t like the tone of your guitar strings any longer, slap a new set on.
Dirt and Grime – The oils, sweat, and even dead skin from your hands can easily build up on your guitar strings over time. If too much of this gunk builds up it can really hurt the strings tone and even hamper your ability to play. If your strings are really dirty this might be a time to restring your guitar.
Stiff Strings – If your guitar hasn’t been played for months or years the strings may become stiff and difficult to fret or strum. You can bring that guitar back to life by replacing the strings.
A Broken String – Many different things can cause a string to break. It could be normal wear and tear, an impurity in the string, or an intense jam session. When you break a string it’s my opinion that you should just replace the whole set.
Strings Wearing at the Fret – If you leave your strings on for a long time you will notice they will develop some flat spots caused by friction at the frets. Although this isn’t reason enough to warrant changing your strings, it will affect the tone and a string could eventually break at one of those spots.
When I first started playing I had this borrowed miniature acoustic that we called ‘the killer guitar’ because the action was so horrible it ‘killed’ your fingers. When it was lent to me it already had old strings on it. For years we never changed killer’s strings and over time those worn down spots eventually became a break in the winding around the string core making them like barbed wire. We were forced to change the strings and although the new set had much better action, the guitar never sounded quite the same.
Extending The Life of Your Guitar Strings
Factors like frequency of play, cleanliness and humidity can all play a part in the life expectancy of your guitar strings. A new set of strings sound bright not only because they are completely unfatigued but also because they are free of dirt, grime, and corrosion.
Play your guitar with clean hands.
You don’t have to develop an OCD but try to keep your hands clean of anything that could transfer to your guitar strings. You can also use a hand sanitizer which will even remove some of the natural oils on your hands.
Wipe down your strings with a dry cloth after playing.
Your hands might get a little sweaty jamming in the hot months. If this happens wipe all that moisture away from the strings after playing.
Keep your guitar in a guitar case.
This will prevent dust or anything else in the air settling on your guitar or its strings.
Following the above rules may not keep your strings sounding brand new forever. However, if you do follow them you can greatly extend the life and tone of your guitar strings.
The Easy Answer
I have outlined a few scenarios above which may prompt you to want to change your guitar strings but the easy answer is the decision is up to you.
New strings can bring a crisp tone to your music and improve the playability of your guitar. But if that doesn’t jive with your style of music then there is no reason to change your strings. Play those strings until they blow!