“When do my strings need to be changed”? I get this asked of me quite often.
Because there are a lot of variables with regard to string life it’s something you need to check out yourself. I can’t say two months, a year, or any fixed time but there are easy things you can check that just takes a second. Generally keep in mind that the more often you play, the shorter its calendar life will be. If you play every day for an hour, two, three?… it could be just a week or two. Pro musicians go through strings pretty frequently. But if you just pick it up once in a while, a month or two, maybe more, maybe less. The following tips will help you judge when the strings are getting old.
The enemies of steel instrument strings are primarily chemical attack, physical wear, and metal fatigue.
When you play your guitar, banjo or mandolin your fingers impart a couple of different chemical elements that can attack the metal causing them to corrode. Primarily salt and the acids in your skin. This is why you should keep a clean cloth in your case and simply wipe the strings down all along their length after each session. Wiping it down right away will help remove the chemicals before their compounds have evaporated. Once the salts and acids are left to dry it would require some kind of liquid emulsifier to remove them. Basically, soaps or detergents. But you really don’t want to apply these chemicals to your neck because soaps and detergents are not good for the wood. So a soft cotton cloth is best used right after each time you play.
Checking for corrosion: Often the plain strings will feel rough as you slide a finger along it. The wound strings may not feel rough, but the usual bronze nickel or silver wrap wire will be discolored. You’ll be able to notice this discoloration by comparing the color of the strings where you don’t touch them. This would be between the nut to the tuning peg. If the strings are really very old even this area can become corroded, so if this area doesn’t look shiny it’s likely time to set yourself up with a new set.
To feel for roughness it’s pretty easy to tell. The string should feel very smooth along its length. Pinch the string between your fingers and slide your fingers from near the nut down toward the bridge and back. You will be able to feel the corrosion. Sometimes it’s so bad that you will almost cut your skin. Change the strings!
Wear can cause a roughness also, and corrosion accelerates wear. You may notice by looking very closely with young eyes (I have to use a magnifier). You can actually see thin areas of the string right at the string to fret contact point. Usually you’ll see the most wear and corrosion from the second through fifth frets.
Metal fatigue can’t really be seen but you might notice your instrument not sounding like it used to, or that the strings generally start breaking. If you break a string from normal playing and you question their age, get some new strings.
When changing your strings it’s usually recommended that you don’t change them all at one time. This is because a set of guitar strings exert a constant 75 to 80 pound pull between their mounting points at the bridge and the tuner. The pull does bend the neck, it always does. You will really notice how tuning one string up, especially when changing a string, or when one string has been de-tuned for any reason. Tightening up one string seems to make all the others go flat, or below the correct pitch. This is because when tuning the string up to pitch, the pull on the neck increases, bending the neck forward and shortening the distance from the nut to the saddle. This is normal, to some degree. However a loose guitar neck or an improperly adjusted banjo may allow the neck to pitch forward and back excessively. For most installations or re-tunings I take an average of three passes before I feel the strings are tuned. Each adjustment of any string will affect the others in the opposite way.
The reccomendation is to not take more than half the strings off when changing them. I haven’t always followed this rule but I do admit it’s the way to do it. When you remove a couple of strings take a good look at the fretboard (fingerboard) and it should have a uniform appearance across the wood. A fretboard that’s wearing badly will begin to show what I call “trenching” between the strings. This is caused by fingernails that are too long. Your fingernails may not be quite as hard as ebony or rosewwod but they grow back. The wood never does. So this wear is cumulative. Be sure to keep your fretting hand’s fingernails trimmed short to prevent this.
Something else you may notice is the color of the wood is different in the same way as the trenching. But instead or along with the trenching, the color is just.. different. Striped in a way. This is evidence that the wooden fretboard is way too dry. The best treatment for dry wood is lemon oil. I’ve done this a long time, and I’ve asked a lot of questions but by far, lemon oil is the most recommended treatment for dry wood. You can find this at every home improvement store, every hardware store. I just use regular furniture lemon oil. This is not like a furniture wax that contains lemon oil, don’t use that. It’s a simple bottle of yellow oil that you can dump a little bit onto a rag and then wipe along the fretboard until it looks moist. I like to wait a little while, allowing the oil more time to penetrate, perhaps ten minutes or so, then wipe it off. Like the other chemicals you don’t want it to dry before wiping it off, so don’t wait for hours, like overnight. In this case more is not better. However if the wood looks dry right away it’s likely absorbed the lemon oil like a sponge and you should apply more. After a few minutes use a dry rag or even a paper towel- they work great- and wipe down the moist oil. I haven’t found lemon oil to be deleterious to the strings. In fact it has a mild solvent action that sometimes help remove sticky residues but cannot harm the wood. It’s great stuff. But.. BE CAREFUL with your rags. You might not have heard of spontaneous combustion, but lemon oil will oxidize while on the rag, and the rags can actually burst into flames if they sit in a pile or trash can. So don’t pile oily rags together and walk away. I not only put them right into the outdoor trash can, but I’ll soak them in water before doing that. WIthin the week the trash will be picked up and taken away. Just be careful, and if you ever use linseed oil, remember it is highly self-igniting, so treat Linseed oily rags with great care also.
Oiling the fretboard can help prevent the worst thing that can happen to your guitar, outside of being stepped on by an elephant; I’ll write about that soon.
Your new strings will sound very bright and sparkly when you first put them on and tune them up. I will tune an instrument with three passes. You also may notice they go out of tune, or flat quite a lot so my first two string tuning passes are not finely tuned, but I am trying to apply the tension evenly before the third, and final tune up.
New strings are somewhat “stretchy”, and will tighten only so much before yielding to the stress. Once they are stretched they seem to hold the stretch, even after loosening. They will tune right back up and not stretch again. I am not sure if if you would call this simply “work hardening”, a trait of most metals where they get harder and more brittle the more it is worked, But whatever the actual cause, the strings will settle in over time, and a few tune-ups. Some guitarists will “pre-stretch” their strings. It’s easy to do. Once you have tuned up your instrument use your thumb and forefinger on a string to push out with your thumb and in with your finger in a twisting sort of way to pull an extra bit on the string. Don’t go crazy, just a gentle stretch should do, but you will notice that this will flatten the string right away. Only about two of those gestures and the string is stretched, and it should hold its tuning. The over-bright sound of new strings will mellow out after playing it just a few times. In my opinion this may be due in part to the work hardening of the metal along with contaminants from your hands.
As an experiment I have cleaned used strings in an ultrasonic cleaner and re-installed them on a guitar. This restored a great deal of their “new string brightness”.. But of course it can’t do anything for damage from wear and corrosion.
That’s about it for now. I will touch on other instrument care issues soon!
Have a great day and keep on pickin!
Dave Bloxham, Beyond Guitars