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7 Signs You Need to Change Your Strings

When it comes to changing our strings, we all have different ideas of exactly how often we should do this.  Full disclosure… whilst we love talking strings, we’re not big fans of changing them.  But, there does come a time when it’s probably best to buy yourself a new set and fit them to your guitar.

How often you change your strings is really down to taste (and convenience for some!). Some players like to change their strings every day, others change them every week or two and some people will leave their strings on indefinitely until their dying days. You know who you are if you fall into that last category!!  Hey, we’re not here to judge, but, what we are here to do is help give you a few pointers to recognise when your strings are on the turn and when it’s time to crack open a new pack.

1.String Breakage

Well Duh!! Of course you need to change your strings if they’re broken! Really, Strings Direct? This is a legitimate tip?

Hear us out! 

Yes of course, if you have broken a string, you obviously need to change it.  But, it’s good to be mindful of the condition of the strings around that broken one.  How long have they been on your instrument?  If you’ve only recently changed your strings and you were unlucky and one broke soon after you changed the set, chances are you shouldn’t need to replace the rest of the set just yet.  However, if that set has been on for a substantial period of time and one of the strings has finally given in, the likelihood is that one of the others is not too far behind.  For some, this might be ok if you’re just playing at home, but if you’re out on a gig, it's gonna be a bigger issue!

Unlike fine wines, rarely do strings improve with age, in fact, the longer a string is kept on a guitar, the more vulnerable it will be to breaking.

2. Visual indicators

The appearance of your strings can be a good indicator of when it’s time to change them.

Throughout a strings life, it's given some hefty abuse.  Once they're fitted to an instrument they are open to a number of elements that can cause them to deteriorate and their visual appearance usually is a good sign of their age.  

How often you play, how much your fingers sweat and perspire, how hard you are hitting the strings, the humidity of where you live, how you store your instrument and more all have an affect on the outer surface of the string.

Straight out of the pack most strings have a nice shine to them but as they age, older strings tend to become duller in colour.  This will affect both the wound and plain strings and it's a tell tale sign that it’s time to move on.

Some plain strings can also become pitted over time.  If you’ve ever seen a tarnished plain steel string it can look like a giraffes neck.  This might look cute, but it won’t do your guitar any good and will certainly hamper your playing experience.

**String Tip**
Can’t remember how your strings looked when they were first put on your guitar? Just take a picture on your phone of the strings when you first put them on.  It only takes 30 secs and it’s also a handy reminder of exactly when you last changed them.

3. Feel

When it comes to strings, we’re into how they feel as much as we are into how they sound. That’s why, when they start to feel a little 'off' to us, we know something’s not quite right.

This kind of ties in with the previous point but as strings get older they can start to feel different under the fingers too.  As plain steel strings become tarnished, you can really start to feel this as you run your fingers up and down the string.  They get rough in places and unfortunately there’s only so much string lubricant you can apply to cover this up. 

If you’re familiar with how brand new strings feel, you’ll definitely know that they have a lovely slinkiness and flexibility to them straight out of the pack. However, fast forward a few weeks / few gigs later, they can start to feel quite different and stiffen up. 

And it’s not just the plain strings that can fall victim, sweat and grime from our fingers, not to mention dead skin particles (gross!) can clog up the little ridges between each winding of the wound strings, which in turn can hamper the strings’ flexibility. In fact, the sweat and grime can permeate the string too. Typically, wound strings have a hexagonal core wire and the outside winding that you see is wrapped around that core. The corners of the hexagonal core bite into this wire winding to help stop it slipping. Sweat and grime can work its way in between the windings and into the spaces inside the strings between the outer wire and the flat sides of the core and that really won’t do your strings any favours.

Above: Elixir Advert showing how their coating that's applied to the outer surface of the string can prevent dirt and grime getting in between the windings.

4. Sound

More often than not, you’ll start to hear when your strings have taken a step closer to the end of their life.

When you put a new set of strings on, they tend to start out sounding nice and bright but the more they are played, that initial sparkle will tail off and the tone will soften slightly.

It’s good to recognise that tonal sweetspot when your strings sound at their best.  Once this has been surpassed, the string will start to sound dull and you’ll notice the strings lose a lot of treble and don’t sustain as much either.  As the heavier wound strings get dirtier you might find that a string that played perfectly okay before, suddenly starts to rattle and buzz on some of the frets because it just isn’t vibrating properly, or it just sounds dead and lifeless.

It should be said that some players really favour a more mellow string that has been left on the guitar for a longer period.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after all, tone is all in the eyes of the player.  However, it’s good to be mindful that an older string is more susceptible to some of the points we have made so far.

If you saw our recent Player Spotlight blog, you will have read that Chic funkmaster Nile Rodgers has a bit of a penchant for an older string;

"My guitar techs know that I’m gonna have an attitude if I say, ‘Did you change my strings last night?’ and they say ‘Er, yeah, man, we changed them before the last show… ’. It’s just a thing, man, and I can’t explain it but I like old guitar strings.”

Hey, if it’s good enough for Nile, who are we to argue!

5. Tuning

Regardless of our technical ability or where we are in our guitar playing journey, we should all know that the first rule of guitar club is that you need to be in tune.  Even more important when we are playing in a band with other musicians.

As soon as we put a brand new set of strings on, we need to stretch them and play them in for a short period of time in order for them to settle down.  After this period, they tend to stay in tune pretty well.  However, as time goes on and as we subject our strings to all the sweat, dirt and abuse we hurl at them, their ability to stay in tune often goes down the pan.

Our string’s intonation is often the thing that is noticeably compromised.  Intonation basically refers to the strings ability to stay in tune as you fret notes up and down the neck.  Whilst an open string may be in tune, there’s a likelihood that an older string may have tuning issues on the fretted notes because wear and tear has caused it to lose the uniform properties along its length that it had when you first fitted it. If the string isn’t uniform in cross section along its length then it can’t play in tune properly. 

Whilst intonation issues can often be resolved by moving the position of your saddles forwards or backwards as necessary, that’s really a correction for when the set up of the guitar has changed, i.e. the neck having more/less relief in it or after a truss rod adjustment has been made (usually all carried out when the strings are in good condition).  However, once a string enters the twilight years of its life, no amount of saddle adjustment can rescue the tuning issues and there’s only one ideal solution and that’s to change your strings.

6. Fret Wear on our strings

Our good friend Chas Johnson had some great points to make on the effects of fret wear and our strings.

"Over time fret wear on our strings can play a big part in affecting their ability to stay in tune too.

If you do a lot of string bending then each time you bend a note it’s a bit like grinding a skateboard on a rail. You are stretching the string and increasing its tension as you force it across the metal fret.

As a result, the strings (especially the plain ones) will wear and start to kink very slightly where they make contact with the tops of the frets. This then changes the property of the string. When you fit a new string it is clean, straight and has a uniform thickness and so, subject to your guitar being set up properly with the nut slots cut correctly and the bridge saddle intonation being accurate, the string will play as ‘in tune’ as possible at each fret along its length (you can keep an eye on this with an electronic tuner). 

With decent quality instruments it’s highly unlikely that a fret will have been installed in the wrong place, so if you are checking how ‘in tune’ your guitar plays along each string and you find an area where the tuning starts to become wayward then it’s likely to be wear and tear on a string and/or the fret crowns are to blame.

Attempts to chase the 12th fret intonation and correct it by moving a bridge saddle when the strings are well worn and no longer behaving uniformly along their length is a waste of time. If the intonation is out because the strings have become worn, then you are likely to cause other issues by moving the saddle! It might allow you to get the 12th fret octave note in tune with the open string but it can make matters worse for how more out of tune the guitar then plays at other frets along its length."

Spick and Span

There is another important point in that the less often you clean your strings and wipe them down after playing the quicker they can tarnish and rust as a result of the guitar being put away with sweat on the strings. The resulting corrosion will start to make the underside of the string rough and so the wear and tear that it will then cause to the fret wire becomes far greater. Often people will just wipe the tops of the strings and think that’s enough but you really need to wrap a piece of cloth around the string and clean its underside. It’s a minute or two well spent as your strings and frets will last longer as a result. If you look after your guitar then it will look after you!!

Aside from checking the undersides of the strings for roughness, it’s a good idea to check the underneath of the strings regularly for spot wear over the frets too. It's all very well giving them a wipe with Fast Fret or the like and thinking that they look nice and clean but if they are wearing on contact with the frets and developing flat spots where the string windings are wearing down, then the intonation will start going out. If you leave those wound strings on long enough then the windings can eventually wear through and start to expose the core wire on the thinner wound strings.

To check the underside of the strings you just need to hook the pad of your index finger under the string and run it gently along the length of the string. you'll soon feel if there are any flat spots, (or, in the case of plain steel strings, kinking over the frets).

When you feel that the strings aren't smooth and even then it's time to change them as the necking of the wire (where it has stretched unevenly) will have scuppered the intonation and it's time to visit Strings Direct!"

7. Coated strings and a new type of shredding

Mr Johnson also had some thoughts on coated strings too...

"Whilst coated strings certainly help to prolong the life of our strings, we need to be mindful of how the coating can alter depending on how we play and use our strings.

The coating will inevitably wear down over the tops of the frets and this can be made worse by bending the strings. Another thing to watch for is the integrity of the coating on the tops of the strings. If you have coated strings on your acoustic and are in the habit of moving between open tunings, then watch out for the coating fraying and collecting at the nut as the strings move back and forth in the slots far more than normal if the guitar is kept in standard tuning. Similarly, if you are partial to a bit of Pete Townshend-style Pinball Wizard strumming then watch out where your pick is hitting! You may notice the strings near the soundhole start to fray and wear away the coating quite quickly. As this coating wears, the area with no coating will tarnish whilst the rest of the string stays protected and looking bright by comparison."

So there you have it, seven things to look out for to know when to change your strings. There’s no need to go overboard and examine and analyse the performance of your strings every five minutes, but if you are taking care of them and wiping them down each time after playing, then this information should help you work out what’s going on when they no longer sound good or in tune to you.

It might be an idea to take a good look at your old strings next time you change them and, apart from just seeing the discolouration when compared to the fresh strings you are about to fit, check for signs of spot wear on the wound strings and the how the plain strings end up feeling uneven and possibly slightly rough.

We hope this has helped you all out. 

How about you guys? Is there anything else you look out for that gives you a good indicator that it’s time to change your strings? 

If you have any other ideas on this, feel free to pop a comment in the box below or send us a message, we always love to hear from you and help you out where we can.

Until next time…..

**As always, a big thank you to Chas Johnson for his helpful suggestions and wisdom in putting this blog together.

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