Guitar strings can be one of the most overlooked aspects of playing the guitar, which can keep you sounding great. They may seem relatively unimportant, but nothing could be further from the truth!
Knowing all of the little nuances of how they can affect your playing effort and tone can make all the difference in the world. Details that fall into this bucket include string gauge, material type, and coated vs. uncoated (among other things) — and one big factor is when it’s time to change your strings out for a brand new set.
So, you may wonder how often to change guitar strings.
Truthfully, there’s no hard and fast rule here. It’s a fact that string quality (and therefore, the sound quality) will deteriorate over time, especially if you play a lot. It’s this degradation — and how much it affects your preferences — that typically determines how often you’ll be swapping your old strings out for new ones. Let’s take a look at a few common scenarios where a string change may (or WILL) be needed…
You may notice that your guitar sounds a lot brighter and snappier just after a fresh string change. That’s because all of the dirt and contaminants that accumulate over time aren’t there any longer. That being said, some players prefer the sound of old, or dead, strings.
Changing strings just off the basis of how they sound isn’t always the best indicator, though. In this situation, it’s purely a matter of personal preference — if you like to keep things sounding fresh, then you may choose to change them more often. Take a look at the flip side of that — one of our team members here at GuitarFella is proud of the fact that he hasn’t changed his strings in over two years — and that’s after some pretty heavy gigging!
There are some indicators that the end is drawing close for the life of your strings though, past just how they sound. If you are finding that your guitar just won’t stay in tune like it used to, then a string change may be in your future.
That is particularly true if you find yourself having problems with the three unwound strings — the 1st (thinnest) through the 3rd (typically tuned to be a G note). Chords just won’t sound right, and you’ll be fiddling around with it much more than you typically would.
Another key time to change a string is when — you guessed it — it breaks. It’s kind of hard to keep on keeping on when you’re missing a string! You may be able to get away with it in a live setting until the end of the song if you are playing a guitar with a fixed bridge, but if you’re using a floating tremolo then forget it – the change in tension will pretty much whack out your tuning where you’ll just sound like a bunch of cats fighting in a bag. And no one wants to hear that…
There are a few things you can do to keep this from happening sooner than later, though. A big factor is to try and keep down the amount of ‘stuff’ that will inevitably land on your strings over time. Use a good quality guitar cloth (available in any guitar or instrument store) to wipe down the fretboard when you’re done playing. Some players even slide the cloth between the strings and the neck to try and get more of the accumulated dirt and sweat from your fingers off of them.
How you play can be a huge factor as well. If you’re the type that tends to lay a little heavy with your picking, or you like to bend a string up five frets just because you’re feeling it and in the moment, you’re a prime candidate for some unexpected string breakage. Tone it down, Tiger! That, or you may want to experiment with thicker gauge strings. Those can introduce tone changes and will certainly change the feel of your guitar and how it plays, so you ultimately have to select what the best compromise would be for your tastes in this case.
A good guitar, just like anything worth having, needs to have regular upkeep and be taken care of. Sometimes strings just corrode over time due to age and neglect. That will be obvious as soon as you pick it up and try to play. Excessively corroded strings may tend to feel like you’re playing pieces of barbed wire, and the tone will be ‘less than stellar.’
Some good old planned maintenance regarding your strings can be the key to keeping your guitar sounding and playing in tip-top shape for your preferences. Many players will look at changing strings like changing the oil in your car — it gets done at a regular frequency. It may depend on the number of gigs you play, or it could simply be a time interval of every few months.
It’s a fair statement to say that you can avoid most of the problems we’ve discussed (substandard tone, tuning stability, breakage) by keeping on top of things. That's particularly important based off what kind of a player you are as well. Let’s face it — if you just play a little bit in your bedroom or home studio, well, that can be worlds apart from a heavily gigging guitarist that attacks the strings for hours per night. In the end, you should settle for what makes sense for your needs.
Changing the strings on your guitar isn’t a matter of if; it’s completely a matter of when. Knowing what signs to look for when a catastrophic string failure is coming will help you avoid disaster (at the worst) and will also let you keep your guitar sounding and playing to your liking (at the best). String changes are relatively cheap and not that time consuming, so we’d recommend staying on top of things as best you can.