“How often should I change my strings?
The answer to this is “it depends” and it depends on on a few things that i will list here in order of importance:
- How often and where you play – if you play a couple of times a week for an hour at a time and you live in a fairly moderate environment with average heat and humidity you will not be changing you strings as often as someone who plays for three hours every night in a hot humid area. The main cause of strings “dying” is through corrosion. As your sweat reacts with the metal strings it gradually corrodes them to the point where they no longer sound good or play in tune…the more you play the more you sweat…the hotter your environment…the more you sweat!
- What strings you use – if you use good quality average gauge strings and don’t play like a psychopath you will not be changing your strings as frequently as someone using poor quality skinny strings who uses a 3mm pick employing windmill strumming techniques! Poor quality strings will have inconsistent windings and will harbor more of your finger gunk, sweat and DNA in certain areas causing weakness and breakage. Skinny strings are more pliable, and so, are easier to “dent” as you press a string to a fret. The crown of the fret will gradually leave a little groove in the underside of the string. These “dents” cause improper intonation and eventual failure of the string!
- What your sweat is like – This is a bit gross but is a BIG factor when it comes to string failure! Some people have more corrosive sweat than others depending on their individual body chemistry. High levels of acidity and salinity in sweat will corrode strings very quickly, i used to tech for a guy who had such seriously corrosive sweat he had to change his strings every week, i even had to change his scratch plate screws and intonation screws as they were eroded to nothing in a year!!!
So as you can see the causes of string failure and need for replacement are generally corrosion and mechanical damage so my advice for keeping your strings alive as long as possible?…
A) Wipe your strings down after every practice to get yer goop off em!
B) Choose string gauges which suit your playing style. If you play hardcore-punk power chords don’t use 9 gauge strings and kick the f**k out of them!
On a serious note it is important to change strings when they need it. Not only because they sound muffled and lifeless when they die but as they become weaker through corrosion they are more likely to suddenly break causing injury and/or embarressment. It is also worth noting that as a string gathers more corrosion and gunk from your fingers it actually increases in mass which affects intonation ( this complicated topic is tackled in more detail elsewhere!)
So if your wound strings start to thud instead of zing and your un-wound strings feel “gritty” as you run your hand up them…..you know what time it is!!!
“What strings are best for me?”
This is a very difficult question to answer but it is one that i get asked all the time!
The two things to consider when looking to choose strings are:
- CHEMICAL/MECHANICAL CONSTRUCTION
- GAUGE AND TENSION
When referring to a guitar string’s chemical makeup we mean what it is made of, or it’s fundamental chemical components. By mechanical construction we mean how a string is put together.
A guitar sting is, usually, constructed in one of two ways. It is either a PLAIN string which is a solid but thin piece of one type of material or alloy, or it will be a WOUND string which is a solid winding of material wrapped around a core of either similar solid material or sometimes fiber strands.
When considering the chemical composition of strings we find that TYPES of guitars suited to different styles of music will have strings made of different materials to better reflect that instruments tonal characteristics.
Classical or flamenco guitars will generally have Nylon, or “gut” plain strings and nylon, silk or “gut” core wound strings wrapped with silver plated copper.
Flat and arched top acoustic guitars will generally have solid steel plain trebles and bass cores with 80/20 bronze alloy wraps. These strings can also contain other materials to change their makeup such as phosphor which makes the string inherently brighter and more resistant to chemical corrosion. In recent years many string manufacturers have employed plasticizers in their strings construction to add a corrosion barrier increasing the life of the string although this does have an impact on the overall tone of the string.
Electric guitar strings are generally made up of solid steel plain trebles and bass cores with nickel/silver alloy wraps. These strings can also contain other materials and alloys such as titanium and cobalt to increase a strings magnetism and/or resistance to chemical corrosion. Electric guitar strings are also available in pure nickel which offers a very pleasing tone but as many people are allergic to high nickel content strings these have waned in popularity over the years. Stainless steel is can also be used, they have superb dynamic characteristics and huge magnetic output but are very hard and tend to “eat” nickel/silver frets unless they are also made of stainless steel.
When considering the the gauge or cross-sectional diameter of strings to use there are a few factors to consider:
- The scale length of the guitar in question. That is the distance from the face of the nut to the centre point of the bridge/saddles. Common scale lengths for popular guitars are 25.5″ (Fender Stratocaster/Telecaster), 24.75″ (Gibson Les Paul/SG) and 25″ (PRS). These different scale lengths not only affect the overall tone of the instrument but have a direct affect on the strings used on them. A guitar with a longer scale length will require more tension across its strings to reach concert pitch, that is the strings will feel “stiffer” as they are under more tension. Guitars with shorter scale lengths will not require this much tension across the length of their strings to reach the same pitch and therefore will feel more “slinky”.
- The type/construction of the guitar in question. Here we are concerned with the fundamental features of particular guitars that make them more suited to one type of string to another. For example a solid body guitar with reasonable break angle* across the nut and bridge can cope being strung with lighter gauge strings. An arch top, big body jazz guitar with floating bridge will benefit from slightly heavier gauge strings. A solid slab body is not designed to resonate as much as an acoustic style body so does not require increased string tension as part of its function, it will also usually have a fairly steep break angle across its bridge so as to keep strings taught across the board. The acoustic style arched top of a jazz guitar is generally required to be made to resonate or “talk”. For this to happen the floating bridge must be mechanically coupled to the guitars sound board or top by being firmly held in place by the strings at reasonable tension. Obviously there are countless different styles of guitars each having slightly different idiosyncrasies that will determine the best suit with regard to strings.
- The playing style of the guitarist in question. This is perhaps one of the most important factors to consider. When we refer to the playing style we are talking about not only the chosen style of music but how they physically attack the strings also. If you are a player who really “digs in” to strings and strums hard with plenty of attack you would probably benefit from slightly beefier strings as your increased attack is likely to cause strings to pull sharp. Not only as you cause distortions in the open strings vibration pattern but as a consequence of pushing the string harder into frets causing fretted notes to bend sharp. However if you have a very light touch and moderate attack you will find less problems using slinkier strings. As far as musical style is concerned, a guitarist wishing to play fast, blistering noodle rock in the mould of Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani or Steve Vai would probably benefit from skinnier strings as notes are often momentary here and speed is the key focus. Traditional jazz or swing guitarists will be more suited to heavy gauge strings which ring louder and truer as focus here is on tone and acoustic volume.
*by “break angle” we are referring to the angle at which a string passes over the nut or saddle. A shallow angle will allow the strings to vibrate more loosely while a more acute angle will result in a more consistent string vibration pattern.