by Jamey Mann, Catoctin School of Music
A highly debated and personal topic in the guitar world is changing guitar strings. Generally, it is recommended that guitar strings be changed about every three months which may seem fairly often. However, depending on how much you play and your personal tolerance/preference for aging strings, your mileage may vary.
While strings should be changed regularly, it is surprising how long strings can last. I have seen guitars in my studio with strings that are rusted, black, and are years old, but are still not falling completely apart. This does not mean students should allow them do get that bad. I recommend that students change strings about every three months, but I think it is important for teachers to walk students and parents through the process a couple times before a student tries to change strings on their own. Of course, if the student is young, parents will have to manage this task until such a time as it can be safely transitioned to the student.
For advanced players, the string changing schedule might be a little different. Personally, I like my strings to be well broken in for a mellow tone. I do this for personal preference and practically speaking I would be changing string every couple weeks because I play so much. Guitars I perform with get new strings once a month, while guitars I teach with may only get a new set of strings after one breaks, or I am having tuning problems. Professional musicians that perform on a nightly basis may change strings before each performance.
The following are useful tips to help students know when to change strings along with some other helpful points as well.
- Visual Inspection- You can tell a guitar needs strings by doing a visual inspection. String should be bright white, silver, or gold color (depending on what the string is made of). Over time this color will start to dull and change. The string will also develop dark spots on the frets that are used the most. For many beginner students this will be in the first position bass strings.
- Dull/Bad tone– New strings sound bright and crisp. After some time, the strings will take on a more mellow tone which some guitarist like. When the strings begin sounding dull or tone does not sustain, it is nearing time for a change.
- Dirty Strings– As you play, strings absorb dead skin cells, dirt, sweat, etc. This leads to a dull sound as well as oxidization which makes strings prone to breakage. Dirty strings are also a breeding ground for bacteria which can lead to illness and skin infections. To help strings stay clean and last longer, it is a good idea to wash hands before playing and wipe the strings down with a cloth after playing.
- Tuning issues– Old guitar strings will not stay in tune. Even if the strings are not played much, strings on a guitar degrade over time and will not be in tune. Sometimes the old, open strings may sound in tune, but when a student plays a fretted note if will not be in tune. This makes it less enjoyable to play and is detrimental to the learning process.
- Inspection and maintenance– Changing strings is also a good time to inspect the overall health of your guitar. You can look for any developing issues such as cracks in the wood, open seams or dents in the frets. It is also an opportunity to clean the fingerboard to prevent the build up of dirt and bacteria. I recommend that this should be done once or twice a year.