It's always recommended that you change your guitar strings every 3 months (or after 100 hours of playing time) and bass guitar strings whenever they start losing their optimal tone. These norms are not always followed consistently, though. In fact, some guitarists may feel unsure about changing their strings out of fear that the new strings might affect playability. Others report that tone would turn too “metallic” or “tinny” during the first performances.
Do new guitar and bass strings sound better? Guitar and bass strings lose their ability to produce overtones and high-end frequencies as they age due to stretching, oxidization, and dirt build-up. These overtones are often described as bright, twangy, and shiny by those who enjoy new strings, and tinny, steely, and harsh by those who don't.
Of course, the answer is “it depends on your subjective taste and tone goals.” In this article, we'll discuss the differences in tone between new and old strings.
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Do New Guitar/Bass Strings Sound Better?
All else being equal, new guitar and bass strings sound brighter that their older counterparts. That is to say, restringing a guitar with a new pack of the same strings (same brand, type, gauge, etc.) will provide a brighter tone than the old strings that are being replaced.
Whether this sound “good” is entirely up to the guitarist/bassist and, ultimately, the listener. The quest for tone is neverending, and strings are a definite variable in such a search.
In general, new guitar players are susceptible to experience frustration upon their first restring due to the expectations they may have raised about the new strings and the sound output they should deliver.
While this might seem confusing at first, it's often the case that tones rendered by new strings could be perceived as too “bright” or “shiny” upon the first plucks.
Putting new strings on your guitar will provide an instant change in tone if the previous strings were old. This often drastic change in the high-end is fairly obvious. However, it may be more appropriate to think of new strings as sounding “normal” and thinking of old strings as sounding “faded.”
This increased brightness is due to several factors, each of which contributes a little bit to the tone of new strings:
- The strings are in factory-manufactured shape: the circumference of fresh strings should be equal from the bridge to the nut. This will allow for maximal vibration at the higher harmonics of the stings. As the strings are played and pressed against the fret, they are subjected to very small changes in their shape, which acts to alter their “perfect” shape and effectively dampens the high-end.
- The strings are clean: there's no dirt, grease of other particles on the strings surface or on the string's core (beneath the winding). As dirt accumulates in the string, it will have a slight impact on the high-end response.
- The strings are rust-free: oxidization (from environmental factors) will slowly eat away at metal strings, which alters there performance, easpecially in the top-end of their tone.
Some players prefer brand-new strings for every recording and performance. Others enjoy the tone just after break-in. Many other players prefer old strings that have experienced their depreciation in high-end and dread when it comes time to replace their strings.
It's also the case that new strings are prone to lose their tuning rather rapidly after the first installation. All of this could be explained by the fact that new strings have a higher hardness level, and they need a “break-in period” to adapt to the tension produced by the guitar (more on this later).
On the flip side, bass strings have a much better response to the first tuning, but they could also need some eventual tweaks until they can be fully settled into their tuning. Pick users and slap bassists tend to prefer the fresh tone of new bass strings.
New Strings Vs. Old Strings
Regardless of the considerations laid out above, there will still be a noticeable difference between new strings and others past their primetime.
As strings get old, they start to degrade, both in the sound and texture departments. Oxidation is a common phenomenon in strings that have remained attached beyond their normal life cycle, producing poorer high-end in their tone as time goes on. Moreover, wear and tear will affect their strength and elasticity, causing them to detune faster and develop a “duller” tone.
Luckily, the initial setbacks may be solved with new strings after a few weeks of normal usage (or even less if we apply special measures), and they will render better and fresher sounds than the old ones. Keep in mind that these generalizations are based on the understanding that both are of equal or similar build quality.
Tension And “Breaking In” The Strings
As stated earlier, new strings should stabilize after “breaking in”. This could take weeks or even hours, provided that some special measures are applied.
By breaking in, we mean the process by which we stretch the strings so that they can settle or adjust to the amount of tension they're subjected to by both the bridge and the tuning pegs.
Tension is determined by the length of the vibrating part of the string, the vibration frequency, the pitch level, and the string's mass. The fretboard length also influences tension.
The longer the vibrating string and the lower the tension exerted, the lower the vibrating frequency and pitch will be. Shorter fretboards also produce lower tension with the same string length.
Conversely, with shorter strings or longer scale, the tension and the vibration frequency are higher since the string acquires rigidity. When this happens, the pitch rises. This is the reason why we tighten the strings to generate higher notes.
New strings are more resilient than old strings and need to be adapted from the original “resting” position they had in their packaging. This explains why they struggle to get accustomed to their new straightened/tensioned status. For this reason, the perceived sound of the new strings will have remarkable overtones, adding to the brightness that new strings usually have, and will moreover lose its tuning often.
You may opt to force the break-in or let the strings sort themselves out while you play them. Depending on the playing rate, the process would take from hours to a few weeks. Progressively, the new strings will get used to the tension, keep their tuning longer, and slowly lose their top-end brightness.
For manual break-in, there are several different methods to speed up the process. Note that these strategies will only fix tuning issues and will play a negligible role in altering tone:
This has been covered in another writing but bears repeating. Manually stretching the guitar strings will really help them attain the proper tension rather quickly.
To do this, lift the strings gently, starting from the 12th fret, using the thumb to push the string slightly against the fretboard (to avoid popping the string out of the nut slot). Repeat this process in two more positions above the 12th fret until reaching the 5th approximately.
During this process, the string should detune. Re-tune and repeat the process one or two more times, or until the strings have finally broken in and adopted their new position (in which case, they will gain pitch stability).
This method will use the tuning pegs instead of the fingers. It consists of tightening and loosening the strings slightly above and below the optimal intonation not to cause them to break (the wrong way).
- Tune the strings a bit over the intended tuning so as to apply a bit more tension than the standard (a half-tone higher should be enough).
- Play for around three minutes in the most aggressive way possible, until the guitar loses its tuning.
- Re-tune again to the same tuning used in step 1.
- Leave the guitar for over 10 minutes without playing.
- Re-tune the strings but at a lower tune than planned, and work your way up, progressively adding tension.
- Play the guitar normally and re-tune strings whenever necessary.
Once again, these methods will not immediately fix the strange bright sound. This problem will sort itself out after various plays. It's the only way to smooth out the original hardness.
However, the tuning problem should be fixed after these methods were employed. If that isn't the case, you'll need to check your rig setup to ensure that there are no issues with the neck, the bridge, the tuning peg, or the nut slots.
These methods apply to both guitar and bass strings. Due to their heavier gauge, Bass strings will not pose as many difficulties, but they will also benefit from stretching and breaking in since they could likewise lose their tuning, albeit with less frequency.
For more information on breaking in guitar strings, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Long Does It Take To Break In New Guitar Strings?
• Why New Guitar Strings Go Out Of Tune Faster Than Old Strings
Other Factors That Affect The Tone Of Guitar Strings
So we know that a new set of strings will sound brighter than an old set of strings assuming both sets are the same product (type, gauge, brand, etc.). Generally speaking, it's also the case that new strings will sound brighter than old strings regardless of the other differentiators.
That being said, it's worth considering the other factors that affect the tone of guitar strings beyond the age and wear and tear. The factors are:
Gauge: heavier gauge strings tend to sound darker and offer more sustain. Lighter gauge strings tend to be brighter and offer less sustain.
To learn more about string gauge, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Should I Use Light, Medium Or Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings?
• Should I Use Light Or Heavy Gauge Bass Guitar Strings?
• Are Lighter/Thinner Gauge Guitar Strings Easier To Play?
• Do Heavier/Thicker Gauge Guitar Strings Stay In Tune Better?
Core: steel strings tend to sound brighter, while nylon strings tend to sound milder.
Winding: roundwound strings tend to be brighter than flatwound strings.
For more information on string winding, check out my article Flatwound Guitar Strings Vs. Roundwound Guitar Strings.
• Steel tends to sound bright (common with electric guitar strings)
• Nickel tends to sound warm (common with electric guitar strings)
• Brass tends to sound bright (common with acoustic guitar strings)
• Bronze tends to sound warm (common with acoustic guitar strings)
• Nylon tends to sound warm (common with classical guitar strings)
Article related to string material:
• Can I Play Nylon Strings With A Pick Without Damaging Them?
Coating: coating will typically reduce the overall brightness and volume of the guitar tone. However, they will offer a more consistent tone over time since they help to protect against oxidization.
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.