Strings don't last forever. If they did, they wouldn't still be sold nowadays to replace old or damaged ones. This has allowed manufacturers such as E.& O. Mari, D'Addario, or Martin to continue producing and selling string for a very long time (centuries, in some cases).
How long do guitar and bass strings last in their packaging? Vacuum sealed packaging keeps air and moisture from strings, maintaining their condition indefinitely (up to 5 years) when stored in cool, dry places out of direct sunlight. Otherwise, strings will be subjected to environmental humidity, rust, and UV damage, reducing their shelf life significantly.
In this article, we'll discuss the longevity of guitar and bass strings within their original packaging to deepen our understanding of these wonderful strings instruments.
General String Longevitiy
Ordinarily, under normal usage, steel strings can last for 3 months or 100 playing hours in optimal conditions (bass strings could last a bit longer due to their density). Nylon strings, while not rusting, will lose considerable quality after 80 hours of playing time.
A myriad of variables intervenes in the string's entropy process, such as playing style, climate, and the accumulation of oil, grime, and sweat from our fingers.
But what if the strings were not taken out of their packaging? Of course, there is hardly any product or item that lasts indefinitely. That being said, some guitar enthusiasts may be wondering why there is no “best by” or “sell-by” date imprinted on the package of their strings, especially if they've bought a large batch of string sets.
How Long Do Guitar & Bass Strings Last In Their Packaging?
There is no settled length of time that we must look for in terms of strings' “shelf life”. All we can say is that, as long as the strings are vacuum-sealed in plastic, there is a good chance that they will last indefinitely.
Indefinitely doesn't necessarily mean forever, but that there is no way to ascertain a fixed timeframe (if any). Some musicians on various internet forums relate how their unopened strings were still in pristine conditions after decades, while others saw signs of rust after opening the package some years later. This also hinges on the brand and the way they shelf their packages.
Most acoustic guitar and bass strings are made of nickel, copper, and steel alloys that can last for years in dry, cool places. However, even when strings are packaged with inert gas or vacuum-sealed, it's always recommended to avoid storing packages in damp and hot places such as basements or under direct sunlight.
Some packages are made of highly degradable materials such as paper or cardboard, which naturally won't be able to withstand very long periods in moist climates. Plastic will not degrade with humidity, or at least not in a way we can discern, but it can still suffer damage from the sun's UV light, and it won't remain in good shape at hot temperatures.
Manufacturers such as D'Addario claim that they seal their strings in what they call “Vapor Corrosion Inhibitor” (VCI), which means air-tight sealing in laymen's terms. They also affirm that their VCI packet strings can endure while unopened for a period of 3 to 5 years.
This packaging practice is also followed by Elixir (pioneers of the coated strings) and Ernie Ball. The vacuum sealers used in these cases remove damaging “normal” air that produces an oxidizing effect on steel strings in normal circumstances.
Once opened, strings are exposed to damaging ambient conditions, naturally shortening their life cycle. However, they can still last longer than frequently used or attached strings.
Nylon strings, for example, can last for many years in their packaging and, in some cases, even more than steel strings, as they're not prone to experience the harsh oxidizing effects produced on metal. However, nylon is also very sensitive to extreme temperature changes, meaning that unless they're kept in cool environments year-long, they will eventually lose their elasticity.
Opened but unused nylon strings can last considerably longer than the ones in use. Out of their package, they start losing their playability after 6 months when not used and 2 to 3 months when attached and used.
Metal strings (even ones made from the most resistant iron compounds) may experience rust inside or outside their packaging. Stainless steel can last a lot longer than nickel, but they will still have better fortune in their packaging than in the open air. Metal is more resistant to temperature changes, but it's very sensitive to humidity.
Poor-quality metal strings can last 2-3 months without usage after opening the package, while well-made strings such as those issued by recognizable brands can endure up to 6 months in good playing conditions and 3 months of constant use. Nonetheless, as stated earlier, moisture is metal's biggest enemy, so you need to make sure to store the strings in a dry place.
Coated strings last considerably longer, and the protection provided by the coating will surely preserve the strings from corrosion. Still, the Polyweb or Nanoweb layer may lose its consistency with heat or extreme temperature shifts, leaving the metal wires more exposed to the elements.
Due to their density, bass strings take a much longer time to become unusable (usually years). However, although ageing may not cause lethal damage, bass strings will ultimately lose their tone after significant playing time (anywhere from 60 hours to 1,000 hours).
Related article: How Do Guitar Strings Affect Tone? (Acoustic, Electric, Bass)
Unless you are an avid string collector, it's always commendable to provide yourself with just the necessary number of string sets to use when your current strings break on the road. At times, it can be difficult to determine whether the packaging is being placed in apt conditions, especially if you live in regions with high variations in weather, so there is always a risk involved in storing large provisions of string packages.
With that said, there is a slim chance of guitar or bass strings corroding in their package within a year or two. It's not unreasonable to expect them to last for many years when properly stored. Still, there are various other factors to consider, such as the packaging quality and the material used.
Finally, you may try to perform a DIY sealing with the aid of a personal vacuum sealer if you're concerned about bringing some extra protection to your unused strings. This can be done after the strings are removed from the original packaging or as a reinforcement to the packaging. In some instances, it may be very beneficial when you're in situations where it's impossible to store the packages or the unused strings in the required conditions.
Related article: Can I Store My Guitar Safely Without Strings?
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