One of the most important things to keep in mind if you own a guitar or a bass is the status of your strings, as their vibration is what produces the notes. If the strings are faulty or worn, they will undermine the instrument’s full potential, no matter how good a guitar is.
How often should guitar and bass strings be changed? From new, acoustic and electric strings should be changed every 3 months or 100 playing hours, classical/nylon strings every 3-6 months or 100-200 playing hours, and bass strings every 6-12 months. Broken strings should be changed as soon as possible, as should rusty or unwound strings.
Strings are the most replaced parts of a guitar or bass. In this article, we’ll be discussing the factors that require strings to be replaced so often.
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How Often Should Guitar & Bass Strings Be Changed?
Generally speaking, acoustic and electric guitar strings should be changed every three months or 100 playing hours. The steel cores and metal windings are prone to rust. Flatwound strings are slightly more resistant to the build-up of grime and pollutant, though they’re generally best changed after three months as well. Even stainless steel cores should be changed in this range, even though the cores will be resistant to rust. Note that coated strings may last longer due to their resistance to rusting and pollutants.
Classical guitar strings (especially the wound strings) should be changed every three to six months or 100 to 200 playing hours (mostly depending on whether you’re a professional or amateur). The nylon cores are resistant to rust, though the metal windings typically aren’t.
Bass strings are the most durable due to their massive gauge; thus, they should last you from six months to a year of usage before losing their prime. Additionally, a duller tone may not affect the sound of a bass as obviously as it would a guitar.
Some players prefer the sound and feel of new strings and will change them regularly (even after every performance while on tour). Other players prefer the sound and feel of “broken-in” strings, even if that means pushing them past the aforementioned timeframes.
There’s no absolute perfect answer. Rather, the frequencies given above are simply meant as guidelines. Perhaps more important to this discussion would be to understand why strings would need changing and going from there.
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The reasons why you should change your strings are numerous. These include:
- They wear out from playing
- They degrade in contact with corrosive agents
- Due to their degradation, they start losing their tune faster and more frequently
- Additionally, their tone becomes duller and weaker
- Lastly, they are more prone to breakage, causing potential harm to the player or uncomfortable situations during live performances
We’ll be going into these reasons in some depth.
1. Strings Wear Out From Playing
Whenever we play a guitar, we generate friction between the strings and other components such as the fret. This eventually causes them to develop weak spots or kinks. This is also done when using a pick/plectrum (the intensity will depend on the plectrum’s material and thickness.)
These kinks ultimately become breaking points, which could be triggered as we act upon them, meaning that you are exposed to having your strings break at any time, including during a live performance.
This becomes very apparent if you employ playing techniques such as bending because you will be applying additional stress upon the strings and very abrasive interactions with the frets as a result. The frets, moreover, also wear out and start forming dents or rough spots, increasing the risk even further. If you use a fretless bass, naturally, you won’t expose your strings to these shortcomings.
On the other hand, the metal wrapping on the wound strings starts to loosen up. This may cause the strings to lose their ability to deliver clean sounds. This is particularly the case with roundwound strings because we often push the threads or “beads” when we slide our fingers across the length of the strings.
Related article: Can I Play Nylon Strings With A Pick Without Damaging Them?
2. Strings Degrade In Contact With Corrosive Agents
Corrosion is a process that affects everything we see and touch. It’s a result of electrochemical reactions that breaks the compounds of materials into elements.
In metals, the atoms are oxidized, which means that they lose electrons to the oxygen contained in the air or water and any moist agent such as gunk, oil, or fat. In this regard, various external variables intervene in the process, such as the substances or waste that we produce and the general environmental conditions.
2.1. Degradation From Human Interaction
When we play the guitar or bass, we transfer many pollutants from our hands to the strings. This is especially the case when we have dirty hands or manipulate various chemicals, such as body or hair care products.
However, even when we wipe our hands, our fingers often excrete waste in the form of fat, oil, or sweat, which in small amounts can still induce a corrosive effect on the strings. Many players have “sweaty hands”, an unavoidable condition that may warrant further treatment on the strings after a playing session.
2.2. Degradation From The Environment
If you live in extremely humid areas, that humidity will wrap your strings constantly. This permanent interaction will invariably prompt your metal strings to rust.
You can employ various measures to prevent this. Either you store your guitar in a dry and cool storage room or cellar (avoiding damp basements), or you stow the guitar in an airtight guitar case or bag. Another option is to buy a string protector, consisting of a piece of cloth strap attached to the neck and covering the strings, providing an additional barrier to fend off moisture and other corrosive substances from coming into contact with them.
Related article: Should Guitarists & Bassists Oil Their Strings?
Can Rusty Strings Still Be Played?
Rusty strings could still be playable for a time, but they progressively lose their flexibility and become more brittle. When rust spots appear, these will quickly turn into snapping points that could provoke breakage at any moment.
Furthermore, rusty strings have an uneven surface that will grind your fingertips and produce wounds. These wounds may not be enough to cause tetanus, but they will hurt a lot, and you’ll be incapacitated to do most of your daily routines.
Also, due to the difficulty tied with the feel of rusty strings, they won’t be able to deliver a clear sound as fretting them is more challenging. This condition will prompt a great number of muted notes during performance.
Are Nylon Strings Subject To Corrosion?
Nylon strings are corrosion-resistant, as is the case with most plastics. However, nylon doesn’t react well with heat. You should avoid exposing your nylon strings to direct sunlight because this can cause them to deform and acquire weak points.
Notwithstanding, wound nylon strings are more exposed to damage from the environment due primarily to the metal used in winding them, which is just as susceptible to rust as any acoustic, electric, or bass guitar string. This means that you’ll end up replacing your bass nylon strings more often than your treble strings.
3. Strings Start Losing Their Tune Over Time
When strings age, they start losing their capability to hold the tension exerted by the neck and the bridge, causing them to lose their pitch stability.
This happens with new strings as well. When strings are removed from their vacuum-sealed packaging and attached to a guitar, they need some tweaking and time to be able to hold a tune. However, after a while, they become “accustomed” to their new straightened position. This process normally takes from hours to a few weeks, depending on the user’s actions.
Old strings, however, can be stretched beyond their resistance point, causing them to hold their tuning poorly, if at all.
Related article: Why New Guitar Strings Go Out Of Tune Faster Than Old Strings
4. String Tone Becomes Duller Over Time
A string vibrates at various harmonics. It oscillates along its entire length (nodes at the nut and bridge, or fret and bridge) and at fractions of this length (nodes at the halfway point, at thirds, fourths, fifths, etc.). As guitar or bass strings lose their smoothness and solidity, their ability to vibrate weakens at these higher harmonics, which are responsible for the tone and timbre of the guitar.
In the case of electric guitars and basses, the strings lose most of the magnetic properties that enable them to transfer electricity to the pickup. In the case of acoustic or classical guitars, they won’t be strong enough to transfer waves to the bridge and the soundbox, consequently losing volume.
Additionally, when the surface becomes rougher and uneven, the vibrations will be transferred erratically because the obstacles or bumps present in the string will absorb a great portion of them. As a result, the notes rendered will sound much weaker and with considerable distortion.
5. Older Strings Are More Prone To Breaking & Causing Accidents
When strings are old and rusty, there is a good chance that they may snap during playing. This is tied to what was explained in the first and second items, related to wearing and rust. In that sense, the kinks or weak points formed from their intense interactions with the frets, as well as those produced by a corrosion process, will get exponentially weaker, to the point when they’re no longer able to remain bound.
This situation could pose considerable hazards to the player if they are not careful. Albeit the chances of the strings causing damage are quite low, you could still be inflicted with whipping wounds on your hand. If by any chance, you happen to hold your face too close to your strings at that moment, the injuries could be far more serious.
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