Metal materials are bound to rust. This is a fact that many guitar and bass players have to deal with. Even stainless steel is not immune from rusting, although it's much more resistant to corrosion. Preventing rust, then, ought to be a concern for guitarists who string their instruments with metal strings.
Here are 6 tips to prevent guitar and bass strings from rusting:
- Store the guitar/bass in dry places
- Wipe the strings often
- Wash your hands
- Use higher-quality strings or coated strings
- Use a string protector, guitar bag, or case
- Wear gloves (applicable to bass)
Note that rust is still a concern for nylon classical or Spanish guitars, even though it does not affect nylon. Nylon treble strings will not be affected, though bass strings will experience oxidation since their windings are made of metal (bronze, copper, steel, etc.). It's for this reason that they find themselves changing their bass wound strings more often than their treble strings.
For those who love playing bright acoustic guitars, it can be cumbersome to change strings so frequently. Those who live in humid areas have the most trouble dealing with string damage, and some string sets are not particularly cheap.
Fortunately, with some care, you may be able to delay the restringing to another time by following certain preventive measures.
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6 Tips To Prevent Guitar & Bass Strings From Rusting
To prevent strings from rusting, consider the following tips:
- Store your guitar or bass in dry places. Avoid damp basements or places with poor ventilation
- Wipe your strings often. Sweat and grease are corrosive for metal strings
- Wash your hands. Wipe them thoroughly to remove sweat and other contaminants
- Buy better-quality strings or use coated strings. They're far more resistant to rust than non-coated strings
- Use a string protector, guitar bag, or case
- Wear gloves (applicable to bass guitarists)
Keep in mind that strings will eventually rust. These measures only provide mechanisms to prolong their life cycle, but they won't allow you to bypass the oxidation process.
With all that said, we'll go over each one of the tips enunciated in detail.
1. Store The Guitar Or Bass In Dry Places
Even if you live in a relatively dry place, there are areas inside a house or studio that are damper than others. Basements can be predisposed to mould due to poor ventilation and the colder air that circulates in them.
Strive to find a place with good ventilation that does not facilitate moisture build-up, for humidity is highly corrosive and very detrimental to your metal strings.
For those unable to move to a drier place, a dehumidifier may be a great help in eliminating excess moisture present in the environment. Beware that this may provoke a drastic spike in the electricity bill, depending on the country you live in and its energy policies.
The ideal humidity in a storage room or cellar should be below 50%. If that percentage is surpassed, your strings are at great risk of corroding sooner than normally expected.
2. Wipe The Strings Often
Strings can build up a lot of grease, moisture, and sweat from our fingers alone, let alone from exposure to the elements. These agents can accelerate the strings' decay process significantly. Therefore, wiping them clean can help prolong their lifespan. This should be done even on nylon strings, but metal strings receive the extra benefit of reduced rusting from frequent wipes.
It's recommended to use a dry microfiber towel or cloth or use a special guitar string cleaner. Never use water, bleach, or soap to clean your strings, as they can cause permanent damage to their finish.
3. Wash Your Hands
As mentioned before, strings can catch dirt, grime, sweat, and grease from your fingertips. By washing or wiping your hands, you reduce the chances of transferring corrosive agents to the strings.
If you think this advice only applies to players who have sweaty hands, you'll be sorely mistaken. Every day we are exposed to contaminants that can be damaging to the strings upon prolonged contact.
For example, people who use styling products on their hair should constantly wipe off any product residue from their fingers before touching the strings. This also goes for people who handle any kind of oil or acidic substance.
4. Use Higher-Quality Strings Or Coated Strings
Better quality, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean better tone or sound. If you find that the brand you're currently using lasts a lot less than desired, you could try shifting to another brand and try. Strings can occasionally rust quicker due to already poor build quality.
You can also try using coated strings. Coated strings have a polymer layer covering (usually a Teflon PFT), which presumably protects the string from the corrosive effects of agents such as dirt, oil, debris, moisture, or sweat. The coating would be responsible for absorbing these agents and avoiding their prolonged contact with the strings' surface.
Moreover, coated strings are advertised as lasting at least four times more than “naked” uncoated strings. Of course, this also hinges on environmental factors such as moisture or heat.
Coated strings also affect the playing experience in a positive way because they typically have a smoother surface. The coating also helps reduce finger noise, which is perfect for use in recording sessions.
There is a caveat (as always): Coated strings have larger gauges due to the polymer layer and, therefore, need to be under increased tension over the same rig size as opposed to uncoated strings. This affects the ability to render smooth pitch bends or vibrato with them.
However, some brands offer the same playability of uncoated strings with extra protection from the elements (such as Elixir's Nanoweb nickel-plated steel strings). This is attained by applying a very thin layer of polymer, which is virtually invisible to the naked eye (hence the “nanoweb” moniker).
Finally, keep in mind that, due to the arduous quality control measures and the advanced techniques utilized to coat the strings, these are sold at very high prices. However, the higher price comes with an increased lifespan, making them even more yielding long-term, at least from a financial standpoint.
To learn more about coated strings, check out my article Differences Between Coated & Uncoated Guitar Strings.
5. Use A String Protector, Guitar Bag, Or Case
Additionally, you may want to keep your guitar in its bag or case, as that will help reduce the chances of moisture coming into contact with the strings. This may not warrant absolute protection from environmental hazards, but you may be able to delay the oxidizing process for much longer.
There are also standalone string protectors, consisting of cloth covers wrapped around the neck or strapped. These accessories are very useful and allow you to provide almost instant protection for your strings without the hassle of having to open a case or bag to stow the guitar.
6. Wear Gloves
Some bassists wear gloves to protect their fingers from annoying blisters (they are highly impractical for ordinary guitars). Nevertheless, gloves can add additional protection to the strings against contact with corrosive substances from the fingers.
Jazz fusion bassist Etienne Mbappé singles out sweat as one of the main reasons he wears gloves when playing his bass, and although his focus is more on the bright tone delivered by sweat-free strings, he could likewise also be concerned with preserving the strings in good shape.
Gloves are also useful for rendering a certain muted or “dampened” tone, for protection against cold weather, or simply for playing the bass with more ease and less pain.
Disadvantages Of Rusty Strings
It should be obvious to anyone that rusty strings render far fewer returns than fresh new strings.
New strings customarily need time to settle and adapt to the tension provided by the guitar, but they eventually remain playable and deliver an optimal tone. As they start experiencing rust (ordinarily after months), they won't be able to recover or be restored to their original condition.
Strings attached to acoustic, electric, or bass strings are made of iron compounds. Corrosion is an inevitable natural process that involves the deterioration and degradation of metal components by their interaction with oxygen and water.
When water (which is acidic) comes into contact with the winding or core of the string, the iron particles are lost to the water's electrolytes and oxidize. This is the reason why humidity is so taxing on the strings' integrity.
The oxidizing process described above causes the string to lose its consistency, making it feel rugged. Needless to say, this greatly compromises playability because of the lack of elasticity and the friction created while sliding your finger across the length of the string (which could, in turn, produce wounds or blisters on your fingertips).
Rusty strings are also more likely to snap or break due to volume loss. This volume loss additionally causes the string to detune faster as it constantly loses its proper tension.
Finally, the tone it delivers is not as fresh. Even though it may be because of the overall deterioration of the string and its inability to produce a healthy soundwave, the difficulty of fretting the string or plucking it may likewise have to be factored into the final output. A rusty string is normally hurtful to fret, and the finger ends up producing interference and muting the string's sound by thwarting its vibration.
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