Boiling water is usually associated with cooking or blanching. You will probably not hear the phrase “boiling strings” very often in everyday lingo.
Why do guitarists and bassists boil their strings? Boiling guitar and bass strings is a method of cleaning within their windings, between their outer layer and their core. The boiling water expands the winding and removes dirt from within the string, offering a deeper clean than surface-level wiping or applying string cleaning products.
In this article, we'll discuss the peculiar practice of boiling guitar and bass strings and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of such a process.
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Why Do Guitarists & Bassists Boil Their Strings?
A permanent struggle for guitarists or bassists is keeping their strings clean. Guitar or bass strings can become “dirty” after a short while, especially if they aren't cleaned regularly. This is due to many variables, such as environmental debris or residues and gunk that is transferred from our fingers and other corrosive substances like oil or sweat.
Wiping the strings with a cloth seems to help, but only on a superficial level. Wound strings are particularly tricky to wipe since grime gets stuck at the grooves and can't be disposed of as easily, especially when it comes to roundwound strings. As dirt builds up within the string, the tone is affected, resulting in a more subdued, softened tone.
When wound strings are immersed in boiling water, they tend to expand, allowing the ridges to open up and release the dirt, dead skin, grime, and oil that builds up within them. Also, the oil or fat adhered to the strings will break up and slip away, for their viscousness changes with heat. Finally, the salt that remains from sweat will also dissolve in the water.
As the strings are freed from all those contaminants, they will be able to render brighter tones reminiscent of their original sound. Nevertheless, keep in mind that they may not sound as good as when first attached. If you have some spare money, you would probably benefit the most with brand new strings.
Core strings (the e, B and sometimes G strings of a guitar) will not profit nearly as much from this process, primarily because their surface is plain. There's no winding around the core, so dirt cannot accumulate within the string. Wiping these strings down is likely enough to keep them clean and fresh. Note that bass strings have heavier gauges and are typically always wound.
Nylon strings are also wound, though their cores are made of nylon, hence the name. Nylon has a much lower melting point than steel, though it's still well above 100°C, making it safe to boil classical guitar strings as well.
The typical alloys used as winding material for guitar and bass strings all have melting points well above the temperature of boiling water.
Another caveat when boiling strings is that it doesn't fix structural damages, such as kinks, rust, or wear from fret interaction.
How Does Boiling Help With The Strings' Sound?
All instruments produce sound by means of vibration. This can be provoked in various ways. Guitar and bass strings vibrate by plucking, picking, slapping, tapping, etc. This movement goes through the bridge and gets to the resonance device (soundbox or pickup in the case of electric guitars), producing the sound we normally hear from guitars.
Many factors can affect the way a string vibrates, such as a guitar's build, the string's gauge, and its treatment.
Vibration frequency refers to the number of times that the strings generate their repetitive oscillating motion over a span of time (ordinarily measured in one second). The heavier the strings are, the less capable they are of carrying any soundwave as they move slower.
This isn't typically a concern at the fundamental frequencies (the note the string is producing). However, strings also vibrate at integer multiples of the fundamental frequencies, which are known as overtones or harmonics. As more dirt accumulates within the string, the string becomes worse at vibrating at these higher harmonics/overtone frequencies, which produces a dulling of the overall tone.
Considering the above paragraph, when extraneous elements adhere to a guitar string, it starts gaining mass. Consequently, its natural frequency gets affected, and the sound output will become dampened.
Boiling the strings makes sense in light of this fact, as you will be removing those foreign agents that impede the strings from rendering their proper natural motion and tone.
When To Not Boil Strings
As stated earlier, when strings sport any physical damage such as a kink, boiling will not help, and it may actually make matters worse, as the weak spots will likely get even weaker under the action of boiling water.
Moreover, boiling won't be able to fix rusty or corroded spots either, knowing that the metal, in this case, is not under a pollutant. Rather, it's being degraded by a corroding or acidic element, which is what produces the unpleasant, discoloured appearance.
The best course of action, when confronted with these scenarios, is to change the strings. Luckily, you won't need to purchase an entire set of strings just to replace a few damaged strings. Many manufacturers offer single strings for sale, albeit usually at a higher price per unit.
Coated strings won't benefit as much from boiling since their windings are covered with a protective non-corrosive later (typically Polytetrafluoroethylene). Of course, these strings are also designed to keep dirt and corrosion from affecting the windings of the strings, so cleaning shouldn't be necessary in the first place.
Related article: Differences Between Coated & Uncoated Guitar Strings
Disadvantages Of Boiling Strings
Among other issues that may arise from boiling strings, we found these as the most relevant:
- If your water supply is filled with calcium and other mineral deposits, they will get to the core of your wound strings and create further problems with their output. In this case, we recommend using de-ionized water.
- As affirmed in the previous section, boiling water could make your strings more brittle, especially when they already developed weak spots.
- The high temperatures will change the stress points built up in the metal and could produce “dead spots” to suppress the string's tone and its tuning stability.
- When removing already-attached strings, you expose them to permanent damage as you handle them, since they're more prone to folding or bending in a risky fashion. Also, the twists formed by the tuning peg and the saddle or bridge may break faster as you try to put the strings back on the guitar, so you won't be able to match the exact same position as when first installed.
- If the strings don't dry properly, the water/moisture within the windings will cause the strings to rust faster than they otherwise would.
How To Boil Strings
For this procedure, you will need a considerably deep saucepan or boiling pot, a stirring utensil (such as a fork), tongs, and a dry towel.
To boil strings, you should follow these steps:
- The hardest part about boiling strings is the beginning. You must release the strings from the tuning pegs very carefully and avoid grabbing them by the extremes after they're removed to prevent any accidental folds.
- Fill the saucepan with plain water (distilled or de-ionized water preferably), place it on the stove, and set it to high.
- When the water starts boiling (signalled by the bubbles that form on the surface), slowly immerse the strings in the water. It's recommended that you boil them separately because that way, they will have enough space to rest and twist naturally. If the pot or saucepan is not spacious enough, try to insert them with the ball-end at the bottom, which is the heaviest part of the string, in order for them to find support.
- Wait from five to fifteen minutes (heavier strings require more time), and remove the string using the tongs.
- Place the string on the towel and rub it slowly until fully dried.
- Repeat this process with the remaining strings.
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