Most people don’t look forward to changing the oil in their cars, but you always feel better about yourself when it’s done. You know that taking proper care of your car will lead to better performance, improved longevity and continued pride of ownership.
Well, changing guitar strings is just about the exact same thing. It’s a mundane task that needs to be done every once in a while. And just like your car, it’s not something that should intimidate or scare you, because once you get accustomed to it, you’ll find that changing the strings on your guitar is no big deal and can be completed in a matter of minutes.
The purpose of this article is to answer the why, when, where and how to change guitar strings. And I’ll be sure to point out the differences between changing strings on acoustic versus electric guitars. Let’s jump right in!
Why Do Guitar Strings Need to Be Changed?
Like I described in my article in guitar maintenance, over time your guitar will accumulate dust, dirt, oil and possibly sweat from your hands and body. The strings on your guitar are particularly sensitive to all of this accumulated “grime” and their performance will deteriorate over time. You will find the sound to become more dull and lifeless, and they will have a more difficult time staying in tune. A fresh set of strings will give you back that bright and crisp tone that you love!
When Should I Change My Strings?
This answer depends somewhat on how much you play and how you store your guitar. If you play every day and you leave your guitar out of its case in a stand or mounted on a wall, then you’ll probably want to change strings every 3-4 weeks. If you only play once or twice a week, and you store your guitar in a case when not in use, you could probably go a couple of months between string changes.
Where Should I Change My Guitar Strings?
You certainly don’t want to damage, nick or scratch your guitar’s beautiful finish during the process of changing the strings, so I’ve found that a clean bed, couch or carpet will do the trick. Placing a soft clean towel down on whatever surface you’re using is also a good idea. Slightly more “sophisticated” guitarists buy a guitar rest stand and accompanying mat which allows you to place your guitar on just about any surface like a workbench, countertop, etc.
And finally, the most important question on this topic….
How to Remove the Strings on Your Guitar
Naturally, before you can install fresh new strings on your guitar, you have to remove the old ones. I prefer to remove and replace one string at a time, but others may recommend removing all of the guitar’s old strings at once. While some fear that the drastic change in tension felt by the guitar’s neck and body will result in deformation of the neck itself, this is largely just worry, as guitars are much tougher than they appear. I personally choose to change my strings one at a time, but that is really just personal preference.
To remove a string, start by turning the tuning peg to significantly lower the tension in that string. Then using a pair of wire cutters, or better yet the built-in cutter of this string winder/cutter, cut the string to allow you to remove each end separately.
For the string that is wrapped around the tuning peg, simply unwind the remaining portion of the string and remove it from the guitar. For the string that is remaining on the body/bridge side of the guitar, there are two distinct methods depending on whether you are playing an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar.
For acoustic guitars, you’ll need to remove the bridge pin. Again, be careful when removing the bridge pins. Using a screwdriver or other blunt instrument can cause serious damage to your guitar if it slips from its intended position. Most string winder devices are outfitted with a perfectly shaped “scooper” made out of plastic that is not only very efficient at removing bridge pins, it will also not damage your guitar in case it slips out of position.
For electric guitars, it’s usually simpler. Different guitar manufacturers have different methods of securing the ball-ends of guitar strings, but most of them simply slide through a hole in the body, bridge or tailpiece.
How to Install New Strings on Your Guitar
All new guitar strings get installed by starting with the ball-end of the string. Securing the ball-end of a guitar string is basically the reverse of the procedure you just used to remove the old string.
For acoustic guitars, you’ll want to place the ball-end of the string into the hole in the bridge that held the bridge pin. Just go ahead and slide the string into the hole a couple of inches. Next, you’ll want to insert the bridge pin into the hole, always aligning the slot in the bridge pin toward the headstock of the guitar.
Gently pull on the string until the ball-end becomes wedged against the bottom of the pin. It is usually helpful to keep a finger on the bridge pin to prevent it from popping out of the hole. Losing one of these bridge pins will not make you a happy guitarist! Also, be very careful when handling the new strings to not kink them while handling them. Once kinked, always kinked.
For electric guitars, the process of inserting the new string into the body/bridge/tailpiece should be as easy as it was to remove the old one.
The last part is what usually trips up beginning guitarists the most. It is the process of securing the new string to the tuning pegs and the process is the same for both acoustic and electric guitars.
- Turn the tuning post until the hole is aligned with the directions of the strings running up and down the neck.
- Insert the loose end of the string through the hole in the tuning peg until the string is taught.
- Pull the string back approximately 1.5 to 2 inches to create some looseness in the string.The exact amount is not critical, but just know that the purpose is to allow enough slack for the string to wrap around the tuning peg multiple times when fully tensioned.
- Kink or crease the new string just beyond the tuning peg toward the inside of the guitar.Different guitar manufacturers use different headstock designs, and that results in different positions for the tuning posts. The two most common designs are to have three tuning posts on either side of the headstock, which is particularly common on acoustic guitars and many electrics, and the other is to have all tuning posts aligned in one row on the same side of the headstock.
- While keeping the kinked string tight against the tuning post with one hand, use the other hand to wind the tuning peg clockwise. This maneuver requires a bit of dexterity in your hands and fingers, but let’s face it, if you don’t have any dexterity to begin with, the guitar may not be the best hobby for you! 🙂
The key to this string winding is to ensure that each successive wrap around the tuning peg is spiraling downward toward the headstock of the guitar. This will help to ensure the largest break angle from the nut providing the most sustain when you play. Pressing a finger on the string down onto the headstock while winding will really help to ensure the spiral is heading downward instead of upward or just messy everywhere.
If the string has already been wrapped around the entire length of the tuning peg and you still have slack in the string, go ahead and carefully unwind the string and start again at Step 3. Except this time, insert the string a little bit further up into the tuning post and re-kink the string again. The extra remaining kink won’t matter because the excess string sticking out from the tuning pegs will get trimmed anyway.
As the loose string shows signs of getting a little tighter, verify that the string is passing through the slot in the nut and the middle of the bridge saddle. If either end is not being guided as it should, go ahead and nudge the string to get it in the correct position.
- Once you have verified that the string is passing over the bridge and nut properly, continue winding the string tighter and tighter until you are able to play a note.Using the relative tuning method that was explained in my tablature and chords article, you can get pretty close just by comparing the new string you just installed to another adjacent string.
- Repeat the process for each remaining string.
- After you’re satisfied that all strings are properly secured, cut the excess ends that are protruding beyond the tuning pegs so that they do not accidentally poke you or anyone around you while playing.
If you’ve made it this far, you should be very proud of yourself because you just learned how to change guitar strings! If you’re concerned about how long this first string changeover may have taken, don’t worry because I can almost guarantee you that each subsequent time will get faster and easier.
If you don’t already have a set of new guitar strings to replace your old ones, then I have two very useful articles for you. The first one explains everything you’ll need to know about different types of guitar strings, such as options in size and materials, for both acoustic and electric guitars. The second one provides my top recommended guitar strings to purchase for both acoustic and electric guitars. Good luck!