Knowing when to change the strings on your guitar is one of the most essential and fundamental guitar maintenance skills that every guitarist should develop.
The obvious follow-up question is:
When is the right time to change out strings?
Speaking from personal experience, the time to change strings is something “I just know”, but there’s more to the story. I pay attention to my guitars and the common symptoms that are associated with dead guitar strings. It’s a matter of sight, feel, and listening.
However, what if you are new to the instrument and haven’t developed this acute sense of string life?
Is there a hard and fast rule for how often all guitarists should swap out their strings?
What are the right strings for you to buy?
We’ll be taking a look at all of this and more in this article.
The 3/100 Rule
If you are just starting out or are more the analytical type, the rule of thumb is that strings should be changed out about every 3 months, or 100 hours of play time (AKA the 3/100 Rule). Whichever comes first. If you do the math, that means that in order to hit 100 hours first, you need to be playing at least 1.1 hours every day. If you play your instrument less than this, then changing strings out every 3 months is the rule for you.
The more you play your strings, the more sweat, skin and dirt that can get into your strings. Because your strings are not perfectly smooth, especially the lower three wound strings, the crevices catch all the dirty stuff from your hands. Though smoother, the higher strings aren’t safe either as the can still suffer from oxidation.
Oxidation is the main reason why changing your strings every 3 months is still a good idea, even if you don’t play them that often. Whether you are a hobbyist or a collector with guitars that don’t see daylight regularly, the strings will wear away with time.
My string of choice is D’Addario’s EXL110, as they come in Vapor Corrosion Inhibitor (VCI) protected packages to keep new strings fresh as long as they are unopened. This way, I can buy my strings in bulk and not have to worry about them going bad any time soon.
The Signs You Need New Strings
While most guitars start to sound better with age, this trend does not apply to guitar strings. Perhaps the most critical aspect of string age is its impact on your tone. If your strings are at the end of their lifespan, you may notice that your guitar has lost some of the high-end sparkle it normally has. New strings have a chiming, bright sound to them that instantly makes a guitar sound new again. I’ve had instances where changing the strings on my guitar makes me feel like I have a completely different guitar in my hands. It makes a huge difference in tone to have fresh strings on.
Another telling sign that your strings are ready to be swapped out is if the sustain is lacking. New strings allow for uninterrupted vibration and therefor longer sustain. If you notice your chords or melodies don’t carry as long as they once did, it is more than likely time for a new set.
If you don’t have an ear for these things developed yet, you will develop the sonic memory over time. Until then, if you have access to decent recording equipment you can record a quick 30 second clip of your guitar on DAY 1 of new strings. You can then use this as a reference for the future, like a benchmark for new string tone that you can always come back to.
Perhaps the most obvious symptom of strings in need of recycling is dirty looking strings. Ever picked up a friend’s guitar that hasn’t been played in ages and the strings look black instead of silver or bronze? Strings should be changed out well before they reach this point. If you notice that your strings are starting to change color or accumulate dirt (yes, you will be able to see it) then you know it is time to put new ones on.
Another way to gauge your string’s life expectancy is from how they feel under your fingers. While brand new strings will feel smooth and responsive, old strings typically feel dull, even possibly sticky or corroded. This changes the way you play more than you may think. The less resistance you have under your fingers, the easier playing will be.
The Role of Biology
Being an ex-biologist, I can’t help but find this aspect of string wear to be really fascinating. Because everyone’s biological makeup is different, how your skin sheds and what your sweat content is like have a massive input on the life expectancy of your guitar strings.
My first guitar instructor had sweat that could eat through stainless steel. Okay, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but he would actually go through guitar strings every couple of weeks because of how acidic his sweat was. I’m lucky that my sweat doesn’t react to my strings in this way, so typically the 3/100 Rule applies to me, but this is certainly not the case for all.
Not to fear, as there are strings out there that fight against corrosive sweat. Check out these options if you think you are a corrosive sweater, as all of these strings have some kind of design element to help you squeeze extra time out of your strings:
In the Studio
There are certain cases where anything less than a brand-new set of strings simply won’t do. The first one that comes to mind is when I am recording in the studio. Having new strings (that are in tune!) is the very root of your tone. When you are about to lay down a track that will exist presumably forever, you want to have the best sound possible and it all starts with your strings.
There are a great deal of EQ’s, compressors, and sustain machines that can correct minor imperfections in the studio, but why bother? So many tone problems can be solved with new, lively strings. It’s also a bit of a cathartic experience to put new strings on before going into the studio. I find it puts me in the right headspace to be creative.
Another time to consider changing strings out is before playing a concert. Not as important as the studio, I think this is dependent on your ability to pay for strings in relation to how often you play out and what your playing style is like.
For example, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are a band that plays feverishly hard hundreds of nights/year. They are also endorsed by the string companies of their choice. John Frusciante and Flea can afford to (and in all seriousness should) have the strings changed out on their guitars on a nightly (or near nightly) basis. Not to mention, they have guitar techs to do all of this for them.
In comparison, I play out frequently, but I don’t have a tech or the financial means to justify shelling out $10-$20 every time I play out. I use my best judgement for when strings are ready to be changed. In addition, I think the tonal benefits are lost on crowds in live situations. That being said, it may be important for you to have strings that feel new when playing shows.
If you break a string in practice, then it is best to change out ALL the strings on your guitar. This is because you lose your uniform sound if one string is brand new and the rest are old and worn out. This is not a time to cheap out.
The story is different if you break a string on stage. Ideally you would have a second guitar to go to, but if not, hopefully you have an extra set of strings on hand. Finish the song out, then quickly put one the one broken string to get you through the night. Then swap out the rest when you get home.
Practice Makes Perfect
Knowing exactly when to change strings is highly dependent on how often you play, how you play, and how your hands react to the strings. It is also a matter of personal preference and financial circumstance. While I have provided the 3/100 Rule as a guideline, it is ultimately up to you to decide the frequency that is best for you.
The best way to determine that is to practice frequently. The more you play your guitar, the more acquainted and in tune you will become with it. Soon you will develop a sense of when strings are past their prime. You should always change your strings yourself, as this is a basic maintenance skill that will come in handy time and time again. If you would like to hear the effect that strings have on professional players, check out the Ernie Ball String Theory video series.
Also keep in mind that there are simple ways to keep strings cleaner for longer, like washing your hands and wiping your guitar down with a microfiber cloth.
Finally, it never hurts to try a multitude of different strings. String size, material, and brand are an important choice. The only way to know what kind you like best is to try them out and practice with them.
Here are a few more choices for you to consider that I recommend: