You have been asking lots of questions lately. I hope to answer them for you this month.
The most asked question is: “How often do you change your strings?” But what you really want to know is “How often should I change my strings?” I’ll answer both questions as simply as I can. I change my strings before every gig or when they either go “dead” or won’t stay in tune. That can be twice in one week or not for a month, depending on my gigging schedule. When I was playing five nights a week, I would go through ten sets of strings every two weeks. For the player who only plays at home or does the occasional open mic two-song set, it’s conceivable that you might only have to change strings every two or three months. Some of you won’t change strings until one breaks! If you wait that long, you’re probably either really cheap or you’re really hard on your strings. Or, possibly, your guitar needs some setup work. Strings break from wear or metal fatigue. Hand acid from sweat can accelerate the process as can sharp edges on the contact points at the bridge, nut, and tuning keys.
Inevitably, the above questions lead to more specific questions regarding the what and how of changing strings and the discussion of the so-called “fact” – myth really – that has been associated with guitar maintenance for as long as I can remember. It usually starts like this: “Is it okay to take off all of the strings when I’m changing them?
I’ve heard that taking off all the strings will harm the guitar. It this true?” Well, no, it isn’t. And it doesn’t really make sense when you think about it. The average set of light-gauge acoustic guitar strings exert somewhere in the neighborhood of 155 psi of tension on the structure of the guitar. It stands to reason that if the guitar is constructed to not only tolerate, but to actually function at its best under this amount of stress, it follows that it is structurally sound enough to remain intact when the tension is alleviated. Duh. One caveat, and possible source of this myth, is that it is possible for a poorly constructed guitar or an older guitar with a non-adjustable truss rod (such as some vintage Martins), to develop a back-bow in the neck if the strings are left off for an extended period of time. By that I mean months – or years – at a time. Fact is, you can do more harm to the guitar by leaving it in your car for a few hours on a hot day.
Next up, “What kind of strings do you use?” Or, “What do you think about coated strings?” Well, I use a custom gauge “balanced” set of GHS Phosphor Bronze strings. If you want more detail about the specifics of the strings I use and why I use them, please read my June 2012 Troubadour column. (You can find it online at: http://sandiegotroubadour.com/2012/06/do-these-strings-make-my-guitar-look-fat/). Regarding my opinion on coated strings (i.e., Elixir, Cleartone, etc.), I don’t like them. They feel too slippery and they can “shed” when they are old, but that’s just me. If your hands sweat a lot or if you have acidic sweat, then coated strings can be a very good option for you as they do last longer under harsh conditions. Whatever strings you use, always wipe them down after you play or between sets, and always when you put your guitar back into its case. You can use a soft hand towel or an old tee shirt and be sure to clean each string from nut to bridge as best as you can. Just doing this regularly can help your strings last longer.
“What other things should I do when I’m changing the strings?” While you have the strings off, you can check your frets and fretboard for wear and damage. You can also clean the frets/fretboard. Use ultra-fine steel wool (#000 or #0000) and clean along the length of the neck with the grain of the fretboard. Don’t rub across the grain as this can leave scratches on the wood, frets, and inlays. (NOTE: Do not do this if your fretboard has a finish applied to it like the ones on Fender guitars with maple fretboards and some Rickenbackers with finished rosewood fretboards. There are alternative methods for cleaning these guitars but there isn’t space to address the methodology in this article. Email me if you need help with these types of guitars and I’ll send you detailed instructions. –CL). Be sure to wipe off all of the wool dust before you start to put the new strings on. Usually, the oils from your fingers do a good enough job of lubing the fretboard but on occasion, it may be necessary to treat your fretboard if the wood gets too dry. If you think this is necessary, simply rub the fretboard with a small amount of very light-weight furniture oil. Better yet, just apply Fast Fret from GHS. Most of what you apply will either be absorbed or evaporate but be sure to wipe any excess off of the fretboard before installing the strings. You can add graphite to the nut slots to help keep the strings from binding in the nut. Use a very fine mechanical pencil and simply “draw” in the nut slots with the pencil. I don’t recommend that you use any liquid lubricants on acoustic guitars. Dry lubricants are preferred. Liquid lubricants work well for metal-to-metal contact points as found on electric guitar bridges and vibrato systems, but they can cause problems when used on bone, plastic, or unfinished woods.
I hope you find this information useful and I’ll continue next month with more on restringing and some additional tips and ideas for maintaining your instruments. Taking better care of your instruments is always a good investment in your tone. The better they sound, the better you’ll sound. Until then…
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)