Buying a new guitar is only one step in the journey of owning a guitar. You don’t just take the baby home and play with it. You have to care for it, protect it, and adapt to it throughout the learning process. One of the most critical areas needing your attention is the strings.
The strings are the vocal cords of the guitar. Keeping them clean and changing them at regular intervals will help the guitar sound its best and a fresh set of strings on your new guitar will really bring it to life.
But wait…. Didn’t you just buy this guitar brand new off the showroom floor? Or perhaps you just got your guitar shipped to you in the mail all boxed up with cellophane still attached to the pickguard and tuners.
Should you change the strings on a brand new guitar? Yes. There is no accurate method of telling how old the existing strings are. Changing them for new ones will ensure they sound clear, the guitar will stay in tune and the overall playability and tone of the guitar will be improved.
After the purchase, a proper setup should be a high priority item on your punch list. This will ensure the guitar plays in tune and the strings are at a comfortable height for you. However, your guitar may not need a complete setup right out of the gate and you will have the luxury of putting it off for a few months. In the meantime, this is a very simple thing you can do for your guitar as your first act of love. Let me explain why.
What Happens When Guitar Strings Get Old?
Guitar strings do not last forever. Some have a longer life expectancy than others, but generally speaking, the average string lives for about a month to six weeks. Top-of-the-line strings that get 30 min or so of play time each day may last three times that, while the working musician who plays several shows per month may be going through a pack of strings every few days.
But what happens? What’s going on that causes the string to reach the end of its useful life? For one thing, strings on a guitar are under constant tension. They are continuously being stretched and differences in temperature and humidity cause the guitar to expand and contract, directly affecting the string tension. All of this movement under constant tension is why one has to tune a guitar dangerously close to daily.
A string can only stretch so much before it just can’t stretch anymore. Like the waistband of a pair of sweatpants, guitar strings will eventually lose elasticity, making the string more difficult to tune and becoming very dull in tone. What was once a nice bright steel-string now sounds like an old rubber band.
Another life-shortening factor for a guitar string is oxidation. Exposure to the elements will eat away at the material that makes up the string. Moisture in the air coupled with the oils of the human hand will corrode guitar strings. A player can take measures to delay this process by wiping down the strings after playing, but it won’t immortalize the strings. The effects of dirty and corroded strings also dull the sound and make it difficult to stay in tune.
Why You Should Change Your Guitar Strings
The factors of being constant tension, changes in tension due to expansion and contraction of the guitar itself, and the oxidation process not only kill the strings’ tone and tunability but also make the strings brittle and increase the chances of a string break. The reasons you want to follow luthier and manufacturer recommendations regarding string changing are fairly simple.
- Maintains good tone & tunability
Keeping the strings fresh ensures your guitar is going to sound great and stay in tune better. Sure, the strings themselves are not the only arbiters of intonation or tone, but they are absolutely critical.
- Helps keep the fingerboard clean
Old, dirty strings can soil the guitar’s fretboard. A fretboard caked with gunk will almost always give you problems with intonation and dirty frets are pretty uncomfortable. Clean strings make a fingerboard happy, and removing the old strings gives you the perfect opportunity to scrub it down unhindered.
- Comfort / Playability
Worn out strings lose their slickness and become more abrasive which can make for an uncomfortable playing experience. Your fingers do not glide as effortlessly and a string with a layer of rust and grime is like playing with a thin barbed wire.
Tension / Action / Intonation
As mentioned before, a guitar setup should be planned on. Whenever you buy a new guitar, you should always allow for another &50-$75 for a proper setup. This is especially true if you switch to a different gauge string. Sometimes changing material can warrant a setup as well. Either way, at the heart of a set up is the relationship between the strings and the rest of the instrument.
If you absolutely love a particular guitar, but it feels a little uncomfortable or doesn’t quite seem as bright or mellow for your liking, just know that changing the strings can fix those issues rather easily. However, don’t be discouraged if that doesn’t do the trick right away.
In fact, changing strings could make the action (string height) even worse depending on what string you chose. This is where a setup is needed to adjust the guitar to fit the strings.
This is why it is so important to get the guitar to a quality repair shop right away for a setup. A setup includes a string change, so you might as well have everything done at once. If you want to do this yourself and save money while learning a lot about the instrument then read our step by step guide here How To Do Your Own Guitar Setup.
A good tech or luthier can guide you in your string selection process, then make the necessary adjustments to suit that particular string. This process includes adjusting the neck to account for the change in tension and action, and also make any adjustments to the nut and saddle for additional action adjustments as well as for intonation.
We have written an in-depth article about making a guitar easier to play that every beginner should read here, How To Make Your Guitar Easier To Play
What Are The Best Guitar Strings For You?
When changing strings on a brand new guitar, it’s likely you have no idea what kind of strings were put on there to begin with. Most factories will go with a standard D’addario Regular Light (.012) for acoustic guitars or a .009 or .010 for electric guitars. However, if you buy your guitar from a store, they may have changed the strings to something completely different.
Most stores with a showroom floor will either use cheaper, lower quality strings, or they will use coated strings. The coated strings are more expensive, but last longer which saves them from having to change strings as often. Smart retailers will use high quality, long-lasting strings to help with the sound of the guitar. If it sounds really good, a customer is more apt to buy it!
All that being said, string choice is a matter of personal preference. If you are a beginner / new to learning guitar and have un-callused, green fingers, then you may want to check out this guide we for what strings are best for sore fingers. Read it here What Are The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings For Sore Fingers. This guide is also helpful for learning about many of the different kinds of strings and what will suit you depending on your preferred style of playing.
Playing style also goes into string choice. If you are into rock, alternative, and other stylings that use aggressive strumming a la Mumford & Sons, then you will want to lean toward a more resilient string such as phosphor bronze. More laid-back, singer-songwriter and folk styles may benefit from a softer, lighter string like silk & steel.
How To Change Your Own Guitar Strings
Learning how to do this will save you money and a trip to the shop. Every guitarist eventually needs to learn how to change their own strings. It really doesn’t take much to get the hang of it and once you get some practice in and do a few sets, it only takes about 15-30 minutes depending on how much cleaning of the fretboard you have to do.
- Loosen the old strings
- Remove the bridge pins
- Extract and discard the old strings
- Clean the fretboard
- Install the new strings
These are simple steps, but there are a few nuances to be aware of.
The video goes into more detail on how to properly change your strings.