For many guitarists, including myself, changing strings can seem like a daunting task. While a new set of strings only costs a few dollars and stringing your guitar only takes a few minutes, many of us will avoid changing our strings for weeks, months, or evens years. Then, after we’ve finally decided to subject ourselves to the grueling, pain-staking task of changing our strings, we take one strum and usually say out-loud -- “I should have done this a long time ago.” For a few days you seem to be playing a completely new guitar which stokes the artistic flame of your soul and in turn sparks creativity and rekindles your love for the instrument, but over time we forget how good that first strum sounded and the cycle repeats.
When is the appropriate time to change one’s strings? The answer to that question differs from player to player due to several variables: your sweat’s acidity, humidity, pick gauge (if any), how hard you fret and/or pick, bending frequency, the amount of time you play, type of string, etc. – basically, the amount of abuse you subject your strings to and the type of strings you use.
Luckily, there are few signs that your strings have been through enough and it is time change them. One of these signs would be the need to tune your guitar on a frequent basis. Once a string has been put on a guitar, stretched, and tuned, it should hit a sweet spot where it does not need to be tuned very often. Eventually, after a lot of playing, a string will lose the ability to hold its tuning, and therefore, need to be changed. A second sign would be the loss of treble frequencies/attack. This can be hard to discern for beginners, but over time your ear will develop and you’ll be able to pick-up on this key bit of sonic information. This sign is also subjective because every player prefers a different amount of trebles/attack, but there is a point for all strings where the attack and trebles have degraded to the point that the string sounds dull or “muddy” – time to change those strings. A visual sign to look for is a wound string’s wrap wire separating at a fret position(s). Typically, this only occurs if you are a player that frets really hard which is commonly known as “digging in”. Often, this sign is accompanied by a buzzing sound when you play the affected string at the compromised fret position. The most obvious sign that it is time to change your strings would be when a string breaks. Keep in mind that strings can break due to technique, or guitar defects such as a saddle burr, but even the strongest strings will eventually break. The last sign, and probably the most talked about, is string corrosion. Strings can corrode on the inside between the core wire and wrap wire. This is called galvanic corrosion and is nearly impossible to detect. Fortunately, corrosion can also occur on the outside of the string where it is very easy to see due to oxidation. Commonly known as rust, oxidation is a clear sign that it is time to change your strings.
These signs can occur together or at different times depending on the aforementioned situational variables and the type of string. For example, strings made with high tensile strength core wires, like Martin’s SP Acoustic strings, offer much more tuning stability and break resistance than traditional guitar strings, but do not have a corrosive barrier. Therefore, corrosion may appear before the loss of tuning stability or before a string breaks. Whereas treated/coated strings inhibit corrosion, but do not necessarily address the mechanical wear of a guitar string. In that situation, a string could break or not hold its tuning long before corrosion appears. Then of course, there’s the best of both worlds –Martin’s SP Lifespan strings. These strings are made with the high tensile strength SP core wire and are treated for corrosion resistance which addresses both mechanical and corrosive string wear.
All in all, knowing when to change your strings is not an exact science. Just do your best to recognize the signs of string wear and your guitar will thank you.
From: Rory Glass, Sales Representative, Martin String Division