Restringing Your Instruments
Some of the most common questions I am asked concern restringing instruments. How often should I restring? How can I tell when my instrument needs restringing? What type of strings should I use? What is the proper method for restringing? In this column, I will attempt to answer these questions.
How Often Should I Restring?
Even the finest instruments are no better than the strings they wear. Strings wear out at different rates for different players depending on several factors: the amount of perspiration secreted by the player's hands; the acidity of that perspiration; how often the instrument is played; the type of string used; and the climate in the area. Because there are so many factors that help determine string life, there is no one schedule for restringing that will fit all needs at all times. I have very little acid in my hands and do not tend to perspire much when I play, but I do play quite a bit, as much as several hours a day; still, a standard set of phosphor-bronze strings generally lasts at least a month for me. I have friends who have very "acidic" hands, and these guys can literally "kill" a set of strings in less than an hour.
How Can I tell When My Instrument Needs Restringing?
Even though we cannot accurately predict when each person in each set of circumstances needs to restring, there are "warning signs" that we can look for to help us determine when we need to restring.
Since both plain (unwound) and wound strings lose their tensile strength (the ability to maintain a consistent tension along its length) over time, strings will lose their ability to stay in tune as they wear out. If you have noticed that your instrument doesn't want to stay in tune and your strings are months old, restringing may well be the solution to your problem.
Perspiration and corrosion can build up in the windings of strings, killing their sound so that they have more a "muddy" sound than a "snappy" sound. If you have noticed that your instrument sounds "muddy", that the notes are indistinct and the instrument doesn't "ring" like it used to, restringing may be in order. If this is the case, you should be able to see some discoloration of the strings, usually occurring on the wound strings where your fretting hand resides and to a lesser extent nearer the bridge where you pick.
Windings loosen over time, causing uneven tonal response and tendency of the strings to break. If your strings have been on for a while and you can see that the windings appear to be separating, you should change strings as soon as possible. The windings usually tend to separate over the bridge saddle and the nut (which is why string breaks so often occur in these areas), and to a lesser degree where you pick (especially if you are a fingerstyle player who uses metal fingerpicks).
The new-style "coated" strings (such as Elixir® strings by Gore, Inc.) offer greatly-increased string life to many players, and I have found that they last about three times as long as standard phosphor-bronze strings (at about three times the price). They tend to have a crisper tone than uncoated strings but can sound "tinny" on some instruments (for example, I don't like them on mandolins or certain guitar body styles). The idea behind these strings is that the polymer coating will not allow contaminants to work their way into the string windings, and they work well for that purpose. As these strings age, the coating is picked away from the string windings and begins to fray; after some time, the strings actually begin to look "hairy" around the area where the pick comes in contact with the string, appearing as though they are covered in fine white hair. Shortly after they assume this appearance, their sound will begin to deteriorate and they will become prone to breakage, so this serves as a very good indicator of when this type of string needs to be changed.
What Type Of Strings Should I Use?
There are many different brands and types of strings available, and the type of strings to use depends on many factors such as type of instrument, type of music you play, the conditions you play in, and of course your subjective taste. I suggest you try several different brands and see what you like the best, bearing in mind that every instrument is different and the strings that sound the best on one instrument may not be the best for another. However, I have found that most guitar players' needs are met by a good phosphor-bronze acoustic medium-gauge string, such as the D'Addario brand. I play D'Addario strings myself, and I install D'Addario phosphor-bronze medium-gauge strings on all new CB guitars. Please remember that heavy-gauge strings will destroy a finely-crafted instrument, and the use of heavy-gauge strings will void the warranty on most high-quality instruments (including mine).
What Is The Proper Method For Restringing?
It seems there are almost as many methods for restringing as there are people who accomplish the task. However, people who ask me how to restring want to know how I do it, so here goes:
First of all, and I know many would disagree with me on this, do not remove all the strings at once. Replace your strings one at a time. The reason for this is simple: a neck and truss rod becomes "loaded" structurally to properly support a certain pull weight, and repeated loosening and re-tensioning of the full force of string tension can result in failure of the truss rod, warping of the neck wood, or undue stress on the neck/body dovetail joint. This may seem a bit extreme, and it is indeed unlikely that the practice of changing strings all at once would have a catastrophic result such as truss rod breakage, but the neck of your instrument is a finely tuned system. Repeatedly removing all tension and restoring in can in fact damage the neck, just as bending a piece of metal back and forth repeatedly can break it. You can clean and oil your fingerboard underneath the strings or a bit at a time as you remove individual strings, but a little bit of extra trouble can pay off big down the road.
For illustration of how I change strings, the following pictures show the process for restringing an acoustic guitar. The methods will vary somewhat for other instruments such as electric guitars, banjos and mandolins, but the procedure for attaching strings at the peghead remains the same. It is highly recommended that you obtain a peg winder, which is a plastic crank that comes in very handy and only costs a couple of bucks.
I hope this gives you a greater understanding of the need for, and method of, restringing. Regular restringing is essential to maintain the peak performance of any fine instrument, and will keep your instrument sounding and playing as the maker intended.
Last modified: November 27, 2015
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