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When to change acoustic strings

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15 Users
Eminent Member
Joined: 13 years ago
Posts: 15

It is interesting seeing all the different ways others determine when to switch out the strings on their guitars. I have been practicing loads and on the first three strings, I have noticed discoloration where I usually strum. Of course, with things like my guitar I know I'm probably going to get a little OCD if I don't find a way not to focus on that bit of discoloration. I mean, I clean my strings before and after I practice with the Dunlop string cleaner stuff, and I usually make sure the strings are in tune before I practice. However, they are staying mostly in tune even after I practice for a good two hours straight.

I suppose for someone who has also played a woodwind that knowing when to change strings is quite a bit different than determining when to start using a new reed, although on forums for Sax players I have also seen discrepancies also but they are not generally as expensive as a set of new strings and there are some obvious things that dictate needing a new reed (as in a chip or a crack in the reed causing a squeak though I know I went long amounts of time without changing reeds when I was in the school band.

Reeds are one thing, strings are another demon altogether, I suppose since there is so much to take into account. I mean, to the untrained ear, a guitar with older, perhaps ancient strings might not sound too bad. I seem to recall a guitar my mother owned when I was a kid. Thinking back I remember the strings being very spotty in coloration but to my ears it sounded wonderful as I grabbed a pick from the pickholder and ran them across, very slowly. Of course, that was one of my earliest experiences with a musical instrument and my mom apparently didn't play and had sold the guitar to help pay bills or something.

Anyway, here's hoping I can resist the urge to change the strings before the week is up. I'll probably be buying a string winder/cutter combo when I get paid...

Illustrious Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 4921

I know when mine need changing - because they tell me :)

How often depends on what kind of string, how much you play, how your guitar is stored, the humidity and temperature, and lots of other factors.

The strings that wear out quickest tend to be the cheap ones. $4 strings won't last very long compared to $30 strings. But the $30 strings usually won't last 7+ times longer, so it's not just price.

Nylon strings last a LONG time - I've gone over a year without changing plain trebles on my classical guitars. The wound basses will go first, but they'll still last 3-6 months. Good thing too - it takes a good couple of weeks for a new set to stretch out properly!

Coated strings last longer than untreated ones. How much longer depends on the type coating and the factory QC. For several years I used Martin SP+ on acoustic guitars, and I found they lasted about 2-1/2 to 3 times longer than the uncoated SP strings... but then I noticed the coated ones started telling me they needed changing more and more often, and I switched to Elixirs as my everyday acoustic strings about 5 or 6 years ago. Although next string change I'm going to put Thomastik-Infelds on my Martin to try them out - I just strung a student's guitar with some last week, and they sounded beautiful and felt good.

Assuming you're using decent quality strings, they should be changed when the intonation is noticeably off. A string's pitch depends on the length, tension, and mass of the string - as it ages, it gets heavier (from finger dirt, rust/tarnish, etc), which makes it lower in pitch. We compensate by adjusting the tension. Problem is, when you fret a note higher up on the neck, you've got less mass vibrating than you're supposed to - because the extra weight will be concentrated where you're fretting most often - and for most players, that's the lower frets. So your high frets start sounding a bit sharp... and that's their way of telling you it's time for new ones.

Some players never venture out of the low frets. So if you're never hitting any notes above the fifth fret or so, your strings will last a LOT longer - I've known guitarists who were happy playing just the cowboy chords, and they sounded fine on strings that were a year or two old. But if you're using the whole fretboard and have decent ears, you'll hear the difference somewhere between 20 and 200 playing hours. That'll vary with the weather - I have to change mine more often in the summer - and with what music you're playing... heavy pick attack and big bends shorten string life. So will capo use (and for what it's worth, the cheaper the capo, the more it shortens string life - and fret life too!).

If I'm using average ($6-9/set) strings, I get about 40-50 hours out of them. Roughly a week's worth. More expensive strings. Higher end strings ($18-32/set) last 150+ hours. Price-wise they seem to work out the same for me per hour, so I go with high end - it means less time spent changing strings and more time playing guitar!

So I change strings whenever one of the following happens:

- I break a string (which only happens once every couple of years, since I change them pretty often to start with)

- the intonation starts to go

- I have a gig that calls for a particular tone - certain styles call for more power/brightness/whatever. My 'everyday' strings have to handle everything from Bach to Sex Pistols during lessons, so I need an all-around sound, and that's a compromise. High profile gigs call for the best sound you can get for a style.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL

Illustrious Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 5480

Noteboat, thanks for this. I was wondering about that very recently. I found a guitar to be simply horrible and impossible to intonate very recently. Anything past the thrid fret was murder on my ears. I set intonation and it was good again for a day or two. Two weeks later it sounds like crud. Never thought to change strings, as they do look good, but they are now 3 months old.

Where I really failed is that I entered the string change on my guitar maint spread sheet, but did not indicate brand. DOH!

edit: So, I'm going to change strings and play it some, but won't mess with intonation for a few days just so the strings can settle in and stretch properly. I'll report back if it stayed in good intonation or not.

"I wonder if a composer ever intentionally composed a piece that was physically impossible to play and stuck it away to be found years later after his death, knowing it would forever drive perfectionist musicians crazy." - George Carlin

Active Member
Joined: 13 years ago
Posts: 12

I wait until they sound like crap.

I wish someone had told me this earlier - I should be changing them every time I pick up the guitar if this is the case... :wink:
Took the words right out of my mouth.

I have little to add--especially after NoteBoat weighed in on the subject. :) I can tell from what I am reading here that I have been somewhat negligent in changing my strings. Like some others, I've changed to a new set of strings when one breaks or becomes "deader" than the others.

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