by Matt Day

With any stringed instrument, you’ll need to consider when to change your strings.  For guitar players, a common question is if and when guitar strings go bad. I play mostly electric guitar, but decided to look into all types of guitar strings to answer the question, “Do guitar strings go bad?”

So, do guitar strings go bad?  Guitar strings have a useful lifespan which ends when the strings lose the quality of their tone or no longer retain their tuning.  Factors such as environment, string type and usage all affect when guitar strings can go bad.

Let’s take a closer look at our guitar strings, when they go bad, and what we can do about it.

What Makes Guitar Strings Go Bad?

The strings on a standard guitar certainly can, and will go bad, based on a number of different factors.  Here are the most predominant factors for why your strings will eventually go bad.

String Killer #1:  Environment. It seems that for just about any type of guitar string, the environment that they are in is the most common culprit for why guitar strings can have a short lifespan.  Environmental factors such as heat and humidity are tough on guitar strings. Gigging musicians will notice that their strings will wear out quickly during humid July outdoor sessions, but can last much longer during January when the humidity is much lower and the guitar is not outside.

Keep in mind that other factors, such as stage lighting, HVAC systems in the winter, and whether you store your guitar inside or out of its case also affect the environment that the guitar is in, and therefore have a big impact on when your guitar strings will go bad.

String Killer #2:  Playing Time. Just about anything man made has a useful life and will eventually need to be removed or replaced.  Your guitar strings are no different. Different types of guitar strings have different lifespans, but all will be reduced by the amount of playing that you actually do.  In other words, guitar strings on a guitar that is kept in it’s case and never played will last longer than strings on the same guitar that is played for six hours a day during a hot week in August. Playing time equals usage, which uses up the useful lifespan of guitar strings.

String Killer #3:  Fret Denting. If you’ve never done so, take a close look at your guitar strings where they meet the frets on the fretboard.  After even a minimal amount of playing, especially on the higher (and therefore thinner) strings, you’ll begin to notice that the strings are denting from their contact with the frets of your guitar.

This denting is changing the structure and geometry of the string from consistently round all the way along the string to an inconsistent shape.  This change from a perfectly round string changes (read: starts to kill) the tone of the string. And when the tone of the string goes, the string needs to go too.  This is simply a factor of metal on metal repeatedly (in the case of steel string acoustics or electric guitars).

String Killer #4:  Grime, Corrosion or Rust.  We’ve talked about the usage of the string as well as changes in shape of the string, but elements that adhere to the string are also a problem.  These issues are predominately corrosion of some sort or grime and dirt, and in most cases they are coming directly from your hands. The sweat and oils naturally on your hands will transfer to your guitar strings (as well as any dirt on your hands), and this will build up over time.  Additionally, the sweat and oils are moisture, which on a steel string invite rust or corrosion.

When Should You Change Guitar Strings?

First and foremost, guitar strings should be changed when they are no longer doing the job for which they were intended, which is to sound good when played.  Be on the lookout for these factors, and when they start to come up, it’s time to get yourself a new set of strings.

Factor #1:  Tone.  Guitar strings that are beyond their useful life will lose their tone, and the tone will never come back.  New strings are often described as bright in nature, and older strings are commonly described as dull, dead, or less commonly, warm in tone.  When the tone of the strings is no longer pleasing, they should be replaced. This is especially important before a recording session or gig, but some players will also find that new strings brings out a desire to play their guitar more as well.

Factor #2:  Tuning.  When the strings will no longer stay in tune, it’s also time for them to be replaced.  Keep in mind that there may be other aspects of your guitar that are causing it to not stay in tune, and therefore the strings are not always the culprit.  (A good once over by a guitar tech can clear up a lot of issues around a guitar’s setup).

How to Make Guitar Strings Last Longer

If you’ve been following along so far, you have a good idea of what factors are killing your strings and when you should replace them.  You’ve also come to terms with the fact that your strings will inevitably go bad at some point. But what can we do to make them last a little longer.  There are a few things we can do.

String Strategy #1:  Wipe Down Your Strings.  Wiping down your strings after each playing session will remove much of the dirt and oils that transferred from you to the strings, as well as any other moisture that adhered to the string from the environment.  Use a clean cotton cloth to wipe down your strings along the entire length of the string, and also gently wipe on the underside of the strings that are closest to the fretboard.

While you’re at it, you should take a moment to wipe down the fretboard as well as the entire guitar, because what is bad for the strings is also generally bad for the guitar too.

String Strategy #2:  Use a String Cleaner.  There are several products on the market from the major string manufacturers that are designed to clean strings.  You can apply these compounds to a cloth and then wipe it on the strings. Many of these products claim to reduce corrosion and therefore extend string life, but also reduce string squeaking from your hands as well.  If you use any of these products, read the directions carefully as some are not to be applied to your fretboard, so you’ll want to be careful of that. Also, since you may also be wiping down your entire guitar, you’ll want to use a different clean cloth for the body of the guitar, so as to not get any of the string chemical on the finish of the guitar.  

String Strategy #3:  Keep Your Guitar In Its Case.  The best place for your guitar, sorry to say, is in its case.  Since most guitar cases have such a small amount of room around the guitar, and there is no air transfer between the inside and outside of the case, the inside of the guitar case is often the best controlled environment for your guitar.  Guitar players like me find that we play our guitar when it’s out of its case, so we’ll sacrifice the strings for this, but it is something to keep in mind, especially when you aren’t playing your guitar for a long period of time.

What Are The Different Types of Guitar Strings?

Anyone who has spent even a few seconds in front of the guitar string selection at any music store knows there is more than one type of string.  Not only do strings come in different gauges, but they also are made from different materials. For electric guitars, string options primarily include nickel, steel or coated options.  Steel string acoustic guitars use strings that can be made from steel, but also other metals or elements such as aluminum, bronze or phosphor. Strings on an electric versus an acoustic guitar are made differently because of the difference in the electronics and how the guitar produces its sound.  

Related Questions

Should I change my guitar strings before a recording session?  Nearly all guitar players will change their strings before a recording session, or at least use strings that are new and have good tone.  Guitar players should avoid recording with old strings unless they prefer the tone of those strings or need to get a musical idea recorded quickly.

Should I change all of the guitar strings at one time?  It is typically good practice to change all of the strings on a guitar at once to ensure a consistent sound and lifespan for the strings that are on the guitar.  Since guitar strings do not last that long as is, it is unlikely that existing strings will last that much longer than new strings added to a guitar.

About the author 

Matt Day

Matt Day has been playing the guitar for over twenty-five years, and also plays the bass guitar and mandolin.