Guitar strings over time become dull and faded. In appearance and sound. Old guitar strings can still sound good, but still lack the vibrancy and spark of a fresh set. When they lose that sparkle and start to look a bit worse for wear it’s time to change them.
Strings come in different gauges. The bigger the gauge the thicker the strings. Electric guitars are most commonly setup with either 9-42 set, or a 10-46. Acoustic guitars are typically setup with 12-53 or 13-56. What do these numbers mean?
The first number is the gauge of the top e string and the second number is the gauge of the low E string. So it’s basically telling us the gauge of the thinnest and thickest string.
What string gauges should I use?
The thicker the string, the tighter they are when tuned. Also the thicker they are the thicker the tone. So if we look at the two most common set of electric guitar strings, 10-46 will sound slightly thicker but 9-42 will be more comfortable to play. However it should be noted the differences, although noticeable are still pretty small. If in doubt then we’d recommend a set of 9-42. If you use a acoustic then play it safe with a set of 12-53.
To give you extra help most string manufacturers even give you instructions as to which string is which.
Strings come in different types but the vast majority of players stick with standard platings. When you go to a store and ask for stings they’ll automatically give you normal strings, it’s a good idea to stick with these unless you feel like experimenting.
How do we change strings?
First take off the old strings. To do this safely and stop strings pinging out and stabbing you in the eye, always loosen the strings at the machine head so they are slack before trying to take them off. Never try cutting them off. Loosen them so they are really slack and remove them by hand.
This is one of those things that is easy to explain but take a bit of hands on practice before you get it just right, a bit like peeling and chopping vegetables. Depending on the type of guitar you have the process is a little different. Namely how the strings attach to the bridge. However if you examine your guitar it should become clear how the strings attach to the bridge. Normally it just involves knowing where to thread the string through. Sometimes they need to be thread through the body of the guitar and other times they need to be thread through a tail piece.
Guitars which have double locking systems such as a floyd rose are much more complex and would require a entire separate lesson on taking care of those. As a general rule, if you are new to guitar, don’t buy a guitar with a double locking system. If you are new to guitar and already have a guitar like this, then leave changing strings to someone more experienced. There are many wonderful advantages of guitars with a double locking system playing wise, but they can be a pain in the butt and more time consuming to take care of.
Okay back to business.
Once we attached the string to the bridge we then need to thread the string though the capstan. The bit on the headstock where the strings go through. Strings when you buy them are always too long. They do this to give you a bigger margin of error and to cover all types of guitars. So you’re going to need to cut them to the right length. The best tool to use when cutting strings are just a regular pair of wire cutters.
The string only needs to be wound around the capstan at least two whole times, you don’t need to wrap the thing around loads. It makes no difference and wastes your time. So try to cut the string to length with this in mind. Just to be safe leave yourself an extra half inch or so more than you think you need. And generally it’s better to have to much than to less. Each time you change your strings you’ll become more aware of what length to cut the strings to.
Once that’s done, it’s time to start winding. A tool that is really essential here is a string winder. They are really cheap plastic little gadgets, but are life savers. Every guitar store on the planet will sell them. String winders speed up winding vastly and will save you a lot of headache and hassle.
Wind with one hand and hold the string in place near the capstan with your other hand. The aim is to wind the string evenly down the capstan without overlapping at any point or have any bits poking out. This can take a bit of practice at first but becomes simple with time. Make sure you wind in the right direction. Wind until there is no slack in between the capstan and the nut.
Once you’ve done this with all the strings, tune the guitar.
But we’re not done yet. Now we need to stretch the strings.
The strings will have some invisible slack that you wont see. When you start to play or bend the strings this slack will make the string go out of tune. So we need to get rid of this slack. We do this by stretching the strings. To do this just grab the string around half way in between the head and bridge and pull it firmly away from the neck. Give it good couple of tugs, firm but not to hard. You’ll probably notice the string is out of tune. Tune it again and then repeat the process. Keep doing this until you are able to pull the string and have it stay in tune. Do this for all the strings.
The more times you change your strings the better and faster you’ll get at it. But it’s defiantly something you’ll want to get stuck into with you own hands.
Neck and fretboard
The fretboard will become dirty the more you play your guitar. Just looking with the naked eye you’ll start to see some dirt and grime build up. Cleaning this off is a simple task.
If you have a rosewood or ebony fretboard then you can buy some lemon oil from and guitar store and this works wonders. If you’re not sure if you have a rosewood or ebony fretboard then just look at the colour. If it’s brown it’s rosewood, if it’s a really dark brown, almost black then it’s ebony.
With all the strings off, just wipe some lemon oil onto each fret and then wipe it off with a regular dry cloth. All that muck will come off with it. If your fretboard has gotten really dirty then just leave the lemon oil on the neck to soak longer before wiping off.
If you have a maple fretboard then don’t use lemon oil. You can tell if your fretboard is maple because it will have a light natural wood colour. You’ll just have to use a cloth and some elbow grease. Maple fret boards are sometimes varnished so dirt and grime will slide off more easily.
Fret buzz and choking
Fret buzz is when a note played on one fret rattles against the next fret. And choking is more severe and occurs more on the higher frets when a note played on one fret is literally choked out by the next fret. Both problems can be caused by either uneven frets or bad string action or neck relief.
Fret buzz on the first few frets, between the nut and 5th fret can sometimes be caused by not enough neck relief. Neck relief is the natural bow in the neck. The neck may look straight but does actually have a tiny bow in it. This is adjusted with the truss rod that runs inside the neck. The rod is adjusted with a allen key and access to the rod differs on different guitars. Most commonly it can be reached through the head stock, usually covered by a bit of plastic that needs to be unscrewed.
First check your neck relief. Press down on the 1st fret on the low E string and then at the same time press down on a fret high up the neck, the last fret will do. Look at the 12th fret. There should be a slight gap between the string and fret. This gap should be slight enough to fit about 2 sheets of paper. If it looks less, or there is no gap at all then you need to loosen the necks truss rod. You do this by turning it anti clockwise. If the gap looks visibly large then you might need to tighten the rod by turning clockwise.
Never turn the truss rod more than 1/4 of a turn at a time.
Making large and reckless adjustments to the truss rod can do serious long lasting damage to your guitar. So if you do want to adjust the rod make small adjustments at a time and recheck everything.
Even better advice is to leave the truss rod alone if you are unsure. It’s not something you should experiment with unless you are sure you know what you are doing.
If you found you have fret buzz and the neck relief looked normal, then the best thing to do is to raise the action of your guitar. The action is the hight of the strings above the frets.
This is done in different ways depending on your guitar. But it’s always done at the bridge. Some bridges have to screws either side of the bridge to lower and raise it. While some bridges have separate saddles for each string that needs to be raised and lowered one by one.
Make minute adjustments. Tiny adjustments can make large differences.
Choking on the upper frets can be caused by the action set to low, or by uneven frets. If you can only remove the choking by setting the action very high so that it is difficult to play then the frets could be uneven. If this happens then you need to take you guitar to a guitar doctor. Under no circumstances should you try to file or even out frets on your own.
It’s worth learning how to take care and adjust your own guitar, however there is no shame in having your guitar looked at by someone more experienced. And if you have any doubts what so ever, then play it safe and have it looked at by someone in the know.
- Learning to change your own strings is important, but takes some practice.
- Use lemon oil to clean a rose wood or ebony fretboard.
- Incorrectly adjusting the truss rod can leave serious damage to your guitar.
- If ever in any doubt seek advice from someone more experienced.