To determine when you should be replacing your acoustic or electric guitar strings, let’s give you a generalised answer first: You should change your guitar strings at least 3 times a year - think every 3 months, or 90 hours of practice.
But hold your horses! In reality, the answer to exactly how often you change your guitar strings could be massively different. Why is this? It's because it depends on three (and possibly even more) distinct factors: what strings you use, how much you play and what tone you like.
Now let’s get to the nitty gritty.
There is much debate about the sweet spot for changing guitar strings. Some will say you should change your strings every 50 hours of play, others every 100 hours. Others still justify their string changing apathy saying they play "heavy metal rock, so dull old strings are fine."
I’m just going to put it out there:
It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing Slipknot or Three Blind Mice - old rusty strings aren’t a great choice. Let's dive a bit deeper.
I get it, changing guitar strings is boring.
It's one of those annoying but necessary jobs we face as guitar players. Let's get it into perspective then by looking at the main reasons why not bothering to change your strings for months on end is a bad move.
Guitar strings deteriorate over time with the build up of dirt, grease and dead skin transferred from your fingers. Combine that with moisture in the air and over time as your strings age they sound dull and lifeless.
The steel your guitar strings are made of contain iron which gradually rusts (oxidises) when exposed to oxygen. And thanks to the build up of muck on your strings, that oxidisation process is accelerated. This corrosion results in strings that feel harder and rough to play.
Your strings take a battering over time. What with all that frantic strumming, bending, shredding, and don’t even go there with vibrato. The bottom line is this; old strings are prone to breaking more than new strings because they go stiffer with age, and lose their tensility.
So you now know old strings become less pliable over time. Did you also know that this reduced flexibility makes your guitar harder to stay in tune too? Save yourself tuning nightmares by ditching those six old wires.
Related Post: 8 Reasons Why Your Guitar Strings Keep Breaking
To get your bespoke answer as to when your guitar strings need changing, answer these three questions:
When I get asked the question how frequently should I change my strings (which is often) from my guitar pupils, my first answer is - it depends on how often you play.
If you don't gig and only play at home, change your strings every 3 months (3-5 months if you’re using quality coated strings). If you're a performing player, change them once every 1-3 months (depending on frequency of playing plus string type and quality).
You should reduce the recommended time spans considerably if you play shows and/or record on a daily or weekly basis.
Don’t think just because you only pick your guitar up once a week for 20 minutes you can keep the same strings on for years. Why? Because your strings will still be degrading over time from coming into contact with your fingers - no matter how infrequently you practice.
Ever picked up a brand new guitar in a shop and wonder why the strings feel and look old despite it being labelled as new? It’s because oxidisation is still happening thanks to the oils and dirt being left on the strings from people's mucky mitts who've been trying the guitar out.
If you’re gigging and recording, you’ll still definitely need to change your strings more frequently than an occasional home player however. Put it this way, the last 4 week overseas tour I was on, my guitar tech changed my strings for me on average once every week. (I’m not over the moon with that fresh out the packet string sound, so this schedule worked for me).
The strings you use and what they're made of are a second major factor in determining how often you should change them. It also depends if we’re talking about acoustic or electric strings because electric guitar strings tend to take less time to break-in than their acoustic counterparts.
There are various types of string core metals used on electric and acoustic guitars. There are further subcategories that reflect how the string was made, and what other alloys have been used.
The most common core material used to make electric strings are stainless steel, nickel and nickel coated steel. The most common for acoustics include 80/20 bronze, phosphor bronze, brass, and nylon, with a further subcategory of strings referred to as 'coated'.
Coated strings such as Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze strings are made with the same core metals as non-coated strings, but with the special addition of a polymer webbing coating. This coating serves to protect the string metal from finger grime build up and oxidation, which prolongs the life of the string tenfold.
Fig 1.0 Acoustic guitar string tone chart - the sound profile difference between different gauges and materials
The strings on a typical acoustic guitar at their core are made from steel with their outer layer being brass or bronze plated.
80/20 Bronze strings also called Bronze/Brass are a mixture of Bronze and Zinc and can sound bright depending on brand. Some Bronze plated (particularly "bright bronze") strings tend to sound less bright than brass strings, with cheaper brands sounding dull after just a few hours of playing.
This means, if you have a cheap set of bright bronze strings on your guitar, be prepared to have to change them more often to keep that fresh new string tone and feel.
Phosphor Bronze strings are designed to reduce string corrosion and produce a balanced tone that's not too bright, and not too dull. They are one of the most common string materials you'll find.
Depending on brand, you could get a pretty decent amount of playtime from these strings. Expect to get weeks more life from pricier coated phosphor bronze strings however.
Silk & Steel also called compound strings are a mixture of nylon and steel. This combination makes the strings sound more mellow than pure steel stings.
Nylon strings are commonly found on classical guitars and produce a very characteristic smooth and mellow tone suited to specific genres such as classical and folk. Clear nylon is the most common type of nylon string.
Many classical guitars come with the three lower strings wound with metal such as copper. Known as silver plated strings they're designed to give more strength and tensility to the bass notes.
The Golden Rules of String Changing
No 1. If an old string snaps on you it's telling you something, so never just change one - change them all.
No 2. If a new string snaps because you’ve overwound the wrong tuning peg (we’ve all been there) - always replace like for like.
Fig 2.0 Electric guitar string tone chart - the sound profile difference between different gauges and materials
Stainless Steel electric guitar strings are generally brighter and give more 'top-end' tone than nickel strings. Thanks to the bright sound of these strings, they're a popular string material across many playing styles and genres.
Nickel strings have a mellow to dull sound profile. If you're looking for a bluesy or jazzy tone, the earthy sound of nickel and nickel-plated will please you no end. If you go for the plated variety, be prepared to change them more often though, as once the plating wears off, they can become dull and lifeless very fast.
Consider these Thomastik Nickel Flat Wound guitar strings if you're after a silky-smooth tone - these strings are absolutely perfect for jazz or blues.
Nickel Plated Steel give a sound profile that's a mixture between the sound of nickel (duller/warmer) and steel (brightier/livelier) core strings. These strings provide a low-end response and are a little less over-the-top shimmery at first, making them a good choice for many players and genres.
The more you read into it, seems like a guitar string isn't just a guitar string doesn't it?
As well as core material, another variable that affects the lifespan and how often you should change your strings, is how they are made. Here's some key differences:
Mellow warmer tone
Don't last as long
More fret noise
Less fret noise
Longer note sustain
Shorter note sustain
Pro Tip: Because flatround strings sound warmer and fuller than their brighter roundwound counterparts, they're a great way to tame toppier sounding guitars such as Telecasters and Strats. Flatwounds are also less prone to dead skin build up too thanks to their design.
Figuring out when to replace your guitar strings also depends on your ears; what tone sounds nice to you? Some players cringe at the bright sound of new strings thinking they sound tinny and harsh. They strum like a person possessed in a bid to quickly break them in.
On the flip side, other players think that that crisp new-string tone is sublime music to their ears. If you were to ask most guitar players what string sound they dig, you'd discover the majority would agree that freshly changed strings are a bit too bright, and old strings sound lifeless and dull.
The sweet spot for tone happens after a few days to a week of playing, depending of course on how often and how long your practice routines are for.
I know you’ll agree with this - how much money you have to spend on strings is another important factor that'll affect how often you can change your guitar strings.
It’s can be a little disheartening when you read some guy proudly announcing he changes his strings weekly because for most of us, that simply isn’t doable. It wouldn't only be a hassle to change them this frequently, but it would be darn expensive!
Gross sounding I know, but there’s no sugar-coating it; if you sweat more than the average person when you play, you'll quickly wipe out the lifespan of your strings. Furthermore, if you’re a working guitar player gigging and recording, I don’t need to tell you how being under those hot lights can make you sweat like a hog roast in July.
So if you tend to see your strings corrode quicker than the average player, you should go for a higher grade string that has longer life:
How do I prolong the life of my guitar strings?
So we know guitar strings oxidise over time which makes them gradually give up the ghost. I’ve got some good news though - regularly cleaning your strings can help you squeeze more life out of them. Follow these tips to prolong the life of your guitar strings:
Why are my guitar strings breaking so often?
If you find your E string always seems to always break, or your strings in general, there are many reason why this could be happening. From a poorly fitted nut, to poor playing technique, to using the wrong gauge strings, for a more in depth look into this question read our article The 8 Actual Reasons Why Your Guitar Strings Are Breaking.
How Do I Know When My Guitar Strings Need Changing?
Ask yourself these following questions if you’re wondering if you need to change your strings:
If you answer yes to only two of the above, it’s time to change those strings buddy.
You now have all the information you need to cut the confusion about when the right time is to change your guitar strings. Go for it!
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Fig 1.0 Acoustic guitar string tone chart - the sound difference between different gauges and metals