For guitar players, it remains an ongoing issue that determines everything—quality of sound, ease of playing and the ability of the instrument to do what we want when we want it. Some of us have a system down or have a good feel of things, but let’s dig deeper and understand the science behind it all.
What are we talking about? Simple—the eternal question of when it’s time to change guitar strings?
It’s an experience nearly every guitar player has had. You buy a pair of strings, check the tuning, and presto, you’ve got a bright, brilliant sound, full of complex overtones and high-frequency harmonics, that helps you feel like you’ve conquered and mastered the world. The strings have that glossy, fresh feel that make your fingers want to glide over them again and again.
In an amazingly short period of time, those same strings start to sound as dead as the proverbial doornail, leaving you to mourn about what might have been, if strings were designed to produce that same kind of sound for an extended period. Even worse for many players is that feel – the tarnish, rust or grime feel, left behind by continued use and the sweat and dirt that you leave behind each time you play.
So what’s behind it? And what solutions, if any, are available? With those questions in mind, we’ll take a deeper dive into the world and lives of Strings, which will hopefully give you some good answers to help you understand the process as well as possible workarounds.
Why Does String Sound Decay and Die? Why do they lose their fresh string feel?
It’s a complex question, but the surface answers are very basic. Simply put, the material the strings are made of begins to give way to the ravages of time, primarily due to dirt and corrosion. When this happens, it’s hello decay, bye bye vibrant sound.
As you might suspect, there’s a deeper answer to this question that relates to the physics of sound and how that dirt, sweat and corrosion affect it.
An audio graph consisting of guitar string sound samples shows the specifics of how this happens. If you graph out two simple lines that represent decay over a range of sound frequencies, one line representing live strings and the other their dead counterparts, you’ll see that they’ll both start out flat and level, but the downward drop of the dead string line will look like a much sharper ski slope.
There are other factors involved as well. Over time strings begin to lose their elasticity, which in turn affects their ability to stay in tune. They also become brittle as this happens, and the time it takes to do this usually speaks volumes about the quality of the strings. Certain high-end brands have recently introduced things like polyweb coatings, which do an incredible job of increasing the lifespan of guitar strings but still, can’t eliminate it altoghther.
Part of this process is related to the guitarist, and their amount of use too, of course. Guitarists with a heavier touch and who have oily hands will induce this effect more quickly, while those with a lighter touch may be able to buy some time in the process.
So how long does it take? Individual players aside, the immediately loss of quality can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days and sometimes weeks or months with these higher end and newer strings. The general consensus, however, is that guitar strings start to wear out completely after 2-3 weeks, and somewhere around the 4-month mark those same strings will start to sound noticeably stale.
So What’s the Solution?
All of this is frustrating at times, but there are ways to mitigate the process, and there solutions than can now significantly help and prolong the life, sound, feel and look of those same strings.
Start by learning your own process. It won’t help you stave off string death all that much—physics is physics—but it will help you know when to change strings, to stay ahead of the curve. It will also help you to recognize the various stages of your own string decay curve, which is especially valuable if you’re playing live or recording on a regular basis.
Finally, there are solutions, some of which involve dealing directly with the aforementioned decay and corrosion.
String Sling, for instance, is a sleeve that serves to protect strings by lessening the exposure to both decay and corrosion. It’s a versatile product that does so much more (it has storage for capo/picks, slides, a pocket for picks and when not protecting, makes for a unique and unbeatably comfortable strap) but was built to keep the grease and sweat off, while staving away environmental impact and most importantly, keeping the fretboard clean in the process (which given the relation to your strings, obviously has a huge impact in the same corrosion and decay we’ve discussed above). For those that live by the beach, in humid environments or simply dusty homes, with their guitars out on display, it can significantly prolong the life and feel of each new set of strings.
In many ways, it’s the ultimate guitar accessory, so it’s definitely worth trying for yourself, to see how it changes your personal experiences with string decay. The Strap is worth it on its own but add in the protection and utility/storage and it’s clear how and why it does what it does so effectively (and comfortably).