Changing Strings So they STAY TUNED

When should you change strings?  What is the easiest way to do it, both for you and the guitar?  How do you make the guitar STAY TUNED? 

When or how often should you change strings?  This can be a very subjective perception, and it all depends on how they sound to you, and what sound you are trying to achieve on your guitar.  I have friends with fabulous guitars who are advanced pickers with well trained ears, but they insist on playing with very old strings because they actually like like the thumpy, muted sound they produce.  I can't tell you why, it is just what they have trained their ears to like I suppose.  Personally, I like a clean tone, not overly bright and raw, but I do like sustain and clear tones.  So I find that brand new strings are a little too shrill and bright, and prefer their sound after playing them a few days, sometimes a week or more.  However, factors like your skin chemistry, how hard and intensely you play, the temperature and humidity where you are playing, and other things will determine how quickly your strings go dead.  So I will start with the assumption that you don't like the sound of dead strings, because if you did you wouldn't be interested in changing your strings!

A Note on Strings:  Phosphor Bronze strings are the brightest sounding strings, and keep their brightness and sustain the longest.  Regular brass, or 80/20 Bronze strings are less bright, and seem not to last as long. This is based on my personal perception and experience.

New or fresh strings tune up better and are easier to keep tuned.  Dead strings are a struggle to get tuned accurately.  Old strings tarnish, or oxidize, and they don't ring clear which makes it harder to hear the "exact true note" that you are trying to tune to. Old strings get pitted with little dents in them from hitting the frets, and these also affect tuning.  Pitted, corroded strings break easier.  I change strings when they reach a point that my ear can tell they are getting muffled and thumpy, and especially when I can tell they are not tuning easily anymore.  For me, how long a set of strings lasts varies from a few days up to a month.  That's a big range, I know, but it has to do with a lot of factors.  When I played in a Bluegrass Band in Texas in the humid summer heat you can bet I had to change strings after every set we played.  We played hard, practiced or jammed practically all the time we weren't performing, and the heat and sweat killed the strings in no time at all.  However, if I put a new set on before playing an indoor old time dance where I'm not sweating, and even though I play for 3 hours straight, the strings still sound fine afterward.  When I go to the OT Music festival in Arkansas and we jam for 6-8 hours a day where the weather is cool I may need to change strings after a couple of days.  If I happen to let a couple of my friends (who will remain nameless) play my guitar, I know I will have to change strings as soon as they hand the guitar back to me (sorry Tyler, it's true).  Skin chemistry will affect how quickly strings die.  My hands are fairly dry and don't seem to "kill" strings.  So if I put on a new set and pick my guitar around the house for a couple of weeks and maybe even play at one band practice, but I keep my guitar away from friends with corrosive hands, my strings may last over 2 weeks up to a month. There you have'll have to see what works for you.

Putting strings on a guitar that will stay in tune is a mechanical and scientific process.  The process I am outlining here is not about my "personal preference".  It is based on sound mechanical facts and a little molecular science.  Guitars don't go out of tune because "some brands of strings won't stay tuned", or "my tuners just don't hold", or "I play too hard", or "it's the humidity".  I promise you, I can put a set of strings on any "PROPERLY SET UP GUITAR" and then can go on stage and play a full 45 minute set - hard, loud, fast and intense - and I will not have to screw around with frequent tuning. And you can do this too. This is an absolute fact!  This is possible because it is about mechanical and scientific factors

First let's address the "PROPERLY SET UP GUITAR" part.  By this I mean you must have tuning gears that are working properly, a good nut and saddle that are filed and positioned correctly, and the string pins must fit the bridge properly. These are all mechanical things about the guitar that must be set up right so that the guitar "intonates correctly" and so the strings are stable where they connect.  Yes, if the saddle is mis-positioned or the nut slots are too tight, you will have problems tuning that have nothing to do with how your strings are put on.  So if you have to turn, and turn, and turn a tuning peg but nothing happens...and then suddenly hear a "POP!" and the note jumps up in pitch and is too sharp, you have slots in the nut that are pinching the string too tight.  If strings keep going flat when you play hard, it could be how the pin fits the bridge. So get a good luthier or guitar repairman to make sure your instrument is set up correctly before you lose your mind! Regarding the tuners (sometimes called machine heads or tuning gears), my experience is that unless you have a very old guitar with worn, corroded tuning gears, the tuners are rarely the problem.

OK, so let's assume you now have a properly set up guitar.  How do you change the strings so your guitar stays in tune?

Here are the things you will need in order to change strings:   A small pair of needle-nose wire-cutting pliers with rubber coated handles, a string winder, an electronic tuner, and a new set of strings, of course. Optional: you may also want a clean cloth and some guitar polish to clean your guitar at this time.

  • If you have a work bench with a good thick towel on it, this is a great place to change strings.  I don't have a work bench right now, and have found that the side-by-side washer and dryer in our garage make a nice bench, and I use an over sized, folded beach towel. Working in the garage keeps me out of trouble small scraps of sharp strings left on the living room floor.
  • When you remove the old strings don't just cut them off, especially while there is string tension!  Take your time and be patient. Loosen each tuning peg about 20 turns with your string winder.  This will get them all slack enough so you can get your left hand inside the guitar through the sound hole.  (better take your wrist watch off so you don't ding up the edges of the sound hole) Now, using your left hand fingers, push each pin up and out of its hole and use your right hand fingers or fingernails to pull up on each pin.  Most string winders have a "pin puller" in the handle that is supposed to pry the pins out, but I suggest you avoid using them.  You will eventually scratch up the bridge, ding up the pins, or dent the top of your guitar.  Trust me, this will happen. 
    • If the pins are so tight you can't push them out relatively easily using pressure from underneath and pulling from above, then they are too tight to begin with.  Get a guitar repairman to ream the holes, carefully, so the pins fit snugly but not ridiculously tight. When they are so tight that you have problems getting them out, they are tight enough to eventually cause the bridge to crack. 
    • Note:  the round ball head of your pins should all sit level with the bridge, and should all sit at the same height.  If some are sticking up and some are flush with the bridge, this is also a sign the holes need to be reamed.
  • If your guitar has a standard head stock (solid, not slotted like a classical guitar) you now can just pull the strings up and they will unwind off the tuning peg. Be careful, because getting that little bent end, the 90 degree angle part that goes through the tuning peg, is where you will get stuck and bleed a lot! I generally use a pair of needle nose pliers to carefully extract the string.  The coiled string wire is like a spring and has a nasty habit of springing back and impaling a finger or knuckle.
    • IF YOU HAVE A STEEL STRING GUITAR with a SLOTTED HEAD-STOCK, like my 1937 00-21, the process is almost the same except you have to work even more carefully within the slots in the head-stock.  The needle nose pliers are very helpful, but be careful, it is easy to gouge the wood with the pliers or string ends! You have to get the bent tail out of the tuning peg in order to remove the strings, and this can be tricky and painful if you don't use the needle nose pliers.  The ones with the rubber grips are much easier to hang on to.

Optional: Now that you have no strings on your guitar, this is a good time to clean the guitar with guitar polish, especially around the sound hole and bridge where dust accumulates.  You can also use some lemon oil polish to wipe down the fingerboard and frets.  Not too much, though, just lightly.  I just wipe mine down with a clean, soft, polishing cloth, no oil or polish.

  • Take the old strings you just removed and wind all 6 into a nice circle and dispose of them now, before you open the new set.  Get the old ones out of your way. Trust me. Now you can open the new strings and lay them out so you can easily identify each string, #1 - #6, the E,B,G,D,A,E. I typically start at the top with the Low E (6th) string.  Insert the ball a short way into the hole and using the TIP of the PIN, push the ball down into the hole.  Keep a gentle tension on the string as you press the ball down, always keeping the ball in contact with the tip of the pin.  You will feel a little click when the ball passes over the bridge plate.  This is critical to making your guitar stay in tune.  If the ball is dangling way down below the tip of the pin that means you have "slack" that can keep pulling up, and this will make this string go flat every time you play it hard or stretch it.  The ball should be seated just below the bridge plate with the pin firmly behind it.

    • Below is a photo of what it looks like in a "cross section view" of the bridge, top and bridge plate.  You can see the pin goes through these three pieces of wood (top, bridge and bridge plate), and the ball end on the string is snug up against the bridge plate...that is the dark wood just below the guitar's top.  The ball should be touching the bridge plate, not dangling down below the end of the pin. (Thanks to McCabe's Guitars in Santa Monica, CA for this picture from their web site.)
NOTE: The pins should seat with the head (round ball top) as flush to the bridge as possible, and all pins should be at the same height.  If they don't seat flush, or if some sit higher than others, have a guitar repairman, preferably a luthier, ream the pin holes so they fit properly.
  • The next step is to cut the excess length off of every string before you begin attaching them to the tuning pegs and winding them up.  I don't recommend winding the strings up first and then cutting off the excess as you won't get consistent results. Pull the Bass E string taut so that it reaches the Bass E tuning peg, and then cut the string so that it is 2 1/2 to 3 inches longer than this.  TRICK:  On most guitars the distance between the Bass E and Bass D tuning pegs is about 3 you can use this spacing to determine how much excess to leave. Do this with each string, simply pulling it to the peg it is going to install on, then adding 3 inches beyond this, and cut it.  If you have short pegs, you may need to cut a little less than 3 inches, particularly on the wound strings, which are fatter and take up more space when wound.  Or you may find that you like a little more length depending on how many "wraps" of string you want around the tuning peg.  I prefer at least 3-4 turns of the string on each peg.  Sometimes the Bass E only gets about 2-1/2 or 3 turns because it is thicker, and the High E string can wrap 5 turns.  This is fine, and you can adjust to suit yourself.  However, 1 or 2 turns around the tuning peg is really not enough to create a good, non-slip grip, so aim for at least 3 wraps. 
  • Now that they are all cut to length, it is time to install and wind up the strings. Using your needle nose pliers, make a sharp 90 degree bend in each string, about 3/8" to 1/2" from the end.  This little angular "tail" needs to go all the way through the tuning peg with a little sticking out the other side.  However, there doesn't need to be more than 1/8" sticking out. Push this short bent piece through the hole in the peg.  It is this little "tail" that will make you bleed; remember it is sticking through the tuning peg. Keep the bent tail pushed all the way into the tuning peg and begin turning the tuning button. I use my left hand to turn the string winder, and I use my right hand to keep the tail through the slot, keeping a little bit of tension on the slack part of the string, and to guide the string as it winds around the peg.
  • Now, here is the trick to locking the string in place. This is one of the most important things I ever learned about putting strings on a guitar.  I DO NOT TIE A KNOT IN THE STRING WHERE IT WRAPS AROUND THE TUNING PEG. It is not necessary to make a knot or some kind of loop.  The fact that the string will be crossing over itself is what holds it tight without slipping.  Making a knot will just make it hard to remove the old strings, and a knot also creates a slack spot that causes the string to keep going flat. Worst of all it will make you will bleed every time you change a set of strings. A knot is not necessary for preventing the strings from slipping and is very difficult to remove from the peg.
  • So here is how to make your strings non-slip without making a knot. For a guitar with a standard, solid head stock: start by winding the string UPWARDS on the peg... in other words, away from the head stock, making one full turn above the hole in the peg.  As the "tail" of the string comes around to complete this first turn, using your right hand, push the slack part of the string below the "tail" sticking through the hole, and continue to wind the string, with it now winding DOWN towards the head stock.  This makes the string cross over itself, locking it in place, and it will never slip again, I PROMISE.  Do this on all six strings.  This creates a very neat, knot-free, solidly locked down, slip-proof string.  By finishing the installation with the string winding in a DOWNWARDS direction, closer to the headstock, you have also created a good angle with the string across the nut, creating more down pressure at the nut.  This is a good thing.
  • For a STEEL STRING GUITAR with a slotted head-stock (note, this is NOT for a classical guitar with nylon strings!):  I have found that steel string, slot head guitars require a little different process.  First, you will want to wind the Bass E (6th string) and Treble E (1st string) before doing the others.  It is hard to put the E strings on after other strings because there is so little space in the slot that you can't thread the string into the peg.  Do the E strings FIRST! On the Bass E, start winding TOWARDS THE TUNING BUTTON, OR TOWARDS THE OUTSIDE OF HEAD STOCK (up towards you).  Then after the first full turn when the tail comes around, cross the string over the tail and wind TOWARDS THE CENTER OF THE HEADSTOCK until fully wound onto the peg.  On the Treble E, do the same, keeping in mind it will look different, it goes the opposite way.  First, wind TOWARD THE TUNING BUTTON, OR OUTSIDE OF HEAD STOCK (down away from you).  Then after the first full turn when the tail comes around, cross the string over the tail and wind TOWARDS THE CENTER OF THE HEADSTOCK (up towards you).  On all the rest of the strings (A, D, G ,B) you will be doing it the opposite way: first start by winding towards the center of the headstock, and after the first full turn, cross over the tail and wind towards the OUTSIDE of the headstock, towards the tuning buttons.  This method keeps the two E strings from vibrating against the other strings, and keeps the E strings from rubbing against the wood in the slot.  This is the best way for slot head guitars I have found.  It requires a little thinking at first, but works great.
  • Now, to finish the string-changing process, you have to stretch the slack out of the strings.  Stretching does not in any way make the strings age faster!  It actually makes them last longer without continually stretching during their lifetime. Start by tuning them up to the correct pitch, using your tuner. Then take each string between your thumb and forefinger at the 12th fret and pull up, firmly, AWAY from the fingerboard.  Do this with all six strings. The strings stretch, and you will hear that the pitch drops, so now you will have to tune them back up to pitch using your tuner.  NOW STRETCH THEM AGAIN!  OK, tune them back up again.  Stretch again.  Tune up again.  Usually this takes 3-5 times. When you can stretch them and hear that they don't drop in pitch, you have done an amazing SCIENTIFIC THING!  You have actually aligned the molecules of the steel strings (the brass wound strings also have steel cores) so that the steel molecules are all perfectly aligned in a straight line. Before you stretch them, they are in a random pattern. Once stretched out like this, the metal itself will not stretch much more, if at all.  You have also tightened up the strings on the tuning pegs, and removed any slack from under the pins. Strings that are slack-free is a major factor in keeping your guitar in tune. Strings that are stretch-free is the other major factor in keeping your guitar in tune. Sometimes I put new strings on right before I perform or go to a jam.  In fact, I did this last night. Other pickers have asked n amazement  " Why are you doing that?  Won't they keep going out of tune for a few days?"  Nope, they won't if you use this process.  However, before playing a gig with new strings, I'll warm them up with some hard playing before I am satisfied that they are holding.  They will hold almost perfectly in tune if you follow these steps.  Last night I jammed for 3 hours after installing new strings using this method, and I only had to adjust my D string once all night! The other 5 strings never changed, and I checked several times during the jam. I've been doing it this way for 19 years, and I never have to spend time on stage, or at jams, messing around with tuning between songs trying to find the offending, out-of-tune string. I hate watching people tune an instrument on stage because it is so unnecessary!
To Review - The three most important things that keep the guitar from going out of tune:
    • Ball end properly seated just below bridge plate, snug up against it, not dangling below the pin.
      • Requires properly reamed pin holes so pins fit fully down in the pin hole.
    • The end that is wound on tuning peg must cross over itself ONCE to lock it down.
      • String at the tuner shaft DOES NOT require a knot or loop, but DOES require ONE cross-over to lock it down.
    • Stretch all the strings until they have no stretch left in them and you know that the pitch doesn't drop when stretched.
      • This means: 1) the steel molecules are aligned and locked in place; 2) all slack is out of the strings at the tuning peg and as well as under the pins.

Once I learned this process, Life was Good.  It will be for you too if you follow this method. Richard

Thanks to John Holman and Dan Lashbrook for showing me different aspects of this process way back in 1987.


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