Classical guitar strings (nylon strings) bear 90 pounds of tension when in tune. That constant tension as well as daily playing are the main reasons for wear and tear. Bass strings wear out more quickly than treble strings.
Some people corrode strings (the wound basses) easily with natural grease from the fingers and get less bright sound. The frets too may show signs of wear. Some people do not sweat much and keep their fretboards squeaky clean and the bass string coils are free of detritus.
For a non-professional, hobbyist player of the classical guitar, a set of nylon strings will last two months or about 80 hours of playing before the sound noticeably degrades. This is a reasonable number of hours for most players but the actual life of nylon strings depends on how often the guitar is played and how hard it is played.
A concert professional will change strings more frequently – once in 3 weeks. A seasoned guitarist knows the bass strings especially go “woolly” with the higher harmonics disappearing and the overall volume and sustain dropping. On the other hand, some casual players of the guitar will go on for 6 months or more with the same set of nylon strings.
If you see extreme signs of wear or weakness (the D string typically unravels at the 2nd fret), then it’s obviously time to change to a new set of strings right away.
Do nylon strings come with a short shelf life?
Nylon strings don’t really have a shelf life. It’s best to keep them cool, dry and out of strong sunlight as a common-sense precaution.
No string manufacturer has a use-by date stamped on their packaging. It must seem that there is therefore no shelf life restriction. The wound strings (basses) are corrosive, so it is certain their shelf life is limited by storage conditions and exposure to temperature. This is why, as many a classical guitarist has found out, the basses wear out a lot faster than the top three unwound strings.
Treble strings outlast bass strings on classical guitars
Trebles outlast the basses. D’Addario composites, for instance, can take on 3 sets of basses per set of trebles, so the trebles can go on for three months and the basses for about a month. The top three strings don’t seem to degrade much. Needless to say, your mileage may vary depending on how much you play, which brand of strings you use and what your idea of ‘degraded’ sound is.
Do the treble strings last forever? In the opinion of some players, it would seem so! They don’t change them for several months, even a year. It’s difficult to make generalizations on how much trebles outlast basses because our playing habits, as well as expectations, are so different. Plus, the boring nature of changing strings can make hobbyists postpone it forever, especially when they can’t even hear a perceptible loss in sound quality.
From a typical player heard online: I hate changing strings. It’s a pain and takes me about an hour, plus you have to continually tune them for the next 3 days! I change strings maybe every 6 months if I feel like it and I play my guitar all the time!
For a performer, it’s obvious when the sound has lost its punch. For most others, it isn’t that obvious. And the strings stay on… and on. You may read here and there on the internet that trebles can last up to ten times as long as the basses. Not likely. Even allowing for personal preferences, something like 4-5 times is the maximum with 3 times being a general average for most players. Don’t push it!
It makes sense to purchase extra sets of bass strings. When I buy classical guitar strings, I purchase an extra set of basses along with a full set of my favorite brand. So I change the bass strings twice as often as I do the trebles. It’s a great thing that online retailers like Amazon and Strings by Mail sell most brands in separate sets of trebles and basses. Make use of it.
How to increase the life of nylon strings
There are four factors that affect the life of nylon strings: string quality, playing technique, playing time and personal hygiene.
Quality of strings matters. Some brands of strings like the D’Addario Pro Arte and EXP coated last a few times longer for many players. Some swear by the Hannabach Titanyl basses as long lasting. Augustine and Savarez strings are also talked about. I’ve heard it said numerous times in forums that Oasis strings have an extremely long life. (I haven’t tried Oasis strings, so I’m just reporting.) Since it’s a question of how strings interact with your particular guitar, this needs experimentation.
Playing technique refers to finger pressure. Some players bear down hard on the strings which will cause rapid string and fret wear. A lighter touch will prolong string life but it may or may not be musically satisfying to the player.
Playing time on the classical guitar daily or weekly obviously has an effect on string life. The more you play, the more you wear them out. It’s the way it is. Which is why those who play often, like professional players, tend to change their strings often too.
Personal hygiene helps. Washing your hands before playing has a major impact on string life. Dirty and sweaty hands are not good on the strings, especially the basses. Many find it helpful to wipe strings down with a microfiber cloth. Microfiber picks up sweat and oil better than any other fabric.
Can cleaning strings prolong their life?
Most definitely. You can keep the frets clean with a polishing routine using an inexpensive cleaning product.
The bass strings can be cleaned if you want to prolong their life. They can even be boiled (serious!) to get rid of grime and re-fixed again.
You can also re-shift the D string. The D string is particularly vulnerable to getting frayed or eaten into at the second fret. You can ‘shift’ the D string to a new place by unwinding the string, pushing the string by a few millimeters through the bridge hole, and re-tightening it. Doing it a couple of times can prolong its usefulness.
Even a simple cleaning procedure of using a wet rag of denatured alcohol on the bass strings occasionally keeps grime and detritus from lodging in them.
Fret and finger abrasion, sweat, oil, and dirt eventually cause a reduction in upper harmonics (treble response) and volume. The strings sound dead. At this point you’ll see fret wear marks on the strings and intonation will be off as you shift up the neck. If they’re really worn, basses will be corroded and trebles scratched rough where you pluck.
A regular clean-up plan will certainly help in keeping the good tone and increasing string life.
How do I know when to change nylon strings?
Look for any of these signs:
- Bass strings sound dull and “woolly” and the higher harmonics have disappeared
- Sustain is shorter
- The D string shows distress at fret 2 – the metal winding has cut through, leaving the string unprotected
- Wear marks over frets
- Treble strings get ‘scratch’ marks. Run your nail over a string at the right-hand position to sense any roughness on the string
- Windings on the bass strings loosen or show indentations
- Any signs of tarnishing or lack of smoothness of strings
- Treble strings get rough in places where they have worn against the frets
Any of these tells you that you need to change your strings. Some players are reluctant to change nylon strings because a new set takes time to stabilize. This is frankly not a good reason to live with a poorer tone. Stabilizing is a matter of two or three days at the most when done right. (Read my article Stopping Nylon Strings From Going out of Tune to do it the right way.)
Follow a string changing routine that suits you
Create a string changing routine that works for you and stick to it. Decide, for instance, if you’re going to change the entire set of strings or only the basses which give way faster.
There is a clear case that the same set of trebles will take on 2 or 3 sets of bass string changes. Nothing much seems to happen by way of degradation to the treble strings. They outlast basses at least two to one.
Leading string brands like D’Addario, Savarez, Aquila, and Hannabach offer separate treble and bass sets in addition to regular full sets. So order half-sets if that works for you. (This method gives you the additional benefit of mixing and matching different brand sets and experimenting to see what helps your guitar tone the best.)
Or you can take the general, non-fussy approach of most players. Use two months as the rough guide and change the whole set. A useful tip is to write down the date of your string change on the empty pack and shove it in your guitar case. If you find changing strings isn’t an enjoyable pastime (who does?) this method is just perfect.
For the first couple of days after fixing new strings, tune the guitar in the morning, evening, and before going to sleep. Keeping strings in the right tension will settle them in faster. For more details about this, see my article How to make New Nylon Strings Settle in Faster.
A happy, long string life to you!