In my earlier playing days, I went through months on end without bothering to change the strings on my classical guitar. I’ve fallen into a string changing routine nowadays which works for my playing habits, my guitars, and the string brands I use often. I did some research to find if there is a consensus on what’s the ideal time to change to a new set of strings.
How long will a new set of strings last before you should change them? Change to a new set of strings if the old one has clocked 60-80 hours playing time. If you play the guitar an hour or so each day, you should change to a new set once in two months. Two months is a reasonable compromise between taking the effort to change them, the cost of new strings and the quality improvement in sound.
A concert professional will change strings more frequently, perhaps as often as once in 3 weeks. If you’re an infrequent player but have otherwise kept your guitar well guarded against the vagaries of the weather, you can go on for 6 months or more with the same set.
If you see physical signs of wear or weakness, then it’s instantly time to change to a new set of strings.
What are the signs of wear and degradation?
Classical guitar strings bear 90 lbs. 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 claim their fretboards are always squeaky clean and the bass string coils are free of detritus.
The guitar itself makes a difference. Some guitars have excellent bass definition and tend to sound good with older bass strings too. And there is the all-important component of humidity in your practice room.
So, between the make of your guitar, the sweat on your hands and the weather in the room, how can you tell visibly that your strings need changing? Look for any of these signs:
- A degradation in sound (especially the bass strings). All of us have different ways of expressing this noticeable fall in the quality of sound:
- The strings sound dull and “wooly”
- The higher harmonics have disappeared
- They sound muffled, lacking depth and power
- The tone color is gone, sustain is shorter
- They lack their earlier projection and clarity
- A drop in sound quality you are unable to fix through technique or nail shaping
- The D string shows distress at fret 2, so much so that the metal winding has cut through, leaving the string unprotected
- Wear marks over frets, or worse, the bass strings begin to unravel
- Treble strings get ‘scratch’ marks. Run your nail over a string at the right-hand position to sense any roughness on the string
- Bass strings with fret wear showing fray marks or just looking grimy
- Core filaments of basses are almost visible
- Wear on the underside of the bass strings, especially the D string. Wear on the string will eventually wear the fret
- Windings on the bass strings loosening or showing indentations
- Any signs of tarnishing or lack of smoothness of strings
- If treble strings get rough in places where they have worn against the frets, they are way overdue for a change
Any of these, particularly the more extreme ones, indicates you need to change your strings right away. To the enthusiast in their early stages of guitar education, a drop in sound quality alone may not be obvious. Yet it does not make sense to wait for extreme things to happen (a string breaking or unraveling) before you change over to new strings.
It’s better to create a string changing routine that works for you and stick to it. You do not wait for extreme wear marks to appear. We’ll have more tips on that shortly, but an important question now is: Should you change the entire set of strings or only the basses which always give way faster?
Are basses different from trebles?
In my own experience, as well as many others’, bass strings simply die out faster in tonal quality. There is a clear case for saying the same set of trebles can tolerate 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 you can take if you wish the very practical route of ordering half-sets to manage the changing of strings. This gives you the additional benefit of mixing and matching different brand sets and experimenting to see what helps your guitar the best. There are hours of enjoyment to be had here!
Or, you could order the full set of your regular strings and order an extra set of basses as a replacement.
Or you can take the general approach of most players using two months as the rough guide and changing the whole lot. This is because changing strings is not exactly an enjoyable pastime! You may not want to go through that twice as many times.
My own string changing solution
In my case, I’m finding that D’Addario EJ45 strings are not only inexpensive and fairly consistent in quality in pack after pack, they also last me closer to 80 hours or more of play. Which works out to about 11-12 weeks for me before I think of changing my strings.
Around week 11 or 12 I know there will be a decrease in the tonal quality, so I don’t even bother to look for it specifically. I just change my strings as part of a set routine – and get on with my playing life! And I change the whole set each time.
There is so much to learn, discover, and manage in the classical guitar world and I will not sink huge hours into worrying about string changes.
How to keep strings in tune for longer
A new set of strings takes a week to ten days to ‘settle in’. When you leave a guitar overnight and pick it up to play the next morning, there are always minor tuning adjustments to be made in the initial week.
Some people have suggested tugging at the strings away from the guitar body as a way of ‘stretching’ them and allowing them to settle in faster. There are severe critics who oppose this way of treating them (the celebrated Douglas Niedt among them).
I’m only mentioning this to tell you DON’T do it!
Tune the guitar in the morning, evening, and before going to sleep. If you keep strings in the right tension, they will settle in faster.
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. 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 will keep grime and detritus from lodging in them. And keep you happy with a better quality sound.
You can also keep the frets clean with a polishing routine using an inexpensive cleaning product.
A useful tip is to write down the date of your string change on the empty pack and shove it in your guitar case. When time comes to check for the due date, you can always fish it out and take a look.
Some strings suggestions to try out over time
While string suggestions are ultimately so subjective, I’m offering starting pointers to those who are still coming to grips with the many aspects of playing a classical guitar.
A good choice is the D’Addario EJ45 which can be considered the meat-and-potatoes choice. I started with this, have explored distant shiny objects, and returned home to the EJ45. I find its tone exceedingly sweet on my guitar (an Amalio Burguet) and believe me, I’ve experimented with a handful of brands by now. On top of everything, it is not expensive at all (frugality counts in my book. I’m a cheapskate.)
And to rest my case, I’ll have to say the accomplished concert guitarist David Russell, probably the finest we have today on the circuit, uses them.
Savarez Cantiga 510CR is an excellent alternative for me and I always have a few packs of them lying about. I like the ringing trebles especially.
As you grow in your playing experience, you will (and should) experiment with other reputed brands like Hannbach, Aquila, Augustine (Segovia’s favorite), and GalliStrings. And you will find the set that speaks to you.
For having a wide-ranging choice of leading brands (and even having their own ‘mixed’ experimental sets), I heartily recommend stringsbymail.com. I am not affiliated with them in any way, but I have dealt with them often to my great satisfaction.
On a related note, if you are one of those who wonder why their guitar goes out of tune so frequently, read my article Why Strings go out of Tune and How to Stop Them. You will breathe easy.
Happy pulling your own strings!