From the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Martin Keith
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No matter how varied and unique each of us may be, from our tone and touch to our gear preferences, all guitarists have one thing in common: we eventually need to change our strings. In my life as a guitar maker and repair tech, I’ve encountered every conceivable approach to stringing—from the merely ineffective to the truly insane. I’ve pricked my fingers on enough razor-sharp, rusty string ends to warrant dozens of tetanus shots, and I’ve frequently spent more time getting the remnants of old strings off the instrument than it has taken to put a whole set of new ones on.
A surprising number of my clients, many of whom have played for decades, are still reluctant to change their strings themselves, often for fear that they might do something wrong that could damage their instrument. In hopes of making this process easier and more fun, this article will present some basic information about restringing, as well as a few helpful tips that I’ve learned the hard way.
DETERMINE WHEN TO CHANGE STRINGS
Beginning guitarists often ask me how often strings should be changed, and there really is no right answer. Many factors determine the useful life of a string, including the player’s style, frequency of use, and sweat chemistry. I’ve known some guitarists with acidic sweat who could kill a set of strings in about 30 minutes, while others could leave a set on for months without needing to change them.
As a rule of thumb in my shop, I will change strings if they have any visible grime or gunk accumulated on them (usually most visible on the underside of the string, facing the fretboard), or if the wound strings have any dents or wear spots over the frets. Some players crave the bright, vibrant response of a fresh pack, while others prefer the broken-in warmth and balance of an older set. Learning to find the sweet spot of a given set’s useful life is a big part of identifying the best set for your needs.
LOOK OUT FOR COMMON PITFALLS
A frequent and easy mistake is to accidentally lose parts during restringing. It’s quite common for many parts on the guitar to be held in place by string tension alone—the bridge pins, saddle, nut, and tuner bushings (the small metal sleeves around the tuner posts) are often loose on older guitars, and can simply fall off the guitar when the strings are removed. These tiny parts can be maddeningly hard to find underneath a couch, which is why I always recommend working on a clean table.
On archtop guitars, the bridge is always held in place by tension alone, so when restringing one, be careful to take note of the bridge position so it can be placed back in the correct spot. I use a small piece of masking tape, which I de-tack by first sticking it to my shirt before putting it on the guitar top. I place one small piece on each side of the archtop bridge, with a small pencil mark aligned to the front edge. This allows me to replace the bridge in the exact same place during restringing.
Partly to avoid losing the pins, and partly for simple convenience, I like to anchor all the strings in the bridge or tailpiece first, before winding them onto the posts. It’s important to make sure that the ball ends are correctly anchored—in typical pin-style bridges, it’s possible for the ball ends to dangle below the bridge plate and rattle, causing mystery buzzes. Place the string ball into its hole, and insert the pin loosely. Pull up on the string until you feel the ball seat firmly against the bridge plate (underside of the top) and then press the pin more tightly into place. In the case of tailpiece-equipped guitars, double check each string’s anchor point before you bring the string up to tension, as it’s easier for those ball ends to slip out during installation.
LEARN A FOOLPROOF APPROACH
When I was first taught to change strings, I was shown a somewhat complicated technique that involved tucking the free end of the string underneath the first turn of wrap on the tuner post, to lock it against slippage. It took me several years to get to the point where I could do it without leaving slack in the resulting loops, and it was always a challenge to remove old strings from the tuners, as they would often break at the post, leaving sharp little rings of string stuck in the holes, which had to be picked out with pliers. Not fun, to say the least.
In my first job, at Veillette Guitars, I learned a much simpler way, which remains my go-to approach. I’ve used this stringing technique for everything from .007 strings at very high tension all the way to giant .095 sub-bass strings, and they have always held firmly without slipping. Even if tuned up to the breaking point, the strings would always snap before the windings would slip.
The basic idea of this approach is to kink the string in opposing directions on each side of the string post. Simply insert the string through the post, leaving a small amount of slack between the nut and the bridge (about enough to stand four fingers between the stretched string and fretboard). Then, bend the string on both sides of the post simultaneously, so the string makes a Z shape through the hole. (If you are installing a bass-side string, you would bend both sides clockwise). Clip off the trailing side of the string and wind up the slack onto the tuning post. Be sure that each wrap winds below the prior ones, so the string gets closer to the headpiece as each wind is added.
If you’ve left the correct amount of slack, there should be two to three wraps on the heavier strings, and three to five at most on the thinner ones. Too many wraps can cause tuning problems, as it makes it more likely for the wraps to pile up on each other and not wind evenly around the post. Too few wraps will potentially make the string slip, no matter how it’s wound.
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Stringing with a simple Z bend takes less time than any other technique I’ve seen, and it has proven itself to be reliable for me over tens of thousands of strings installed. Strings are very easy to remove from the posts, and even if they break at the post, the leftover ends just fall out of the hole without any need for tools. I have uttered some choice words over the years for strings that were double-threaded through the post, knotted into place, twisted around themselves, and even dabbed with superglue to help them stay put. Whether you change your strings yourself or have it done by a tech, this simple and foolproof approach will make it much more reliable and fun.