Changing Strings

If you’ve got an older guitar and you don’t know when the last time the strings were changed on it, you might consider buying a set and learning how to change them.  Or if you’ve had your new guitar for awhile and you need to learn how to change strings, I’ll give you a few tips.  These tips are primarily for acoustic guitar.

First of all, people always question “when?”  There are many different opinions on this one.  Some people suggest if you’re playing regularly, change them every couple of months.  I don’t think that’s really necessary and I don’t even change them that often!  I met a performing guitarist once who changed them every day!  The reason he did was because he liked the sound of new strings   Well, I guess a performer has the right to change strings as many times as he/she wants.  Luthiers (people who make stringed instruments) will have varying opinions too.

A good sign that your strings need to be changed is when one of them breaks!  But you don’t have to wait that long.  If you have a classical or spanish guitar with nylon strings, they rarely break anyway.  Steel strings break more often.  Usually you will see that the areas of the string that you touch most, where you play chords or notes, will get a little darker.  Over time, the oil and skin from your fingers and the dust from a room will start to gather especially on the wound strings, the fatter ones.  You’ll see the effect of time on the fat strings first.  It dulls the sound of the string when you play it, although you won’t really notice because it happens so gradually.  As soon as you put a new string on, you’ll notice the difference right away!

Most of the time you can buy a new set of strings from your local music store for about $10 or $12…some are a little more expensive.  Talk to somebody at the counter about buying strings if you’re not sure what you need for your guitar.   For instance, a classical guitar needs different strings from a steel string guitar.

Different guitars behave differently with certain types of strings.  There are usually four gauges;  heavy, medium, light and extra light.  I wouldn’t recommend heavy or extra light if you are new to playing, only because they can really change the feel of your guitar.  Medium strings are probably okay, light gauge strings tend to bend more easily and sometimes (SOMEtimes) will make a guitar a little easier to play.

I am qualifying that only because there are so many different guitars out there and there are many factors that effect your guitar playing.  If you talk to someone at your guitar store and tell them what make of guitar you have, that might determine which gauge to buy.
When you have finally decided on a set, the next question becomes how to change them.  The following description is MY way, and below there is a YouTube posted by a luthier who will give you some additional tips.

1.  Tools to have handy:  needle-nose pliers, a soft cloth and a set of new strings, of course!

2.  Before you touch the old strings, look carefully and maybe even take a picture of how they are attached from the bridge, up to the head stock (where the tuning pegs are).  Which way are they wound around the pegs?  They should be wound from the inside out so that when you turn the pegs, they loosen and tighten properly, as indicated by the arrows:

3.  Personally, I DO NOT remove all the strings first!  I know that many do, but a tip I got years ago from a luthier was that there is a certain amount of tension created by all of the strings pulling tight on the neck of the guitar, that gets changed when you suddenly take all the strings off.  Whether or not that is the gospel truth, I don’t know, but to be safe I’ve always removed them one at a time.  The luthier in the video below removes three at a time, so I imagine that’s probably quite safe too.  So I take one string off (it could be the high E or the low E string, doesn’t matter) and then replace it with the new one, and then move on to the next.

4.  Hopefully you are familiar with the tuning pegs (the part that you turn to tune the string) enough to know which way to turn it!  I loosen the string as much as possible, and then fiddle with the  end of string so that I get it off the peg.  I will often actually cut it once it has become quite loose.  Then, if you have bridge pins, those rounded pins that hold the other end of theguitar string into the bridge, I’ll carefully start pulling it out with my fingers.  If it’s in there too tight, I’ll try to push the string in a bit to loosen it.  Sometimes that works, sometimes not.  As a last resort, I will take a soft cloth and wrap it around the pin and use needle nose pliers to pull it out.  Once it’s out, the ball end of the string can be pulled out.

5.  Once you have the old string off, you might want to dust along the areas of the guitar that you can’t quite reach when the string is in place.

6.  Pull the new string out of its packaging…make sure it’s the right one!  Sometimes they are marked by the string name (E or 6th, A or 5th, D or 4th, G or 3rd, B or 2nd, E or 1st) or sometimes they are marked by the colour of the pin ball (D’Addario strings are distinguished this way), or sometimes simply by the width dimension of the string.  If you’re not sure, they are often in the right order in your packaging, or you can Google it to make sure you’re using the correct string to replace the old one.

7.  You’ll notice the bridge pins have a groove on one side.  This is where the string fits when you place it back in the bridge:

8.  Insert the ball part of the string in the hole in the bridge, and then secure it by inserting thebridge pin, groove side facing towards the sound hole.  Here is the correct position of the ball and bridge pin from a cross section view:

You see how the pin holds the ball of the string down below?  If you want an even more detailed view, I’ve embedded a YouTube video below so you can get a better idea of how it works.

9.  Once the string is secured at the bridge end, you’ll need to stick it through the hole on the appropriate peg on the headstock.  I usually pull it all the way through the hole and then loosen it back about two or three inches.  Now you start winding.  My favourite part.  Not.  🙂

10.  Remember to wind it in the right direction!  The strings are wound from the inside out, as shown in the diagram above.

11. Clip off the end of the string with your needle nose pliers, and bend the end in towards the headstock so you don’t prick yourself!  This is also demonstrated in the video below.

12.  Once the strings are all replaced, you’ll need to tune the guitar with a tuner or the one you see a link to at the top of this blog.

It won’t stay in tune easily for a day or two, so you will have to keep tuning it until the strings get properly stretched.  However, you’ll notice how bright the strings sound compared to your old ones!

That’s why people like to change their strings often…just to have that sound.

One note:  some guitars, like Ovations, don’t have bridge pins at all, the string is simply inserted into the end of the bridge.  I still have an old Ovation and it’s much easier to re-string than my Larivee.

For a more detailed description, here’s the video:

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