Articles → Choosing and changing strings
After buying your guitar
Usually when you buy a good guitar it will already have high-quality strings selected by the manufacturer. If you like the strings you won’t have to worry about replacing them for a while. Almost certainly, at the moment of purchase the strings will be properly attached and tightened. Study them carefully to see how this should be done in order to avoid major problems when replacing the strings in future.
How your fingers feel and how to ease the pain?
Any novice who has only just started to play the guitar will always find that the finger tips of their left hand hurt. This will last until callouses are formed, allowing the strings to be pressed easily and without pain. If you have very sensitive hands you could start playing with synthetic strings, but this is only a partial solution to the problem.
Please, remember that if there are long gaps between your playing sessions the callouses will disappear, and the next time you start playing you will have to go through the pain again, so practice regularly.
It’s very important – especially in the beginning – to make sure that the strings are not set too high above the frets, as the higher they are, the more effort is needed to get the sound you want. But, if the strings are too low, they can touch frets while vibrating which can cause an irritating buzz.
In the classical guitar, nylon strings must be about 1.5 mm higher the first fret, and about 5 mm higher the twelfth one. For guitars with metal strings, this height must be less, as the string tension is higher. They are usually kept as low as possible without affecting the sound quality. The height is adjusted by a key that raises and lowers the neck (unless it is glued permanently, and the guitar is designed for it). You can also adjust the height by adjusting and changing the nut and/or the saddle.
String wear and how to reduce it
Eventually the strings will wear out as they are exposed to multiple atmospheric effects and are oxidized as they absorb grease from your fingers; eventually this results in problems with tuning and a deterioration of the sound quality. To slow down this process, all you have to do is to regularly wipe strings with soft dry cloth.
If the strings are really old, wash them with soap and water. But please remember that it’s not possible to completely restore them as permanent changes will affect the elasticity of the string, and this process cannot be reversed.
Types of strings
No matter how hard you try, one day you will have to choose new strings. There are a variety of types to choose from.
Classical guitars most often have nylon strings. Usually, three strings are made of just nylon, while the three bass strings are wound with silver-plated copper. The silver-plating not only looks good, it improves the sound as well. Unfortunately, it wears out rather quickly, and copper itself is not a hardwearing material. That is why some manufacturers have started using other copper alloys that match silver-plated copper in terms of sound quality. Using metal strings is not recommended for the classical guitar – it may even be dangerous as this instrument is not made to withstand strings at high tension and it can break, hurting you in the process. You can get a brighter sound by switching to carbon or fluoro-carbon strings. This type of synthetic string is more durable, and makes for a thinner string at the same tension.
The latest development for the classical guitar is steel-wire based strings. Generally speaking, although these are metal strings, they are supple enough to be put on a classical guitar.
Metal strings are used on concert, jazz and electric guitars. They are durable and produce a vibrant sound. These strings are distinguished by greater tension when compared with synthetic ones. They are made of a steel rope core with different types of metal wound on the bass strings to confer different shades of sound. Silver gives a soft and velvety sound (but such strings are not durable); on the other hand, bronze gives a harsher, brighter sound (bronze has differing degrees of brightness or softness, so that one bronze can be different from another). Electric guitar strings are usually wound with nickel or stainless steel.
The latest development is metal strings with a synthetic coating to the metal that is wound round the bass strings. Such strings are excellent at preventing sweat penetration and preventing the breakdown of the metal binding.
Another point worth mentioning is that all manufacturers offer strings of differing widths (No 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 – according to the thickness of the first string in inches – 0/009 inch and so on). The thicker the strings, the more expressive the sound, but such strings are harder to hold down.
Of course, choosing new strings is a matter of taste and preference. By trying various strings, you will get to understand how different they can sound. My recommendation for novice players is to use synthetic-based, steel core or metal strings No 9 and 10. Those who appreciate a more intense or brighter sound should choose strings No 11 or higher, wound with phosphorised bronze.
Replacing the strings
The first thing you should do is remove the old strings. To do that, loosen the strings one by one by rotating the tuning keys and carefully remove them from the headstock; after that, classical guitar users should untie the knots at the bridge, while users of the concert guitar should carefully remove the bridge buttons by gently pushing the string back (which makes it easier to pull out the button). It is not recommended to use pliers, wire cutters or other non-specialised tools to remove the buttons.
Now, here’s how to attach the strings correctly: with classical guitars, you should tie a knot as shown in the diagram; the end of the string must be cut so that it can’t scratch the wood. With concert guitars, you should first bend the end of the string with the washer plate (bending it makes it easier to push in the button); after that, insert the string into the opening, push the button in behind the support (the slot must be towards the neck), and tighten the string until it is firmly fastened. Electric guitars and jazz guitars may have special fixings that require other skills or tools.
At the headstock, the string must run through the tuner opening, be wrapped round and run through the same opening again (metal strings can be pulled through only once). Then you should turn the key until the required string tension is obtained.
Adjusting the string tension
Note that immediately after fitting new strings they quickly become stretched and the guitar can get detuned very quickly – this is quite normal. Later on this process will become less noticeable, but the strings will still get stretched, and you will have to tune the guitar from time to time.