Changing Classical Guitar Strings

by Peter Kun Frary

When To Change Strings

Track athletes don't run with poorly designed or worn shoes. Why? Although he or she may be in exquisite physical condition and boast the finest training, bad shoes will shoot them down. For guitarists, strings are like the shoes of a track athlete. The finest instrument and player sound dull and suffer intonation problems with poor or worn strings. To get the most out of your guitar, use quality strings and change them regularly.

"When should I change my strings?" is a question I hear weekly. The answer is simple: change them when they sound bad. Fret and finger abrasion, sweat, oil, and dirt eventually cause a reduction in upper harmonics (treble response) and volume. In other words, the strings sound dead. At this point you'll see fret wear--black marks--on the strings and have difficulty tuning. If they're really horrid, the basses will be corroded and the trebles scratched (worn rough where you pluck). I often see strings so corroded they are greenish black and smell like toe jam!

D'Addario Pro Arté Strings • The best classical guitar strings made in the USA and the world.

Play all day and you can easily wear out your strings in a week or less. Players with dirty and/or sweaty hands can kill the tone of fresh strings within minutes. However, a typical hobbyist playing an hour a day should expect a month of decent tone from standard strings. Of course, you can leave them on for many months if you don't mind dull and lifeless tone and poor intonation. D'Addario EXP Coated (Extended Play Coated), last two or three times longer than standard (uncoated) strings.

Traditional String Changing Method

Purchase a set of classical guitar strings, i.e., trebles of clear nylon and basses of nylon thread with metal wrap. Never use steel strings on a classical guitar or you'll severely damage your instrument.

I recommend normal tension D'Addario Pro Arté Dynacore, D'Addario Pro Arté Composites (EJ45C) or D'Addario EXP Coated (EXP45) classical guitar strings ($12-$15). These D'Addario string models all sound excellent, but the coating on the EXP help prevent finger sweat and goo from killing your strings. Plus the basses from all these string designs reach pitch faster (fewer cranks) and stretch less than traditional nylon or gut core basses.

Yes, you can buy cheaper strings than EXP, Dynacore or Composites. Consider in the long term cheap strings are more expensive because they must be changed more often. Plus, higher quality strings have better tone and dynamics and more accurate intonation.

D'Addario String Winder • This device is used to turn the tuning pegs and speeds up string changes.

Removing Strings

Use a string winder to unwind the strings. It's faster than winding by hand. Turn the winder counterclockwise to loosen the string and clockwise to tighten the string. Don't remove all the strings at once. Instead, remove and install one string at a time. Removing all the strings traumatizes the neck and sound board. How? The strings exert a total force of 75 to 90 pounds of tension on the sound board and neck. If you release all the tension, the wood flexes. After reinstalling the strings it takes several hours for the sound board to flex back to optimal shape. Thus, you'll notice a lost of volume and tone until the sound board returns to normal.

Attaching The String To The Bridge

Once you have removed a string, attach the string to the bridge as illustrated in the diagram:

Thread the string through the bridge hole and loop it around itself. Insert the string under itself at the rear of the bridge (where the back holes are) so that it locks on itself when you tighten the string. Once threaded and looped, hold the string in place with your finger and take up the slack by pulling smartly on the string (pull towards the head stock).

Attaching The String To The Tuning Heads

After the bridge tie is secure, attach the opposite end of the string to the tuning head roller as illustrated in the diagram:

Turn the tuning key until the string hole is centered in the roller (see diagram above). Thread the string through the hole on the top of the roller. Pull the end out the bottom and twist it around the string: twist once for basses and two or three times for trebles. Pull the loose end of the string upwards as you tighten the string (turn the tuning key clockwise) so the string is caught between the string and the roller, i.e., runs over itself. This procedure insures the string won't slip out when under tension. Finally, use the string winder to bring the string up to pitch by cranking clockwise. Keep a watchful eye on the bridge tie. If it begins to slip, slack the string and tie it again. Repeat the above procedure with the remaining five strings.

Alternative Bridge Tie Methods

Knot Tie

This image illustrates the use of a knot to secure the string to the bridge:

The only requirement is that the knot is large enough not to pull through the hole at pitch. You can be creative and tie little hearts and bows if you wish. The advantages of this method are fourfold:

  • The string is better secured than the traditional tie and, thus, is less likely to slip.
  • String tension is focused on the end of the bridge resulting in simpler string geometry.
  • There is less wear to the bridge top and holes.
  • More attractive than traditional tie.

To secure the bottom four strings, I begin with a half hitch knot. Keeping the knot loose, I thread the end through again, leaving enough slack to form a loop. Finally, I pull the string towards the head stock to tighten the knot. For the first and second strings, I loop through twice to make the knot big enough not to pull through under tension.

Knot with Gasket Tie

No matter how you attach strings to the bridge, the holes eventually enlarge due to string pressure and abrasion. To protect bridge holes, I use a small plastic gasket between the knot and bridge. First, I drill six holes in a thin piece of plastic, e.g., credit card: four holes with a 1/16" drill bit and two holes with a 1/32" bit. The larger holes are for the four lower strings and the smaller holes are for the first two strings. Next, I use wire cutters to clip out the six gaskets. Finally, I trim each gasket to fit. Caution: if the gaskets are too big or have sharp corner they may eat into the sound board. Make the gaskets small enough they don't touch the sound board. The plastic gaskets should survive two or three string changes. I have found tiny nylon washers at Radio Shack that worked well for the basses.

String Gasket Making Tools (left to right): Exacto hand drills with 1/16" and 1/32" bits, string caskets drilled and cut from a credit card and wire cutters.

Knot with Bead Tie

Some guitarists use glass beads as gaskets and claim they enhance treble response. Well, beads do look pretty. In the image below I used jade beads purchased in Honolulu's Chinatown. However, I've also had good results with plastic, wood and glass beads. Buy beads with the smallest hole diameter the string will pass through. Of course, you must make sure the knot is large enough lest the string slip through.

This image illustrates the Knot with Bead Tie method of securing the string to the bridge:

Making Your Strings Last

Many of my students have commented that their instrument sounds great with new strings but quickly loses its sparkle. There are four main factors that influence string life: string quality, personal hygiene, technique and frequency of playing. String quality and personal hygiene are the easiest factors to control. D'Addario Pro Arté Composites and Extended Play Coated, last two or three times longer than standard strings. They're worth paying twice as much to preserve tonal response and avoid frequent string changes. Washing your hands before playing also has a major impact on string life. Dirty and sweaty mitts can kill fresh strings in mere minutes! Also, it is helpful to wipe your strings down with a micro fiber cloth. Micro fiber picks up sweat and oil better than any other fabric.

Poor technique, e.g., heavy finger pressure, causes rapid string and fret wear. I've seen the metal wrap tear off a D string after a couple hours of twanging by a heavy fingered student. A light touch--the least amount of pressure to hold the string down--is not only good for your strings and frets, but is better for your body and music.

Finally, the more you play, the faster you wear out your strings. That's a fact of life. Live with it. Nevertheless, the enjoyment of beautiful tone and wide dynamic response is worth a string change every month or even every week.

Good luck with your next string change!

1/22/2003 • Revised 10/10/2015

©Copyright 2003-2016 by Peter Kun Frary • All Rights Reserved