Changing Classical Guitar Strings

The What, When and Why of String Changes

Peter Kun Frary

The best instruments and players will 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 intonation will be off as you shift up the neck. If they're really worn, basses will be corroded and trebles scratched rough where you pluck. I've seen strings so corroded they're greenish-black and smell like toe jam!

D'Addario Pro Arté Strings | EXP and Dynacores are my favorite strings. Proudly made in the USA!

Playing for four or five hours daily can easily wear out strings within a week. 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 good tone from standard strings. Of course, you can leave them on for many months if you don't mind 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). These D'Addario string models all sound excellent: EXP basses are coated for longer life but mellower in tone while Dynacore and Composites are brighter but uncoated. The basses from all three sets 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 Strings 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

Use of a knot to secure strings 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 the 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've 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

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 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 heavy fingered students. 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. Nevertheless, the enjoyment of beautiful tone and dynamic response is worth a string change every month or even every week or two.

Bach, Sarabande BWV 995 played on a fresh set of D'Addario EXP Coated

1/22/2003 | Revised 01/27/2016

©Copyright 2003-2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved 


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