If you're going to record your guitar, you might as well get the best sound out of it. While good strings won't make a bad guitar sound amazing, bad strings can totally ruin the sound of a good guitar. There are techniques for making your strings retain their brightness longer, and the way you hit those strings can make a major difference to the sound you get.
This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which is moving on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each Sunday.
Below are 50 hacks that will help you get more from your guitar strings. Some of the tips are contradictory, because there's no accounting for taste. Different people, and different songs, may benefit from different approaches.
I'm an acoustic guitar player, and a lot of the hacks will be slanted that way. There should be plenty of room for both electric and acoustic players to add your own hints to the list. I'd love to double the list to 100!
- Don't use old strings. Just don't! Imagine millions of people will be listening to that recording for decades to come. Don't make them suffer!
- Change your strings regularly. A Tommy Emmanuel video I have recommends (tongue in cheek) that you change them at least once a year "whether they need it or not." Try to get into a regular routine of changing strings every month or two. Replace them whenever they sound dull and lack tone. Replace them before every important recording session. Tommy changes his strings every gig.
- Stretch your strings to prevent them going out of tune. After putting new strings on your guitar, stretch them one by one, from top to bottom. The UniGtr+ Center recommend spending 20 minutes stretching the strings by hand.
- Plan ahead. Newstrings recommend that you replace your strings the day before a big event to give them time to stabilize so they won't stretch as you play.
- Change your strings one at a time, says Chris B, starting from the thickest. He says this will make tuning the guitar easier since tension has been kept on the neck.
- Tune your strings. Properly! At an amateur concert a few weeks ago, a young lady was playing her acoustic guitar and singing. All I can remember of her performance is how out of tune her strings were.
- Buy a good guitar tuner. I trust mine more than my ears. I still use the Boss TU-12 I bought decades ago.
- Learn to tune your strings with harmonics. It's fun, and you'll look like you know what you're doing when your friends are watching.
- Try a lighter gauge string. Lighter strings have a faster attack and more mellow sound. They are also easier on your fingers.
- Try a heavier gauge string. Heavier strings have a louder volume and brighter timbre. They may have a longer sustain. They will certainly cause more pain to your finger tips, and grow bigger callouses, but they may not cut into your fingers as much. They will reduce string buzzing.
- Try a different brand or type of strings. Different strings can bring out different sounds from your guitar. While I normally use D'Addario phosphor bronze lights on my acoustic, from time to time I buy a brand I've never tried before, hoping for a better sound, or at least a different sound.
- Plan for broken strings. Always have a spare set available. If you regularly break the same string (e.g. G or B) buy a few single strings as well. "Can I help you?" "Yes, I'd like to buy a new G-string."
- Wash and dry your hands thoroughly before playing. Oil and salt from your hands will reduce the life expectancy of your strings.
- Wipe your strings as soon as you finish playing. Mike Hayes recommends you use a soft, dry, lint-free cloth. He recommends that after you wipe down the top of the strings, you put the cloth between the strings and fretboard, and wipe the bottom of the strings as well.
- Boil your strings. This is an old trick, but there are around 516,000 sites (like this one) claiming that boiling guitar strings makes them sound new again. I've never tried this, and would love to hear some real-life stories from those of you who have.
- Use coated strings. The coating will protect the strings from grease on your fingers. Although more expensive, your strings will sound better longer.
- Use non-coated strings. If you break strings often, there is no point paying extra hoping your strings will sound better longer.
- Coat your strings yourself with Stringlife or similar.
- Take the tension off your strings when storing your guitar for any length of time. It's better for your strings and your neck. I mean your guitar's neck.
- Take the tension off your strings when being transported. Kristina suggests this will cause less damage if your guitar is manhandled by the baggage department. Don't forget the "Fragile" stickers.
- Store your guitar in a cool place. Avoid extremes in temperature. Many years ago a guitar student of mine left his guitar in his car boot (trunk) for a week during an Australian summer. Every string broke on his first strum!
- Store your guitar in its case. Besides keeping sticky fingers away from your strings, the more even temperature and humidity are better for your guitar body too.
- Try alternate tunings. They'll force you to play a different way, and may inspire a new song.
- Experiment with a bottleneck. You'll find sounds coming out of those strings that your fingers could never make. Combine using a bottleneck with open tuning.
- Play with shorter strings - use a capo. Sometimes I stick my capo up fairly high (fret 5 or higher) to give my guitar a different sound when playing with other guitarists. Don't forget to transpose though!
- Try playing with detuned strings. Tuning your guitar a semitone or two lower will give a jangly sound that may suit some songs. And the lower tension is better for your guitar neck. You might want to use a capo to bring the strings up to pitch.
- Try acoustic strings on an electric guitar. I bought a left-handed Danelectro electic guitar for my wife's fortieth birthday. It sounded a bit like an acoustic guitar, so we put acoustic strings on it, and it sounded good! She never did learn to play left handed, though.
- Never put steel strings on a guitar designed for nylon strings.
- Try electric strings on an acoustic guitar. I've never done this, so if you try it, let us know how it goes. I imagine it would be very quiet!
- Use a heavier pick. Heavier picks give the strings more volume and tone. Tommy Emmanuel advises (on that video I have), "So do yourself a favor, and buy yourself a heavy pick."
- Use a lighter pick. They're quieter, and will emphasize the higher frequencies.
- Learn to finger pick. Fingers give a different tone to your guitar than a pick, and you'll be able to play more notes at once.
- Grow your finger nails. You'll look nice, and your finger picking will sound better. If you're serious, find a good manicurist. Really! And consider strengthening your nails with clear nail polish.
- Experiment with finger picks and thumb picks. That way you won't need a manicurist. And anything that forces you to play in a different way is good for those creative juices.
- When fretting a string, place your finger on the string as close as possible to the fret without touching it. Being too far from the fret may cause buzzing. Touching the fret will dampen the sound.
- Vary your right-hand technique. Incorporate hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides into your playing to get a wider range of sounds from the strings.
- Try strumming or picking at different points along the string. Strumming half way along the string (near the octave mark on your neck) will produce the most mellow sound. Strumming near the bridge will give a brighter sound.
- Dampen the strings with your right hand by hitting the strings with the heel of your palm as you strum or just after. Try combining damping with plucking just two strings at a time.
- Dampen the strings with your left hand. When playing barre chords, you can do that by taking the pressure off the index finger in your left hand. Mix up dampening with letting the chords ring out.
- Strum evenly across the strings, incorporating downward and upward strokes. Try emphasizing just the high strings or low strings. Try varying the intensity of your stumming.
- Reduce fret noise. Spray your strings with Fingerease Guitar String Lubricant or similar to reduce friction between your strings and fingers.
- Bryan Steinhagen recommends you rub your strings with WD-40. Spray it on a rag, and wipe your strings with the rag. Let the strings dry before playing. The UniGtr+ Center recommend doing the same with pure alcohol. They also warn that drinking pure alcohol is a health hazard.
- Buy a string winder. You'll be able to change strings five times quicker!
- Buy a wire cutter. I've worn out too many pairs of scissors clipping the ends of my strings over the years. And every time I do, I worry about damaging the head of my guitar. Use the right tool for the job, and keep your guitar looking neat.
- On the other hand, you can coil the ends of your strings. It saves cutting, and some people think it looks cool.
- Wind your strings 2-4 times around the tuning pegs. This will prevent them from slipping and putting your guitar out of tune.
- Hold your string taut while winding your strings, says GuitarTools. Avoid bending or making kinks in the string while doing this.
- Use more of the length of your strings. Learn to play right up the neck with barre chords and without barre chords.
- Prolong string life by replacing your frets, bridge and nut when they become worn. Find a reputable local guitar shop or luthier, and service your guitar every few years.
- Lubricate your nut and bridge. Newstrings recommend rubbing a lead pencil (graphite) over your nut slots and saddle to reduce friction that may cause strings to break.
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