Strung out: The strain of steel-string changes

Without doubt, my least favourite chore to do is changing guitar strings.  I’m not sure why, but it rates right up there with vacuuming the stairs (terrifying) and dusting the ‘objet trouvé‘ (middle class woes).  Perhaps it’s to do with bad experiences of the past:  Frustratingly breaking strings mid tune-up, the top ‘E’ string nearly slicing open my eye in an explosively Dali-esque flash of snapped steel.  Or, the moment when you forget that the tip of a steel guitar string is perfectly designed to puncture the human finger, leaving me scampering off for a tetanus injection.

Whenever I do actually pluck up the guts to do it (roughly once a month, or weekly when I’m gigging lots) it’s rarely as bad as I think, and it’s a good chance to give the thing a nice clean, and brighten up the sound loads.

Steel strung acoustic guitars are fiddly, almost as awkward as a classical guitar (more on that in the future) and it seems like you need at least one extra hand to get the job done.  Thank god for YouTube then, as there are lots of very helpful guitar experts, techs and luthiers who are willing to share their experience.  This video in particular taught me a few tricks which I now use, making the whole thing much easier and more effective….


Ok, so we might not all have an ELECTRIC STRING WINDER like that dude, but we should at least have some of the following tools…

  • 2015-01-23 10.49.50A nice soft cloth to give the guitar a once-over.
  • Some guitar polish (not essential, but it’s nice to give it a bit of a pamper)
  • Pliers/wire cutters, to trim the excess string off.
  • String winder – this is the one thing I would not do with out, they make the job loads easier!

2015-01-23 10.34.49There’s me showing off my camera’s ‘macro’ mode with this sultry close-up of my string winder.  They cost about £1-2 in most good music shops, and are a total godsend.  Not only do they make the job of turning the machine heads much easier, but they have a notch (the gap on the far left end of the winder in the picture) which helps pull out the string bridge pegs (at the other end).

Rather than take you through the whole process here, I’ll just mention some top tips I like to follow (most of which are in the above instruction video).

Firstly, like the guy in the video, it’s really best to have your guitar laying flat on a table, rather than trying to hold it as you’re changing the strings.  It may be obvious to most, but I’ve wasted loads of time in the past not following that advice, trying to wrestle with the guitar, the strings, and the winder.  Use a towel or blanket to cover the table or desk top and protect your guitar’s finish, and then you’ve got both hands free, and your instrument safe.

Next, when you’re getting the string to hold onto the machine head, you don’t need to tie it off.  Just give the string a kink around the ‘peg’, wrap it around once, then let the tension of the string grip to itself as you tighten it up.

I like to pull the string fully up…

2015-01-23 10.36.51

Then feed it back about an inch and a bit and tweak it until it kinks….

2015-01-23 10.37.13Then wrap once around.

That’s normally enough to keep the string in tune, and then you don’t have to mess around un-tying lots of string knots when you come to take them off for your next string change.

Trust me, you don’t want to be un-tying strings, it’s a thankless task which more often than not results in the above mentioned finger-skewering!

I like to trim off the excess strings as I go…helps with the O.C.D. and keeps them out of the way…2015-01-23 10.38.46When bringing the strings back up to tension and tuning them I use a clip-on tuner to make sure I don’t go too far, snapping a string.  I also like to take it slow…I imagine that whacking the guitar from zero to full tension in super-quick time isn’t going to do it any good.  Also when doing this I have a habit of backing away from the guitar, as I’m constantly paranoid that a string will break and slice something off.  This level of cowardliness is not an essential part of guitar maintenance, just something I’ve developed.

And I suppose that’s it.  It’s never actually as bad as I make it out to be, and it’s always worth it, when the guitar starts settling in to tune, and sounds great. Good luck!