For many years I used to hate having to change my guitar strings. It used to take ages. Winding. Winding. Sometimes I felt like it would take forever; when what I really wanted to do was hear the sound of the new strings ringing like a bell. But to string a nylon guitar was just a pain. Often that resulted in me playing with old strings, which meant a poor tone that reduced my enjoyment of my instrument.
Then I discovered the world of string winders after watching a guitar technician on a TV documentary and my life changed. Well a little. In this article I am going to suggest when to change your guitar strings and then what sort of string winder I would recommend. I’m going to talk about a little of housekeeping that doesn’t always happen. I’ll go through the process of getting the strings in place effortlessly and finally how to get it in tune quickly, trimming the ends of the strings so it not only plays well, but looks professional.
When to Change Classical Guitar Strings
You might ask, what is a classical guitar? I’m going to go with a liberal interpretation, being any nylon string guitar that you could play classical music on. Now I use my nylon guitar for a wide variety of music genres, but whether it is Jazz, Classical, Ragtime, Blues or accompanying songs I have written, I do very little strumming. That means that I am focused on harmony.
Harmony requires that the strings are in really good condition.
I tend to buy fairly expensive guitar strings. I buy them in bulk online because they can be even more expensive in local shops, and many don’t stock the ones I prefer. In a perfect world I would change my strings a couple of times a month.
In the real world it is less often than that. When my strings are new, they sound amazing and are easy to play. When they get older, you will see fret marks on them, the bass strings might start unraveling a little, but even if they haven’t, the guitar will sound a little dull. You might not even notice it because you are used to hearing how it sounds. In the worst case there might be a bit of a buzzing sound. Pay attention to the sound when you have brand new strings on your guitar. Remember how good that sounds and feels.
Removing the Strings Using a String Winder
I used to hate taking off my old strings, because I knew the chore ahead of me. But now it is easy. I use a string winder.
What is the best string winder? I originally bought both a nylon string winder and one that was both a string winder and cutter and had a fitting to take the string pins out for my steel string guitars. What I found was that the ones for nylon guitars were pretty flimsy and cutting the strings is much faster, so I don’t recommend the nylon guitar winders. One tool does the job on all of my guitars.
With a few quick turns of the string winder, I gently loosen off string tension. This is important because there is a lot of stress between the head stock of the guitar and the bridge. If you cut the strings while they are still tensioned, you could damage your guitar without realizing it. So I loosen the strings and then cut them, which allows me to quickly remove the pieces at both ends.
I then clean and polish the neck and fretboard of the guitar. A lot of people miss this step, or try to clean it with the strings on. That’s better than nothing, but dust, oils and fibers leave a residue on your instrument that builds up. A good clean and polish with appropriate cloth and guitar polish while the strings are off will make the instrument easier to play and better to look at. You have pride in your instrument don’t you?
One other little point. The bridge saddle is the white bit that holds the strings up and in place, between the sound hole and the bridge. This is loose when you take the strings off. So which way is the right way to put it back on?
Normally the high end is where the bass strings go and if you have had the guitar for a long time you might see tiny notches in it from the high strings. If you get it wrong, the action (how easy it is to play notes clearly and without fret buzz) may be poor and the notes might be slightly out of tune higher up the neck. If it is a very good guitar, the saddle will have been adjusted for that exact instrument. Wood isn’t like plastic or carbon fiber. Each neck comes from a unique piece of timber with its own characteristics.
Putting the new strings on your nylon guitar
The first question is which way do the strings go round? With the top strings that are only nylon, there is no difference. However, with the wound strings, being the 3 bass strings and sometimes also the G-string, there is only one way round. You will see that at one end, the string winding looks tight and solid. At the other end, the winding is more spread out and appears loose. That end goes up by the tuning pegs and the tightly wound end attaches through and to the bridge.
Start by putting the tight end through the hole in the bridge. You then create something like a knot, looping the end of the string back under the hole that you pushed the string through. Then bring it back around so that it goes under the string at the back of the bridge which will trap it in place as you can see on the picture.
Sometimes, especially with nylon strings, without tension they will slip out of place. I hold each string in place while winding at the other end, either by applying pressure on the top of the bridge, or using my fingernail to stop the pressure point from slipping to the top, because if it slips out, it won’t hold when you crank the tension up. That’s part of the pain when you are learning. It takes a little practice. I used to burn the end of the nylon strings with a cigarette lighter, creating a little blob that can help keep the string in place, but once you have the technique right, this isn’t necessary.
Now to the other end. I used to cut a chunk off the other end before winding, because it was such a laborious job winding the whole string up, but with a string winder it is just so much easier.
Tip: If you use the whole string and cut it as close to the end as possible, you will have enough to keep the strings as spares in case one breaks. You might also consider giving your used strings to someone who can’t afford to buy strings. If you change your strings often, your used strings may be better than theirs. I used to know someone who used to take used strings to the local prison where inmates were keen to have them.
Winding up the new strings and tuning your guitar
It is important that the strings are wound in the correct direction around the post. The string should be coming from the top of the post and then down through the slot in the head nut, that makes sure the strings are aligned to be straight from one end of the guitar to the other. The tuning peg mechanisms are designed for the stress in that direction and winding them the wrong way over time could wear the mechanism so that it doesn’t wind so freely.
Now comes the knack of holding down the loop at one end and using the string winder at the other end. It takes a little of practice and can be awkward to start off. I tend to start holding the guitar either flat on my lap, or in a classical guitar position and then once I am confident that the slip won’t loosen, I put the base of the guitar down on the carpet and wind away.
I have left out one important step, that is a guitar tuner. When I first started I used a tuning fork tune to A440 to tune the A string and then tuned the other strings using harmonics. I may do a post about that because on occasion you might have to do that. I used to have perfect pitch which helped, but there are other tricks. The point is, you want to tune your guitar exactly, and the best way IMHO to do that is with a guitar tuner that is clipped onto the head stock, unless your guitar is acoustic electric in which case it may have a built in tuner.
There are many ways to wind your strings up to tension. I tend to put both E strings on first and work my way to the middle because I feel that it means even tension on the neck all the way through the process. I don’t think many people do that, but my classical guitar is a superb instrument worth thousands of dollars, so I look after it, because I can’t afford to replace it.
If you buy good quality strings they will be pretensioned to the right note. That means they will adapt to the atmosphere and stay in tune, subject to the environment, once they have been adjusted a few times. Now all you need to do is tune it up, play a song, I tend to play tunes that have strumming in them because that will help the strings to settle as they stretch into position. Good strings on a good guitar will be in tune and stay close to in tune after 15 minutes or so of playing and re tuning.
Once the strings are in tune, I use the cutter on the guitar winder to trim off the loose edges. Some people leave them dangling and I find that distracting for the audience when I’m playing, and the edges can also get in the way when you have a tuner or a capo clipped onto the head stock. Likewise, at the bridge end. Being careful not to scratch the soundboard with the string, I trim those ends off as well.
Tip: One of my guitars has a built in tuner, but the 9 volt battery is inside the sound box, so the only practical time to replace it is when the strings are off. Don’t get caught out by that one.
So now you know the secrets to replacing your strings quickly and easily. We’ve explored when to change them and why you would want to, even if they seem OK.
We discussed cleaning and polishing the guitar when the strings are off, which is much easier to do and wood polish is quite different to polishes designed for the strings themselves.
We looked at what sort of string winder I recommend and how to use it.
I went through how to put the new strings on correctly, making sure they don’t slip off the bridge, and get in tune quickly and how to tidy up the ends to make it look sharp. I also discussed how to keep the guitar balanced so that it will not go out of tune too much or too often.
The more often you do it, the quicker and easier you will find it.
Now listen carefully. Can you hear the sweet difference? Even if some of your audience can’t tell. A musician can. Your fingers can. It will be that little easier and more pleasurable for you and if you feel good about your instrument, it will positively impact on your performance. Enjoy!
A final little tip: It’s always best to try to keep the guitar in a similar environment to where you will play it. Atmospherics such as temperature and humidity will have an impact on the wood and changes will often make it go out of tune. Some people say to keep the guitar in its case when you are not using it. I disagree, because that is not the atmospheric state it will be in when your play it.
You might notice, if you have been playing guitar at home and then get it out in a different environment for a gig, that it goes out of tune slightly. It is now in a different environment of temperature and humidity, which is why good guitarists will tune their guitars again before performing at a different venue.
So what do you think? Ready to give it a go? Do you do anything different to me? Please feel free to leave comments or questions.