It’s quick, easy, and a great way to improve your guitar’s tone!
With frequent use and aggressive picking, electric guitar strings will eventually become dull and prone to popping. If your strings do snap and break, don’t worry – changing the strings of an electric guitar is an incredibly easy process. A nice pair of strings costs about $10-15, and changing them out only takes about 5-10 minutes. Best of all, you’ll immediately notice an improvement in your guitar’s tone with a fresh pair of strings – and you’ll probably wonder why you didn’t change them out earlier!
Materials and Tools
1. Electric guitar strings
There are several important characteristics and properties of electric guitar strings you need to know about before purchasing a box of new strings. I’ll explain important string considerations below, but my best advice is to buy a nice set of strings that you think you’ll like, keep the box, and use them until they pop or need to be changed. If you really enjoyed playing with those strings, then get the same ones again. If you want to tweak something (a different string thickness, coating, or brand), then try something new.
First, make sure you buy electric guitar strings, as there are also strings made specifically for acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and other types of guitar. Also make sure you buy a pack with six strings (unless you have a seven-stringed guitar or something else).
String material: The wire wrap on a wound electric guitar string is composed of various alloys. The metal formulation of the wire wrap affects the tone of the string’s sound. Nickel-plated steel is very common and produces a nice, bright tone. Stainless steel produces an even brighter tone. Pure nickel produces a duller, warmer tone. If you’re not sure of what to get, then use nickel-plated steel.
String thickness/size: Guitar strings are generally referred to by their thickness, or gauge (sometimes you’ll also see this called string size). Usually you see two numbers on a pack of guitar strings – for instance 10 and 46. The larger number is for the lowest string (the low-E), and is a measure of its thickness (.046 inches). The smaller number is for the highest string (the high-E), which in this case has a thickness of .010 inches.
Thicker strings produce a bigger, fuller sound than thinner strings – but thicker strings can be tougher to fret and press down firmly against the fretboard. Most electric guitars come with either super-light (9 to 42) or light (10 to 46) thicknesses. I personally evolved to using a medium (11 to 49) thickness, as I like the slight boost in sound – especially for power chords on the low strings. If you’re not sure of what to get, start with light strings (10 to 46) and see if they feel good or if you’d prefer thinner or thicker strings next time.
String coating: some brands use a coating on their strings that’s designed to prolong the life of the strings. Elixir is one of these brands, and offers three different types of coatings: Polyweb, Nanoweb, and Optiweb. Different coatings have a slightly different affect on the tone and feel of the strings. Polyweb, for instance, has a warm tone with a slick and fast feel. Optiweb, on the other hand, has a crisp tone with a natural feel. I personally use Polyweb on my electric guitar and Optiweb on my acoustic guitar. If you’re unsure of what to get, I recommend starting with Elixir’s Optiweb.
String brand: There are three brands that have earned a reputation for making high-quality electric guitar strings: Elixir, D’Addario, and Ernie Ball. I personally have always used Elixir strings, but you can’t go wrong with D’Addario or Ernie Ball strings.
2. Tuning peg winder
It’s a simple tool, but makes turning tuning pegs much easier and more efficient. If you’re going to be changing your own guitar strings, you’ll definitely want to get one of these.
3. String cutter or wire cutter
Guitar strings are pieces of steel. While the thinner strings can be cut easily, the thicker ones need a guitar string cutter or wire cutter.
Step 1: Loosen the tension on the strings
Guitar strings are under a lot of tension, so if you cut them right away then they can spring back and fly all over the place. To prevent this, first loosen the tension on the strings. Grab your tuning peg winder if you have one, and turn the tuning pegs clockwise (three or four full turns is sufficient):
Step 2: Cut the guitar strings
Grab a pair of string cutters or wire cutters, and cut the guitar’s strings. I like to cut the strings closer to the guitar’s bridge, approximately where you would pick the strings when you play the guitar:
Step 3: Remove the cut strings from the guitar
For the portion of the cut strings that are still attached to the tuning pegs, unwind the strings from the tuning pegs. Once unwound, you’ll easily be able to pull out a string from the hole in a tuning peg:
And for the portion of the cut strings that are still attached to the bridge, push the strings out the back of the body of the guitar. Note that some electric guitars (like a Fender Stratocaster) have a plate that’s screwed in on the back of the guitar. This plate covers the bridge block – you’ll need to unscrew and remove this plate first before pushing he strings out the back of the guitar. The image below shows a Fender Telecaster, which does not have one of these backplates.
Once a string is sticking out a bit from the back of the body, you can pull it out the rest of the way:
Step 4: Feed the new strings through the back of the body toward the bridge
Reverse what you just did in the very last step. Take each new string, and push it in through the back of the body of the guitar toward the bridge:
Make sure to put the new strings through in the right order! The thickest string (for low-E) is the string with the largest number (for instance, .046 inches or 1.17 mm), and the thinnest string (for high-E) is the string with the smallest number (.010 inches or .25 mm).
Once a new string is sticking out a bit from the bridge, you can pull it out the rest of the way. You’ll have your new strings sticking out through the bridge like this:
Step 5: Cut off excess string
I like to start with the low-E string first. Insert the new string into the hole in its corresponding tuning peg. You’ll notice there’s a lot of excess string, so you’ll need to cut off some of the excess.
A good rule of thumb is to measure out to two tuning pegs above the current string’s tuning peg, and cut there. So, for example, if you’re working on the low-E string then you would measure out two tuning pegs up to the D string’s tuning peg, and cut there:
Step 6: Wind the new strings around their tuning pegs
Leave a little bit of string sticking out from the hole in the tuning peg. Apply a small amount of pressure with one hand at the nut (white arrow in the below picture) to keep the string in place, and make sure the string is in its appropriate groove in the nut:
Then use a tuning peg winder and turn the tuning peg counter-clockwise to slowly wind the new string around the tuning peg:
As you wind the new string around the tuning peg, have the very first winding around the topmost part of the tuning peg and the last winding around the bottommost part of the tuning peg. This will give the new string proper alignment over the nut. Ensure each subsequent winding around a tuning peg is below the previous winding, like this:
You don’t need to tighten the new strings to the correct pitch at this point. Simply wind the strings until they feel like they’re firmly in place.
When you get to the thinner strings, many electric guitars have what’s called a string retainer or string tree to keep the higher strings properly spaced on the guitar’s headstock. Make sure to guide these strings though the retainer/tree when tightening. The below picture shows a Fender Telecaster with the B string and high-E string held in place by a string retainer/tree:
Did this guide help you change your guitar’s strings? What’s your go-to guitar string brand? Let me know in the comments below!
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