It’s that time of year again that everybody fears… String changing time, wooo!
If you’re changing strings for the first time, then it’s probably because a string snapped on you – Dammit! – or there’s a weekly-string-changing guitarist next-door who looks down on you like a bit of dirt on his shoe.
And I don’t want you to feel like dirt.
So today I’ll be going over how to change electric guitar strings for newbies, how often you should change them and some extra string changing bonus tips too.
Changing Strings: Step-by-Step
Step 1: Get ready
- For all you I-have-never-changed-a-string-before-this-is-really-scary-omg people out there, just chill. Calm your nerves, you aren’t going to break your guitar unless something goes REALLY wrong…
And by REALLY wrong, I mean accidentally dropping it off Mount Everest or something.
- Also, make sure that you have your guitar laid down flat on a table with a small flannel where they contact. You don’t want any scratches going on there.
But Sam, you’ve laid your guitar on the floor! Yes, that’s because my desk is grim, and you won’t want to see that in a picture.
- Find out your string gauge. Most guitars will come with 9-42 (aka 9s) or 10-46 (aka 10s, thicker than 9s) strings sets from the factory. These gobbledegook numbers refer to the thickness of each string, with a 10 in the 10-46 set being the high E string, and the 46 being the low E string.
If you put on a different string gauge, then you’ll have to reset your intonation, which probably isn’t what you’re here for.
If you have a caliper at home, then below is a video of how you can check your string gauge using that.
If not, then hand it to an experienced guitar-playing mate or take it to a guitar store, and they should be able to figure it out for you.
- Get yourself some strings. To restring your guitar, you’re gonna need something to actually resting it with!
Favourites among guitar players include:
- Ernie Ball Regular Slinky 10-46 (Super Slinky for 9-42)
Used by soooo many bands. Metallica, Paul McCartney, Slash, John Mayer, John Petrucci, Iron Maiden and KISS are just to name a few. You can view the whole roster on their website here.
2. D’Addario Regular Light 10-46 (Super Light for 9-42).
Used by Mark Knopfler, Slipknot, Herman Li, Guthrie Govan (my fav guitar player), Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani etc. You can view their roster here.
Although, my personal recommendation for any fellow Brits out there is Rotosound Yellows 10-46 (Pinks for 9-42).
They cost and feel the same as the strings above, except you get a free extra high E string… Which is awesome because that’s the only string that breaks anyway!
Still, you’ll see me in this post using Rotosound Blues in this post because I’m weird. They’re a hybrid set between 10-46s on the high strings and 12-52s on the low strings. This gives more flexibility for down tuning to Drop D and beyond, but also makes the strings stiffer to play.
To learn more about the best string gauge for different tunings, check out this video here.
You’ll also see people trying to sell you high-end string types for extortionate prices. Don’t worry about all that noise for now, these strings will do the job more than well enough.
But if you are interested in the change to expensive electric guitar strings, then here’s a useful expensive string comparison video on that.
Step 2: Remove the String
You may have noticed in the image for Step 1 that there’s a peculiar tool in the bottom right corner.
This is called a string winder. When restringing, we’re gonna have to do a lot of athritis-inducing peg turning, and that beautiful device basically gives you hacks to speed up the process.
You can also get away with turning with your fingers. But if you ever plan on restringing again, I recommend getting one of these and you’ll never look back.
Either way, you’ll want to turn the peg clockwise until the string becomes loose and floppy.
Then you’ll want to get some wire cutters and snip the string, or- … hey! If you’ve got the same string winder as me, then it’s got a built-in wire cutter already.
After that, just rip the first half of the string off the tuning peg and push the other half out the back, and you’ll be good to go.
PLEASE NOTE: Only restring one string at a time! To change all strings at once upsets the neck tension and disrupts technical electric guitar tuning stuff that neither you nor I understand. So, unless you’re doing fretboard work like cleaning it or replacing frets, stick to one at a time por favor.
Step 3: Add the New String
Now it’s time for the fun part. Find your strings and take a long hard look at that gorgeous string packet…
Either way, the most important part of a string set is the back of the packet!
That’s because it shows you which string needs to go where. The last thing you want is restringing your guitar backwards.
Yes, people have actually done that.
If you have Ernie Ball strings, then never fear because each string will already be in its own mini, labelled packet on the inside anyway.
So open the packet, choose the right string, and thread it through the bridge!
For Fender Strats, you’ll have to thread this through the underneath of the guitar. And on Gibsons, you’ll have a separate section behind the bridge for your strings to chill.
Once it’s through, make sure you pull the string through/over the saddle like the other strings are doing.
If you have a bridge like mine, then pressing your index finger down – like so – will help flick that string upwards through the saddle.
Once you’ve done that, turn your turning peg so that the hole faces towards the bridge.
The string should be able to just slide through it in a straight line.
BONUS STEP: Get a pencil
A handy trick when restringing is to get your all-time favourite pencil, and essentially colour in the string slot.
Since I’m kinda stupid, I forgot to do it on the first 3 strings this time. But that’s only because I’ve done it there before!
Anyway, you should be able to see the graphite in the socket afterwards.
Now, why have I asked you to do this random as frick thing?
Because the graphite acts as a lubricant to the string in the socket. This allows the string to easily move through the nut and gives a 5-star tuning experience.
Step 4: Get ready to tighten
To ensure that we get some nice tuning stability, there are a couple of steps we wanna take.
The first one is making sure that we don’t coil too much string. More string on the peg = more string that can go out of tune.
So a good way to figure out the right amount is to pull the string through the peg, taught.
I appreciate I use the A string in this demo, for some reason the E string pics for this one didn’t turn out well. Either way, it’s the same thing.
You see that D string tuning peg one to the right? Good, your eyes are still working. The next step is to pinch the part of the string you’re holding adjacent to that, using your other hand. I’ve highlighted the section below:
Then, just thread the string backwards until your pinching hand comes into contact with the peg – that’s the amount of slack you want.
Step 5: Tightening the String
Whoop! Whoop! This is the fun part…
Keep the string in position using your right hand, and let go of your left-hand pinch.
Now that your left hand is free, use it to press the string down on the other side of the peg, ideally next to the nut. This will keep the string in place as you tighten it.
Then tighten by turning the tuning peg anticlockwise. This is where a string winder really comes in handy.
As you tighten the string, it’ll start to wrap around the peg, normally forming about two coils. But do you see that annoying bit of string sticking out from the exit of the tuning peg?
Yup, that bit that keeps flicking everywhere and scratching you.
Try to guide the first coil underneath this annoying bit of string, and the second coil above it.
This will clamp it between the two coils, preventing slippage and out-of-tune-ness.
After you’ve tightened up a fair amount, you’ll want to get your tuner out – plug in tuners are the most accurate, but an app like GuitarTuna will also do the job – and tune the string to pitch.
Step 6: Stretching the strings
The fact is, when you change electric guitar strings, tuning to pitch ain’t enough. We need to get them ready for all the mania that we’re going to throw at them.
So to do that, grab the string you’ve just tuned. Then, tug on it upwards.
This will move the guitar a bit, so make sure you hold it in place.
Do a couple of tugs there, then move along a bit and do a couple of tugs there too. Aim to tug all the way along the length of the string a couple of times.
However! Sometimes tugging on the lower frets can pull the string out of the nut, which is a pain in the ass! So to avoid that, just press your thumb down on where the string rests in the nut whilst you’re down there.
Also, the higher strings can be kinda sharp to tug on. So normally I’ll grab them with a clean cloth over my hand to make my fingers happy.
And after a couple of tugs here, there and everywhere, just check your tuner again…
Ohhhhh! That ain’t pretty. But it also is pretty because it means you’re doing stretching right.
Now, you’ll want to tune up to E again. Then, stretch like you did before.
You should see that the string doesn’t go as far out of tune now.
Repeat this process of tuning, stretching, tuning, stretching until eventually the string doesn’t go out of tune anymore when you stretch it. Now your string is ripe!
Just think of stretching strings like kneading dough. You gotta aggressively wack it, toss it about, and throw it at people until the dough just becomes ready.
WATCH OUT: On the higher strings, do not stretch too vigorously! Because I’m a vigorous man, I accidentally snapped my high E string as I stretched it. What a fool!
Thankfully due to Rotosound I had a free backup one anyway… Phew. Either way, just make sure you play it safe and gentle on the unwound strings.
Step 7: Tidy the string up
You know those pokey string bits that I told you to loop your coil around…
Do you like the look of them?
The correct answer is No. If you answered Yes, then your answer is invalid.
Unless you are Tom Morello and like to have all the string bits dangling about like a caretaker’s mop. But he’s Tom Morello, so he’s allowed.
Anyway, to make everything look nice, we’ll want our wire cutters again to snip off the excess.
(Not in the picture, but it helps to hold the part you are cutting off with your other hand so that it doesn’t go flying off into outer space)
But oh my, oh my… Please DO NOT accidentally snip the coiled part of the string.
I once helped one of my friends restring his guitar for the first time, and after we had done the low E string, I gave him my cutters and told him to snip off the pokey bit.
I turned around to get the next string, just to turn back and see that he’d somehow managed to cut the coiled string around the peg whilst he was at it. He looked at me confused, holding the string in two parts, and said, “I think I snipped the wrong bit.”
If there was ever something such as a head in hands moment, then that was it. Just don’t be that guy…
Anyway, now you just need to repeat this restringing process across all the other strings. It’ll take a while on your first go, but in time you’ll be able to restring fully within 15-30 mins.
So buckle up, get a podcast or guitar-related music on in the background and crack on. Then, once it’s all finished, you can step back and admire your hard work:
Mmm, mmm… scrumptious.
And then why not play a chord to test it out?
Awesome Bonus Tip
If you’ve discovered that you hate to change electric guitar strings because it’s annoying, takes a while, and strings seem to bully you, then great. You’re like me!
One way to reduce the amount that you have to change your strings is through a product called GHS Fast Fret.
It’ll basically clean the strings so that they feel nicer and sound better, for longer. Neat, right?
Almost every gigging guitarist under the sun will have one of these to wipe the grime off their guitar strings after a gig, and I can only recommend it.
How Often Should You Change Your Strings?
Alright, alright. You knew this was coming…
But it’s actually good news! Because you can basically change your electric guitar strings whenever you want.
I’ll normally just keep going until either: the high E string breaks, they stop intonating properly, or they become clammy beyond repair.
But that’s because I’m stingy and don’t wanna spend a ton of money on strings.
A lot of people will say once every 3 months is a good number. But in my opinion, for the amateur stay-at-home guitarist, every 6 months or so is fine.
New strings sound bright initially, but after a month they’ll deaden down and stay at that level from then on. So the difference between 3-month and 6-month-old strings just isn’t noticeable tone-wise to me.
As long as they work, I’m happy.
The only time I’d recommend changing strings often is if you’re in the recording studio or on tour, where you constantly want to sound as good as possible. Apart from that though, every 6 months is fine, especially if you’re using Fast Fret to keep them feeling fresh.
Wrapping It Up
Boom! Learning to change electric guitar strings is such a vital skill for guitar. And other stuff like setting action (string height) and intonation will feel a lot less daunting to you in the future now you’ve got your hands dirty.
Plus, I bet you like your new strings…
Feel clean? Yup.
Sound fresh? Yup.
Getting you dates? Not really.
Darn, all that string changing for nothing. Ah well, at least your guitar sounds good.
Anyway, I’ve been Sam Olverson.
P.S. If you want to learn how to set your guitar action to make playing guitar easier, click here to view my post on that.