Contributed by Todd Farnsworth
Guitar strings die. Sometimes, a quick passing – often times a prolonged decline, till they are but a ghost of their past glory. But they do have a lifespan, and unfortunately, they can only take your abuse for so long.
"Dead strings" can happen for various reasons, but I think it's safe to say the simplest and most common reasons are corrosion/wear and being overly stretched. Corrosion will typically be from oils and gunk building up, eventually penetrating the wrap wire on wound strings. Not surprisingly, you don’t want a nasty buffer betwixt the two pieces of metal (core and wrap wires). Plain strings (unwrapped) still breakdown and stretch, though they typically will last a tad longer.
Overly stretched strings have quite simply been tuned too many times. Think of your strings as elastic, which is essentially what they become on a long enough timeline. You tune them to a certain tension, beat them with a pick or hand, tune some more and expect them to stay true for months. What happens is you continually stretch them, and they actually get thinner, albeit on a small scale. Those 10’s you started out with are closer to a 9 one month in; those 9’s, an 8. You see what I’m saying?
Another part of how long a string lasts depends on how often you play and your playing style. For example, if you play with a heavy hand, heavy pick and every day for a couple hours, those strands of metal will only be reliable for a couple weeks, tops. And that may be optimistic. In contrast, if you play once a week for an hour, just running some finger style licks, you can probably get away with the same set of strings for a couple (or even a few) months.
So, what can be done? There are things like coated strings and string cleaners to help reduce the corrosion aspect of string wear, but the stretching and abuse factor still remains. You could own so many guitars that you can’t possibly play them all very often, prolonging string life. And of course, there are the ever-present exceptions to the rule. But most likely, the simplest solution is to ditch the dead strings and change your strings often.
One of the biggest reasons to change strings often is the sound and tone. You’ll likely perceive more volume and projection, as well as richer harmonics and overtones. Aside from that, you will gain tuning stability and liveliness – the opposite of dull, dead strings. In short, there’s a reason that professional musicians use fresh strings in the studio and touring musicians change strings nightly.
One final thought on dead strings vs. new strings - you’ll want to play more. That breath of fresh air, so to say, will likely inspire you to play more, and that’s the best part! I know, I know, changing strings can be a chore, particularly if you have multiple guitars. Thankfully, your local tech can take care of that for you, if you wish. But regardless of the means, the end is worth the momentary burden. After all, don’t we all want the best for our babies?