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Do Guitar Strings Really Rust? How To Prolong String Life

Time is the ultimate tone-shaper, and corrosion is an unavoidable reality of anything made of metal. We all picked up a random cool-looking axe off a wall at least once and felt we held a relic just cause of the rusty guitar strings. In some scenarios, I even picked up my old guitars off cases and almost felt guilty for leaving them so long without care. 

Rusty guitar strings are an inevitable future, yet there is much we can do to avoid, treat and prolong the life of guitar strings. Choosing the right strings, storing the guitar far from humidity and moisture, and building up some necessary string maintenance habits will save your strings from rust any time soon.

Everything about the guitar depends on the love and effort we put into it. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that a wipe a day keeps the rust away. I’ve learned the hard way how to take care of rust properly, and I’ll take the time also to debunk some myths about rusty guitar strings.

Do Guitar Strings Rust, Or Is It Tarnish?

The first step to avoid string rust is to be able to tell it from tarnish. Not every colored layer on the string is rust; in fact, most of the time, it’s not. Many people use the words ‘rust’ and ‘tarnish’ interchangeably to describe corrosion – consequently thinking they are the same.

Guitar strings will generally tarnish before they rust. tarnish is a thin, dull layer, usually gray, green, or black, caused by oxidation and accelerated by the typical causes that cause rusting. Unlike rust, tarnish is self-limiting and will only affect the outer layer of the strings.

Technically, rust only refers to the corrosion of Iron-containing alloys or iron itself – which is the main material from which all acoustic or electric guitar strings are made. 

Both processes are confusing, and when guitarists say my strings are ‘rusting,’ they usually mean that they are ‘tarnishing.’ I was one of those players too, but in our defense, anti-rust sounds much more appealing for a cleaning product than anti-tarnish!

Nickel, Copper, and Brass plated strings will tarnish before corrosion. While Nickel is resistant to corrosion, dirty fingers, skins, oil, and sweat will cause a layer of dirt and tarnish to form on the strings. The gunk layer on the string will dull the tone, remove the high-end shimmer and cause the dead tone you want to avoid.

Tarnish is different from rust from the cause to the looks. Moisture can cause strings to rust quickly, while tarnish can happen purely by exposure to oxygen, even when there’s no moisture in the room. Humidity and bad guitar hygiene will also make strings tarnish and rust faster if left untreated.

The string will generally rust when the steel core is affected. Steel is not exceptionally resistant to corrosion. Even stainless steel, with its more corrosion-resistant nature, will eventually rust.

Luckily, you can prevent tarnishing with success, and it is not at all dangerous as it doesn’t chip or dent the string as rust does. Even if you cut your finger from a tarnished string while changing sets, it won’t cause any issues apart from that annoying sting we all know well.

What Do Rusty Guitar Strings Look Like?

Rust will literally eat up the string and cause physical damage, chipping, and wearing out. Rust is reddish, yet that can be tricky to spot on thin guitar strings, and you’re the best way to tell is the damage and how they feel.

Rusty strings also feel different than dirty strings. Your hand will run in small bumps and just feel uneasy overall – no matter how much you clean the strings. 

Unwound strings are where you most likely will notice this, as they’re the first to fall victim to rust – Wound strings might never rust as the wounding, unless Steel or Iron, protects it.

Are Rusty Guitar Strings Dangerous?

Rusty strings are dangerous for various reasons, some of which go beyond the moments of chaos when you snap a string mid-solo.

Rust will eat the Iron and make string much easier to break; however, the real danger is the small crack that could cut your finger and get rust in your bloodstream. In some cases, you could risk Tetanus from a single cut. 

There’s a difference between a ‘worn-out’ tone and the point where the strings are just gone bad. Even though the obsession with old string can lead guitarists to hunt for the ‘rusty’ tone – there’s nothing special to it, and it’s not worth taking the risk.

How to Remove Rust from Guitar Strings

The first and foremost thing is its gauge if it’s worth removing the rust – in most cases, it’s not, especially if it has already eaten up part of the strings. 

You can use homemade solutions or specific rust-removing products to remove rust from guitar strings. 

The homemade solutions include a cloth with vinegar you rub over the strings or a toothbrush with baking soda. Rust, though, can be very persistent, and you risk damaging the fretboard if you don’t, at first, remove the strings. 

Commercial solutions include purchasing specific rust-removing lotion, which you can use on all the guitar’s hardware. Sweetwater includes some good cleaner options in its detailed guide on cleaning guitar strings.

What Causes Rusty Guitar Strings?

The leading cause of corrosion on guitar strings is moisture. We might take care of our guitars, but if the room, studio, garage, or basement where we store them has too much humidity, the strings and even the hardware will rust.

My studio is especially well-balanced, yet I have had guitar strings start corroding in a matter of days when I have left them in the storage rooms of venues.

You don’t need to use the heading to dry the air, as an arid hot room will damage the guitar more than a humid one. You just need to hold the guitars in their cases and avoid very moist places.

Your hand’s sweat, dirt, and oil are the next cause.  Some players’ hands are even more naturally sweaty than others.

I could go on with the same set for months and, with some proper care, never get any sign of rust. On the other hand, the bass player of my band manages to consume a set in a couple of weeks!

Two other reasons that are always part of the equation are cheap strings and not cleaning. Combine both into one scenario, and you’ll quickly have a dead set.

How to Prevent Guitar Strings from Rusting

First off, buy a good set. Much goes into a good set which I have included in a previous guide, yet generally, cheap strings will rust quicker, no matter how shiny and well-written their packaging is. No amount of care will save an already doomed set.

Clean your string every time after you play. It sounds hard, but it’s not. Keep one piece of cloth in your practice room and another in your gig bag. I have specific clothes for every gig bag and even a spare. 

I know it is still a set of strings, but it hurts much more when they rust on my gold top Les Paul than on my beater Squire.

Avoid storing guitars in very humid places. Your basement might be suitable for rehearsal, but is it the right place to store the gear? 

There are solutions to removing humidity that surpass the realm of guitars. Any person involved in construction or home repairs could help you.

What you can do right away is avoid leaving guitars in venues more than you have to. They’re made to play in, not keep gear in. If your drummer noticed that the house drum kit is not doing well compared to last time, humidity is the culprit.

Keep guitars in cases or gig bags. If you don’t have a case for all guitars, consider having an appropriate piece of furniture built for storing them. I had large drawers made for my gear which cost less than I thought but do their job exceptionally well.

Clean your hands before playing. Dirty hands are never good, as there are natural oils and other chemicals that quickly corrode. 

I’m not saying to ask people to clean their hands before playing your guitar, that would be a turn-off to any fellow jammer, but some care when you can is essential.

Which Guitar Strings are the Most Resistant to Rust?

Coated guitar strings are the most resistant to Rust. The coating around the steel core assures the strings rarely get to the point of rusting but only accumulates dirt or tarnishes in the worst case.

Coated strings are much more time-resistant than uncounted strings, as the thin polymer layer protects against most harm. On the downside, many guitarists prefer to avoid coated strings as they might ‘coat’ the sound as well.

There’s much to know about different guitar materials and how they affect tone. In my previous guide on the topic, you will also better understand and give a final call to the coated vs. uncoated debate. 

Overall, rust signals that you’re long overdue with changing your set and might be avoiding some guitar maintenance chores.