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Do Old Guitar Strings Sound Bad?

Time is the ultimate tone shaper for your guitar. Among the many factors that make you sound better in the long term, like practice – old guitar strings can alter the tone of your guitar in a matter of weeks. Much has also been made of why and when you should change strings, and all revolves around one simple question, do old guitar string sound bad?

Old guitar strings generally sound dull compared to new strings, yet the warmer, less defined, and less sustainy nature of old strings is not always bad and could perfectly fit the tonal taste of many players. The only objective scenario when old strings sound bad is when they can’t stay in tune or are hard to play, making it difficult to get a good sound out of them.

In this article, I will go through all the questions you might have on how old strings affect tone and playing, and when the time comes to replace them, you’re more confident about picking a new set.

Why Do Old Guitar Strings Sound Bad?

There’s not an objectively ‘bad’ guitar tone, and experience in the studio taught me that what doesn’t work in one context works in another, and what might sound bad on its own blends exceptionally well with the band. This doesn’t mean the question is invalid, as ‘deteriorating’ from a spanky, bright, pleasing sound to a dull one is generally unpleasant.

Old strings start to change their tone because they naturally wear out due to corrosion, contact with your fingers, dirt, and the frets. 

The more they fall prey to the effect of time, the fewer high-end frequencies and overtones they can produce. Thus, they lose the airy openness and brightness most players look for when playing.

The major difference in guitar strings’ tone is sometimes first felt, not heard.

If you pick up an acoustic and strum a set of new strings, your body is filled with the loudness and tone; on the other hand, dull strings don’t give you, nor the listener, the same effect.

Another major factor that makes old guitar strings sound bad is that they start going out of tune faster and can’t hold perfect intonation – nothing sounds worse in music than a dissonant chord!

If you’re playing in a band, it gets even worst as no matter how much you tune; you won’t match the pitch of the bass, keys, and especially what the other guitarist with the shiny new set of strings is playing! It’s a sure way to get fired off a gig or accidentally sound ‘jazzy’ over the same Em power chord.

Check our detailed guide on how string affects tone with all you need to know on the topic.

Old Guitar Strings Are Harder to Play

Out of all the reasons to replace old guitar strings, this is the one that hits harder. From the listener’s perspective, only sounds get through to them; in the player’s perspective, how they feel about what’s playing comes first. This is probably why some, after some gigs, you feel you played horribly, but everyone in the crowd says you played your best!

Old strings start to gather dirt and become harder to fret. You might not feel it as you get used to playing them, but as soon as you put in a new set, fast runs are smoother and bends easier to play.

When strings are very old, you will see with your bare eyes that they are pressed down in the areas you play the most, and wounded ones might even unravel. You’re not alone if you first looked at your Em and Am pentatonic box shapes! 

Tone and sustain are significantly related to playbality. If long notes don’t sustain, you will be forced to pick again and change up your normal playing techniques. This is very felt, especially on acoustic guitars, where old strings dampen the natural resonance and reverb of the instrument.

How To Extend the Life of Guitar Strings

Regular maintenance and cleaning will extend the guitar strings’ life. Depending on how careful you are, the material of the strings, and how sweaty your hands are, you could use the same set for months more.

The first thing to remember is to wipe your string with a clean cloth after every practice session or show. This is the bare minimum but the most effective good habit that will extend your string’s life.

Using lemon oil with a clean cloth is the most common way of cleaning strings besides regular wiping. Don’t confuse it with actual lemon, as I have as a teenager! You should purchase the real thing from guitar brands and can even get yourself a full-string cleaning set.

The set last’s for a good while as you’re supposed to clean them using lemon oil a maximum of once per week and the fretboard once or twice per year. There’s also a homemade solution and a fine guide by sweetwater on properly cleaning your strings. 

Which Guitar Strings Last the Longest?

Lasting the longest means holding their original tone and playability for as long as possible. In this criteria, Coated guitar strings tend to last the longest because of the polymer layer that resists sweat and dirt better than standard strings.

The downside to coated strings is they don’t sound very bright and open even right out of the box. However, some brands like Elixir and Ernie Ball do a great job keeping their premium coated sets sound nice and airy.

Another way to look at the question is to use a dark-sounding set from the start so that the tone doesn’t have much space to change. Flat wound strings fit this criterion as they are already ‘flat’ and will keep the rounded tone even when old.

When it comes to classical guitar, the strings, especially treble ones, tend to last for much longer when compared to acoustic and electric strings. If you’re not into that world and rely on steel and brass, you better keep that cloth in your gig bag at all times!

How Often Should You Replace Guitar Strings?

Most of you are here to figure out when to replace your old guitar strings. Even though there’s no set answer, and it all depends on your tolerance for tone and string feel, there are some red lights to keep in mind.

  • Strings snapping is the first and foremost danger, and the easier way to tell if you’re close to a stage incident is to visually see if strings are damaged, unwound, or have become nearly black. 
  • If you’re a regular performer, you will need a new string each time you find that the guitar is not playing as it was and the setup is good. Intonation is the biggest enemy of your playing career and can ruin a good set.
  • If you, like me, often record in the studio, it’s best to keep on guitar with a fresh of strings with you even though you might like the sound of slightly beat-up ones. Artists and producers want the presence of the attack new strings to give.
  • Talking about genres, even though it’s subjective, technical things like prog metal and shredding solos might always require a fresh set cause of sustaining and smoothness you need. If the tone requires attack, then new strings are a must.  

Softer genres like classic rock and jazz generally can accept some roundness in the tone and, for that matter, even some slight tunning issues.

  • When it comes to acoustic guitars, if intonation and playbality are fine, you should change strings based on the guitar’s natural tone. My main acoustic is very bright sounding, so I often record with it once the strings have settled for a few days and the sound has become warmer.

Sweetwater has a more detailed guide on when to change strings if you find you need more info to decide if you should start unwinding your strings.

As a great jazz player said, “all music is for the listener, and the player is the first listener” – if the old strings: tone is not satisfying you, that might be the only clue you need to buy that new set.