Stringing a guitar properly
February 9, 2006 4:48 PM   Subscribe

Help me clear up all the guitar stringing advice I've received. Should you remove all the strings from your guitar and then add the new ones, or change the strings one-by-one?

I've been told by a number of sources that removing all the strings at the same time causes the guitar to loose tension that is supposed to be present between the neck and body (because there are no strings pulling on the neck and body), which is not good for the guitar. They say change the strings one at a time.

However, this week, I witnessed a friend of mine change his strings by removing them all first and then putting new ones on. Also, I'm watching this guitar video online from iPlayMusic, and the instructor takes all the strings off too.

So, what is the truth in all this?
posted by beammeup4 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's really a matter of preference. Guitars aren't all that fragile. Last night I changed my strings all at once, basically because I wanted to clean and dust inside the soundhole and clear dust and stuff out of the bridge pin holes and polish the fretboard really well. You can only do some of that kind of maintenance with all the strings off.

However, I don't make a regular practice of this, because it is a big change to go from normal string tension to no tension. Mostly babying your guitar is a fine idea. But don't worry about taking it too much to the extreme, especially if your guitar is not finely luthriered or vintage. The stresss wrought on a wooden instrument by simple changes in temperature and humidity are more damaging, in the long run, than a few seconds with strings off.
posted by Miko at 4:51 PM on February 9, 2006

Huh. I'd never heard that. I've done both, and my guitar has never complained.
posted by moira at 4:57 PM on February 9, 2006

It kinda depends on the guitar. Some are more fragile than others, but generally they're tough enough that taking off all the strings won't make much difference. It may take a little longer to tune them all up and get them stable after they're changed, but that's no biggie, really.

Of course, if you've got a 30 year old 12 string Rickenbacker with some neck problems, or a 6 string bass, or a very old or valuable acoustic guitar, or simply an acoustic that's got some bridge or top issues, then you should play it safe and change one string at a time, just in case.

Summary: It's probably ok to do it either way, but it's safer to do it one string at a time. And if you're changing the strings on a pre-war Martin or a '59 Gretsch hollowbody, be as safe as possible.
posted by JekPorkins at 4:57 PM on February 9, 2006

I've had a guitar for 15 years that I would always take off all the strings, give it a good cleaning, and then restring. Never had a problem.

I am now in Australia and didn't bring my guitar with me, but a friend was kind enough to lend me one here. I restrung that guitar one string at a time.

I really don't think it matters, but I'm considerate of someone else's property - not that he knew or requested I do that.

I think Miko states the case quite well. Don't worry about doing - and don't leave your guitar out in temp extremes. That'll do lots of damage.
posted by qwip at 4:59 PM on February 9, 2006

I think it probably depends on "what not good for the guitar" entails.

It probably isn't good for the guitar neck, but it seems unlikely that you're going to notice a difference.

I always take all of strings off before putting the new ones on so I can clean the fretboard. I've never had a guitar neck break or experienced any noticeable decrease in performance with electric or acoustic guitars.

I've seen people do it both ways and I know people who have been playing for 30+ years who take all the strings off, not to mention doing a lot more abusive things to their guitars and I've never seen anyone break a guitar that wasn't on purpose.

Unless you've got an antique or some kind of "investment" guitar, I think you should just do whatever suits you.
posted by camcgee at 5:04 PM on February 9, 2006

The advice I've heard has always been to change the strings one at a time. Even though I've taken off all the strings a few times without damaging the guitar, doing it one at a time just seems to make sense, and you can tune the new string to those strings already in place.
posted by questionmark at 5:09 PM on February 9, 2006

I've heard that too and most luthiers and guitar d00ds will say it doesn't make a difference.

The one thing I do like to do, that they recommended, was to loosen the strings first - don't take a wire cutter to them while the guitar is tuned to pitch. The snap-back from the sudden loss of tension could cause some undesired effects on the neck.

So in a nutshell, de-tune the strings so they're nice and slack then cut them and remove. It's a great opportunity to take some guitar polish to the neck and under the pickups for s good cleaning as well. Once you've done that, replace each string (don't tune them yet!). Once each string is on, then commence to tuning. This is the way I've done it for the last 15 years and I've never had a problem.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 5:37 PM on February 9, 2006

The tension on a steel string acoustic is going to be the greater then on most other guitars types. If you are restringing an electric guitar I wouldn't even worry about it.

I usually do a comprimise... change a couple of strings at once (leaves more working space for the fingers and clearance to wipe down the fretboard). But if you have a vintage steel string guitar (some of the older guitars have different bracing mechanisms to deal with string tension) then i would do my research more carefully before pulling more than one string off at once.
posted by |n$eCur3 at 5:47 PM on February 9, 2006

* the greater then --> greater than the tension
posted by |n$eCur3 at 5:48 PM on February 9, 2006

This is holy war territory.

Here is my opinion. (been playing 20+ years, own 12 electric guitars.)

You'll do no harm to your guitar by removing all the strings, unless it be a vintage steelstring acoustic, in which case rapid changes in neck tension can crack the dried-out, perfectly resonant top. Keep guitars like that well humidified and change the strings one at a time if you are able.

In most other cases, take all the strings off - so you can clean the fretboard and pick area. Electrics and most acoustics simply don't care about this level of tension change on the neck.

In the special case of an electric guitar with a floating tremelo bridge, especially a low-spring-tension trem like a Floyd Rose, change string by string. This prevents the incredibly annoying hassle of retuning a floating trem from scratch. (If you do take all the strings off a floating-trem guitar, install them in the order heaviest-to-lightest, or you'll likely break the light strings while you're putting the heavier ones on.)
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:56 PM on February 9, 2006

This was also discussed in this thread
posted by bunglin jones at 6:07 PM on February 9, 2006

When I was a teenager I borrowed a reasonably nice classical guitar from a friend's parents so I could do a performance at a school concert. They hadn't used it in a long time, so I bought new strings, and - despite having read a warning not to do so - I took off all the strings at once, and put the new ones on.

When I started to tighten the strings to tune the guitar, the bridge came off, ripping out a whole chunk of the front of the guitar along with it.

I was lucky they did not insist I pay to repair or replace the instrument. I think the instrument must have been dried out by years of central heating and disuse, but even so - it happened.
posted by zadcat at 7:10 PM on February 9, 2006

Check it out! Instructional video!
posted by baphomet at 7:59 PM on February 9, 2006

If you happen to have a floating tremelo and you still want to take all the strings off (say, to clean the fretboard) you can usually block the bridge (so that it is temporarily no longer floating) so that it remains in approximately the final position while you put all the strings on and get them to the approximate tension. Then you remove the block (which usually is just a piece of scrap wood or really whatever you have lying around of the right size) and fine tune the tension. But indeed this can be a real time consuming process, especially if the nut is not lubricated that well. I find that a small amount of graphite in the gooves of the nut makes this ordeal much quicker, as the change in tension from the tuner/machine head/whatever it's called propagates to the full length of the string instead of getting bound up at the nut.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:36 PM on February 9, 2006

I agree with many above; unless it's a particularly rare or fragile guitar, take all the strings off and clean the fretboard.

Re: KevinSkomsvold's post; is anyone really stupid enough to take a wire cutter to the strings when they are tuned to pitch?
posted by primer_dimer at 2:56 AM on February 10, 2006

I was always taught to do it one string at a time. I do think it makes it easier to tune, though again it depends on the guitar.
posted by Heminator at 7:33 AM on February 10, 2006

I'm with Heminator, one string at a time makes it easier to tune. Start with the bass E string and work from there, tuning the new strings as you go. I find the strings settle into tune quicker this way.
posted by hippyboy at 7:57 AM on February 10, 2006

Leaving some old strings on makes it easier to get a ballpark tuning -- pulling the new string to a relatively close degree of tension with the old. But I don't think that's reason enough alone to leave some strings on while you change. I never accept my old string's tunings as accurate anyway; I tune fresh strings to my tuner or an online tuner (here's a good one</a). The new strings are going to stretch like crazy for the first few days no matter what, so you're constantly retuning anyway. Never rely on your old, dirty, worn strings for a good tuning.
posted by Miko at 7:59 AM on February 10, 2006

Whoa. Sorry about that hideous mistake.
posted by Miko at 8:00 AM on February 10, 2006

If you stretch the new strings out by hand once they're installed, you can avoid that annoying week of not being able to stay in tune.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:30 AM on February 10, 2006

Oh yeah, usually I "play them down" the night I install them and then again the next day. They stabilize after that (I play steel-string acoustic). It's a good excuse to tear into some rough blues and loud open chords up and down the fretboard.
posted by Miko at 8:59 AM on February 10, 2006

Re: KevinSkomsvold's post; is anyone really stupid enough to take a wire cutter to the strings when they are tuned to pitch?

You haven't been to Guitar Center, have you?
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:17 PM on February 11, 2006

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