Can a string taken off a guitar be used again?
April 4, 2021 1:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm brand new to the guitar and my first try at restringing didn't go well. I misjudged the thickness of the B and G, and D and A, strings and ended up stringing the guitar E G B A D E. Two questions: 1) Even though the strings are out of order, am I right to assume the guitar can still be tuned properly? In that's the case the strings can just stay where they are, right? 2) If not, can I re-string the guitar with those same 4 strings, or should I buy new ones?
posted by BadgerDoctor to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Bad news and good news:

1. No, not really. The gauge of any given string defines the general region of notes it will be able to produce strung on a guitar and that range is not nearly wide enough to get to a standard tuning with the strings in the wrong order. (There's a world of experimental tunings out there to explore, but that's advanced class stuff and is not where you want to start.)

2. You totally can! Just unstring and restring in the correct order, the strings will be fine.
posted by cortex at 1:51 PM on April 4 [8 favorites]

1. No
2. If you didn’t already snip the excess off, then yes definitely. You might have some wonkiness if the string is already shaped into a coil around where tuning peg was (it won’t be in the same place along the string).
posted by supercres at 1:52 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]

1. Sort of. You’ll probably be able to tune the strings to the right pitch, but they will be way tighter or looser than if you had the correct string in that position — since the pitch of the string is determined both by the weight and the tension. Not good for the guitar. It also probably won’t sound as good and might go out of tune more easily.

(A professional musician I follow on Instagram just posted about accidentally doing an entire recording session with two of her strings switched!)

2. If you haven’t shipped the excess off then yes! Otherwise probably not, I don’t think you can tie the initial knot without some excess to grip onto.
posted by mekily at 1:59 PM on April 4

Yeah I think every string player has at some point accidentally swapped a pair of strings because they got distracted during the stringing process. Usually you can swap them back -- barring having snipped them too short to restring, or having done something awful to them during the stringing process.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:04 PM on April 4 [4 favorites]

What everyone else said, though as supercres says if there's a kink in the string where you've put it through the peg and it's on the nut side after you re-string there's a chance it'll break when you bring it up to tune.
posted by holgate at 2:09 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]

and just FYI most music stores will sell you a single string so you won't need to buy a whole new set, though it's always good to have a spare set on hand anyway. Just bring the package with you so you know what gauge to buy.
posted by bondcliff at 2:50 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]

Good answers all above, I'll just note that, if you really need to, you can tune a string lower than what it should be (so, use an A string for the low E, etc.). It'll sound like garbage, and the action will be all wrong, but it'll work well enough for that time when you're in the middle of your punk band practice and you broke that goddamned G string you always break and you're all out of G strings (because you always break that specific one). However, you should never try and get a lower string to go higher. That's how you either break strings, or, god forbid, break pegs or necks.
posted by General Malaise at 4:43 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]

Professional guitarist here. Pro tip: you can order bulk sets of single string gauges. Most of us break the higher strings (G-B-e) more often than the wound lower strings. So a stash of singles in correct gauges for the high strings is smart money.

You can reuse a string that’s been strung on the wrong tuner but be aware that the bending and flexing over saddle and nut will weaken the string and it may go before the others.

Most steel guitar strings have color coded balls. It’s simple to double and triple check you’re doing it right as you go.

Congrats on learning how to play! Soon this will be second nature. I change the strings on one guitar or another at least once a week. In non-pandemic times when I’m working a lot, it’s several times a week across my main gig guitars, because I’m a nut about fresh wire. Buying strings in bulk saves me a fortune (and it’s tax deductible!).

By the way, just booked my first post-pandemic gig for July 4 (knock on wood). The band will be fully vaccinated, and it’s outdoors. I am so excited to play again.
posted by spitbull at 2:45 AM on April 5 [5 favorites]

You can reuse a string that’s been strung on the wrong tuner but be aware that the bending and flexing over saddle and nut will weaken the string and it may go before the others.

I actually managed to break the inner core of a bass string, or something happened to it, once, during some restringing misadventure. Maybe it was defective, I don't know....I also may have broken it when I was trimming it, I suppose. it sounded very dead, especially for a new roundwound bass string.
posted by thelonius at 5:15 AM on April 5

You could tune them to the pitches that each string was made to be tuned to, and then play around with the possibilities that unleashes. I mean it! Alternate tunings open up all sorts if new options.
posted by umbú at 11:09 AM on April 5

Oh, I’ll share a few more tips as someone who changes a lot of strings.

1) generally I will work from lowest to highest strings, but whatever you do have a system you always use

2) unless I’m working on the guitar and need strings off, I do my strings one at a time. I don’t detune all 6 (or 12) and then pull them off and replace the whole set. I do one string at a time, leaving the others fully tuned up. This maintains even tension on the neck and bridge (and tremolo on some guitars) and prevents the dangers of releasing all the tension at once, which can often lead to needing truss rod or bridge adjustments. This is especially true for electric guitars in my experience.

3) this method has the advantage that you will never put the wrong string on. It’s less efficient overall, but patience is a virtue in all things guitar related.

4) wind from top to bottom with no overlap on the tuner post. Get a pegwinder tool as it makes it much easier. Maintain light tension on the string by pressing it down with your finger at the back of the nut.

5) 2-3 winds is sufficient for wound strings, 4-5 for unwound strings

6) keep bringing the new strings you’ve already put on up to pitch as you go and they’ll be nearly fully stretched by the time you finish. Don’t snap them or pull them hard. Slowly being tuned up to pitch makes them last longer.

7) Should have been #1, wash your hands before you change strings, and if it’s a nice guitar lay it flat on a soft surface. Personally I like to do it seated with the guitar between my legs like a cello, resting on a soft guitar case. But I’m not delicate with my instruments.

Make sure you use fresh strings. Buy in bulk only at the rate you’ll go through them in a few months. Freshness really matters. Store strings in sealed ziplock bags. Try various brands. Strings are like tires, whether for electric or acoustic instruments: they are critical to the playing experience but very subjective to the player. I long ago settled on Elixirs for my acoustics and good old Ernie Ball Slinkys for my electrics (one gets Elixirs too). The reasons are inverse: Elixirs last me long enough to be worth their cost on an acoustic and have a consistent tone right up until they don’t. And it’s lovely. And they feel silky. Ernie Balls sound great when they’re new, then they go to shit fast. But they’re wicked cheap in bulk and I change electric strings like most people change socks, so I’m always playing a newish set anyway.

No two guitarists will ever agree on strings. Or gauges. But that’s another thread.
posted by spitbull at 1:57 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much everyone for all the great advice.

My guitar looks great with its brand new strings, all exactly where they should be. Not that I can play the five cowboy chords I know well enough to know if it sounds any better.

(to be continued...)
posted by BadgerDoctor at 6:01 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]

Right on. One reason I’m a mad string changer is that it makes me want to practice!
posted by spitbull at 5:41 AM on April 6

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