Guitar strings regardless of the composition have a limited lifespan.
This is as much of a fact of life as gravity force pulling us down. That being said, us guitar players are always trying to extend strings useful lifetimes with tricks, tips, and hacks.
I’ve been playing for 20+ years and believe me, my budget has changed a lot during those two decades. During those first rough years, I learned some non-orthodox ways that can be really helpful and prevent guitar strings from rusting.
So how do you prevent guitar strings from rusting?
Guitar strings are made of steel and to prevent rust you need to keep them moisture-free. The second part of preventing rusting on guitar strings is grime coming from dirty hands. The best way to stop guitar strings from rusting is to wash your hands before you play and dry them with a soft, clean, and dry cloth after you play.
I am about to share some more tips that might allow you to save some money and fret life by taking better care of your guitar neck and strings.
Let’s go right into it!
Humidity And Rust In Guitar Strings
As you might already know, guitar strings are mostly made of some kind of metal alloy. Depending on this alloy, guitar strings sound different, but that is a different blog post. What is very important to know about guitar strings is that they are not only made of steel, but they are wrapped in it.
Why is that a big difference? Because the wrapping is where most of the humidity is stored and what ultimately makes guitar strings rust.
In fact, it is not that guitar strings get wet that makes them rusty, it is the fact that moisture sticks around. This happens from the first time you play with them. Our sweat and fluids slowly get inside the strings after our fingers have eroded the light coating regular strings have from the factory.
How To Prevent Guitar Strings Going Rusty
We can’t prevent humidity from reaching the strings. We are not going to wear white gloves to play our instruments. What we can do is to prevent it from sticking around, and for this, you need to wipe your strings clean after you play every time.
Grime, Dirt, And Dead Skin
Moisture, sweat, and water are some elements we put on our strings. There are also some other components like grime, dirt, and dead skin cells from our fingers that transfer to the strings. Those also stick to the wrapping of the strings and especially to the flat wound strings (the bottom three or two depending on your gauge).
It is a fact that just living life makes our hands dirty. We, humans, use them for everything and because they have this particular grip, they collect dirt throughout the day and store it inside those tiny lines.
This kind of grime is so small and sticky that it goes from our fingers to the strings and we don’t even notice it.
In fact, I dare to say that you can’t see it simply with your eyes but if you would take a magnifying glass to take a closer look, the result would be quite disgusting.
Finally, dead skin cells have the same fate that grime and dirt collected by our hands throughout the day has. It ends up sticking to the strings and causing corrosion, rust, and more. We can’t help our skin changing process; it is just something humans do: we lose dead skin cells to make new ones.
We can prevent this from happening cleaning our hands before we play guitar. The cleaner your hands, the less grime and dirt will reach your strings. Dry them up well too so you won’t take unnecessary water to the strings and rust them that way either.
Here’s a really great video on how to clean guitar strings like a pro!
Prevent Rusty Strings And Fretboards
Does grime affect your guitar’s tone? Well, everything seems to indicate it doesn’t but it does affect playability and the lifetime of your fretboard. Replacing a fretboard on a guitar is to partially change its sound forever. Besides that, it is a complicated and very expensive process.
The grime from rusty strings will get to the fretboard, pile up for years, and prevent the wood from breathing. With time, the wood in guitars loses humidity changing its sound and becoming a little lighter. If you want your instrument to age well, you just have to clean the fretboard every time you play.
Can the rust and grime in your strings affect your fretboard? In case you haven’t seen a neck with grime, you can check this video at minute 2:16 and see what a ´59 telecaster that has been collecting grime throughout its existence looks like. It belongs to no other than legend Mike Campbell, guitar player for Tom Petty among many others.
Rusty Strings And Fret Wire
The same way that grime and rust affects the fretboards, it also affects the fret wire. This happens in various ways:
- Rusty strings can be more abrasive – Rust is usually more abrasive than metal. Frets and strings are always in a metal-to-metal interaction. In that sense, when the contact with the frets is to the rusty parts of the strings, you can erode them much faster.
- The grime and humidity sink in – This is quite usual in guitars. You might have noticed that your instrument has a greenish color in the fret wire: that’s rust building up. Also, if it gets between the fretboard and the fret wire you might experience a deformation of the wood or the metal or both.
In order to protect the life of the fret wire in your guitar, it is super important that you never leave your guitar to the open air or inside its case or gig bag with moisture in the strings.
Do Rusty Strings Change the Sound Of A Guitar?
This is usually the most common question I get regarding rusty strings and the reason why most of us change them in the first place.
Have you ever heard anyone talking about “dead” strings or just how “dead” a guitar sounds? Well, they are speaking specifically about the lifespan of the brightness in tone. You can notice this, especially in bronze guitar strings.
All the grime, moisture, rust, and dirt plus the dead skin cells do a lot to bring down the brightness in a set of strings. Cleaning your strings after playing every time changes the sound of the guitar; it becomes livelier and brighter for a longer period of time.
Dedicated Guitar String Cleaning Products, Do They Work?
Virtually every brand out there has a string cleaning product to offer.
Some even offer products that have multiple uses on guitars. The question we all ask ourselves is: are they worth the investment? Do they really work? Well, let’s take a look at some of the most common ones you can find in your nearby music store.
Does Lemon Oil Effectively Clean Guitar Strings And Fretboards?
I used lemon oil for a long time on my favorite guitars. It is a solution you can buy from many different brands. It has the particularity that works wonders removing the grime from your fretboard as well. In fact, most people only use it for that endeavor.
The truth is that the same way it removes the grime and dirt from the wood and the fret wire; it removes that which is stuck to your strings, especially in the wound ones. I recommend lemon oil for the neck and the strings.
Here’s a handy video on cleaning your guitar with lemon oil.
How To Use Lemon Oil To Clean Guitar Strings
Take a clean and dry piece of cloth and apply the product to it. Then, just apply the cloth to each string in its entire length from nut to bridge.
When replacing the strings you can apply it to the fretboard. Just make sure you don’t take too long because, especially for mahogany necks, being with no strings can be disastrous. The truss rod will try to fight back the weight strings usually pull your guitar neck with and finding no resistance might twist your guitar’s neck.
Fast Fret For Cleaning Guitar Strings
Fast Fret is a legendary product by a brand that many people haven’t heard of but the eighties children know very well. In fact, when I was growing up I just wanted to be able to afford the GHS Boomers because they were the coolest of the cool.
The same brand, GHS, came up with an invention called Fast Fret.
It comes in a small, cylindrical metal box. Inside, you will find the product itself and also a microfiber cloth. The good thing about the fast fret is that it contains no silicone and is not a spray, so you can apply it straight to your strings in a heartbeat even before you play. I recommend fast fret on a weekly to monthly basis depending on how much do you play.
How To Use Fast Fret:
Simply take the product out of the can, remove the cap and apply it over the strings from the bridge to the nut at least twice. Then, with the microfiber cloth, take out the excess and you are ready to go.
Here’s a review video of fast fret.
This is the product I currently use and it´s Fender´s version of the Fast Fret.
The reason why it is called Speed Stick is very simple: it is wider so you can do all the strings at the same time. It doesn’t differ much from the GHS with the sole difference that it takes less time to get things done with the Fender version.
Can You Clean Guitar String With WD40
Yes, I am talking about the same WD40 you put on machinery and noisy door hinges; the one you buy to make the car lock work better.
With this product you can do a million things, it is like the aloe vera of the repair technicians. In terms of guitar strings it will help you remove the dirt, grime and sweat from your guitar strings. It also has an effect similar to the one lemon oil has so you can use it to hydrate your guitar fretboard, especially if it is made of rosewood, a very porous wood.
How To Use WD40 To Clean Guitar Strings :
For the strings, you should apply WD40 on a microfiber cloth and using your fingers wrap it around each of them in their entire length. Again, just like lemon oil, you can apply it to the fretboard when changing the strings on your guitar.
Cleaning Guitar Strings With Microfiber Cloths
This is an often overlooked but very important part of the string cleaning.
Using anything other than a microfiber cloth will leave some debris behind which is not only annoying but could be potentially harmful for your instrument. The thing about microfiber cloths is that they do not come apart easily when pressed against wrapped metals.
Normal cloths do leave some particles behind and they end up piling up in your fretboard causing more harm than good. Always, always, always use a microfiber cloth on your strings.
DIY Solutions For Preventing Rusty Guitar Strings
Ok, we went through the industrially-made products to solve the dirty string situation. Let’s take a look at the methods that I implemented on my guitars with time.
Wash Your Hands!
This is my guitar golden rule: I always start my playing sessions with clean hands.
In fact, it is a part of my rider whenever I go out on tour: dressing rooms need to have a place to wash my hands. There are many pros in washing your hands properly quite often.
Firstly, you’ll be washing off dead skin cells clogging your skin pore. Second, you won’t be taking any grime, dirt, or other particles to your guitar´s strings and fretboard.
Finally, you’ll also be protected from microbes and bacteria. Washing your hands often is a great habit to take. In my case, it started with guitar playing and then became an ongoing healthy habit.
Always Clean Guitar Strings After Playing To Prevent Rusting
Once this becomes a habit too, it will not even be a burden; you’ll feel something is missing when you haven’t done it.
Keeping the guitar strings and neck clean is a must to avoid rust and grime from piling up. You’ll avoid the damage to your instrument and improve your strings life span and brightness; dead strings kill the tone we invest so much in creating.
What I do might seem like a no brainer but works great for me: I keep a Microfiber cloth inside the gig bag/case. Actually, I keep one in each so I will never forget. Wrap the microfiber around each string and go the entire length after playing every time.
Boiling Guitar Strings To Maximise The Lifespan
Eddie Van Halen’s legend is that he used to be a starving artist and would boil the strings (Ernie Ball Slinkys in case you wonder) to improve their lifespan.
This has never been addressed by Eddie himself and is most likely an urban legend than a definite truth. Have I tried boiling my strings? Of course, I have; do I recommend it? No, I do not. It is true that they feel refreshed after boiling, but it makes it worse in the short term.
They’ll be like new for about a week or so and then will get even more rust than before as if they won’t ever dry properly.
Here’s an interesting video that discusses this controversial topic
Should You Buy Coated Guitar Strings To Prevent Rust?
There are some brands out there that are famous for selling coated strings which last up to 5 times as much as regular strings. I have used them in the past many times; let me tell you a couple of things about them:
- You have to like the tone – Even with obsessive care, all guitar strings lose their brightness with time. Buying guitar strings for a higher price because they last longer is risking tone quality. Coated strings do not break but don’t retain the brightness of the tone either. You might end up with dead guitar strings for a long time because they just won’t break. This is usually okay for rehearsing and fooling around at home but won’t do the trick for live or recording situations.
- They are much more expensive – Coated strings such as Elixirs or D´addario NYXL last much longer but also cost much more. If you are a guitar player that only changes strings because of breakage, then they will do wonders for you. If you change them when they lose the tone, then I do not advise you to get them.
What About Nylon String Solutions?
Nylon strings are already grime and sweat resistant. They won’t pick up any of the moisture and since they don’t have any metal parts, won’t rust.
Now, strings in a classical guitar combine metal-wound nylon and pure nylon. You should definitely clean the wound strings on your classical guitar but don’t have to worry at all for the bottom three.
It’s not recommended to apply any chemical products to the nylon strings. Use just water and a microfiber cloth on them to remove any extra sweat so it won’t get onto your fretboard.
Flat Wound Strings
Not many guitar players use these nowadays, but if you play jazz, you might know what I’m talking about.
Flat wound strings are strings that do not feature any wrapped metal wire over the original one. This means that the surface is completely smooth.
They are very widely used in jazz, fretless instruments, and all moments in which you don’t want your fingers moving from one chord to the next to be heard over the speakers.
You have to take the same precautions with these strings than with regular ones with the difference that they are less likely to get grime build-up and last for much longer (they are also way more expensive).
Keeping your guitar clean is also to keep it sounding and working at its best. There are many other problems derived from string rust due to grime and sweat that can affect your guitar’s pickups and bridge. All the metal parts in your guitar that have contact with rusty strings will suffer from it.
Some simple actions you can take today are to start washing your hands before playing every time and adding a microfiber cloth to your gig bag or case so you won’t forget to use it after every gig.
Finally, if your guitar strings do not sound the way you like them to, just buy a new set and put some fresh strings on it. Guitar strings have a determined life span. You can extend it, but not forever. Don’t let rusty strings ruin your instruments or get in the way of your playing.
Trust your ears and your fingers, they will tell you when it’s the right time.
Happy (rust free) playing!