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Guitar Strings: Choosing and Using Part 2
Thursday, 23 June 2016 11:58:48 Europe/London
Having chosen your new strings, it's time to go about fitting them. There are a few considerations to be understood in order to make this process as simple and painless as possible.
For what is a relatively straightforward process, there are several choices and pitfalls to overcome. I suggest you look through the whole article and work out which bits apply to your guitar before you start restringing. If you are at all intimidated by this, don't forget that our workshop is very happy to restring your guitar for you (this is chargeable).
What type of guitar do you have?
What bridge does it have?
What machineheads does it have?
The answers to these questions will indicate the approach you will need to take. In this article we will look at the most common situations.
What tools do you need? For a simple restring you will need a pair of wirecutters and a tuner. Additional niceties include a string winder of one type or another and possibly a pair of pliers.
First you need to remove your old strings. If you are dealing with a modern solid bodied electric guitar there is almost no reason not to remove all the strings and then fit the new ones. However, in the case of an archtop guitar with a bridge that is held in place by the strings, or an older guitar which might have a less stable neck, you may wish to consider replacing one string at a time.
Let's assume for now that you are dealing with a solidbody. Slacken the strings and then cut them one at a time. This is not mandatory but it does let you get the strings off quickly.
Once the strings are removed you have access to bits of the guitar that are usually difficult to get at and I usually take advantage of this moment to give the guitar a good clean all over.
Inspect the fingerboard for general grot or wear, have a look at the frets and take the opportunity to clean everything up. With a dry clean duster wipe the dust away from the area under the strings between the nut and the machine heads and from the area between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge. You may choose to use a polish at this point – I strongly recommend that you use one formulated for guitar care rather than good old Mr Sheen.
Next take a look at the fingerboard. If it is maple and lacquered then you might want to carefully clean around each fret and then polish the whole board. If it is a rosewood (or similar, unlacquered) fingerboard then a different approach is called for. Again, clean around the frets and then you might want to treat the wood. Traditionally this is done with lemon oil – apply it sparingly but you will find a little goes a long way and it really brings out the best in the wood. Follow the instructions on the bottle for best results.
Now we can take a look at the parts that are actually involved in the restringing process.
First, the bridge. This is where the strings are nearly always anchored (hands up now those people with a Floyd Rose style bridge – we're not covering them in this blog specifically as they are probably enough for a single blog all their own! However, most of the principles still apply).
Acoustic bridges come in two styles – thread through:
Acoustic thread through is dead simple – just thread the string through the bridge holes and over the saddle.
The other, more common, type of acoustic bridge is one with bridge pins.
This can be a bit more of a challenge. The first issue, which you probably came across when you were removing stringsis how to remove the pin! Sometimes you can get hold of it and pull it out but it's much easier if you have a string winder with a notch designed for the purpose. Release the tension o0n the string you are dealing with before trying to remove the pin. Go easy and slowly work the pin out.
Once the pin is out, the new string can be installed.
The ball end goes down through the hole and into the slot at the front, the pin goes into the hole so that the ball is held at the end of the slot. Basically, what you are trying to achieve is this:
To get to this, you might find it easier to put a slight bend in the string right at the ball.
Once you have the string in the right place, insert the pin - make sure it goes in snuggly but don't hammer it home!
Once the string is installed with ball end up against the top of the guitar, bend the string gently over the saddle and proceed to installing it into the machinehead (more later).
Electrics have a variety of bridges but they can be basically seperated into
- Stratocaster tremolo style
- Telecaster through body style (includes the hardtail strat)
- Les Paul style tunomatic bridges with stop bars or trapeze tailpieces
- Les Paul Junior wrap around
- Bigsby tremolo
There will always be exceptions but for the most part you will be able to identify which one you have. Lets deal with them one at a time.
So lets look first at the very common Stratocaster type tremolo bridge. Strings are installed from the back of the guitar, usually through a slot or bigger aperture in the spring cover plate into the tremolo block and out through the individual saddle on the top of the guitar. Sometimes, even on very expensive guitars, you might find that the hole in the spring cover doesn't line up with the tremolo block – in this case you will have to remove the spring plate in order to proceed.
Again, once the string is threaded through the bridge it is time to install it on the machinehead.
Gibson style tunomatic bridges are relatively straightforward but be careful – once all the strings are removed it can be very easy for the bridge and/or the stop bar to fall off the guitar. Additionally, in the case of some older tunomatics, the individual saddles can fall out without the string there to hold them in place.
In the simple and traditional style of stringing, the string is threaded through the stop bar and over the saddle, then on up to the machinehead.
A style of stringing tunomatics that has become popular recently is the wrap over. In this case, the stop bar is wound down tight to the body and the string installed the opposite way through it, wrapping back over the bar and then over the saddle. The reasoning seems to be that there is less vibration lost with the stop bar tight against the body. If you want to try this, be sure that the bar will go low enough to give you sufficient angle over the bridge saddle – if this is too shallow your guitar will almost certainly sound worse. If the angle is too big you may have tuning stability problems and will probably break strings. We'll cover adjustments to address these issues in the next blog.
While we're on the subject of wrapover installation, this is exactly how the strings are installed on a Les Paul Junior style bridge (this one is from a PRS but it's the same principle).
Finally, before we look at the other end of the string, let's talk about Bigsbys!
People seem to find these a real challenge but a couple of tips will make this much easier.
Additional tool required – a capo!
There are various ways to install the string onto the Bigsby, depending on the model of Bigsby that your guitar has, but the basic attachment on most is that the ball end installs over a pin. If you are removing all the strings watch out for a couple of things:
Take careful note of the path of the strings through the system
If the bridge is not attached to the guitar (floating), make sure you know exactly where it goes – I usually establish the right place then use double sided tape to secure it temporarily.
The trick is to get the string on to the pin and then to keep it there while you finish the job.
Getting the string on is made easier by prebending each string like so:
Depending on the system you have you might find it easier to thread the string through and over the bridge saddle before putting it on the pin. Whichever approach you take, once the ball is on the pin you need to keep some tension on the string to keep it in place. The easiest way to do this is to use a capo – get the string installed on the bridge then capo it to the fingerboard while you deal with other strings or while you install the other end onto the machinehead.
That concludes our quick look at the most common bridges. Obviously there are others but most just require an adaptation of one of the above.
Let's look at the other end of the string.
The string comes over the nut and from there to the individual machine heads. Again, make sure you know which way round the machine head it goes – generally, but not absolutely exclusively, the string takes a fairly straight path over the nut to the machinehead. By convention, the strings on a three-a-side headstock will go to the inside of the machine head.
On a six-a-side Fender style headstock the string usually wraps under the machine and round.
There are two basic types of machinehead (other than newfangled locking style heads which are dead easy to use - thread the string through the hole and tighten the thumbscrew to lock it in place - proceed to tuning!) so we'll take a look at each.
First, the standard single hole through the post type machinehead. The string passes through the post and is then locked against itself. You will need to decide how many wraps you want around the post – generally I find one and a half to two is about right but how much slack is required to achieve this is a matter of experience. Take a look at the pictures below to see the technique I use to lock the string.
Pass the string through the hole (I find it easier to align the post so that the string goes straight up through it).
Then bend the string to bring it around the post, pass it under the string coming from the nut and bend it back over that string - you should do this so that as the tension comes on, the string traps the bent end and doesn't allow it to slip.
Make sure that you do this on the correct side - on a three a side headstock it will mean doing the first bend towards the centre of the headstock no matter which side you are on.Once these bends are complete, take some tension on the string and bring it up to pitch.
Once the string is installed and brought up to tension, cut off the excess. Don't be tempted to try to wrap the whole excess of the string around the post – this will look a mess and cause all manner of tuning instability.
The second type of machine head is the slot head found on vintage and vintage style Fenders. This can cause a little confusion but actually is the quickest and easiest machine head to use. The key to getting this right is to cut each individual string to the correct length before you install it into the machinehead. Experience has taught me that the correct length is two and a half machineheads past the one I am installing.
Cut the string off and then push the end into the hole in the middle of the slot.
With the string in as far as it can go, bend it at right angles along the base of the slot.
Then, keeping the string in place, wind the tension on until the string is secure. At this point the optional string winder is very useful as it speeds the process up greatly.
As you get used to this, you will find that you can change strings on a guitar like this very quickly – I have done a full set in less than four minutes (with a good set of cutters and an electric pegwinder!)
Once you have installed all the strings and brought them up to pitch (using a tuner for quick and accurate tuning), it is time to address the "playing in" or "stretching" of strings. It is my experience that this has nothing to do with playing or stretching – usually you can eliminate both by making sure that the string is bent into place at the bridge and the machine head, taking out any excess that will slowly bend anyway causing the tuning drops that we have all experienced.
It's important to deal with each area individually, starting with the bridge, then the nut, then the machineheads, bringing the guitar back to pitch before doing the next – this ensures the bends are actually in the right place – not doing so could cause more problems than it solves!
Once I have done that, I will generally bring the guitar back up to pitch and then gently bend all the strings individually – if they hold their tuning, job done.
If you have used the same type and gauge of string to replace the ones that were already there you should now be ready to go. Best of luck!
Next time we'll take a look at some more advanced adjustments you might need to make, especially if you are changing your string gauge.