Many budding musicians choose to foray into music by becoming proficient guitarists before studying any other instruments. After familiarizing yourself with the parts of your instrument and the basics of guitar playing, such as how the state of your guitar strings affects the tone, you might be wondering whether or not you should loosen the strings on your guitar when you’re not playing.
Should I loosen my guitar strings when not playing? Speaking in general and concise terms, it is not necessary to loosen guitar string when not playing. The neck of your guitar is specifically built to withstand the appropriate range of string tension that’s created while you tune your guitar, and guitars are specifically built for their tune to remain intact whether they’re being played, stored in a case, or displayed on your wall.
Consider the Brand and Build of Your Guitar
While loosening your guitar strings when you aren’t playing is generally considered to be unnecessary, the quality of your guitar plays a key part in determining what effects normal string tension will have over time. Tuned strings do place consistent strain on the neck of the guitar, after all, so the quality of the instrument is integral to its ability to withstand that tension.
When you’re first choosing your guitar, always try to opt for a genuine brand rather than a knock-off. For example, you’ll get very different results from a USA-made Fender Stratocaster guitar than you can reasonably expect from an imitation that was cheaply produced overseas.
All guitars are built to withstand a certain range of tension, and the tones of imitation guitars may even sound passably similar, but the quality of the wood can decrease dramatically once you stray from name-brand guitars.
Good guitar brands generally craft their instruments from solid wood, rather than laminated wood or plywood. Generally speaking, solid wood is more susceptible to changes in humidity and the surrounding temperature, while laminated wood is stronger and more resistant to dramatic variation in atmospheric conditions.
Laminated wood guitars might be a good choice for a travel instrument due to their resilience, but a solid wood guitar will offer you a far better tone. Just like a fine Bourbon, the tone of a solid wood guitar should improve over time. In order to let the tone and resonance develop, you shouldn’t loosen the guitar’s strings when you aren’t playing. Tune your instrument, and let it rest.
Does the Gauge of Your Guitar Strings Make a Difference?
Absolutely! The gauge of your guitar strings is a key factor in the amount of tension that they create when you adjust the tune, and selecting the optimal gauge will increase your instrument’s longevity. Strings with heavier gauges create greater tension when they’re tuned, and can have major effects on tone and playability. String gauge can be a major contributor to your musical playing style, too.
Most rock guitarists prefer lighter gauges, around .009 – .042, since they frequently bend the strings for varying expressions while playing. Jazz guitar players often pick heavier gauges like .012 – .052, since they tend to prioritize a nice, fat tone over the ability to bend strings. If you prefer versatility and like to play various different styles of music, you might want to opt for a .010 or .011 set gauge for your instrument.
As you might expect, the ideal gauge of your guitar strings will also depend on the specific type of guitar you’re working with. Your off-brand replica that you use for traveling isn’t going to handle heavier string gauges as well as your name-brand solid wood guitar will.
For laminated wood guitars, observe how the neck responds to the tension in the guitar strings over the course of a few months and keep an eye out for any strain. You might be able to chase the perfect tone more effectively with heavier strings, but the life of your replica guitar is likely to suffer as a result. You don’t want to put your instrument under unnecessary strain–chasing down that perfect tone can be a lifelong pursuit anyway!
What’s the Proper Way to Replace Guitar Strings?
While we’re on the subject of guitar strings and tension, lets go over some pro tips for changing out your strings for new ones. The first thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to change all six strings on your guitar at once. Instead, change them out one at a time in order to minimize the changes in the tension placed upon the guitar’s neck. You’ve put a lot of work into maintaining the optimal tension for a pristine tone, and you don’t want to interfere with that now! However, there are different opinions on this as stated in this Q&A forum on stack exchange.
Many musicians recommend starting with the lightest string first, and will advise you to clean beneath each string with a damp microfiber cloth as you work your way across the fretboard. Turn the tuning pegs slowly to loosen the strings gently, and research the brand and model of your instrument to determine whether your new strings should be oriented in a way that’s specific to your particular guitar.
When you replace the old string with a new one, only wrap the new string around the tuning peg 2-3 times–especially if you frequently use tremolo when you play. This will result in a better tone and make it easier to fine-tune your instrument. Another good tip to keep in mind if you play a lot of gigs is to always have a peg winder stashed with your gear–that way you can replace a string quickly if it breaks mid-show.
To finish off the process of upgrading the strings on your guitar, strum and play it a few times to let the strings stretch, and adjust the pegs as many times as is necessary for the tune to stabilize. Add the finishing touch with a product such as GHS FastFrets mineral oil to bring out the best in your guitar strings. In the event that you’ve run out of FastFrets or want to try a cheaper alternative, some musicians say that olive oil works just as well!
You can also follow through this video by Fender to replace your string:
Guitar Maintenance to Perform While Changing Your Strings
While we briefly mentioned earlier that it’s a good idea to clean beneath the guitar strings while you change them out, you could probably make use of a few more details. For instance, once you use a damp cloth to clean away most of the dust and dirt that’s accumulated over time, some sturdier grime might still remain–what then?
Make sure that you avoid succumbing to the temptation to spray or pour anything on your guitar in order to loosen grime–your cleaning cloth should be damp, not wet. To dislodge stubborn dirt, you can use an old toothbrush to gently scrub around the grooves of the fretboard, as well as the areas around the bridge and tuning pegs. Some people also recommend using a piece of waxed dental floss to clean the hard-to-reach parts of each guitar’s nut before winding on a new string.
While you’re replacing the strings on your guitar, you should take the opportunity to check the alignment of your guitar’s neck and make sure that it isn’t too bent. Some guitar players actually prefer the sound created by a slight bend in the neck, but most prefer for the guitar’s neck to remain as straight as possible in order to avoid unnecessary strain on their instrument.
Check Your Guitar Neck’s Alignment with a Truss Rod
When you reach the middle two strings of your guitar during your string replacement routine, check to see if there’s a truss rod located on the headstock. If there is, it’s likely covered by a metal or plastic plate that’s secured in place with a pair of screws. If you have a steel-string acoustic or electric guitar, then your truss rod will be located inside the neck.
You may want to adjust the truss rod after putting in your new strings in order to make sure the neck of your guitar stays as straight as you want it. This is especially handy for reinforcing the neck if you’re increasing the gauge of your guitar’s strings and the resulting tension has intensified.
This useful truss rod is the main reason that you don’t need to loosen your guitar strings in between playing sessions–it serves to stabilize and support the neck of your guitar 24/7, no matter where you store it.
Just a side note: Keep in mind that classical and nylon string guitars should be capable of handling a normal amount of string tension with or without a truss rod. However, the tuning might change somewhat over time as a result of the nylon strings responding to humidity in the atmosphere, so additional adjustment might be necessary before you play if it’s been a while.
What Other Instruments are Fine Without Having the Strings Loosened?
If you’re still skeptical at the idea of letting your guitar sit around without having had the tension in its strings relaxed, consider the classic piano. While many people immediately think of a piano’s keys rather than its strings, piano notes are all produced with strings–and there are far too many for loosening them in between uses to be practical!
Upright and Grand pianos are built to handle constant string tension without needing to be loosened, and guitars can handle consistent string tension as well. Don’t worry about loosening your guitar strings when you’re not playing–simply tune and maintain your instruments regularly and store them with respect, and you’ll be good to go!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.