I’ve stated before that the single most significant thing you can do to improve the sound of your guitar is put on a new set of strings. The cost is minimal – about $6 to $10 in most cases – and if you haven’t changed them in a while you’ll be shocked at the improvement in sound. But of course, that is a subjective statement. I know of players who positively hate the brightness of new strings and are convinced there is a “sweet spot” of time when the strings have lost their brightness but still offer good, clean and not muffled sound. Many of these folks tend to own Gibson guitars, for some reason. Perhaps the “woody” sound of most Gibsons is what attracted them to that particular brand in the first place and that sound is somewhat disguised by bright, new strings? Who knows?
Being a hardcore Martin guy myself, especially rosewood Martins, I love the combination of cleaner, brighter strings on my Martins, particularly in the bass end. I readily admit that many rosewood Martins get kind of “thuddy” sounding in the bass end in a short amount of time as the strings wear. But oh those first few playing sessions with new strings! Every time I put a new set on my M-36 I’m reminded of why I fell in love with Martins in the first place: resonance, sustain, responsiveness, complex overtones… the signature sound of most Martins, enhanced by new strings.
With mahogany guitars you can probably get along with more time between string changes. Although mahogany doesn’t usually have the resonance and complexity of rosewood, it is a much more even sounding wood with great balance between the bass and treble end and that balance disappears slower than with rosewood as the strings lose their brightness.
But do you really want brightness? That is a totally personal call. As I am primarily a finger-style player these days, sometimes I find I get too much string noise as I move my fingers with brand new strings, especially when my M-36 is amplified. You know what I mean – that scratching sound from the bass strings as you move from one place to another on the neck. Some string noise in inevitable. I have a recording of the master Segovia and you hear string noise from time to time as he plays. You can minimize string noise with new strings with good, clean technique, but only to a point. After a hour or so playing with new strings I hear it less, so I guess I’m reaching that personal “sweet spot” that I mentioned.
I think the bottom line to the question of how often I should change strings has mostly to do with your own personal chemistry. I am blessed with relatively dry hands, that is, I don’t sweat a lot when I play (my hands at least – I sweat plenty in performance if I start screwing up!). However, a former guitarist band-mate of mine has such sweaty hands that I soon refused to let him touch my guitars. He could kill a set of new strings in five minutes, no kidding. ALWAYS play with clean, dry hands if possible.
There was a time back in college days when I would leave a set of strings on my old workhorse Yamaha for the better part of an entire school year. If I left the guitar in its case for a week or so the strings would begin to rust. Bad practice, for sure, but there were other things to spend my meager dollars on, usually involving beer and a young lady. And in any case, that poor old Yamaha didn’t benefit sound-wise all that much from new strings anyway. At least I rationalized it that way at the time!
So here’s the answer and as they say, “your mileage may vary.” If you play regularly, change your strings about every three months. Assuming you don’t sweat a lot. Wiping off the strings after you play makes some sense but that will only slightly delay the inevitable because you may be just forcing grime into the wound strings. If you play a lot, or are a professional with a really nice guitar, do it more frequently, perhaps once a month. Your guitar and your ears will thank you.
Peace & good music,