Why Do Guitar Strings Break?
Most gigging guitarists have experienced the dreaded string break in the middle of the set. Without a guitar tech or backup guitar on hand, losing a string can mean missing your entrance, ruining a solo, or derailing the show altogether.
Nearly every string company from D’Addario to Elixir claims longevity with their strings, but all strings break sooner or later.
Guitar strings are uncomplicated. They are simply a piece of material – gut, nylon, steel, or alloy – worked into a specific shape for a specific purpose.
And by looking at the properties of the material, we can better understand what’s going on when we hear that dreaded plink and snap.
Ultimately, string breakage boils down to three main issues: trauma, fatigue and corrosion.
Simply pulling on new strings doesn’t necessarily create the sort of trauma we’re talking about. The video of Petrucci getting aggressive with the whammy bar is neat, but most new medium/heavy gauge strings can take this abuse. Fatigue will set in soon, though, with this sort of repeated stretching.
It’s the pinpoint trauma that you really have to watch out for.
Sometimes bridge saddles are to blame for broken strings, as they’re prone to developing burrs – sharp or unevenly formed microscopic protrusions. Burrs can also develop on tuning posts and can wear your strings down on the other end of your guitar.
The nut is another piece of hardware that can cause issues with your strings. If you use particularly heavy strings or even if you switch between gauges often enough, the nut on your guitar can wear down or develop sharp edges.
Companies use a myriad of ball-end windings, like the reinforced Ernie Ball end, to help the bridge area. Whether it’s a hardtail Strat or a Mastery, keep an eye on your bridge hardware to make sure it isn’t getting rusty or tilting off-center.
When you’re changing strings, grab a toothbrush and clean the nut. Some players even add some pencil graphite to the nut grooves or bridge saddles as lubrication.
One of the major causes of string fatigue is the result of winding the string incorrectly around the tuning posts. If the string’s tension terminates at a kink, the wire will weaken at that point making it more susceptible to breakage.
Sharp edges can also develop on the inside of the tuning posts causing extra breakage when the string passes through the posts. File these edges away using a fine-detail mini file, and clean the posts with a cotton swab to prevent these pinpointed problems.
Repeated tightening and loosening can also contribute to metal fatigue, especially after frets and other contact points have established wear or stress themselves.
Nickel-plated steel strings produce a brighter more aggressive tone than pure nickel strings,
and not incidentally, the music from this era reflects that change as nickel-plated steel strings became the norm.
By today’s standards, Ernie Ball Nickel Wound Slinkys -- the best-selling nickel-plated steel strings on the market
are designed for moderate output and, compared to pure nickel strings, offer a more balanced tone that compliments
all guitar types and playing styles.
Characteristics of Cobalt Strings
Beyond nickel-plated steel, players now can choose strings wrapped in other materials. For example, cobalt strings,
actually an alloy of cobalt and iron, were developed by the Ernie Ball company with the intention of offering a new and
different playing experience and were engineered to increase output and clarity.
“The cobalt alloy is a more magnetically responsive alloy, so you're actually getting a stronger, more accurate interaction
between the string and the pickups,” says Chris Harrington, director of engineering and manufacturing at Ernie Ball.
As a result, the tone of these high-output strings is clear, bright and articulate. Cobalt strings have become favorites
among players who like more output, including hard rock and heavy metal players.
In addition to their increased magnetic responsiveness, cobalt strings also ring and vibrate more than pure-nickel and
nickel-plated strings, which is visible on a spectrograph, a visual representation of the spectrum of frequencies in a sound.
Many players say they actually can feel this extra liveliness, which produces more harmonic response and note separation,
which should appeal to those who tune down, play more complex chords or with more distortion.
That said, many vintage guitar players also are discovering the benefits of high-output strings, especially on older guitars,
as the pickups in those guitars degauss over time, decreasing their output. With higher output strings, you truly can breath
new life into an old guitar.
Premium Alloy and Coated Guitar Strings
Just as the materials chosen will impact the way a string performs and sounds, the proportions in an alloy also can have
an impact. For example, while Ernie Ball Cobalt strings are wrapped in 17% cobalt alloy, that company’s M-Steel strings
are wrapped in 27% cobalt alloy, which increases their liveliness and magnetic responsiveness even more. And these
differences extend to the core wire as well.
Maraging Steel Guitar Strings
Maraging steel, or M-Steel for short, is a super alloy of carbon-free iron-nickel alloys with additions of cobalt and molybdenum.
It is used in aerospace and other high-stress applications and offers a number of benefits over tin-plated high-carbon steel,
which is standard among other lines of electric guitar strings. Benefits include greater strength, durability and deeper, richer
tonal response, especially in the low end, Ernie Ball says. The increased strength also means the strings offer superior tuning
stability and shorter break-in times, as they stretch less than other strings.
Many manufacturers now offer coated strings, which are intended to retard rust and the accumulation of dirt and oil, and their
primary benefit is longevity. By design, the playing experience and sound differences are very minimal compared to uncoated
strings. While these strings may be a little more expensive, their longer lifespan and transparent tone make them a great
option for players who need their strings to last gig after gig.
The world of guitar strings is deep. There are almost as many styles, materials, construction methods,
and brands as there are guitarists. But if you find a material you like and a gauge that feels good, you’ll just have
to pick your brand. Go ahead, try them all. I think you’ll be surprised just how different they can be.
How To Change Electric Guitar Strings
Changing your guitar strings is an important skill to have as a player. Not only that, but getting rid of those grimy old strings in favor of a shiny new set will show just how much your strings affect tone and sustain. There are a number of ways to approach this process, but we here at Reverb use a tried-and-true method.
The Process for Changing Guitar Strings
First, loosen the tension on the strings and grab your string cutters. Put your hand over the strings where the neck
meets the body and cut the strings halfway between your left hand and the bridge. Make sure you keep your hand
over the strings to prevent them from popping up and poking your eye out.
Remove the strings from the bridge and unwind the other end from the tuning machine.
Grab your new set of strings. Most string packs will give you a helpful color guide.
Match the ball-end color with the string color chart provided. Feed the string through the bridge.
Point the eye of the tuning machine perpendicular to the headstock and parallel to the nut,
then feed the string through the eye from the inside. Pull the string tight, but leave about an inch of slack.
Turn the string back towards the headstock, loop it under the string and fold it around and over top of the string.
This will form a locking connection that will keep the string sturdy and in tune.
Grab your string winder and start turning the tuning machine until it’s tight, making sure the string winds below the knot
you made. Keep your other hand holding the string the entire time with the string in the nut so you don’t lose tension -
the knot might slip if you don’t. Repeat this process for the remaining strings and make sure the string winds on the inside
of the tuning machine when you’re tightening.
Line up your eye and feed the string through from the inside. Loop the string back towards the headstock. In the same manner as before, loop it under, up, and over the string, and tighten the string up.
Clip off the excess string with your string cutters leaving just 1/4”. You can bend this around on itself, but it’s not necessary.
Now grab your tuner and tune up each string.
When you’re in tune, pull up on each of the strings individually, first around the 12th fret and then around the 5th. Make sure you keep your hand on the strings just in case something snaps.
Give it one more tune up and commence rocking.