How To Change Strings On An Electric Guitar [1/2]

Learning to restring a guitar is a lot easier than you might first think if you do it the right way. If you can't do it at the moment and are taking it to your local store to get it done, now is the time to learn.

Do be careful though, there is a lot of tension on guitar strings, and if they come loose or snap, they can do you some damage (especially your eyes). I'll point out where to be careful but use common sense too.

Things You Need To Change Strings

So you could change strings with nothing but a new set of strings, but to recap from a previous lesson in this series you will find it helpful to have:

  • Strings (the same gauge as you take off unless you plan on making truss rod adjustments!)
  • Wire Cutters (to trim strings and cut the old ones off)
  • String Winder (some have cutters built in!)
  • Pliers (for bend string end)

Step 1 - Remove Strings

Don’t worry about changing them one at a time (something I read online all the time but I think is just crazy!).

Loosen off all the strings at least 3 or 4 winds and then cut all the strings around the 12th fret and remove them all and wind them into a coil. Make sure you note how the string ball comes out so you know how to put the new one in!

On a Fender type guitar (note not all Fenders, but most, and also many other brands) the string goes through the guitar and comes out the back of the guitar. You must check that the ball has been removed from here. If you do not you might get two that wedge themselves in there and it is a real task to get them out. You can check by holding the guitar up to the light and you should be able to see if it is still there. If you have any difficulties getting it out then try using the new fat 6th string to poke it out from the front of the guitar. You might also like to try removing the plastic back plate to make it easier to see what you are doing. I leave my back plate off my Strat type guitars all the time to make string changing a load quicker.

On a Gibson type guitar (note again that it's not all Gibsons) the balls are just hooked through the bridge. You can see these quite easily and should be able to remove it without any problem - however WATCH OUT for bridges that are not fixed, they might just fall off! On rare 'non-fixed bridge' guitars (very old jazz archtop guitars) you need to make sure the guitar is lying flat and it's worth making a note using tape as to the exact placement of the bridge before you begin. 335 Type Gibsons the top part of the bridge comes off, if it does - just put it back but be careful not to turn the screws that hold the part that comes off as they adjust the height!

Step 2 - Clean up

Wipe down the fretboard (damp cloth) and scrape any finger gunk that has built up. In a real bad case you might want to use steel wool, but if you do then use very fine grade and only rub in the direction of the grain. Even on real dirty fretboards, I've never needed more than a damp towel.

I'm a big fan of Lemon Oil and put it on all my rosewood boards at least a few times a year - just whenever they look dried out.

Good time to give the body a wipe down too and use cleaning products if you have time and the energy!

Step 3 - String Balls In The Bridge

Make sure you get the right strings in the right holes. D'Addario use a colour coded system which helps you get it right!

On Gibson guitars, this means just poking it through the hole toward the neck (sharp end first) and pulling it through until stopped by the ball.

On Fender types, you must put the string (sharp end first) into the appropriate hole in the back of the guitar (under the plastic rear plate), push it through, grab it at the front and pull it all the way through until stopped by the ball. Do check the ball is right into the hole, they sometimes catch oin the edge. Note that it's fine to remove the rear cover on a Strat type guitar, makes string changing much easier!

Step 4 - Wind On Strings    

This part is the same for all types of guitars (except classical guitars). The most important part of this is getting the string on the correct side of the peg, and here is how to do it. First of all line up the hole in the peg so it is facing straight down the neck. Put the string through the hole and pull it back so you have some slack. The amount of slack you need will vary, depending on the thickness of the string. Here's a rough guide, thickest string to thinnest:

String 6:
String 5:
String 4:
String 3:
String 2:
String 1:

Now wrap the string around the peg in a clockwise direction (counter-clockwise on the thinnest 3 strings on a guitar with 3 pegs on each side) so the string passes over the waste (the pointy part you will cut and throw away when you've finished).

Keep tension on the string and start turning the tuning peg ANTI-CLOCKWISE if you are looking at the peg (if the peg is underneath like on some Gibson guitars then it looks clockwise from above).

As you continue turning the peg the string will wrap around it. The one wind you made by hand should go above the hole (and the slack poking out) but the rest you wind on should go under the slack. This will help it lock onto the string as it gets tighter (it is OK for all the wraps to go under, it is just more secure if you get the lock from above too).

If you followed my slack length guides least 2 wraps on the 6th string and 5 wraps for the 1st string. More will not hurt, but less and the string may start to slip. Try not let the string overlap itself, as this may make it easier to break.

Note that if you have a locking peg (they're a real time saver and I have them on most of my guitars) you just poke the string through and tighten the lock, and start tuning! No need for all the winding on and that stuff.

Don't worry about getting them all in tune, just get them on and under some tension so you don't lose your pretty winds!

Step 5 - Tune Up

The next step is to tune the string. I strongly recommend getting an electric tuner, as it is important to hear what the guitar should sound like when you are learning, and electric tuners are pretty cheap these days. I recommend the TC Electronic PolyTune Clip or the D'Addario NS Micro Tuner.

There are a few ways to get your guitar in tune, see this module on How To Tune Your Guitar!

Step 6 - Stretching In

And lastly, and quite often forgotten, is to stretch the string in. Just gently pull on the string with your right hand, using your left hand to hold the string in its correct position in the nut. You should notice it going out of tune considerably, and you will need to tune it again.

I iften give it a good hard strum too. Don't worry about snapping a string at this point - better to snap it now than during a performance!

Continue stretching until you no longer need to tune it up - likely to take 4-5 cycles of tune and stretch!

Step 7 - Finishing

 To finish off use your wire cutters to trim the waste off. Some people leave it on but it often rattles or pokes people in the eye, so I recommend cutting it. I also take pliers and bend the end of the string 90˚ so I don't accidentally stab myself - don't it too many times!

Then it's just fine tuning!

Note About String Locking Systems

Floyd Rose bridges (commonly known as Locking tremolo systems) are found on many Ibanez type rock guitars and most metal style guitars. The idea of this system is to lock the string using small clamps so it cannot slip and go out of tune, even when the whammy bar is being thrashed. Tuning these is quite a skill and will have to be another lesson unto itself. The system is good, and stays in tune, but also has its flaws (like if you break a string then all the strings go out of tune, and, they are quite hard to get in tune).

For more information try your local store and ask for help. I do not recommend this type of system for beginners at all. Use these only if you know what you are doing or else they are a complete pain in the butt.

Guitar Maintenance 1