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How to Replace Your Instrument's Strings

If you are a musician in the time of COVID, you know that learning and growing in your abilities can be tough right now. Without access to in-person lessons, you might not know precisely when to change your instrument's strings, or even how to tackle the job. But whether you usually tap your instructor or a local luthier to handle string replacement, it's ultimately a vital skill for any musician to know.

Whether a beginner or a master, you're always learning — that's what makes you great. So if you find yourself spending more time improving your playing and focusing on your art, spare a thought for your hardworking strings. Here is our overview of some things to know when changing violin, viola, double bass, classical guitar, or cello strings.

Why Changing Strings Is Important

Like any material subject to tension, pressure, and friction, the strings on your instrument will wear over time. There are a variety of factors at play, but here are some key things to consider:

  • Playing habits. Intense practice sessions or practice that lasts more than an hour a day will age your instrument's strings faster than normal.
  • String type. Not only do gut, steel, and synthetic strings play differently, they also wear in their own distinct ways.
  • Environment. Excessive heat, cold, humidity, or dryness will affect everything about your instrument, including the strings' lifespan.
  • Physical contact. Natural oils from skin along with the household dust and dirt can erode strings, affecting their performance and longevity.

Some of the above factors can be controlled, others cannot. To prevent the need for frequent string changes, implement good storage and maintenance habits. Playing with freshly-washed hands and wiping down strings after a practice session is an easy way to keep strings in good shape for as long as possible. And keeping your instrument in a climate-controlled environment is ideal, though not always practical. Knowing your unique environment can at least inform where you choose to store your instrument when not in use.

Sometimes the culprit to a broken or underperforming set of strings has more to do with the instrument’s setup than the strings themselves. In that case you might be better off contacting a professional to fix things.

When To Change Strings

If you are playing a familiar piece and it just doesn’t hit the mark, first try tuning the strings. But if tuning doesn’t fix the tonality, resonance, or correct the vibrato, or if you are using more pressure than usual to produce the same sounds, it could well be time to switch to a new set of strings. Some obvious physical signs of wear might be unwinding metal, fraying silk, or dirty and
eroded strings.

Musicians often measure time between string changes based on hours played. For non-professional players, six months or 300 play hours is a general guideline to maintain brilliance and responsiveness. While this isn’t an exact science, keeping track of play hours can give you a rough idea of when to replace strings. And if you find yourself lost in hours upon hours of practice, you should probably err on the side of sooner rather than later.

Another time that a full replacement is due is when one string breaks. Unless it was new, replacing just one string will affect your instrument’s overall performance because it will carry a different sound than the rest. Tonal changes occur over time and the subtleties can be tricky to detect, but will manifest with some use. So save yourself a tuning headache and put on a brand new set, especially if it has already been a few months since the strings were last changed.

How To Change Strings

Instruments vary in a host of ways, but the general methodology behind changing strings on your violin, viola, cello, or double bass is roughly the same. We always recommend that an entire set of strings be changed one at a time. The tension provided by the strings is necessary to the integrity of other components in your instrument, like the soundpost, fingerboard, and bridge. If any of these shift or collapse, you will definitely need to get in touch with an expert to finish the job.

So if you have done a bit of troubleshooting and are sure that you need to change your instrument’s strings, here is how to go about the process:

  1. Remove: Loosen tension and remove the string, beginning at the tailpiece string hole or fine-tuner. Once free, unwind and slip the string loose from its peg.
  2. Lubricate: Lubricate and loosen tailpiece fine tuners. Use a graphite pencil to lubricate the bridge and nut where the string makes contact (not necessary for the E string if using a bridge protector). Where the peg touches the pegbox, use a recommended substance (e.g. peg compound, wax, graphite, chalk, soap) to improve motion.
  3. Replace: Carefully thread the new string through the corresponding peg, allowing only an inch or less of the string through. Slowly turn the peg while also guiding the string toward the inside of the peg box, making sure that strings do not cross. Gently turn until the string is fully wound onto the peg. Left pegs are wound counter-clockwise, right pegs clockwise. Remove any twist in the string and attach the ball/loop end to the tailpiece or fine-tuner. 
  4. Adjust: Carefully place the string in the appropriate slot of the nut and bridge, checking for twists or tangles. If using a string with a bridge protector, be sure to place it correctly. Wind the peg until you feel a slight tension on the string. Ensure that the bridge is straight before tightening any further.
  5. Repeat and tune. Follow steps 1-4 with each additional string being replaced, tuning each one to just under pitch. Once all new strings are in place, fine tune to pitch.

Bravo, the hardest part is done! Now you will need to break in that new set of strings. Each string can take a few days of play to naturally settle. Until then, the tonal quality of the new strings can be harsh. Once they are stretched to their ideal length and you have tuned to pitch, your instrument is ready for the next few months. Allowing time after changing for the breaking in period is a must. Otherwise, strings can break more easily or require excessive tuning and frequent changing.

Here’s a pro tip for you: if they are in decent shape, but just stretched out, keep your old strings! Should just one string break soon after changing, it’s helpful to have an already stretched string to take its place and buy time until you need to change the full set again. And if you are performing, it’s invaluable to have a ready backup. Simply store them in the string envelope and mark the date.

String Variances By Instrument Type

While the above general guidance will work for most stringed instruments, there could be more specific steps to follow, depending on the instrument you’re working with. For instance:

Viola and Cello
When replacing all of the strings, violists and cellists often start with the C string, working their way to the A string.

The order of string replacement isn't critical, but many bassists start with the G string and then work toward the E string.

Classical Guitar
Use designated classical guitar strings, which are typically made from nylon. They offer the right amount of tension and allow for hand knotting as opposed to having a ball end.

Regardless of which instrument you’re playing, changing the strings is key to good sound quality and performance. It can also save you from stress-related injuries, since weak or worn out strings require more pressure than new strings do.

If you have concerns, repeat problems, or are a visual learner, there are plenty of video resources available online. Just be sure to do a bit of research first and only take advice from experience, reputable professionals. And remember too that Zaret experts are always here to help in any way we can.

Rely On Your Local Experts

At Peter Zaret & Sons Violins' shop, we know string instruments. Our comprehensive collection of old master and modern high-quality violin, viola, cello, classical guitar, and double bass models is always available for perusal online.

Regardless of what you play, you will need a great set of strings to allow your instrument to shine. Our Zarelon Bow Hair complements quality strings and our selection of bows, offering a synthetic alternative that is stronger, provides better grip, does not stretch, and lasts far longer than the best grade of horsehair.

For easier playing with bow hair that is unaffected by moisture, humidity, and temperature, opt for Zarelon. That means one less maintenance task and more time spent in the enjoyable pursuit of your art. Now get busy playing!