When to Change Your Guitar Strings and How Clean Your Fretboard

You may have noticed that your strings are getting harder and harder to tune the longer you use them. When and how should you change them? When should you clean your fretboard?

Professional players tend to change strings several hours before they go on stage, giving them time to stretch and tune before the gig. Under normal circumstances, you would only need to wipe down your fretboard – but sometimes they will need a thorough cleaning.

Cleaning Your Fretboard

Once you have removed your old strings, most of the time you can clean your fretboards with a soft, dry (or lightly damp) rag. If it’s been a while, you may want to use a bit of mineral spirits or other oil.

On most guitars, you can remove built-up dirt along the edges of the frets by using your fingernails to scrape it off. Some recommend a fine (0-grit) steel wool, though this can cause fine scratches across your fretboard. If you do scratch it in this way, use the steel wool with the grain (lengthwise) to polish them out.

Do not use steel wool or other metallic substances on your electric guitar, as your pickups are magnetic and may be damaged. Some players will cover their pickups with tape to protect them while cleaning, but this, too, can harm your finish.

Again, you should not have to do a deep cleaning on your fretboard very often.

Once a year (or twice, if you play a lot), you may want to condition your fretboard with a commercial lubricant/conditioner designed for your guitar. Other oils that may be used include linseed, lemon oil, carnauba wax, and some household dusting or furniture polishes such as lemon Pledge. Be very careful to use only a small amount on a soft, dry rag so you do not saturate the slots between the frets, as this will loosen them. Leave the oil or conditioner on for a few minutes. After the oil has penetrated the wood, wipe off any excess and buff until your fretboard is totally dry. It should shine as if it were brand new.

Always remember that these substances tend to be very flammable, so you should not store your leftover rags inside. Lay them flat to dry, or incinerate them.

*PLEASE NOTE: If you play a Rickenbacker or a guitar with maple or dark finished wood fingerboards, stay away from any abrasive substances and oils. These will damage your finish.

You Should Change Your Strings When…

The most important indicator of when you should change your strings is the sound. When the tone degrades (or doesn’t sound as “crisp”), your strings are most likely worn. When you find it difficult to keep your guitar in tune – you may even get frustrated as you have to fiddle with them between each and every song – then you are past due for a string change. The longer you use your strings, the harder it will be to keep them in tune. It will also be more difficult to play.

Heavier gauge strings will last a bit longer than lighter gauge and will be less prone to breakage. That doesn’t mean that you should toss out the sound test. Ultimately, you will get a feel for when you need new strings. Go with a combination of your gut and your ear.

Most professionals change their strings between each performance, and many between each set (assuming they are playing one guitar for the entire gig). This is true for both acoustic and electric guitar players. There’s nothing worse than snapping a string in the middle of a solo!

Changing guitar strings

Changing guitar strings

Breaking in New Strings

It doesn’t matter whether you play with steel or nylon strings, you will want to break in your new strings by stretching each one with your thumbs up and down the string after you’ve installed and tuned them. They may then go a bit flat again, and you will have to retune – but, once stretched, they will hold their pitch longer. Make sure you tied them correctly and firmly to the tuner posts and you’re good to go.

Your Unique Needs

A player that has oily skin or who may sweat more than normal when playing will have to change strings and clean his fretboards more often. Don’t worry, it’s just a fact of life and many players find that their frequent playing almost warrants buying stock in the string manufacturers. Still, it’s better than losing sound quality to a dirty guitar.

Whether you are just starting out or you are a professional on the road, if you take good care of your guitar, it will take good care of you. Happy playing!