How to change your guitar strings

NOTE: This writeup is written assuming you're playing a steel-string acoustic guitar.
UPDATE: Now with electric (non-Floyd Rose) guitar string intstructions.

Now that you've read Orpheum's spectacular writeup above, you know when to change your strings. But if you're too lazy to read it:

Change your strings whenever...
  • they break,
  • they sound shitty, or
  • they begin to rust.
So, one (or perhaps all three) of the above has occurred. Let's begin.

Things you'll need

  • Strings. This is obviously pretty important. Get the same gauge strings as you had before--if you don't, you'll need a neck adjustment. You can get your neck adjusted at any music store (not to mention any chiropractor) if you want to change gauges. I use D'addario light gauge acoustic strings. They're cheap ($6) and sound great...but if you really want top-quality strings, you'll want Elixirs. Be warned: they cost 2 to 3 times as much, but if you can spare it, it's worth it. Your strings look a little like this:
                ----======= ...etc.... ==========O
    As you can see, they have a ball end and a really friggin sharp end. D'addarios' ball ends are color-coded so you know easily which string is which. For electrics, I also use light-gauge D'addarios. Note that "light"-gauge acoustic strings are MUCH heavier than electric guitar strings with the same label. They are also even cheaper ($4.50). I usually spend an extra $.50 to get a wound G string (they say "/WD 3RD" on the package) because I prefer the tone, but it doesn't really matter to most people. It's just a matter of personal preference.
  • A tool for pulling out pegs. Not for electrics.
  • OPTIONAL: Wire cutters. (Strongly recommended.)
  • OPTIONAL: A string winder. This is nice, but you don't really need it. It's probably integrated into your peg remover anyway. Most people who play electrics only don't have one, since you usually buy this for the peg remover, but you can use it for electrics, too.

The right order

Never remove all your strings at once. Remove one string and replace it before removing another. This will prevent you from warping your neck--taking all the strings off releases a lot of tension and causes the neck to change shape. It won't go back quite the same when you replace your strings.

(If you only broke one string, or for some reason only have one old string, only replace that one, idiot.)

Whenever you remove a string--even one at a time like you're supposed to--you warp your neck slightly. To minimize this, change your strings either from the inside out or from the outside in. That is, not from one side to the other. I change mine in this order:

  1. G
  2. D
  3. B
  4. A
  5. High E
  6. Low E

This is less critical on an electric since the thinner strings don't put very much strain on the neck.

Removing the old strings

Loosening your strings
Start to detune (lower the pitch) whatever string you're starting with. Just keep turning the tuning peg until it's so loose you can get your whole arm between the string and the neck. It can never be too loose, but you hurt yourself if it's too tight.

If you have a string winder, this is the time to use it. It probably looks something like this:

                    |     |
slot for tuner----> |     |     < - - - - axis of rotation - - - - >
                    |____ |
                         ||  ____________________
                        =||=|____________________| <-----handle
Slip the slot over the tuner and turn around the indicated line using the handle. This simply speeds up the process.
Removing the bridge end (ACOUSTICS ONLY)
Your peg remover (probably integral to your string winder) basically consists of a notch and a fulcrum. You want to slip the notch under the little round (black?) peg where the string meets the bridge. Lever it up and the peg should come out.
           slip in ______|  |
        \   _ \    \__   \  |  
---------\-(_) \ <-  __\  \ |  -->  lever back
          \   _ \    \_____\|
-----------\-(_) \
            \     \
On my guitar, the levering will put a massive dent in the bridge if I don't protect this. I protect it by keeping the cardboard package from the strings under the lever. It pads it quite nicely. Remove the ball end of the string from the hole you've revealed. Don't put the peg back in yet, but DON'T LOSE IT! (They are replaceable, but you'll have a missing string until then.)
Removing the neck end
Unwind any string that is still wrapped around the tuning peg. Wiggle the end out--be careful, this is the sharp part. Depending on how complex a knot you made, this can be pretty tough. Needle-nose pliers (or wire cutters used gently) can be helpful for this.
Removing the bridge end (ELECTRICS ONLY)
Once the neck end is off, you need to remove the bridge end.

If you have a tremolo bridge (of the type found on most strat-style guitars):
Look at the back of the body. There is a plastic plate screwed on. There should be a rectangular or oblong hole in this plate. Push the string INTO the bridge from the top. The ball end should emerge from the slot; pull the string right through.
If you have a hard tail bridge (no trem, like on most Schecters):
There are probably just some holes on the back of the guitar where the ball ends of the strings sit. This is not very complex. The string should pull through rather easily.

If you have trouble pushing the ball end out, you can make a little tool to help you with this. Cut off the ball end of an old low E string about 1.5" down. You can push the ball end out by inserting the sharp end of this tool into the bridge from the front.

When you pull the string through, you might need to cut the bent end off in order to get it through the bridge.

What do I do with it?
Be careful when you dispose of your old strings. They're sharp little bastards, and will poke right through a garbage bag. You'll want to coil them up tightly and wrap them around themselves...the same way new strings come. Don't put them down on a thick carpet, either, or you might not find the thinner ones until they're in your foot.

If you're nuts, you might want to save your old strings for spares. I don't recommend this. However, it is fun to keep an old G hanging around your room. People will ask, "WTF is that?" and you can say, "My G-string." Great for when you have girls over!

Adding the new string

The bridge end
Acoustics: This is pretty simple: just insert the ball end of your string into the hole in your bridge. Then, replace the peg. Note that the peg probably has a groove in it to accept the string. Make sure this groove faces the neck! Once the peg is securely inserted, pull on the string pretty hard until it stops slipping out.

Electrics: This is REALLY simple: just slide the thin end of the new string through the same hole you just pulled the old one out of. Make sure the ball end ends up on the back of the guitar!! Pull the string through until the ball end is pulled taut into the hole.

The tuning peg
This is the big leagues, folks. This is where good stringing is made and lost.

First, turn the peg until the little hole through it runs perpendicular to the neck. Then, insert the free end of the string through it, from the inside out.

                _       _
               (_)     (_)
                _       _  
               (_)   /-(_)----  ->
                _    |  _  
               (_)   | (_)
This ASCII art shows all the tuning pegs and only one string. Inexplicable, eh?

Here's where you get creative. This is what I do, as taught to me by my guitar teacher.

  1. Bend the string thusly around the peg:
          _ |
    That is, the string should enter and leave the tuning peg running parallel to the neck. It makes two abrupt turns at either end of the hole.
  2. Wrap the free end of the string further around the peg, under the end of the string attached to the bridge, and back over it. Basically, you've hooked the free end around the secured end. This might be impossible to do with the Low E string, but that one's pretty secure without this extra "lock" already.
  3. Tighten the string while holding it taught. I hold it by pressing the string down on the frets using my right thumb and pulling up on the string using the other fingers of my right hand. Meanwhile, I wield my string winder in my left hand.
  4. I use an electronic tuner to tune each string as I replace it. This keeps the tension on the neck at a sort of "standard" level.


Repeat for each string, in the correct order as I mentioned. Then there are still a few things left to do.
Stretch the strings
New strings have a lot of slack in them. They'll go flat quickly if this isn't fixed. Apply tension to each string by pressing the string down on the frets with your right thumb and pulling up on the string with the rest of your right hand's fingers. Then, retune each string. Repeat until you don't have to retune any more.
Trim the ends
You have a bunch of wild, sharp ends sticking off your guitar's head. Clip them off with your wire cutters. If you really don't like sharp ends, you can tuck them under the string so that they won't poke you. This is a bitch, and is really not worth the effort (IMO).

If you don't have wire cutters, you should still save someone's eyes by coiling the string around itself (the same way strings are packaged). Still annoying, but less dangerous. It also makes your guitar look weird, having six (seven? twelve?!) proboscis-like rings of wire hanging off of it.

Well, that's pretty much exhausted my current knowledge of this subject. Watch this space for details on changing Floyd Rose tremolos and classical guitar (nylon) strings.

Source: Personal experience, I guess.