RangeOfSounds.com is reader-supported. We may earn a small commission through products purchased using links on this page.
If you’ve ever picked up a guitar that hasn’t been played in a while and been surprised at how difficult it was to play, you might have wondered what was going on.
Do guitar strings get stiff with age?
In general, guitar strings that are played regularly tend to get looser, rather than stiffer, over time. If a guitar sits for long periods of time without being played, is exposed to multiple temperatures and humidity changes, or if the strings are corroded, that could cause older guitar strings to feel stiff.
There’s way more to what causes guitar strings to feel stiff than just their age, though. Let’s look at a few of the factors.
Why Are My Guitar Strings Stiff?
Guitar strings that are stiff can be a real barrier to practice, especially for new guitarists or anyone with hand or wrist injuries. So what causes that?
First, new strings are almost always their most stiff right when installed. That’s one reason many guitar techs recommend stretching your guitar strings after installing them. It can also help them to last longer.
A second reason guitar strings could feel stiff is you’re using a larger gauge — that’s the term for string thickness — string than you’re used to playing. Thicker strings require more tension to press.
If you’re playing an acoustic guitar when you’re used to playing an electric, that could also contribute to strings that feel overly stiff.
Factors from string gauge to string composition to scale length affect the force it takes to press a string, and acoustic guitars often require more.
Another possibility is that the guitar you’re playing isn’t set up properly. Excessive action height in particular can make strings feel very stiff, and it can even start to affect intonation.
Intonation is the scientific word for how closely a fretted note on a string matches the theoretical frequency of that note.
How Do I Deal With Stiff Strings?
One of the first things you can try if your strings are too stiff is to try out a set of new strings. This only makes sense if you think the issue is with the strings themselves, though, as opposed to with the instrument or with your playing technique or your hand strength.
After all, if strings feel just a little bit harder to press than you’re used to, you might want to keep playing at that stiffness to build up your strength. If you’re having real difficulty pressing them, though, it’s probably best to try a thinner string.
If you just installed the strings or if you’re unsure of whether the problem is with the strings of the instrument, check the action height.
It might seem intimidating to do that, but it isn’t hard. Take your guitar and lay it on its back, with the neck supported from below.
Using a ruler, measure the distance from the bottom of the strings to the top of the 12th fret. Your action is too high if your strings are more than about 2.6 mm off the fret for a steel string acoustic guitar and more than about 1.8 mm off the fret for an electric guitar.
You can fix the action height as part of the setup of your guitar.
This video goes over the way to set up multiple different kinds of guitars in detail.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, take it to a guitar tech and explain what you measured. They should be able to fix the issue quickly.
What Makes Old Guitar Strings Feel Stiff?
What players might experience as strings that are getting stiffer with age might have a bit less to do with age than with the condition of the strings themselves.
Metal guitar strings corrode. There are coated strings out there that help slow the process, but it’s pretty much inevitable.
Even without coated strings, though, you have some control over the speed at which it happens.
The most important things you can do to slow the spread of corrosion are to wash your hands before playing guitar and to wipe down your strings and fret board when you finish playing. The reasons why both help should be pretty clear.
While things that cause corrosion are just floating in the air, and will attach to your guitar strings if they’re in the open — yet another reason to always use a guitar case! — your fingers come into direct contact with the strings. Anything on your hands will get onto them.
Some of that is inevitable, and sadly, just the sweat from your fingers eats away at strings. But washing your hands before playing helps limit the amount of dirt, oil and potentially corrosive chemicals you transfer onto the strings.
Wiping down the strings and fret board with a microfiber cloth helps remove any residual moisture and grime before you put your instrument away.
Are Old And Stiff Guitar Strings Bad?
You might wonder: are strings that feel stiff from age or corrosion bad to use? Will they hurt your guitar?
Rest at ease on the second question: Unless the strings are stiff because the action is too high, playing a guitar with stiff strings is unlikely to do damage.
If the problem is related to the action, it could point to something larger you’ll need to get repaired, though, so get it checked sooner rather than later.
On the first question, the answer, like with so much about music in general is: “It depends.”
Are older, stiff guitar strings bad? They’re probably hard to play, and they might be hard to keep in tune. They might even sound dull when you’re playing, maybe more muted or less bright.
Who’d want that?!
Well, there’s a story from the recording of the Nirvana song “Something in the Way” about Kurt Cobain playing the song on a battered acoustic guitar with five strings that “sounded like a ukulele.”
You can hear the effect for yourself in this video.
All of that is to say: The tone you get from an instrument isn’t necessarily good or bad. What’s important is how you use that tone and how it fits in with the rest of the song.
So using old, stiff guitar strings doesn’t matter then, right? After all, you might hear that exact tone in a famous song someday!
Not exactly. Like I just said, what matters is how you USE the tone, and how it fits with everything else you’re doing.
I’d wager that for the most part, you’d be better off with strings that were easier to play, held their tune and sounded the way new guitar strings are generally intended to sound.
But the next time you pick up a guitar that’s been sitting around and has old strings, take a listen to how it sounds before you decide to replace them.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.