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If you’re just starting to play guitar, you might notice something when you put new strings on — the strings are often much longer than they need to be, with sometimes as much as 8 inches or more.
That might lead you to wonder: why are guitar strings so long?
Guitar strings are often longer than they need to be to allow for variations in instrument size, scale length, and string installation method. You can wind the entire string around the tuner post or wrap a smaller amount on and either leave the excess or trim it, depending on preference.
Let’s examine why guitar strings are the length they are, what effect string length might have on your guitar, and how to deal with extra string length.
How Long Are Guitar Strings?
The exact length of a guitar string will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and string gauge to string gauge, but in general, guitar strings are between 1 yard and 1 meter long — between about 36 inches and 39 inches.
Part of the reason guitar strings come so long is that instruments have different string installation methods and scale lengths.
Most guitars have a scale length of between about 24 and 26 inches, but some, like baritone guitars, can have a scale length closer to 30 inches.
This video explains how scale length can affect the tension of a guitar’s strings and its playability.
There’s obviously more to it than just scale length, though, because strings are still much longer than they have to be to reach the most common scale lengths. To understand why string attachment matters, let’s consider a few examples.
First, think of a very simple guitar, like a Les Paul Junior. With a 24.75 inch scale and a wraparound bridge and tailpiece, you could have more than a foot of extra string at the tuners, as the three on a side design means there are only a few inches between the nut and the tuners.
Something similar is true of a classic Stratocaster or one of the many clones. They have a 25.5 inch scale and use a tremolo block that the strings pass through to guide them over the bridge.
Even with its six on a side head stock design, which can add several inches from the nut to the high E string, you’ll end up with a quite a bit of extra string.
But on another Fender product, the iconic Jazzmaster, it’s a different story. The floating tremolo that the Jazzmaster uses requires much more string length than a Strat-style unit.
Likewise, on a guitar with a Bigsby-style trem unit, you need a lot more string. That’s because the strings wrap around a bar, which allows them to move, giving the vibrato effect.
That and the fact Bigsby units are often mounted further down than other trem types mean you need a lot more string.
This video shows how strings are installed on a Bigsby, giving you an idea of why more string length is needed.
How Do You Deal With Extra String Length On A Guitar?
With all that extra string length, you might wonder what to do with it.
Should you wind on the entire length of the string? If not, how much should you use and what should you do with the excess?
Plenty of famous guitarists have wound the entire string around the tuner post and it can certainly work, but it isn’t always ideal. Let’s look at why.
First, ignore anyone who tells you that wrapping the string around the tuner post will increase the tension on the string. While the pitch a string is tuned to, the gauge and mass of that string and its length all determine the tension on a string, length doesn’t refer to the entire amount of string on the guitar.
Instead, it’s the entire amount of the string that vibrates that determines the tension. That’s the guitar’s scale length, not the entire length of the string on the instrument.
So if it doesn’t increase tension, why isn’t it ideal?
That has to do with what happens as strings age and are played — they stretch.
Strings are constantly stretching and shrinking, based on things like temperature and humidity, but they are especially elastic when first installed.
That’s one reason it’s recommended to stretch your guitar strings in wide arcs when installing new strings — to get rid of the elasticity of new strings.
When you have so many wraps around a tuning peg, though, you won’t be able to get rid of as much elasticity. That can lead to tuning stability problems as the strings wrapped around the tuning peg stretch over time.
Here’s a better way to install your strings.
- Loosely place strings through the bridge and thread them up through the nut into the tuning pegs
- A good way to estimate enough string to wrap around the tuners is to hold the string at the nut and leave enough slack to form a shallow arc if you lift the string from the middle
- When you have the string through the tuning peg to the proper length, bend the string at a 90 degree angle
- Holding the inside edge of that angle in the tuning peg, bend the end of the string around to create a loop, then pull the end through
- Turn the tuning peg so the string is wrapped once around
- Using both hands, gently but firmly stretch out the strings until you feel a very small amount of “give”
- Bring the guitar up to tune
- Using both hands, again gently but firmly stretch the string up and away from the fingerboard so it creates an arc
- Tune the guitar again
The conventional wisdom is you want three to four wraps of string around the tuning peg, and that will help with keeping the string in place and with tuning stability.
You don’t need to be dogmatic about it, though. Two wraps or five is unlikely to cause a problem, and, like I mentioned above, plenty of great guitarists have wrapped their strings entirely around the tuner post.
What you’re really looking for is a snug fit and strings that won’t slip or loosen when more tension is applied.
Now that your strings are installed, though, what should you do with the excess?
Why Do Guitar Players Not Cut Their Strings?
Maybe you’ve seen pictures of a guitarist with what looks like a spaghetti dinner’s worth of string protruding from the head stock of their guitar and wondered why some guitar players don’t cut their strings.
It ends up there are a host of reasons guitarists choose to leave the ends of their strings unclipped, with some better supported than others.
For example, if someone tells you that leaving the strings untrimmed helps with sympathetic vibration or overtones or something like that, they’re wrong. The movement of those strings through the air will definitely create sound, but the vibration from the strings when played won’t have any effect on the loos ends.
That’s because those parts of the string aren’t under tension, and aren’t vibrating in the same way as the strings do when played.
On the other hand, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello leaves his strings untrimmed. He said he did it because it looked cool, but warned he stopped doing it for years because a friend teased him that he wasn’t in the “baddest band in town.”
Looking cool is as good a reason as any to leave your strings uncut, but not everyone agrees that it actually does look very cool. Some people think it looks sloppy, or even like a player doesn’t care about their instrument.
That’s probably what Morello meant about having to be in the baddest band in town to pull it off.
One concern, though: The ends of guitar strings are very sharp. If you leave them uncut, you run the risk of them scratching the surface of your head stock or neck.
If you want to be sure to keep your finish — and your fingers! — safe from the sharp end of the strings, your best bet is to cut them off.
Again, there isn’t a right length. You want to make sure you don’t cut so close that the string can’t stay in place, but anything other than that will probably be fine.
But whether you think it’s cool or sloppy, now you have a better idea why people do — and don’t — trim their guitar strings.
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.