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If you’ve ever picked up your guitar and been surprised — and maybe a little bit disgusted — at how the strings felt under your fingers, you know that dirty strings aren’t just a cosmetic problem: they can actually slow down your playing.
But if you recently cleaned your guitar and the strings are already grungy, you might wonder:
Why do my guitar strings get dirty so fast?
Guitar strings get dirty through touch and the atmosphere around them. Moisture, dirt, oil, and other substances come from the air and your fingers and are transferred to the strings. The constant accumulation of these substances makes your strings dirty. Hand washing, wiping strings, and proper storage can reduce how fast your strings get dirty.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes strings dirty and rusty, as well as go over some basic steps every guitarist should take to keep their strings clean and lasting as long as possible.
Why Do My Guitar Strings Get Dirty So Fast?
When people say their guitar strings are dirty, they can be referring to two different things, dirt and rust, but it’s important to keep in mind that both are related.
Strings definitely do get dirty. Your hands produce oil and sweat, so every time you play your hands come in contact with the strings. The oil will start to build up and that will also attract dirt, grime, and dust from all around.
The other thing that happens is that moisture from the air and from your hands will also cause the strings to corrode. This is often most evident on plain strings, but nickel steel wound strings can rust, as well.
The brass and bronze alloys used for most acoustic guitar wound strings are not as susceptible to rust, but the plain strings still are.
Stainless wound strings, which are found on some electric guitars, are going to also be more corrosion-resistant. This video looks at why stainless steel is able to resist rust so well.
Rust can happen very quickly, too. Say, for example, you were to put on a new set of strings, tune up, play for an hour or so, then put the guitar in a case.
Depending on the kind of case — we’ll talk more about that later — and the conditions where the guitar is being kept, you could take the guitar out just a day or two later and find the strings have started to rust.
Another scenario to show how quickly strings can get dirty is storing a guitar on a stand for days or weeks. If the strings have accumulated oil on them, which they most likely have, they will attract and then trap even more dust, dirt, and other particulates on the surface.
You could see that happen overnight, depending again, on the conditions of where the guitar is being stored.
Corroded guitar strings are a problem players have been dealing with for decades, but recently some new options have emerged. Companies like Elixir make coated strings that are supposed to offer enhanced protection against both dirt and corrosion.
That is supposed to improve both tuning stability and string life. And plenty of famous players, including Ed Sheeran, use them and swear by their benefits.
Why Are My Guitar Strings Turning Brown?
For the most part, the corrosion and dirt I’ve been talking about don’t go unnoticed, and even if you can’t see it you can feel it when you pick up a guitar. In some cases, dirt and grime can give the plain strings an almost mottled appearance, but that rarely happens overnight.
One kind you can definitely see, though, is when a guitar has been sitting long enough for its strings to be entirely coated in rust. That gives the strings a reddish brown color, much like you’d see on any piece of rusty metal.
Normally, rust like this is caused by contact with water, especially for an extended period of time. Water with a high salt content can make the process happen even more quickly, as you can imagine that’s the effect your sweat has on your strings.
Unfortunately, once you find strings in that state, you’re going to have a very hard time making them playable again. That’s because corrosion does more than just create something on the surface.
Instead, corrosion changes the chemical and physical makeup of the metal, weakening structural integrity and making further damage more likely.
Even if you could clean the strings thoroughly, the structural damage has already been done. The best solution in the case of strings so rusty or dirty they have turned brown is to replace them.
First, remove the strings, then carefully clean any part of the guitar where the strings had made contact. Finally, make sure the instrument is clean and dry before you install new strings.
How Do I Stop My Guitar Strings From Getting Dirty?
If you’ve just put on new strings and are hoping to keep them clean and playable for as long as possible, you’re in luck, because there is a lot you can do to keep your strings in good shape, and none of them are very difficult or time-consuming.
Let’s look at some of the basic steps to keep your strings looking, feeling, and sounding great for longer.
Wash Your Hands
It might seem simple, but you’d be amazed at what that alone can do to save your strings. Your hands carry natural oils and sweat, as well as dirt and other particles that land on your skin throughout the day.
None of those things are particularly good for metal, and in the case of both oil and sweat, they’re actually quite harmful. Wash your hands with soap and water before playing and after an hour or so, you should probably stop and wash your hands again, because of the buildup of sweat and oils.
Use A Case
If you want to keep your guitar in something that will protect it from drops, falls, and other kinds of damage, you need a hard case, but you also want that case to be able to protect the strings and the wood itself.
That means finding a case that has some kind of temperature and humidity control. The added advantage for strings is that keeping the humidity between 40 and 50 percent, as most makers recommend, will help slow the formation of rust on the strings.
The other thing a case will do to protect strings is to keep the dirt and dust in the air from landing on them, helping to keep them a bit cleaner.
Wipe The Strings Down
Whether you’re taking a quick break from playing or you’re done for the day you should use a clean microfiber cloth to wipe down each string individually, as well as the guitar’s fret board.
This will clear away any moisture or oil left by your hands on both the strings and the wood and metal of the fingerboard. Some people will even put a cloth between the strings and the fretboard when putting their guitar away, but unless you’re planning to store it for a relatively long time, you don’t need to do this.
Simply keeping the strings and fretboard clean and dry will go a long way toward protecting your strings.
How Can I Clean My Guitar Strings?
If you’ve come back to your guitar after a day or two and found the strings dirty and gritty to the touch, you don’t have to change the strings right away. Depending on how bad things are you might need to eventually, but there are some pretty basic things you can do to get them clean.
The first step should be the same as any time you pick up your guitar: Wash your hands. Take a minute and clean your hands and fingernails thoroughly to make sure the next steps don’t end up making things worse instead of better.
The next step is to use a clean cloth or rag and wrap it around one string, then use it to clean away any dirt or oil. When you’re done the string should look shiny and feel clean and smooth to the touch.
You can repeat this on all the strings. While the wound strings might not rust or corrode, depending on what they’re made of, they still get dirty, and the surface grime can definitely slow down your playing. The oil can also cause damage to the strings over time.
The final step is to wipe down the fingerboard to clear away any debris or moisture that might have been left behind. If you find your strings getting dirty no matter what you do, you might want to try cleaning the fingerboard thoroughly the next time you change strings.
Soak a piece of cotton or cloth in a relatively mild solvent that’s suitable for the guitar’s wood and use that to clean any dirt that might be deep in the surface. You can finish with a coat of guitar string lubricant or a nonpolymerizing oil to bring out the shine of the wood and offer a barrier against moisture.
Keeping strings clean and dry is something that many players don’t consider, but it not only keeps your strings playing well, but it also helps them last longer.
The rust, dirt, and corrosion all shorten the lifespan of strings, and in some cases might even contribute to tuning stability problems.
Fortunately, there are a few very easy steps you can take to keep them clean. Washing your hands, wiping down the strings after playing, and keeping your guitar in a case will all help with string life and make your guitar playing experience better overall.
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.