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Old, corroded guitar strings are hard to play and sound awful, in part because the rust changes how the strings feel and how they vibrate.
But if you find that strings wear out really fast, you might be wondering: Why do my guitar strings rust so fast?
Guitar strings tarnish more quickly when exposed to contaminants. Playing guitar with dirty hands could cause strings to rust more quickly, as can playing with sweaty hands. To keep your strings corrosion free, wash and dry your hands thoroughly before playing and wipe down the strings with a dry cloth when you’re finished.
Let’s take a closer look at why strings corrode as well as what you can do to slow down that process.
Is It Normal For Guitar Strings To Rust?
No matter what the strings on your guitar are labeled, the plain strings will be the same: plain steel. That’s because the various guitar string types, such as nickel and bronze, refer to the winding on the strings.
The winding goes around a plain steel core, and the plain strings are essentially just the core.
While some strings are coated for extra longevity, plain strings are going to be more susceptible to rust than wound strings. In fact, some wound strings might not rust at all.
That’s because only things containing iron rust. The plain steel of the unwound strings contains iron, as do strings wrapped with a nickel-steel alloy.
Strings wrapped with bronze, on the other hand, will tarnish and corrode, but won’t rust. As it happens, though, while rusting and tarnishing are two different states, they’re caused by the same conditions.
Whether the strings are rusting or tarnishing, the same basic process is at work: corrosion.
Over time, the moisture in the air will cause corrosion, which shows up as rust on steel strings and will tarnish on non steel strings. Playing the strings can also hasten corrosion.
That’s because the oil, sweat, and dirt on your skin are transferred to the string and cause corrosion to form on the string.
The resulting buildup of corrosion can cause quite a few problems. The first problem you might run into is that the corrosion actually slows your playing down.
That’s because the rough surface makes it harder for your fingers to move quickly and cleanly up and down the string.
Beyond that, the next major issue will be the tone. As more corrosion builds up on the string, the way it vibrates changes.
They might still play in tune, but the tone will sound dead, with far less resonance and sustain than new strings.
In the absolute worst case, you might even find a string breaking because the rust has gone through the surface and damaged the structural integrity of the string itself.
How Fast Do Guitar Strings Rust?
As I mentioned above, the main causes of rust on strings are moisture in the air and the contaminants, including sweat, dirt, and skin oil, that get transferred to the string from your skin.
The conditions where the guitar is stored will also influence how quickly strings will corrode. Just like a guitar needs to be stored in a place where the relative humidity is between 40 and 50 percent, you have to be careful about the humidity to preserve your strings, as well.
Too much humidity will make the corrosion process happen much more quickly.
The same is true for when you’re playing. If you tend to sweat a lot, then that moisture is going right onto the strings, which is a recipe for quick corrosion build up.
If you have particularly sweaty hands, then you might find your strings rusting after just a few hours of playing, which could be a few days to a few weeks, depending on how often you practice and play.
When the sweat, oil, and dirt on you hands get on your strings while you play, they also end up on the fret board of your guitar, as well. That causes multiple problems.
First, it means that moisture stays trapped near the strings, making corrosion happen even more quickly. Second, when playing, the strings are being dragged through dirt and oil and also hasten corrosion.
Slowing Down Rust On Guitar Strings
Like I’ve covered, moisture and contaminants are the major cause of corrosion on guitar strings. It should be pretty obvious, then, that the key to cutting down on corrosion is cutting down on moisture and contaminants coming into contact with the strings.
Let’s go over some basic steps you should take regularly to cut down on corrosion.
Storing Your Guitar To Slow Down Rust On Your Strings
Like I mentioned above, you need to keep the relative humidity between 45 and 55 percent for most acoustic guitars, and that is a reasonable range to shoot for with strings, as well.
Too much more than that and you definitely will see corrosion form more quickly.
Keeping your guitar in a case, especially one that offers humidity control, is always a good idea, and will definitely slow down string corrosion.
It’s also important to make sure that case is kept somewhere with stable relative humidity and temperature.
In addition to just using a case, you can also cover the strings when the guitar is in the case. This offers one more layer protection for the strings, and using some kind of fabric to cover the strings will also help wick moisture away from the strings, again, slowing down the formation of corrosion.
You can also use another cloth to act as a barrier between the strings and the fret board. As I noted above, the grime from your fingers can end up on the fret board, and using a cloth to keep the strings from coming into contact is a simple way to help slow down the formation of rust.
Cleaning Your Guitar To Slow Down Rust On Strings
The very first thing you’ll be cleaning actually isn’t your guitar — it’s yourself.
Before you pick up your guitar, you should thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water and then dry them. As we’ve covered in another article, your hands pick up a tremendous amount of dirt, grime, oil, and other chemicals over the course of a day.
That, in turn, can help cause corrosion on your strings if it gets transferred to them. A good hand washing is a very easy way to keep your strings as corrosion free as possible.
The other step you should be taking every time you play is to wipe down your strings at the end of the session. Any kind of dry cloth will work, with some people preferring cotton and others using microfiber.
You should wipe both the top and bottom of the strings, and give the fret board a quick wipe, as well. That will help remove any oil or moisture left on the strings or on the surface of the fret board.
A final cleaning step shouldn’t be needed very often, but if you’re finding that your strings are corroding quickly no matter what else you try, this might help a lot.
Start by loosening the strings and getting them out of the way of the fret board. Then, use a cotton ball soaked in a mild solvent like naphtha to clean the frets and fret board.
You can use a razor to scrape any reside from the space next to the frets, as well.
This should remove any built up oil and dirt, helping to keep those contaminants away from the strings.
Changing Strings To Slow Down String Corrosion
One of the simplest steps you can take to slow down how quickly strings start to rust is to try a new set of strings. While nearly all string sets use plain steel for the unwound strings, there are a number of brands out there that offer varying levels of corrosion protection.
One of the most famous such brands, Elixir, favored by singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, claims that its coatings both increase string life and protect against corrosion.
This video looks at a number of ways you can stop your strings from rusting quickly.
You’re going to need to replace your strings on a regular basis, and the more you play, the more often you should change your strings.
But even keeping that in mind, strings can last for quite a while and sound great. That is, as long as they stay clean and corrosion free.
Rust and the build up of tarnish can deaden the sound of your strings and even weaken the strings themselves.
If you take some basic steps, like keeping your hands, the fret board and your strings clean and keeping humidity in check, then you can be confident you’re getting the most out of your 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.