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Have you ever noticed that over time your guitar strings might begin to smell bad? While this is undoubtedly annoying, you need not feel like something is wrong with your strings or guitar.
I have heard numerous smells described, such as a garlic-like odor, a rich metallic smell, or even something resembling cat urine.
Smelly strings might be embarrassing, but it is common among guitar players and many other stringed instruments. Just like noticing your fingers turning colors after playing, realizing your guitar strings smell bad is often alarming, but knowing this is common (and easily remedied) should bring you peace of mind.
But why is this? Why do guitar strings smell bad?
The main reason that guitar strings smell bad is the reaction between the skin on our hands and the materials the strings are made of. When the strings are exposed to humidity or moisture (from sweat), they react and can cause an unpleasant odor, primarily due to the natural oils in our skin.
Let’s look a little deeper into the factors contributing to smelly guitar strings and some simple tips and tricks to mitigate or eliminate this from occurring.
Excessive moisture is a significant cause of concern for many musicians, especially guitar players. Not only can moisture damage the guitar itself, but it can also wreak havoc on the strings as well.
Living in a very hot and humid environment will increase the chances of your guitar strings smelling bad, but a humid climate is not the only place strings will start to smell bad.
Bad-smelling strings can and will occur in any climate. The reason is not the strings themselves causing the odor but rather the interaction between the moisture and the materials the strings are made of.
While the moisture in the air can impact the strings, the main culprit is going to be the guitar player. The sweat from the guitar player, to be more precise.
Sweaty hands are one of the main reasons why guitar strings will begin to smell over time. Further, the sweat from our hands will cause metal-based strings to oxidize over time, which will cause them to wear out faster and even rust.
Some of us may also have sweat that is on the more acidic side, which can further contribute to the corrosion of the strings and potentially increase the likelihood of strings smelling bad.
The sweat from our hands will work its way into strings, and with that will come odors. However, it is not the moisture itself that is the major culprit, but rather the natural oils produced in our skin.
In a sense, our sweaty hands are the go-between for transferring oils to strings.
2. Natural Skin Oils
While sweaty hands are often cited as the main reason guitar strings smell bad, it is more so due to the natural oils within our skin that drive the odors that eventually arise from the strings.
Think about all the hand and fingerprints you can see on your phone screens, windows, or stainless steel appliances. This same transfer of grime and oil happens every time you pick up your guitar; you just will not see it as clearly because of the material of the strings and guitar.
Sweating will only work to magnify this transfer of grime and oils from your hands to the strings and fretboard.
Things such as how hydrated you are, your diet, and how well you take care of your hands can contribute to how the oils and sweat affect the strings on the guitar.
How To Solve Smelly Strings
The cause of smelly strings is relatively straightforward: Sweating and oil from our skin. Can we help reduce our strings smelling bad apart from never sweating and not producing oil from our skin?
The answer is, thankfully, yes, since stopping sweating and producing oil from our skin is quite unlikely to occur.
There are several relatively simple solutions that can help reduce the chances of your strings smelling bad, and if they do smell bad, helping to get rid of that annoying smell.
1. Wash Your Hands
Yes, it can often be as simple as washing your hands. As a guitar player, you should get in the habit of always washing your hands prior to playing.
Even if you have just spent the day at home, you should wash your hands before playing.
Washing (and completely drying) your hands prior to picking up your guitar to play will help to get rid of the excess oil and grime buildup that has collected on your hands throughout the day.
Remember, your hands are in contact with hundreds, if not thousands, of surfaces every day, which means you are potentially packing on a lot of grime that you might deposit onto your strings.
2. Wipe Down Your Guitar
Along with washing your hands, it is a good idea to get in the habit of wiping down your guitar after every usage, preferably with a microfiber cloth, to avoid scratching the finish on your guitar.
Wiping down your guitar after every time you play helps to reduce the grime, dead skin cells, and dust build-up on the strings and the rest of the guitar.
This is especially important if you keep your guitars hanging on the walls as I do with mine.
Wiping down your guitar between uses helps keep your guitar and strings in good condition and reduces the amount of deep cleaning you must do.
If you want to be even more proactive, you can wipe down the strings and neck of the guitar every few songs. This helps to wipe away the sweat and oil buildup before it has a chance to settle into the strings. This is especially important to do if you are sweating a lot because, as I stated earlier, sweating is the catalyst for odor creation on the strings.
3. Boiling The Strings
Yes. You read that right. You can boil your strings as if it was some very inedible pasta. This can help eliminate the grime and dirt buildup that could be causing that foul odor.
Boiling your old strings will certainly remove a bunch of the grime that has built up over time, as this video clearly shows:
But is it really worth all of that effort? That depends. If you are really strapped for cash, it might not be a bad idea, but since strings are pretty cheap and you have to take them off to boil them, you might simply want to put on a fresh pair of strings at that point.
4. String Cleaner
There are also many brands of string cleaners, specifically designed for the exact purpose of cleaning your strings. Of course, it not only improves playability but also helps reduce the potential for them to become stinky over time.
When in doubt, I opt for products that are specifically designed for these particular uses on my instruments. I have invested a lot of money into my instruments, so it only makes sense that I also use the products intended to maintain them.
I use the Dunlop Ultraglide 65 string cleaner and conditioner and have been very pleased with the results.
5. Other Cleaning Methods
Some other methods for cleaning guitar strings have been proposed and used over the years. One of the more popular methods has been to use some form of rubbing alcohol.
While in theory, yes, this can clean the strings, it can also be very detrimental to the guitar itself, and thus I would avoid using the product for cleaning.
The video below explains in more detail why it might not be a good idea to use it.
Guitar strings smelling bad is a common occurrence, but thankfully there are some simple solutions to solve this problem.
I hope you found value in this article, and best of luck keeping your guitar strings smelling fresh!
Hi everyone! I have been involved with music most of my life, beginning in grade school with the trumpet. I am a largely self-taught multi-instrumentalist (drums, guitar, bass, and starting the piano and violin). I currently play drums in two bands and write and produce many genres of music in my home recording studio. I am also an avid guitar and drum collector.