Why Do Old Strings Go Dead?

Why Do Old Strings Go Dead?

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No matter how much we love their initial vibrant sound strings don’t last forever and since this change happens gradually we might miss the initial signs that their days are coming to an end.

If you are new to guitar playing you might be blaming yourself for the dull sound your old strings are producing, but in reality, you just need a new set to bring back the lost brightness.

But, why do old strings go dead?

Once strings are out of their pack they will start to corrode due to the exposure to air and humidity. The constant playing wears strings down and the accumulation of sweat, oil, and dirt also causes the strings to oxidize and corrode. That’s why old strings sound dull and lose their ability to hold tension.

The aging process of your strings is natural, but let’s take a closer look at what exactly causes old strings to go dead, and whether you can do anything about it!

Why Do Old Strings Go Dead?

The truth is that old strings don’t exactly go dead, if your strings are old they are probably already dead, that’s why it makes more sense to say that new strings will go dead as they get old. So it would be more fitting to ask why old strings are dead.

New strings start off with a very bright sound, and after you break them in and the strings settle they lose a bit of that brightness, and they acquire tuning stability.

Depending on the quality and the type of strings you use your strings will have that wonderful honeymoon phase where everything sounds perfect and right, but as time passes you will notice them lose their clarity and tunability which can happen within two to three months.

The vibrations from constantly playing the guitar will dampen the strings and you will notice that they can’t perform the same detailed movements and that they keep losing their capability to hold tension.

The humidity, possible temperature changes, and the accumulation of dirt and oils from your hands will cause them to corrode and possibly rust which in turn will make your strings sound dull and lifeless, and if enough time has passed your old strings will be characterized as dead.

What Causes Dead Guitar Strings?

We’ve established that old strings don’t suddenly go dead, instead, strings go dead, so let’s see what happens throughout their lifespan that causes this.

1. Metal or Plastic Fatigue

Strings are fixed at two ends of your guitar, the bridge and the nut. The tension created should be tight enough so you can perform the right note in the right octave.

When you play the guitar that tension increases, because even if you are just strumming or fingerpicking you are pulling the strings from their position. With time this constant movement will wear your strings and cause metal fatigue, or plastic if you are using nylon strings.

The constant vibrations harden the metal and that’s why you might feel your strings go stiff as well as dead. As you can imagine more intense techniques like bending can accelerate the process.

If you find yourself tightening or loosening your strings too often then this could also increase the metal fatigue, especially if the string’s life is already coming to an end.

2. Corrosion and Rust

The moment you take your string out of their sealed pack inevitably the oxidization process begins, and it happens to most metals including the ones used on your strings.

So, your strings “will oxidize when exposed to oxygen and an electrolyte, such as atmospheric moisture.

While environmental factors like humidity are to blame, by playing your guitar you will speed up this process even more because your strings will also accumulate the sweat, oils, and dirt that will get transferred from your hands, thus reducing the free vibration of the string and deadening their tones

Some strings are more prone to corrosion and rust than others like uncoated strings. Unlike flatwounds, round wound strings tend to accumulate more dirt and grime from our fingers that get stuck in the windings which makes them much harder to clean.

3. Fret Damage

The guitar itself can also cause strings to go dead, specifically the frets on your fretboard. If your frets are uneven, they have dents from the constant wear or sharp edges then this can wear your strings much faster, not only will this deaden their sound and worsen their playability but they might even break.

Perhaps your strings are not dead yet, but what you are experiencing is a dead fret. In this case, you may notice that your guitar is making a buzzing sound or it may lack sound when a certain note or notes are played in a specific position on the fingerboard.

That’s why as I’ve often talked about before you need to also inspect your guitar if you are facing certain issues with your strings. Strings will go dead, but if it happens a little too quickly then perhaps a bowed neck could be the issue and your truss rod needs to be adjusted.

Additionally, your fretboard can be warped which not only can make your strings sound muted or buzz but it will wear them out and deaden them much more quickly.

4. Wear Of Strings

Wearing out your strings is inevitable, all you have to do is play and this is a gradual process that you barely have any say in.

As your strings wear down and get old they will lose their flexibility which can affect the tuning. Strings can also wear quicker in certain areas, especially if the winding of the strings around the tuning posts was done incorrectly or if your tuning posts have developed sharp edges on the inside.

You may not wear your strings as fast if you are using your fingertips, and even your nails won’t be as damaging, unlike a guitar pick which depending on its thickness and sharpness can wear your strings out more quickly

I also want to mention that the lighter the strings the easier they wear, compared to heavy strings that stay in tune better and last longer.

How Do I Know If My Old Strings Are Dead?

When I was just starting my guitar journey I found it difficult to identify when my old strings were dead.

Sure I could see the difference in brightness the moment I strung my guitar with a new set, but as the sound deteriorated once again I would simply get used to the slow change until my instructor would tell me that I should change my strings.

Now my ears are more trained and I can actually hear that they sound dead. The tone of dead strings is dull and flat and if you’re not sure what that means just check this video and you might be surprised by the difference!

But you don’t have to rely solemnly on sound because old strings also can’t hold a tune. If you find it harder to press your strings then it might be time to change them because old strings don’t just go dead but also stiff.

Another sign that your strings need changing is their appearance. Old strings don’t just lose their initial sheen and luster, but depending on the alloy they will turn dark grey or dark brown.

The accumulation of dirt will also make the old strings appear dark and feel dirty, you may notice friction when your fingers slide over them instead of that slippery and smooth feeling that new strings usually have.

Additionally, if you can’t remember the last time you changed your strings then this could also be your sign that they are dead.

How Do You Prevent Dead Guitar Strings?

You can’t prevent dead guitar strings because even strings have their own lifespan that needs to run its course. But just because you can’t prevent your strings from going dead it doesn’t mean you can’t postpone this natural process.

Later in the article, you’ll find a few suggestions on how to keep your strings fresh for longer, but in short, all you have to do is keep your strings clean and dry.

You can also prevent your guitar strings from going dead before their time by storing your guitar in a case, and in a controlled environment away from high or low levels of humidity and without sudden changes in temperature.

How Long Does It Take For Guitar Strings To Go Dead?

Different strings have different expiration dates, so let’s take a look at which ones might take the longest before they go dead!

Metal Strings

Metal strings on average can last from two to three months. While some brands promise that their strings can last up to six months most guitarists will change their metal strings way before that, especially if they prefer the bright sound of fresh strings.

As we’ve already established most metals that strings are made from, whether that’s steel, brass, bronze, or nickel will corrode and rust over time and you have humidity and moisture to blame for that.

If your guitar is not stored properly and the strings are not kept dry and clean then you can expect that the strings will go dead much faster.

While humidity is the Achilles heel of steel strings, they can take about twice as much pull before they break, so they are quite strong which means that they won’t wear as fast. Metal strings are also much more resistant to sudden temperature changes.

On the other hand, while metal strings are stronger than nylon strings, they are treated more aggressively by guitarists, you will usually see professionals bend metal strings and bending strings is one of the faster ways to wear them out and deaden them.

Nylon Strings

The truth is that metal strings are not better than nylon, they both bring something unique to the table, from their sound to their feel.

When it comes to longevity, however, nylon strings usually have the upper hand. Nylon strings can last three to four months. That’s because nylon strings are more flexible and because their core is made from nylon or some other synthetic blend they are more durable and stretchy.

It can take a while to see a nylon string dead because they are also not as prone to rust and corrosion as steel strings. Don’t get me wrong nylon strings still have a metal wrapping but they’re not metal through and through.

I do want to note that nylon strings can lose their elasticity and quality if they are not stored properly. That’s because they are very sensitive to temperature change.

You also won’t notice nylon strings go dead as easily as you would with metal strings because they don’t start off with a bright sound, instead, they sound mellow and warm.

So the contrast between how they sound when they are first equipped and when they’re dead is not as extreme as it is with most metal strings.

Coated Strings

While both uncoated metal and nylon strings can last anywhere between two to three months, coated strings can last for around six to nine months or even longer, and hold their tone.

That’s because coated strings are coated with a polymer layer covering which protects the strings from oxidization that causes corrosion and rust. So basically they don’t build up as much sweat, dirt, oils, and grime from your hands, and the environmental humidity doesn’t affect them the same.

That’s why coated strings are much pricier since you are paying for that longevity, however, not everyone likes the feel and sound of coated strings. Some complain that the feel is somewhat slippery while others complain about the loss of tone.

While I do agree with these statements, I have to admit that I have a special fondness for Ernie Ball’s Everlast coated strings, not only because they don’t go dead as fast, but because they actually don’t sound or feel coated, instead they bring their own unique warm sound.

We’ve actually talked about Ernie Ball’s Everlast in more depth if you want to check them out here!

Do Guitar Strings have A Shelf Life?

Guitar strings are not like food so they don’t have a shelf life or an expiration date. That’s if your strings stay sealed in their package that is also stored correctly, in that case, they can last for years and still retain the same quality.

However before we draw a final conclusion, we need to look at the pack, if your strings came in paper sleeves then moisture and high levels of humidity will still have access to them and can lead to corrosion albeit slow.

If your strings are vacuum sealed in an unopened pack where no oxygen or moisture can enter then they can last you for years as long as you don’t break the seal.

I also want to mention that if your strings are in a pack but you leave them under the scolding sun then the temperature can also cause damage. The elasticity of nylon strings as we saw above is greatly affected by the changes in temperature. Metal strings are more resistant to changing temperatures but they are not immune.

The overall shelf life of a properly sealed and packed string set will also depend on the quality of the strings, the manufacturer, and the type of alloy that was used, but good conditions still guarantee a long lifespan.

How Often Should I Change My Guitar Strings?

I can’t give you one straight answer because there are so many variables to consider. If you are someone who practices their guitar every day for hours, and you are doing hard bends then you might have to change your string once a month maybe even sooner.

The quality of your strings, the type of strings you use, and how much energy you put into maintaining the strings on your guitar will also affect how fast they go dead and how soon you will need a new set.

As a new guitarist, I had trouble stringing my guitar properly and that led to a lot of breaks and cuts, so you can imagine that I did go through a few strings before they had the chance to go dead.

It also depends on how much you care about the sound of your guitar, some guitarists actually like the dead sound of old guitars while others prefer the very bright zing of new strings.

Let’s not forget that just because you don’t often play your guitar doesn’t mean you can keep the same set of strings for years, you will still have to change them eventually.

Even if you made sure to store your guitar properly and keep your strings clean you can’t stop the process of your strings going dead eventually.

How Do You Keep Guitar Strings Fresh For Longer?

You can stop your strings old or new from going dead, but you can definitely prolong their life with a few easy steps.

First, you need to make sure to adopt a few good habits like keeping your strings clean and dry. You can do that by washing your hands and drying them thoroughly before each session. Even if you don’t feel that your hands are dirty, you should still do it, because our hands produce oils, and they do sweat.

Next, I suggest keeping a clean cloth, preferably a microfiber cloth to wipe your strings clean after you’ve done playing, and during each break. Make sure to also wipe the fretboard because grime can accumulate between the frets and all the small places and then transfer back to your strings.

If you don’t store your guitar away I strongly advise you to buy a good quality case where humidity and moisture can’t affect your strings. A good case will also protect the wood of your guitar that can expand in humid conditions.

It doesn’t have to rain on your guitar to affect your strings you might simply be living in Florida!

Lastly, try to keep the case, or just your guitar when you’re not playing in a room where the temperature remains the same and there are no high levels of moisture, this is the best way to make sure your strings won’t go dead before their time.

Closing Thoughts

Whether we like it or not all good strings come to an end and there’s nothing you can to do stop this process, you can, however, make your strings last longer.

First, you need to understand that your strings will wear down with time from playing, and sometimes faster if you are an aggressive player that puts your strings under lots of tension. The humidity and moisture from the environment and your own sweat can also accelerate the process.

So, all you have to do is maintain your strings by keeping them clean and store your guitar in a controlled environment, but you have to promise me that you will not stop playing your guitar and wearing your strings down with the power of music, cause your old strings will go dead no matter what!