Should I loosen my guitar strings when not playing?

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The first instrument I learned and became proficient at was the guitar. I also became very familiar with all the parts for both acoustic and electric guitars. Since I experiment a lot on guitar, not just on playing techniques, but also the overall schematics of the instrument, I once asked myself and wondered this same question.

Should I loosen my guitar strings when not playing? It is not necessary to loosen your guitar strings when not playing. The guitar’s neck can handle the strings tension in its tuned position when not playing, whether hanging on the stand or kept inside the case. This is especially true if you have a good quality guitar.

All guitars are designed and built for certain string tension whether one uses heavier or lighter gauge strings. You should probably be more concerned with where the guitar is made from and considering if it’s a real brand or a knock-off. The US made Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson Les Paul, for example, is not similar to a replica made from China.

Yes, they may look and feel exactly the same, and sometimes even its tone quality. But only time will tell if the wood stays the same or react differently with certain string gauge tension. You have a choice between solid wood and laminated wood. In short, solid wood is usually prone to changes in temperature and humidity, while laminated wood is a bit stronger and more resistant.

Similar to a good quality whiskey, the tone of a guitar (ex. acoustic) gets better as it ages. The wood of the guitar stands the test of time with the change in temperature and humidity. Therefore, if the guitar is built with a good solid wood, it does not need to loosen the strings when not playing.

Does the Gauge of String Matters?

Absolutely! Since it is not necessary to loosen your guitar strings, selecting the correct gauge will help with your guitar’s longevity. Heavy gauge strings will certainly add a significant amount of tension to your guitar. For sure, there is also a big difference in tone quality and playability. Depending on the music style you play, gauge of string plays a big role.

Most rock guitar players prefer lighter gauge like .009 – .042, as they often bend the string for a different expression. Most jazz guitar players pick a heavier gauge like .012 – .052, as they prefer a fat tone since they don’t bend the string that much compared to rock or metal players. Since I play different styles of music, I stay either at .010 or .011 set gauge in my guitars.

Nowadays, I tend to use heavier gauge string as I chase for a better tone. But of course, it depends on the guitar as I also own replicas made from China and other few custom-made guitars. You need to be careful putting a heavier gauge if you own replicas from China. Observe how the neck reacts to its tension over a few months. Yes, you might find that tone you’re looking for after a few chase and tag. But your replica guitar would not last long.

Chasing the best guitar tone is another topic that one can explore for the rest of their playing career. Every single part of the guitar, especially with the acoustic one plays a role with the tone of the guitar.

How to Replace the Guitar Strings Properly?

Since we’re talking about guitar strings, I would like to give a few tips on how to change the strings of your guitar. Keep in mind when changing guitar strings, you should replace it one at a time.

Pro Tip: Do not remove all six strings then restringing one by one.  The guitar neck will certainly react or change, as it used to a certain tension having all the strings attached. Remove one string first, then change it with a fresh string.

I normally change the string starting from the lightest string which is the high E-string or the first string from the bottom. Before I replace the string, I clean the fretboard for any dirt using a damped cloth and toothbrush. You’ll see more info below on how to take care of your guitar.

Which way do you turn the tuning pegs when changing guitar string? Turn the machine head or tuning peg at the headstock to the direction that you feel the string is getting loose. Depending on your guitar brand/model, when you wind back the new string make sure the orientation of the strings is inward not outward.

Take a look at the image:

When you replace the string, wrap around the peg two to three times only, not more than that. Especially the Low E-string. Less wound to the peg makes the guitar strings to stay in tune as oppose to many wounds.

Less wrap around the peg is also better if you use a tremolo. You can also use a guitar string winder to remove and replace the string quicker. You should have one, especially on your gig.

I remembered in one of my gigs changing one string after it broke, and I was able to replace it before the end of the song catching up with the next song. So much more, I was using a guitar with Floyd Rose tremolo with locking nut.

After you replace all the strings make an initial tuning then play a little bit. Play your favorite licks and strum it like you are in a concert. Then pull each string gently a few times, kinda stretching it and tightening the wound. Retune it again. You might need to do this process a couple of times before the tuning stabilizes.

You can also apply some products to your guitar strings like GHS FastFrets which I’ve done before or any fretboard oils. You know what, I found out that FastFrets is made of mineral oil. I don’t know exactly what mineral ingredients was used on that. But I found out a cheaper way that still does the job well. I used olive oil. Voila! My tasty olive oil dressing for the guitar strings.

Try and see the difference amongst any guitar products out there and your kitchen olive oil. You will be surprised!

Guitar Care and Maintenance While Changing the Strings

After you loosen the string it is always recommended to clean the fretboard right away. I use compressed air to blow the dust off my guitar before replacing the strings. After removing the first string, I use a damp cloth to remove most of the dirt and dust. Then I use a toothbrush to really remove some sticky dirt from my hands that get stuck on the fretboard. I use the toothbrush to clean the nut, bridge area, and tuning peg area that cloth would not be able to clean it thoroughly.

Spraying liquid on your guitar is not recommended. I also tried using dental floss to clean the guitar’s nut before I replace a string. Sometimes a toothbrush doesn’t remove all of the dirt, but the dental floss is a good final touch.

Always check the alignment of the guitar neck after replacing the strings. Make sure there is no curved or bent in the middle area of the guitar neck. Although I’ve heard from some of my guitar player friends who prefer a slight bent with their guitar neck.

For me, I like it as straight as an arrow, as I know that over time the guitar neck will eventually react on the string tension with temperature and humidity change.  Check it out how I spot the guitar neck if it is curved.

Check If Your Guitar Has a Truss Rod

When you replace the middle two strings, check if there is a truss rod on top of the headstock.  It is probably covered with a plate that has two screws. The truss rod in a steel-string acoustic and electric guitar is a metal rod inside the neck. You can adjust it to make the neck really straight after putting the strings, especially if you are replacing to a heavier gauge than the original strings that came with your guitar.

The truss rod can basically stabilize the guitar neck and keep it fairly straight. That is why there is no need to loosen the strings when not playing because the truss rod should be able to handle the strings’ tension.

A classical or a nylon string guitar should also be able to handle the amount of string tension, even they do not have a truss rod. With my nylon-stringed guitar, I noticed that the neck stays fairly straight without loosening the string. However, the tuning changes over time. I presumed that the nylon strings react to the change of temperature and humidity, whether the guitar is inside the case or hanging on the stand.

What Other Instrument That Does Not Need Loosening the Strings?

A good example of a stringed instrument that does not need to loosen its strings is a piano. Of course, you probably would not think or considered loosening down all the strings inside a piano. An upright or a grand piano is built to handle the strings’ tension without loosening it. Just like a piano, the guitar string does not need loosening the string when not playing.

Therefore, it just makes sense not to loosen the strings when not playing your guitar whether inside the case or a stand.

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