What happens when guitar strings get old?

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I have been playing guitar for over thirty years now and at this point, it is easy for me to tell when strings are old. In this article, I would like to share with you my experiences of having old strings on my guitar. Whether you play guitar for a while now or just a beginner, you are probably wondering “what happens when guitar strings get old”?

When guitar strings get old the sound is dull and kinda muffled, no presence. Although it may still look playable, when guitar strings get old they turn brownish in color and no more luster as compare to a fresh set of strings. The discoloration of your guitar strings is a sign that you might have to change your strings pretty soon, otherwise, rust will start to build up. You certainly do not want to hurt your fingers playing with browny-rusty strings on your guitar. If it feels rough, it’s definitely about time to change your strings. So those are the first sign that a steel-strings get old.

For nylon-string guitar, the sound will be dull too but you may not really see any visible change in color. The wound of the top three strings looks and feel uneven, and sometimes there’s a break or gap on the wound. Those are the sign that the nylon-string gets old.

Why is the guitar strings sounding dull?

When you are playing your guitar on a regular basis, you will notice that your hand sweats and the oil from the fingers build up on the strings. The good thing about sweaty or oily hands while playing is that you know you are fully warmed up and very relax moving around the fretboard, ready to shred. The downside of it is our sweat contains salt that when it gets constant contact will eventually cause corrosion to the guitar strings, especially when you don’t wipe the fretboard with a dry cloth after playing.

Playing your guitar over time you will see or feel a certain rough spot on the strings. Those are the dirt that causing the dull sound which leads to corrosion and then to string breakage.

You will probably notice after you change your guitar strings with a fresh full set, all of a sudden you enjoy the sound you are hearing coming from your guitar. At the same time, you like how your guitar strings shine when light reflects on it. Yup, I observed a lot and spent a lotta time with my guitars. But not so much these days as I play other instruments to keep my music practice time more diverse and enjoyable.

Pro Tip: If you use an electric guitar, try to play it without plugging to an amp first. Listen, and hear how it sounds. You will be able to hear if it’s dull or has a nice ringing tone quality. Well, first make sure you tune the guitar properly.

When you plug in your guitar and starts playing it, you may also experience the sound to be muddy or dull. I found out those electric guitars with low pickups setting do not react well to the strings vibration. What you need to do is raise the height of your pickup to a certain level but not too close that almost touching the strings. Those are unpleasant sound. But it could be a good guitar effect if you do it deliberately.

Listen to Steve Vai’s “Passion and Warfare” album, and check out Erotic Nightmares.

He was blowing on the strings while the tremolo vibrato is completely dived down.

The guitar pick that you use also affects the sound on how your guitar strings react to your playing. Although it may not sound quite dull when you just put a new set of strings on your guitar, using fat and a really thick pick will alter your sound. I know lots of jazz guitar players use a very hard and thick pick to produce a really warm sound. Pick shapes and how you use it also create a slight change of sound. Try to experiment with it and have fun, see which sound you like.

Do rusty strings hurt your guitar?

If you use an electric guitar, you will see that many of its components are built with metal; pickups, bridge, tone selector, machine heads, frets, strap button, sometimes the nut and several screws. Chances are rust will build up at some point in time if you haven’t play your guitar for a long time after using it.

In my experience, rust builds upon the upper part of the bridge, at the plate and screws that hold the neck to the body together, at the upper part of the pickguard screws and of course the strings. Those are the spots where your hand or finger touches the guitar most of the time.

Rust may not hurt the wood of your guitar, but if you leave the guitar for a long time after playing it, this is what’s going to happen (pic). Probably it would not end up like this if I only have one or two guitars. That’s what happened when you have several guitars and only using your favorite one. I have no complaints about having many guitars.

This one is a 1970 Fender Telecaster Custom model. I used this during the nineties, and I installed a guitar synthesizer pick (Roland GK-2) in it because that was the trend back then. Nothing is photoshop with this picture. The rust is actually disgusting, and I am not sure if the pickup is still working. I will be checking this one thoroughly. For sure this is gonna be my next immediate project.

As I was writing this article, I was checking at all of my guitars and I remembered about this Telecaster. Thinking about it, I have not used this guitar for over fifteen years now. This would be an interesting topic for follow up. I will try to clean this guitar and use whatever household product I can see in the kitchen. I have to be very careful about this specific guitar as this is a vintage one. Any buyer after I clean it up?

The rust may not totally hurt or damage your guitar, but definitely not good for one’s health if this is not clean and fix properly. You might get a finger cut or scratch in your hand. Tetanus is the first thing that comes up in my mind. So take extra precaution playing the guitar with rusty strings or any components.

WARNING! Do not let your guitar sit too long in a hard case after playing it. You are not sure if you clean it properly before putting it back inside the case. And even if you put humidifier or dehumidifier inside the case, keep checking all your guitars. You do not want this to happen to your guitar. I learn my lesson and am reminding myself too.

How to Remove the Rust on your Guitar Strings?

If you own multiple guitars like me, chances are you would not be able to play them all regularly, unless you need that specific one which is able to produce that certain sound you are looking for. Suddenly while opening one of your guitars from a hard case or even from a stand, you realize that your strings are rusty. You know that it has been there for a while and haven’t been played for a long time. Since you just want to play that guitar a bit and not use for a gig or recording, you do not need to replace with a fresh set of strings.

You can remove the rust on your guitar strings, but not hundred percent as it is already built up in the first place from not playing for a long time. You can use a piece of cloth or cut one of your unused T-shirt. Clean the string one at a time. Wrap the cloth around one of the strings, then grab both ends. Move the cloth gently in one direction only, either start from the neck or the bridge. Never go back and forth the string as the dirt will get stuck on either the nut or the bridge. Check the pics.


After you clean and made several pass on each string, you can add olive oil or FastFrets (GHS). Make sure to clean properly, no dust leftover before applying the oil. Now you are ready to use that guitar again. It may not sound as bright as a fresh set of strings, but you can certainly play it without hurting your fingers.

Should I use any oil to the guitar strings?

As I have mentioned before in my other article, I would recommend using oil to your guitar strings. Remember, many parts of the guitar are built with metal. So applying a small amount of oil is recommended. Note: Small amount of oil, as you are not frying eggs or burger here. Trust me, it really feels nice on your hand playing smoothly with the fretboard. Also, try to use some guitar polish after cleaning thoroughly the body and the neck with a piece of cloth. Guitar polish also has oil ingredients in it.

Keep on the lookout for the next article as I will be using some products with my guitar. Share your comments here and subscribe to our website, as lots of helpful tips I will be sharing in the future.


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