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Thread: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

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    Registered User Christine Robins's Avatar
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    Default Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    I've read many places that if your strings are old and hard to keep in tune, it's time to replace them. What's your experience? I can understand how wear on strings can degrade the tone, but why would it make them harder to stay in tune?

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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    Metal fatigue. Metal is a material of molecules bonded together, like everything else. Tension up, tension down. This happens every time you hit the string. You're momentarily increasing the tension, stretching it sideways. Then the pick leaves it, and it releases: tension down. Different combinations of alloys in the strings can drastically change string life. Coatings can help alleviate oxidation and so forth also. When the fatigue sets in, you find out that the string has variations in it, as far as which molecules are where. Think of a rope that is fraying. When you fret a string, for example, it's like a little molecular cut in the rope at that fret. Wear on the string is not uniform and the string wasn't completely uniform to begin with.
    Different string manufacturers use different formulas based on a balance between cost and longevity and the sound the customers want and their bottom line. Tires have different life spans for exactly the same reasons. I use a brand of mandolin strings, and I play a lot, that last about 10 months before I feel a need to change them because the fatigue is becoming noticeable.

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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    I replace my strings when they get “thuddy”. They tune up just fine but they sound awful. Usually, it is the G and D courses that go first for me.

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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    For some reason when my strings are nearing the end of their life the A string will not stay in tune. Lets me know it is time for a new set. Not sure why?

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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    Quote Originally Posted by Northwest Steve View Post
    For some reason when my strings are nearing the end of their life the A string will not stay in tune. Lets me know it is time for a new set. Not sure why?
    Yes! The A's always go first!
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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    Mandolin & guitar strings both, will be difficult to get properly tuned when they are old. It seems weird, but they don't intonate properly. I have had strings on the guitar that I thought still had life in them, but I'd tune it up open and then try to play and it sounded like crud, with intonation being off. Tune again, same thing. Cured by changing the strings. On at least one occasion I had relatively new strings and still had intonation problems on one particular string. Talked to my luthier and he said sometimes a string will just go bad - he was right, as changing it took care of the problem.

    The occasional bad string aside, I think Dale had a nice explanation of how aging affects the strings. Also supporting Dale's discussion of metal fatigue, my luthier demonstrated to me that old strings get deformed where you push them against the frets, getting flat spots and kinks.

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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    Bronze corrodes a lot faster than nickel
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    To expand upon what Dale said, and upon a couple of other things that have been mentioned here... this might get kind of long, but you don't have to read it if you don't want to...

    As we play we fret notes. That means that we press the strings against the frets. We're all familiar with fret wear because we commonly use the same set of frets for many years, but the string wears at the contact area too. This is especially true of wound strings because the material of the winding is usually softer than the steel of the string itself. As the string wears is goes from being a uniform size and weight for it's entire length to having larger and heavier parts and having lighter and smaller parts (the wear spots). It seems obvious to me that a non-uniform string will not tune as well as a uniform string.

    As we play we contact the strings with our fingers and that causes corrosion. Some people ("string killers") corrode string worse than others, but once again, with some areas on the string corroded and some areas less corroded the string is no longer uniform over it's length.

    As we play we set the strings in motion between the nut and the bridge. We tend to think of the nut and bridge as being definite ends to the vibrating length of the string, but in reality the string is bent back and forth (actually in all directions) right next to the nut and bridge. There is no friction-less bearing there; the string is held still in the nut slot and must bend for the string to move (same for the bridge, but to save words I'll continue with only the nut). That means the terminus of the vibrating length of the string is not right at the nut but a very slight distance into the vibrating length of the string. It is also not a definite point but is kind of indefinite. As the string vibrates and bends back and forth the metal work hardens (sort of a precursor to metal fatigue). The bending part gets harder and stiffer right next to the nut so the end of the vibrating length starts to move farther away from the nut where the metal is less stiff. That changes the effective string length but the frets stay put, so intonation suffers...
    But, we don't always play open strings. We fret notes, and each time we do the string must bend back and forth at the fret rather than the nut. We end up with little work hardened places in the string at the frets and we no longer have a string that is uniform for it's entire length.

    In summary, from playing the instrument we end up with strings that are worn at the frets, corroded where we fret them most, work hardened at the ends and at fret positions... in short we have old strings that won't play in tune.

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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    So it's those dang molecules, little troublemakers! Thanks Dale for the Scientific explanation. My experiences run similar to Alafons, the tuner says the string is in tune but when I compare it to another string using harmonics, they don't match. IME, it seems more pronounced with guitar strings. Sometimes this happens before they even start sounding dead. Putting on fresh strings always puts things right.

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    two t's and one hyphen fatt-dad's Avatar
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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    unrecoverable strain. There's the short answer. It happens in metal - even bridges!

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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    When I know it's time to change strings is when I run my fingernail under the wound strings, and can feel the dimples in the string from the frets. Sometimes they still play in tune, but I know the time is soon.
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    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    Someplace out there on the internet is a great photo of old strings on a guitar. All dented up and with gunk.

    Will change strings when it's tough to keep in tune, sound dead, or just look like they need to be changed. It also depends on the instrument. The oval hole probably doesn't need to be changed much more than once a year. The Flatiron and Collings are more frequent as they get played the most.

    Some folks like the sound of old strings on an instrument. Have mentioned this many times before, but old time guitar player Jim Nelson of Missouri had a set of strings on for 7 years once before one broke. Gave him the sound he wanted to hear on his Gibson L-00.
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    Default Re: Are old strings hard to keep in tune? Why?

    How fast wear occurs is an entirely personal experience. The Ph of your skin, wiping the strings as needed, how hard you play both in picking and noting, how much you play. The material of the frets on your instrument make a difference as well. And of course the alloy of the strings and any coating they may have. I replace strings three or four times a year. I use an uncoated phosphor bronze alloy string. A good rule of thumb is " If you can't remember the last time you changed the strings ... it's time to change them". R/
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