Can You Play A Guitar With Rusty Strings?

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Decided to pick up the guitar for the first time in a while? Noticed that your strings look a little off after sitting in the attic for a few months? We get it, money is tight, especially these days, and replacing your rusty guitar strings just doesn’t seem worth the expense. Besides, you’re thinking maybe these old strings will give you a unique, interesting sound.

Although you can play guitar with rusty strings and it could give you some unique tones and textures to your playing it is not recommended. Rusty strings are more likely to sound bad, give you an inconsistent tone, snap in the middle of a song and potentially even cut your fingers.

Tarnished, discolored or dirty strings however, might be salvageable with just a good cleaning. Knowing the difference is important, and waiting to play until you’ve taken care of your instrument is definitely the way to go. 

Rusty strings are annoying, but it’s a relatively simple problem to fix. Staying informed on string maintenance can save you from some potentially nasty injuries.

We’ll explain in this article how to prevent rust and corrosion, as well as some tips and products for properly cleaning your guitar before and after playing. As to why and how it actually happens, read more about the reasons behind why guitar strings rust in our in-depth article on the subject here

Is It Dangerous to Play With Rusty Strings?

Poorly maintained strings can also cut up your fingers (and mess up those hard earned callouses!). Sliding up and down on a rusty string feels just as unpleasant as it sounds.

Your fingers will end up brown, and some people even complain of a bad smell!

Luckily, if you cut yourself on a rusty string you probably won’t need a tetanus shot, but it could be an annoying injury and will stop you being able to play guitar properly, at least for a few days.

Another common way people get cut on their strings is by not trimming them neatly after stringing or restringing their guitar. If the strings are rusty, then you’ve got a double problem. Take care of your strings, people! Your guitar and fingers (and your audience) will thank you. 

But Might Rusty Strings Give Me An Interesting Sound?

Most musicians agree that the weird sound you may get with old and rusty strings isn’t anything special, and definitely isn’t worth the harm these strings can do to your fingers.

There are a few ways you can get different and exciting sounds on your guitar without waiting for your strings to grow old and die. Playing in different tunings is always a cool way to spice up your sound. Look into steel slides, or slap guitar techniques. Even switching up your pick gauge can get you a different tone, or trading in heavier strings for lighter ones and vice versa- it can totally alter your vibe.

Rusty strings won’t help you much there. Think of a rusty old car- it might seem like it has personality, but in reality it just doesn’t run as well. 

How To Prevent Strings From Rusting

Keep things clean

The first and best way of preventing rust and tarnish on your strings is to wash your hands before jamming.

It seems simple, but playing with clean hands can keep your strings healthier, longer.

If you find your strings are getting icky faster than you can buy new ones (say, once a month), it may be worth the few extra bucks to invest in higher-quality strings.

But keeping a clean fretboard, wiping down your strings regularly with a dry, lint-free cloth, and healthy handwashing habits should be all you need.

If it’s a particularly lively gig in the summer, we recommend wiping down your strings right after the performance. It will keep your strings sounding bright, prevent rust, and even help safeguard their intonation.

There are other methods as well; to help with dust, for instance, pull the strings forward, away from the fretboard, and then letting go so they slap against the wood (gently!). This can dislodge some of the build-up and grime, but use caution.

If you play often enough, you can look into using a lubricant like Fast Fret. Many users like the ‘clean string’ feel it gives your guitar. If you do decide to use a product to add a little shine to your instrument, be sure to use a cleaning agent or polish that’s meant for that purpose! There are many great products made specifically for guitar care. Using generic cleaning agents that contain things like ammonia or silicone can cause major damage. 

Store the guitar correctly

toring a guitar properly is also crucial in maintaining string vibrancy, so open garages, murky cellars, and basically anything outdoors is risky. If you see rust or warping on a guitar, chances are it was stored in a harmful environment for too long.

If it’s an ancient guitar you inherited from a friend’s damp basement, rusty strings may not even be your only problem. Damp and inconsistent humidity levels affect the wood in acoustic guitars, and the electric circuitry in electric guitars.

You can restring these instruments, but you probably won’t be able to get them back to their former glory.

A good case will go a long way to fending off decay and decomposition, and making sure the guitar isn’t exposed to any extreme temperatures or weather is the best way to preserve the overall health and appearance of your guitar.

Moral of the story; keep your guitar safe from the elements and guard against rust and tarnish by storing it (her?) correctly.

D’Addario actually designed a humidity control system that keeps your case’s humidity at the recommended 40-45% which saves you from refilling humidifiers and just the general headache of worrying if your case is too dry/wet. You can find it on Amazon.

Do All guitar Strings Rust?

As we’ve mentioned, real rust only occurs if your strings are made of steel, but the perspiration, dirt, and oils from your hands can cause other metals (such as copper or nickel) to tarnish and eventually corrode as well.

Corroded strings have a much greater chance of snapping while tuning or playing, and they don’t sound very good either. So first check if your strings are actually rusted through, or if they’re just dirty.

Rusted strings are done, but if they’re not steel, try cleaning them and see what happens. It’s actually pretty natural for copper to become discolored (think Statue of Liberty). You may not need to make that trip to the music store after all. 

Final Remarks

That’s the story on rusty strings. Even if you feel you aren’t a ‘real’ musician (no such thing as a fake musician! Just keep practicing), keeping your guitar safe and clean is just good manners. You want to coax the most beautiful sounds you can from any instrument you play, and that requires maintenance.

Don’t let your guitar get to a point where it’s unsafe to play, even if you haven’t been practicing as much as you used to. Playing a nice guitar can even be an incentive to practice more. These simple tactics don’t take too much time and will keep your guitar healthy, and you playing, for (hopefully) many years. 

Abigail Horowitz

Abigail Horowitz is a contemporary pianist with classical training and loves to sing, performing mostly in bars and open venues. Currently advancing her knowledge by studying musicology in an Israeli university with plans to continue on in music research and academia.

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