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Let’s be honest, replacing guitar strings is a pain! Taking them all out, buying new strings, attaching them and then nervously playing for a while hoping that one doesn’t snap straight away. For this reason, we want our guitar strings to last for as long as possible in a good, playable condition.
Rusty stings is just one of the reasons why you might need to replace strings sooner than you would like. But why do some guitar strings rust so quickly?
Guitar strings rust quickly because of high moisture levels in the air or moisture left on the strings from playing with sweaty hands. Make sure you store your guitar in a room that isn’t too damp and humid, use high-quality strings and wash your hands before you play.
In this article I will explain why this happens in more depth and some tips and tricks to extending the life of those guitar strings that keep going rusty.
Why do guitar strings rust?
Acoustic and electric guitar strings are made in a few ways. They are either simply a piece of wire on its own or they may have a second metal wrapped around a core metal.
The metals vary between instruments and types of string but can be brass, steel or nickel.
Rust only actually occurs when iron is present. Steel is an alloy and so it contains iron. If your guitar strings are going rusty they are therefore most likely made from steel, a very common guitar string material.
The rusting occurs when iron is exposed to the combination of oxygen (in the air all around us of course) and moisture over a period of time. This causes the iron to go through a process called oxidation which produces iron oxide, the brown substance we refer to as ‘rust’.
Is it actually rust I’m looking at or just tarnish?
As I say, it is only steel that is capable of rusting.
If you are looking at thinner unwrapped strings then chances of what you are seeing being rust are much higher. If you are looking at copper or nickel wrapped thicker acoustic strings though it may not be rust you are seeing and the discoloration could just be tarnish which builds up over time.
Tarnish is particularly common on copper, think copper piping and you may know what I mean. Try some string cleaner first on these types of strings and it may simply wipe off.
Likely reasons for strings rusting quickly
1) Storage Conditions
We can’t get away from the fact your guitar strings are going to be exposed to oxygen, unless you somehow find a way to store it in a vacuum! So the most likely reason for your guitar strings rusting so quickly is exposure to moisture.
Moisture is present in the air most of the time, but is present in higher concentrations in some places than others. The concentration of water in the air is referred to as humidity.
If your guitar strings are rusting quickly it may be that you are storing the instrument in a place with high humidity. This could be down to where you live if you live in a particular humid part of the country or could just be down to the construction of your house or apartment.
For example we expel water vapour into the air when we breath, and if a room isn’t well ventilated it will simply cause the humidity to rise. You may no you have a particularly humid room if there are damp problems or if your windows regularly steam up.
These types of conditions are a recipe for rust!
2) Cheap strings
Cheaper steel strings are more susceptible to damage which can cause rust to form more quickly. They are also less likely to be coated with materials to prevent quick rusting like some higher quality strings I will mention later in this article.
3) Playing with sweaty or greasy hands
When it is warm or your are gigging our hands often get sweaty or greasy when we are playing. As you are sweating you will probably notice the strings becoming slippery as the moisture builds up.
If this is a regular occurrence for you or you are a particularly sweaty person, then this constant exposure of the strings to moisture will cause them to rust much more quickly.
Tips for stopping guitar strings rusting so quickly
1) Store in the right place
As mentioned in the previous section. Where you store your guitar has an effect on how quickly the strings rust.
Try and find a place in your house which is cool and dry. Look around the room for evidence of damp and try and keep the room ventilated.
If you are unsure how humid a room is then you can buy a cheap humidity meter such as this one:
They will tell you the percentage of moisture in the air. You ideally want to see a reading of 50% or lower, but the lower the better.
Any room which regularly reaches 50% or higher is probably worth avoiding for guitar storage if you want to prevent rusting.
If your house is really humid and you simply can’t find a dry room you can buy a de-humidifier for your music studio. They are now very reasonably priced like this one below and you can place them near to your guitars to keep that air particularly dry.
This rule does come with a caveat though!
Drying out the wood particularly on an acoustic guitar too much can affect the sound. Keeping some moisture in the wood is actually desirable for many guitar players to obtain the sound they want. If you find storing your guitar in a dry room is affecting your guitar’s tone then maybe you will just have to accept you need to replace the strings more often in a combination with the following other tips.
It’s all a balancing act, we often can’t have it all!
2) Buy better quality strings
If you aren’t particularly attached to the brand of strings you use then maybe it is time to look for a better brand.
Some strings such as Elixir strings are coated with a protective nickel material designed specifically to prevent rust and increase their lifespan.
Although they will cost you more you may actually save money if you have to replace them less often. If you are set on your strings then you may just have to accept you will have to change them more frequently.
3) Wash your hands before you play
This really is a key one. It was one that didn’t even cross my mind before my bass player mentioned it before a practice once! I was used to just grabbing my guitar and playing at any time without even thinking.
The reality is our hands naturally sweat all the time and get greasy throughout the day. If you don’t wash (and then fully dry) your hands before playing you will transfer this grease and sweat which contain water onto the strings and it will remain there to react with the oxygen in the air and rust.
A quick wash of your hands before playing, then ensuring they are as dry as possible will rule out this potential cause of rusting.
4) Clean the strings regularly
I mentioned that strings often get sweaty during an intense practice session or gig. This is only natural and can’t be prevented. But what you can do is ensure you remove this moisture afterwards.
Do this using a dry cloth which will remove the moisture and also and greasy residues from those strings.
On top of this I recommend regularly cleaning your strings with a special string cleaner such as GHS Strings FAST FRET shown below. This removes grease and residue build-up. Just remember to dry them after with a dry cloth too.
Can you clean rusty guitar strings?
As I mentioned earlier, if your strings are thicker ‘wound’ strings coated in copper or other material that you may find on an acoustic guitar it may not actually be rust and may be tarnish. If you think this may be the case buy some string cleaner and try giving them a wipe and you may be able to remove it.
If it is rust unfortunately it is going to be tricky to save those strings. There are substances that you can apply to rusted steel to prolong the life of them, but the reality is you should probably just replace them.
Are rusty guitar strings bad?
This depends what you mean by ‘bad’. They are bad in the way that they may cut your fingers up and might be more susceptible to snap at any moment. They are also bad if you think they don’t sound right.
However, I have actively sort out the sound of an old rusty acoustic guitar for a recording before because it sounded different. So this really depends what you define as ‘bad’.
It is generally not considered a great practice to play with rusty strings though and it can cause issues with your sound and ability to slide fingers quickly along the strings.