String breaks always seem to happen at the most inopportune moments – right at the beginning of a jam session, mid solo, half way through a recording take, or even just when practicing at home, but of course you don’t have a spare! Guitar strings are definitely considered consumable parts, unlike things like tuning machines or pickups, which can be changed or upgraded, but are usually designed to last the entire life of the guitar.
Because they’re consumable, strings only have a limited lifespan. Fortunately, understanding some of the external influences that cause them to deteriorate and break can help you to preserve them for longer, and avoid poorly timed breakages.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide you’ll be learning all about the factors that can cause strings to break prematurely, and how to avoid them.
Your Strings Are Old
Old strings are generally the biggest offender when it comes to string breaks. Over time, the oils and acids from your skin, combined with general dirt, debris and grime accumulate on the surface of the strings. Not only does this make them sound awful, but it can accelerate string breaks.
As with most metal products, a combination of pollutants like those listed above, plus oxygen will lead to oxidization, or corrosion. This is a chemical reaction that will damage the string’s molecular structure, and that damage combined with high tension, vibration, and constant pick strikes, will cause breaks.
There’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening altogether, but you can absolutely slow it down. Start by wiping down the fretboard and strings after every use to reduce the amount of debris left on the strings. Clean your fretboard often using proper fretboard cleaner. Finally, change your strings regularly. As soon as you notice them sounding dull, that’s an indication that they are past their best.
If you need suggestions check out our guides to the best acoustic guitar strings and best electric guitar strings on the market.
Your Fret Edges Are Rough
If you’ve just bought your guitar and it’s a budget model, there’s a chance that the fret wire used during manufacturing isn’t particularly high end. Because of this, it may be rough – try playing a few bends and you’ll know for sure. If you hear a scratching noise as you bend strings, then your frets need work.
Rough frets increase friction, and that friction will quickly wear away your strings, weakening them every time you play.
Don’t worry if this is the case, though, it’s one of the easiest fixes!
First, remove your strings. Next, use a fingerboard guard to protect the wood of your fretboard while leaving the problem frets exposed. If you don’t have a fingerboard guard, blue painter’s tape will also work – just mask off the wood, leaving the fret wire exposed.
Take some wire wool, and gently polish the fret from side to side until it’s smooth. Repeat for all frets.
Your Nut is Sharp, or Isn’t Lubed
The nut is another regular suspect for prematurely broken strings. Plastic nuts in particular. Occasionally nuts ship with rough edges or burrs, which rub against and wear through your strings.
You can take a luthier’s file to these problem areas, and gently smooth out sharp edges or burrs.
Even if there are no sharp edges, a tiny drop of graphite lube in the slots of the nut will also help. As you fret notes, the strings are dragged across the nut, which starts to act like a saw. Lube will reduce friction and help to prevent breaks.
Alternatively, upgrade to a Graphtech Tusq XL nut, which is impregnated with PTFE lubricant from the factory.
Your Saddles are Sharp
Just like the nut, your strings also rub against the saddles during the normal course of play. Particularly with budget models, although it is still sometimes the case with higher end guitars, too, saddles are made from stamped pot metal.
As the saddles are stamped during the manufacturing process, occasionally small burrs will be left behind. If they aren’t noticed and filed during the QA process, the guitar leaves the shop floor with imperfect saddles.
If you notice that this is an issue, you can try to file any problem areas, or worst case scenario, upgrade to a better set of aftermarket saddles.
Your Strings Aren’t Seated Correctly
If you’ve broken a brand-new string, and you’re wondering why it snapped so soon, there’s a good chance it was incorrectly seated. Strings that aren’t correctly seated over the saddles or in the nut slots don’t distribute tension as they were designed to.
Instead, tension becomes concentrated in the area in which the string is incorrectly resting, leaving the string extremely vulnerable to breakage. To avoid this, take the time to ensure that your strings are seated in the nut slots and saddles properly when restringing.
Your Technique is Too Heavy Handed
Sometimes it really is the player, and not the equipment to blame. If you break a lot of strings while playing, and you’re a loud strummer, try bringing it back a notch. Reduce the power of your strumming strokes and see if it makes a difference to the longevity of your strings.
You’re Using the Wrong Pick
If you’ve tried reducing your strumming power, maybe take a look at your pick choice. If you’re using a 1.5mm pick on a set of ultra light gauge strings, and blasting pop punk power chords and you find you break a lot of strings, you might want to consider playing with a narrower pick.
Heavy picks wear down strings with every pluck and strike. By reducing to a lighter pick, you’ll be reducing the damaging effect, and may improve the life of your strings. Similarly, you could try to increase the gauge of strings you play with.
You’ve Over tightened the String
If you’ve broken strings while you’re tuning them, and you’re certain that they were properly seated on the nut and saddle, then you have most likely overtightened them. This is more common with players who tune by ear.
Use a chromatic tuner, and tighten slowly to meet the correct pitch. Don’t over tighten then tune down. Like most things, guitar strings have a limited tensile strength, which if exceeded, will cause catastrophic failure, i.e., a break.
Final Thoughts on Why Guitar Strings Break
There are so many different factors that influence guitar strings snapping. It may be one, or a combination of several of these factors that are causing your strings to break. Try to isolate your particular issue by working through these common causes until you find a remedy that seems to help.