Tag Archives: changing strings

This guest post is brought to us by Betty Fisher, who takes lessons from Casey and regularly attends the Tip Jar Jams.

So it’s New Year’s Eve and I am picking up my banjo for the first time in more days than I care to admit. (Sorry Casey and Murphy. You can kick me later.)

I had gone through my repertoire and have now capoed up to A. I don’t know what happened but somehow things got badly out of tune and I seriously over cranked the first string and it snapped. Scared the bejeebers out of me! (Couple of bad words flew.) So now I knew I had to re-string it. I had bought new strings on the advice of Murphy after the last jam that I attended. She told me if I was the least bit mechanically inclined, I could do it on my own. I am mechanically inclined. Having been a previous surgical nurse, there were many occasions when I had to get a malfunctioning piece of equipment working again in the middle of surgery while a surgeon stomped his feet and yelled, “Just fix it!” Also there is a very embarrassing story (for my husband) about a broken washing machine that he couldn’t fix, but I did in about 5 minutes….but I digress.

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Red Henry

"When should I change my strings?" That's a question we often hear. New strings usually sound better, but there are as many answers to this question as there are musicians. Some things that you can consider are:

1. There's no 'official' time to change strings. I used to change the strings on two guitars and two mandolins every day when we played bluegrass festivals, but Bill Monroe changed his strings once a year-- at New Year's-- and from then on, he just changed them when they broke (which was pretty often, by summertime).

2. Some people like the sound of old strings. Our Cousin David loves the sound (or lack of it) that old strings have, and would probably prefer never to play on new-sounding strings. I think that brand-new strings can sound a bit tinny, myself, but sometimes-- such as when I have a big stage show to play, or a noisy party gig or bar gig where there's going to be plenty of musical stress and challenge-- I'll make sure at least that my strings aren't too old.

3. Generally speaking, newer strings make your instrument get in tune (and stay in tune) better. This is because (a) a new string isn't worn from playing and is still about the same diameter from one end to the other, so it "frets" more in tune; (b) the string is not very corroded yet, so it slides through the nut-slots and bridge-slots more smoothly as you twist the tuners; and (c) the lack of rougher, corroded surfaces on the string make its vibrations more coherent so you (or your electronic tuner) can hear the string's note better. Also, new strings (or preferably a day or two old. so they're "stretched" and stable) are usually better for recording, because getting exact tuning, and having the strings stay there, is really critical if you're in a recording session.

. . . . .

So those are some things you can think about.

Editor's Note: For even more detailed info on this topic, you can see Red's previous post on this same topic.

Red Henry

Red Henry

Of all the instruments, our students seem to have the most trouble changing strings on mandolins. Somehow, banjos and guitars aren't as much trouble to change strings on as a mandolin is. So here are a few tips to make it easier changing mandolin strings:

1. Don't take all the strings off at once! Change just one at a time. This will help keep the bridge in the right place.

2. Wind each old string down, one at a time, and unhook it from the tailpiece and tuner posts. When you're removing the old string, some tailpieces (and some tuning machines) can be VERY difficult to deal with, especially if the strings are so old they’ve gotten rusty. If you have a pair of wirecutters handy, and a pair of long-nose pliers, those two tools can make it a lot easier to get (or cut) the old strings off.

3. When you're putting the new strings through the tuner post-holes, be sure to leave enough to make at least 2 1/2 or 3 turns around the post.  This helps make sure the string won't slip around the tuner. Conversely, DON'T wind the whole string-length, right out of the envelope, around the post-- it might take up ten or fifteen turns or more, and it'll be a real mess tightening the string up as well as making it harder to get the string off next time you change them. 2-1/2 or 3 turns are fine.

4. When the string's up near proper tension, carefully cut off the extra length. DON'T poke any part of yourself (fingers or eyes, especially) with the end of the string!

5. As you change each string, tune it to its pair-string (E to the other E, A to the other A, etc.)  and then bring it up to pitch with an electronic tuner. And when you’ve changed each string, re-tune all the others, because they'll all be stretching. It's not necessary at this step to have them EXACTLY in tune, but get them pretty close.

6. When all the strings are changed, re-tune them all with the electronic tuner. Then play a tune or two and re-tune the strings again. Do that two or three times. (This is not a grind. Remember, it's fun to play!)

7. Re-tune the mandolin before putting it away, and then re-tune it the next day. At that point the strings will usually be stretched out, and you'll only need to do "regular" tuning from then on.

If your mandolin's tuner-buttons are hard to turn, you can try putting a small drop of oil on each tuner's gears from the back. If you do this as you change strings, you can apply the oil with the string off and turn the tuner-button a lot of times to work in the oil. This usually helps the tuner turn more smoothly.

Good luck with the strings!