Can guitar strings rust?

Guitar strings are the lifeline of any guitarist, producing the beautiful melodies and soulful chords that we all love. But can guitar strings rust? The short answer is yes, guitar strings can rust over time, especially if they are not properly cared for.

Here, I will explore the causes of string rust and how to prevent it. We will also discuss the effects of rust on your tone and playability, as well as provide tips on how to extend the life of your guitar strings. So, if you want to keep your strings sounding and feeling their best, keep reading to learn more about the potential for rust and how to protect your investment.

can guitar strings rust

Is it normal for guitar strings to rust?

The plain strings on your guitar will always be plain steel, no matter what they are called. That’s because the different types of guitar strings, like nickel and brass, refer to how the strings are wound. The wound strings are wrapped around a plain steel core, and the plain strings are just that core.

Even though some strings are treated to make them last longer, plain strings will rust faster than wound strings. Some wound strings might not even rust.

That’s because iron-based things are the only ones that rust. Unwound strings are made of plain steel, which has iron in it. Strings wrapped in a nickel-steel mixture also have iron in them.

Bronze-wrapped strings, on the other hand, will stain and rust but not tarnish. However, rusting and staining are not really two different states; they are both caused by the same things. Corrosion is the basic process going on whether the strings are rotting or coming apart.

As time goes on, the moisture in the air will lead to rusting. Steel strings will rust, and strings that aren’t made of steel will turn a dull color. You can also speed up rust by playing the strings.

That’s because the sweat, oil, and dirt on your skin get on the string and make it rust. When rust builds up, it can lead to a lot of problems. The first problem is that the rust makes it take longer to play.

You can’t move your fingers quickly and cleanly up and down the string because the surface is rough.

After that, the tone will be the next big problem. The way the string sounds changes as more rust forms on it. While they may still be able to play in tune, the tone will be very dull and lack the depth and warmth of new strings. The worst thing that could happen is that a string might break because the rust has gone through the surface and hurt the string’s structure.

Reasons for guitar strings rusting

Playing With Sweaty Hands

Excess sweat and oil are two of the most typical causes of rusted strings.

The primary reason is that sweat and grease include minerals like sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Corrosion occurs when these minerals interact with the natural poisons secreted by your body.

Overall, moisture from liquids contributes significantly to string corrosion.

Now, if you’re a sweaty person like me, your string set’s life will be significantly reduced, and you’ll have to change strings all the time.

Having Your Guitar Stored In A Humid Space

As previously noted, humidity and moisture are two of your guitar strings’ worst enemies.

In fact, keeping your instrument in regular touch with dampness accelerates the rate at which it rusts. This occurs when oxygen, moisture, and electrons from metal come together.

Humidity levels are affected by the amount of moisture in your home, the materials used to construct it, and whether you store your guitar in a poorly ventilated place.

The significant difficulty with moisture is that once it forms, it will adhere to the coating of your strings. That is the primary reason why your guitar strings corrode at a higher rate.

Bad Quality Strings

Purchasing inexpensive strings might be very appealing, especially if you need to replace them frequently. However, there are significant long-term consequences of using low-quality strings.

Let’s start with string stuff. The core of a regular guitar string is constructed entirely of steel. Manufacturers then employ various metal alloys to wind the string.

The most frequent material for string winding is nickel-plated steel. This material is more prone to rust than other alloys like pure nickel or zinc-plated steel.

Buying cheaper guitar strings will save you money. However, inexpensive guitar strings deteriorate faster, forcing you to replace them more frequently. You’ll wind up spending more.

Bad Hygiene

Apart from moisture and sweat, we use various corrosive substances on our strings. Dirt, dead skin cells, and filth are the most common substances transferred from our hands to guitar strings.

It stands to reason that our hands would transfer a lot of dirt because they are what we use the most on a daily basis. It’s also natural for our skin cells to die and regenerate themselves. If we have poor hygiene practices, we are more prone to regularly transmit these chemicals to the guitar strings, causing corrosion at a faster rate.

Coated VS. Uncoated Strings

Top guitar string manufacturers provide both coated and uncoated string sets in their catalogs. The fundamental advantage of coated strings is their corrosion resistance. This is particularly effective against sweat, climatic changes, and all types of filth.

Adding a tiny layer of polymer coating extends the life of your string, reduces corrosion, and, in some instances, eliminates undesired string noise.

Uncoated strings are less expensive than coated strings, but they corrode more quickly. In the long term, using coated strings may be more helpful.

Tips For Stopping Guitar Strings Rusting

Store The Guitar Or Bass In Dry Places

Even if you live in a somewhat dry climate, certain portions of your home or studio will be damper than others. Basements are prone to mould because of poor ventilation and the cooler air that circulates there.

Strive to choose a location with good airflow that prevents moisture buildup, as humidity is highly corrosive and harmful to your metal strings. For individuals who are unable to relocate to a drier environment, a dehumidifier can be a significant aid in reducing excess moisture in the surroundings. 

Be aware that depending on your location and the country’s energy policies, this may result in a significant increase in your electricity cost. The optimal humidity level in a storage room or cellar is less than 50%. If that % is exceeded, your strings are in great danger of corroding sooner than usual.

Wipe The Strings Often

Strings may accumulate a lot of grease, dampness, and sweat from just our fingertips, let alone exposure to the outdoors. These agents can dramatically increase the string degradation process.

As a result, keeping them clean can help them last longer. This should be done on nylon strings as well, but metal strings benefit from frequent washes because they rust less easily.

It is best to use a dry microfiber towel or cloth, or a specialized guitar string cleaner. Never use water, bleach, or soap to clean your strings since they might permanently ruin the finish.

Wash Your Hands

As previously said, strings can absorb dirt, dust, sweat, and grease from your fingertips. By washing or wiping your hands, you limit the possibility of introducing corrosive substances to the strings.

If you assume this advice solely pertains to players with sweaty palms, you’re very mistaken. Every day, we are exposed to pollutants that, when in touch with the strings over an extended time, can cause damage.

For example, persons who use styling products on their hair should always wipe any product residue from their fingers before touching the strings. This applies to anyone who works with oil or acidic substances.

Use Higher-Quality Strings Or Coated Strings

Better quality, in this scenario, does not necessarily imply better tone or sound. If you find that the brand you’re currently using lasts less than you’d like, consider switching to a different brand. Strings can rust faster than usual due to their low manufacturing quality.

You can also use coated strings. Coated strings are covered in a polymer layer (often Teflon PFT), which purportedly protects the string from the corrosive effects of substances like dirt, oil, debris, moisture, or sweat. The coating would be responsible for absorbing these substances and preventing prolonged contact with the strings’ surface.

Furthermore, coated strings are touted to last at least four times longer than “naked” uncoated strings. Of course, environmental conditions like moisture and heat also play a role.

Coated strings improve the playing experience by providing a smoother surface. The coating also reduces finger noise, which is ideal for recording sessions.

There is a catch (as always): Coated strings have bigger gauges due to the polymer covering and, as a result, require more tension across the same rig size as untreated strings. This hinders their ability to provide smooth pitch bends or vibrato.

Some manufacturers, such as Elixir’s Nanoweb nickel-plated steel strings, provide the same playability as uncoated strings while adding additional weather protection. This is accomplished by applying a skinny coating of polymer that is nearly invisible to the human eye.

Finally, keep in mind that due to the rigorous quality control standards and complex techniques used to coat the strings, these are marketed at exorbitant costs. However, the higher price comes with a longer lifespan, making them even more profitable in the long run, at least financially speaking.

Use A String Protector, Guitar Bag, Or Case

Additionally, keep your guitar in its bag or case to prevent the possibility of moisture getting into touch with the strings. This may not provide complete protection against environmental threats, but you can postpone the oxidizing process for much longer.

There are also independent string protectors made of cloth that can be draped around the neck or strapped. These attachments are quite helpful because they allow you to give nearly immediate protection for your strings without the need to open a case or bag to store the guitar.

Wear Gloves

Some bassists wear gloves to protect their fingers from painful blisters (they are quite impracticable for standard instruments). Nonetheless, gloves might provide further protection to the strings from contact with corrosive substances via the fingers.

Jazz fusion bassist Etienne Mbappé cites sweat as one of the primary reasons he wears gloves when playing his bass. While his attention is on the brilliant tone produced by sweat-free strings, he may also be concerned with keeping the strings in excellent condition. Gloves are also beneficial for producing a muted or “dampened” tone, protecting against cold weather, or simply playing the bass with greater ease and less strain.

Can you clean rusty guitar strings?

Yes, you can play the guitar with rusty strings if you remember what I just said. You should make sure, though, that the rust isn’t so bad that you need to get new ones. Also, be extra cautious not to cut yourself.

Remember that rusty strings will make it harder for your fingers to touch the strings. The extra friction could make your skill and comfort worse.  Still, rusty strings might work if you want an old-fashioned, retro sound. I only use this method with acoustic guitars and not digital ones.

Are rusty guitar strings bad?

The short answer is no. The long answer is: it depends. There is a significant difference between strings with minor rust and strings that have totally corroded.

Completely rusted strings sound lifeless and are challenging to play. You run the danger of snapping a string or accidentally slashing your finger. On the other hand, rusted guitar strings provide a distinct tone.

Old strings are commonly used on acoustic guitars and basses. They can provide you with a calm, “old-sounding” tone that complements a variety of styles and genres.

How Quickly Do Guitar Strings Rust?

There are various elements to consider when answering this question.

Some of these critical elements are the types of strings you have, your guitar cleanliness habits, the climate conditions in which you live, how frequently you play, and the types of guitar sessions you usually attend. The final factor is one of the most significant when determining how often to change your strings.

When it comes to changing your strings for a practice session vs a live event or a studio recording session, the situation is vastly different.

In fact, some people believe it is appropriate to alter their strings only when a string breaks.

When it comes to replacing strings, my rule of thumb is to change your guitar strings before a crucial session (ideally a couple of days in advance to allow for natural detuning).

Following that, I’d recommend that you check to see if your strings are rusty if their tone is dull, and if they’re difficult to play (a lot of unnecessary friction).

Having said that, the typical period for strings to rust on someone who plays consistently is roughly three months. Keep this time frame in mind when you determine when to update your guitar strings. In the end, it is a personal decision.

Final Words On Can Guitar Strings Rust

Guitar strings are susceptible to rust due to exposure to moisture, humidity, and natural oils from your hands. Rust can negatively affect the sound quality and playability of your guitar. 

To prevent rust, it’s essential to regularly clean and wipe down your strings after playing, especially if you have sweaty hands. Additionally, storing your guitar in a dry environment and using coated or stainless steel strings can help minimize the risk of rusting. By taking proper care of your guitar strings, you can ensure they last longer and maintain their optimal tone.

FAQs

Do rusty strings affect the guitar sound?

Dirty strings can soften a guitar’s sound and reduce its responsiveness. Worse, employing filthy or rusted strings might damage your instrument. As your strings grow dirty or rusted, they get harsher. They might leave scratches or grooves in your frets.

Should You Boil Your Guitar Strings To Remove Rust?

You could. Bass players do this frequently. It makes sense because bass strings are more expensive and much thicker.

Even though boiling guitar strings is successful and removes a significant amount of rust, I would not recommend doing so with electric strings. You end up wasting time and would be much better off simply purchasing a new set of strings.

How long does it take guitar strings to rust?

Even so, the humidity and wetness in the air will quickly rust the strings of a guitar that isn’t played very often. A regular player’s set of strings might last about 90 days, which is three months.

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