My name is Dave Fox, and I’ve been teaching music, performing in bands, and writing songs for over 20 years now. Today I want to teach beginner guitar players how to re-string an acoustic guitar properly. Here’s me with my old Vantage guitar, after restringing it yet again.
Putting on new acoustic guitar strings is not really complicated, but, for some weird reason, it’s sometimes a daunting task for beginner guitarists. Actually, it’s quite understandable. There’s a lot of little steps you might get stuck on if you haven’t done it very often before.
Whether you find it to be an intimidating task or not, putting on new acoustic guitar strings is really a fairly easy-to-learn skill that every guitarist must have. Electric guitars, by the way, go by a similar process, but we’ll save that for another how-to article as it’s not quite identical.
Just so you know, at the end of this article I have included a video with me going through the whole process of how to change your acoustic guitar strings, so if you don’t like reading, or it gets too confusing, just skip to the end. Otherwise, I’ll take you through the steps in writing, with some pictures.
Here is what you will need to do this job:
- An acoustic guitar
- A pack of new guitar strings
- A pair of pliers
- A soft cloth
- A pair of wire cutters
There are 9 steps total, so let’s get going!
You might want to keep this picture handy, as it lists the parts of an acoustic guitar that you might need to reference.
Step #1 – Choose One of Two Methods for Removing The Strings
First, decide how you will change your strings. There is some debate as to whether it is good to remove the strings one after the other, or whether it is better to remove and replace the strings all at the same time. The choice of which method to use is, of course, up to you.
That said, if you remove your strings one at a time, this will create tension on the neck where ever the strings are still attached, so it is my opinion that you should try changing them “all at once”. This means, that you will be slightly loosening each string, in turn. Then, once they are all relatively loose, you can take them off altogether, at the same time, so to speak.
Step #2 – Start Slowly Loosening The Strings
Removing the old guitar strings will take a few minutes. Start at the headstock, which is where the tuning pegs are, and slowly start to de-tune (lower) each string a few turns, going from one to the next. You will be able to hear each string get lower and lower, but make sure you go from string to string, loosening them each a bit at a time.
I usually start at the low E string (the thickest string) first, and loosen the tuning peg a few turns. Then, I might go to the other side of the guitar, over to the high E string (the thinnest string), and loosen it a little bit. This way, the tension is lessening equally on the guitar’s neck, because when the strings are tight, there is a lot of tension held there. So, as you de-tune the strings, the tension on the neck is being slowly relieved. Then, you can go to the A string (second thickest string), and then back to the B (second thinnest string), and so forth.
Once you’ve loosened the strings to the point where the tension is gone from from them completely, you can move on to the next step.
Step 3 – Remove The Bridge Pins
Removing the bridge pins on an acoustic guitar is what you need to do after you pre-loosen all of your strings at the headstock using the tuning pegs.
I’ll be honest, I’ve used all sorts of things to remove these pins, which can get stuck in there really easily. The best option, I think, is using a pair of pliers. Or, better yet, there are tools specifically designed for this job that you can buy at music stores these days.
This way, if you have a nice bridge on your guitar, you aren’t going to damage it by jamming a butter knife in there to try to pry out the bridge pins.
Since there should be no tension on the neck of the guitar anymore, and since you’ve already loosened the strings in the previous step, you can take the pins out in whatever order you want.
Again, you should be careful when pulling them out, because you can damage the wood on your bridge if you yank them. Also, watch that you don’t lose them, as these cylindrical pins tend to roll off counters and disappear.
Once you take these pins out and set them aside, it’s time to take the strings off of the acoustic guitar entirely.
Step #4 – Remove Strings From The Tuning Posts
Now that you have the bridge pins out, and the strings have been pre-loosened, you can begin removing the strings from the tuning posts, which are those little posts that are attached to the tuning mechanism on the headstock of your guitar.
The strings should still be anchored on there, and maybe even tied to them in some way, depending on how they were attached last time. Now that they’re loose, you can deal with them.
Unwind the strings as much as you can, until you can un-thread the string through the hole in the tuning post. Sometimes, things are all tangled up, so you’ll want to be careful. If things are super tangled, you might have to resort to using a pair of wire-cutters to get them off.
Once you get all the strings out through those holes, you can pull the strings right off the guitar, and it should be without strings now.
Once your strings are off, you can feel free to take a look at them. Are they dull and dirty? Most likely they are, and that’s the reason why you’re changing them. Your sound will brighten up, as new strings affect the whole tone of your guitar.
Step #5 – Clean Your Guitar (Optional)
If your guitar is dirty, as in covered in dust, muck, dandruff, bugs, or slime, now is your chance to clean that baby off!
First, you’ll want to wipe your guitar down with a soft, dry cloth. Dirt has usually gathered the most in places like on the headstock, on the fretboard, or down near the bridge. A dry cloth might not get a lot of the dirt off, but it’s a start.
You can use a slightly damp soft cloth to get off more dirt. Water and wood don’t mix, so don’t use too much water. You also don’t want to scratch your guitar in any way, so be careful. Don’t use a scrubby on the body of your guitar.
With my guitar, I get a lot of dirt on the fretboard, which is a little less sensitive to clean than, say, the body of the guitar. There are many products out there that you can use to clean your acoustic guitar, so you might have to do some research on your own if you really want to get it sparkling clean. At the very least, give it a thorough wipe down. In terms of frequency, you can clean it whenever you change your strings, like I do.
Step #6 – Get Out Your New Strings
That pack of brand new strings you’ve had waiting this whole time – time to get ’em out!
You probably have one of three gauges of stings – light, medium, or heavy. I usually use bronze strings, although there are other kinds you can try. I also use medium gauge, as I don’t like them too heavy or light.
Once you’ve cracked open your pack of strings, you can look at the packaging and examine what you’ve got. The strings are usually colour coded, with the following strings included in a single pack: Low E (Bronze), A (Red), D (Black), G (Green), B (Purple), and High E (Silver).
You basically, at this point, want to get your strings ready to put on your guitar, which is what we’re going to do in the next step. That means, spread them out on the table or rug or whatever, and know where all your new strings are. It’s easy to lose these strings, because they flop around and the higher strings are thinner, and tend to vanish easily.
Step #7 – Put On The New Strings
This takes the longest, by far. There are some smaller steps to mention in this process of adding the new strings, which makes it take a while. If you can get through it, you have done well, grasshopper. This may take you 30-60 minutes the first time you do it. It can be a real pain for some people.
First off, put all of the strings, with their colour-coded ends, into each of the holes on the bridge. Make sure each string is in the right hole. This can get confusing already. Try this: pick up your guitar like you’re going to play it. Then, set it down in front of you, which will make the Low E the closest string to you once it’s on. The highest string (High E) will be farthest away from you. Just use the colour coded nuts and make sure they go in the right holes. It should look something like this. The colour coded nuts will just be dangling inside of your guitar, which you can see if you look in the hole.
At this point, the strings are just kind of sitting there on your guitar, with one end being in the holes, and the other end just kind of flopping around haphazardly.
Next, you want to put the bridge pins back into the guitar, effectively pinning the strings into the bridge section of the guitar, like this:
The trick here is to notice that each bridge pin has a little groove in it, which you have to line up with each string as you pin it into the bridge. The little coloured nut is what will hold the string in place, after you pin it, but the tricky part is lining up that string with that groove in the bridge pin, which is usually made of plastic, by the way.
You’ll need to pull each string taut against the bridge pin by pulling on the string and holding the bridge pin in place with your finger, otherwise it will probably fall out. Now, each string should be held in place on the bridge end of things, but freely hanging out on the headstock side of things.
It is at the point that you’re going to start threading the strings back into the tuning post holes, one at a time.
This next part takes the longest, and it is also the most frustrating unless you’re really good at it. There are many ways to do it, but I’m going to tell you my way, and you’ll have to take that for what it’s worth, ok? I’m sure there are many people who do this differently and better than me, but here we go anyways.
First of all, look at this acoustic guitar headstock.
You should notice that on the left three strings (Low E, A, and D), the strings wind counter-clockwise, going over the top of the tuning post to the left. On the other side, the three strings (G, B, High E), wind clockwise and go to the right. This is important because you need to do this yourself when stringing your guitar.
So, what I do is this: I first go through the hole in the tuning post on the Low E, then I thread under the string going clockwise, and then start winding counter-clockwise.
In terms of how much of the string should be on the “other side” of the hole (ie. hanging off the headstock), I can’t give you an exact measurement. I usually just leave enough slack on the string so that it doesn’t get tight right away, but needs to go around the tuning post several times to get tight.
This whole process usually confuses most people who are new at it, but I have a video below that shows the whole process, so watch it if you are confused.
After you thread the string under, and start winding counter-clockwise, the string will catch on itself and you can let go of it – well, sometimes – it has a tendency to un-catch itself and you have to keep trying to get it. This can be really frustrating for beginners. Once you get going, it should look something like this:
There are notches in the nut, where you want the string to eventually sit up by the headstock. In the above picture, it’s that little white piece.
Meanwhile, sometimes you have to hold the bridge pin in with your finger, or a friend can do it, so the bridge pin doesn’t pop out.
As the tension increases and the string starts to get “in tune” or tighter, the tension on the string will hold the bridge pin in place and you can stop worrying about it popping out.
Don’t tighten the string very much. We don’t want to stress the neck on your guitar, which means just tighten the string until it holds some kind of low note, and then move on to the next string. You will want to pre-stretch the string from time to time, because it will go out of tune less if you do this now.
Just don’t pre-stretch the string too much, or the bridge pin might pop out, or the string might start to unravel off of the headstock. I’d say just give it a tug once in a while to make sure it’s getting stretched as you string everything up.
You might also want to trim your excess string once you’ve gotten the first one on there. Some people leave it on and let it hang off the side, but this usually just gets in the way, I find, so I snip it with some snips.
Watch these little bits that you trim off, and the strings themselves, as they have a tendency to randomly stab people. I can’t remember how many times a little piece of guitar string (especially the higher strings) have stabbed me and made me bleed. Way too many! I’d say the best plan is to trim your strings down, and throw them out immediately because there’s nothing worse than accidentally stepping on a tiny bit of High E string and having it go into your foot because you forgot to pick it up earlier!
Eventually, depending on how quickly you can do this, you’ll get around the whole guitar and it will be strung up nicely and trimmed to perfection. If you get this far, congrats! Of course, you won’t have necessarily tightened up your strings yet, or tuned them, which is what is next.
Step #8 – Tuning Your New Strings For The First Time
Even after all these years, Step #7 still takes me a while, and I know what I’m doing, so don’t feel bad if it takes you a while in the beginning.
Finally, though, we can tune this sucker and start to play it.
Tuning can be done a number of ways. You can use an electronic tuner, or you can tune to another guitar that is already in tune, or you can use the power of the internet and use an online tuner and your ear.
Standard tuning is what you’re probably going to want – EADGBE. Most tuners are set to do that anyway, so you just need to find a tuner and “tune up”, as they say.
Here is one of the best online guitar tuners you can use that is on the Fender website. I’ve used it and it’s great. The notes ring out when you press a button and you then have to match your string to the right note.
You should know, guitar strings “go out” a lot at first, because the strings aren’t worn in. So you might find them going out of tune a lot at first, but that should stop happening after not too long, especially if you pre-stretched them as you strung them, as I mentioned before.
At this point you can even – hallelujah! – pick up the guitar and start to hold it normally. Wow, it’s about time!
Eventually, you should be able to get your guitar in tune so that when you play a chord, it sounds good.
Step #10 – Play A Tune
Your acoustic guitar has now been properly re-strung and it’s in tune – no reason you can’t play something.
Try a chord, or a song if you know one. If all is well, it should sound pretty good! Now you’re done, and you should hear that your new strings produce a bright, warm sound. Some people don’t like the sound to be that bright, but it will eventually get worn in and still sound rather warm.