There are 2 main types of strings -nylon and steel.
Guitars are built with a particular string type and set-up in mind so it is important to stick with that unless you want to fiddle around with fix-ups.
Steel strings have a much greater tension than nylon.
Putting steel strings on a nylon stringed classical guitar will rip it apart. The bridge is weak and lifts, the plastic on machine-head poles strips, there is rarely adjustable steel reinforcement in the necks on these guitars and the neck pulls forward from the extra tension. The softwood fingerboards aren't made for a strong sharp wire.
Never put steel strings on a classical guitar!
Putting a low tension set of nylon strings on a steel stringed guitar will cause the neck to relax backwards and the poor adjustment causes rattles and inaccuracies. Electronic pick-ups often won't work with nylon strings as they are not magnetic.
Steel strings include various alloys and are prone to rust and build-up of grime from your fingers which badly affects their performance. Extend the life of your strings by wiping them clean over and under with a cloth after playing. Dirty strings are gritty and sound dull. You can’t slide around on dirty strings easily.
Some steel strings have a poly-coating to protect the strings from sweat and rust. Elixir brand (pictured) are well known for this but other brands including D'Addario and Galli have this product too. They retain a bright sounding quality longer.
Some people detest the feel of the slippery coating, others the sound, others the much higher price. I have some on a few of my guitars. Some sound great with these strings, others are better with cheaper strings.
Expensive strings break just as easily as cheaper strings. I play fairly aggressively live and lucky to get about 16 hours of play out of them before things start snapping. Most people will get a much better life out of strings than that. Some strings dull up faster than others. The first thing you notice as strings age is the brightness fades.
If you live near the beach where everything rusts, coated strings are worth the extra. I also use them particularly on guitars I play infrequently so whenever I get those guitars out of storage, they are always good to go. Since the price is double that of uncoated strings you expect to get a longer life and you generally do, especially in harsh environments,
Strings lose their ability to be tuned after a period of time and need replacing.
Typically as strings age the guitar is in tune played lower down the neck, but gets progressively out of tune as you move into playing higher notes up the neck. "Intonation" is the word we use to describe accuracy of pitch on a stringed instrument such as a guitar.
Some strings last only 3 weeks before becoming completely untunable, others lasting years. Maybe a bad batch of steel alloy gets into the product chain from time to time but not all strings are equal.
It's not rocket science to change a string but some people actually pay someone to change strings.
Try it. It is better to understand how things work. Before you start, look at it, think about it. Think which way tightens the string because you want to replace them and have strings tighten or loosen as they were meant to and in the same direction as the usual set up.
Strings can be very sharp. Don't stick yourself.
Buy a set. If you only change one string it is cheap, but you find one new string is bright and the others are dull. Best to change a set.
Strings have different gauges. Notice on one of the steel string packs the numbers 12-53 yet another set starting at 11? Acoustic guitars typically are ok at 11 or 12.
Electric guitars are often from 10 or 11 for an average set.
Nylon strings tend not to have the huge range of the most popular steel variety so a standard pack like the Rotosound with ball ends won't be hard to manage.
Take just one off to start.
Electric guitars can be easy to just thread the string through the hole and the ball end will stop it falling out.
Acoustic Steel Stringed Guitars usually have bridge pins that need to be carefully levered out without breaking them or you'll need to buy a spare. A coin of the right side might make a good lever.
The string ball end goes in the bridge hole.
The bridge pin has a groove groove. It is there to lodge the ball end in and stop it slipping out. Bridge pin groove to face the sound hole, insert the ball end to the hole, replace the bridge pin and pull the string to feel the ball end lock into the bridge pin groove. It will click in but you might have to jiggle the string around and twist the bridge pin slightly to line them up.
Push the pin home and check it is firm and the string can't yank out.
Nylons require fishing line type ties but you can buy ball end nylon strings and avoid all that knot tying and slippage with these slippery suckers. The higher strings are particularly slippery and need good knot tying skills.
Now the other end threads through the machine-head hole. About 3 to 5 wraps around the post is enough. Less for thicker strings with grippy surfaces and more for thinner slippery strings. One wrap is going to slip, 20 wraps is too much. Any extra string is not useful and you will cut it off with side-cutter pliers when you finish.
As you wind it on, keep the string tight so there is no slack and wind it on in the right direction. You don't want the different strings touching each other at the tuning knob end.
When you have it up to tuning tightness, stretch the string at the top and bottom and you usually find a bit of slack comes out and you must re-tune. Do this a few times and the string should be fairly well bedded in and you won't have endless tuning problems due to slack in the string winding.
There are 2 main types of machine-head posts, open or closed (as in most classic guitars). The open type is easier and faster because with a steady hand you can wrap the string around the post rather than wind, wind, wind, wind....Even with a winding tool this takes too long.
Wrap wrap wrap, then wind. It's faster.
On the closed in machine-head posts you have no choice but to thread the string through and get winding but if your string is way long, you don't need to keep all of it. Nylon is slippery so be sure you have a few extra wraps on the highest strings, maybe 6 or 7 is a good number.
Cut the extra string off with enough length you can safely bend it out of the way rather than have a hard sharp straight piece ready to stick you if you get your hand near it.
If this went well change the other strings. Don't take all strings off at once, the neck may move due to a large and sudden change in tension.
If you are seriously poor you might keep your old used strings as a spare just in case one breaks.
Yes I have been that poor. Keep the others as spares anyway in case you break one on the weekend you can still keep playing.
As a kid I once sold my guitar because I couldn't tune it. I was ignorant, but I took my guitar to an equally stupid music shop assistant to try and have the problem fixed and he couldn't do anything about it. Nobody ever told me strings wear out. I guess no one told him either. (and nobody told me that a lot of uninformed idiots work in the music industry. )
In fairness, many music shop people aren’t guitar players. They might play drums so their advice might not be best. It isn't rude to ask them what they play. They are often inexperienced people who may not have even read a book about a guitar.
Strings stretching and effects of body chemicals on strings changes their properties over time and can render them useless. Change strings regularly if you can. New strings sound brighter and are slick and nice to play.
You will have a choice of strings to buy based on what you prefer: extra light to heavy. I prefer light gauge. In my experience, extra-light strings are more difficult to keep in tune with ultra thin strings having almost no tonal character. You simply need a bit more metal vibrating to produce tone through a resonant body. Ultra light strings are also more prone to breakages.
Heavy strings are tonier in my opinion but are both harder to play and much more difficult to bend or use vibrato, that rapid wobble. It’s plus and minus. Different materials have their own sound so it’s trial and error to find what you like for your instrument.
The enormous range of string materials and gauges makes it harder.
When I was a lad, there were fewer choices. At the dawn of rock n roll the Gods Of Rock like Jimi Hendrix was playing quite a heavy string (he couldn’t buy extra light) and it is a testament to his musicianship and vice-like grip to think he was able to play at speed and bend thick strings.
Today’s guitar player can buy very thin to thick strings and everything between.
Light strings to give deeper notes will have to be looser and may slap around quite easily.
Heavier strings to give high notes will have to be tighter and might put stress on the bridge or machineheads. All that choice might just cause you problems.
Guitars straight out of a factory tend to be set up for a certain string gauge and you should try to find out what that is so that replacements are easier to source. Keep the empty packet so you have a reference for replacements.
If you change strings from an ultra-light set to a heavier set, the neck tension changes, pulling the neck forward and making the gap between fretboard and neck (the action) higher.
If you change strings from a heavier set to an ultra-light set, the neck tension changes, relaxing the neck backwards and making the gap between fretboard and neck (the action) lower so you may get fret buzz.
Changing string gauges causes movement and you may need to adjust the neck. Once I have a guitar set-up the way I like it, I replace strings with the same gauge as the last set.
I have different guitars with different set-ups.
- Most electric guitars have an adjustment for the length of the strings. String length should be adjusted so that the notes at the 12th fret are the same pitch as the open strings. Be sure to adjust strings only when they are fairly new. Different strings have different materials and diameters so there are length adjustments on some guitars to get the string to perform at its best.
- Secondly adjust the height of the strings from the bridge. The nut at the top end has gaps filed down to a certain height. If it is well made it should be pretty right but as age creeps in the strings can carve their way down and sit lower than they should. Occasionally these nuts need to be reset or replaced. String height can be a personal preference. Some slide guitar players like a higher action so that the slide won't bump against the frets. Some players prefer a very low action so that very fast playing is possible. I prefer my strings as low as possible without causing any fret vibration. Most electric guitars require an Allen key to raise the spacers in adjusting this height. The height at the nut rarely needs adjustment but you can file it down if the factory set-up wasn’t perfect or pack it underneath or just replace it.
- Thirdly, the pick-ups can be moved closer or further from the strings. The closer the magnets are to the strings, the higher output from the guitar. Higher level signals from the guitar to the amp may affect the tone, probably producing a dirtier sound. You can move the bass end or the treble side of the pick-up to alter the balance. I prefer an even balance between bass and treble. After all, I don’t want to go to my solo with no treble to cut through with. Some players prefer an all down low sound. If the pick-ups are too close to the strings there will be buzzes as the strings slap on the pick-ups.
- A fourth adjustment is the truss-rod in the neck of the guitar. This metal rod inside the neck resists the forward pull on the neck from the strings. Inevitably, most guitar necks will need some adjustment as this continuous force drags the neck forward and wood is a flexible material. Tightening that truss rod will push the neck back into line. Don’t over-tighten lest you break something. If you attempt to do this, do it little by little.
Don't buy a guitar with a high action. That is when the strings sit high above the frets rather than close to them. If you really like the guitar, ask the dealer to adjust it before buying it. It is not easy for an amateur to get it perfect.
It is impossible to be sure that a guitar with high action can function well with a lower action without first making the adjustments and then checking the entire fretboard for dead spots and buzzes.
A good luthier will measure the distances of strings from the frets at the open position and higher up the neck in the playable areas before and after an adjustment as objective proof of an improvement. A professional set-up to adjust the truss-rod will cost you $50 or more.
STRINGS AND TUNING
A lot of math and trial and error went into developing strings and largely strings have been developed for guitars tuned in standard tuning.
As guitars can be tuned to many different notes changing away from standard tuning will change the intended purpose of the string to be at a fixed length and tension to something different, possibly no longer tuneable for your setup, so sloppy they rattle and sound terrible or too tight they break. You may need to reconsider many factors of setup and string gauge.
This is why the job of the instrument maker exists. The luthier has expertise in the build and setup including the mathematical perfection of choosing the right strings.