by Cullen James

One of the easiest, simplest things you can do to your guitar is one of the most important. Many guitarists, new and old, don't realize what you should check whenyou restring and the process you should go through when re-stringing.

Simply taking strings off and putting new ones on is doing an injustice to your instrument. Keeping your guitar in tune and in tone has a lot to do with a lot of things, so take re-stringing as a time to check all the things you need to keep your guitar combat ready.

The first thing I do is de-string the guitar. Most of the time, you should wrap the strings and discard them, but I have an old habit of saving back one set of strings. I always wrap the string enough times that I can re-use them with creative weaving) if they break somewhere. Saving old strings gives me a quick replacement if I don't want to break open a new set of strings. There are actually a couple of bad things about this. First, when you string the guitar, you shouldn't wind the string too many times at the tuning peg. It will dull your sustain. Second, these used strings sound like shit when re-used. But it's a habit from my old poor boy days. These days it has more to do with habit though.

So, get those strings off and do with them what you will. Next, clean your instrument. Get some canned air and spray it down. A soft-bristled paint brush is great for brushing more stubborn dust out of crevices. You may not care about the looks of your guitar, but removing grime and dust will prolong its life.

The next thing you should do is check the tightness of the screws on your guitar. Get a screwdriver that fits the screws properly and make sure to not over-tighten anything. I like to work on the guitar from the top down, so I look at the tuning peg screws first. There are varying amounts of screws for the different kind of pegs. But those little screws will snap easily, so, again do not over-tighten anything. If the guitar has string trees and/or locking nut, check any screws there.

Then I'll work my way down to the pickups. These should already be adjusted but you might want to double check there. Last, I'll check the screws in the bridge – especially if it's a tremolo. You don't want to mess with any of the adjustment screws at this time, but you want to make sure that any screws that hold something in place are tight.

Now that you've checked those things, you're ready to put on a new set of strings. It doesn't really matter if you work from treble string to bass strings or what. Just make sure to put the right string in the right place (how many times have you made that error?). Regardless of what kind of peg head you have (3 x 3, 6 in line, 4 x 2), you should always turn the tuning peg so that the strings pull to the inside of the peg head.

For the absolute best intonation, without a locking nut, you should allow for as few turns of the tuning peg as possible. As stated earlier, this isn't a rule I normally follow, but it's best. You can allow more turns for bass strings than treble.
Tune your guitar.

Now, you should check that your neck has the proper bow. This will require assistance. With the guitar in playing position – in your lap as though you were going to play it, or on a strap around you – have a friend hold down one of the outside strings (low or high E) at the first and last fret. Try and slide a playing card under the string at the seventh fret. The card should barely fit underneath. If it is too tight or too loose, you'll need to adjust the truss rod.

The truss rod will be at the top of the guitar, where the headstock meets the neck; at the bottom of the neck under the neck pickup; or at the bottom of the neck where you'll have to de-string and remove the neck. Fortunately, most of the time, once the bow is set, and you use the same gauge strings, you shouldn't have to adjust too often.

If the string was too close to the playing card, you'll need to turn the truss rod counter clockwise. You should only turn the truss rod slightly (1/10 of a turn is the suggested amount) and recheck the adjustment after every turn. If it's too far away from the card, turn clockwise.

Once you're dialed in, tune back up. You should check your string/nut height. Take that same playing card and check the distance between the string and the first fret. Again, you should have just barely enough room to slip the card in. If it's too tight, you might need to replace the nut. If it's too high, you might be able to file the slot down a bit. If you're using a locking nut, you can't really file anything down. You'll have to remove the nut to do any serious work. I suggest taking your guitar to a professional for any of this work.

The last thing you should do is set/check your guitar's intonation. I've already written up a
lengthy piece on that
, so check that piece out for information on intonation.

Oh, before you stand up to play, check the tightness of the screws in your strap-locks.

This may all seem like a lot of work, but the more you do it, the more it become part of a routine. Your guitar is an investment and, more than that, something that you want to be able to rely on when it's needed. This is like regularly scheduled maintenance for your guitar. By keeping up on it, a quality instrument should give you a lifetime of playing pleasure.

I stole a lot of my process information from this Project Guitar series. Check
out the site as there is plenty of cool stuff there.


Back when I played, back in the Before Time, I used to pay people real money to do this.

Given this, I wouldn't be afraid to try it.

Very cool piece.



I never new that about the number of times you turn the peg can affect the sustain. Dude this column rocks! I learn something ever week.

One thing I'm very bad at is keeping it clean. My guitars all get dusty. I usually use a soft cloth to wipe them down but do you have any recs as far as cleaning solutions for the body of the instrument and also the metal parts as well to clean and shine them up? Also, what about cleaning the gunk off the frets?

Maybe I'll have to wait for next week... :)


Why thank you, sir.

I'd pay people to do it for me if I could afford to. It is quite tedious.


I didn't have a cleaning your guitar article planned, but I do now (I've worked ahead quite a bit, though, so it won't be until, like, November sometime).

For cleaning the body of the guitar, any solution made for cleaning guitars will work. Even high-end furniture polish is good.

Necks and the fretboard is another issue. If you have a raw neck, you don't want to you use any cleaner that has silicon in it. Of course your fretboard is generally only has a very light coat of oil on it (and this can wear down) so you don't want to use the silicon-based cleaners.

Why? Because silicon will spread through wood. It can do a couple of things. First, it will discolor the area it gets on/into. If it gets into areas where the wood is glued together (fretboard to neck, neck to body, body in half, etc.), silicon can cause glue to fail. So, beware.

For gunk on frets, go to a hardware store and get the superfine steel wool. Not the shit you use to clean pots and pans, but the stuff that's finer than most sand paper. Carefully buff the frets to get rid of the gunk.

I use Brasso on most of the hardware. Just be careful not to get any on the wood.

If you use an micro-fiber cloth and some canned air after every time you play (or couple of times), you can reduce the frequency you'd have to do this kind of in-depth cleaning.


Excellent. Thank you!

Somewhere, I heard that you should never take all of the strings off a guitar unless you plan on adjusting the neck every time. So, I am in the habit of only doing one string at a time (along with the po' boy keep the old strings habit). But it sounds like I should just buckle down and do it every time anyway, right?


these always blow me away


Great stuff, Cullen.

Another week I print out and give to my son.


Before adjustable truss rods, that might have been the case. But the rods are adjusted to compensate for the string tension. So, when you take a set off, the neck will be at a bit of a bow. When you replace them, the tension will even it out. Of course, doing this over and over will eventually throw the calibration off -- more or less depending on the quality of contruction -- but this would happen over time anyway if you left the strings on or changed them all at once.

It is certainly not a bad thing to change strings indiviudally, if you break one. But you should replace an entire set when the intonation dies out.


And I thot you wrote a lot over there...maybe you should write another book?
Love ya,


i haven't changed my strings in almost five years, i think. *cough*. Let's hear it for DR Flatwounds on cheap basses!


Yeah, I learn something here every week too, I just have to apply it....


Bass strings are a bit different from guitar strings.
some players rarely change them (I read that Marvin Gayes' bassman never did change them).
Someone told me to just dip them overnight in wood alcohol(not sure of the exact kind)makes them new again, as long as there are no fret marks on them.
That would sure be cool for guitar players.


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