Posted by: seanoldblog | 2010/09/11

1. String Change

My solo show Wednesday evening seemed mostly a good excuse to enjoy a meal with friends afterward.  We dined.  It was glorious.  The man in charge of sound and lights at the Metropolitan Room is a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Perreaux.  For two years now at the end of each show, there has been a standing invitation to join the good man at his favorite local French eatery on Park Avenue and 22nd Street called L’Express.  Finally taking him up on it, we started with the best of intentions: some light fare and a glass of wine to decompress after a show.  As soon as the first bite hit the palate, however, I had to know what else was available.  Pates and sausages and tartars and pickles and… oh my.  It went on like this for a couple hours.  Every bite was curl-your-toes good.  Someone in that kitchen has love in their heart.

When I arrived at my home much later than expected, I looked in the book to see what tomorrow morning’s responsibilities were.  Slated for noon was a recording session at Avatar with Anne Steele, the whole thing using an acoustic guitar – the Walden of course.  Upon inspection I noticed the strings were actively nasty – sticky, dirty looking, fret gouges underneath the wound strings, and even a spot low on the G string where the outer wrap was coming apart.  No time to change them in the morning, gotta’ do it now…

First step is to pull off the old strings….

Then scrub the fingerboard and frets with #0000 steel wool.

-click- for motion!

Then I soak some mineral oil into the wood.  This process both keeps the wood from cracking from dryness and seals the pores from finger gudge and other contaminants.  [Lemon or vegetable oils will rot…]  I spread it out evenly, making sure to get around the seats of the frets, then let it sit for at least ten minutes.

Sometimes I’ll put some on the bridge as well to help prolong the inevitable crack between the bridge-pin holes.  It works.

The nut and saddle are made of bone – likely from a cow – and they like a buff with steel wool from time to time also.  A once-over with some fine sandpaper [600 grit] first to make sure there are no rough edges at the string contact points is a good idea.

The more we can do to prevent strings popping on the gig the better.  The slots in the nut benefit from a rub with the sharp point of a pencil.  The graphite dust in there lubricates the string so that when you bend a note or tune up it can slide freely in the slot.  No ‘ping!’ sound and a quick jump up a half step…

The tuning pegs themselves deserve inspection for loose fittings; front, back, and knob tension.

Now that the oil has seeped into the wood for a while it’s time to do one last scrub with the steel wool to polish the frets and fingerboard wood.  I’ll wipe up any excess with a good soft paper towel – I like the thick one-ply jobs since they don’t fall apart.  Good for drying freshly washed meats and fish in the kitchen too…

At this point she’s ready for the fresh set of strings.  I like to secure all the ball ends at the bridge first, making sure they’re tightly seated and pulled up as snug to the pin as possible – another place you can get a surprise tuning shift later on if you’re not careful.

At the headstock I have a very specific way of wrapping the strings on the pegs.  Starting with the low E string, I wrap the string around the post once, then put the end through the little hole and pull the whole thing tight.  I’ll then hold tension on the string with my right hand while twisting the tuner up with my left, making sure that the string winds on at pressure.

I’ll tune to the exact pitch later, this is just a feel thing.  As I go up to the A, D, G, B, and high E strings I’ll add a little more winding on the post to each string.  As they get thinner, more will fit on the post.  I like to have roughly the same amount of string mass on each peg.  It maintains a good hold on the string for less slippage, and I believe it maintains an even resonance as well.  More sound comes out of the headstock than we often recognize.

When all the strings are on, tuned to pitch, and I know everything is nice and tight, I’ll snip the loose ends off and she’s ready to go to work.  With a full belly and a clean guitar, I can now get some much-needed sleep.



  1. Nice Post Sean!!!
    every thing a good blog should be…
    Remember Frisell’s CD “Good Blog Happy Man” ?
    what a shame about Mike Kissel…

  2. Thanks Piers – I notice you are quite active these days yourself. Heard Frisell’s new one yet?

    I think of Mike Kissel often. He was much loved by so many good people.


  3. sweet … thanks sean, now if i can just figure out how to this page for the next time i change strings on one of these things . . .

    hmmm, what am i some kinda demigod

    • Wwwhhpbpbpbpth! I guess you’re right…
      When you want to come see this page again, just click on ‘Guitars’ at the top and it will be #1. String Change. Good to know it can be useful.
      Hope you’re well,

  4. Sean,

    Thanks for the great instructional on string changes. I’ve never done any meaningful cleaning or conditioning of the frets, or checked the tuning pegs – turns out they both needed it badly. I’ve always strung my guitar in a way that led to it falling out of tune for several days. Strings stayed tight using your instructions.

    Thanks again, and keep ’em coming . . .


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