Most gigging guitarists have experienced the dreaded string break in the middle of the set. Without a guitar tech or backup guitar on hand, losing a string can mean missing your entrance, ruining a solo, or derailing the show altogether.
That said, Ernie Ball recently launched a new line of strings called Paradigm Slinky, which claim to be “the most break-resistant strings on the planet.” Ernie Ball is so convinced of the strings’ “advanced technology” that a 90-day replacement guarantee is bundled with the strings.
Ernie Ball’s confidence made us stop to consider why strings break in the first place. Is it age and wear or quality of wire? Are some brands better than others?
Guitar strings are uncomplicated. They are simply a piece of material – gut, nylon, steel, or alloy – worked into a specific shape for a specific purpose. And by looking at the properties of the material, we can better understand what’s going on when we hear that dreaded plink and snap.
Ultimately, string breakage boils down to three main issues: trauma, fatigue and corrosion.
Simply pulling on new strings doesn’t necessarily create the sort of trauma we’re talking about. The video of Petrucci getting aggressive with the whammy bar is neat, but most new medium/heavy gauge strings can take this abuse. Fatigue will set in soon, though, with this sort of repeated stretching.
It’s the pinpoint trauma that you really have to watch out for.
Sometimes bridge saddles are to blame for broken strings, as they’re prone to developing burrs – sharp or unevenly formed microscopic protrusions. Burrs can also develop on tuning posts and can wear your strings down on the other end of your guitar.
The nut is another piece of hardware that can cause issues with your strings. If you use particularly heavy strings or even if you switch between gauges often enough, the nut on your guitar can wear down or develop sharp edges.
Companies use a myriad of ball-end windings, like the reinforced Ernie Ball end, to help the bridge area. Whether it’s a hardtail Strat or a Mastery, keep an eye on your bridge hardware to make sure it isn’t getting rusty or tilting off-center.
When you’re changing strings, grab a toothbrush and clean the nut. Some players even add some pencil graphite to the nut grooves or bridge saddles as lubrication.
One of the major causes of string fatigue is the result of winding the string incorrectly around the tuning posts. If the string’s tension terminates at a kink, the wire will weaken at that point making it more susceptible to breakage.
Sharp edges can also develop on the inside of the tuning posts causing extra breakage when the string passes through the posts. File these edges away using a fine-detail mini file, and clean the posts with a cotton swab to prevent these pinpointed problems.
Repeated tightening and loosening can also contribute to metal fatigue, especially after frets and other contact points have established wear or stress themselves.
If you’re popping strings left and right using a 8-gauge strings and a 2mm pick, it might be time to consider thicker strings or a thinner pick."
This is not necessarily the case with every guitar, though. Though pedal steels stretch and relax strings constantly, they do so without the added stress of fret contact and without the inevitable build up of oils and sweat from fingers.
The thickness and sharpness of your pick also plays a part in how long your strings will last. Worn out or particularly heavy picks have a tendency to wear your strings out more quickly. So if you’re popping strings left and right using a 8-gauge strings and a 2mm pick, it might be time to consider thicker strings or a thinner pick.
Steel contains iron, which oxidizes in the presence of oxygen, creating rust. The sweat and oily residue left on your strings from your fingers will speed up the oxidation process, as will environmental factors like humidity.
There are musicians out there who prefer strings after this process has started. James Jamerson, for example, famously never changed his strings, which likely deadened them over time. But that doesn't mean that old and dirty strings work for everyone.
You can drastically improve the lifespan of regular strings by simply keeping them clean."
You can drastically improve the lifespan of regular strings by simply keeping them clean. Wiping down your strings with string cleaner, special wipes, or even with a simple polish cloth can remove the residue, keeping your strings stronger for longer.
Certain brands advertise that their string coating can strengthen their strings’ resilience toward corrosion and rust. Elixir, for example, makes specifically anti-rust strings that feature “an innovative Anti-Rust Plating” advertised to prevent rust and corrosion.
Much in the same vein as Elixir, Ernie Ball’s Paradigm strings are extra resistant to buildup and corrosion because they are made with a coated “breakthrough plasma enhanced wrap wire.”
Any of these issues can contribute to a string break. Keeping your strings fresh, clean and properly strung up on a guitar is the best way of limiting the chance of a break. And for those who want that extra security, try out extra protection string technologies like the Paradigm Slinkys and let us know what you think.