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Guitar tip: Breaking Strings

Nothing more annoying to a guitar player than to have a string break in the middle of a performance. If you are playing a non-trem guitar you can usually at least finish the song minus one string, but if your guitar has a floating trem, breaking a string throws the whole guitar out of tune, and the song is over.

So why do strings break, and how can you avoid that?

One reason strings break is they just wear out. Think of each string as a long, thin steel rod, and every time you pick or strum it, it's like bending that steel rod back and forth. Over time the bending causes small fractures in the steel that weakens it, particularly at the stress points discussed below. Add to that, sweat, oils, moisture, and all sorts of other gunk that builds up on the strings that can corrode and weaken the steel. And every time you fret a string you are rubbing metal against metal causing wear.

OK, so that explains why old strings break, but what if they are new and still breaking often? Where the string is breaking is your best clue here. Strings will usually break at a stress point. Identify that stress point and you may be able to stop the breaking. Let's start at the ball end of the string and work our way up.

If the ball breaks off, either the string is defective or there is a sharp edge that is causing a stress point. This isn't very common.

Breaking at the saddle is quite common, and usually means that the saddle has a sharp edge or burr. I've noticed that guitars with a tune-o-matic style bridges (like a Gibson) which have saddles that are rather pointed and sharp have more saddle breaks than Fender-style saddles which are more rounded. This is particularly true on guitars with a Bigsby or similar trem.

Often sanding or filing the saddles to be less pointed and to remove any sharp edges or burrs helps. If your guitar has a tailpiece separate from the bridge, and the tailpiece sets a lot lower than the bridge, this will create a sharper bend over the saddle and cause more stress on the string. Raising the tailpiece, or top-wrapping the strings may help.

Roller bridges/saddles will eliminate a lot of breakage problems at the saddle, especially on trem-equipped guitars.

Your nut is another stress point. It could have sharp edges or cut improperly which not only puts more stress on the string, but is also the biggest cause of tuning issues. Carefully inspect how the string passes through the slot. Does it have room to move in the slot? Are there sharp edges? Is the slot cut at the wrong angle?

The tuners is another place strings break, and there can be several reasons for this. First of all, if the string is installed wrong it could cause additional stress on it. The point where the string takes a sharp bend through the hole in the tuning post is a natural stress point, and if the string isn't wound right, there will be additional stress every time the tuner is turned. If you do a lot of alternate tunings the string gets bent back and forth more with each tuning.

I see this problem especially with locking tuners where there are no turns of the string on the post.... all the stress is directly on that bend. When I install strings on locking tuners, I always allow enough slack so when the string is tuned to pitch there is about one wrap of the string around the post. With locking tuners you also need to be careful not to over-tighten the locking nut, or it may pinch the string and create a weak point.

There is more than one "correct" way to install a string. The way I do it is to pull the string tight, make a sharp bend in the string 1-1/2" to 2" beyond the tuning post (less for thicker strings, more for thinner). Insert the string into the hole up to the bend so that the bend is in the correct direction to wrap around the post, and make another sharp bend in the opposite direction on the other side of the post. Make one wrap above the string as it passes through the hole, then move it down below the hole for the remainder of the turns.

Be careful not to kink the string anywhere other than where it enters and exits the hole, or you will create an additional stress point where the string is more likely to break.

Other causes of string breakage at the tuners are sharp edges as the sting enters the post hole. You are more likely to see this on budget tuners.

When I work on guitars I often have to loosen all the strings in order to do the work, tighten to pitch to test, and repeat until it is right. Invariably, if I have to go through this several times a string (usually the high E) will break. I always keep a supply of spare singles.

Of course if you are one of those players that beat your guitar strings mercilessly or do double-full-step bends.... well, don't be surprised when they break.