BREAKING A STRING ON stage is a drag—even with a spare guitar sitting in the wings. Even worse is tracking down the guitarist of the other band at the bar to borrow an A string. It’s an annoyance to find stings at short notice. Sometimes, it’s next to impossible—for example in a small town on a Sunday— so you don’t want to get caught without spares.
Depending on the type of guitar you use, you should plan your string inventory for the entire duration of your tour. Firstly, it’s cheaper buying strings in bulk, and, secondly, it’s a better plan than scouring the local shops, hoping one is still open. Now, as you should already know the length of your tour, the remaining consideration is how often you plan to change your strings.
If you’re known for a superclean sound, then changing strings after every gig or two might make sense. But if you’re playing through an overdrive pedal, a high-gain amp, and/or a P.A. of tenuous quality, are you really worried that your stings are three days old?
Clues to a proactive string-change regiment can be found in your chosen style of music, what guitar you play, the angle of the string over the bridge, the bridge material, whether any sharp edges exist, your string gauges, and the type of pick you use. All of these factors can play a role in string durability. I’ve found that Gibson-style guitars with Tune-o-matic bridges are typically less wearing on strings. I might land too heavily on the high E while playing a power chord and snap it, but, for the most part, I can simply change the strings when I feel they’re getting too dull, or if I want to give the guitar a good cleaning.
For me, Stratocaster-style guitars are something entirely different.
At times, I have had my Strats professionally set up with a focus on minimizing string breakage. Well, the fact remains that my Strats still tend to eat A and D strings— particularly when I’m playing a musical style that calls for hard down strokes. That’s just how it is. Additionally, tremolo-bar use puts the strings under even more strain. Now, you may call me a ham-fisted buffoon—and many do—but I cannot risk three consecutive shows without a string change. However, I change only the A and D every other show, and do a complete set change maybe once a week. Therefore, in preparation for a tour, I usually take about 30 A strings and 30 D strings, along with a couple of boxes of full sets.
As a precaution, I put a few sets of strings in my guitar case, in the event the cable/string case is buried in the cargo space of the bus and I want to change strings in the hotel. I always change strings after the show—not the next day. I tug each string, tune them up, and leave the guitar overnight. In the morning, I re-tune the guitar. This approach results in a lot fewer tuning issues. And when there is a big temperature difference between the outside environment and the club, I always get the guitars out as soon as possible after I enter the venue, so the strings can adjust to the climate change before I go on stage.
Nicky Garratt is the former guitarist for the UK Subs, founder of the New Red Archives label, a vegetarian chef, and a lecturer on science advocacy topics.