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Thread: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

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    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Up front I need to say I prefer the sound of old strings on just about all of my stringed instruments, and that's been my preference for about 40 of the 50 years I've been playing stringed instruments. I'm not saying I'm a slacker on maintenance or anything like that, it's just that I really don't like the bright sound of new strings. I keep all my instruments clean and their setup up to date, and I seriously clean my strings after every time I play them. As such strings tend to last a long time for me -- I have some instruments that have strings on them that are intentionally older than my oldest son who just turned 32 last month. So, that said...

    I changed out my 7-year old strings on my main-playing mandolin today. (FYI, I use D'A Flattops on my mandolins.)

    The reasons for changing the strings? Most immediately that my ears were blown out from a jam last evening, and everything (including my wife) was sounding dull. Also I did an inventory and discovered that I had only one new set of new-old-stock (sealed) mandolin strings in my possession for two mandolins, so I placed an order for 5 new sets and decided to use up that new-old-stock set. And lastly, I'm breaking in a new flatpick in anticipation of going to our first festival in 19 months, so I was curious to also see what a new set of strings would sound like...

    I played the mandolin heavily for about an hour before changing strings so I'd have some memory of how it sounded with the old strings. I know, there's really no completely objective way to compare strings before and after, but I wanted to make some effort.

    To my ears, the sound of the new strings is brighter than the old ones, pretty much as expected. Other than brightness, tone-wise the new strings sound pretty much the same as the old ones, possibly a little louder, but not much -- maybe noticeable, so possibly as much as 10% louder. Clarity is about the same. In a way I'm glad, as this experience says my efforts to clean strings after playing them pays off not just in how long they last, but also in how they sound. But I really was sort of hoping for a WOW difference, and that really isn't there. Or at least I am not recognizing that kind of difference..

    Where I do experience recognizable differences are in the touch and in the tuning of the new strings...

    The new strings are noticeably not as stiff as the old strings; I tend to associate that stiffness of the old strings with brittleness probably from age and long periods of tension.

    And the new strings are easier to tune; I tend to associate that with cleaner, less corroded strings that fit the string slots better, and also there are no old bends in the strings that can cause resistance moving over the bridge or nut.

    So my task now is to break in these strings enough so I'm not bothered by the brightness. As has been happening since March 2020, I'm jamming online for about 90 minutes every day, so I expect I'll succeed in accomplishing that break-in. New Flattops are also a little less bright than new round-wound strings, so that does help, but to my ears there's still significant brightness that needs to be worn away.

    As a person who prefers old strings, I am aware that I have a bias, that is that we tend to over-romanticize the sound of new strings -- although I do also recognize that everyone hears different things from their instruments. But for me, there are some clear and noticeable differences in feel and in tuning -- not life-changing differences for me, but these differences are there and they might be important for some people.

    When these new strings are 7 years old I'll probably think back about writing this up and wonder: was it worth it to change them out, or will I wish my strings were 14 years old by then?
    -- Don

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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    I thought I was bad! I only change my J74 strings every 3-4 months (which seems like a “long time” to a lot of people)

    After 3-4 months:
    1. I lose a lot of volume
    2. I lose much of the tonal complexity that the mandolin is capable of producing
    3. Even when the strings are in tune, the intonation starts to sound wonky

    I only have to play for an hour or two to get rid of the “new string brightness”, so that’s not really an issue, since I play for an hour or two every day.

    I know that most of time, we generally shrug and say “to each his own” on the forum… but I think that you’re probably not getting the best sound possible out of your mandolin if you don’t change the strings relatively frequently…
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Several years ago, I was talking to a reasonably well known mandolin player (American) during the interval. He’d clearly been having difficulty with the tuning on his mandolin during the first set and he told me that he preferred the sound of old strings. Need I say more!

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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Legendary bass guitarist Joe Osborn didn't change his strings for 20 years.

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    Mandolin user MontanaMatt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Don, How is this possible? Do you play as quiet as a mouse? There is no way strings could last that long for me. I have evo frets, which might be part of this, but when I change strings there a divots on the underside of the strings from wear, after about 20 hrs of use. If I had softer frets, the wear would be on the frets, and I’d need fret dressing every year or two…how can your frets or strings not be completely wrecked after so long? Is it possible that you are missing some important clues that maintenance is being neglected?
    For the reader of this in the future, do not take this person’s experience as permission to never change your strings on your mandolin. Good mandolins sound good with good new strings.
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Yup...

    Many if not most of the bigger-name pro musicians have techs do their string changes. I've talked to many, and they shrug when I ask them techie questions about their instruments because they're basically completely out of touch with that side of the business anymore, they're really too busy performing and setting up performances. Also, if they have a string break during a performance, they'll change instruments and have their tech swap the strings in the background.

    The exception to that seems to be double bass players, who seem to always know (and have pride in) their instrument's setup unless they're borrowing one for the gig because it's hard to travel with a double bass... And because of both tone and expense, most double bassists keep their strings as long as possible -- there are some double bass strings that are considered very desirable used, and command a respectable price used.

    Most of the lower level full-time pro musicians that I've met can't afford techs or other support people so they do their own string changes and setup (and schlepping). They'll be very aware of their frequency for changing strings because they do it themselves.

    But for me, it's not the price, and it's not breaking strings... it's the sound. I much prefer the sound of old (but clean) strings. And, I'm not alone, I've met a lot of people in the bluegrass community who also prefer old strings, many of whom keep them for years too. Some even trade for old strings, which is something I don't typically do because I like them very clean. Personal preference.

    As I mentioned earlier, easier tuning is an advantage of my new strings. I'd estimate my new strings are about 10% easier to tune, and for this tuning the 2nd course is most noticeably easier. Also as mentioned, the new strings feel more flexible, less stiff; I'm not sure if that's an advantage yet, but the feel is different. If I get obsessive about it, the brightness of the new strings is really bothersome to me, especially the wound 3rd and 4th courses, but I know it will go away in a week or so, so I'll live with it. In the back of my mind I'm already wistfully thinking in terms of years for these strings.

    I've been glad that I'm breaking in a new pick now too -- it sort of distracts me from the brightness of the strings.

    Quote Originally Posted by MontanaMatt View Post
    Don, How is this possible? Do you play as quiet as a mouse? There is no way strings could last that long for me. I have evo frets, which might be part of this, but when I change strings there a divots on the underside of the strings from wear, after about 20 hrs of use. If I had softer frets, the wear would be on the frets, and Iíd need fret dressing every year or twoÖhow can your frets or strings not be completely wrecked after so long? Is it possible that you are missing some important clues that maintenance is being neglected?
    For the reader of this in the future, do not take this personís experience as permission to never change your strings on your mandolin. Good mandolins sound good with good new strings.
    P.S. Matt, I'm using evo frets too, but no divots on the old strings. I play decent volume, and can be heard in larger jams. The strings are D'A Flattops, perhaps that is the difference, maybe they don't get string divots like some other strings??? One thing I can also say is my hands and fingers don't sweat much and I live in a dry climate, so my strings don't tend to get dirty much. And I clean them religiously after playing each time, that might also help. I do a huge amount of barre chord work and I try to keep my fretting hand tension low, but I can't really say I'm really perfect at that.

    What I can say is that the old strings look pretty similar to the new strings as far as wear and tear is concerned... None of the windings are worn through, there were a few dark spots on the plain strings indicating a possible spot of corrosion starting, but as long as the strings remain smooth I'm ok playing them. The phosphor-bronze darkens in some spots over time, but the areas where I play heavily were looking pretty much like new.

    And actually, I'd add for the reader in the future, keep in mind that there are as many successful variations to how to play and maintain a mandolin -- or any instrument -- as there are players. Everyone does something different. There are conventions, but not rules. Normal is just a setting on the washing machine.
    Last edited by dhergert; Aug-09-2021 at 11:56am.
    -- Don

    "Music: A minor auditory irritation occasionally characterized as pleasant."
    "It is a lot more fun to make music than it is to argue about it."


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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Strings..

    It's frets that cause the wear (and corrosion too I guess if you tend to sweat or not wipe them). On my metal-strung harps, strings are replaced only as breakage occurs, which rarely happens. So my harps and hammered dulcimers (and fiddles and cellos...) have had the same strings for many years.

    If you're playing bluegrass, I can understand wanting to have the brightest, loudest sound possible. But I'm not doing BG so all my fretted instruments go as is until something breaks.

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    Old Guy Mike Scott's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Hmm, interesting. Personally I hate changing strings-period. Mandolin, guitar, dobro, uke-doesn't matter; I just don't like doing it. So, usually my strings are way past due for changing and I always think that whatever instrument I put new strings on sounds really good following a string change. I just changed out the strings on the Silverangel and have about 6+ months on the strings of the Big Muddy (which gets the most play), so its time. I cannot imagine what 7 year old strings sound like (or play like for that matter), but whatever works is cool in my book.
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Don, would you share your string cleaning process? If it’s more than a dry wipe, I’d appreciate knowing. Thanks
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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Quote Originally Posted by dhergert View Post
    ...As such strings tend to last a long time for me -- I have some instruments that have strings on them that are intentionally older than my oldest son who just turned 32 last month...
    Huh...I have a five-bar Zimmermann Autoharp that was made around 1885; it still has all the original bass strings. Which is a good thing, because you can't get wound zither/Autoharp strings that short any more.

    Treble strings get replaced only as they break, usually with lengths of proper gauge guitar string into which I twist loops to go around the end pins. Still many of the original treble strings on the 'harp.

    Do 135-year-old strings lose brightness? How can I tell, since my late grand-dad would have had to hear them in his youth, and pass the info on to me somehow for comparison?

    Of course, you don't fret Autoharp strings, so finger-sweat corrosion and fret-caused wear aren't factors. More than a century and a quarter under string tension no doubt changes the acoustic response of the strings, but sans alternatives, there they stay. I wonder if Charles Zimmermann, "inventor" (or at least patenter, 1884) of the Autoharp, installed them himself...
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Quote Originally Posted by A-board View Post
    Don, would you share your string cleaning process? If it’s more than a dry wipe, I’d appreciate knowing. Thanks
    90% of the time I wipe the whole string bed with a paper towel, dry. I wipe the strings vigorously both on top and on the under (fret) side, so the frets and fingerboard get wiped too. I also wipe the strings below the bridge and above the nut. At that time I also wipe down the back of the neck, and if I have time I'll also gently wipe down the whole instrument.

    About once a month I'll get out a string cleaner and clean each string thoroughly, followed by the same kind of paper towel treatment mentioned above. At this time I may also apply a small amount of light oil to the fingerboard and other unfinished wood (I have an unfinished ebony pick guard and matching armrest). And I may use a slightly moist paper towel to wipe down the finish of the instrument. This is usually where I'll also do an in-depth check of setup and other items on the instrument.
    -- Don

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    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    I guess there are three types of fretted string instrument players. Those who can hear what happens to intonation over time if they don't change strings frequently enough, those who can't hear it at all, and those who can hear it but don't care.


    Strings only intonate perfectly (or as near as dammit with our 12TET fret system) when they are mechanically uniform along the length of the string. Over time, the strings accumulate micro nicks from contact with the frets, differential stretching to make that contact, and because most of us play below the 12th fret it's all happening on just that lower section of each string. The string is no longer uniform along its length, so the intonation starts to go wonky. I know some people don't care about this, or they're just not very picky about intonation but it happens.

    Poor intonation drives me nuts, but that's just me. I can hear it creeping in after a while, so I change strings even before they start to sound too dull. Depending on what's happening in my musical life that could be every 3 to 4 weeks. But we're all different, and we all have different sensitivity to intonation. I wouldn't criticize anyone who preferred playing on very old strings if that's the sound they're going for.

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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Scott View Post
    Hmm, interesting. Personally I hate changing strings-period. Mandolin, guitar, dobro, uke-doesn't matter; I just don't like doing it.
    Exactly and right on. Made me laugh, yea some people do think similar thoughts. I have attempted to make a video of myself changing mandolin strings in under eight minutes using a battery powered string winder and having any other tools I would need close at hand at the start with the strings opened and ready to go. Changing all eight strings and bringing each to correct pitch was the goal. I planned on posting this video to the MC to create a sort of challenge to others and see if anyone would try and beat my mark. I attempted this feat several times and failed with best time around 18 minutes. I realized that there can be some pleasure in changing strings if you take your time and enjoy the process, clean a little while your at it and try not to draw blood. Now when I know the job must be done I set up for it, set aside the needed time, one half hour for me since I'm a one string off and one string on type and do some cleaning and polishing while I'm at it. I remember back when I could not afford new strings and would boil the old ones and then drop them in ice water. It actually works or it did for me back in the day.

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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    I'll support any argument for putting off changing strings. But, Don, every seven years, you'd better make sure your tetanus shots are up to date.

    Seriously though, as Don says, we're not all looking for a bright crisp sound. Many of us actually enjoy the sounds of old guys on early studio or field recordings, who didn't change strings before they absolutely had to, let alone have string technicians to change strings during a show.
    Last edited by Ranald; Aug-09-2021 at 2:11pm.
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    I think the longest I've ever gone not changing strings would've been about a year - that was a hectic year so I just kept putting off restringing. In my mind I always think that it's going to be really time consuming because of 8 strings vs. 6 or 4, but in actual fact it I find it goes pretty quickly - I think I timed my last mandolin restring as clocking in at around 15 min. I have switched to monels though and am getting a lot more life out of them - I've had them on for a few months now and they still sound great to my ears.
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    Registered User J Mangio's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    I'm with you Don; I change my J74s one at a time, only when they break, or wear through. My backup Mandos strings have been on for too many years too remember.
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    When I was working at the music store, or playing regularly I could not go more than a month tops (back then I was really lashing that poor old mule) sometimes Iíd break most of a set in a night, youthful stupidity. Then I learned more about playing more tactfully Iíd get maybe 6 weeks out of a set if we were playing regularly. Time passed and I learned to when I needed to change before things started to break. That would get me three or four months at MOST then, they just started to sound like old clothesline strung on the garage.
    Now, not playing much, whatís on there now has probably been on for two years, if thereís a gig, Iíll put fresh ones on and play them in for an hour or six, then they will be fresh but, not, brassy.
    I cannot fathom strings over a year old when playing with people.
    When youíve worked at a music shop, you get used to changing a LOT of strings! Itís just practice, like anything else.
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    bon vivant jaycat's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Scott View Post
    Personally I hate changing strings-period.
    Try this method:

    1. Settle into a comfy chair.
    2. Put the ball game on TV
    3. Pour a healthy scotch on the rocks.

    Works for me, every time.
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    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Quote Originally Posted by jaycat View Post
    Try this method:

    1. Settle into a comfy chair.
    2. Put the ball game on TV
    3. Pour a healthy scotch on the rocks.

    Works for me, every time.
    Where’s the part about changing the strings
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    I donít haveĒacid skinĒ and have several instruments, all of which I play (though I do have my favorites and a couple that get played pretty sparingly), so Iím not wailing on 1 or 2 everyday. I usually can get 6 months or more out of J-74s, especially since I havenít been playing out. Pre-COVID Iíd change my main playersí strings at least every 2-3 months. On mando, especially with J-74s, I usually notice the A strings being a pain to tune before the intonation issue hits, so thatís when I change them out. Iíll say Iíve never been sad that I changed themÖ

    That said, I havenít changed strings on my electric bass in probably 8 years, but it doesnít get much play at all at home. Still sounds/feels good.

    Do what you like and gets you YOUR tone.

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    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Have found that some mandolins don't seem to be as affected by new vs old strings. My Gibson Jr. is that way. One time with regular gigs kept the same set on for a year. Changed because I was having a tough time keeping it in tune in our band.

    I know a number of folks who prefer older strings to new. And if it works, good. I used to go years on my electric basses, but was using flatwounds and wanted a specific tone that one comes from those old strings.

    The biggest problem I have with old strings is being heard in a group setting. Either in our band, or with other Nordic players which often includes accordion. Old strings on my instruments just don't seem to project as well.

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    Mandolin user MontanaMatt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    If you don’t like the jangley new string sound, try using GHS silk n steel(actually silver plated copper) GHS silk n bronze, they both have filaments of silk added to the core of the wrapped strings, and have a nice mellow tone compared to standard wound strings.
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    Quote Originally Posted by MontanaMatt View Post
    If you don’t like the jangley new string sound, try using GHS silk n steel(actually silver plated copper) GHS silk n bronze, they both have filaments of silk added to the core of the wrapped strings, and have a nice mellow tone compared to standard wound strings.
    I have considered different strings, in particular the Thomastic-Infeld flatwounds. I might try them sometime. But based on their long-life reputation, if I were to find that I liked their tone, I can almost guarantee I would be keeping them for longer, not shorter periods of time.
    -- Don

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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    *Albeit I'm not playing my steel strung fretted gear much; if I were I'd be changing my strings occasionally; and if I were playing out with them etc. I like the sound of fresh'ns as well. I'm playing on a bunch of nylon and gut stuff...so it's not like I'm not changing strings!

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    Registered Muser dang's Avatar
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    Default Re: Emotional hearing, and changing out my 7-year old strings...

    When I gig regularly I tend to really put a lot of wear on the strings and need to change them after about two 3-4 hr gigs, so perhaps 6-8hr time gig time. I get the flat spots on the side of the strings facing the frets and when they are prevalent on the bottom two courses between the 7th and 12th frets I know I need to change them or suffer intonation issues, and a bit of a loss of tone and feel. We tend to gig a lot, so I replace strings every week to two weeks. Sometimes if I forget to change them on my main instrument I will grab my backup and use it just to avoid the worn strings.

    With my band we play in noisy bars and I tend to play a lot of chop chords and keep the rhythm and then do fills and play many of the solos. We donít play bluegrass, but we cover a lot of modern songs with bluegrass instrumentation, so many keys and chord progressions that you just donít see in bluegrass. We play ďI want you backĒ by the Jackson 5 and there are so many chords and syncopated rhythms I have to remember to relax, but often press harder then absolutely necessary when flying up and down the fretboard.

    When I am just sitting at home and practicing or jamming by myself I get way more life out if the strings, like several months vs several weeks. Way less chop chords and straight rhythm playing at home.

    Long story short it seems to me a lot depends on what type of music you play and what setting you are playing in. How heavy you play and how tight you grip seems to be affected by those variables, at least for me. Others have posted similar comments above so I feel I am not alone, if I am interpreting them correctlyÖ

    I havenít changed the strings on my guitar for seven years, but thatís because I donít play it
    I should be pickin' rather than postin'

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