Breaking a string in the middle of an epic solo is a bummer. And if it happens regularly, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Here’s a plain-talk guide to why strings break and how to minimize that from happening.
• Poor stringing: Novice players sometimes make the mistake of bending strings — putting an angle in them — while changing out string sets. This will weaken the string and make it prone to breaking. The cure is to string carefully and, if you’re going to bend the string into the tuning post, be sure to do it at the correct spot. Once you place the string in the post be sure to leave about an inch-and-a-half to two inches to wind around the post. Too many turns around the tuning post creates tuning problems and look messy.
• Tuning posts: Sometimes there are rough edges inside the tuning post holes that strings pass through. These will cause breaks and should be filed down with a fine-detail mini-file. Also, dirt and grit can accumulate within those holes over time. Cleaning the holes with a cotton swab or a wound guitar string and maintaining tuning posts in general will eliminate this breaking point.
• Nuts: The nut is a small, but important part of your guitar’s profile. Strings need to sit comfortably within its grooves and slide within them unimpeded. Dirt gathers inside those grooves and can contribute to tuning issues as well as create sharp edges that can wear through strings. Switching to heavier gauge strings can also cut into the nut and create rough edges. Be sure to clean the nut and its grooves periodically, and take a wound string and use it as a gentle file to remove hardened deposits of dirt in the grooves. A fingernail file or fine modeling file will work, too.
• Frets: Sometimes, but rarely, sharp edges can develop on frets from bending strings or, more likely, banging a guitar’s neck into other solid objects, like microphone stands. Those edges can cause strings to snap with repeated contact. In such cases gently file down the burred area of the fret, being careful not to take off too much wire, which can lead to intonation and articulation troubles. (I travel with a few small precision files — the kind typically used by model railroaders.)
• Strings: Sometimes bad strings sneak past quality control at the factory. If they’ve got pits or other manufacturing defects they will break. Reputable retailers will take back and replace bad sets of strings. Also, older strings are going to break. They oxidize and develop stress points from picking and bending, so learn to gauge when it’s time to change your strings. If you’re on the road and on a budget, consider restringing your guitars once a week. If you like to keep your sound brighter, do it after every two or three shows.
• Bridge: The strings pass over the bridge’s saddle – either a solid, fixed single piece or a series of small metal resting points like those on a Gisbon Tune-O-Matic bridge. If your guitar’s strings are breaking by your picking hand, check the saddles for rough edges and burrs. If you find one, eliminate it gently with a small file or sandpaper, so the string can rest and slide smoothly in the saddle without undue wear. For some reason the fourth and fifth strings — G and B in standard turning — tend to have the most bridge and nut related issues, so look to those spots first when those strings start snapping.