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Especially for the guitar, but also for other relevant string instruments, I've had my string break while practicing. I feel like such things could happen at any moment, this made me wonder...

How to prevent a string from breaking during a performance?

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I saw a harp string break in the middle of a performance one time - fortunately she didn't have a solo that day! –  Michael May 9 '11 at 15:05
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Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, violinist. Takes a long time to walk onto stage due to polio, had a string in his violin break near beginning of performance, made necessary composition corrections on the spot. –  musicwithoutpaper May 13 '11 at 18:17
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@musicwithoutpaper Great story, too bad it's a fake (according to the very link you provided). –  Rein Henrichs Jul 8 '11 at 20:31
    
Wish I had done more than skimmed it before I posted the link :(, I first saw it mentioned in an article by a weekly author from the local paper. I Googled so I could get the story to post here. I did not really think it was fake because I believed it is doable. But, (thankfully), my point still is not entirely invalidated if you see where it says "Carrying on after losing a string without interrupting the performance is certainly within the capabilities of a world-class violinist". But thanks for getting me to read my own link @Rein. –  musicwithoutpaper Jul 9 '11 at 14:14
    
@musicwithoutpaper True story: I saw a televised performance of a string quartet during which Perlman broke a string. The other violinist (or the violist, I forget) took Perlman's axe backstage to restring it for him. After everyone sat around for a couple minutes, Perlman started a running dialog along hte lines of "now he's found my case, and he's digging in the pockets for a new E-string, but ... he can only find an A and a G... now he's taking an E-string out of the second violin's case... " etc. The audience was in stitches. –  Carl Witthoft Jun 7 '13 at 17:07

6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Strings can break for several reasons:

  • Excessive force: Often times playing live results in playing harder. You may be digging your pick in more than normal and therefore applying more force than usual, resulting in breaks.

  • Improper string installation: Strings should be stretched during installation (just bringing them into tune doesn't stretch them enough). Stretching them will help keep the guitar in tune longer (as the strings are pre-stretched), and anecdotal evidence suggests stretching strings helps to prevent breakage.

  • Mechanical interference: If you nut or saddle slots have a sharp V-shape rather than a U-shape then string bending and natural stretch can cause the slot to cut into the string, leading to premature failure. A lack of lubrication can also result in friction wearing into the string.

This leaves several remedies.

First, ensuring your nut and saddle slots are free of debris, rust, have a rounded U-shape, and a small amount of lubrication. The slots should be carefully re-shaped by a tech if needed, as removing more material than needed could cause more problems. Once shaped correctly a very small amount of sewing-machine oil, 3-in-1, or pencil graphite can suffice as lubrication. The material of your nut (bone, plastic, tusq, etc) may have some impact on which lubricants can be used--and it only takes a tiny bit, every few string changes.

Secondly, when installing your new strings be sure to pre-stretch them. I thread the string into the tuner, and bring it to very low tension (enough to keep them on the tuning peg), then grab the string over ~every-other fret and gently pull. You should feel the string stretch, and shouldn't need much force--obviously pulling too hard will break the string.

And finally, perhaps consider playing a slightly heavier string or lighter pick when playing live--especially if you believe your attack is more aggressive during these shows.

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Great answer. Welcome to the site! –  Ben Alpert Jul 8 '11 at 20:30

For all of the many many gigs I have ever done, and all of the recording sessions that I have undertaken, and all of the serious work I have done playing the guitar, I have never broken a string. I have only ever broken strings sitting and practising at home. I attribute this to the following reasons:

  • Brands Matter. I play Ernie Balls which are one of the best brands available and I've used them forever. The cheaper strings such as the ones you get with your first electric guitar will inevitably break on you, and you do generally get what you pay for;
  • Taking Care Of The Strings. After every period of heavy usage (ie a rehearsal/gig) I wipe the guitar down to get rid of sweat and dirt as this will degrade the string. I also use a product called Fast Fret which is like a shaving brush with some substance in that supposedly helps keep the string supple. Also, look to change them regularly - every 1-2 months depending on the usage.
  • Clench and Stretch. Fitting strings correctly is one big way of keeping them from breaking and will help tuning and tension also. Feed the whole string through the headstock, and snip off anything travelling past the second machine head. Feed about 1cm back through and then begin turning the headstock so that the string winds anti-clockwise.Take it slowly and make sure the winds are even and sitting underneath each other, under the exposed string. You should only have about 3-5 winds underneath. Tune to pitch and continue to the next one. Once this is done, retune to pitch, finger the first fret, and pull the string at the picking point. Do this for every fret until the 12th, retune, and do it again until you don't need to retune.

Don't forget that bad nuts can also cause string breakages, but generally for your purposes you should learn to string and stretch them out correctly.

I must admit, I also have fears of breaking a string on stage so little things like bringing a spare guitar to change to in case the worst happens is always a good idea if you can. Though, you'll find that something worse always happens!

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+1 Great answer and detail. Welcome to Music SE. Glad to have you here! –  American Luke Jul 2 '12 at 14:05

How do you know if you need new guitar strings?

For Acoustic and Electric guitars, a couple of questions to answer:

  1. Have you had the same strings on for over 2 months?
  2. Are your strings rusty?
  3. Are your strings rough?
  4. Do your strings sound dull?
  5. Had a string break recently?

If you answered yes to any of the above, its probably time to replace your strings.

Because of moisture on your fingers and in the atmosphere, strings corrode and rust over time and their ablility to vibrate diminishes. This not only causes the sound to dull but even worse, the feel of the strings becomes rough and will hurt or even damage your fingers.

Strings can also become brittle from too much vibration, just think of how a paper clip snaps if you twist it too much, the same happens to strings - especially if you use a lot of different tunings.

If you play a lot, say for 2 hours a day every day, then you should look at changing your guitar strings every month.
If you play less, but still strum most days, the max you should leave them on the guitar would be 2 months.

Strings are quite cheap, about £5 for a set of 6.

There is an alternative to changing your strings this often. You can buy coated strings. These last longer due to a coating on the strings that prevent dirt build up and corrosion. Coated guitar strings tend to last 3 to 5 times longer than normal strings, so you can leave them on for longer. These still need to be changed though. At least every 6 months these should be changed as they are also prone to breaking because of the vibrations of the string as explained earlier using the paper clip analogy.
Coated strings do cost more, about £12 for a set of 6, but last longer, so can work out more cost effective.

Ernie Ball Coated Strings have titanium reinforcement to make them stronger and less prone to break.

For Bass Guitars, the strings are much more substantial and tend to last longer and hold their tone. Change bass strings at least once a year.

For Classical Guitars with nylon based strings, again because of the way they are made, they don't rust, so last longer. They do age though, so do need replacing. When they age they tend to stretch and become hard to keep in tune. The wound strings will also pick up dirt and grime and will not vibrate equally, therefore leading to dulling of the strings and tone. If you don't want to wait till this starts happening, you should look at changing them every 2 - 3 months.

So to summarize:

  • Change your Electric / Acoustic uncoated strings at least every 2 months.
  • Change your coated Electric / Acoustic strings at least every 6 months.
  • Change your Bass guitar strings at least once a year.
  • Change your Classical guitar strings at least every 4 months.
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No problem if your Nick Harper... just change the string during the performance.

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That was quite remarkable. –  Wheat Williams Jun 19 '12 at 14:23
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Personally, I'd rather him just change guitars than hear "music is love" 20 times in a row –  wadesworld Jun 20 '12 at 17:45

A Norwegian artist, Solveig Leithaug Henderson, is known to often break strings - several times during a concert! It has to be something with her playing style or something, I don't know... Anyway - this has made her very fast on changing stings on stage, and do small talk through it to keep it entertaining...

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+1 Good secondary answer. –  musicwithoutpaper May 13 '11 at 18:18

Guitarists especially are known for putting on fresh strings just before a performance. Orchestral strings generally do not, but they do make sure to follow good maintenance practices and change strings when they are due.

If the instrument is in an appropriate playable condition, you shouldn't have strings breaking totally at random. Perhaps in your case you were being really energetic with your playing, or using a rather old set of strings? Professional guitarists going all-out on stage have guitar techs and spare guitars to switch out in the middle of a performance, and some performers (not just electric guitarists, but also the likes of Liszt and Paganini) were known to rig strings to break in order to increase the spectacle of performance.

As a performer, especially without backup, you've just got to be prepared. Know what you can and can't trust your instrument to do for you, and have spare strings or a backup plan in the event that something does happen.

Example: Steve Vai, known for playing guitars with floating tremolos (for which a single broken string equals a completely out of tune guitar) blocked his guitar's tremolo for a 2002 performance at the Grammys with Nelly Furtado so that he would be able to perform even if he broke a string in the middle of the performance. For 40 million live viewers, he didn't want to take the risk that normally seems trivial for a physical live audience or a recording, and he's a beastly enough musician that he could perform with 5/6 strings on his guitar if the need arose.

So, long story short: replace your strings when they're due, know the limits of your equipment, and have backup.

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Interesting example. Thanks! –  Luís Oliveira Jul 12 '11 at 23:35
    
+1 for the Steve Vai quip! –  rishimaharaj Jun 20 '12 at 12:10

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