It’s bound to happen… sooner or later. You get bored with standard tuning, and it’s time to go fretboard exploring.
A little Dropped D, DADGAD, or Open E tuning and you’ve got a whole new guitar to play.
But, tuning up lately, you noticed you’ve got the jack-in-the-box tension in your shoulders.
Remember when you were a kid whirling the crank on the jack-in-the-box toy? You never knew just when that demonic little SOB would come springing out of the box… startling the crap out of you.
Well, you get the same tense feeling cranking your guitar back to standard tuning.
Because your picking hand has been snapped more than a few times before in this situation, and you’re just waiting for it to happen again.
The first time it happened, you suspect a bad set of strings. Not a bad guess. Some distributors hoard strings in a sweltering warehouse, reducing string life.
But let’s assume you’ve got a good set of strings. What then?
First, when you do break one, make note of where the break occurred. That can be very helpful. If you notice breakage occurring in the same place each time, you can match it to our list below.
7 Ways to Prevent String Breakage with Alternative Tunings.
1. Burr on the saddle.
After years of playing, or if you bought a used guitar, your guitar can start showing wear.
One of those places is the bridge saddle.
In case you didn’t know, this is the piece of material, often plastic or bone, where the strings rest on the guitar closest to the sound hole.
The bridge saddle, along with the nut (at the top of the neck), hold the strings up off the guitar’s fretboard.
After years of string pressure bearing down on the saddle, burs can develop on the blade edge of the saddle.
The string can snap under pressure as it’s raked across the damaged saddle during tuning.
Checking for burs is easy.
Remove the strings, and visually inspect it. Or, take a cotton ball and lightly rub it length-wise down the bridge saddle.
If you see a bur or the cotton ball gets snagged, it might be time to bring your guitar in for a bridge saddle replacement.
Note: There are two kinds of bridge saddles: straight and compensated.
Straight saddles are just as they sound. A straight piece of bone or composite material fitted into a slot in the bridge itself.
Compensated saddles also fit in a slot, but have graduated steps in them to compensate for the fretboard profile and string thickness.
If using a cotton ball to check for burs, allow for any snags on the steps in the compensated saddle.
If it needs replacement, this is a good time to bring it to a shop for a check-up and setup.
2. Too light of string gauge.
Depending on what type of alternative tunings you are experimenting with, your strings might not be able to handle getting wound up to a higher note. The fix could be as easy as switching to a heavier gauge.
If you do, you’ll likely need to adjust the tension rod on your guitar if it has one.
To learn a quick tip on adjusting the truss rod, join our e-mail list and get our FREE report: 16 Reasons Your Acoustic Guitar Can Make a Buzz Sound and How to Fix It!
3. String winding.
No offense, but it might be how you’re stringing up your guitar.
Too many windings at the post can cause the string to overlap itself. A string under pressure, then crossing over a previous winding can easily break a string. Especially the unwound G, B, or E strings.
Too many windings, reeling the string down to the tuning peg bushing, can be a problem too. The angle the string has to endure as it approaches the nut can put too much pressure on the edge of the nut slot.
There is a proper way to string a guitar by crossing over the winding to lock it in place. Check out our page on the best way to string up your guitar.
You really only need a few windings around the tuning post to keep it from slipping and still allow you to tune down with alternative tunings. Make sure each string winding falls adjacent to the previous one as you wind it down the post.
4. Binding between peg and nut.
A string can break near the head of the guitar from too much tension between the tuning post and the nut (the slotted piece at the top of the fretboard).
If you turn the tuning knob, but the string pitch doesn’t rise until you hear a ping sound, it’s binding at the nut.
The string is getting bound as it goes through the slot in the nut, increasing the string tension.
This can be due to two things. Either the slot in the nut is too small, or it is binding due to no lubrication.
If the slot in the nut is too small for your string gauge, or the string has trenched its way into the nut over time, simply replace the nut.
If it’s binding because there is no lubricant, you can fix it with a pencil.
Remove the strings. Find a soft lead pencil, like a carpenter’s pencil. Rake the lead across the top of each slot. Some graphite will drop to the bottom.
The graphite from the lead will lubricate the slot so the string won’t bind.
5. Old strings.
It might be your strings are tired and grimy. Pinch the first couple strings between your thumb and pointer finger. Then slide them up and down the fret board. If you feel a rough surface on the underside, it’s time to replace them.
Salt from your fingers and gunk can build up and begin oxidizing the strings.
6. Fret damage.
This is unlikely if you take good care of your guitar. But, if you purchased a used one, or your guitar took a hit you didn’t realize, you could have a damaged fret.
It’s not likely you’d miss this while playing, but possible.
If a falling mic stand or some other object hits the guitar and creates a burr on a fret, it could snap your string.
You can easily inspect for damaged frets when you restring your guitar.
It’s a good opportunity to check them for wear as well.
7. Action setting.
The action of a guitar is the height between the string and the fretboard.
If the action is set too high at the saddle, the break angle could be too great for your string gauge between the bridge saddle and bridge pins. Or the stop bar tailpiece such as in Ovation guitars.
Bring your guitar to a luthier for a proper set up, or check out how to set the action yourself.
Alternative tuning bonus tip
If you don’t have a spare guitar you can leave in alternative tuning, and don’t like tuning and re-tuning your guitar, check this out.
You can explore outside regular tuning, without having to re-tune your guitar at all. Plus, have the benefit of playing regular barre cords whenever you want.
Simply use a partial capo.
Most cover three strings at a time.
You can put them at various frets. You can flip it around so it covers a different set of three strings.
Some are adjustable, letting you choose which strings you want fretted.
Get super creative, use more than one capo.
There’s a lot of fun to be had playing interesting chords without ever re-tuning your guitar.
The two partial capos we recommend are the Shubb Partial capo and the partial capo by G7 Capos.
Both are high quality lever activated capos to prevent string buzz.
Hopefully, this unlocks the broken string mystery for you. If nothing else, it’s one more cool bit of guitar knowledge you can share with your buddies.