I got an email from a friend recently asking this common question, and when I’d replied he suggested I re-post the info here, so here you go!
Q: My friend found this quote online and asked about it: “I have been using Dean Markley strings for over 20 years now. I’ve gone through all the popular brands like DR, Rotosound, GHS and Fender. I started with the Superwound series. I played those for years. I thought those strings were the best until I tried the Blue Steel series. I was completely blow away by these strings. They were very consistent from box to box. They kept their brightness and tone for a much longer period than the other brands. The thing I really like about them is their feel. Very soft. Other strings use a thicker core and that tended to be hard on my hands since I play so much and the fact that I play a lot of slap bass. Another benefit of these strings is that they come back great when you boil them. Well, I should say that I use to boil them, now I just run them through the dish washer. I have many vintage Fender Jazz basses and it is important to me to have a consistent feel from bass to bass. That is why I don’t mix and match. The only strings I use are Blue Steel – Light Gauge. Remember to only take one string off at a time when you change your strings. If you take them all off at once or if you put on a different gauge set of strings, the neck will check and throw off your action. Find the set of strings you like and stick with them. Your bass will be glad.”
Is that right? You should take the strings off one at a time — the above quote is from Anthony Vitti – Berklee Bass Guru – so I don’t doubt him but have never heard that before….
A: I’m suspicious of people that propagate the “boil your strings” BS; at the temp that water boils i don’t believe you’re doing much at all to the metal. Some metallurgist, feel free to explain the effect. I’m sure there are answers to this all over the internet already, but if you want to temper your strings, why not bake them? If you’re convinced it improves your tone, why throw your steel strings in water that WILL rust them if you take the plating off? (To propagate another rumor,)
I heard van halen started that whole business in interviews as a hoax, but there are PLENTY of people that have taken it seriously. I definitely know people who tried it and swore by it, i’m just pretty convinced that it’s placebo effect. Some people boil them THEN put them on the guitar and claim it makes them feel “broken in,” some boil them to rejuvenate them and claim it makes their old strings new. To both camps, I say
If you want a simple good reason not to boil your strings and put them back on your guitar, even if it does clean them up, it’s that as you play your strings, the frets wear dents into the bottoms of the strings. Over time, as you tune the guitar, those dents move up and down the neck by small amounts. Eventually you have large enough dents in your strings that you will start getting rattles and buzzes, fretting out, and general nastiness. Take the strings off, put them back on, and wind up a different amount of slack, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to cause yourself some buzzing you don’t want. Sometimes people think they need a fret dress because their strings are buzzing, when a new set of strings cures the problem. (This is also a good reason to change your strings frequently– if you want a “broken in” sound, try coated strings, flatwounds, or a different string alloy for a warmer tone and no buzzing!)
Back to the question– it is not true that if you take all your strings off at once you’re going to damage the neck of your bass or instantly check the finish. You’d have to have an incredibly hyperactive truss rod to make changes that significant. The truss rod is in the neck to resist the upward tension of the strings on the neck and keep the neck straight. The truss rod pulls back against the upward force of the strings. Even when there is no tension at all on the rod, with strings tuned to pitch, most necks will only bow upward at most by 1/8″ or so– a lot in terms of high action, but it’s not going to shatter the finish on your guitar or ruin the neck.
When you hear people tell you you’re going to hurt your guitar by taking the strings off all at once, ask them whether they think the same thing will happen if you change string gauges, or go to a lower or higher tuning. Basically that’s doing the same thing in terms of changing the tension/force on the neck. Even if you have a really over-tightened truss rod, you’re likely to see less backward bow when you take the strings off the guitar than you would see upward bow, with heavy strings and NO tension on the truss rod. If the theory were correct, you’d be doing more damage by playing heavy strings without the truss rod adjusted correctly, than by taking the strings off.
It IS true that the tension on a neck can have an effect on the way the wood changes over time, just because of the way the competing stresses of the strings and the truss rod compress the wood, but I’d say those effects are subtle to most people. The best advice I can give if you’re going to store an instrument for a long time is to leave it as neutral as possible– loosen the truss rod so the neck is straight and take the strings off if you know you’re not playing it for a long while.
Generally speaking, if your guitar is set up correctly, the changes that happen when you change strings will be minimal, and if you use the same type of strings and same tuning when you string up again, you should be right back where you started.
I think the rumor that taking all the strings off hurts the neck stems from people who are afraid to admit that they need some help with basic setup– which is totally OK! Especially on guitars with floating tremolos like the Floyd Rose or Fender American Standard, simply tuning the guitar can be somewhat tricky, especially with new strings, because the bridge is set to balance against the string tension, and if you change that all at once, it can take a while to reset the balance. On guitars like these, it IS good practice to change one string at a time, because you have to make fewer adjustments when tuning up. Maybe people heard that information along the way somewhere, and thought it applied to EVERY guitar.
One thing’s for sure– a good setup really makes all the difference in being able to balance the guitar and keep it in tune, whether your strings are new or old, all on or all off– so don’t hesitate to stop by and invest in a quick setup!
Hope that helps.