Among the greatest of Old Wives’ Tales in the world of string instruments is that boiling your strings is a solution to numerous ailments that might be troubling them.
As the tale goes, boiling your old, dead strings can bring them back to life. And boiling new strings before use helps to break them in.
Indeed, a certain famous guitarist who need only be referred to as EVH liked to say that he boiled his strings before each gig because the tone was brighter. (It is worth noting that no one can really corroborate his assertions. It seems much more likely that he was weaving something of a fantastic tale of his own.)
In any event, the Tale of the Boiling Strings actually has a lot of truth to it, and many musicians do it regularly for a variety of reasons.
Let’s explore why musicians boil strings, how to do it, and whether or not it is worth your time and effort.
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Why Boil Your Guitar or Bass Strings?
There are two primary reasons for tossing your strings in a pot of boiling water. 1) To clean and brighten old strings and 2) to break in new strings.
Grimy Strings Are Dead Strings
There is no shortage of advice for how to keep your instrument in a perfect world. But in the real world, we may not always remember or have time to wipe down our instruments after playing. Which means the grime is just accumulating.
First up in the grime trifecta is the oil that your skin naturally produces. Next, even the fortunate few of you out there who don’t sweat profusely while playing leave salt behind on your strings.
This is to say nothing of the dead skin cells and other dirt and dirt-like materials that settle their way into the winds of your string.
As filth and grime build up on your strings, it increases the weight and thickness of the string. This process may seem nearly imperceptible. But rest assured, it’s happening every time you play.
We perceive this process by hearing our strings become duller and duller. And frankly, even if you don’t see the grime, you can feel it. Dirty strings feel sticky to the touch and make even the simplest sliding action an exercise in frustration.
Ultimately, grimy strings are dead strings, and cleaning them will undoubtedly improve their look, their playability, and their sound. In the next section, we’ll explore just how to do this by boiling.
New Strings Are Finicky
No one necessarily looks forward to the breaking-in phase for new strings.
At first, you’re constantly tuning them while they stretch. And while a bright, fresh tone is always welcome, it takes a few hours of playing before the harshness wears off.
There are many who claim that a quick boil before stringing eliminates this adjustment period.
Frankly, the jury’s still out for me on this application; but there’s no reason for you not to give it a try and see if you notice any benefits.
The bottom line is that, if done correctly, boiling your brand-new strings won’t really hurt them. Whether or not it helps, I believe, is up to the player.
Instructions for Boiling Bass & Guitar Strings
The process is not at all difficult and not particularly time-consuming either.
But first, a few considerations.
Regardless of whether or not you’re cleaning new strings or old ones, you will want to use a clean pot. If you’re cleaning old strings, you may want to choose a pot that you don’t cook much in as it’s likely to get pretty grimy.
It is also worth keeping in mind that you’re going to have to restring the guitar when you’re done. Avoid clipping off any of the strings while removing them as you may not have enough lead left to wind them back on.
This is especially true when stringing a new pair that you intend on boiling later for cleaning; leave some excess string to work with later.
With those considerations in mind, you’re ready to boil some strings!
First, gather your clean pot, a pair of tongs or something similar, a clean dry towel and your individual strings.
Coil each string in the same way that they arrive new.
Next, fill your pot with at least enough water to cover the strings but not so much that your pot boils over. Don’t put the strings in yet.
Set your burner to about medium high to high until boiling. Once the water has come to a boil, gently drop your strings into the pot. You can reduce the heat to medium at this point because you only really need a gentle boil.
Guitarists: your strings should only boil for about 3 to 5 minutes. You don’t want to boil them for more than 5 minutes as they can begin to unwind at that point.
Bassists: your strings can boil for 10 to 15 minutes. Similarly, avoid damage by not boiling them for more than 15 minutes.
After the allotted time has passed, you can turn off your burner and remove the strings. Use tongs to fish them out as the hot water will burn your skin.
Place your strings on a clean, dry towel and let them cool off. This actually doesn’t take long at all, maybe a few minutes. Once cool, you can use the towel to blot dry or gently run the towel around each string.
From here, let them air dry for a bit longer, perhaps an hour or two depending on your climate.
Some prefer to speed up the drying process by wrapping them in perforated aluminum foil and placing them in the oven on its lowest setting for approximately 15 minutes.
Once your strings are completely dry and cool to the touch, you can go ahead and restring them.
Bonus step: by the time you’re ready to restring, your freshly boiled strings should be dry as a bone. Apply a special lubricant like Fast Fret or Tone Finger to each string to restore that slippery, out-of-the-packet feeling.
Is Boiling Guitar & Bass Strings Worth It?
The answer to this question depends on a lot, actually.
Does Boiling Strings Improve Tone
It seems that this question is extremely subjective for guitar players and less so for bassists.
When it comes to boiling new guitar strings to get to that bright, less harsh sound quickly, I’d advise just giving it a try and listen for yourself.
Old, grimy strings seem to benefit from boiling; but for guitarists, the question of whether or not to boil is one of time and resources. If you’re hard up until payday and you can spare a bit of time, this can certainly be a great way to stay frugal and refresh your strings.
Bass players have a bit more of an incentive to boil their old strings.
Old bass strings can actually benefit tremendously from a boil. Not only do they clean up nicely, but the tone is noticeably livelier. And given that bass strings are significantly more expensive than guitar strings, boiling bass strings can be both effective and worthwhile.
How Many Times Can You Boil Strings?
A thrifty bassist is probably already wondering: how often can I do this to extend the life of my strings.
The answer is a bit subjective. The super fresh tone that you get by boiling old strings really only lasts for a few days. This isn’t to say that they go back to sounding as dead as before you boiled them. But don’t expect that out-of-the-packet tone to last too long.
Keeping that in mind, most experts recommend that you only boil strings 2 or 3 times before finally purchasing new ones.
This is because the process of boiling guitar and bass strings affects their tensile strength. It can make old strings the slightest bit more brittle, and therefore more likely to break than a string that has never been boiled.
Finally, it’s important to note that boiling strings does absolutely nothing to repair them. Your strings will be cleaner; but they wear and tear at the same rate as before.
The Last Word
Ultimately, the decision to boil or not to boil depends on your circumstances.
A lot of guitarists prefer to just purchase a new set for a few bucks rather than take the time and effort it requires to boil old strings.
However, boiling strings can be a great solution for frugal bass players looking to extend the life of their current set.
In the end, it’s still good advice to take a rag to your instrument after each session. But don’t rule out the effectiveness of some hot water and a pan for extending the life of your guitar and bass strings.