It's an essential task to the bassist, and most often, this little work detail brings the gratification of playing on new strings. I just wanted to cover a few concerns by new bassists, so anyone can feel at ease with changing bass strings and eagerly undertake to get 'r done and on to playing. Just like learning to safely carry and transport your bass, keeping your bridge straight and the bass cleaned of rosin accumulation, changing your strings is a duty that comes along with the choice to be a bassist. Fortunately, changing bass strings is both FUN and EASY!
How long does it take to change a set of bass strings (with no attendant maintenance tasks)? I find that it takes about 15 minutes to accomplish without mechanical aids, and about 5 or 7 minutes with the use of a power drill/string winder. Seriously, it’s really no big deal.
Occasionally new bassists have admitted they're afraid to change their own strings because they don't know how or are afraid something could go wrong. A little observation of how the strings are attached makes it apparent that what you see is what you get - there really is nothing mysterious about installation, though ordinary care and common sense are required. I would be far more concerned about feeling unable to change one’s own strings than about making a mistake. It’s never too soon to start learning how to care for your instrument!
A concern was once raised that changing bass strings could hurt the player’s hands or wrists. This makes me want to yell “ARE YOU KIDDING ME???”, but only on the inside. In the unlikely event you too have been secretly suffering with this shame, put your mind at ease - anyone strong enough to play the bass is fully capable of changing strings, or put another way, if changing strings feels like a strain, one would be more concerned about being strong enough to practice sufficiently. Manually changing strings can get a bit boring, but the activity isn't as strenuous as a regular warmup. In my experience, manually changing 4 or 6 sets in a day has not yet interfered with my daily practice routine or made my hands feel perceptibly tired. And to cover a related topic: does manual labor interfere with playing dexterity? In a word: no. Or in a few more words: not if you do enough of it. Bassists are trained to be aware of and concerned about repetitive-motion injuries - exactly why it’s a benefit to do a sensible variety of manual tasks requiring hand strength and dexterity. Adaptation to a regular manual task can take as long as a few months before the hands are strong enough to handle both the task and a daily practice regimen, but I seriously don’t believe players “can’t” do functional work. Avoiding functional tasks because one’s hands might get temporarily stiff is no more advisable than avoiding running or working out. It also rapidly gains the complainer the reputation of being a princess. Who wants to be that guy?
String changing procedure
You will need (in addition to the obvious): a pencil, needle-nose pliers, wire cutters, piece of wax (such as a candle stub), light mineral oil (such as baby oil - don’t worry, it’s not made from babies, and since it’s petroleum, actually shouldn’t be applied to babies or other living things either, but never mind that - it’s easy to come by), rag or paper towel in case of oil drips.
AND NOW, THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: WILL MY SOUND POST FALL?
Backing up to the beginning of the story, yes, any bassist can change his own strings, AND any bassist can set his own soundpost, but before you take strings off, you will want to have checked out with your luthier whether or not your soundpost is so loose that it will fall if you take off one or two strings. With the exception of inherently very tight basses that benefit from a shorter post, IMHO, if it falls when string tension is reduced, it needs replacing. It your soundpost is purposely short, it’s essential to know how to set it, as many things can cause it to fall.
(A brief digression into sound posts: BASSES CHANGE. A LOT, like more than 5mm in depth. Especially when they are new - typically needing a new sound post after being played for about a year, even assuming the post was properly fitted in the first place. Humidity, in my experience, has a lot more to do with the shrinkage of the bass than does ambient temperature. Brief changes in humidity (taking a trip for a few days) are unlikely to cause a drastic change in a bass, but moving to a dry climate can cause it to crack or come open. Moving to a wetter climate is unlikely to cause open seams, but is VERY likely to result in the need for a longer sound post. Travel, or moving the bridge feet significantly, can also cause the sound post to migrate around even when the bass is under tension).
So, once you are familiarized with the behavior of your sound post:
I find the easiest way to change strings is to have the bass on its back on the carpet. I sit beside the neck, loosen the D and G strings enough to take them off the bridge and then, using needle-nosed pliers, pull them out of the holes in the pegs. The strings are off the bass in moments and you don’t have to painstakingly unwind them all the way to zero. Replace the G, then D (easiest to access in the peg box this way), making sure the ball end is securely seated in the tailpiece and doesn’t slip out as the string tightens. Keeping one arm under the neck, use that hand to guide and control the string as it winds onto the peg, while the other hand cranks. Repeat with the lower strings (installing the E first - or B/outside string on a 5-string, then A). Use pencil in all the string slots on the nut and the bridge - it really does make a difference in the string sliding over the bridge and not pulling the bridge forward or cracking the string winding. If you are not concerned about the sound post falling with all strings off, you can take the bridge off (first marking its location with little strips of tape, if necessary) and lube the threads and bearing surfaces of the adjusters with the candle wax. Aluminum adjusters become harder to turn unless waxed from time to time. If your adjusters are caked with rosin, you can soak them in a small container of “Goof-Off” or similar citrus-oil solvent for about half an hour or so (don’t soak wooden adjusters!), and scrub the rosin crust off before re-installing.
The baby oil is to lube your tuning machines - you can use a QTip to dab or drip oil into the contacting surfaces. Rosin and “human function” (that greasy gray DNA/sweat buildup - so gross) can be cleaned off an ebony fingerboard with alcohol, lightly applied to a rag in a location far, far away from the instrument’s varnish, so there is no possibility it will drip onto the instrument. The fingerboard can then be lightly buffed with baby oil. These little maintenance tasks are conveniently done while waiting for rosin crust to dissolve off your bridge adjusters.
Several ways to retain the end of the new string when installing, so it doesn’t slip back through the peg hole:
1) Pinch the loose end of the string between two coils as you wind it up around the peg (generally the most successful, and easiest, method)
2) Pull the loose end significantly through the hole, halfway back around the peg, and stick it through a second time, pulling it tight before winding the rest of the string. A little harder and more time-consuming to achieve. Sometimes necessary on older basses whose peg holes were drilled for large-gauge gut strings.
3) Make an acute bend about 1” long in the loose end, and pinch it tight with the pliers. Put the tip of the bend back through the peg hole and it acts as a barb, keeping the string from slipping back. Works great to prevent slippage, but the barb has to be pulled out in order to remove the string later.
Not recommended: pulling a lot of string through the peg hole and twisting it around the remaining string, or tying in a knot around the peg. This is only because it results in a messy coil that is hard to place where you want it (away from the sides and the other strings), and a big time-waster when you go to remove the strings. Knots get really tight over time, and often have to be cut apart, sometimes destroying the string so it can’t be re-used.
A TIDY PEG BOX IS A HAPPY PEG BOX
Remember "The Game of Operation"? The trick was not to touch the sides of the cavity, and that's just how you want to pose your strings inside your pegbox. Don't let the coils of string get wound up against the interior walls - believe it or not, as strong as our machine tuners are, the excess friction of the strings grinding against the wood can lead to premature wear of the brass gears. If you have ever had a tuning machine fail, asking what can possibly cause so much resistance as to chew up a brass gear leads to the practice of reducing friction on your machines by keeping the bulk of the coiled strings clear of obstacles.
(A brief digression into tuning machines - do expensive, bazillion-toothed gears that are heavy and bulky really offer greater tuning precision? Any tuning machine is a gear that stops in any position).
Additionally, keep the strings inside the pegbox from dragging on each other - tangling them can easily cause the thinner, pegbox end of a string to break or go false. I am not making this up - it’s breathtaking to find yourself holding the broken end of a brand-new, non-returnable, $100 bass string that you haven’t even had a chance to play a note on, simply from winding it on fast with a power drill and not noticing it was dragging across the other strings. As you wind, simply keep them headed in a straight line from the nut to the peg. It’s advisable to cut off excess string with wire cutters, just like on guitar and electric bass, rather than have a lot of bulk wound up around your pegs (usually just an issue with the E string - on most sets, you can cut off about 6”). IMPORTANT: cut only the silk-wrapped portion of the string - cutting through the metal winding can cause the string to unravel. Use the right size strings for the bass - they are precision-manufactured for small-size basses, and it’s a huge disservice to young players to put larger strings on a smaller bass. Well, it won’t exactly hurt the instrument, but the strings will be flabby and the bass will sound like crap. It’s hard enough to get a small-sized bass to sound decent without the handicap of too-long strings that play even slower. Flexocor, Spirocore, D’Addario, and Corelli strings are all made in precise fractional sizes, and it’s worth it to ask your dealer to special-order them (of course, you can get them here at QBC).
Similarly, an extended E/C string is not an E string! They are literally made differently, and wrapping an extended string up around your E peg can cause the string to break (done that!) or, at best, it will sound like crap. Mama is not going to be happy if you break a $100 extended string by putting it on a regular E peg.
(A brief digression into extended strings - the sweet spot for bowing is closer to the bridge than on an E string. Even when the E gate is closed. Now you know!)
When re-setting the bridge, I find it beneficial to have slight tension on both of the outside strings first, to keep the bridge from sliding side to side while everything is brought up to pitch. You will have to straighten your bridge several times during the initial tuning of the new strings, as well as during the break-in period - remember, the bridge feet center on the tiny notches of the FF holes, and the BACK of the bridge stands perpendicular to the top of the bass (unless your luthier is one of the few who cuts bass bridges pyramidal - a practice more common to violin bridges). Keep checking it while installing the strings, so it doesn’t fall over. If the bridge has been off completely, don’t forget to check the tail wire is centered over the saddle and is properly seated around the endpin.
If you still have concerns, ask an experienced bassist, your teacher, or your luthier to supervise the first time around. Shops will install strings for you (at QBC we don’t charge for the service if the strings were purchased here, and we price-match string prices), and though we gladly do the work, it’s a priority to see bassists being enabled to do their own maintenance as well as pass the knowledge along. As soon as you have it down, help out with the other basses at your school, and show the younger students. Though you definitely want to keep a spare set of strings on hand in case one breaks (see our blog post about a crash kit), the professional player’s year-old, high-quality used strings are a huge benefit to a local school, where bass strings were the cheapest possible brand to begin with, and are often older than the bassists! Here at QBC, we absolutely give away more strings than we sell, as we gladly accept good used strings and install them on school repairs, as well as share them with bassists who need to try different strings to decide what works best with their basses. The used-string economy, and the vast topic of string choices, is the subject of another blog!