Do Guitar Strings Really Rust? Or Is It Just Tarnish?

Do Guitar Strings Really Rust? Or Is It Just Tarnish?

People often describe guitar strings as “rusty”, but is that the right word? How can you tell rust apart from tarnish? Are they the same thing? Let’s talk about it…

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What’s up everybody? I’m Scott in Stringjoy Guitar Strings and today we’re talking about one of the least exciting things we’ve talked about on this channel, but I think it’s still going to be pretty helpful. We’re talking about rust and as it compares to tarnish, what are the differences between those two things, and how do they affect your guitar strings.

So people a lot of times will refer to their guitar strings as rusty. I think that’s kind of interesting because it depends on which of your guitar strings that you’re talking about, whether what you think is rust is actually rust. If you’re talking about your plain steel strings, it might just be dirt. Assuming that’s it’s actually corrosion like people say it is, then it probably really is rust. However, if you’re looking at your wound strings, it might not necessarily be rust like you think it is. We’re going to talk today about why that is and what the difference is between rust and things like tarnish.

So while many metals can corrode in different ways, rust is actually a really specific term. Rust only refers to the corrosion of iron-containing compounds or iron itself. So steel, for example, can rust. Other elements like nickel or copper, those actually don’t rust. You might wonder what that means because, of course, things like nickel and copper and other things like that are capable of corroding but why aren’t they capable of rusting. Well, it just really is the term that’s used there. Rust only exists for iron whereas for other elements like nickel or copper, as they relate to guitar strings, what you’re actually seeing is tarnish.

It’s a different word, but it’s also a little bit different in some key ways. See when rust happens with an iron-containing compound, it will actually eat all the way through that particular material until there is no more that if given enough time. So this is why if you see like an old rusted out car or something, at the bottom of it you might have seen where the rust has just eaten away all of that iron frame. The thing is that’s going to happen the same way with other materials and that’s because tarnish is mainly different from rust and that it is self-limiting.

What that means is while rust may eat all the way through a ferric material, tarnish is actually going to self-limit. It means that it’s going to form on the top layers of that material, but it’s actually after that going to start protecting the layers underneath. A really good example of this is when you see patina with copper with things like window boxes or other things like that that you might see outside. After it developed like a very greenish sort of copper patina, it just stays there over time and that patina stops the copper from continuing to corrode further down into the metal. As a result, if you look at things like copper window boxes that have been up for 10, 20, 30 years, they don’t get corroded and eaten all the way. They simply build up a very tough patina on to that then protects all the rest of that metal.

Another good example is with silver. If you’ve ever had silver jewelry or anything like that, you know that you can clean the tarnish off with a glove. It’s not like just because it’s tarnished it’s gone bad and you have to throw it out or something like that, the same way that you would with an old rusty piece of iron like a nail or a screw. For iron, once it really rusts, it’s pretty totally useless. For other materials again like silver or nickel or copper, you can just clean that tarnish off if you want to. It will basically be back to new. It will only be the top layer or two of that material that will be affected.

So what the heck does any of that have to do with guitar strings? Well, guitar strings are made of a couple different materials, but most notably there is steel, which is featured in the plain steel strings, as well as the core of almost all electric and acoustic guitar strings. On the other side, you have different elements like brass or bronze, which are copper-containing materials or different nickel steel alloys that are used for the wrap wire in most electric and acoustic guitar string sets.

So as we learned, the core of wound strings or the entirety of plain strings are absolutely capable of rusting. They shouldn’t do this right away especially if you’re getting a good quality set of strings. Eventually with enough play wear and enough time to oxidize and with some things like the acidity of your hands, it’s going to eventually actually rust. If it rusts all the way through, you’ll have a broken string whether it’s on the plain steel string or it’s just the core of a wound string.

The wound strings on the other hand while they are able to rust out from the inside, which does happen but is a little bit less frequent than things than like you’re playing steel strings rusting just because you have the wrap wires as a certain barrier there that kind of protects the core over time. The wraps on a wound string are actually not capable of rusting in most cases unless we’re looking at a steel wrap or something like that. If they’re made of copper or they’re made of nickel, they’re not going to rust. They’re just going to tarnish over time. If you look at an old set of acoustic guitar strings and see some discoloration on the wound strings, that’s what you’re seeing it tarnish. In most cases, it’s very likely not rust especially if it’s forming on the outside of that string. It’s simply a little bit of tarnish that’s formed.

So while rust will destroy your strings and if you see it on your strings, they’re probably not going to be very long for this world. The tarnish that builds up in those wound strings isn’t actually going to create a mortal problem for your strings. It can totally just be cleaned off and you can continue to use your strings. Heck, if you don’t want to clean it off, you can also not clean it off. It will just protect your strings from corroding further. Assuming that you don’t really like the discoloration on there, you can clean it off the same way that you would with a copper pipe or with a piece of silver jewelry. Things like string conditioner or string cleaner and a solid cloth can go a long way to cleaning that off. You can also if you really want to use some jewelry polishing cloths that are kind of pretreated for the job. Something like a yellow sunshine cloth is a good example of something that might work.

Some players don’t like to mess around with stuff like that. Others don’t mind. It just kind of depends on where you stand. Just know that if you see some discoloration on like your acoustic guitar strings, they’re not necessarily doomed. It’s pretty natural for copper to build up discoloration over time. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily corroding as long as they’re not corroding from the inside out. If you take proper care of them, you clean them right off and get a lot more life out of them.

So sure you could say it’s just a semantic issue and why should you really care. You don’t necessarily have to care, but in case you do I hope this has been helpful for you to realize what might be rust and what might be tarnish and why you should care about one of those and the other one isn’t necessarily as big of a deal. There’s only one thing that you leave this video with. I would recommend that being that you can be a little bit more lenient with discoloration on your acoustic guitar strings. If it’s happening on the wraps and the wound strings, it isn’t necessarily rust. It’s just tarnish, which loves to form on copper. If you’ve ever seen any copper pipes anywhere in your house or anything like that, they’re almost always going to have a patina that builds up over time and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

So what do you think? Do you have any questions that we haven’t answered here? Be sure to ask them down on the comments below.

One Response

  1. Stainless steel strings don’t rust, but otherwise I think you’re right, and have no objection. And yes, I have nickel allergy and have to stick to stainless. Otherwise I love the sound of Pure Nickels. As it is mostly the wound strings that matters I wonder why no manufacturers just sells wound strings in packages of 3. It’s those that matters. Plain strings are never “pure nickel” or “stainless steel” or “nickel on steel”, they’re just “steel” anyway.

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