Common Knowledge: String Stretching

Posted by Jon Stafford on Nov 6th 2020

Common Knowledge: String Stretching

Originally posted Nov. 15, 2016

Here's a quick little tidbit for you. File under "basic setup" knowledge.When you install your strings, whether you have traditional or locking tuners, a regular or locking nut, fixed bridge or vibrato, one of the most important things to get right is string "stretching". I put that last part in quotes because it is actually a very commonly misunderstood phrase. 

Allow me to explain.

Regardless of the method of string attachment, one of the things most people find out early on is that new strings tend to go out of tune shortly after they are installed. This will happen for a long time if you don't take steps to mitigate the cause.The cause, simply put, is slack. More specifically, it is caused when a string seats itself at either the bridge or headstock end with the potential for shifting as string tension changes. You might have enough tension on the string to achieve the desired pitch, and there is resistance somewhere in the string (winding around the tuning peg post, improperly seated ball end in a ferrule or sustain block, etc.) that will affect your tuning stability over time. As you bend a note you increase the tension, removing that resistance (stored slack) and when you release the string it returns flat. You tune again, but the same thing happens. This is where the technique known as "string stretching" comes in to play.

It's an easy process. You simply tune to pitch, then gently tug on the string to remove the stored slack and make sure the string is seated firmly. You tune back up and repeat until you can tug on the string a few times it returns to pitch.The reason I wanted to write a bit about this very elementary process is because I have seen it done WRONG so many times, and heard it explained by others in a way that can be detrimental to your tuning stability goals.

There is a little bit of finesse required to do this well, ensuring long string life and good tuning stability. The first thing to consider is that you are not actually stretching the strings. You read that right. It is called "string stretching" but that's not really what you are trying to do. You see, the string has a certain diameter and a certain length. The total mass of all the metal required to form that length of wire is fixed. If you were to actually stretch the string (i.e. make it longer) the diameter would change in at least part of the string. That would be a fatal defect and the string would be garbage. When you are tugging the string, please do not try to actually stretch the metal. All you need to do is tug gently to remove slack around the tuning peg and ensure the ball end is seated firmly (if applicable).

Some tips to making sure this process goes smoothly:

Use one hand to keep the string in the nut slot or close to the fretboard and pull with the other hand in the middle of the string. A gentle tug once or twice, then shift up the neck a little bit and repeat. The fewer windings you use on you tuning peg, the better your tunging stability.

Make sure when you feed the ball end through your bridge it is seated snugly before you put tension on the string. This can the source of a lot of hangups and big tuning problems if the balled doesn't seat firmly at the very end of it's resting place. Obviously this is N/A with a double-locking trem.

With practice, you should be able to feel when all the potential slack is removed from the string and it is firmly anchored.

Keep this in mind: Bending strings within their elastic parameters to temporarily increase the tension, remove slack and ensuring the strings are firmly seated at their anchor points is way too many words to describe this basic process, so we will stick to calling it string "stretching"... just remember we are not trying to actually stretch a piece of steel wire.