Why Do Guitar Strings Turn Black? 3 Causes and Fixes


acoustic guitar | Sandy Music Lab

Like most other musical instruments, guitars involve some form of investment, so all precautions must be taken while handling them to ensure that various parts function as they should. When a problem crops up, it’s crucial to establish the reason for the issue and find a solution urgently before there’s irreparable damage and any effect to the sound output of the instrument. Today we address why guitar strings turn black and how to fix them. 

Guitar strings can turn black due to oxidation after exposure to moisture and oxygen in the air. Dirt can also lead to black discolored guitar strings. In addition, guitar strings could be black due to excessive dyeing by manufacturers seeking to get an expensive-looking finish.

The rest of the article will explore in greater detail why guitar strings become black and what actions you can take to prevent this from happening to your guitar strings and guitar as a whole. Let’s get started.

1. Dye Transferred From the Fretboards

Guitar strings may turn black because of dye from the fretboard. The dark stain is transferred from the fretboard to your fingers and finally to the guitar wires as you play. Cheap guitars have more dye than expensive ones made from ebony. 

But why would there be dye on your guitar? Well, guitar manufacturers use dye for one of two reasons.

  • Create a uniform finish. The wood used to make fretboards can come in different shades, depending on the quality. So, manufacturers dye the fingerboard to get a blended, more appealing look.
  • Black is the desired finish. A jet black finish, naturally occurring with the expensive ebony, is often the most popular finish among customers. Hence, manufacturers apply dye to achieve this ebony-like appearance.

So, now that you know why your fretboard has dye, how do you know for sure that your stained fingerboard is causing your strings to turn black? 

Using a clean microfiber cloth, rub your fretboard at different points and check if the cleaning fabric has a stain. If it does, you need to remove the excess dye to fix your problem. If the cloth remains clean, you need to move on and check your strings. We’ll look at that in more detail below.

How To Fix 

Once you’ve established that your fretboard has excess dye, you can take out the dark stains using the following steps. Do this in a well-ventilated area because of the flammable and potent chemical used during the cleaning process.

  1. Remove the guitar strings. It will allow you to clean the fingerboard well without any hindrance from the guitar strings.
  2. Cover the guitar’s body. This way, you’ll prevent the chemicals used from spilling over from the fretboard to the rest of the guitar.
  3. Apply a drop of a Naptha lighter fluid on a dry, clean, soft, or microfiber cloth and gently rub between the frets to remove the excess dye. Always use the lighter fluid sparingly and avoid pouring the Naptha fuel fluid directly on the guitar. It will preserve the wood on the guitar from any damage from the volatile lighter fluid.
  4. Apply a mineral oil like lemon oil or linseed oil on a clean, soft cloth and rub it on the fretboard in a circular motion. The oil will moisturize the wood, keep it from staining, and leave your guitar with a polished finish. You may consider Jim Dunlop 6554 Dunlop Ultimate Lemon Oil (available on Amazon.com), which provides an invisible sealant on your fretboard that keeps stains and moisture away.
  5. Wait for a few minutes for the oil to soak in, and wipe between the frets with a clean cloth. You do this to remove any excess lubricant on the fingerboard.
  6. Wash your hands. Washing hands will remove any gunk you may have on your fingers that can easily transfer to your guitar strings when playing.
  7. Restring your guitar with a new set of strings. You should not return the old set of guitar strings as they may have a build-up of the stain or dirt.

You may need a bit of patience when cleaning your fingerboard, especially if your guitar is heavily stained. So, be prepared to repeat applying lighter fluid and the lemon/linseed oil several times before getting the desired result.  

Here’s a video showing how you can remove dye from a fretboard:

2. Rust and Tarnishing of Guitar Strings

When metal guitar strings tarnish, they develop a thin, dark gray or black coating on the exterior of the metal. Tarnish is a form of corrosion that happens when the metal reacts with moisture and air. In the case of guitar strings, it can also occur when the guitar strings come into contact with sweat from your fingers. 

Don’t confuse tarnish and rust, although both form because of oxidation — a chemical reaction between the guitar wire and moisture in the air, oxygen, or sweat. Rust occurs for only iron-based metals such as the plain steel guitar wires and may appear brown or black on the guitar string.

While tarnish and rust may be different, you can prevent and reduce both using the same methods.

How To Fix

Use Coated Guitar Strings

You can use coated guitar strings to prevent tarnish and rust. The coating provides a barrier between the guitar wire and any moisture or air. Therefore, you’ll prevent it from tarnishing or developing rust. The coated strings come in different gauges and are suitable for classical, electric, and acoustic guitars. 

While the coated strings prevent tarnish and rust, where applicable, they can change the tone of the sound produced when you strum the guitar strings. However, you can go for these D’Addario Coated Strings (available on Amazon.com). These guitar strings offer a more reliable performance than other coated string brands. Made of phosphor bronze, they’re corrosion-resistant to offer durability in addition to a warm and balanced sound. 

When cleaning the strings, take care not to rub off the coating. Also, take care to avoid flaking the coating when using the guitar. If the thin polymer coating rubs off or flakes, you’ll be back to square one.

Wipe Strings After Playing

As the metal strings react with moisture from your fingers as you play, you should gently wipe down every guitar string to remove any wetness on them. Use a dry and clean microfiber cloth to clean the wires immediately after you’ve finished playing. 

In addition, use an efficient guitar string cleaner like the GHS String Fast Fret Cleaner (available on Amazon.com) that comes with an applicator to rub on both the fret and strings. The Fast Fret Cleaner acts both as a cleaner and a lubricant. The lubricant allows your fingers to slide up and down the fretboard without a problem.

Store in the Guitar Case

Always keep your guitar in your guitar case instead of out in the open while not in use. This should be done by everyone who owns a guitar, especially owners who store their guitars in humid areas. The case will protect the strings from reacting with any moisture in the air.

The CAHAYA Acoustic Guitar Bag (available.com) is one of the best in the market. Its exterior is made of waterproof oxford cloth that’ll prevent your guitar from coming in contact with water. It also has adjustable shoulder straps making it easy to carry around.

You can also add a silica gel packet inside the case to further absorb any moisture. The silica gel packet will ensure that your guitar is kept dry and free from any corrosion caused by contact with humidity in the air.

Treat Sweaty Hands

If your hands sweat excessively during guitar playing, you need to treat it. The acid content in your sweat can increase corrosion of metal wire strings. Fortunately, there are different solutions to this problem that you can try at home without using invasive medical procedures. 

Artificial Remedies

The artificial remedies include all manufactured hand applications and products.

You can use readily available products like baby powder and baking soda to control sweaty palms and fingers. The talcum powder absorbs moisture leaving your fingers and hands dry as you play. However, don’t use too much baby powder. That’s because your hands can get messy and lead to the build-up of dirt on the strings.

If baby powder doesn’t offer any relief to you, you can use climbing chalk to rein in the sweaty fingers. You can also use specifically designed guitarist products that will balance your pH effectively, decreasing the acidity of your sweat. If the acidic sweating persists, you should seek medical advice from a qualified professional.

Natural Remedies

Natural remedies occur naturally in plants. They can prevent or reduce excessive sweating, which leads to the tarnishing or rusting of strings. If you aren’t a fan of manufactured products full of chemicals, you can try some natural remedies such as sage leaves and tomato juice.

Here’s a brief explanation of their properties and how they can help you:

  • Sage leaves are known to prevent sweating. Soak your hands for twenty minutes in a bowl filled with sage leaves and water for the best results. You can also drink sage tea for the same effect. 
  • Tomato juice has cooling properties reducing sweating. Drink a glass every day or dip your hands in the tomato juice for a few minutes and wash your hands. Then, dry your hands with a clean towel or cloth.

Change Your Diet 

You probably didn’t think that your diet could cause you to sweat more, but it can. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), certain foods can increase sweating. They include spicy, sugary, salty, and fatty foods. Alcohol and excessive caffeine use can also aggravate sweating on the hands and other parts of the body. It’s best to reduce consumption of these in large quantities if you’re an avid guitarist.

To counter the effects of sweat-inducing food and drinks, you can introduce sweat-reducing foods and drinks such as green tea, bananas, watermelons, oats, almonds, sweet potatoes, and whey, amongst others. Also, you can start taking two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in your everyday diet. For a tastier experience, add the apple cider vinegar in water with honey.

You also need to stay rehydrated at all times as it keeps your pH naturally balanced and reduces the ‘saltiness’ in your sweat that would otherwise increase the corrosion of your guitar strings.

Use Wrist Sweatbands

The wrist sweatbands absorb any sweat trickling down from the hand to the fingers and finally to the strings and fretboard. These bands come in different colors suitable for any preference. 

Consider the Willbond Wrist Sweat Wristbands (available on Amazon.com), designed for use in high-intensity sports like athletics, football, and basketball. So you know they can save your strings from perspiration if you play for long hours.

Select the Right Pick

Picks act as an extension that allows you to strum the strings without your fingers directly touching the guitar strings. Since there’s no contact with the guitar string, the pick can prevent oxidation to some extent.

So, if your hands are wet, choose a plectrum like the Jim Dunlop Max-Grip Nylon Pick that features cutting-edge grip technology to help you maintain grip even in sweaty conditions.

3. There’s a Build-Up of Dirt

Guitars are no different from other musical instruments as they accumulate dirt over time while in and out of use. For a guitar, the muck piles up on the strings and fretboard, making them turn black. 

The gunk comes from dirty and oily hands handling the guitar. Also, dust particles in the environment and dead skin from your fingers can dirty the fretboard and strings if not cleaned often. If the dirt is unmanaged, it may transfer to your fingers as you play.

How To Fix

Wash Your Hands

Wash your hands every time you want to play your guitar. Wash them with soap and water as the soap not only removes muck and sweat from your fingers and palm but also strips oils from your hands that would otherwise clog or coat your guitar strings.

Once you’ve washed your hands, make sure you dry them thoroughly before touching the guitar to prevent any corrosion. The towel or cloth you use to dry your hands should be lint-free to avoid pieces of the towel from getting trapped on some of the strings.

Clean Your Strings Regularly

As mentioned above, your guitar will still get dirty irrespective of measures taken. Nevertheless, this is why you must clean the entire guitar but specifically your strings, often. Doing this will slow down the damage caused by the build-up of dirt.  

You can use a dry and clean soft cloth to wipe your strings every time you finish playing the guitar. However, for a more thorough clean, make sure to use a string cleaner. If your chosen cleaner has an applicator, directly apply the cleaner on the guitar strings moving it up and down from the pegs to the bridge.

Alternatively, you can spray the cleaner on a dry cloth, pinch the string and run up and down the length of the guitar string as you clean the guitar string. Ensure that you do this for each guitar wire string and wipe both the top and bottom bit of the string. Repeat this motion until you cannot see any more gunk on the cloth.

Some string cleaners cause the fretboard to appear cloudy after cleaning, so you can place a paper between the strings and the fretboard before applying the string cleaner on the guitar wire.

Here’s a brief video to show you how to go about cleaning your guitar strings:

Change Your Strings

It’s time to change your strings when they’re discolored, dirty, dull-looking, and aren’t getting clean despite your efforts to remove dirt. 

The duration required to change the guitar strings varies from guitarist to guitarist, based on how often you play your guitar. As a general rule, you need a new set after playing around 100 times using a particular set.

Remember to clean your fretboard, frets, and bridge before installing your new set of strings. This will ensure that the old grime stuck on the fretboard and other parts won’t be transferred to the new set of strings and cause a build-up of dirt.

Summary

Guitar strings may appear black because of overly stained fretboards, build-up of dirt, and the oxidation of the metal strings. The oxidation is the result of the reaction between moisture in the air, oxygen, and sweat from hands with the metal strings.

We also saw that discoloration can be easily avoided by regularly cleaning the strings. You can also take care of your strings by drying sweat from your fingers and palms when playing. Finally, we talked about changing blackened guitar strings when you can’t clean them anymore.

David Sandy

Hey there! My name is David Sandy and I'm the founder of Sandy Music Lab. I've been playing guitar for several years now and created this site to be able to share and explore music with others. Check out my recommended guitar gear!

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