Why Do My Guitar Strings Smell?

After your regular practice session, you put the guitar down to find that your fingers smell really bad. It doesn’t take long to notice that your guitar strings are smelling and transferring their odor to your fingers. Is it a common occurrence? Why do your guitar strings smell? And more importantly, can you eliminate it or prevent it from happening?

Don’t worry. This article has you covered!

Why Do My Guitar Strings Smell Bad?

Guitar strings are under constant contact with our hands, along with the oils and sweat secreted from our bodies. Though sweat’s composition differs from person to person, they contain chemicals that degrade the strings’ materials over time. Our skins also lose dead skin particles and, along with dust from the environment, can form grime over the strings, especially the wounded strings, with plenty of fine spaces to collect grime and dust.

The foul smell that sometimes comes out of our guitar strings results from the grime formation and compounds formed from the reaction of the metals with our sweat. Oxidation, a natural process, can sometimes be escalated by the humidity or salt in the air or from our sweat, which can also cause a bad metallic smell from the guitar strings.

Some string materials, such as stainless steel, are affected more by oxidation, while other uncoated strings are differently affected but may still smell bad because of the grime formation. More often than not, the strings’ stinky smell is because of a combination of all these factors.

Why Do My Hands Smell Bad After Playing Guitar?

Our hands in constant contact with strings have a two-way effect on strings. Our hands and the sweat and oil secreted causes the smelly grime to form on the strings, but it is a relatively long-term process that takes weeks. Subsequently, the smelly strings cause our hands to start smelling when we fret the strings. It is more common for the fretting hand to be more affected than the plucking/strumming hand.

In the more extreme case, visible grime can also transfer from the strings to your fingers. The infamous “my hands smell like garlic after playing guitar” is a severe case of this. Unfortunately, if you got to this stage, it would be better just to change the guitar strings. You can clean them, but in many cases, when the grime formation is this extreme, the strings might be dead already.

How Do the Strings Smell Like?

Some people with a good sense of smell and articulation have compared how the guitar strings smell to certain things, such as the smell of garlic and metal. The natural oxidation process most commonly causes the metallic smell and is mostly unavoidable. Strings are made of metal, either stainless steel, bronze alloy, nickel, or some nickel alloy. All these metals oxidize to different degrees, which is often aggravated by the chemicals our sweats contain and the environment, such as coastal areas with salty air. Oxidation causes a sharp metallic smell from the guitar strings. While wiping down the strings with a cloth may remove the smell to some extent, this smell cannot be completely removed unless you change the guitar strings.

Another familiar smell that might come from your guitar strings is the smell that is similar to garlic. This pungent smell may be more off-putting to more people than the smell of oxidation, but fortunately can be gotten rid of quite easily.

How to Get Rid of Guitar String Smell?

Change Your Guitar Strings

The most straightforward way to get the smell out of the strings is to replace them altogether, more so if it has been months since you last changed them. While how often you should change your strings depends on many factors, such as your playing style, type of strings, your environment, sweat composition, etc. If your strings have started to stink, it either means that they have run their course or that you didn’t take care of them enough, or that your sweat contains some harsh chemicals such as acids and sulfur. If the strings sound particularly dead, you should change them rather than cleaning, which might solve the smell issue but not the dead tone.

Clean The Strings by Boiling

One of the most effective methods to clean guitar strings is to take them off, make a small loop and boil them for around 15-20 minutes. Remember that it only works for regular strings, not those with polymer coatings, which might come off at extreme temperatures.

If you suspect there is a lot of grime on the strings. Mix around an ounce of white (synthetic) vinegar per cup of water before boiling. After boiling and cooling off, be sure to run the strings under fresh water to remove any remaining vinegar. Also, leave the strings to completely dry before putting them back on the guitar.

This is one of the simplest and most effective methods to get rid of dirt and grime off the strings, and many guitarists and bassists use this method.

Clean Your Strings with 95% Alcohol

First, a word of warning – never bring alcohol near your guitar. Any contact with alcohol will ruin the finish of your guitar and even the fretboard in many cases.

What we’re going to do is take the strings off the guitar first. For this, we’ll need 95% denatured alcohol (not rubbing alcohol which is around 70%). Put enough alcohol in a mason jar and submerge the guitar strings (looped) entirely in it. Leave it for about 12 hours, and preferably give it a vigorous shake a few times as well.

Alcohol in very high concentrations is a great cleaning agent that removes most oils and grime. Do remember to dry out the strings entirely before restringing, though. Also, only use this for regular strings that don’t have any polymer coatings; metallic coatings are okay.

How to Keep Your Guitar Strings Clean for Longer?

Wipe the Strings Down after Playing

The best way to keep your strings clean and get a much longer life is to simply wipe them down with a soft clean cloth (preferably microfiber). You don’t need a damp cloth; just wipe the strings up and down individually with a dry cloth that removes most of the dirt and oils. Every once in a while, you would also want to use a slightly damp cloth, which will clean the strings even better. Remember to leave the guitar outside to dry and not put it inside the case immediately after cleaning it this way.

How often you wipe down the strings will depend on how long you play per day, how much you sweat, and if you live in a humid climate. Some people clean the strings once daily, others a couple of times a week. See what suits you better.

Wash Your Hands Before Playing

Washing your hands before you start your guitar-playing session is good practice. Some people don’t like to do this because it moisturizes your finger, making them softer and affecting your ability to fret strings easily. As a workaround, you can wash your hands and wait a few minutes before you start playing.

Clean hands, especially if you’re more prone to sweating, can help keep your strings cleaner for much longer. This, along with wiping down the strings, will ensure your strings stay fresh for longer and give you a longer playing life.

How Often Should You Clean Guitar Strings?

How often people change their guitar strings is very subjective. Older strings produce a different tone which is mellower and is loved by some people. Others like the tinny, brighter tone of new strings. So changing the strings is something that also depends on the users’ tone preferences rather than just about the strings becoming dirty. If you follow the tips mentioned here, you’ll probably be able to keep your strings cleaner for longer, but they will still oxidize and start rusting eventually. No amount of cleaning can prevent that. Therefore you can change your strings based on how they look, feel under your fingers, and sound rather than following a hard-and-fast rule. If you don’t like the sound of the strings that are going dead, change them. If you like the sound of older strings, keep cleaning them until they start sounding bad for you.

Some performers change their strings every month, some change them every week, while others change them before each performance. In general, polymer-coated strings will last longer than uncoated strings. They will also sound good and keep sounding the same longer than any other strings. The downside is they are more expensive and may sound slightly different than your usual strings. Some people, even those who play long hours regularly, have reported being able to use these coated strings for close to a year before needing to change.

Related FAQs

Can I Use Rubbing Alcohol to Clean Guitar Strings?

Rubbing alcohol is generally 70% alcohol and 30% water, which is not the best concentration of alcohol for cleaning guitar strings. If you don't have access to 95% alcohol, use the boiling method instead to clean your strings.

Can I Use Hand Sanitizer to Clean Guitar Strings?

No, hand sanitizer has similarly low levels (around 60-75%) of alcohol and hence can't be used effectively to clean guitar strings.

Can I Use Lemon Oil to Clean Guitar Strings?

No, lemon oil is used to condition the fretboard and has nothing to do with cleaning the strings. Therefore, do not use lemon oil to clean the strings.

Travis Whiteley (Guitarist) - Profile Picture

Travis Whiteley

Guitar Player/Teacher

Travis is a self-taught guitarist, musician, and father of an 8-year-old. He has settled in his hometown and gives free guitar lessons to kids on Sundays. His current hobbies include sharing his experiences and knowledge through this website.