There are many stringed musical instruments out there, and they all have one thing in common. The strings themselves will eventually wear out and need to be replaced. In regard to guitars in particular, this will typically cost considerably more to do with a bass than a regular guitar. Thus, it makes good financial sense to make those strings last as long as possible, and the best way to accomplish this is by keeping them clean. Every time you play that instrument, a chemical reaction is underway. Dirt, sweat, oil, and even acid from one’s hands come into contact with those strings and from the moment that happens, their tone and very lifespan becomes compromised.
One advantage of bass strings over those of a standard electric or acoustic guitar is their size and weight. Put simply, bass strings are much thicker and heavier than conventional guitar strings, and this equates to longer durability. Due to their dimensions, it is quite easy to refurbish a set of bass strings to prolong their tone, and unlike light-gauge guitar strings, they are very difficult to break. So, with these facts at your disposal, how does one keep bass strings clean and therefore lasting longer?
Untold numbers of bassists swear by removing them and boiling them in water for around five minutes, and this will indeed restore the brightness and tone. However, there are mixed opinions when it comes to employing this method of cleaning and restoring that bright sound, and here’s why: Most bass guitar strings are made of a metallic alloy such as nickel, and when you stop to think about it, water and metal isn’t exactly a great mix. Generally, those that boil their strings can only do that once, and when the strings become dirty and dull the second time around, they’re shot.
As a result, denatured alcohol makes for a better choice. This substance can be found in just about any hardware or home improvement store near the paint supplies. Denatured alcohol contains very little water and will evaporate much more quickly than boiling water on your stove. The major downside to using denatured alcohol is that it is both toxic and flammable, so you don’t want to clean those strings in a poorly-ventilated area or near any sparks or open flames. If you happen to be in the minority of people that smoke, refrain while cleaning those strings.
Should you choose to clean them in this manner, the easiest way to do so is to find an old coffee can or even a gallon-sized plastic container such as a bucket. Wear hand protection, such as a pair of rubber dishwashing gloves,. Find an old towel or rag and have a can of WD-40 or an equivalent lubricant on hand. After removing the strings from the instrument, coil all of them loosely so that they all fit into the bottom of your chosen container. Pour just enough denatured alcohol over the strings to submerge them. Allow the strings to soak in the alcohol for 12 to 24 hours. Remember, the longer they soak, the cleaner they’ll become. This is also a good time to clean the body of your bass!
Once the soaking period is up, remove them from the container while weaing those dishwashing gloves and wipe each string down with the towel or rag. After wiping them, spray each string with WD-40 to remove any excess moisture. Now the strings are ready to be put back onto the bass and tuned. Unlike the one-shot boiling method, you can clean and restore bass strings with denatured alcohol over and over until the frets on the guitar’s neck eventually chew into them. There are also other cleaning products out there as well that go a step further by minimizing string oxidation. Bass Brites is such a solution, and information can be found here.
How often you will actually have to clean bass strings will depend on your playing frequency and even your playing style. For instance, a bassist that plays with a funky, slap-style technique won’t get as much string life as, say, a bassist in a country band.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is this: Most bass players aren’t as affluent as Paul McCartney, and keeping those strings as clean as possible will increase their useful life and save money.