If you notice your fingers have black smear or smudges after playing guitar your first reaction might be that you need to change out your strings.
But what if your new strings are turning your finger tips black? Why do guitar strings turn fingers black in the first place?
Basically, Oxidation from the metal of the strings will react with the oil from your fingertips. Even minimal oxidation will come off with a little bit of oil on your fingers.
While this is totally normal and to be expected, there are a few things that you can do to reduce the amount of discoloration of your fingertips while playing guitar.
Why guitar strings leave black marks on your fingers
Guitar strings are made out of various metal alloys depending on the type and brand of strings you have.
The one thing all metal guitar strings have in common is that the metal will undoubtedly oxidize over time.
Within the winding of each guitar string is surface area where oxidation can occur. When you play the strings, the oil from your hands gets into these windings and speeds up the oxidation process.
Some guitar string manufacturers may also put a protective coating on their strings. These types of coatings can be a polyurethane type coating, or an oil coating.
Oil coatings can delay oxidation, but it will still happen eventually.
Poly coatings are more durable, but you may see the coating flaking off over time as the strings are played.
Why are new guitar strings making my fingers black?
New guitar strings can make your fingertips black, there’s no doubt about that.
But how “new” are your strings?
Fresh sealed guitar strings
If you just bought a fresh pack of sealed strings and put them on your guitar, and you’re seeing black coming off on your fingers, that’s likely no cause for concern.
It’s likely your skin reacting with a coating on the strings and over the next few practice sessions, the markings will fade or stop altogether.
Brand new guitar with strings
If you just bought a brand new guitar, it likely came with strings already on it.
Even though these strings haven’t been played, you can’t really call them new or at least “fresh” strings.
The strings usually get put on at the factory, or some brands have them put on at the dealer.
That means that there can be weeks and even months where the strings are able to oxidize, before you even get to playing the strings.
What happens is you sit down to play a “new” guitar with strings that have been oxidizing for a few weeks and your fingers quickly turn black.
How to prevent guitar strings from turning fingers black
There’s 3 main things you can do to keep your strings clean and stop them from turning your fingers black:
- Change your guitar strings regularly
- Wash your hands BEFORE playing
- Wipe down strings regularly
The first is the most obvious, if your strings are old and starting to get gross, simply change them.
They aren’t going to get any better, or any cleaner.
If you are able to get the strings clean, they will only oxidize and build up grime quicker, plus any desirable tone qualities will be diminished over time.
Therefore, if your strings are causing black fingers because of their age, I strongly recommend only one resolution, a full string change.
Washing your hands thoroughly before playing guitar is going to be the best thing you can do to make your strings last longer, and prevent black grime from building up in the first place.
Washing your hands will remove excess oil your skin naturally produces, while it’s good for your skin, it fast tracks oxidation on guitar strings.
Simply washing your hands well with soapy water prior to playing your guitar will make a world of difference.
Washing your hands before playing will reduce guitar strings from making your fingertips black down the road.
Wiping the strings down regularly can also help reduce the black marks on your fingers, however, this is not going to prevent it altogether, only delay the inevitable.
Use a dry, clean microfiber cloth to remove any oil residue on the strings.
Some people like to clean their strings and there are some great solutions for this.
However, I’m not a big fan of cleaning strings.
My opinion is if your strings need to be cleaned, they likely need to be changed.
Strings aren’t that expensive, and a fresh pack of strings will be more worthwhile than cleaning old strings.
Nevertheless, here’s a video going into string cleaning in more detail, don’t just take my opinon:
People have reported using lemon oil or even WD-40 to clean up tier guitar strings.
It may be a good short term fix, making their strings very clean for a couple practice sessions, but will likely speed up and oxidize in the following weeks.
If you go through with cleaning your strings, ensure the cleaning solution you choose doesn’t react strangely with the type of metal alloys your strings are made from, they’re all a little different.
Dealing with guitar strings that make your finger black
If your guitar strings are leaving black marks on your fingers, and they aren’t fresh strings, I recommend changing your strings.
It’s the easiest, simplest and most reasonable way to keep your fingers clean while playing guitar.
If your strings are new unplayed strings, it may be a coating put onto the strings.
A few sessions of playing may reduce the amount of black grime that comes off the strings.
You can also wipe down the strings with a dry cloth.
Otherwise, keeping your guitar in a location that’s climate controlled (temperature and humidity swings are not good for instruments) is the best way to keep your strings in good shape.