Smelly Bass Strings? (here`s what you should do)

bassist playing 4-string bass guitar

It`s both irritating and off-putting to have your bass strings start to smell.

Oftentimes, this suddenly happens to bassists despite them playing for years without their strings ever producing an odor. Then, one day the strings have an unpleasant scent to them seemingly out of nowhere.

Bass strings that emit an odor are not uncommon, and they can do so for a variety of reasons. That`s why I wrote this article to help out anyone that is experiencing this problem.

I will show you what causes bass strings to smell and how to prevent this from happening in the future. I will also show you how to freshen up your bass strings in order to get rid of the odor.

Why do my bass strings smell bad?

In general, bass strings produce an odor because they have been exposed to sweat or humidity. The smell that comes from the strings is generally caused by them being dirty or corroded and can be characterized as unpleasant and similar to that of garlic.

Sweat from our hands is a common reason that bass strings begin to smell over time. This is completely individual, and it`s a non-issue for some bassists, while it is a major problem for others.

Sometimes it is just a matter of biology, but sweaty hands can also be a result of your environment. Playing in a warm and humid room will greatly increase the chance of your hands sweating and your bass strings smelling as a result.

Furthermore, a humid environment will not just impact your hands, but the bass strings directly. Moisture makes metal corrode, which can be bad news for your strings.

Thus, if your bass is kept out of its bag in a humid environment, the smell you are experiencing could be that they are starting to rust.

Completely fresh strings can also have a distinct metallic smell. If your strings are new and you are experiencing an odor this will generally diminish over time.

Eventually, your bass strings will also simply be worn out. Some strings are more prone to sweat, dirt, and rust than others, but all uncoated strings need to be rejuvenated or changed from time to time.

If you have kept the strings on your bass for 6+ months and thry only recently started to smell, this might just mean that it`s time to clean them. I have explained how to do this in my guide on bass maintenance.

bass with worn and smelly strings played with pick

How do I stop my bass strings from smelling?

Depending on why your strings smell, the strings can be cleaned, changed, or stored differently. In general, cleaning the strings and storing your bass in a bag will remove the smell. If the smell persists, the strings are usually corroded or played out and thus need to be changed.

When your bass strings change in smell in between sessions, chances are that this is a result of humidity. If you notice this happening there are a couple of things you should do.

  1. Keep your bass in a bag – First of all, keep your bass in a case or gig bag. This greatly decrease your instruments exposure to humidity and will stop the smell from becoming worse.
  2. Use coated strings – All bass strings are different and some will be more prone to humidity than others. Metal is corosive, and will always produce a smell to some degree. A good way to get around this is to use a set of coated bass strings. The coating also extends the overall life of strings making them a good long-term choice. I recommend this set of coated strings from DR as I trust the brand, and the set is availble for 4, 5 and 6-string basses.

If you notice your hands sweating when you play, there are some things you can do to deal with this:

  1. Wash your hands – Use cold water and soap and wash your hands before you pick up the bass. This will both make your hands less sweaty, and prevent your bass from being exposed to any additional dirt.
  2. Colder and drier environment – If you play in a room that is humid and hot, your hands will start to sweat significantly faster. Therefore, try to play in a drier and colder room. Alternatively, lower the temperature in your current playing room, or invest into an air humidifier if the room is particularly humid.
  3. Dry your hands while playing – Regardless of what else you do, playing is going to make your hands hotter. Thus, it can be helpful to dry your hands with paper or a towel at regular intervals when your are playing the bass.
  4. Drink water – You have proboably heard this one a thousand times before, but how much mater you drink will have an impact on everything you do. Drinking enough water will keep you hydrated and less sweaty, and will lower the amount of salt in your sweat. This can further decrease the unpleaseantness in the smell of the strings if you cannot prevent sweating altogether.

bass strings boiled in pot

How do you freshen bass strings?

The best way to freshen up bass strings is either through a denatured alcohol bath or by boiling them. If they are dirty this will significantly improve their smell and sound. If the strings are corroded or worn out, the strings will not be fully rejuvenated and will need to be changed.

Strings are expensive, so it`s often preferable to reuse your bass strings as many times as you can. While all bass strings have a lifespan, you can generally freshen up and reuse bass strings about 3-5 times without issue.

Here are two great options for freshening up your bass strings if they keep smelling:

  1. Methylated spirits bath – Denatured alcohol, also known as methylated spirits, is what I find most effective for cleaning my own strings. Make a small bath out of the alcohol, soak the strings in it for 24 hours and wipe them clean with a towel. Note: Don`t use other types of alcohol than methylated spirits/denatured alcohol and remember that the product is flameable and poisouness. Read the warning label and avoid skin contact, consumption, or storing it near anything flameable. I use this product from Klean Strip, due to it being affordable and effective. Lastly, the alcohol produces a smell itself, so make the bath outside or in a room that sees little use.
  2. Boil the strings – Many bassists boil their strings. Boiling will freshen up the string by expanding it`s windings. This cleans the inner parts of string, which would otherwise be difficult. Boil the strings one at a time, for about 10 minutes. It`s a best practice to boil heavier string gauge for longer, and I tend to boil my E string for 5 extra minutes. If there is lime or calcium in your tap water, I recommend using filtered or bottled water instead. Otherwise the water could cause damage to your strings instead of freshening them up.


Bass strings can start to smell for a variety of reasons. Most commonly though, it is due to sweat, dirt, or humidity affecting the strings.

Luckily, this can generally be solved by freshening the strings up. Boiling them or soaking them in denatured alcohol are both effective options that will thoroughly clean the strings.

Smelly bass strings can generally be prevented by playing in a dry environment and keeping your hands clean. If that isn`t realistic, coated bass strings are a great option and are significantly less likely to produce a smell.

Having your bass strings smell is an issue that many bassists don`t know about before it happens to them. By following the steps outlined in this article though, you are unlikely to experience smelly bass strings ever again.

If your strings have started to smell, your tone has likely suffered as a result. Rejuvenating your strings will help with this, but there are other steps you can take to improve your overall tone as well. To learn more, read about how to get a cleaner bass tone.

Ian Partanen

BassOx Founder. Passionate bassist for 15+ years across a vast selection of genres, currently into indie-rock and hip-hop. Bachelor's degree in Musicology from the University of Oslo.

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