Nickel Allergy Solutions for Guitarists

So how does one get out of this mess? Read on!

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Ultimate Guitar
Nickel Allergy Solutions for Guitarists
5

Hi there, fellow UG's!

So a couple of years ago I posted this thread for discussing how my very aggressive nickel and cobalt allergies could be treated so I could play my electric guitar. I thought I'd share my findings with all of you, since I haven't found a comprehensive guide for guitarists suffering from this terrible allergy problem.

First of all, I'll just briefly explain the allergies:

There are many kinds of allergies, but they are not all the same. Some are treatable, some are just there, and you'll need to arrange your life to better your condition. My allergies are so severe that even foods like veggies and nuts can start a reaction.

Now, some might say that holistic treatments of different sorts are helpful. I'll say, if it works: Good for you! But I had no help from alternative treatments, though I managed to spend a fair amount of money on stuff that did nothing at best, in some cases even worsened my allergic reactions.

So how does one get out of this mess? Read on!

How to lessen your allergic reactions?

As I mentioned above, you'll have to arrange your life according to your condition. For me this means specifically avoiding the materials I react to. Cobalt isn't that much of a problem, but nickel is basically the go-to material for alloys of any kind, be it for the frets on your guitar or the buttons in your jeans. What I did was to buy a nickel tester and make sure to minimize the amount of nickel in my home. Even the cutlery!
Up next: How to get a nickel free guitar!

The nickel free guitar

I play both western and electric guitars. The vast majority of guitars are made with nickel alloys for any hardware, so no matter what guitar you're standing with, it is highly improbable that it'll be allergy friendly. Of course you could bring a nickel tester with you, but I doubt that you'll get to use it on a guitar in store. So what to do? Well, you'll have to get serious about it and modify your guitar like so:

For western guitars:

1) New, nickel free frets
2) Nickel free strings

For electric guitars:

1) New, nickel free frets
2) New, nickel free bridge
3) Nickel free strings

The frets are the real bastards here, since you cannot rely on stainless steel to be nickel free. Your only 100 % guaranteed nickel free solution are brass frets, since brass and nickel do not mix. Brass frets are a bit more expensive, since brass is more work, and the material being inherently more expensive.
You can re-fret your favorite guitar or have a custom build. I chose to do the latter and designed my electric guitar at Warmoth's website.
For acoustics there's also the option of having someone custom build it for you, but it's way cheaper to have your guitar re-fretted in any circumstance.

The strings

Nickel free strings are less complicated, not that expensive, but they can be hard to obtain. I've had to ask several dealers for them, and I've only found one store in Copenhagen, Denmark (Where I live) that had them as stock. Remember this: Stainless steel is NOT nickel free by definition! You may need to go online and order them. Here are the strings I found that are, as far as I know, completely nickel free:

Electric guitar strings:
  • Rotosound British Steels (even advertised as nickel free!)
  • DR Dragon Skins
Western guitar strings:
  • Thomastik Plectrum
None of these have the durability of, say, coated high quality strings, but they sound good and your skin will not be exposed to nickel. As mentioned, the price is not steep, though you'll might have to change them more often.

Conclusion

While nickel allergy is a vicious, often incurable condition, it's not impossible to at least treat it and minimize your exposure to the metal. Though it can be quite difficult, arranging your surroundings to minimize nickel in your everyday life, it's paramount to getting on playing your beloved guitar. Holistic treatments can probably help some people, but let me make this clear: There's NO evidence for the effectiveness of these alternative treatments, and they can result in escalating the allergic reactions and an empty wallet. Accept you have a condition that may well be a life long companion and do what you can to avoid nickel.

Though solutions are still somewhat sparse, they're out there. Re-fretting your guitar with brass frets and using nickel free strings brings you a long way towards playing without your skin being ruined.

I hope someone will get something out of this article. Good luck to all of you allergy suffering guitarists and bass players out there.

- Jakob Moller-Jensen
Copenhagen, Denmark

5 comments sorted by best / new / date

    ~Maxi King~
    Although I'm not suffering from that condition I'm really grateful that you bring that matter to the table. I cannot imagine how it must be to be forced to almost lay down the one thing that makes you happy, only because of an nasty thing such as an allergy.
    Way Cool JR.
    Also titanium and surgical stainless steel is nickle free.  You can buy Titanium Telecaster bridges & saddles as a set and vintage style bent saddles for Strat's for relatively cheap from Guitar Fetish.  These would be great upgrades for very common guitars for people with nickle allergies.     
    Way Cool JR.
    They also make lots of raw solid brass hardware nowadays that are completely uncoated/unplated. e.g. Tremolos,knobs,TOM's,stop tails & tuners  If anything some of them may have a clear coat.   
    Jasonbts
    I have a nickel allergy that only is a problem from prolonged contact. I've worn an undershirt every day since kindergarten to tuck between my skin and the button on jeans. I never wore shorts much either because the plastic seats in most schools have nickel tabs attaching the seat to the frame. Fortunately I've never had a problem with guitar. Constantly moving while playing and the calluses in my fingertips has probably helped a lot. Even though it's never been a major guitar problem for me, thanks for writing this. I'm sure it will be very helpful to those who experience this!