String Theory – by Mike Overly

Guitar StringsFour String Baritone Guitar, Six String Standard Guitar, Seven String Guitar, Eight String Guitar, Twelve String Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Electric Acoustic Guitar, Banjo Guitar, Classical Guitar, Flamenco Guitar, Harp Guitar, Hawaiian Lap Steel Guitar, Non-Pedal Lap Guitar, Octave Guitar, Pedal Steel Guitar, Portuguese Guitar, Renaissance Guitar, Resophonic Guitar, Steinberger Double Ball End Guitar and Tenor Guitar.

Wow, did you know that there were that many different types of guitars? Well, here’s the amazing part, there are as many different sets of guitar strings as there are different guitars!

Modern string manufacturers have developed a tremendous variety of new materials and construction techniques that offer unique musical characteristics to greatly enhance overall guitar string performance. This means that today’s guitarist has the opportunity to reap the many benefits of the technical innovations in string making. Contemporary guitar strings come in a wide variety, from traditional hand-crafted strings, to state-of-the-art high-tech computer controlled strings. So, no matter what type of guitar sound you imagine, there is a set of strings that will help you to achieve that sound.

Now, the best way to find out for yourself which guitar strings are right for you, is to try several different kinds and brands of strings on your guitar. This will allow you to hear the differences in tone for yourself, and help you make the most informed decision possible. Remember, every guitar is different, so it’s nearly impossible to make two guitars sound exactly alike. Because of this, the strings that work for one player may not work for another, even though they play the same make and model of guitar.

As you learned, there are many different types of guitars and strings, however, this lesson will focus on the types of strings used on Classical, Acoustic and Electric guitars.

Classical Guitar Strings
Until the mid 20th century, classical guitar strings were made of gut, the small intestines of sheep. Today, classical guitar strings are made of nylon. Nylon strings have numerous advantages over their gut predecessors. For example, nylon is more resilient, tends to hold a pitch better, and it is more resistant to changes in climate conditions like temperature and humidity. Classical nylon guitar strings typically have wound 6E, 5A & 4D strings and plain nylon 3G, 2B & 1E strings.

Nylon strings are available in several varieties, the most common of which is clear nylon used for the treble strings. Clear nylon guitar strings are made out of durable nylon mono-filament in various gauges depending on which string they are intended for. Clear nylon strings are popular because of the clarity and richness of their sound. There are also rectified nylon treble strings which start out as clear nylon strings and are then precision-ground to a uniform diameter along their entire length.This grinding process gives them a matte finish. Rectified strings sound more mellow, more mid-range frequencies, than their clear counterparts. Some companies make black nylon treble strings which sound more pure and project more treble frequencies than clear or rectified nylon strings. Classical guitar bass strings are constructed by winding metal wire over multi-filament nylon cores. Some are called “gold,” but are in fact bronze-wound. These bronze-wound bass strings are popular because of the fullness of their sound. Other classical guitar bass strings are referred to as “silver,” which are typically silver-plated copper wire-wound. These strings have a more brilliant tone than gold-wound strings.

Traditional classical guitar strings are straight at both ends and are called tie-end classical guitar strings. They are designed for classical bridges and as the name implies, must be tied on. They will not work on an acoustic guitar with bridge pins. There are also ball-end classical strings available. These are often used by guitarists who want to change strings faster on their classical guitar. These strings will also work on regular acoustic guitars with bridge pins. If a set does not specify whether it is tie-end or ball-end, it may be assumed that it is a tie-end set of strings. Ball-end strings are clearly described on the packaging.

Acoustic Guitar Strings
Although the strings that most acoustic guitars use are commonly called steel strings, the wound strings will almost always be bronze wire wrapped around a steel wire core. Acoustic guitar strings are also available with a phosphor bronze wind which gives the string a warmer tone and keeps its tonal character a little longer than bronze-wound strings which sound a bit brighter and tend to lose their tonal character a bit faster. Wound acoustic guitar strings whether wrapped with bronze or phosphor bronze are not steel colored, but instead appear as different shades of “gold,” which is the natural color of bronze.

What we think of today as a flat-top acoustic guitar was developed in the early 20th century for players seeking more volume than traditionally constructed guitars could provide. C.F. Martin and Gibson were among the first guitar makers to try to meet this new demand. By the 1920’s, they were making steel string guitars which were more reinforced than their predecessors and were much larger than standard guitars of the time.

In order to differentiate them from older, smaller, parlor-style guitars, these larger instruments were referred to by Martin as Dreadnaughts and by Gibson as Jumbos. Soon, many more companies began producing steel string acoustic guitars in many sizes. These new steel string guitars were constructed using the same types of tone woods as the Spanish classical guitar, however, they were given much stronger cross bracing inside to hold up to the greatly increased tension of the new steel strings. Steel string acoustics also had different bridges, utilizing pins to hold the ball ends of the strings in place. This replaced the small piece of wood used to tie the more flexible straight-end classical strings on classical guitars. Similarly, the wooden tuning pegs of the classical guitar were replaced with metal machine heads in order to more effectively tune the newer, much less flexible, steel acoustic strings.

The main advantage of this new type of guitar was that it was much louder than traditional classical guitars. For some this was not enough, and to get even more volume, and to avoid the discomfort of finger picking heavy gauge steel strings, players began to use guitar picks. This facilitated strumming of chords and enhanced the technique of playing faster melodies. The steel string acoustic guitar was suitable for nearly any style of music and, coupled with a new arch-top design equipped with metal strings, it paved the way for the popular music of the twentieth century. As popular music progressed to bigger and bigger bands in the 1930’s, the quest for even more volume led some players to attempt to use microphones and other types of pickups to amplify their steel string guitars. However, the feedback problems this created led to the development of the hollow-body, semi-hollow-body and solid-body electric guitars we play today.

Hollow, Semi-hollow and Solid Body Electric Guitars
The electric guitar was invented sometime in the 1930s in an effort to achieve more volume than a purely acoustic instrument was capable of producing. Some of the first companies to make modern arch-top hollow body electric guitars, and the electric guitar strings to go with them, were Rickenbacker with their Electro-Spanish guitar, National with their own electric Spanish style guitar and Gibson with the ES-150 jazz guitar. Although these guitars, and the Gibson ES-150 in particular, outwardly resembled other popular acoustic arch-top guitars of the time, these new guitars were unlike traditional acoustic guitars in that they were not designed to produce very much sound when not amplified. With the aid of an amplifier however, they were able to produce volumes loud enough to play in the large jazz bands of the era.

These arch-top hollow body guitars performed well until the volume on their amplifiers was turned up very high, at which point they produced large amounts of unwanted feedback. To combat this feedback, the semi-hollow body electric guitar was invented. These looked much like their hollow-body counterparts but had a solid piece of wood running from the neck joint to under the bridge of the guitar. This had numerous advantages, for example, the guitar did not vibrate nearly as much as on an acoustic style instrument. This helped eliminate unwanted feedback because the pickups were limited to picking up only the vibrations of the strings rather than that of the body. The solid piece of the body also provided a solid place to mount the bridge of the guitar, which helped intonation and tuning stability. Notable examples of semi-hollow body arch-top guitars are the Gibson ES-335, the Gretsch Duo-Jet and the Rickenbacker 360.

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the electric solid-body guitar was invented and three of these guitars became the most recognizable and popular solid body electric guitars in the world: the 1948 Fender Telecaster, the 1952 Gibson Les Paul, and the 1954 Fender Stratocaster. All of these electric solid body guitars are still made today in more or less the same form in which they were available in the 1950’s. These guitars are the sound of rock and roll, and their electric guitar strings are an integral part of that sound. It’s hard to imagine what the musical landscape of the last 60 years would have looked like without these electric solid-body guitars… and the strings that go with them.

Electric Guitar Strings: Round-wound
Electric guitar strings come in a variety of gauges, materials, and methods of construction. The most popular are nickel-plated steel round-wound strings, such as Ernie Ball Slinkys, D’Addario XLs, and GHS Boomers. Nickel-plated steel strings provide a bright clear tone. Some guitarists prefer the tone of pure nickel strings which give a warmer, more vintage sounding tone than nickel-plated steel strings. Other players like stainless steel strings because they are brighter than nickel-plated steel or pure nickel, and also because they last longer due to reduced corrosion from acid pH finger perspiration.

Other than gauge, the thickness of a string, the scale length of your guitar affects the tension of the string. For example, a Gibson Les Paul has a 24 ¾ inch scale and comes from the factory set up with light gauge strings (.010 – .046.) While Fender Stratocasters have a 25 ½ inch scale length and come from the factory set up with extra light strings (.009 – .042.) Many players prefer this gauge string because the .009’s are easier to bend despite Fenders having a longer scale length. Think of it this way, if you put the same gauge strings on a Strat and a Les Paul and tune them to the same pitch, the strings on the Les Paul will be easier to bend. In other words, since the .009 gauge string can be a bit too easy to bend on the shorter scale length, using a .010 gauge makes the string a bit more stiff and the feel a little more resistant. Some players stroke the string really hard and find that a medium gauge set of electric guitar strings (.011 – .048) will break less often and stay in tune much longer than a lighter gauge of strings. Remember, you may use whatever gauge and type of electric round-wound strings you wish to get the sound and feel you like.

Electric Guitar Strings: Flat-wound
Flat-wound electric guitar strings differ substantially from their round-wound counterparts. As you might have guessed, flat-wound guitar strings are wound with flat wire rather than the round wire found on round-wound strings. Because flat-wounds are flat, they feel very slick and smooth to the touch. This greatly reduces unintentional left-hand noises made while fretting and sliding. Flat-wound strings tend to last much longer than round-wound strings. However, the real deciding factor when thinking about whether or not to use flat-wound strings is their tone. Flat-wound strings have a very mellow, almost dark tone. Jazz players often prefer flat-wound strings because of their warm tone. In contrast, because flat-wound strings lack brightness and treble harmonic overtones, many rock players don’t like them. One last thought, because flat-wound strings are more difficult to manufacture than round-wound strings, they are also more expensive.

Flat-wound electric guitar strings made by D’Addario, D’Angelico, DR, GHS, La Bella and SIT are made of stainless steel which provides the brightest tone possible for flat-wound strings. Flat-wound strings made by Pyramid and Thomastik-Infeld are made of pure nickel and tend to be warmer and somewhat less bright than stainless steel flat-wounds. Regardless of the maker or material, neither stainless steel nor nickel flat-wound strings will be anywhere near the brightness of round-wound strings.

‘Til next time, have some guitar playing fun, no matter what type or brand of guitar strings you’re strummin’ . . . I’ll be listening!

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