Hello fellow gear heads and guitar lovers one and all!
I wanted to write an important piece about great guitar tone. It’s not another pedal made by magic elves, it’s not a super special, much-hyped set of guitar pickups, it’s not the new amp flavor of the month… it’s the most often overlooked aspect of the guitar: Strings. Strings are the conduit that translate what our fingers are trying to do with the instrument. They can elevate your variations of vibrato, they can change how you bend notes, fret chords, and intonate colors of pitch.
Most players just buy the same old replacement set in blind brand loyalty from time to time without giving a second’s thought to what they are actually buying. We even immortalize old stories of old blues guitarists from the turn of the 20th century using old chicken wire, or buying used guitar strings and then boiling them as a way to clean them after they get old and worn because they couldn’t afford new ones. Today strings are made with different materials, made in different gauges of thickness, and made with varying degrees of different construction that can affect the overall comfortability, playability, and tone for guitarists’. I’m here to tell you that strings matter more than you could ever imagine in getting great guitar tone, and if you haven’t given it some thought you should because it’s the most readily available, cheapest way to improve your overall guitar tone. So change your strings regularly and you’ll find you sound better!
Construction of Guitar Strings
The materials chosen for the manufacturing process of guitar strings, as well as the construction process for strings, have a major impact on the flexibility of the string itself. This affects the overall playing experience and guitar tone for the player. Each company has their own “recipe” for the construction process, and even though many companies share similarities in their manufacturing techniques, these “recipes” are why some players prefer brand X vs Y.
At the center of your strings is, no pun intended, what’s called the string core. Cores traditionally are six sided (hexagonally shaped) high carbon steel wire, but there are also round cores. The reason most manufacturers choose to have hexagonally shaped core wire is to give the outer wrapping winding of the material of their choice something to grab on to. Formulas for the number of windings, the tension the winding itself is wound, and the number of wraps in windings are considered trade secrets among manufacturers. These formulas give certain strings their type of sound. String windings directly affect tone and playability. Round wound strings have more “zing” – sustain, responsiveness and bite. Flat wound strings have a smoother and more consistent tone regardless of attack, which makes them a favorite of jazz players, and also the king of cool Jimmie Vaughan.
String Flexibility and Gauges
If the only thing you change for comparison purposes are three different sets of strings from different brands with the same size of gauges you will get three different tone results. GHS strings will feel and sound different than D’addario strings, and D’addario strings will feel and sound different than Ernie Ball strings. These differences are due to the inherent construction techniques between brands and the ensuing different flexibility of the string itself.
A guitar string’s flexibility tends to be based on many different factors in the manufacturing process including: the size of the core wire relative to the size of the wrap wire and how tight the wrap wire is wrapped around the string core. Incredibly tightly wrapped strings can sound dull, and incredibly loose wrapped strings can not have enough volume. The alloy material of the wire also helps aid in a set of strings flexibility and the overall strength of the string itself.
Does String Gauge Affect Guitar Tone?
Choosing the size of your guitar strings, commonly referred to as string gauges, can help define the voice of your guitar. Guitar strings are measured from the high e string in varying gauges of thickness from .007 all the way to .014, with .007’s being the lightest gauge and .014’s being the heaviest. As you increase the string gauge size you get fatter overall guitar tone because there simply is more mass of string material vibrating on your guitar. But in doing so you are dealing in a tradeoff because the thicker the guitar string the more difficult it can be to fret notes (thicker strings can take more effort to push down with your fretting hand). Most professional players use different gauges on different guitars for whatever style they are going for and constantly consider the balance between ease of technique and overall tone of the instrument from their strings.
Lighter guitar string gauges (.007’s to .009’s) can be very easy to play because there is less material to push down on when playing. This can lead to easier chord fretting, larger bends, and effortless vibrato. Typically, these strings gauges are recommended for those who are occasional hobbyists because they don’t have the endurance for long playing sessions, or those who have extremely light touch when playing the guitar. If you are looking to play much faster, light string gauges can help you build up the speed in your playing because of less resistance from the fretting hand to the picking hand. However, if you have a heavier touch in your fretting hand, using light gauge strings can make your instrument go sharp when playing and you can break strings more frequently.
Heavier string gauges (.011’s to 14’s) can give your guitar much more output because there is simply put more mass to the string. As you increase the mass of a string you get a larger string, and larger strings have more material to vibrate from your guitar playing. The thicker the string, theory you get more sustain, thicker singing quality to the overall tone, and longer life due to the larger string core. Heavy string gauges are also great for players who play in dropped tunings like Drop D or E flat tunings. However, the thicker you go with guitar strings the tighter the overall tension is on the instrument (if you tune down it helps manage the tighter tension), which can make it harder to fret notes and bend. Larger strings can also wear your frets down more because there is more string to wear with friction on the fretboard.
Ultimately, the balancing act comes down to whatever you the player feel comfortable with bending and fretting notes. Yes, do bigger strings give you bigger tone, but you’ll have to build up the strength in your fretting hand to handle them. And if you can’t bend the note you want up to pitch on heavy string gauges… what’s the point??! Hendrix used 10’s which are a great in between gauge and was the absolute best guitarist of all time. So, it’s whatever feels right to you! Just make music! Judge strings on their overall brightness, sustain, tone, and how easily they allow you to bend, pick, and fret notes.
Types String Materials and their Tonal Characteristics:
Modern Acoustic Guitar Strings: Modern acoustic guitar strings are made with either 80/20 bronze wire, or 80/20 bronze phosphor wire. Bronze wire imparts a clear, bright, bell like tone. Phosphor strings are generally warmer sounding. The core wire for acoustic strings are brass plated high carbon steel.
Electric Guitar Pure Nickel Strings: Pure Nickel wound strings have been around since the inception of the electric guitar. Pure Nickel strings have mild string output, and warm tone generally associated with vintage electric guitar tone. However, they are a little bit thicker and initially stiffer fresh out of the box.
Nickel Plated Guitar Strings: Nickel plated guitar strings have a much brighter and aggressive tone than pure nickel wound strings. These tend to have a little bit more output than pure nickel wound strings as well. A good example of these would be the ever-popular Ernie Ball Slinkys!
Cobalt Strings: Cobalt Strings are a recent development in the string world. Cobalt strings are a mixture of cobalt and iron, and generally have much more output than other materials. These in my opinion were designed for those who want to play heavy metal and need much louder strings. They are also more than twice the price than other types of strings. I’ll let you determine if that’s worth it for you, but for me that’s absurd.
Flatwound Strings: Flatwound strings can be made from a variety of materials, but are called such because of the different winding process where the str. Flatwound guitar strings sound “smoother”, and “squeak less” on the fingerboard when you’re sliding around. They have a mellower tone in general and are much subtler. These strings can cause much less fret wear due to the type of string. They also have more consistent tone throughout the life of the string. However, they are more expensive than round wound strings, typically only available in heavy gauges, they have higher tension due to the extra ribbon of metal in the string, the higher tension can make it much more difficult to bend. Typically used for Jazz, however the great Jimmie Vaughan is a huge fan of these!
Coated Strings”: Some string manufacturers coat their strings in a plastic material in an attempt to stop the natural corrosion process with using guitar strings. This is a selling point to try and earn your business by advertising these strings last longer than “normal strings”. THIS IS A LIE! Leaving these strings on your guitar too long will destroy your frets. They also cost two to three times as much! Wrapping your strings in plastic robs overall guitar tone, sustain, and volume! Not going to name brands, but if it says coated it is garbage!!! Just change your guitar strings regularly like a normal human!