Posted by: kubiakl | January 10, 2009

Strung Along

Ask a guitarist how often they change their strings and you’ll get a variety of answers.  Gigging musicians will often change them before every show.  Some obsessive casual players (like me) change them every few weeks.  Others only change them when a string breaks.  And a few only change them when the old ones have become COATED with rust.

I’ve been writing about tone lately with picks and amps but working on my friend’s guitar made me realize that I should also write about strings.

Changing strings is the easiest way to make your guitar more playable immediately.  If it’s been a while and you’re finding your guitar less enjoyable to play, go buy some strings.  I’ll wait…

Got ’em?  Great!  You should change your strings often, at least before they become corroded.  The general guideline is that if you play every day, change them every few weeks, and if you play once a week, change them at least every six months.

Hopefully you spent some time thinking about the type of strings you were buying.  “What’s the difference,” you ask?  Excellent question, you should give yourself a gold star.

Strings can vary in a few different ways – size, material, and construction.  Construction is simply roundwound or flatwound generally.  Since most people use the standard roundwound strings we aren’t going to touch construction.  Let’s start with size since that goes for all strings regardless of material or construction.  The gauge of the string denotes the size, and is usually measured in thousandths of an inch.  A plain high E string will be between .008 and .013, a wound low E will usually run between .038 and .056.

The thinner (lighter) a string is the easier it is to fret and bend.  So why doesn’t everyone use Super Lights (.008 – .038)?  Tone, brother!  It’s all about the sound.  But at the same time you don’t want to use the heaviest strings available unless you have Stevie Ray Vaughan’s hands – they will shred your fingers apart and really stress the joints in your hand.  The best solution is to find a balance between sound and playability.  I’ve also found that really light strings aren’t as stable in their tuning, the thinner material is stretched more easily.

String gauge is absolutely a matter of preference though.  I’ve used everything from .008’s when starting out to .012’s until my fingers threatened to quit on me.  These days I use a set of strings that run from .011 to .050 on all of my guitars except my resonator.  Since the slide puts more pressure on the strings and I keep my resonator in slack tunings I use .012’s to give me more tension to offset those things.

I suggest trying a few different gauges until you find the one that works and sounds best to you.  If you are just starting out stick with lighter gauge strings and work up.  You don’t decide to start jogging by enrolling in a marathon.

The material of the string can effect the feel and sound.  Let’s start with electric strings.  There are three materials that most strings are made of – nickel, nickel-plated steel, and pure steel.  Almost all plain strings (meaning the ones without windings) are pure steel.  The wound strings (usually the lower three on an electric) are where our different materials come into play.

Nickel strings have less output which results in a mellower, more vintage vibe.  Pure steel strings are higher in output and sound brighter than nickel, but are rougher on your fingers (and can wear down the frets faster).  The most common type of electric string is the nickel-plated steel – nickel plated steel wraps around a steel core.  They are more magnetic (more output) than nickel but have the nickel plating to soften them.

Acoustic guitars need different material since the sound isn’t (generally) generated by magnetic pickups.  Bronze, Phosphor Bronze wound, and Silk and Steel are three of the major materials acoustic guitar strings use.  Bronze wound strings are the most common and sound very bright, but mellow fairly quickly.  Phosphor Bronze wound strings have phosphor added to the windings to help mellow the sound and extend string life.  Silk and Steel strings have nylon filamnets wrapped around a steel core, which are then covered by a silver plated brass winding.  They have a more slack feel and a mellower tone but also don’t last as long.  Some string makers have started producing strings specifically made for acoustic-electric guitars – every other winding is stainless steel, the rest are bronze.  The addition of steel adds output to the pickups while the bronze keeps it sounding like an acoustic.

A somewhat recent development in string technology is the coated string.  Basically they are standard strings (phosphor bronze) but with a coating to keep out contamination.  Since most string wear comes from the guitarist’s dirty fingers this extends the string life.  Some coatings feel really thick and can make the strings slicker – which is great if you’re just starting on guitar, sliding on the strings won’t hurt your fingers as much.

I have used coated strings but they just didn’t have my tone.  My impression was that they are very lush sounding – chimy, chorusy almost.  Very pretty sound.  Since I like a drier, woody tone they didn’t work for me, but don’t let that stop you from trying them.  They may be exactly what you want and they will save you from having to change strings as often.

There are so many manufacturers of strings that I couldn’t begin to list all of them.  I’ve tried quite a few but for the last few years I’ve stuck with the same brand – DR strings.  DR strings are hand made and just sound right to me.  For electrics I use their Pure Blues strings which are pure nickel.  I like the mellow tone that nickel gives me and they feel really great.  For acoustics I use the Rare strings, which are phosphor bronze.  Again, just a good voice and feel.  I think I was initially turned on to DR strings when my research found that Luther Dickinson and Warren Haynes use them, but I kept buying them because they felt right.  This isn’t a recommendation – you may find another brand has your sound – but just me sharing my take on music.

After all, that’s why I’m here.

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Responses

  1. That’s some pretty nifty info on guitar strings..but you left out the people that have guitars and NEVER play them. LOL

    Oh and yes you introduced me to GLOVE..

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I knew that strings needed to be changed but I never knew how often or how many different types of strings there actually were.

    Thank ya for putting the info out there to where layman(laywoman) like I could understand!

  3. Thanks for the share


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