Primer on Guitar Strings


         
  Good Vibrations  
GOOD VIBRATIONS
A Little Primer On Your Guitar Strings

by Lisa Sharken


"As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the string, the bigger the sound."

No question, strings are an essential part of the sound of a guitar. With the exception of a rare few, the majority of players will agree that their guitars sound noticeably better with new strings. Though it's no secret, this fact is frequently overlooked and taken for granted. Changing strings is probably the cheapest and simplest way to improve your tone. So if you're not entirely happy with the sound of your guitar you may want to consider trying another type of string before replacing pickups, or blaming the amp or your new bass player, since different strings may give your guitar an entirely new sound and feel. Remember, the string is really where the sound of your guitar begins. It's the vibration of the string that initiates everything else.

A string is constructed of a core, the center around which the windings of the string are wrapped, and the windings, the wrap of wire around the center core. The core is usually either round or hexagonal in shape, while the windings come in three shapes: round-wound, half-round (which are also known as polished or ground-round wound), and flatwound. Roundwound is the most common of all string types and produces the brightest and clearest sound. A half-round string is constructed from a round-wound string that has had the outer round wrap ground or burnished down to create a more even and flatter surface. The smoother surface allows the hand to glide more freely with less squeaking as it moves across the string, and are generally not quite as bright as round-wounds. Flatwound strings have a completely smooth outer wrap to provide the sleekest and most fluid surface for effortless sliding without squeaks. Flat-wounds produce a flat and dark sound and are most frequently used by traditional jazz players.

Let's take a look at the differences between some of the materials used to manufacture guitar strings and the characteristics of their tone. What are some factors about the string that affect tone? The first is the alloy, which is the type of metal used in the string's construction. Material used for the windings on electric guitar strings must have stronger magnetic properties to be capable of working in conjunction with the guitar's pickups. For plain strings, Swedish steel is the most commonly used alloy for both electric and acoustic. However, strings made for acoustic guitar do not need magnetic properties since the tone is not created with a magnetic pickup. They do however, require strong resonant properties to project the tone and work in conjunction with the wood of the guitar.

Here's a general run-down of some of the most commonly used alloys. I've already mentioned nickel plated steel, which produces a bright and warm sound and is favored by players of acoustic and electric guitar since it has excellent magnetic properties. Pure nickel is another alloy which is experiencing a bit of a "come back" as of late. It is not quite as bright as the NPS. Pure nickel is what most strings were made of back in the 60's. The resurgence of surf music and 50-60's music is causing the come back of the pure nickel. Stainless steel is an alloy commonly used for electric guitar strings since it has good magnetic properties and produces a very clear and bright sound. One advantage of stainless steel is that it's more resistant to oxidation than NPS or nickel. It's a favorite of pedal-steel players. Chrome is much flatter sounding than nickel or stainless steel and is commonly used for flatwound electric guitar strings since it also has good magnetic properties. It's also often preferred by jazz and blues players. For acoustic guitar, the most popular alloy used for wound strings is bronze, which produces a bright, crisp sound. Phosphor bronze is the second most popular choice and produces a bright, but is slightly warmer and darker sound than bronze. Another common material is brass, which is brighter and more metallic sounding than bronze. Brass seems to work well to brighten up characteristically dark and muddy sounding acoustics.

Of course, we can't forget about the gauge of the string, the actual thickness, which is measured to 1/1000th of an inch. The gauge of a string affects the amount of tension the string creates and how difficult it will be to press down or bend. Heavier strings have more tension and are somewhat harder to play on, however they do produce a stronger and fatter tone than thinner strings. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the string, the bigger the sound.

As you can see, there are several factors about strings themselves that effect their sound. It's the result of those characteristics of the strings working together with the qualities of the guitar's wood, and the magnetic properties and tonal qualities of a guitar's pickups that truly define the instrument's voice. But it all begins with the string. Experiment with different kinds of strings; it's the simplest modification you can do. And remember, if you change strings, you may have to readjust the setup of your guitar to accommodate for the differences, especially if you change your string gauge. Happy stringin'.


Thank you to Guitar Shop Magazine for this article. Note: Later on we will do an article on how to adjust your guitar for maximum action and feel.

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