"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
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'.