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Guitar Strings: Choosing and Using Part 1
Thursday, 9 June 2016 15:18:48 Europe/London
A task that comes to all guitarists sooner or later is that of replacing strings. Sometimes it is because a single string is broken, other times the whole seem a little dead and the instrument feels or sounds less than optimum.
For the less confident or experienced there is always the option of bringing your guitar into The Guitar Store and having it restrung by our technician – this will be a reliable and safe way to get it done.
The more adventurous may wish to start changing their own strings, in which case a little bit of guidance will go a long way.
The intention is that this blog should be the first in a series – in this one we will look at the options available to you, next time we'll look at how, why and when to restring various types of guitars and following that we'll consider the adjustments you can make to your guitar when you change the type of string you use.
First consider which strings you wish to fit – the safest and most straightforward approach is to replace like for like. If you want to do that but are not sure what strings you currently have fitted, bring the guitar into the store and we can give you our opinion and what options you might want to consider.
Types of string.
Sometimes the type of string is dictated by the instrument.
Classical style acoustic guitars will need to be strung with nylon or similar strings. The construction of the guitar will not be sufficiently strong to withstand metal cored string designed for steel strung acoustics or electric guitars and the bridge is set at a right angle to the strings. Most ukuleles also fall into this group.
Strings are available with various different cores from different types of nylon through to some very modern materials like carbon fibre. Similarly there are options for both the plain nylon strings and for the winding material on the bass strings.
Strings in this group tend to be plain ended to be either tied or knotted but I have seen nylon guitar strings with ball ends... not recently though.
Steel strung acoustics require metal cored strings, usually with the two highest pitched strings being plain steel and the remaining four being wound with phosphor bronze, bronze or brass. The wound strings are stiffer than the plain and from this follows the need to change the angle of the bridge to achieve correct intonation (in simpler terms, to make the guitar play in tune with itself!) The bridge is usually designed for the two plain, four wound string configuration – if you want to use a different combination (such as three plain, three wound) you may find that there are issues with the intonation of the third string. Sometimes the bridge is split into two sections, one for plain strings, one for the wound strings, in order to achieve better intonation. You may even come across an acoustic with adjustable saddles but these are rare indeed and tend to cause other problems rather than just cure tuning issues. Choice of winding material will affect the tone of the guitar and might even be used to correct perceived shortcomings in tone.
Bronze Strings give a clear, bright tone, good for general acoustic playing.
Phosphor bronze strings are similar to Bronze but generally a little darker in tone – the phosphor tends to make these strings last a little longer than Bronze.
Brass strings have a very bright, jangly tone – love 'em or loathe 'em.
Nearly all steel strung acoustic guitar strings have ball ends, but if you are restringing a mandolin or banjo be careful - you might well need loop ends.
Electric guitars need strings that have sufficient magnetic conductivity that the pickups are able to detect the vibrations in the strings. They are usually supplied as three plain and three wound strings.
Available materials include
Nickel plated steel strings are probably most common and give a nice balanced sound with good attack and reasonable durability.
Pure nickel strings have a warmer sound than the nickel plated type.
Stainless steel strings have a bright tone and resist corrosion well. Less tendency to string squeak.
Chrome strings are warm in tone and have less resonance. Popular with jazz guitarists. Flat wound strings are usually chrome plated.
Cobalt strings, a current favourite of this writer, have a wide dynamic range because of their exceptional pickup response. Bright in tone.
Electric guitar strings tend to be ball ended in the vast majority of cases but there are very occaional exceptions (double ball end or loop end).
Strings are available in a wide range of gauges, usually refered to by the gauge of the high e string (eg a set of 10s) or sometimes by the high and low strings (a set of 10 to 46).
Knowing which gauge is right for you is to a large extent a matter of trying different sets but there is some guidance that can be followed.
Classical strings are graded by their tension rather than their gauge and to a large extent this comes down entirely to individual taste.
Acoustic players tend to use reasonably heavy strings (which for historical reasons are often refered to as Mediums 13-54) as the more powerful string drives the top of the guitar harder, creating more volume. Lighter strings tend to create less volume and a weaker tone but it will depend on your style, and if you play "plugged in", as to whether this will suit you. I have used electric 10 gauge strings on a guitar with a carbon fibre top with some success but this guitar was extremely responsive to the strings vibration. This certainly would not work as well with a heavily braced wooden top. Also look out for lightly built guitars which might specify a maximum string gauge.
Electric guitar players use a wider range of string gauges which the adjustments available on most electric guitars make easier to accomodate. Strings are available from 8s to 13s (gauge of the high e string) with variations on the gauges within those sets.
These days a "normal" set for a 25.5" scale Fender is generally either 9s or 10s although Les Paul players with their shorter scale sometimes prefer a set of 11s. Why would you choose something else?
Well, theoretically at least, heavier strings give more output and are often perceived to have more "tone". Whether your fingers are comfortable playing with heavier strings is part of the equation that only you can judge – certainly heavier strings are tougher on the fingertips and are harder to bend. Trying telling Stevie Ray Vaughan that though.
On the other hand, Billy Gibbons is well known for using very light strings and he never seems to lack for tone.
As we said, its all a question of trying what you fancy.
Over the last twenty years the polymer coated string has become very popular – they tend to be longer lasting and more consistent in tone throughout that life. They do tend to be more expensive and sustain is slightly reduced, but there are many people who swear by them. They are available for both acoustic steel string and electric guitars and can be an excellent choice.
Which all goes to show that advances are still being made... remember gold plated strings? Very few things were as mad as these though....
We'll leave it there for now and we'll look at the mechanics of restringing next time.