In this string overview you’ll learn about the varying components that affect your tone and how they can determine whether you fall in or out of love with your guitar.
When you first start playing guitar it’s one thing to learn when you need to change your strings, but navigating the sheer variety of strings available can be difficult without any prior knowledge or experience. The moment you break a guitar string changing them becomes mandatory, but it should not be the only time it happens.
When do I change my strings?
Strings wear out when they become dirty and develop pits. The windings start to flatten around the area that the strings make contact with the frets. As, they begin to wear out the strings will also lose the ability to stay in tune and start to sound dull. Often symptoms of bad strings can literally be felt and heard when you’re performing:
Does your guitar all of a sudden feel more difficult or uncomfortable to play? Do you feel like your tone is going dead? Because strings play such a large role in the overall tone of our instruments it’s worth it to try something different when you are feeling uninspired.
What strings are we using?
D’Addario is one of the most popular string makers in the world today and pride themselves on being a leader in string innovation. They offer more than a dozen varieties of electric guitar strings suitable for any style and, thanks to their attention to detail, deliver incredibly consistent performance. D’Addario & Company, Inc. is a family owned and operated business founded in 1974 and currently based in New York. The XL electric guitar strings that we’re using in this lesson is among one of their most popular: each string utilizes a high-carbon hex shaped steel core for extra strength and tuning stability. This core is then finished in a variety of configurations, each with its own unique playability and feel.
What does that even mean? We’ll explain more about the components within a string that impact your tone, and how to look out for the option that suits you best.
Selecting the right size of guitar strings is all about choosing how you want your guitar to “feel,” and it can make the difference between a guitar that you never want to put down and one that you might never want to pick up again. Light strings are easier to fret and bend, but they also require a lighter, more accurate touch to compensate for the reduced tension compared to medium gauge strings. Heavy gauge strings can be played at standard tuning (E). This will produce a fuller tone, but will take a bit of effort to play with due to the increase in tension.
A Lesson in Tension
It’s important to consider the tuning(s) that you will be using most often. Tuning more than a half-step down—for example, drop C—can significantly decrease the tension of your strings. If tuning down is common for you, you’ll want to consider medium or heavy gauge strings to help counteract that drop in tension which can make the strings difficult to play in tune. If there is too much tension the strings will pull the neck forward resulting in a higher action which then makes it harder to play. When there is not enough tension the neck will pull the strings closer to the frets resulting in a lower action that is difficult to play without excessive buzzing. In extreme cases the strings might even rest against the fretboard itself. Typically, guitars that have a vibrato system are a little more sensitive.
Like coffee, guitar strings are available in a few different blends which are commonly referred to as alloys. Most electric guitar strings feature a steel core while the outer winding may consist of different alloys such as pure nickel, nickel-plated steel, stainless steel. Each alloy will uniquely respond to the magnetic properties of your guitar’s pickups, with some sounding brighter than others.
Pure nickel is known today for its warmth and smooth upper highs, because it was one of the only options available during the early years of the electric guitar’s history, it is a solid choice for recreating a vintage guitar sound. Pure-nickel wound strings are also handy for helping tame an overly bright sounding guitar.
Nickel-wound is short for nickel-plated steel and it is perhaps the most popular electric guitar string and considered the industry standard because of its overall balanced sound.
Stainless steel is more sensitive to magnetics than pure-nickel and nickel-wound strings. As a result there is more output and an increased level of highs. These can sound brighter and more aggressive, making them a good match for guitarists who like to play with very high gain amps and pedals. High carbon steel is also good for bringing some life to a dark sounding guitar.
Flat wound strings are the original electric guitar string and as a result just so happened to be there during the first wave of everything from Blues to Rock and Roll. These strings have a much smoother finish than round wounds and have significantly less noise. However, because of the winding they are also not as bright as round wounds. The timbre of these strings could be described as “classic, with a strong fundamental and a lot of warmth.” I would highly recommend trying a set of chromes if you have never tried a set of flat wounds and your inspirations tend be of the vintage flavor.
Round wound strings for the electric guitar started to emerge in the early 1960s, became an industry standard by the 1980s and are showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. They differ from flat wounds not only by timbre but also feel. The type of metal core used to make the string has a significant effect on the tonal character of the strings timbre.
Half round strings are a cross between flat wound and round wound strings offering the best of both worlds. These strings are brighter sounding than most pure-nickel round wounds but not as bright as nickel-plated steel. Like flat wound strings, there is a reduction in surface noise compared to round wounds—making them a great choice for recording. They are also a great choice for players who like the feel of flat wounds but want to cut through a little more with reduced finger noise.
I would highly suggest for all guitar players to experiment with all of the factors that we have gone over here at least once. I have been playing guitar for nearly 18 years now and one thing I have learned is that there is simply not a “one size fits all” string that feels and sounds perfect on every guitar. Every guitar is different and every player unique. You might find that you like a certain type of winding with certain type of guitar, and what ends up becoming your favorite string on your “number one” just might surprise you.