How important are guitar strings to your tone? The answer is…Very! Read on to find out why.
We all know that a great proportion of our individual guitar tone is in our fingers, coupled with the tonewoods used to build the instrument, the structure and material of the bridge system and in the case of electric instruments the components, cables and amplification too. Basically, anything that vibrates affects the tone, it’s that simple! It’s little wonder then that with all those big choices to make we often overlook one of the cheapest, simplest components of that vibrating chain. Our strings.
What do we really know about their construction and how that can affect our playing and tone?
More than a feeling
If it feels good, then you feel good. If you feel good, then potentially you’ll play better. The feel of the strings is such a personal thing, like neck shape and thickness, or scale length and body shape. Some designs just match us, others don’t. Some of you like to wrestle each note into submission, whilst others prefer not to feel the strings at all. Therefore, what better place to start our enquiry, than with the materials they’re made of.
Obviously, differing materials resonate in different ways and therefore affect the tone of the notes being played. Nickel plating can often mellow the tone of a string and in the case of wound strings, the string noise can be reduced too. This could potentially have an affect on their sustain too. Stainless steel sets are tonally bright and tend to be louder too, making them the Historic choice of Rock and Metal players over the years. Pure Nickel strings are great for Jazz and Blues as their tone is often warmer than Stainless steel, however, Nickel plated steel strings are a happy medium and have therefore become the most popular material set for us guitar slingers. Then there’s….
In addition to the string material there are also three common windings: Roundwound, Flatwound, and Halfwound. Winding being the process of using a fine diameter material to wrap around the E, A and D strings of a standard 6 string axe.
Roundwound is the most typical method of string winding. A core of steel wire is wrapped in a wire of finer diameter.
AS in the image above, Flatwound strings are the “go to” set type for jazzers! The core of these strings are wrapped with flat wire, making them smooth to the touch and very mellow on the ear. Nice!
Halfwound strings, are basically heavier versions of their roundwound cousins. The gauge of the wound material is thicker and they are constructed to feel flat. Their benefits are a bright tone with a smooth, comfortable feel.
To Coat Or Not To Coat?
Many manufacturers produce strings with various coatings on, sometimes for feel, some for tone, others to preserve the length of the life of the string. Sweat from your fingers can dramatically decrease the life of your strings so if you’re a player who sweats a lot and you don’t fancy wiping the strings after each performance, then try a few sets with various protective coatings…it might improve your tone, as well as your bank balance!
There is much debate about which gauge of string has “the best tone”, or are “the best for Blues/Metal” etc. Personally I think all players should try a variety of sets before settling on one in particular. Striking a balance between what feels right and what sounds right to you is the key. The table above is a guide to generally accepted terms for string diameter and what they equate to on the packaging of the majority of manufacturers. I have found that most brand new guitars ship with 9s, by the way.
Electric guitar String manufacture has come a long way since the 1950s and it seems there are still some boundaries that are being pushed in terms of strength, life-span and tone. Take D’Addarrio’s brand new NYXL sets for instance. Not content with bringing us balanced tension sets (a whole other subject!) they’ve now produced what they’re calling “the undisputed strongest guitar string”.
Here are the specs as described by D’Addario themselves.
Staying in Tune
“No string has ever offered this level of stability. Torture tests prove NYXLs stay in tune 131% better. So you don’t waste time tuning, and can start playing sooner.”
“At two whole steps higher, NYXL strings are still at less than 75% of their breaking point. In the same setting, standard strings are at 90% of their full capacity.”
“The reformulated nickel-plated steel alloy boosts amplitude in the 1 kHz to 3.5 kHz range, modernizing overall tone, without ever losing that incredible nickel-plated steel feel you love.”
D’Addario have also stated that their NYXL strings are “indisputably the strongest strings ever made” due to their proprietary wire drawing process. Pretty amazing claims, but having played the BETA set earlier this year I can tell you that they feel great to me …and that brings me back around neatly to my first point.
If they feel good, you’ll play better!
Lee is the Dawsons in-house Guitar presenter for all guitar related videos. He is also the UK demonstrator for Roland & BOSS, performing all over the UK.