I remember years ago when I first started playing a guitar we would venture to our local Western Auto store a few times a year. Now for you younger children of the music world a Western Auto store back then wasn’t just a place to buy auto parts. For a small child like myself…it was a wonderland. Not only did they carry auto parts but also toys, guns, bikes, tools, and yes, musical instruments. Back then we didn’t change strings as often as we should have due to the cost and the travel into town to get them but when we did it was special. And for those of you that can remember the so called good ole days, yes I did play Black Diamond strings back then.
As a teacher I get asked all kinds of questions every day about strings. So in this blog we will take a close look at the most talked about and most neglected part of a guitar--the strings.
Many years ago guitar strings were made either from wire or gut, often called catgut. Now I never understood why these strings constructed of animal parts were referred to catgut when they almost always were made with the intestines from sheep not cats. Today strings are divided into two basic types, steel or nylon. Steel strings are used for electric and acoustic guitars while the nylon strings are mainly used for classical or flamenco style instruments. We will be spending most of our time on the steel string and how it’s constructed.
The steel guitar string is manufactured in three different types. Most of us will not recognize a couple of these but to us grey haired musicians we have probably used all three in our day. Because it is impractical to make thick plain strings, the top three strings on the guitar, E, A, and the D string are wound and sometime the G may also be wound. The central core may be either round or hexagonal. With the steel strings, the core is made of steel and with nylon strings, the core is made of nylon. The material used by string manufacturers to wind this type of string varies. This material, known as the winding, can be yellow, white, or silver metals ranging from stainless steel,nickel, gold, or silver. Either white or yellow strings can be used on acoustic guitars although most pickers like myself prefer yellow bronze or brass wound strings. Only certain strings can be used on the electric guitars with magnetic pickups. These are the magnetically responsive white metal wound strings. Neither yellow metal strings or nylon strings will work on an electric with magnetic pickups. The shape or profile which the winding gives the wound string will vary according to whether the string is roundwound, flatwound or groundwound. Roundwound strings are what we most commonly use in today’s world of music but the others are still available if you’re willing to put some research into finding them.
These are the most common strings on the market today as I noted above. To produce the three and sometimes four strings, the steel or nylon core is wrapped round with a long continuous length of round wire. The winding is done automatically by a machine that spins the center core. Roundwound strings produce a good tone and volume and, when new, give a clear ring that is suitable for both acoustic and electric guitars.
Also known as tapewound strings, flatwounds have a far smoother surface than roundwound strings. The winding on these strings are made from a flat metal tape or ribbon instead of a round wire. Flatwound strings were designed to overcome the problem of finger squeak on the strings while a performer is playing or recording. The smooth flat surface of flatwound strings helps in reducing this noise. It should be noted that flatwound strings have a more mellow sound than roundwound strings and are therefore often preferred by Jazz guitarists over any other style. Because of the flat surface they hold dirt and oil from the skin easier and tend not to last as long as roundwound strings.
As an attempt to produce a string with all the good qualities of roundwound and flatwound strings manufacturers designed groundwound strings. These are made using the same techniques as roundwound strings but the winding is ground down and polished so that all protrusions are removed and a flattened surface is left. Groundwound string can give some of the same tone values as roundwound strings while giving us the feel and quite sound as flatwound strings.
Now that we have reviewed the three most common strings on the market today, let's look at the different gauges of strings and how to pick the one that's best for you. Strings are available in sets usually labeled heavy, medium, light, extra light, and ultra light. Manufacturers’ names for these basic sets may vary and you may find intermediate sets such as medium lights. Strings are also available individually and in the most common or practical gauges so you can form your own personalized set if you choose. Changing the strings on your guitar from one gauge to another will affect the feel and the sound and may require a different setup to keep from buzzing or developing other problems. Once you find a gauge of strings that best suits your playing style and your budget it’s best to stick with that brand and gauge. Light gauge strings are easier to note onto the frets since the tension of the string is lower and make bending the string easier. However, they can be harder to keep in tune and they tend to produce less volume and lower sustain in my book. The light gauge string is the most recommended string for women, children, and beginners but I recommend switching to a medium gauge as soon as possible to prevent bending the strings out of tune or pulling chords out of pitch. This only applies to acoustic guitars however. I use a light or extra light on my electrics because I want the tension of the string to be loose for bending, a technique often used on electric guitars.
Why do strings break and go dead after time is a long drawn out question by musicians and is credited to I’m sure many hours of conversation. In order to better understand why this happens to even the best of musicians we need to understand the term concert pitch. Guitar strings are designed to be tuned around or very near to concert pitch. Concert pitch on a tuner is .440Hz. Now to explain concert pitch in full detail would require another blog someday. Let’s just say that .440Hz is standard tuning and strings are made to be pulled to that tension and not much more. If a string is tuned over concert pitch it will become in danger of breaking. That’s why close attention is used when tuning not to exceed passed standard pitch or concert pitch. Over tuning or excessive pressure on the strings also leads to distorting or damaging the guitar neck.
Strings stretch during their lifetime and they slowly lose their tensile strength or elasticity and tone over time. If you were to put on a new set of strings and never play them they would eventually go dead and stretch no more. I have always recommended changing strings every four to six months if they haven't been played much and every three months or sooner if they see a lot of play time. When I was playing fulltime in a band I would sometimes change strings after every show because I like the bright sound and good tones I received from a new set. These days I still try to change strings every couple of months or so. I just like the harmonic overtones and clarity from a new set. Strings also wear due to the contact they make on the frets. Wound strings suffer the most because they develop flat spots where the underside of the windings are worn flat. Flat spots and broken windings will impair tone and may cause a buzzing effect. With time all strings will become tarnished and dirty due to dirt and grease from sweaty hands that build up quickly after use. For this reason you should wipe down your strings after playing with a string cleaner and a clean cloth. Years ago I worked in a music store and the owner believed in snapping the strings. This is a so-called pro trick which sometimes helps to dislodging dirt from beneath the windings. One string at a time is pulled upward away from the fretboard and then allowed to snap back in place. This is something I have never used for myself nor do I believe it helps. Nothing can replace a good cleaning under the strings with a good string cleaner and a clean rag. Years ago we were told that if we boiled our used strings for a few minutes in water that this method would remove any and all grease, sweat, and dirt from the strings. I would like to share this thought with you. There have been times in my life when things were tough. I have never been what some folks call well off; just always made enough to survive and be happy in life. As far as I can remember though, I have never been so poor that I had to boil used strings and put them back on my instruments. Thank God for that. This is just another method I’m not crazy about and never tried.
Just how long you can expect a set of strings to last really depends on several factors. A player who works four hours a night six days a week in a sweaty, smoke-filled club won’t get the life from a set of strings that someone who only plays a few times a week at home. Some people secrete a form of acid from their skin called hyaluronic acid. I used to play with a guitar player from Oklahoma who had this problem. His strings would turn black as soon as he started playing on them. He changed strings almost every day. Some players, unlike myself, like the sound from used, worn out strings. I do know and teach that slides, pull offs, and other guitar tricks are easier on a newer set of strings than on old dirty ones and easier on your fingertips. To get a long life out of my strings in the studio and to keep them sounding their best I use Fast Fret everyday. This comes in an aerosol spray or a stick and it works great to prevent rust and dirt build up. Once a week I also clean under the strings to prevent unwanted fret wear and fret board damage. The overwhelming cost to have your frets replaced or a fret board restored is good enough reason to change your strings often and keep them clean.
One other factor we should consider is our health. I soon learned after I started teaching that playing on another guitar other my own can and will lead to health problems. I stayed sick with every virus and cold known to man until I realized I was a victim of germ spreading from touching the dirty strings off someone else's instruments. Our hands and fingers contain more germs than any other part of our body. Now I’m not suggesting we never play someone’s instrument other than our own. I am suggesting we should be careful and always remember germs are spread from our hands to the strings and then to others. I am now a huge fan of hand sanitizer after every lesson.
I hope you now have a better understanding of how strings are made and why it’s important to change them on a regular basis. Nothing sounds as good as a new set of strings on a great instrument. This website carries some of my favorite strings that I personally use so please visit our store.
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