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THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO STRINGS
Strings, despite their obvious importance, seem to be the thing most guitarists know the least about, but the string you use can shape your tone and affect your feel in dramatic ways. There's a lot out there to choose from, but don't get strung up. We'll run down a few of the critical factors that you'll want to keep in mind the next time you pick up a pack.
The earliest stringed instruments in recorded history date back to ancient Egypt, but precursors to the guitar, like the lute, came into vogue as early as the 8th century, when luthiers fashioned organic materials like hair and "catgut" (animal intestines) into crude strings.
By the 13th century, the primordial guitar as we know it had begun to take shape and catgut had become the norm (but before you think that we're about to recommend catgut, we're not – although we might have had to if technology had not intervened).
Enter industrial production. Man's mastery of non-organic, fabricated materials moved steel and nylon to the forefront of the string industry. Although celebrated for its tone, catgut fell out of favor with musicians due to its fragility and reactivity to environmental factors like humidity and temperature. Steel and nylon are durable, practical, and cost-effective. Also, and maybe most importantly, they're louder.
Players now have an incredible range of options when shopping for guitars strings. If it seems daunting, it's not. We'll walk you through it.
Modern-day strings are made using cores wound with metal. There are more or less two core shapes to guitars strings: round and hex. Round is the most popular and most common, but some players prefer the feel of hex.
As far as core materials go, if you're stringing up an electric, then classic stainless steel is a popular option because it resists corrosion and offers a balanced tone with less noise and a bright attack. Nickel-plated steel is also well balanced but can produce a warmer tone while maintaining a bright attack. Pure nickel strings are an excellent choice for players who want a vintage sound, as they're warmer and less bright than steel. Good examples of the pure nickel variety are Labella Chicago Style Bass Strings and Ernie Ball R&R strings. Chrome is popular with jazz and blues musicians for its controlled resonance. Metals like cobalt, copper, and titanium each offer further tonal variation, with copper being dryer, softer, and more delicate than others, titanium the strongest, and cobalt the brightest.
If you're stringing up an acoustic guitar, your choice is much simpler. For acoustic, most players prefer phosphor bronze because it prevents corrosion and oxidation and produces a versatile sound. 80/20 Bronze strings are made up of a bronze/zinc alloy popular for its brightness, enhanced articulation, and sharp attack. However, they are not resistant to the effects of sweat, which can quickly degrade the sound. Silk and steel, or "compound strings," offer a quieter, mellower sound somewhere between a steel-string acoustic and a classical guitar.
Speaking of, if the classical guitar is your thing, then nylon is a must, but there are other options. Classic gut (yes, that gut) is still available, and some players choose to swap out their bass strings with silver or gold plated alternatives for louder, sharper low notes.
Coated strings are a relatively recent development, but liked for their longevity and ability to preserve tone. As strings age, they oxidate and collect dirt and gunk and skin oil, causing them to lose their brightness. Coated strings are wrapped in a polymer webbing that repels sweat and dirt, protecting the metal beneath and keeping the grooves in the string wind clean. The downside? Coated strings are significantly more expensive, but you're changing them half, or even a third, as often, so you do the math.
Give Elixir and D'Addario EXP a try. An added benefit, the polymer webbing on coated strings reduces unwanted noise, keeping you clean from squeaks and squeaky clean at the same time.
Most players are accustomed to roundwound strings. On a traditional roundwound string, round wire is wrapped around the core, creating a grooved, textured surface down the length of the string. These grooves are what create fret wear and string noise, which shortens their life but produces the bright, harmonic-rich tone, longer sustain, and strength at lower tension that makes them a popular for a wide range of players.
Flatwound strings last much longer than roundwound strings and have a warmer, darker tone with less attack. More subtle when picked, flatwounds are often preferred by jazz and blues players. Labella Jazz Flats and Pyramid Gold Flatwounds are excellent choices for those interested in experimenting with the feel and sound of flatwound strings.
There are also halfwound strings, which, like the name suggests, are somewhere in the middle of round- and flatwound.
Arguably the most crucial factor when it comes to the tone of your strings is the gauge. Gauge refers to the actual thickness of your strings. Thick strings are louder and produce a fatter, meatier tone. Thin strings are, well, thinner. They're easier to bend and have a sharper, tinnier sound.
Generally, strings are sold in sets and follow the industry-standard set of gauge measurements, with Light, Medium, and Heavy being the most common:
SIZE E B G D A E
Super Extra Light .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038
Super Light .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
Light .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
Medium .011 .015 .018 .026 .036 .050
Heavy .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .054
Often referred to by the gauge of their E string, .008s might be the best choice for a blues player or someone who is bending strings all night long, while .012s might be best for the power chord world champion. It's a matter of personal preference. The sound you want and the tone you want are very personal things, and you need a string that feels right and plays right. Ernie Ball Slinkys come in a wide variety of gauges and are inexpensive enough to try until you find the right one for you. Santa Cruz Parabolic Tension Strings do not follow gauge. Instead, they're sold by desired tension, designed to produce the optimal EQ and feel when properly tuned. However, bear in mind that your string tension affects your action and playability, so once you've settled on the gauge that's best for you, it's a good idea to adjust accordingly by tweaking your truss rod and amp and tone controls to compensate.
Set your phasers to stunned. The string world is progressing at a rapid pace, and it's about time. Manufacturers are finally turning their attention to advancing the original tone control, and it's showing in exciting innovations like the D'Addario NYXL and XT strings. Advertising the ability to "bend farther, sing louder, and stay in tune better than any string you've played before," D'Addario's new line of nickel-wound NYXL strings feature a high carbon steel core offering enhanced strength, tuning ability, and mid-range frequencies. The XT series strings are essentially a coated version of the NYXL. They offer the same enhanced strength, tuning, and mid-range, adding an extended lifespan treatment that features a hydrophobic coating designed to prolong the life and, most importantly, the tone and feel of your strings much longer than any non-coated alternative.
There are more string manufacturers than ever, and with them come even more avenues of tone, touch, and technology. Two of our favorites are the Gabriel Tenorio String Company, and Stringjoy. Founded in 2016 by a former employee of Guadalupe Custom Strings, the Gabriel Tenorio String Company makes strings for a wide range of traditional and modern instruments, all by hand from first-drawn wire in the USA. Nashville-based Stringjoy prides itself on customer service and offers more gauges and customization options than anyone. Like the Gabriel Tenorio String Company, they also make all their strings in the USA, and they donate 5% of their profits to local music education programs.