To paraphrase the title of an old jazz song, “It ain’t got that ‘zing’ without the right strings.”
Choosing the right strings for your instrument and your style of playing might not seem like the biggest deal. After all, the Delta bluesmen of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s often bought used strings at dry good stores for a few pennies, or boiled old strings to brighten them up. And the proliferation of brands on the market can be overwhelming to the point of leading a player to assume strings are as generic as picks – which aren’t really generic at all, but that’s another story.
The fact is, the qualities of different strings can have an effect on your guitar’s resonance and tone, on the quality and responsiveness of your attack as a plectrist or finger picker, and impact your speed and other important factors. And think about your budget. Some coated strings list at nearly $20, while a good basic set of electric guitar strings can be scored for $3 to $4 on sale.
So before settling on a particular set of strings, consider 10 tips, five each for electric and acoustic players.
• Fast Fingers: If speed’s the goal, most shred-heads prefer light gauge strings. They’re easy to bend and promote fast playing by offering less resistance to the fretting and picking hands. Since guitar strings are measured in thousandths of an inch, the typical recommended gauge for players planning to burn in standard tuning are .009s, available in every guitar shop.
• Sound Judgment: Consider the sonic characteristics of the various materials used in making electric strings. Stainless steel strings are the least glamorous, but offer plenty of bright bite and sustain. Pure nickel has a warm old-school sound, for vintage tones. And nickel-plated steel is a bit brighter than classic nickel and responds more adroitly to picking attack. Chrome guitar strings are typically the province of jazz players or blues artists who are looking for the kind of warm retro tones chiseled into history by the likes of Charlie Christian or swinging Gibson ES-250, ES-5 and ES-335 bluesman Aaron “T-Bone” Walker. And then there are coated strings – the most expensive and theoretically the longest lasting. They are, however, not really the best, sonically speaking. Coated strings tend to have less sustain. Also, their Teflon exterior surfaces are slippery, which might take some getting used to for particularly aggressive electric guitar players. And when the coatings wear off, they rust like any other string.
• Wound Up: String windings directly affect tone and playability. Round wound strings have more “zing” – sustain, responsiveness and bite. Flat wound strings have a smoother and more consistent tone regardless of attack, which makes them a favorite of jazz players, like the great Gibson ES-350 legend Barney Kessel. Blues guitar kingpin Jimmie Vaughan also uses flat wounds for his vintage tone. And they offer less resistance than round wound strings, so they can be beneficial for rapid, even toned performance and squeak less.
• Heavy is as Heavy Does: For low hanging alternate tunings like open D or dropped D, consider a heavy string gauge – at least .11s, although Stevie Ray Vaughan, who kept his instrument turned down just a half-step, employed a set gauged .13 to .58. Thicker strings will maintain their tension better when they’re low-tuned, which makes for less fret noise and other undesirable distortion. Many players feel thicker strings make for better slide playing, too, since the strings resist going slack under the pressure of the slide. But that’s really a matter of feel and learning to control a slide more than a string thing.
• Gotta Feel It: Ultimately, what feels right under your fingers and sounds right coming out of your rig should determine your strings. It’s important to try different brands before zeroing in on a favorite. Judge a new set of strings by its brightness, sustain, tone and how easily they permit bending, fretting and picking. When a brand and gauge feel like buttah and sing like Circe, that’s the zone.
• Fade to Bleak: Since there are no pickups, juice or amps involved in acoustic guitar playing in its purest form, string composition – which affects how a string responds to being struck and the retention of tonal qualities – is particularly important for acoustic guitars. Bronze, phosphor bronze and coated strings tends to be the preferred varieties, ascending in price. Bronze strings start out the brightest, but lose their high voices relatively quickly. Phosphor bronze offers a darker tone, but still with a clear, ringing top and the phosphor allows the strings to produce their optimum sound longer. On acoustic guitars, coated strings trade a longer life for less brightness, but good warmth and presence.
• Lighten Up: Typically, heavier strings project more natural sound when struck, but for most live performers it’s practical to have an acoustic guitar with a pick-up for plug-and-play situations. Having a pickup in an acoustic guitar allows for the use of lighter gauge strings. Some acoustic guitars even respond well to slinky electric sets, like .10s, providing electric-guitar-like playability without sacrificing the chime of acoustic tones.
• Them Changes: Since the strings on acoustic guitars play a much more important role in projecting volume and clarity than strings on an amplified electric guitar, considering changing acoustic guitar strings often to keep an instrument sounding its best. Remember to wipe down the strings after playing and check for string damaging fret wear. Both can prematurely end a guitar string’s life.
• Do the Right String: Some instructional guides advise beginning players to try ball-end nylon strings because they are easier on the fingers and are more bendable than metal, but steel string guitars are called “steel string guitars” because that’s what they require. Nylon strings lack the tension needed to keep steel strings guitars at their peak, which means warping, bridge damage and other issues can occur. Likewise, steel strings on a nylon string classical guitar will warp its neck with frightening speed.
• Keep it Clean: This axiom applies to electric guitarists as well. It’s a good rule to wash one’s hands thoroughly before playing. Dirt can become caught in wound metal strings, dulling their sound and promoting corrosion, but nothing corrodes quite like human sweat. Besides, having clean, fresh fingers is never a bad thing, right?