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Guitar Technology

Guitar Strings
Published November 2007

String Theory

Choosing The Right Strings For Your Guitar

Players spend so much time choosing guitars, amplifiers, microphones and recording gear that often the issue of guitar strings receives far less attention than it should. As changing strings can affect how you need to set up your guitar, I thought I'd provide a guide to the basics for both electric and acoustic guitar.

Gauging It Right

Most electric guitars come set up for the popular 9 to 42 (thousands of an inch) gauge of roundwound strings. If you intend to fit heavier strings you may need to get the nut slots widened and, as thicker strings put more tension on the neck, you may also need to tighten the truss rod by a very small amount in order to maintain the correct amount of neck relief. If your guitar is fitted with a floating vibrato, you'll also need to increase the tension of the vibrato springs, so that when the guitar is tuned to pitch the bridge plate sits at roughly the same angle as before. Similarly, in the (unlikely) event that you opt for lighter-gauge strings than 9s, you may need to loosen the truss rod by a fraction of a turn and loosen the tremolo springs.

There's a bewildering choice of guitar strings available these days — and a few things to consider before you slap on a new set.There's a bewildering choice of guitar strings available these days — and a few things to consider before you slap on a new set.As a rule, heavier strings result in a weightier tone and a more ringing sustain, which is often desirable. The down side is that they're harder to play and, in particular, harder to bend. Most electric players choose 9s or 10s for their top E-gauge in standard tuning, but several manufacturers also make hybrid sets, where the high strings are slightly lighter and the lower ones slightly heavier. These can be a good choice, as you get more tone from the wound strings, while the plain strings are easy to bend. In fact, my own guitars are almost all fitted with 9 to 46 sets, which you can easily obtain from well-known makers such as D'Addario and Ernie Ball.

Changing string gauge (or even brand) can also mess with your guitar's intonation, so it is worth checking that the octaves on each string are in tune with the open string — an electronic tuner is useful for checking this. If the octave sounds flat, you need to move the bridge saddle a little closer to the neck and, similarly, if it sounds sharp, move the saddle away from the neck. If you're radically changing the string gauges you should be prepared to adjust the actions and truss rod (it's worth mentioning that this may also be advisable if you're keeping the same string gauge but changing to a radically different tuning).

Different string types and gauge have an effect on tone, and in some cases on the amount of signal output you get from your instrument as well. Very light strings can cause a loss of both volume and sustain, but the actual tonality you need depends on the way your guitar sounds in the first place. For example, I've owned many Fender Stratocasters and each has its own unique tonality, which depends on the the wood type and density, pickup construction and so on.

As well as the direct impact on the guitar, there's also potential to affect the way you play: I've already mentioned the difficulty in bending heavy strings, and with very light strings (such as 8s), anything other than the lightest touch on the fingerboard can force the strings to go sharp, especially on an instrument with high frets or a scalloped neck.

Acoustic guitar strings are generally a little thicker — an 11 or 12 is a fairly light string. The third string (G in standard tuning) is usually wound, but if you use a lot of bends you may want to try a plain third instead (no matter how much the purists frown!). As with electrics, there is a wide range of gauges and it is largely a matter of choice with steel-strung acoustics. If you're planning to experiment with very heavy strings on an expensive acoustic, it is probably worth checking with the manufacturer first, as even regular-gauge strings put about 80 lbs of pull on the bridge! I should also caution any beginners against attempting to put metal strings on a classical guitar, as these guitars are just not built to take the extra tension.

String Types

Various manufacturing techniques are used to create strings that sound good for longer, such as winding the string onto a hexagonal, rather than round, core or using heat or cold treatment to shrink the windings onto the core. By all means try everything, but once you find a string type that works for you and lasts a reasonable time, I'd suggest you stick to it, otherwise you'll forever be adjusting your guitar to get the best results.

For acoustic guitars you get a choice of string types including phosphor-bronze, bronze (very lively when new, but they tend to fade quickly) and coated. For electric guitar, the choice normally comes down to nickel-plated steel or pure nickel, though you can now get coated strings for electric. You can also get stainless steel: these are very hard and tough (so they will last a long time) but they can also accelerate fret wear on the guitar — and, from a purely practical point of view, strings that wear cause fewer problems than frets that wear.

By way of tone, nickel-plated steel strings have a slightly brighter tone than pure nickel, though sometimes the warmer tone of pure nickel suits the instrument better. Stainless steel strings have a very bright tone, but I'm wary of them for the reasons given above.

Coated strings, both for acoustic and electric guitar, tend to have a less bright tone than non-coated equivalents, but they have the advantage that they can retain their tone very much longer. When I play coated strings, they always feel and sound like strings that have been played in for a couple of days, but they hold that tone for several weeks and can remain playable for months. They are a good choice if you are one of those unfortunate people with corrosive sweat, who trash a set of normal strings every evening, but they're also well-suited to your 'at home' knockabout guitar — the one that you always pick up when you have a few minutes to spare.

I mentioned round-wound strings earlier, and an alternative that those after a retro sound (and some jazz players) may prefer is the 'tape-wound' or flat-wound string, which has a very smooth finish but a rather dull tone. Flat-wound strings are wound with a slightly flattened wire, which retains more of a round-wound tone but still feels smoother to play and creates less finger noise.

There are now hundreds of makes and models of string to choose from, so which should you try first? It's worth stating the obvious, which is that good-quality strings from a respected maker are likely to play better than cheap 'no brand' varieties — which may cause intonation problems due to inconsistent thickness. In some cases they may even break more easily or come unwound at the ball end.

When Do I change?

As strings get older, tone and intonation both worsen, but they also become more prone to breaking. A professional, playing every day, will probably change their strings every three or four gigs, or even more frequently. A less frequent player may be able to wait for much longer than that, as long as they clean the sweat from their strings after every gig. Strings last longer if you keep them clean (grease and dirt can get trapped in any strings, even coated ones) and there are plenty of cleaning products, such as Fast Fret, which can help. Remember, though, that new strings need to bed in. If you want to use new strings for a recording session or gig you might want to restring the guitar the day before, to avoid them going out of tune during an otherwise great take. If you're pushed for time, an alternative is to pull the strings hard when you first put them on, then keep checking the tuning until pulling no longer causes them to go flat. Using this technique you can get away with restringing 30 minutes before a session or gig. Paul White


Guitar Technology Roger Linn Design have announced a third version of their versatile Adrenalinn instrument processor. The Adrenalinn III shares the same layout as the two previous models, but, according to the company, it "journeys much further afield into new and uncharted territory, providing a wide palette of unique and creative tools". In practice, this means the new box has many more tricks than its predecessors, even when it comes to its bread-and-butter, guitar-based functionality. The amp models have been enhanced for accuracy, with the tube saturation algorithms improved. There's also now a stereo reverb, a compressor, a tuner and a 'drive boost' function, which can be engaged using a footswitch.

The number of presets and drum beats has been doubled, and there is improved MIDI pedalboard control, with the ability to connect up to 10 MIDI footswitches and two expression pedals. The stereo width of modulation effects can be adjusted, as can attack and decay times of random filter and random tremolo effects, and new effects include auto pan, wah pedal and fixed filter. Distortion can be applied to drum beats independently of the source instrument processing.

The Roger Linn Design Adrenalinn III is available now, at a cost of around £220. For existing Adrenalinn I and Adrenalinn II users, upgrade kits are available for conversion to revision 3. These comprise two EPROMs, a chip removal tool and all required literature, and they cost £60.

The Synthesizer Service Centre +44 (0)208 9617890.