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Choosing Your Strings Tags: strings

 

CHOOSING YOUR GUITAR STRINGS

I often get asked he question, "Which guitar strings should I use on my guitar?"   This is actually one of the more important factors of getting the sound you want out of your instrument.

 

START WITH A GOOD AMPLIFIER

With any electric guitar (solidbody, hollowbody or acoustic) is must first be understood that the primary sound you will obtain results more from your amplifier than your guitar.  A great amplifier can make a cheap guitar sound good, while a poor amplifier can make a prime guitar sound terrible.   So making sure you have a good amp and that the sound at the amp is adjusted properly is very important.  That's the subject of another article.

 

THE GUITAR ITSELF

Taking it for granted you have the amp and settings you like, we focus on how an electric guitar produces sound.  Let's first of all debunk a commonly-heard rumor that the body / wood / composition of a guitar makes no difference.  This is claimed because technically, mag-based electric guitar sound is produced from strings vibrating over a magnetic pickup, disrupting the magnetic field and producing electric current through a coil.  Supposedly that pickup is influenced only by the strings and not the guitar itself.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is the composition of the guitar makes a lot of difference; if this were not true, there would be no need for a hollow body guitar vs solid body.  Yes, the strings vibrate over the pickup, but both those strings and the pickup are attached to the guitar, and the guitar itself will affect how both the strings and the pickup itself vibrates.  Even miniscule vibrations (such as from the body and even the strings on the nut) can carry through to the pickup.

Is there a difference between alder, basswood or even acrylic in the resulting sound of the guitar?   Yes.  We need consider the scientific physics of how sound is produced, the effect of material density on vibration, as well as the property of sustain and the fact that harder substances hold sustain better and longer than absorbant softer substances. 

Practically everything on your guitar affects the sound, from the body composition to the neck material, to the nut and bridge.  So all of these are factors in producing the sound you want.  Being aware of this helps us understand that far more is involved in overall sound production than strings and pickups.

The point made:  your guitar itself does affect the overall sound.  Otherwise, there woud be little need for different types of guitars.  So the type of strings you choose can depend on the type of guitar you're playing.   Often the guitar manufacturer can recommend a specific type of string for your guitar model and playing style.

 

GUITAR PICKUPS

There are basically two types of electric guitar pickup:

1)  Magnetic (Mag).  This usually involves a magnet and a coil of copper wire, which produces electric current when ferrous-metal strings vibrate above it.  (Ferrous metal is that which affects magnetic fields:  steel, nickel, chrome.)  The advantage to a mag pickup is production of the "electric" sound so many players love, as well as immunity to external noise.  The downside is that string choice is limited; a mag pickup will not work well with phosphor/bronze strings and not at all with nylon.

2. Microphonic pickups.  There are many kinds of microphonic pickup, ranging from actual microphones to piezo.  These do not rely on a magnetic field and thus can use a wide variety of strings ranging from acoustic to electric and even to classical nylon.  The downside of a microphonic pickup is that it can pick up sounds other than the guitar (bumps, scrapes, external noise) and is more prone to feedback. However, some players use this to their advantage, adding percussion affects to their playing.  However it can be difficult to obtain "electric guitar" sound from a microphonic pickup, as they tend to produce more of an acoustic tone (depending on the guitar).

There will be a wide variety of opinions as to which pickup is better.  Most would agree there is no "better", for the simple reason that sound is subjective, judged by the ear of the player and listener.  As with all things, it depends on the pickup, the instrument and the intended purpose.

For the purpose of this article we will be discussing strings for mag pickups.  Other pickups, you can choose pretty much whatever strings you like. 

 

NOW THE STRINGS

All of these thing considered and taken care of, now we get to the strings.  Whether you're playing a solid-body Telecaster or a hollow thin-wall Cigar Box Guitar, which strings you choose will depend largely on your preference and desired sound.  Following are some basic guidelines to help you choose:

As mentioned prior, you cannot use phosphor-bronze or nylon strings with mag electric pickups.  They work by sensing ferrous metal vibration.  Phosphor-bronze contains a bit of steel core, but the majority of the string is made of non-ferrous material.  Nylon is not metal at all.

There are a wide variety of electric guitar strings, made of different materials:  steel, chrome, nickel or combinations thereof.  There are also different thicknesses of strings, ranging from ultra-lite (very thin) to extra heavy (thick). 

Strings will also vary from brand to brand.  Some brands are known for richer tones, others more vibrant, while some emphasize the bass end, others emphasize the treble and still others "balanced".  Quite often the best guide for strings is the website of the string manufacturer.  They will list in detail the strengths and purposes of their different string models. 

But the only real way to find the best strings for your purpose is to invest in different sets and see how they sound.  One type of string can differ significantly from another in sound and in ease of play.   If you find a string painful to play you likely won't play as much.   A more comfortable string that produces sound you enjoy will encourage playing.  If you just happen to hit on the "perfect" string first time (one that you love to play and like the sound), you can consider that fortunate.

Some will state that light-guage strings are the best choice, as they are easier to press and "bend"... and their overall sound can be adjusted at the amplifier.  This is a reasonable argument.

Others will counter that for some types of music light strings just don't cut it, and require heavier strings.   There is no single firm guideline to follow in this.   The type of string you use depends very much on your instrument, the type of music you play, and your personal taste.

 

THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR

Overall the most important thing in choosing a string is what you like.  While you can use string manufacturer websites as well as advice from associates as a launch pad, in the long run you have to decide-- both by playing and by your ear-- what string works right for you.  You will ultimately decide on the brand, composition and thickness that produces the play and quality that suits you. 

If a set of strings sounds too "twangy", you may wish to switch to a different material or heavier string.   If the set you're playing is too difficult to press and causes your fingers to bleed, you may want to consider a lighter set.  Such is entirely your decision.

In the case of Wishbringer guitars, I tend to use D'Addario or Fender strings, although I've been known to try others as well.  I usually stick with a .009 or .010 high-E guage.  These well suit the purpose of most of my guitar creations.

Without intending brand promotion, I can state that the majority of cigar box guitar players I've spoken to recommend D'Addario as the brand of choice... but some greatly prefer other brands. 

Whether you choose steel, nickel or chrome depends on many factors:  what's available, your playing style, choice of music, type of instrument.  You'll likely use different strings on a cigar box than you might use on a tintar (a guitar made from a rectangular tin box).  If you play lead you may wish a more vibrant string.  For accompanying chords you may wish a more rich sound.  Again, websites can offer particulars on what sound different metals, thicknesses and type of winding produce.

I realize this may seem to lack the "specifics" one may wish in choosing a string, but it is the best overall advice that I can give, based on decades of experience in choosing strings.  In the end, no one else can choose your string for you.  That decision is totally up to your fingers and your ears.

--o--

 

 

 

 

 

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