Guitar Strings – What’s The Big Deal?!?

Guitar Strings – What’s The Big Deal?!?

You’re back again?  Good deal – got some great info for you this week on an area that is often overlooked…

Guitar strings are the most direct connection between a guitarist and the music. They represent the point of contact, literally, between human and machine. Yet they don’t get half the attention that guitars, amps, and pedals get. Here are the seven things you need to know about guitar strings.

Size matters: string gauge

Sting gauges vary from very light to ultra heavy. A player typically chooses a set of strings that includes only light, medium, or heavy strings. There are cases of extremely meticulous guitar players that like to combine gauges in one set. For instance, a particular player might use light gauges for the top three strings and heavy gauges for the bottom three. Although any combination is possible, string sets are sold keeping the gauges of all strings consistent.

Because terms like “light” or “medium” can vary from company to company, the best is to go by the actual measurement of the string gauge. The industry standard is to measure them in 1/1000th’s of an inch. The lightest high E string available measures 0.008” and one of the heaviest low E strings available measures .056. A typical medium set will have the following measurements from top to bottom: 0.011”, 0.015”, 0.018”, 0.026”, 0.036”, 0.050”.

If you decide to go with a medium set (a common choice for many styles), you can go to your store and ask for a set of 11’s. Yup, guitarists typically refer to an entire set of strings by the size of the high E string!

String gauge affects playability, durability, and tone

So… why would you choose one gauge set over the other? Typically, lighter gauge guitar strings are easier to play, and this might be appealing to beginners. But there’s a tradeoff. Lighter gauges are more prone to breaking and thinner sounding than heavy gauge strings. As with most things guitar related, you will have to try and see what works best for you and what kind of compromises you are willing to make.

Prince was known to use very light strings, like 8’s (0.008” on the high E string). On the other hand jazz guitar, great Pat Martino is known for using extremely heavy strings, like 16’s (0.016” on the high E string). Both are recognized as guitar heroes in their particular styles. Prince played smaller guitars (which tend to go better with light strings). And Martino plays Jazz on a full hollow-body guitar (even though 16’s is a bit of an extreme).

Materials matter

When it comes to electric guitar strings, the most common material used is nickel-plated steel. It offers a good amount of brightness and warmth and is relatively durable. Another popular option is pure nickel, which is warmer. The third common material is stainless steel which is the most resistant to corrosion, making it the most durable of the three. It is also popular for its brightness and sustains.

“Great, so which one do I get?”, you as?. Well, I think you know the answer already. You’ve got to try them all and see what you like the most. Simple as that!

The abyss between new and old strings

Fresh new strings are a thing of beauty. However, most players do not change strings often enough. New strings sound crisp, tight, have more sustain and feel better. On the other hand, old strings sound dull, are harder to tune and feel worn. But a lot of guitar players tend to forget about this. Part of the issue is that strings deteriorate very gradually. You might not grasp how bad your strings are until you finally replace them.

When you finally do restring them, it suddenly becomes very clear how worn your old strings truly were.

How often you change strings is crucial

You might be thinking… ok then, how often should I change strings? There is not a straight answer to this. A series of factors come into play: how hard do you pick/strum, how much do you sweat, how often do you play, how humid/dry is your environment, etc. Some players will have to change strings more often than others. This could mean one week, or it could mean one month. You have to develop your own criteria based on how your strings sound, feel and look.

It’s all about that bass

 The lower guitar strings (D, A and low E) present a few manufacturing aspects that we don’t find on the higher strings. The core of these lower strings is wounded. The core itself can be either round or hex (from hexagonal). Then, then strings can be either round wound (more textured, and the most used), flat wound (flat) or half-round (hybrid).

You can maximize the life of your strings

 There are two things you can do to maximize the duration of your strings. The first one is to wash your hands before you play. The second one is to use a dry cloth to wipe your strings after playing. If you are wondering… why do I have to wipe if I washed my hands? Well, because sweat, small traces of skin, and greasiness affect your stings, even if you can’t see it.

Is this too much to commit to? Feel that this cuts down on your inspiration and impulse to just grab the guitar and play? How about… just wash your hands after eating fried chicken before you play the guitar? That would help, and hopefully not derail your moment of inspiration.

Wrapping it all up

Understanding a bit about guitar strings will definitely have a very positive impact on your playing. You will sound better by making sure your strings are in tip-top shape. You will also have more fun and less stress by avoiding constantly breaking strings. Not to mention, you will sound crisp and feel that the music is vibrating at its very best.

That’s it for this week.  Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

About the Author