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Many guitarists are on a never-ending quest for the ultimate tone. Typically, the first thing that a player will think is that a different guitar, amp, pickups, or maybe a new stompbox will do the trick. But it’s often the small things that go overlooked, and sometimes it’s these small things that can make a huge difference in tone and performance. One of the most frequently overlooked accessories is the string! If you think about it, the string is a crucial tool to a guitar player. The string is the physical connection between the player and their instrument. Players should take a bit of time to experiment with different strings and find the set that will deliver the best sound and feel for their instrument and playing style. Different materials and gauges will offer different results.
As a leading manufacturer of strings, for decades Fender® has strived to deliver a high-quality product. Taking advantage of the better materials and improvements in engineering available today, Fender recently made some changes to take its already widely used line of strings and brought it up to an even higher level of quality. For 2010, the Fender string package got a facelift. The new package design looks more modern and is appealing to the eye, as well as being easy to recognize in a store. Staying “green,” all six strings are now packaged in a corrosion-proof bag and the complete set is packaged in a recyclable box printed with soy-based inks. One cool feature on the new strings is that the ball ends are painted with classic vintage Fender colors like sea foam green, graffiti yellow, lake placid blue and candy apple red to identify them individually. Don’t worry if you can’t determine the gauges by feel, as the color codes are printed on the inner bag.
I received samples of the new USA-made Fender Pure Nickel 150 and Nickel-Plated Steel 250 sets in light gauge (.009–.042) and regular gauge (.010–.046). I tested the strings on four pairs of similar guitars which all resonate well both electrically and when played acoustically. I chose two Telecaster®, two Stratocaster®, two Les Paul® Standard guitars and two Floyd Rose®-equipped ’80s San Dimas® Charvel® guitars. The Telecaster and Les Paul guitars were strung with .010s, and the Stratocaster and Charvel guitars were strung with .009s. Each guitar had a pro set-up. I used a late-’70s Fender Twin Reverb® for clean tones and an early-’70s 100-watt Marshall® half stack for dirty tones. No pedals, just straight into the amps.
Out of the package, both types of strings feel silky smooth to the touch and not sticky or greasy, like they have any type of unusual coating. They’re very comfortable to play on, bend, slide, and they stay in tune rather well after being stretched for a few minutes. Tuning becomes more stable the longer the strings are on the guitar. I started my evaluation by playing clean chords and riffs with the two Teles, listening to the qualities of the Pure Nickel set first. The Pure Nickel strings have a warm, even, unadulterated tone that allows the guitar’s inherent tone to come through. You can add treble on the amp’s EQ for more edge, or dial in a softer tone with less treble, more mids and bass. I decided to use the Pure Nickel set as a point of reference to compare the Nickel-Plated Steel strings. When I compared the Tele set up with Nickel-Plated Steel strings, I noticed that the steel core brought out a distinctly crisp, edgier and more biting tone while the nickel retains some of the warmer characteristics. There’s more snap and pop to them, they are more sensitive to finger movements, and they cut through more than the traditional-sounding Pure Nickel strings. Nickel-Plated Steel is good choice for a Tele when playing a more aggressive style where you would want to hear more “spank.” The same is true for the Strats. The Pure Nickel strings serve up warmer, more classic sounds while Nickel-Plated Steel strings bring out more hard-hitting characteristics. Depending on the sound of your pickups and the tone you’re going for, either set can do the job.
For the Charvels, I preferred Nickel-Plated Steel, particularly for playing heavier rock and lead lines with sharper teeth to cut through the mix. The steel also seems to bring back some of the harmonics that can be lost when a guitar has a floating tremolo like a Floyd Rose. The Pure Nickel strings are simply rich and classic, and I preferred them for playing cleaner parts with the Charvel. To my ear, the Pure Nickel strings also proved to be a better match for the flame-maple top Les Pauls. I favored the rounder tones produced by the strings to smooth out some of the biting tones that a maple top adds. However, if I was using a Les Paul with a dark, dull or muddy tone and needed to add some edge, sparkle and perhaps a bit more definition of the notes, the Nickel-Plated Steel strings would likely be a better choice to balance out the tonal range and bring out more of the highs and harmonics I would want to hear along with the warm, rich over all tonal characteristics.
To test the longevity of the strings, I left them on each guitar for a week and listened to them over and over again to see if there was any noticeable degradation in their tonal quality or feel. It is important to take note of whether strings retain their tonality and to see if they become brittle or tarnished. What I found is that the strings held up extremely well through the week with no real loss in tone. They continued to stay in tune (I did check tuning each time I picked up the guitars) and the finish did not tarnish. Wiping off your strings after playing is typically recommended to remove dirt and help extend their life.
If you’re always tweaking your gear and searching for that magical combination, your strings should be a strong consideration. There is great value in learning what the tonal characteristics are that different types of strings will produce. This information is essential in knowing how to shape your tone. So before making major gear-change decisions, simply try changing the type of strings you use. It’s surely the easiest and most inexpensive piece of the tonal puzzle. After testing Fender’s new string offerings, I’m sure they have a set that will enhance your guitar’s tone and feel to suit your playing style.