Super String Theory
April 12, 2007
Now that we’ve discussed some general concepts on adjusting and fine-tuning humbucking pickups, let’s examine yet another huge tonal (and magnetic) variable – string choice. What you use here is critical beyond anything else I can tell you about. Why? This is because strings fall into four or five categories these days: nickel-plated steel, pure nickel, stainless steel, multi-metal alloy combinations and lastly, cryogenic stainless steel.
Keep in mind that for now we will limit our type of string to the good old fashioned standard roundwound types. This is because the other string types, such as flatwound or groundwound/burnished (that is, a roundwound type string that has been “smoothed out” by some mechanical means) sound and feel totally different from the regular roundwound string, while also having much more tension and bigger core sizes (the shape of the core will vary as well). We will be focusing here on the hex-core type of construction, because the six-point hexcore “grabs” the outer wrap and keeps it from slipping without the use of any additional adhesives – something that is pretty much mandatory in the manufacture of round-core string types. Roundcore strings sound different as well. Now that we’re all clear on the various types of strings available, we can move forward.
One of the biggest problems with the string/pickup relationship is how much the string’s magnetic field will affect the pickup in question. As most of you already know, the hotter the pickup, the stronger the magnetic “pull” it will have on the string – weaker (read: vintage) pickups tend to affect the string less than the newer, hotter pickup choices on the market. The worst of the offending strings (in terms of sheer magnetism) are basically in this order: regular and cryogenic stainless steel, nickel-plated steel, the multi-metal alloy combinations and lastly pure nickel.
Nickel has the least amount of inherent magnetism, and therefore the resulting tone will be warmer and more pleasing; this is because the pickup is “listening” to (mostly) the inner core of wire in this type of string. Many of the best (that is, historically speaking) guitar sounds ever recorded were between 1966-1968, and these sounds had pure nickel type strings all over them! This was the common thread back in that short period of time. Of course, guitar styles have changed a lot since then and there are more tones to be had – say, if you want a heavier sort of sound. It’s all a matter of what you’re aiming for. From this bit of background information, you can see where all of these magnetism/tone relationships began.
Let’s look at several pickups and guitars I’ve personally used for string testing to see where and how I chose my final string choices, and naturally, how I adjusted the pickups to match my string of choice in each instrument. Way back, when I really got involved in sonic tweaking, I had two basic instruments – the first being a big archtop Gibson Super 400 and the second was an Explorer-style solidbody. These instruments were completely on the opposite ends of the sonic spectrum, to say the least! One was being used for playing clean jazz chords/ lines, while the other was reserved for heavier, distorted rock playing.
On the archtop, the strings were quite heavy (14-18-28-38-48-58), while the Explorer always used 9-11-16-24-32-42. Quite an opposition going on there – it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Explorer had hotter humbucking pickups (8K neck, 9K bridge) while the archtop had a stock ‘70s Gibson stock humbucker, which was weaker (7.6K in the neck). The archtop had its pickup covers on, while the Explorer didn’t have pickup covers on at all. I wanted a lot of “bark” from the Explorer, so I raised the Lindy Fralin model pickup screws (and bobbin assembly height) to where the pinch harmonics would literally jump out of the instrument at will – I really loved the way that Michael Schenker coaxed those squeals from his Flying V, so I tweaked my pickups to mimic his sounds.
As far as the Gibson Super 400 was concerned, the pickups (and the screw heights) were lower than in the Explorer’s case. With the 400, I only had to raise the D string polepiece to equal the volumes from the other five strings; as you can guess, the pinch harmonics were of no consequence here. I ended up using pure nickel strings on the archtop and a multimetal alloy string on the Explorer for optimal sound in both instruments. FYI, I also use white nitrocellulose 94mm thick picks on both guitars – because, as you know by now, every part of the signal chain has a tonal effect. Have fun listening for all of those subtle nuances and we’ll see you next month with more.
Dean Farley is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (www.sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today