Strings link the player to the instrument. They are the first component in a long equation made up of wood, wires, and wattage that all work together to create tone. An inexpensive way to change the sound of your guitar is to try different brands, gauges, and types of strings. There are so many varieties of strings on the market that it’s a challenge to make sense of what’s available. Let’s sort through some of the basics.
Roundwound Electric Guitar Strings
A roundwound electric guitar string is designed
to react with a magnetic pickup on a guitar.
A roundwound string comprises a ball end, a
core, and the cover wrap. Every company has
its own formula for making strings. The formula
includes the shape and diameter of the core,
the size of the cover wrap, and the angle and
tension of the wrap. There are countless varieties
and combinations among companies, but
when it comes to cover wrap, the three most
popular materials are pure nickel, nickel-plated
steel (NPS), and stainless steel. All three cover
wraps yield a different sound.
Pure nickel strings (such as GHS Burnished
Nickel sets) have the softest wrap, and this
produces a great mellow tone. In my experience,
pure nickel strings do not last as long as
NPS or stainless steel strings, but they can be
really useful in taming the high end of a bright
guitar. I have a really bright Telecaster with a
maple neck, and pure nickel strings work well
to balance out the highs on that guitar.
Nickel-plated steel strings are the type
I use most. Examples of NPS strings are
Ernie Ball Slinkys, D’Addario XLs, and SIT
Powerwounds. I prefer the SIT Powerwounds
(gauges .010–.046) for their tone and durability.
They also stay in tune very well (thus
the company name, SIT). About 8 percent of
an SIT Powerwound’s cover wrap material is
nickel and the rest is steel.
Stainless steel strings sound the brightest.
Tim Pfouts, Vice President of SIT Strings says,
“Stainless steel is the hardest metal of the
three types, so it can be tougher on your
fingers and eat up your frets more quickly
than NPS or pure nickel. However, stainless
steel strings also last the longest. If you have
a guitar you want to brighten up, try using
stainless steel strings.”
Most string companies use a hexagonal core
for their wound strings, which means if you
remove the cover wrap and place the string
under a microscope, the string’s core will
have six edges. Plain strings—typically the
1st, 2nd, and 3rd—are made of round wire
with no cover wrap. (Acoustic steel-string
sets and some heavier jazz roundwound sets
usually have a wound 3rd.) Between brands,
the tension and feel will vary mostly on the
wound strings. On plain strings of the same
gauge, the tension should be the same from
one brand to the next.
Acoustic Steel Strings
With acoustic steel strings, the first thing you
need to think about is the gauge. An electric
player will often choose acoustic strings
based on how they feel, which can lead to
installing strings that are too light. If you
want your acoustic to sound big and full, you
need to use big strings. With acoustics, you
don’t have tubes, speakers, and EQ pedals
to fatten up your tone, so the string plays a
bigger role in your guitar’s sound. Be sure
to pay close attention to the gauges when
comparing different brands, because, for
example, not every company’s “medium”
sets will contain the same gauges. Also, pay
attention to the metal materials so you can
be sure you’re comparing similar string types
For acoustic strings, the two most common
types of cover wrap material are 80/20 and
phosphor bronze. In both cases, the cover
wrap is made up of copper and zinc, and the
unwound 1st and 2nd strings are plain steel.
The wrap on an 80/20 wound string contains 80
percent copper and 20 percent zinc. This 80/20
formulation is sometimes called “bronze” or
“bright bronze,” but these terms can refer to a
string’s color rather than the type of metal, so
be sure to read the fine print. An 80/20 string
helps give the guitar a more crisp sound.
Phosphor-bronze strings sound slightly darker
and warmer than 80/20s. I use SIT’s Royal
Bronze set, which has a cover wrap that is 92
percent copper and 8 percent zinc. Because
I want my acoustic to sound as full as possible,
I string it with gauges .013–.056.
Classical strings used to be made from catgut—
which is made from the intestines of
sheep or goats, not cats. Catgut has also
been used for strings on tennis racquets and
for stitches to mend wounds. On a modern
classical guitar, the high E, B, and G strings
are made of nylon. The bass strings (low E,
A, and D) are often made of a soft nylon or
silk core with a silver or bronze cover wrap.
For flamenco and classical playing, I use SIT’s
High Tension Classic Elite sets because they
provide a very full and warm sound.
Find What Works for You
Reading about how different guitar strings
sound is like talking about how food tastes.
Everyone uses different terminology and has
personal views, so the best thing to do is
experiment and develop your own opinion.
There are many choices, but always remember
that, in its simplest form, a guitar is just
a chunk of wood with some frets and strings
on it. Find something that works and start
Paul “TFO” Allen
Paul “TFO” Allen is a multi-instrumentalist who has
worked with Big & Rich, Sebastian Bach, 112, Jake Owen,
Montgomery Gentry, Larry the Cable Guy, and many others.
He also has his own project called Ten Finger Orchestra,
and can be reached at email@example.com.
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