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Tone Tips from the Road: Strings, Strings, and More Strings

How different strings affect your tone.

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 between brands.

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
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 making music!