esoterica electrica

Instrument makers have always tried to manipulate string length to optimize tone and feel, but how much is myth and how much is science?

Length, gauge, friction, voodoo? Revisiting the mystery of real or perceived string resistance in a science-y way.

In a previous column, I investigated the relationship between overall string length and its resulting tension ["The Doors of Perception," August 2020]. I cobbled together a crude measuring fixture and determined that the length of string beyond the bridge and nut did not affect a string's (linear) tension at a given pitch. After being assailed with comments and emails loaded with physics lessons detailing the math behind my conclusion, I now know that it was folly to assume any other conclusion. The laws of physics state that string tension is determined completely by the active (vibrating) length of the string, the pitch the string is tuned to, and the string's mass. In simple terms, this means that for a given vibrating length, the tighter you pull the string or the heavier the gauge, the more tension it will have. Nothing else, like peghead length or tailpiece position, matters—full stop. Still, the feeling persisted that I could sense a difference on instruments with long lengths of string between the bridge and tailpiece, such as an archtop jazz guitar. I'm not alone.

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