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For all the emphasis, time, and money we guitarists put into tonewoods, pickups, amps, tubes, effects, speakers, and even cables, we often spend very little time thinking about the core component without which a guitar simply becomes a collection of wood—strings.

The first scene in Davis Guggenheim’s acclaimed 2008 documentary, It Might Get Loud, shows Jack White stringing a wire across a crusty plank of wood outfitted with a Coke-bottle bridge, a Tele bridge pickup, and nails for a tuner and a tailpiece. It’s possibly the most primal lap-slide ever, but despite its roughness it sounds positively badass through White’s ancient valve amp. What’s more, though the film is chock full of luxurious closeups of the iconic and priceless instruments and amps used by White and guitar gods Jimmy Page and the Edge, this opening scene cuts to the chase in a way we rarely consider: For all the emphasis, time, and money we guitarists put into tonewoods, pickups, amps, tubes, effects, speakers, and even cables, we often spend very little time thinking about the core component without which a guitar simply becomes a collection of wood—strings.

The history of stringed instruments stretches back centuries. For most of that time, strings were created using organic materials, primarily animal hair and intestines. Historians frequently refer to “cat gut” strings, but that’s misleading, because generally the intestines of farm animals such as sheep, lamb, or cattle provided the components for early strings. But that all changed early in the 20th century, when guitar builders began using steel strings to increase durability and volume. Gibson was an early proponent, and C.F. Martin & Co. also transitioned to steel strings in the 1920s.

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