The importance of guitar strings
Strings. Every guitar has them. Every guitar needs them. But with so many choices on the market, it can be confusing as to which set you should buy. Many people overlook the importance and vital role of guitar strings. They help your guitar sound, play, and even feel better. Old strings can cause intonation and tuning problems, while new strings can breathe new life into your guitar’s sound and playability, keeping your guitar sounding its best. Sweetwater examines what strings are made of, their characteristics, and how they differ. We’ll clear the confusion and help you understand the world of guitar strings.
An important element in both the tone and playability of your guitar, string gauge (how “heavy” or “light” your strings are) can make a real difference in your sound. Gauge refers to the thickness of the string. Usually players will refer to the size of the first string (the high E in standard tuning) when referencing their gauge preference. For example, a player who says, “I use 10s” means that the gauge of the first string is .010.
So how does gauge come into play when you’re choosing strings? Typically, the thicker the string, the greater the string tension; greater string tension means it will be slightly harder to bend and fret notes. The choice of string gauge is a very personal one based on sonics, playing style, and the specific instrument. Some beginners might prefer lighter strings because they feel easier to fret. Experienced players will quickly find their preference. Note that a drastic string gauge change may require bridge or neck adjustments.
It looks as though there’s not a whole lot to a guitar string, but all the individual components come together to create the lifeblood of your sound. Running through the middle of the string is a metal core wire. The core wire is affixed to a brass ferrule (commonly called the “ball end”), and the ball end is what typically holds the string on to the bridge. Around the metal core wire is another round wrap wire, which is the part that your fingers press against the fingerboard. All of these pieces combine to produce the type of sound that the different kinds of strings can make.
The typical guitar string core is made from steel. The core is the center of the string. Windings go around the core to create larger, wound strings. The two basic cores are round and hex. Round cores offer a fatter, vintage-like tone that is balanced and more flexible. Hex cores, the most common type of core, “hold” on to the windings better giving you a brighter sound, more consistent performance, and stiffer tension.
The most common type of electric guitar strings are roundwound, which means you can see and feel ridges where the outer wrap is wrapped around the core. Another option is flatwound strings which were historically favored by jazz players and produce a darker, mellower tone. Flatwounds reduce the finger noise (squeaks) produced by changing notes and can be easier on your fingers.
- Roundwound – traditional feel, bright tone
- Flatwound – smooth feel, mellow tone
The two main types of electric guitar strings have windings made from nickel/steel alloy or pure stainless steel. A nickel/steel alloy string has a slightly more subdued sound than pure steel string, with steel typically being brighter. These metals are used for electric guitar strings because the metals are ferromagnetic, which means that their vibrations will be detected and transmitted by a magnetic pickup. Some manufacturers make strings from cobalt and other materials, which reportedly provide more output and clarity than nickel/steel or pure steel strings.
- Steel – very bright tone
- Nickel/Steel Alloy – bright tone
- Pure Nickel – warmer, broken-in sound
Coated strings are also available, which simply means that a super-thin coat is applied to the string to help prevent corrosion from sweat and oils. Coated strings tend to last much longer than uncoated strings but are also more expensive.
- Coated Strings – are resistant to corrosion and last longer
How often should I change my strings?
This is a question with a different answer for almost every guitar player. Some players find that once or twice a month is enough, while others may go a year or more without requiring a change of strings. While on tour, many guitarists will change strings every day! It ultimately depends a lot on the individual’s preference. If a bright, glossy “zing” is what you’re after, then you’ll probably change strings more often. If you typically set the tone control on your guitar or amp to dial out the high end, or “darken” your tone, then you’ll probably need to change less often. All guitar players have oil and sweat on their fingers that contains salts, acids, and a wide variety of other chemicals, so if you’re frequently playing onstage in hot clubs or halls, then you’ll probably have to change strings more often than someone who only plays in a studio environment. Veteran players always wipe down the fingerboard well with a dry cloth after every gig to help extend their string life, and they always carry several sets of new strings with them. Dust, humidity, and environmental factors all play a big role in how quickly your strings will age.