Guitar String Essentials

Be truthful, how much attention do you pay to the state of the strings on your guitar?  If you are like me then the answer will be not much but this is to underestimate the importance of the strings to your sound.  Here we consider some guitar string essentials to help you care for your strings.

Guitar strings don’t last forever, over time they lose their vibrancy as they become stretched through use and soiled by sweat and grease from your fingertips.  This greatly impacts upon the tonal quality of the strings and therefore the sound that your guitar produces.

So how often should you change your guitar strings?

There are no hard and fast rules as to how often to change your strings.  There are a number of factors that impact on the longevity of your strings such as frequency of play, how hard you play and even environmental conditions.  For example if you play a lot in sweaty damp pubs and clubs you might have to change your strings weekly.  However, if you only practice a few times a week then your strings can last up to 2 to 3 months.  One rule of thumb that we always stick to is that if one string breaks then you should change all of your strings rather than just the one that has broken.

The gauge of strings that you use will often determine how often you change your strings.  For example light strings, although easier on the fingers, will break more easily than heavier gauge strings.  Below is a list of the gauges for the typical range of electric guitar strings.  Most new guitars will be shipped from the manufacturer fitted with super light strings if you need a reference point.

  • typical set of “extra super light” electric strings: .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038 (“eight to thirty-eights”)
  • typical set of “super light” electric strings: .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042 (“nine to forty-twos”)
  • typical set of “light” electric strings: .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046 (“ten to forty-sixes”)
  • typical set of “medium” electric strings: .011 .015 .018 .026 .036 .050 (“eleven to fifties”)
  • typical set of “heavy” electric strings: .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .054 (“twelve to fifty-fours”)

Some things to consider when choosing the gauge of string.

Lighter strings are easier on the fingers for new players, but they break more easily.  Lighter strings can also give rise to greater fretboard buzzing, that is where the string vibrates against the fretboard creating a buzzing sound, if the guitar action is set too low.  By definition higher gauge strings are harder on the fingers are more hard wearing and provide more sustain, volume and a bigger sound. One other thing to bear in mind is that certain guitars don’t like heavy gauge strings.  For example if you like your tremolo bar then heavy gauge strings might not be a good idea.  I had a friend who wanted to recreate the Stevie Ray Vaughan sound.  Stevie Ray Vaughan used heavy gauge strings tuned down half a tone to create his distinctive sound.  So my friend fitted his Squier Stratocaster with heavy gauge strings and found the tremolo unit pulled forward every time he tried to tune his guitar.  The strings were placing too much tension on the guitar so in the end the guitar shop fitted extra springs in the tremolo unit to counteract the pull of the strings.

The winding of the strings is often an important consideration.  If you look at your guitar strings you will notice that there are two types of string with some being unwound i.e. made from a single solid strand of wire and wound strings where the single solid strand is wound with a winding wire wrapped tightly around it.  There are three types of winding, round wound, half round and flat round.  Round wound is where the winding wire is left “as is” so has a bumpy surface.  Therefore when you play these strings, as you slide up and down the string it will create a buzzing sound.  Half round and smooth wound  are where the winding wire is smoothed off.  The half round being smoother to the touch than the round wound and the smooth wound being totally smooth to the touch.  Both will reduce down the string buzzing associated with your finger sliding up and down the neck.  It should be noted that the majority of guitarists use round wound strings.

The material that the string is manufactured from can greatly influence the tone that your guitar produces.  The main materials are stainless steel, nickel plated, pure nickel, chrome and polymer coated strings.  Stainless strings tend to produce a bright clear tone whereas the other materials add  some mellowness to the tone.  If you are curious try to experiment with strings from the same manufacturer that have been made with different materials.

As with anything string manufacturers are always innovating, using different raw materials and production techniques to create that perfect sound.  Dean Markley for example have created the Blue Steel range of strings which have been cryogenically frozen to improve the sound.  Once again if you are interested experiment and give them a go.

How to clean your guitar strings.

We would recommend using a dry cloth to wipe the strings down after each playing session.  If you slap the strings against the fretboard to dislodge any dirt and then wipe with a cloth this should keep your strings nice and clean.  You can boil your strings as many session musicians swear that this can restore old strings back to new.  It is argued that the heating causes the strings to expand releasing any ingrained dirt and oil making the strings sound brighter once put back onto the guitar.  We would however not recommend boiling cheap strings as, because of their low inherent tensile strength, they become brittle and break more easily.

Finally as with anything associated with the guitar you can get as technical and experimental as you like in choosing your guitar strings or you can find a set that you like and stick with them.  The choice is yours.  Happy strumming.


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