Santa Cruz Guitar Lesson  
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Dont let anyone else tell you what brand is best. Everyone who plays for a while has an opinion about this, including the author of this article. Try out all the brands and then decide for yourself which ones you like best, based on the sound you want from your guitar and your playing style. The suggestions provided are starting points for further explorations.

There are several aspects of strings to consider: tone, tension (gauge) and composition. The three main categories of guitar stings: classical (nylon), steel acoustic and steel electric.

Basic String Concepts

Tone: Generally speaking, the thicker the string, the better the tone. Unfortunately the thicker strings are harder to play. Guitar strings are a balance between tone and playability. In the electric world, rock players want thin (ex-light) strings that are easy to bend. The strings dont sound as good but the player is willing to make that tradeoff for the playability factor. On the other side of the coin, the electric jazz player may use much thicker strings because they are not bending notes and therefore are able to play much stiffer (and better sounding) strings. All guitarists must deal with this issue in some way. The effect of thicker strings on playability is much more of an issue with steel strings than with nylon.

Different string brands have different tones. Some of this is due to composition of the string, (bronze vs. phosphor etc.), and some is due to the manufacturing process (flat wound vs. round wound).

Generally I like to think of tones from strings in the following categories:

Bright - looking into the sun, higher mids and high frequencies and overtones are accentuated
Neutral - not really coloring the sound of the guitar too much one way or the other
Dark - swarthy, romantic, accentuating the lower mids and the low frequencies and overtones

Subjective? You bet. But I think most people can agree on these terms once they hear the differences. Back in the day, there was a rumor that all strings were made in the same factory and just had different labels put on themNever could get any proof.

Tension: String tension or gauge is related to tone and playability. Generally, the thicker the string the higher the tension at pitch. Besides the tone and playability, the tension also puts a certain load on the guitars structure. Higher tension, more load. Guitar construction is a balancing act. The builder wants to build a sturdy guitar that will stand up to the tension without being so heavy and over-braced that it kills the tone.

There are two basic types of string sets for guitars:

Steel Strings: metal wound, steel core bass strings with solid metal trebles.

Nylon Strings: metal wound, silk core bass strings with nylon trebles.

Steel strings are used on acoustic folk guitar and on electric guitars. Nylon strings are used on classical guitars. While the basses for Nylon and Steel strings may look the same the internal composition of the strings is quite different and they produce radically different tensions when tuned to pitch on the guitar.

In comparison to classical strings, steel strings exert about twice the amount of force on the top of the guitar. Hence the rule, never put steel strings on a classical guitar. Bad things will happen because the guitar is not built to take the force exerted by the steel strings. Conversely, while the steel string guitar wont suffer any ill effects from nylon strings on it, it wont sound good because the strings dont exert enough force to move the soundboard correctly. In addition, many acoustic steel string makers warn that the warranty will be voided by the use of heavy steel strings on their guitars. It is important to pay attention to this issue and get the correct type of string and the proper tension for your guitar.

Wear: Strings wear out over time and need to be changed. The winding starts breaking down in the bass strings, the frets wear little grooves in the string surface and over time they lose their brilliance. When this happens the stings are said to be dead. How do you know the strings are dead?

Clues that your strings may be dead are:

Loss of bass: a loss of upper and mid-tones and volume in the bass strings.

Difficulty in Tuning: dead strings dont tune well

Treble Tone Changes: thin tone from the trebles (especially with nylon strings)

Physical Deterioration: corrosion or rust on the strings (some turn a nice shade of green)

Jurassic Strings: If the strings are really old, just change em

Some companies are selling extended life strings, Elixir is one brand. They do last a long time. My Baby Taylor came with a set of Elixirs on it and the guitar still sounded good after a year of heavy use. These strings sound different. Try them and see if you like the tone.

How often do I need to change my strings? This is a common question that has a simple answer: Change them when they are dead. How long this will take depends on how much you play your guitar and the acid content of the oils in your skin. I am known in some circles as the string killer due to the chemical composition of the oils in my skin. Ballpark guide would be to change strings every few months if you play a few hours a week.

Pricing: Here is a strange one. Most strings are priced with the idea that the retailer will give you a deal of two for one. So a set that costs $10.00 retail is really costing only $5.00 because you will get two sets for the price of one set. Why they dont just adjust the retail to reflect this practice is beyond me. Most sets (with the exception of classical) will be priced between $7.00 to $10.00 a set retail or $3.50 to $5.00 per set when the deal is factored in.

String changing technique: Too much info to go into in a web article. Get someone who is knowledgeable in re-stringing your type of guitar to help you the first time. Once you get the hang of it, you wont look back. You can pay to have the music store do this, but why pay when it is easy to do it yourself.

String types and tensions by category

Steel string acoustic guitar strings

Acoustic steel string sets are metal wound, steel core bass strings with solid metal trebles. Typically in these sets the first and second strings are solid wire and the 3rd thru 6th strings are wound. The terms Heavy, Medium, Light and Extra Light are used to describe gauge/tension for these strings. These terms are also used for electric strings but are generally one step lighter when talking about electric guitar.

Bright Phosphor Bronze
Neutral: Bronze
Dark: Nickel steel

Extra Light: .010 first string
Light: .011 first strin
Medium: .012 first string
Heavy: Not recommended.

Recommendations: Use the extra light set if your hands are getting sore of if you want to improve the ease of play on an instrument. Go for Mediums if you are looking for big tone and will be playing strumming songs.

Brands: Dean Markley, GHS, Martin Marquis - Avoid flat wounds in this category.

Electric guitar strings

Electric guitar string sets are metal wound, steel core bass strings with solid metal trebles. Typically in these sets the first, second and third strings are solid wire and the 4th thru 6th strings are wound. Lighter gauges of electric guitar strings often use a solid or plain third string. Electrics use the Heavy, Medium, Light and Extra Light designation as well. String sets in the electric guitar realm use lighter gauges than their acoustic steel counterparts .

There are also flat wound strings. In these sets the base string windings have been ground down a bit to facilitate a smoother surface to slide up and down the string. Some swear by them, others swear at them. I am not fond of them but I would suggest that you check it out for yourself.

Recommendations: For rock, use .009s or .010s, for blues go heavier depending on the amount of string bending you are going to be doing. For jazz, generally heavier gauges are used.

Brands: Dean Markley, GHS, DAddario,

Extra Light:.009
Light: .010
Medium: .011
Heavy .012

Classical Guitar Strings

Classical sets are metal wound silk core basses with nylon trebles. Generally strings 4-6 are wound and 1-3 are solid nylon. Up until the 1930s trebles were made of gut. Nylon was introduced by Segovia, who convinced Dupont to develop a nylon formula for guitar strings. There are several formulas out there now for the composition of the trebles. Among the options are carbon fiber (Savarez Alliance), clear nylon (Augustine, Aranquez), composite trebles (DAddario), and other materials. They all sound a little different. Try them out to see which ones you prefer.

Savarez also makes a set with a wound third, these are to be avoided due to the extra noise the windings generate when being played. Some makers have specially ground bass string winding to reduce finger squeaks. Although some players use these strings for performance, they were designed for the recording studio environment where the squeaks would be very noticeable.

Classical guitar strings are referred to by tensions of the set. Light, Normal, High and Extra High tension. Savarez uses colored cards to designate set tensions. You might hear the phrase blue card or red card, referring to the tension of a string set. In classical guitar, the higher tension sets are not much more difficult to play than the medium or low tension sets. In light of this, I generally recommend choosing the highest tension possible to get the best sound out of the guitar. (Exception: Savarez Alliance are really too stiff in the Ex-Hi tension.)

In the realm of classical guitar, often the bass strings will go dead while the trebles are still in good shape. Most string companies sell sets of bass strings separately so that one can change just the basses. DAddario offers a 9 string set (two bass sets, one treble set) designed around this idea.
Treble strings in nylon guitar string sets can take up to two weeks to stretch out and stay in tune. The classical guitarist has to plan ahead when it comes to string changes and performances. Changing the trebles the day before a big concert is not recommended. They wont stay in tune.

Recommendations: For classical guitar I recommend strings by the tone color.

Bright: Savarez Alliance, 540J High Tension
Neutral: DAddario EJ44 - Ex High Tension
Dark: Hannabach 815 SHT (Super High Tension)

Note: Be extra careful when tying off the trebles on the bridge of the classical guitar. Make sure you get enough turns in the knot and that it is not slipping. Due to the design of the classical bridge, if the string comes untied at the bridge end while under tension, it will leave a nasty welt in the face of the guitar.





© Copyright 2012 by Guy Cantwell
All RIghts Reserved



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