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A Guitar Strings Primer

Guitar Strings Basics

I was a wedding photographer for a few years. One lesson I learned is that to improve my skills I sometimes had to leave my camera in the bag. Why? I needed time to read, to observe, to critique my photos, and to appreciate the work of others. Time spent increasing my overall knowledge led to improved photos. I believe the same lesson applies to guitar. Sometimes we improve our skills when we set the guitar aside.

For example, when I started playing bass there were times when I set the guitar aside so I could listen to two or three versions of the same song. I was exposed to a wide variety of bass lines. There were other times I sat and played a “learn bass clef” game to improve my music reading skills. Both activities were time well spent.

This guitar strings primer is meant to be read with your guitar in its case. However, I believe you will find the time is well spent.


Two Basic String Types: Nylon or Metal

Strings generally fall into two broad categories: nylon core or steel core. Nylon core is the most popular material for classical guitar strings. Nearly all acoustic, electric, and electric bass guitar strings have a metal core. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as theJohn Pearse Thomastik classical guitar strings, with a braided metal for the core of the 1, 2, and 3 strings and flat nylon winding. The rest of this article assumes the string core is made from a single wire, unless otherwise noted.

string wrapWhen looking at some nylon strings you might think they are all metal, but what you are seeing is the wrapping that goes around the nylon core. The nylon core is inside the wrapping. You can easily see the core of any wrapped string at either end of the string (at the tuning post or the bridge end). See the image at right. The image shows  a metal core wire, but the concept is the same for nylon wound strings.

Nearly all lower frequency guitar strings are wrapped with some type of winding (as in the image above). The winding can be made from a variety of metals and shaped in various ways. You can learn more about core wires, shapes, and materials used for wrapping in the “String Anatomy” portion of this guitar strings primer, below.

For many years classical guitar strings were made from all natural materials, including animal intestine (know as ‘gut’) and silk. Artificial material were introduced during the 1940's due to wartime restrictions of certain materials. Since then, nylon has mostly replaced gut and silk for classical strings. Nylon provides a number of benefits, such as, lower cost, better quality control, and increased consistency from set to set.

Metal strings have been in use on acoustic and electric guitars since about 1900. Initially used on acoustic guitars and later (beginning in the 1930‘s and 40‘s) on electric guitars. Today a wide variety of materials, thicknesses, colors, and finishes are available for guitarists using metal strings.

Basic String Anatomy

All guitar strings begin with a core wire. As discussed above, the most common synthetic material is nylon, widely used in classical and some acoustic strings. For electric and acoustic guitars, the core material is frequently steel.

You can still find strings for electric guitars that use a pure nickel core. Some prefer pure nickel for producing a vintage, warm, "classic rock" tone as nickel was the material of choice for many early rock-and-roll guitarists. Today steel dominates the market, with some blended metals pushing the endurance and strength limits.

The shape of the core is typically either round or hexagonal. Core widths vary. Some argue that hexagonal cores are more durable, and stand up to note-bending and energetic play better, though they can be more stiff than round core strings of the same size. However, hex cores can be manufactured as a thinner wire than round wire. So, it's a balancing act. Hex cores produce a brighter tone, which may be the result of small gaps between the core and the winding. Round cores, because they flex more evenly with consistent core contact by the wrap wire, are thought by many to be better suited for a playing styles that emphasize string bends, extended sustain, and more even overall tone.

According to D'Addario, when various windings are combined with a steel hexagonal core, the winding actually bites into the core, creating a strong bond that improves string longevity and intonation. Some strings, such as many from DR Strings, still use a round core. DR says, that a round core provides just a little more sustain and flexibility.' Creating round-core strings also requires a bit more work, as most are still wound by hand.

We all know that sound from a guitar is created when the string vibrates. On electric guitars, these vibrations are picked up using electronics and amplified for the listener. On non-electric guitars, the sound is amplified by the design of the guitar body. Your strings greatly effect the volume and tone of the sound.

The ability of a string to produce a certain pitch, tone, and sustain is closely related to the string’s diameter and composition. For example, a thin string tends to produce higher pitch, with relatively short sustain. A thick string tends to produce lower pitch, with longer sustain.

If there is nothing around the core wire, it is called a plain string. On most 6-string guitars, strings 1, 2, and 3 are plain strings. Strings 4, 5, and 6 are wound. Some manufacturers produce sets with wound 3 strings.

Types Of Windings

String manufacturers vary string diameter, materials, and other properties as they attempt to meet the demands for tone and longevity that players demand. One way to influence the sound of the string is to alter the winding over the core. A winding is especially effective for improving sustain and creating a distinct tone. Windings are also called strap wrap.

The most common winding on strings today is Round Wound. As the name implies, a round wire is wrapped around the core. Round Wound strings are known for their bright sound while still proving punch in the lows and mid-tones.

Introduced by D'Addario in the early 1970's, Half Round strings begin as traditional round-wound strings but then undergo precision grinding to shave off a portion of the winding. This smooths the winding. According to D'Addario, Half Round's "retain some of the bright edge associated with round wound strings, but also offer some of the benefits of a flat wound: less string noise when shifting, no “scraping” noise when using a pick, and a slightly mellower tone."

Flat Wound strings are round wound strings which have a flat or ribbon-like wire wrapped. The ribbon is sometimes polished after wrapping. You get a darker, mellower sound, very little finger movement sound, and a smooth feel that many players prefer. These are great for the “old-school” bass tone of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and are frequently used in country, blues, reggae, R&B, and jazz.

Types Of Metals and Alloys

The next topic for our guitar string primer is: Types of Metals and Alloys. Manufacturers use a number of metals and alloys (an alloy is a mixture of metals) for their strings and their string windings. Each provides a distinct set of benefits and sounds.

80/20 Bronze - This is an alloy of 80% copper and 20% zinc, sometimes referred to as brass. 80/20 Bronze strings have great acoustic clarity coupled with extra-bright, with strong, deep bass response.

Phosphor Bronze - Introduced to string-making by D’Addario, phosphor bronze strings last longer than conventional bronze alloy strings. The small percentage of phosphorous in the alloy helps them to retain their sound for longer periods.

Nickelplated Steel - Nickelplated steel in an alloy that has an electroplating of 8% pure nickel over steel. The steel alloy is ideally suited for magnetic pickups and the nickel plating provides a nice finish that is oxidation resistant while providing a surface softness. It is bright-sounding and long-lasting without promoting premature fret wear. These strings provide great overall tone and has been the best-selling type of electric guitar string over the last 50 years.

Stainless Steel - Stainless steel is a highly magnetic alloy. Stainless steel strings are excellent for magnetic pickup amplification and are noted for their exceptional brightness, anti-tarnishing characteristics, and extreme durability. Stainless steel is also available for some acoustic/electric instruments.

Silk & Steel - An excellent choice for smaller-body guitars, Silk and Steel strings provide the soft feel and mellow tone preferred by many folk and finger-style players. The strings are manufactured by interweaving Silk under a silver-plated copper winder, on top of a steel core. You get a soft feel, with reduced finger noise.

Silverplated Copper - Bare round copper wire is electroplated with pure sterling silver. This wire is ideally suited for classical guitar strings.

Nylon Strings - A term that usually refers to the full complement of 6 strings used on classical guitar. Usually the first three (treble strings) are monofilament (solid) nylon. The last three are a monofiliment core wrapped with one of the metals described in this guitar strings primer.

Nylon Trebles - Refers to monofilament nylon commonly used for the first three strings on a classical guitar. D’Addario uses 3 types of nylon treble material: Laser-selected Pro•ArtéTM nylon, rectified nylon, and standard nylon.

Guitar String Gauge

As you can tell by a quick examination of the strings on a guitar, the highest notes are produced by the thinnest string and the lowest are produced by the thickest. The thickness of your strings is known as the gauge. Hopefully, this guitar string primer will help you understand the keys to Guitar String Gauge.

Thinner strings are easier to press down to the fingerboard, something a new player will appreciate. Thicker strings provide more punch, volume, and sustain, but are more difficult for a beginner to play well.

Guitarists refer to sets of strings based on the gauge (diameter) of the high-e (thinnest) string. So, if the gauge of the high-e string is 0.10 (one tenth of an inch in diameter), the strings are called "10's".

A common set of names have developed for the various string gauges. However, to be certain, you should learn the names and sizes of your preferred manufacturer. Here is our attempt to sort out the common names:

  • Extra Lights are 8's.
  • Lights are 9's.
  • Medium Lights are 10's.
  • Medium are 11's.
  • Medium Heavy are 12's.
  • Heavy Duty are 13's.

In addition to the standard sets, some manufactures recognize that players want non-standard combinations, such as Light-Heavy (light trebles, heavy bass), Custom Lights (extra light trebles, light bass) and Medium-Heavy (medium trebles, heavy bass). In addition to these general custom sets, some are directed at specific genres of players, such as bluegrass, or jazz.

Which diameter is right for you?

Heavy gauge strings offer 'thicker' tone and louder volume but are harder to play. Conversely, lighter strings will have slightly less volume and depth but are easier to play. If you are new, try lights (9-42's or 10-46's) first (in fact, most new guitars are sold with lights). As your play improves, you will probably want to move to a heavier gauge string. Why? To achieve more sustain, more punch, and the increased stability of pitch.

Part of the answer also depends upon your guitar. Some instruments are constructed with a specific range of gauges in mind. My acoustic, for example, can use extra lights, lights, and mediums, but use of anything heavier is discouraged. The reason for this is that heavier gauges of strings place increased tension on the neck of the guitar. Check your owner's manual for such restrictions.

Other Factors To Consider

Color Coded Ballends

Several manufacturers make it easy for you to easily tell the diameter of each string by color coding the ballends. A ballend (see the image at left) is the brass ferrule affixed to the end of a guitar string (this does not apply to classical strings). The ballend is secured in place by the lock-twist, which is a method of wire twisting.

Bass Guitar Scale Length

Bass guitarists have to select the right number or strings, the right gauge, the right alloys, and the right scale length.

Scale length is the distance from the nut, at one end of the neck, and the bridge saddle, at the other end.

For years the industry standard scale length was 34-inches. However, with the introduction of five and six-string bass guitars, manufacturers experimented with longer scale lengths. The longer length increases the clarity and tone of the low B string. This has stretched the scale length to 35 and even 36-inches.

In addition to the standard 34-inch scale length, and the longer 35 and 36-inch lengths, you will also find so-called short-scale bass guitars, for smaller framed players, with scale lengths as short as 30-inches.

To determine the scale length of your bass guitar, use a measuring tape to determine the length from the nut to the bridge saddle. This is your effective scale length, but is not the scale length to purchase. Next, determine the length from your bridge saddle to where the ball-end of your string is fastened to the guitar. On some bass guitars the ball end rests in a cup that is very close to the bridge saddle. On others, the ball end connects much further from the bridge saddle, perhaps as much as 1 to 2-inches. Finally, add the effective scale length to the length needed to attach the ball-end of the string, this is the minimum scale length you should purchase.

Want to make measuring scale length very easy? The next time you plan to change your strings, get a marker of some type (a magic marker or white-out each work well) and put a mark on your lowest string immediately after where it crosses the nut (see the image at left). Next, remove the string and measure from the ballend to your mark. This is the minimum scale length you should order.

string length tableSome manufacturers describe their strings as "short" or "super long" rather than show the scale length on the package. The chart at right is a simple attempt to match your measured scale length to manufacturer descriptions.

Tapered Bass Strings Another element to cover in a guitar strings primer is tapering, which is a usually only a choice for the B-string on 5 and 6-string basses.

A non-tapered string includes a full-thickness winding the entire length of the string (up to the twist-lock). This means that the thick portion of the string passes over the bridge saddle. This is the way most bass strings are made, and what you will get unless the package specifically identifies the contents as "tapered."

A tapered string is thins to only a single winding, which is much thinner, within the last one to two inches of the ballend. The thinner gauge string passing over the bridge saddle allows the string to vibrate more naturally. (The next time you pass by a piano with the top open, take a look at the bass strings, they are almost certainly tapered.) Many believe that a tapered B string produces more accurate intonation, stronger tone, and improved sustain.

A couple of important notes regarding tapered bass strings:

Raise The Saddle

If you choose a tapered string, you will have to raise the saddle for the B-string (the string is thinner at the bridge saddle, so you must compensate for this). This is normally an easy adjustment, but if you've never done it before, consult your owners manual. If you switch back to non-tapered strings, be sure to move the bridge saddle back down.

Beware Long Ferrule Distance

If your bass places the ferrule (the cup where your ballend rests) a long distance from the bridge saddle, the taper will be pulled beyond the bridge saddle, which does you no good.

Extended Life Coatings

I frequently use extended-life coated strings on my guitars. Are they right for you? Maybe. Let's look at what they are in this next section of the guitar strings primer, along with several advantages, and disadvantages.

What are Coated Strings?

You have to admit: There's nothing quite like the sound of new strings. The tone, the sustain, the stability for remaining in-tune. These are all reasons why traveling and professional musicians tend to change strings every single day.

Soon, however, all strings age. In fact, every time you play your guitar, you damage the strings. The amount of damage you inflict depends on a number of factors: how wildly you tune them; how clean your hands are; how much you sweat; the oils your hands naturally produce; the contaminants in the air around you; and how well you clean your strings after you play. In short, in addition to use, the more skin, sweat, dirt, and debris you leave on your strings, the faster they wear out.

Manufactures help you by putting a barrier between your strings and all these contaminants. How they do so falls into one of three broad categories: coated strings, covered strings, and treated strings.

Coated strings use polymers or other synthetics to adhere to standard strings, creating a bonded coating between the string and the environment. covered strings use a very thin material, which may be colored or clear, for their barrier. Treated strings create a microscopically thin chemical layer to eliminate contaminations.

Advantages: Tone, Longevity, Reduced Squeak

Most people think the only advantage of coated strings is the extended life they provide. But if they don't sound great, long-life is just a long time spent with annoying strings. However, a good extended life string will provide the same tone as uncoated strings while lasting much longer. All manufacturers claim longer life, some boast of a more "natural feel" due to their coatings, which others boast of greater volume and the same feel as untreated strings.

Estimates on how much extra life you can expect from long-life strings varies from 3 to 5 times longer (when compared to similar non-coated strings). Whether of not they last this long depends on how you play and the type of coating. For me, extended life strings with a polymer or material coating easily provide the promised life expectancy, and more. Perhaps keeping the guitar in a hard-shell case and always wiping off the strings after I play helps maximize the life of such strings. On the other hand, a friend of mine who tried extended life strings found that those with a material coating became shredded in about the same amount of time as regular strings. He routinely plays bluegrass, and both his strumming and picking are vigorous. Treated long-lasting strings avoid the wear problem by adhering the long-life solution to the string itself.

Finally, because most extra life strings place a layer between you and the strings, most of these coatings significantly reduce finger-squeak as you slide your fingertips up and down the fretboard.

Disadvantages: Cost, flaking

Cost is the primary disadvantage of coated strings. A typical set costs two or more times the price of an uncoated set. However, prices vary widely. If you find a coated set that works for you, at a good price, they can be very cost effective since they can last three to five times longer than a normal set.

A second disadvantage can be flaking, especially with coated strings if you play aggressively. So, consider the technology behind the strings along with your playing style.  If you are uncertain, try a set from several manufacturers. This small, one time investment, may pay great dividends.

All Things Considered, What To Choose?

Now that our guitar strings primer has pumped you full of information, how do you put it all together? Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

The most important consideration is the type of strings recommended by your manufacturer for your guitar, basically: nylon, acoustic, or electric. Beyond that your level of play is the next most important consideration: lighter for beginning guitarists, heavier as you gain experience. Check your owners manual to ensure your guitar can handle thicker gauges.

Next, consider the music you enjoy playing. Some strings are made specifically for a style of music. For example, there are sets for bluegrass and jazz.

Consider the strings you have now. If you want a heavier tone, try a thicker gauge. If your guitar booms out the bass and you wish to thin the sound out, try a set of 80/20 bronze. If you want a vintage sound for you electric, try nickel strings.

Finally, consider the fact that guitar strings are relatively inexpensive. The next time you need a set, buy one or two sets you have never tried before and see what they sound like. You may stumble upon a new favorite!

What about your experience?

We'd love to hear about your experience with strings: what you like, what you don't, what advice you give. Feel free to contact us via email with your feedback.