Hello Troubadourians! For the past two months we’ve been talking about “ideal” guitars. I’ve shared information about the terminology of guitar necks and what we guitarists can expect our instruments to feel like; I also shared some of my thoughts about how to determine and describe what that elusive “feel” is. Then we explored some of what is currently available to guitarists who might actually want to buy something uniquely “right” for them. I hope you found the discussions to be informative and useful and I hope you find your ideal guitar.
Once you find that ideal guitar, you’ll need to be sure it is set up well and has good strings. Last month I ran out of space before I got to talk to you about guitar strings. So, let’s talk about your strings. Most players have a “favorite” brand and gauge of strings that they use. Some don’t really care about the brand but always use the same gauge. A very few just use “whatever’s on sale.” (Heathens…) And then there’s me. I have an Excel spreadsheet with scientific data on virtually every gauge of wound and plain string in everything from nickel to stainless steel to phosphor bronze (thanks D’Addario!) and I can engineer the perfect set of strings for any guitar in any tuning and for any kind of feel that’s called for. Really. Yeah, I know…
Up until the ’60s, there weren’t a lot of choices for guitar string sets. Both electric and acoustic sets were relatively heavy by today’s standards and always with a wound third string. Early rockers like James Burton and Carl Perkins have said that they would buy a regular set of strings and the high-G string from a five-string banjo set. They would throw away the heavy low-E string, move all of the strings over one location, and use the banjo string as the high-E string. This would yield a string set consisting of three wound strings and three plain strings, the prototype of today’s modern string set for electric guitar. Acoustic players didn’t have it quite as easy but I have had some old timers tell me that they would use a similar trick on their acoustic guitars except they would substitute the relatively thin wound fourth string from a banjo set as their third string G.
The Ernie Ball Company is usually credited as being the first to offer the aforementioned modified electric guitar string set as a standard set. Likewise, EB made multiple custom gauge electric and acoustic sets available under their “Slinky” and “Earthwood” monikers respectively. Other makers followed suit, often directly utilizing (copying?) the gauges that EB used in their sets and in effect created a new standard for guitar string sets. This new standard usually relied on gauging the strings numerically in increasing increments of 0.010″ from high to low. Whether this was accidental or intentional is unknown – and actually irrelevant – and the net result is that we guitarists now had an addition to our unique vocabulary… “Gimme a set of 10s.”
So what does that really mean? Well, an example electric guitar set would be gauged as follows high to low: 0.010″, 0.013″, 0.017″, 0.026″, 0.036″, 0.046″. While this is easy to remember and does make for an easy-playing set (I used them myself for years), the truth is that the string tension – and therefore the ultimate “feel” of the strings and, by extension, the guitar in total – is unbalanced. And how do I know this, you might ask? Well, that’s where the spreadsheet comes in. Are you ready for a complete “Geek-Out”? Okay, then. Here goes…
Quoting from the D’Addario String Tension & Technical Reference Guide (1999);
In order to determine the tension at which a string will vibrate, you need three pieces of information: the Unit Weight (UW), the Scale Length (L), and the Frequency (F) of the string. To calculate the tension of a string in pounds use the formula below, inserting the three variables described above: T (Tension) = (UW x (2 x L x F)2) / 386.4.
This information is still available on the D’Addario website (www.daddario.com) and thoroughly explains the concept with details that we don’t have space to present here.
A standard light gauge acoustic set has the following individual string gauges (high to low): 0.012″, 0.016″, 0.024″, 0.032″, 0.042″, 0.054″. This set has corresponding tension in pounds of: 23.3, 23.3, 30.2, 30.5, 29.9, 26.8. While you’d think that the low strings being heavier would have more tension, as you can see, the strings with the highest tension are the G and D. Similarly, a standard electric set with the gauges high to low: 0.010″, 0.013″, 0.017″, 0.026″, 0.036″, 0.046″, have respective tensions of: 15.6, 14.8, 15.9, 17.7, 18.8, 16.8. We end up playing on strings that are stiffer on the middle strings and flabby on the outer strings, especially the low E.
Using the formula and information from the D’Addario guide above, I have calculated a couple of examples of how this works using real, usable string sets that I use on my own guitars.
Acoustic light gauge (high to low): 0.012″, 0.016″, 0.022″, 0.030″, 0.040″, 0.054″. The corresponding tension in pounds is: 23.3, 23.3, 25.5, 27.1, 26.9, 26.8.
Electric light gauge (high to low): 0.010″, 0.0135″, 0.017″, 0.026″, 0.036″, 0.050″. The corresponding tension in pounds is: 15.6, 15.9, 15.9, 17.7, 18.8, 19.6.
The string tension for both sets becomes progressively higher from high to low (or is essentially “flat” in the acoustic set) and eliminates the “flabbiness” in the low strings. Fingering is easier, the “feel” of the guitar in all positions is much more balanced, and the guitar will play much more in-tune than before, even when using a capo and without any other adjustments. Custom sets can be calculated for open and altered tunings so that the string tension remains balanced as though it were in standard tuning. If you want to try this for yourself, you can either work it out on your own or email me and I’ll send you my spreadsheet. Or, if you really don’t want to deal with a spreadsheet, just email me with what you’re interested in and I’ll tell you what gauges you’ll need.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)