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String Theory

Hello Troubadourians! This month I’ll pickup (pun intended) where I left off in March with the discussion of electric guitars and amplifiers. Since I began our discussions on tone and dynamics on acoustic guitars with a primer on strings, I thought it appropriate to do likewise with electric guitars. Electric guitars tend to be much more sensitive to the type and age of the strings than acoustic guitars. The metal alloy, core-to-wrap ratio, gauge (unit weight), and resistance to wear all affect the tone, dynamics, and life of the strings. I’ll explain these a little later.

I used to like new strings. I lived for that initial 20 minutes of newness, that crackling brightness that seemed so alive. Now, to my ears, that first-blush tonality just sounds harsh and somewhat metallic. I much prefer my strings to be a little played-in. This applies to both electric and acoustic guitars. I rely on being able to control and manipulate the dynamics of my guitar with the volume control as well as the touch I use with my picking hand. Even my fretting hand can influence the dynamic response of the strings and the instrument. Ultra-bright, brand-new strings overwhelm everything with the extreme sensitivity to and emphasis on the high frequencies, much like an uncontrolled syllabance in a microphone. That said, I also don’t like old, dead strings that make my guitars sound like they’re wearing flatwounds. Flatwound strings have their place as many players prefer them for jazz – some slide players like them as well – but they sound terrible either in actuality or by proxy of aging on a solid body electric or flat-top guitar.

As I stated above, the metal alloy of a string greatly effects the overall brightness and, to some extent, the longevity. The most common alloys for electric guitar strings are pure nickel, nickel-plated steel, or stainless steel with pure nickel strings, being the warmest sounding and stainless being the brightest. I have found that the brighter a string is initially, the faster you’ll notice the drop-off in brightness as the string ages. The alloy also affects the dynamics of the strings – how well they respond to changes in the volume control and picking attack – with brighter strings usually having greater dynamics, at least initially. There are exceptions though; I was once given two sets of strings from a new manufacturer that I was told “will make you sound awesome.” I can’t pass-up a dose of awesome – especially when it’s free – so I put a set on my main guitar just before a rehearsal. Well, those strings did indeed make me sound awesome… as long as I had my guitar turned all the way up. When I backed off on the volume control they just disappeared! Tone, volume, just pffht! Not so awesome. Now while I knew that these strings wouldn’t work for me as my regular set, I did dig the way they sounded wide open. And as it turned out, that was exactly the tone I needed for the solo in a song I was recording with the Wild Truth. (Check out “Very Bad Thing” from This Golden Era for the first, and last, time for that tone.)

The feel of the strings – the relative stiffness – is mostly influenced by the core-to-wrap ratio. By that I mean that wound strings are made up of a core wire that has another wire wrapped tightly around it. The overall gauge of the string is determined by adding the diameter of the core wire to the diameter of the wrap wire X2. For example: a common gauge for the A (5th) string for electric guitars is 0.036”. That gauge can be achieved several ways. Using a 0.012” core wire and wrapping it with another 0.012” wire yields 0.012” + (0.012”x2) = 0.036”. However, you can also begin with a core wire of 0.010” and wrap it with a 0.013” wire (0.010” + (0.013”x2) = 0.036”) to achieve the same diameter string. The net difference being that the string with the larger diameter core will feel stiffer. This difference is why the tension of the string is calculated using the unit weight as a significant factor rather than solely using the diameter. But why does all this work this way? Here’s why: the pickups in almost all electric guitars are inductive. An inductor is a combination of magnets and wire coils that performs its magic when an object excites the magnetic field near the inductor (pickup) and “induces” a current to flow in the wire coils. The objects we guitarists use to excite the magnetic field are our strings! The properties of those strings greatly influence the way that the magnetic field is excited/disrupted and by extension, influences our tone and dynamics.

But what makes strings go dead? The usual suspects are metal fatigue, corrosion, dirt or ‘finger funk’ in the windings, and wear from the frets. A string stretched to playing tension at an average of 18 lbs/sq-in will eventually succumb to fatigue by either breaking at a contact point like the bridge or nut, or will simply develop erratic vibrations as the metal stretches, even without being played or touched. You can imagine that this process will be accelerated when we play our guitar, especially if we frequently bend the strings as part of our style. Add to that all of the possibly acidic or corrosive elements that we transmit to our strings from the stuff on our hands or in our sweat. Finally, there is the constant wear on the strings from the frets. Next time you change your strings, take a look at the tiny divots along the strings where they have been pressed against the frets. That mutual grinding is probably the biggest reason that strings go dead. All those little flats spots cause the string to vibrate non-musically as well as compromising the intonation and dynamic response.

I can hear when a set of strings has just died. Suddenly, during a song in the middle of a gig, they’re… gone. Tone, dynamics, feel all go flat-line as though a blanket has been thrown over my amp or my guitar has filled with water.

Tube amps can do this disappearing act too. One minute you’re digging that fat tone you’ve spent years cultivating and the next minute you’d swear that someone has reached over and randomly turned the knobs on your amp. But that is a discussion for another time. For now, just keep your hands clean and change your strings
regularly.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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