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A Set of Strings

Hello Troubadourians! Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can change a pile of parts into a fine instrument… and vice versa. Several times over the years, I’ve written in these pages about custom this and special that. I’ve geeked out over such things as specialized string gauges that are selected so that every string in the set is nearly identical in tension—or slightly increases from treble to bass—and I’ve written about configuring a custom guitar by selecting everything from the wood type of every component (neck, body, fretboard) and the frets, pickups, etc. as well as specifying the width and shape of the neck and even the radius of the fretboard. I’ve also told you about my friends at Collings guitars who have indulged me and my “idiosyncrasies” over time and have built two very fine custom guitars for me. The latest one was a departure from my usual solid body rock and roll guitars in that it was a fully hollow thinline with a Bigsby tailpiece and P-90 pickups. Modeled after a Gibson ES330, my Collings I-30 was much anticipated since I played the prototype at the NAMM Show in 2017. I ordered mine as soon as they were available. I also mentioned the I-30 in my column reviewing the 2018 NAMM Show. So, you can see that I had been waiting for my I-30 for a long time, finally receiving it last summer. As usual, I played it as-delivered for a little while so that I could get to know how it worked as originally configured. It came strung with a set of D-Addario 11-48 strings, which are slightly heavier on the top strings and lighter on the low-E from what I usually use. As I mentioned earlier, my string sets are custom and the gauges are intended to present a balanced tension from string to string. The string tension is calculated based on the string gauge over the scale length of the guitar (measured from nut to bridge) at a particular pitch. When analyzed for string to string tension, standard sets such as 10-46 are way too loose on both E strings when compared to the rest of the set. In fact, for most standard string sets—both electric and acoustic—the D and A strings have much more tension that the rest of the set. To compensate for this imbalance, I’ve created special sets for all of my guitars. For my acoustics, I chose to go lighter on the D and A strings to match the rest of the set. For my electrics, the solution was the opposite: make the E strings heavier. The specific gauges for my normal electric set are: 10.5, 14, 18, 26, 36, 50 as compared to a regular “slinky” set at 10, 13, 17, 26, 36, 46. As soon as I was informed by the I-30’s original setup, I changed the strings to my usual gauged set above. Since the I-30 and my City Limits have the same scale length, the string-to-string feel was as expected, but the overall tension was somewhat lower because of the Bigsby (as opposed to the stop tailpiece on the City Limits). At first, I really liked the feel but over time I was noticing tuning inconsistencies that were annoying and not what I had come to expect from a Collings guitar.

In an effort to remedy the situation I went so far as to take the I-30 with me to the 2019 NAMM Show so that the Collings guys who built it could take a look at it. We found that after every person who played the guitar, the tuning issues were slightly different from what I was experiencing as well as different from each other. It was during this examination that Aaron Huff from Collings made the statement I began with; “It’s the simplest things that can change a pile of parts into a fine instrument…” Simple things such as lubrication in the nut slots, truss rod adjustment, bridge saddles, and in this case, a properly adjusted Bigsby. All were determined by Aaron and the other Collings guys to be in proper order. The recommendation was to play it as much as possible and let it inform me how it wants to be played just as I am informing it how I want to play it. Good advice even if you aren’t having problems with your guitar. Dutifully following the advice I was given, I’ve played the I-30 as much as possible including on several recording sessions. The tuning problems lessened over time but didn’t completely go away. I changed strings a couple of times and made sure that the nut was properly lubricated, always with graphite so as not to risk wrecking the finish. As I continued to play it at every chance, I noticed that there were things that were essential components of my playing that were difficult to execute on the I-30. Some things were sloppy at best and impossible at worst. Overall, I was still frustrated with what I was able to get out of the guitar – or not get out of it – and I was considering removing the Bigsby and replacing it with a standard trapeze tailpiece. At my last session I finally noticed that the tuning problems were evident even when I was just fingering chords or lightly strumming. Normally, I have a really light touch with both hands so this was weird to experience. It finally occurred to me to change the strings to a slightly heavier gauge. I figured that this might compensate for the lower tension from the Bigsby and make the I-30 feel like the City Limits under both hands. I had previously calculated a one-step-up set and I had one on hand so I changed the strings to the heavier gauge. From E to E the gauges are: 11, 15, 19, 28, 38, 52. By calculation, this set is overall five psi more than the regular set, just enough to compensate for the ‘give’ in the Bigsby. In a side-by-side playing test, the I-30 and the City Limits now felt identical! That was what I was after. While playing it, I found that all of the components of my playing that I had been struggling with were suddenly as smooth as ever. And, no tuning distortion from my left-hand fingering or from my right-hand picking or strumming. Success!

The lesson learned is that sometimes the difference between pile of parts and a fine instrument is as simple as a set of strings.

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

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