The String Thing
By Bernie Lehmann
The strings you choose are the biggest factor in the kind you tone your guitar produces. Changing your strings is the cheapest and easiest way to change the tone of your instrument. The gauge of the string, the composition, and the type of winding will dramatically change the overtone balance. There are a myriad of string sets to choose from and perhaps some sense of this variety can be sorted out in terms of tone.
Plain unwrapped strings are almost all made of Swedish steel, a particularly high strength composition. There seems to be little difference between manufacturers concerning plain strings. Moisture is the demise of plain steel strings as rust pits will cause the string to play out of tune. Swedish steel is also used for the core of wrapped strings. Some sets use a round core and some use a hex core in order to grab the winding better and prevent slippage. Combinations of steel and silk strands are used as a core for Gypsy style strings to lend a softness of tone and flexibility to the string.
Magnetic wrappings such as nickel with an iron content, nickel plated steel, stainless steel, and chrome are necessary when a magnetic pickup is used. These strings are not as rich and ringing as a string wrapped in bronze, phosphor bronze, or brass which are not magnetic. Piezo crystal or contact pickups rely on pressure, not magnetism to function, so any composition string will work well.
Nickel and nickel plated strings have a bright, warm sound. Nickel will tarnish, but it will not get pitted with rust like plain steel. Stainless steel is used because it is particularly magnetic and has a very clear and bright tone. It does not tarnish and is a very hard material. Chrome is used mostly for flat wound strings and has a duller tone. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, has a bright and crisp tone. When phosphorus is added to bronze, the tone of the string becomes warmer. Phosphor bronze looks a little pinker than regular bronze. Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, is the brightest and most metallic sounding of the string wraps. Gypsy guitar strings are silver plated copper over a silk and steel core. They are medium bright and posses a warm springy sound.
Round wound strings are the brightest sounding strings. They have excellent overtone development and sustain when they are fresh. Unfortunately, the gaps between the windings tend to collect finger oils and dirt and get duller with age. String wipes help to clean some of this residue and can extend the life of the string. DR strings wind the string with the core under tension which compact the windings when released. This helps to extend the life of the strings. Gore-tex is used to encase some brands of strings which keeps oils from collecting and remarkably extends string life. These strings are not as bright when new, but maintain their tone longer. Boiling your strings works too, but who wants to live like that?!!
Half-round strings are round wound strings that have been ground down in order to minimize annoying finger squeak. They are not a bright as round wound, but brighter that flat wounds.
Flat wound strings are the dullest, or perhaps smoothest sounding string. They are wrapped with a ribbon of chrome or stainless steel. There are no gaps that can collect dirt and oils and last a very long time. They are very strong in fundamental tones but do not develop high partials well.
Next time we’ll talk about string gauge and how to balance the sound of your guitar. In the mean time, try some different types of strings and see how the voice of your guitar changes. It may speak a whole new language!
Nickel plated steel
Silk and steel
Same order as above