I remember when I first started seriously playing guitar. I was dedicated to learning how to set it up properly by myself. No sir, I wasn’t going to be relying on the clerk at Long & McQuade. So, when it came time to change ‘ol Misty’s strings for the first time, you can imagine how stupefied I felt when asked what kind of strings I wanted.
Ahh.. D’Addario! Those look good!
What gauge and alloy?
Eh? What and what?
Yes, there are many different kinds of guitar strings out there. This article focusses primarily on the various types of acoustic strings and how they can play games with your sound.
So, what are an acoustic guitar’s strings made out of? When I was in high-school, all of the poor schmucks who thought they knew something about the guitar would shout out “Steel! Duh… They’re STEEL-string guitars, dummy!” I had the pleasure of smacking those ignorant people. By and large, the primary material used to make strings for acoustic guitars is a metal alloy called Brass (OFTEN falsely called Bronze).
Brass is made by combining the metal elements Copper and Zinc. Bronze is an alloy of Copper and Tin. So those ignorant teenagers back in high-school should have been calling their axes “Brass-string guitars”. Even then, not all Brass is made equal! So the alloy is made from Copper and Zinc, who cares? How much copper, to how much Zinc? When I was a young kidd-o, my dad put in a basketball hoop on the driveway. When it came time to cement the post into the ground, my little cousin was playing with the hose. The result was a concrete mix thinner than the material of a teen pop-star’s dress. How much of each metal goes into the alloy is a factor to consider. Let’s look at a couple of common alloys used for guitar strings.
80/20 Brass is easily the most common alloy used. 80/20 means that the alloy is made 80% of Copper and 20% of Zinc. 80/20 yields a rich, vibrant, and very bright tone. That ringing acoustic sound on most of your favorite folk albums (come on.. I live and die by James Taylor) is a characteristic of a fresh set of 80/20 strings. 80/20 does suffer from a major drawback though. After even an hour of playing, a fresh set is significantly duller. I changed strings a dozen times one particularly grueling day during a recording project as the result of a crowded, hot room and too much string-killing, acidic sweat.
Do you eat eggs for breakfast every morning? Has anyone called you a carnivore because of the ammount of meat you consume? You may be shortening the length of your guitar strings just by your eating habits. High protein diets usually result persperation with a noticable reduced pH. Yes, acid sweat, that eats away your strings. You can help to fight this by drinking lots of water and cleaning your strings with a dry cloth after every use.
Okay.. so there really is some truth when they say guitar strings are made of Bronze. Phosphor Bronze is the minority leader (by a MASSIVE margin) for acoustic string market-share. It’s a true Bronze alloy, made of three elements. Phosphor Bronze is almost entirely Copper, with Tin levels approaching 10%. In addition to the two core elements, Phosphor Bronze is generally about 1% Phosphorus. The Phosphorus is added to act as an anti-oxident, and significantly lengthens the life of a set of strings. Phosphor Bronze strings have their own tonal characteristics. They tend to be beefier and not as bell-like as 80/20 strings. Powerful guitar licks that drive the music are well suited to Phosphor Bronze strings.
In addition to the alloys available, you can get acoustic strings with special chemical coatings. These coating are designed to stop grease and sweat from oxidizing the metal of the strings. While it’s hard to deny that they significantly increase the longevity of a set of strings, it’s a common argument that chemical coatings kill the tone of the strings. This effect becomes especially pronounced as the string shape is worn from contact with the fingers and the frets. The shape-change is exaggerated by the presence of the chemical coating, and the string vibration is altered even more than with a standard 80/20 or Phosphor Bronze set.
Okay, so they aren’t for “Steel-string guitars”, but classical guitar strings are certainly made for acoustic playing. They used to be made from cat’s guts, or horse’s hair. Today, classical guitar strings are made of nylon, and the three bass strings are usually a nylon core wrapped in a non-magnetic silver-containing alloy. Nylon strings lack the ringing an sustain of metal strings, but create a very exotic, short, middy note when plucked. When skillfully strummed, many beautiful flamenco styles evolve.
Okay.. So you know what alloy you’re after, but what was that other thing the clerk needed to know? Oh yea, what gauge do you need? Strings come in many different thicknesses. Acoustic guitar strings tend to be significantly fatter than electric guitar strings. With this increase in size (and a difference in material) comes a very large increase in string tension. It’s usually much harder to press the strings on an acoustic guitar than those of an electric. A larger string is capable of producing more volume (especially important for an acoustic guitar, where the fundamental volume of the string is amplified by the construction of the guitar) and also gives off a fuller representation of frequencies. As an analogy, think of two equal quality speakers, one 10″ and the other 12″. The 12″ speaker will more easily produce the rich lower frequencies that fill out the sound. While the principle at work in the case of a guitar’s strings isn’t quite the same as that at work for the speakers, you get a similar effect.
String gauges are usually labeled by the size of the first (high E) string. For example, most standard light gauges are referred to as “12s” because the first string is 0.012″ wide. This can be confusing though, when you take into account that not all manufacturers make all of the other strings in a set of 12s to match. Furthermore, there are “top-heavy” sets, where the four heaviest strings are even bigger than normal!
As if that weren’t enough, some sets have a wound G string (I hear you laughing already), while others leave it plain, like the two treble strings. A wound G usually helps with intonation, and can contribute to producing a balanced sound, though many prefer it plain.
“So, I was playing this show once and I broke my G-String right up there on stage! I didn’t have a spare axe, so between songs I had to unscrew my nut, lift my bridge, put a new G-String on, and tighten my nut back up again! Right there on stage!”
- Randy “The Randy” Haley
Make It Work For You
So whether you like them big or small, made of hardened bronze or soft nylon, wound or unwound, there’s a set of strings for you. They all have noticeably different characteristics, but luckily, strings are something that you can experiment with. Try the different sizes (you may need a new nut cut) and alloys and see what you like the best. All the while, don’t get too caught up in the pursuit of the holy grail of strings. If you’re a musician, focus on the music first and all the tone that you could possibly want will come dripping from your fingertips, regardless of what strings you use.
From one extreme to the other, next week we’re going to take a look at the component that most touches the sound of an electric guitar after the pickups. That’s right, get a party bowl ready because we’re going to get deep into potentiometers. (Those little knobby things)
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