The Secrets Behind Guitar Strings [Performance, Tone & More…]

The Secrets Behind Guitar Strings [Performance, Tone & More…]

As guitar players, we know the important connection between guitar strings and tone. But, what are the factors that affect the tone? There are hundreds of strings available on the market, and they all feel and sound very different. Playability and tone are the two factors that are important to ensure the type of strings compliment your guitar and the types of style you are playing.  

Do my Guitar strings affect tone? The type of guitar strings you use will be greatly contributing towards your tone.  The key factors that affect tone are String Gauge, Materials, Type of String Core, Winding Method and Coating.

Each type of string uses different manufacturing techniques that contribute towards the resonance and fullness of your tone. In this article, I will give you a basic idea on what type of strings are right for our instrument, and that best for you and your playing style. We look into detail including response, feel and the different construction techniques that contribute to the overall sound of your instrument.

1. The Key Factors Affecting Tone

As stated above, construction techniques affect your guitar’s tone just as much as material. A simple pair of guitar strings is designed based on five main factors. Before, I go through these it is important that I highlight that companies will approach the construction differently and so even though you purchase the same type of string they may sound a little different when comparing against each other. So never be afraid to try out a variety of brands because while the specifications of the strings may look the same you will get a different response.

Before you start deciding what strings you are going to purchase you need to understand the five construction factors that affect tone.

A guitar string’s tone comes from a mix of FIVE factors:

  1. String Gauge
  2. Material Construction
  3. Type Of String Core
  4. Winding Method
  5. Coating

These five factors will be the main structure of this article and we go into each of these in depth. However, it is also important to note that acoustic guitar strings highly influence the overall sound and tonality more than electric guitars because there are no pickups or amplifiers to interfere with the output. This means you have to understand in great depth the type of strings you are using for the best results. But you needn’t worry we cover all of this below.

2. String Gauge

String gauge is the first key factor we are talking about when it comes to the tone of your guitar strings. The gauge specifically refers to the thickness of the string and these thicknesses most commonly come in sets of 9’s, 10’s and 11’s. This is determined by the thickness of the high ‘E’ and is referring to the measurement by inches which is 1/1000th’s of an inch. For example, 9 gauge string means 0.009 of an inch. A set of 10’s will mean 0.010 of an inch and so on.

Some brands will not show the gauge as a number. Instead, they will refer to a particular size as being light, medium or heavy. However, it is important to note that there will always be a thickness related as inches. All in all, string gauges commonly range anywhere from .008 on the lightest 1st string, to .056 on the heaviest 6th string. It is also important to note that string gauges on an electric guitar will have smaller gauges when compared to the string gauge on an acoustic guitar. The diameters of the string sets can vary greatly between one manufacturer and another. But, it is important to know that there are no set-in-stone definitions for any of these terms, we just use these as guidelines.

Further, Many manufacturers also offer a “hybrid gauge” known as light-medium strings, which use lighter gauges on G,B,E and heavier gauges on E,A,D.  These are intended for players who use a good mix of picking and strumming. Please see below…

Electric Guitar Example;

  • Extra Light – (.008)
  • Light – (.009)
  • Light/Medium hybrid – (.010)
  • Medium –  (.010)
  • Medium/Heavy hybrid (.011)
  • Heavy – (.011)

Guitarists typically refer to an entire set of strings by the size of the high E string.  So according to the previous example, a set of medium strings would simply be a “10“. This is a general idea of how it works for the electric guitar, you will always find that the high E string will always determine the gauge. However, the strings following may alter in thickness slightly. As you can see from the hybrid strings, they are a combination of two gauges. For example, the “light/medium hybrid” are a combination between the top three strings as the “medium gauge set” and the bottom three strings as a “light gauge set”.

Acoustic Guitar Example;

  • Extra Light – (.009/.011/.016/.024/.032/.042)
  • Light – (.010/.013/.017/.026/.036/.046)
  • Light/Medium hybrid – (.011/.015/.018/.026/.036/.046)
  • Medium –  (.011/.015/.018/.026/.036/.050)
  • Medium/Heavy hybrid (.012 016/.024/.028/.034/.054)
  • Heavy – (.012/.016/.024/.032/.044/.056)

As you can see, by comparison acoustic guitar strings can refer to the gauge as an inch thicker. For example, Extra-light gauge is “.009 of an inch” instead of .008 of an inch as seen from the electric guitar. Light gauge is 0.010 of an inch), medium gauge 0.011 of an inch) and heavy gauge 0.012 of an inch. 

Classical Guitar String Gauge

  • Low tension strings
  • Medium tension strings
  • High tension strings

Even though the thicker strings add more stress on the guitar neck, we define the gauge of a classical guitar using “tension“ as the defining measure. There are three standard options to choose from which are low, medium, and high tension.  Low-tension strings have a higher representation of low and low-mid frequencies so you could argue they have a more balanced mellow tone. Whilst high tension strings have more treble and attack, so it sounds more aggressive and brighter.

3. What Gauge Is The BEST Gauge For Performance? 

A string’s gauge determines how thick the string is. As a general rule, the thicker a string is the warmer its response will be and the more volume it will produce. However, thicker strings are also stiffer. This makes it harder to fret the string and makes it more difficult to execute heavy string bends. Thinner strings are generally brighter and easier to play, but on some instruments, they can sound thin and tinny.

You can tell whether or not strings are of a thin or thick gauge based on the numbers on the package. The smallest number, which is the gauge of thinnest string, will usually be .9 or lower on thin gauge strings. On thick gauge strings this number will be .12 or higher. Strings that are .10 or .11 are generally considered to be “mediums”, and produce a tone and feel which is the middle ground between these two extremes.

Heavy Gauges;

  • Heavy strummers – because they offer more durability, more sustain, and less breakage.
  • Slide playing/drop tunings – because they hold a tighter string tension.
  • Low-action guitars – because they have tighter vibrations, and are therefore more resistant to fret buzz.
  • Unamplified acoustic playing – because they’re louder.
  • Jazz – because that style of music doesn’t use much note bending.

Lighter Gauges;

  • Beginner playing – because it’s easier if you haven’t yet developed hand strength and calluses.
  • Blues/Soloing – because it’s easier to bend notes.
  • Vintage guitars – because they put less stress on the neck.
  • Small-body guitars – because they just sound better.
  • Fingerpicking – because they’re more responsive to delicate finger-work.

4. String Material

String material is one of the most crucial factors in determining the guitar’s tone because it is considered one of the main resonators.  In this section, we will clarify all the different materials that you may come across when looking for guitar strings, as well as the playability and tone.

There are six common sorts of material used for guitar strings, which include:

  1. Nickel Plated
  2. Pure Nickel
  3. Phosphor Bronze
  4. Aluminium bronze
  5. 80/20
  6. Nylon

When referring to the string material we are talking about the material that wraps around the core of the string. The unwound strings usually include the G, B and high-E in most sets and is mostly made from steel. It is the wound material that changes that goes around the steel core.

Nickel Plated

Nickel plated strings wrap wire is steel and plated with nickel. The wrap wire is typically 8% nickel, and 92% steel. Nickel-plated guitar strings have an inherent brightness as they have a sharp attack. As they are plated with nickel, you get a mixture of the qualities from steel and nickel properties. Overall, you get a good balance of treble and low end responses that produces a bright but crisp output with a good amount of body.

Pure Nickel

Pure nickel guitar strings have a higher purity of Nickel in the composition of the material. However, even though string manufacturers refer to these as “pure nickel” they still contain steel. The best way to understand these is that they are “purer in nickel”.  Nickel generally has a mellow tone because they have a fuller bass register in the sound produced. This makes these appear warmer with less attack with a very deep rich presence.

These qualities make pure Nickel ideal for playing older styles of music. This can include styles like Blues, Rock n Roll and Classic Rock. Having more body also makes nickel strings more ideal when used as a rhythm guitar than a lead. This is because by having more bottom end frequencies present creates a nice blend between the bass drum, bass and rhythm guitar.

Phosphor Bronze

Phosphor bronze is a copper alloy, and it is composed primarily of copper, 0.5–11% of tin and 0.01–0.35% phosphorus. These strings work well with small body guitars.

The phosphor bronze strings are inherent with a warmer tone and a smooth high-end response, which makes them the most appropriate for music genres that are regularly played with mellower tone, for example, folk or finger-style work. In a nutshell, phosphor bronze is richer and mellower in tone.

Aluminium Bronze

Aluminium Bronze strings are made from a blend of aluminium and bronze. Bronze is an alloy which is made from 12% tin and the remaining majority of copper. This is then blended with aluminium. This blend of aluminium and bronze work well together as they project a really clear tone even compared to the phosphor bronze strings.

They also provide natural resistance to sweat and corrosion without the need for coating.  Overall, these aluminium bronze wrap wires provide more pronounced low end frequency tones coupled with crisp brilliant highs.

80/20 Bronze

80/20 bronze are known as brass strings. They are made from 80% copper and 20% Zinc. Overall, the strings are very bright and gives a really high end attack that really cuts through and stands out in a mix. Although you have to be careful because they can sound thin and tinny if used on a really bright sounding instrument, such as a Fender Strat.

Nylon

As we’ve dived deep into this type of string in our article “Best Nylon Classical Guitar Strings’, we are not going to go through this section in too much detail.

  • Nylon strings are usually used on nylon or classical guitars. Since these guitars are more lightly braced than steel string acoustics, metal strings are not suitable to use on them.
  • Considering that, this rule isn’t always true. In fact, a few musicians did put nylon strings on steel strings acoustic guitars during the Folk Boom in the 1950s and 60s. This combination actually offered a very warm and relaxed tone, though you should expect that the level of volume you can get out of it would decrease, while the response would also be reduced across the total frequency range.
  • The guitar’s resonance is generated by guitar strings. Most of the tone you get out of your instrument, in fact, is produced by the way your guitar resonates instead of the guitar strings. The less your guitar resonates, the less representation of various frequencies you’re going to get from your instrument.
  • If you choose to pair your steel string guitar with nylon strings, then prepare yourself for the sheer possibility of only being able to play slow and mellow folk music. Although nylon strings and steel string acoustic may make a great combination for a certain music genre, don’t expect it to be versatile like the response from brass or bronze strings

5. Which String Material Is BEST for Performance?

Materials are the second most important factor in determining the tone of guitar strings. There are a variety of materials available on the market that differ from each other in tone, from Nylon (plastic) to steel (metal).

Electric guitar string materials

  •  Nickel-Plated Steel – the most commonly chosen, which is a blend of warmth and brightness and a picking attack.
  • Pure Nickel – which is associated with a classic old-school vintage sounds and offers a warmer tone than nickel-plated steel
  • Stainless Steel – which provides the strongest resistance to corrosion, least subject to finger squeaks, and represents a great combination of brightness and sustain.

Acoustic guitar string materials

  • 80/20 Bronze (aka Bronze, Brass) – which is 80% copper and 20% zinc, is the most common choice.  It is well known for offering a bright, clean sound, however, a part of its excellent sounding quality can wear off after a few hours of playing since the metal corrodes very fast.
  • Phosphor Bronze – which is the same as 80/20 bronze, but has phosphor added to provide better resistance from oxidation and prolong the life span of the strings.  However, you have to trade a bright appearance for these advantages.
  • Silk and Steel (also known as “compound strings”) – are more versatile and offers lower string tension and thus provides a gentler, mellower sound. They are widely regarded as something combined with the conventional metal strings and the nylon strings of classical guitars.
  • 80/20 Bronze (aka “gold strings”) – which is favoured above silver-plated copper by a few certain players because of its brightness and projection.

Classical guitar string materials

  • Gut (aka “catgut”) – which is extracted from the intestines of sheep and other farm animals (NOT including cats).  Although much less popular today, before 1940, all strings were made from this material.
  •  Nylon – which was chosen to replace gut because it was cheaper, and easier to bring into mass production.  Three common types of nylon are rectified nylon, black nylon, and composite.  However, clear nylon is the most well-known due to its brightness and clarity.
  • Silver-Plated Copper (aka “silver strings”) – which is used to cover the nylon core of the bass strings, and is the most often used metal to serve this purpose as it offers a warm rich tone.

6. The String Core

The String core is the third key factor when it comes to strings and their tone. It is the layer inside of the guitar string, beneath the external winding of E6, A5 and D4 (sometimes G if damaged). The core represents the way the guitar strings were constructed. Not all guitar strings have a core, it’s only those that are outer wounded. This solid wire core is split into two types, Hex Core and Round Core.

The diagram above illustrates how these strings look from a cross-sectional view (we only mean to dive into electric and acoustic strings in this section, not classical). As you may recognise, the Hexcore is the industry standard that is used. At first, all guitar strings were made with round cores, until the day D’Addario invented the first hex cores. Henceforth, it was not long before hex cores became the industry standard used by almost every major manufacturer.

Hex Core Construction

Hex core is brighter and sounds louder, which enables them to offer a more modern-vibe tone like post-1980s rock or metal. However, these strings might be a little harder than round core strings, though they are not very different.

Round Core Construction

Round core strings offer a mellower tone, which makes them the most ideal to play Blues and Classic Rock. Besides, they provide more sustain than hex core strings, though, again, the difference between these two isn’t really significant.

7. String Core Performance

Hex string core is better for performance issues because the fine edges of hex cores were perfect for “gripping” the external wire and therefore prevents slippage better as well as enhances the accuracy and consistency of machine-winding. This explains why nowadays, round core strings are more often seen to be built by hand. 

Hex Core Performance

  • Stiffer
  • Brighter
  • Stronger Attack
  • Less sustain
  • Modern Tone
  • Consistant Tone

Round Core Performance

  • Flexible
  • Warmer
  • Gentler Attack
  • More sustain
  • Vintage Tone
  • Inconsistent Tone

NOTE: Round core strings must be tuned up to pitch before you start trimming them, or else, the outer layer will slip and unravel.

8. Winding Method

The Winding method is the fourth most important factor that defines the tonal quality of guitar strings. The rounding method is the technique applied to wrap the inner core with a metal layer. To do this, manufacturers use 3 different techniques, each of which creates a distinctive tone for the strings. There are three types of winding methods which include: Round wound, Flat wound, and Half round.

Let us discuss each of these in more detail.

Roundwound

Roundwounds have a textured finish and a bright tone and are usually used on standard guitar strings.

  • Shorter life
  • Brighter sound
  • Longer sustain
  • More string noise
  • More fretwear
  • Lower tension
  • More upper harmonics
  • More grip for bending and finger picking
  • Rock and roll

Flatwound

Flat wound uses a flat wire to make a string surface smooth. Flatwound strings are made with a flat surface and incorporated with a very dark, understated tone, which makes them attractive to jazz players, though, they are harder to play.

  • Longer life span
  • Warmer sound
  • Shorter sustain
  • less string noise
  • less fretwear
  • higher tension
  • Less upper harmonics
  • Less grip for bending and finger picking
  • jazz

These strings are not suitable to play either rock or blues, as their stiffness and dark tone make it hard to cut through the mix and achieve the fast and complex runs and bends that particularly belong to blues, rock and metal.

Half Rounds

Halfrounds are a combination of roundwound and flatwound.  Using techniques such as mechanical grinding (groundwound) or roller compression (rollerwound), flattens only part of the wire.

Although halfrounds are something in the middle, they still don’t make a really great fit for modern music genres. They are more difficult to play than roundwounds, and though they offer a brighter tone than flatwounds, they’re still deemed to be too dark for modern genres.

With all that said, it is worth noting that many bass guitarists indeed use flatwounds or halfround strings to play modern genres. The main reason is that the bass doesn’t have to cut through a mix as much as an electric guitar does. In addition, the inherent warmth provided by flat or halfround strings can benefit the performance both in the studio and on the stage.

9. String Coating

Back in 1997, the Elixir company made a transformational change to the guitar string industry by establishing the totally new concept of “coated strings“. “Coated strings” is technically referred to a standard guitar string coated with a plastic polymer. Though they last much longer than uncoated ones, they are also remarkably higher priced than their non-coated counterparts, not to mention the coating is cut for a high-end response. I figure out that coated strings last about twice as long as uncoated ones, but because they also cost twice as much as the other, it isn’t economical at all to use coated strings.

They now offer two types of coating:

  • NANOweb – a light coating with a feel and sound nearly similar to uncoated strings.
  • POLYweb – a heavier coating that provides a smoother feel and lasts longer.

However, your experience may be different depending on the acid level of your sweat. Wiping your strings down with a cloth after playing will keep them brighter and prolong their lifespan.

  • They innovated a barrier that provided better protection for metal from being affected and corroded by substances such as oil, sweat, dirt, and skin.
  • It took these strings a much longer time to be replaced than uncoated strings.
  • They offered a smoother feel, with less squeaking.  
  • The coating results in a slight decrease in brightness and sustain

Conclusion

Strings have always been a heated debate topic. A guitar string’s response varies so much that it’s difficult to tell how any specific string’s performance will be like when paired with your instrument. Therefore, just take this article as nothing more than basics of strings instead of an absolute guide.

Personally, I would suggest the best way to search for a suitable guitar string is to test as many products from different brands as you can. Strings are something so affordable that almost everyone won’t hesitate to purchase them for experiment, and in fact, you may never know what makes the best fit for your instrument until you try them yourself.

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