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Strings - frequently asked questions...

Tension | Tension Calculator | Wrap Metal | Wrap Type | Core Wire | Plain Strings | Coated Strings | Cryogenics | Choosing | Changing

Tension and Gauge

Sets of strings are gauged so that with standard guitar tuning they feel nearly equal in tension. String tension is obviously related to scale length and pitch but for any given guitar it is not the string gauge itself which is important but the mass of the string.

Of course as the gauge increases so does the mass, but two strings from different manufacturers of the same gauge will not necessarily have the same mass. The metals used, the size and type of core wire, the size and type of wrap wire could all be different. For example a silk and steel wound string has an average density lower than round wound, which in turn has a lower density than flat wound: silk provides bulk without much mass while flat wound strings don't have the air that surrounds round windings. Nearly all plain strings are made of high carbon steel hence have much the same density; thus most brands of plain steel string will have a similar tension for the same gauge.

There are factors other than string gauge, scale length and pitch that determine the string tension on your instrument. Assuming that the truss rod is properly adjusted, string height is the most significant but the string break-angle at the nut and saddle will affect perceived tension and to a lesser extent so will the stiffness of the neck and the guitar top.

Strings with higher tension will sound louder than strings with lower tension. As the distance they vibrate over is smaller you can normally achieve a lower action before you get fret buzz. Higher tensions produce cleaner, purer tones with improved articulation and allow faster picking.

Lower tensions certainly allow easier string bending but whether they are easier on the fretting hand is debatable as the lower tension increases the minimum string height possible. However at the budget end of the guitar market it is probably true to say that lighter strings are easier to play as the accuracy of fret height, neck straightness, fretboard camber variation and nut and saddle issues are likely to be the limiting factor in string height.

Classical sets are gauged in light, normal, hard, and extra hard tensions. Although the total pounds pull of classical string sets are lower than their steel string counterparts, string height, as measured from the fretboard, is set higher on classical guitars. This fact makes the tension difference critical.

 

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Tension and Gauge Calculator

Here's a handy string tension and gauge calculator we put together. It produces results very close to those figures produced by popular string manufacturers. Use it for example to work out what effect an altered tuning will have on the tension and what gauge string would produce a tension similar to standard tuning.

The note selection uses standard octave notation with middle c being written as c' and the octave changes on c. If you are unsure about what octave to select here are the standard tuning for guitar and 6 string bass in this notation.
Guitar: E A d g b e'
Bass: B'' E' A' D g c

Enter
Scale
Length
Select
String
Type
Select
Note
Name
Select
Note
Octave
Frequency
a' = 440 Hz
inches Hz

Calculations:
Enter Gauge or Tension
Calculate
Results
Enter Gauge: (thou inch)
lbs
Enter Tension: (lbs)
thou inch

 

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Winding Material

80/20 Bronze - This is actually brass as it is an alloy of 80% copper and 20% zinc. Delivers a strong, deep bass response with extremely bright and crisp overtones when used as wrap wire for acoustic guitar strings. Brilliant sounding when new with excellent tonal range, they begin to lose some of their "new" sound after only a few hours of use. The preferred choice of many stage and studio performers and others who change strings a lot. 80/20 bronze projects a penetrating acoustic sound.

85/15 Bronze - An alloy of 85% copper and 15% zinc so once again it is actually brass. A compromise between the brilliant sound characteristics of 80/20 bronze with more warmth due to the increased copper content.

Phosphor Bronze - An alloy of 92% copper with 8% tin and a trace of phosphor. Phosphor is added during the refining process to de-oxidise bronze. The residual excess of phosphor has the effect of increasing hardness, strength and corrosion resistance at the expense of ductility and increased brittleness. Phosphor bronze strings last longer than conventional bronze alloy strings but do not have the brilliance of tone of bronze, producing a more mellow slightly warmer tone. Their "new" sound is retained longer than standard bronze strings.

Nickel Plated - The vast majority of electric wound strings made today are made of a steel alloy that has an electroplating of 8% pure nickel. While an unplated steel alloy is ideally suited for magnetic pickups its sound can be a bit too bright. Nickel-plating warms up the sound a bit and improves oxidisation resistance. Nickel plating also provides some surface softness which reduces finger noise and fret wear. Many strings labelled as nickel such as Ernie Ball's Slinky range, are in fact nickel plated.

Pure nickel - Most strings of the 50's were wound with an alloy called Pure Nickel and they have become more popular in recent years for a more vintage sound. Pure Nickel strings are warmer sounding than nickel plated and have a smoother feel better suited for jazz and blues. Not being as magnetically effective as steel their volume output is lower than nickel plated strings.

Stainless Steel - A low grade stainless steel is used for the windings as pure stainless is non magnetic. Stainless steel wound strings have exceptional brightness, volume and sustain. They don't tarnish so quickly and corrosion is reduced, and are very durable. Stainless steel has a different feel to nickel plated strings and being a harder material than the nickel silver normally used for frets causes more fret wear. Their bright sound is a little too harsh for some but they are becoming more popular.

Silk and steel - The steel core wire is wrapped in silk fibres before being wound with either bronze or nickel plated steel. The sound is mellower and softer similar to classical strings. Their lower mass means that for a given gauge the tension is lower and their softness makes them easier to fret. They are popular for folk music and fingerstyle.

Silverplated Copper Wound - Bare round copper wire electroplated with pure sterling silver. Wound on a multi-filament nylon core this wire is the standard for classical guitar strings. Wound on a steel core (sometimes with a silk wrap) this is the traditional string to use on Selmer type guitars for that typical Django gypsy jazz sound, a Maccferri just doesn't sound right with anything else.

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Winding Type

Round Wound - Using round wire for the string winding is the regular string that everybody is familiar with. Producing the brightest, clearest sound with good sustain on acoustic and electric instruments.

Flat Wound - Flat wounds are made with a flat ribbon-like wire which produces a completely smooth outer wrap. This provides for effortless sliding and practically eliminates finger noise. They produce a mellow, full sound that emphasises the fundamental at the expense of harmonic overtones and sustain. Typically used by jazz players on full bodied archtops.

Ground Wound - Round wound strings that are ground, rollered or polished to leave the outer surface of the string smoother, while retaining some of the tonal characteristics of a round wound string. There are a number of variations in the method of manufacture, ranging from being ground completely flat to polishing off the round top. Both in terms of finger noise and tone they fall between round and tape wound strings.

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Core Wire

The ratio of core to wrap wire is important to the feel and sound of wound strings. The thinner the core for a given gauge the more flexible the string. The more flexible the string will be perceived by the player as having less tension and easier to play. Stiffer strings can give rise to a sharpening of the natural harmonic overtones resulting in a less pleasing tone. This is not normally an issue though with regular sets that are designed following sensible rules.

Hex Core Wire - A high carbon steel alloy that is hexagonal in cross section. The corners of the core wire digs into the winding giving it a better grip. It is claimed that this results in a longer lasting string by stopping the winding slipping and causing a dead string. Most wound strings use hex cores, unless the string package states differently, you can assume that it's a hex core.

Round Core Wire-A high-carbon alloy wire that is round in cross section. Though round cores were the norm many years ago, they are only made by a couple of makers today. It is claimed that it gives a closer, tighter wrap and allows the string to vibrate more evenly with improved sustain. It's a good idea to put a Z bend in the free end of the string where it leaves the machinehead as this can assist in preventing the wrap wire from slackening.

multi-filament - a floss nylon material used as the core of wire-wound strings for use on classical guitar.

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Plain Strings

Steel - Plain strings for electrics are the same as plain strings for acoustics. Most electric sets use a plain string for the G string and acoustic sets use a wound string. Virtually all plain strings are made from an alloy called Swedish steel which excels in both qualities needed. They are normally plated with tin, sometimes with brass.

Nylon - Mono-filament Nylon is a single strand high density extruded nylon used for the clear treble strings on a classical guitar. Black trebles use black nylon, some makers and some users claim that this produces the highest overtones. Rectified Nylon Trebles have a mono filament ground to produce a uniform diameter along the entire length of the string.

Fluoro-carbon (polyvinyliden fluorid) - Carbon strings have a higher density and hence a smaller diameter than nylon. This results in a decreased bending stiffness and the string vibrates more easily which emphasizes the upper harmonics and results in a more brilliant timbre. Compared with nylon strings, carbon strings are more sensitive to sharp-edged bridges and frets. But experience has shown that this concerns only the smallest diameters. In summary, the durability of nylon strings is excellent while carbon offers a more brilliant timbre.

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Coated Strings

Coated strings last longer than conventional wound sets but cost more. They are becoming increasingly popular. The coating prevents the acids, grease and salts from your fingers penetrating into the windings. They come in two main flavours - Elixirs, in which the wound strings are protected by an almost invisible sleeve and all the other brands such as D'Addario, Cleartone and DR in which the windings are coated before being wound onto the core wire. Tonally, coated strings tend to be not quite as bright on the bass end as the equivalent uncoated sets.

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Cryogenic freezing

Cryogenics is the science of treating materials by freezing them to very low temperatures. Strings are submerged in liquid nitrogen to a temperature of 318 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. They are held at that temperature for 12 to 15 hours and then slowly brought back to room temperature. This process alters the molecular structure of the metal, supposedly reducing stress and making the strings more stable as they are stretched by tuning to pitch. This is thought to extend string life, improve the purity of tone and enhance brilliance.

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Which String Set should you use.

Whether choosing electric, acoustic, bass or classical strings, the right string set for your style and instrument is a matter of trial and error and personal taste. Different tensions and gauges can bring out a completely different character in the sound of your instrument and in the style of your play.

You should not assume that the string tension the guitar manufacturer selected at the factory is the right tension for you. Nor should you assume that the string type recommended by anyone else will give you the sound that works best for you on your instrument with your own playing style. You should experiment with different string sets to determine what sounds, feels, and plays best for you.

If you are new to guitar playing a good starting point would be 9 or 10 thou for an electric, 11 thou for an acoustic and medium tension for a classical.

Make sure to check intonation if you use a different string gauge. The change in tension will probably mean that some adjustment is necessary. One note of caution, be sympathetic to your instrument, stringing a light cedar top with a 13 thou set is going to lead to a large repair bill.

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When to Change Strings

Most players change strings when they lose their brilliance, sound too mellow, when intonation goes off, or when their instrument is difficult to keep in tune. That could be once week or once every three months depending on how many hours playing you do and what your skin chemistry is like. As a broad guide the typical average time works out to about 15 hours of playing. Keeping your strings clean will certainly extend their life. Changing one string after it breaks is not recommended, as the newer string will definitely sound different from the rest.

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D'Addario are offering NYXL 9s and 10s with a handy Pro Winder in special money saving bundles!

Great BOGOF deal on DR Dragon Skin Acoustics!

Great savings on limited edition D'Addario Acoustic upgrade tins!

 


The latest innovation in long life string technology is here. Elixir Optiweb Electrics play like an uncoated string but offer amazing tone life.

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