Guitar strings can basically be divided into two types – steel and nylon. Nylon strings are used on classical and flamenco guitars; while steel strings are generally found on electric, flat top and arch top acoustic guitars. It is important to note that while strings are referred to as being steel or nylon, generally strings are wound with some type of copper, brass or nickel based alloy. Out of the six strings on acoustic guitars the 1st and the 2nd are generally ‘unwound’ while the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th are generally ‘wound’. It is also common on electric guitars for the 3rd string to be ‘unwound’. Most guitars have a set of six strings of varying thickness, each of which is tuned to a different note. The main variation on this is twelve string guitars. They have twelve strings which sit in pairs and are tuned in octaves.
Wound strings are made by rolling wire around a hexagonal or round central string. These wound strings are found on bass strings as it is easier to tune heavier, thicker strings to lower notes. A large variety of materials are used to go around the central string. These materials vary depending on tone wanted and durability desired. However electric guitars need strings that are magnetically responsive. Therefore white metals are required; generally on modern electric guitar strings this metal is nickel or a nickel alloy.
There are three things that dictate the pitch that is produced when a guitar string is played: its length, tension and weight. Its length is simply the distance that the string is along the guitar. Length is changed when you depress a string with your finger. Tension is simply how tight the string is and can be changed by turning the tuning nuts. Weight is the size of the string with bigger strings vibrating slower and producing a lower note.
String sizes are generally talked about in terms of gauges. They are measured in fractions of an inch – the smallest common string being a .008 and the largest in common usage being a .060. Lighter strings are easier to bend and also don’t require much force to push down.
Lighter strings are therefore easier to use and many people who focus on speed prefer lighter strings so they may play faster. However lighter strings can go out of tune easily and have to be replaced often. Lighter strings also have less sustain and aren’t as loud. Heavier strings are more difficult to play but many guitarists prefer the tone and feel of heavier strings. The increased size also means that heavier strings are preferred for musicians who want to tune down their guitars. A light string tuned down too low will get floppy and give a muddy unclear sound.
One of the most annoying things that can happen when you are playing your guitar is having your strings break. There are several common reasons that strings break. The most common reason is being overly aggressive with your right hand. Often if you are playing hard with a pick you can snap the string by simply hitting it to hard. There is no simple way to fix this problem. In fact it is probably better to keep playing hard if that’s your style than toning down just to save strings.
Old strings are prone to breaking as well. This is because as a string gets old they become less elastic and wear from constant playing. Another way that you can break strings is by tuning them too high. Winding your tuning pegs up to high can snap one of your strings. This generally occurs when you are tuning you guitar. For this reason it is best to tune with the strings pointing away from your face.
There can also be sharp points on your guitar; particularly around the bridge or nut. These can lead to regular string breakages. Therefore it is something you should check if your strings keep breaking.
Strings are a key part of the equipment that defines and creates the sound you make. New strings sound rich and clear and different kinds of strings can give you music a different feel or allow easier play. Changing the strings you use and trying different types of strings, or going up and down in gauges is an excellent and cheap way to experiment with your equipment.
If you have 5 minutes, check out this D´Addario video on “How strings are made”:
Posted by Ben Edwards.