What Guitar Strings Do I Use?
It’s more than just choosing the right strings for your guitar it is choosing from the vast array of strings available today. The size and material the string is made from will affect your guitar’s action (string height) and tone. Also your playing style will have a good impact on what type of string to get.
String Gauge (Size)
Strings come in many different sizes. When speaking of acoustic guitar strings, the size is denoted by stating; light gauge, extra light gauge, medium gauge, etc.
Larger gauge strings can be more painful on tender fingertips unaccustomed to the tension or those bending strings but the larger gauge strings can help boost volume and sustain.
Lighter gauges are often easier to bend and fret, but extra light gauge strings can cause some players to over-bend the string causing the note to sound sharp. Here are a few examples of differnet guages.
The material the strings are made from also affect the tone. Common materials are Nickel, Bronze, Phosphor Bronze, Nylon, Stainless and Silk and Steel.
We all have our favorite brands but trying various materials and manufacturers is another way to experience different tones as well. Here are a few types of strings you can check out.
How String Tension Affects Your Guitar
The next section will explain how using smaller or heavier gauge strings effects your guitar…
Action (String Height)
First and most importantly is how you have your guitar set up. Instruments that have been set up properly to insure appropriate string height, nut slot width/depth, and intonation and neck relief have been done using the string gauge the player is using. If one changes the gauge of the string, more or less tension is being placed on the neck of the instrument depending on whether they go up or down in string gauge. This can affect everything about your set up and require several adjustments.
If you are experimenting with tone, try various brands and materials but remember to choose the same gauge to avoid changing the action.
Sound / Volume besides affecting the action, a change in tension may also affect the sound (sustain and tone). Some players may choose to increase the string gauge on their instrument in hopes of increasing volume and sustain.
A common complaint when using very light or extra light gauge strings is a loss of volume, sustain and a thin or twang sound.
Alright, I am sure everyone caught this …bigger gauge = more tension, and more tension = more pressure on your fingertips while fretting = sore finger tips = more practice. This tension is painful at first until the callus gets tough. Frequent playing makes the pain disappear with time as your fingers get used to it..
Let’s not forget string benders. Not all of us can take a .011 gauge E string and bend it 2 notes sharp. All players should choose their string gauge according to their style of play.
Extra light gauge strings which offer little resistance to the touch of the player and can easily be over bent when fretting or string bending.
Age / Construction
The age and structural condition of an instrument can affect our string choices. Vintage pieces or those that may have structural defects and your choices in may be limited. Older or vintage instruments originally designed to be strung with gut strings should be inspected and found to be structurally sound before submitting them to tension.
Inspect the bridge and bridge plate and any other stress areas should be checked for cracks or looseness before putting any tension to them.
Another common problem that may limit our string choice is the neck’s stiffness and/or relief. Let me give you an example of both extremes.
A 1967 Fender Strat arrives with a neck that is bowed slightly back, this means the fretboard is higher in the middle than it is at the ends, resulting in strings that fret out and buzz.
The normal first step is to loosen the truss rod; however, after checking things out I learn the truss rod is already completely loose. In order to straighten the neck we decide to go with a heavier gauge string which places slightly more tension on the neck, pulling it straight. The heavier gauge is necessary to render the neck flat, without it string buzz is very distracting.
Usually, we see necks with too much relief. While most new instruments have truss rods that can be adjusted, a lot of vintage guitars may have no adjustable truss rod. To reduce the bow (relief) a lighter gauge string may be used if other repairs are not desired.
When restringing your axe, don’t let the tension get to you