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Tone Tip: Strings

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

Through the course of the Tone Tips series, I have discussed a great many elements that contribute to guitar tone, but we haven’t yet examined the component with which your sound really begins: the strings. Plenty of other factors come into play simultaneously to contribute to your tone—wood resonance, pickup response, the density and solidity of different pieces of hardware—but it all starts with the plucked string. The fun thing about strings, too, is that as with picks (plectrums) that we discussed way back in Tone Tips: Pick a Winner, once you develop a thorough understanding of the qualities of different types of strings you can use that knowledge to tweak the sound and feel of any kind of guitar.

Many guitarists think about strings more in relation to feel than to sound, and put little consideration into elements of their strings’ make-up other than seeking a thickness—or gauge—that feels good to their fingertips and is easy to bend and fret, as required to taste. Some sacrifice a little finger strain for a heavier gauge that offers a punchier tone, or simply in an effort to achieve a firmer, less “rubbery” action, but still don’t give much thought to the tonal properties of the strings themselves. It’s important to know, however, that the steel that strings are made from, and the quality of their overall manufacture, are both going to have a major effect on how they vibrate, and therefore how they sound. Most players will be aware of these variables at some level, whether or not they know where the tonal variations are coming from, or why they are occurring. I’ll discuss only electric guitar strings here; the variations in acoustic guitar strings, which are a very different breed, will be a subject for another column.

In the jazz, blues, rock and roll, and classic rock eras of the late 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, pure nickel wound lower E, A, D, and in the early days even G strings were used, with plain steel B and E strings (and G strings, when an unwound third string was used). A pure nickel wire wrapped around a plain steel core gave the wound strings of this day a warm, full, rich tonality and generally longer life, although nickel’s lower magnetism also meant a slightly lower output from the pickups. The high cost of nickel led to a widescale change to nickel-plated steel windings around 1970, with a resultant tone that was brighter and somewhat thinner, if perhaps punchier, and usually saw a reduced life span in the wound strings, too. The significantly reduced nickel content in nickel-plated strings means a greater magnetic reaction between strings and pickups, and therefore a slightly higher output; it’s worth noting that they also wear out frets more quickly than softer pure-nickel wrapped strings. Other compositions introduced over the years, such as stainless steel and chrome strings offer further proportional increases in overall brightness of tone compared with nickel-plated and, certainly, pure nickel strings.

You can use this knowledge to fine-tune your tone as required. If you have a heavy, dark-sounding guitar that could use a little more cut and brightness, and maximum output remains a priority, a set of strings that some companies call “brights”—chrome or stainless steel strings—might be right for you. If you want contemporary sounds and some clarity, while avoiding harsh treble but also seeking not to mellow out your tone too much, nickel-plated strings (such as Gibson Brite Wires or Powerlines) might be best for you. In the quest for authentic vintage sound and feel, pure nickel strings (such as Gibson Vintage ReissuesLes Paul, or L-5, with a wound G) are likely to get you there quickest. Nickel strings resonate differently—with more depth and richness, many would argue—and their relative softness compared to the others can even make them feel a little easier to fret (which is also why they wear out frets more slowly). Pure nickel strings might prove a simple means of warming up an over-bright singlecoil guitar, or even smoothing out the performance of a humbucker-carrying instrument. At first glance, losing output and treble might seem like a detriment, but hey—that’s what your amp’s volume and tone controls are there for.

String gauge certainly affects guitar tone as well, but it works in conjunction with other factors such as scale length and tuning (which is to say, string tension), action or string height, and playing technique, namely the lightness or heaviness of your touch and pick attack. All things being equal, heavier strings do offer a greater signal to the pickup, but that’s not to say they are universally “a good thing.” It takes more energy to get heavier strings moving, so they need to be hit relatively harder with pick or fingertip; lighter strings will vibrate to a similar intensity with a lighter touch, but can be overwhelmed and vibrate off-pitch in the early part of their attack when hit too hard.

In the wake of late blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan’s famous use of heavy strings, thousands of players went out and increased their size by a gauge or two. But of course Vaughan’s strings accompanied a technique that suited them: he hit the strings like hell unchained when he wanted to really get some sound out of them … and he often had to use Super Glue to seal up cracked and fissured fingertips. Certainly it might be worth experimenting with strings a gauge higher if you’re looking for a little more oomph out of your tone, and taking the time to develop your technique and finger strength to compensate. Going from using .009s or .010s to .012s or .013s, on the other hand, is just likely to frustrate you, and flatten out your tone along with it.

And pity the poor SRV who jumped three gauges in a go, but had never been told that Stevie tuned down to E flat. If you really want to adjust to heavier strings, tuning down a half step for every gauge you go up comes pretty darn close to evening out the tension and giving you a feel similar to the gauge below at standard tuning. This might provide a means of getting familiar with a new gauge, even if you eventually return to standard pitch for the majority of your playing (which, of course, will require a little more readjustment). Also, if you have always played nickel-plated, chrome, or stainless steel “bright” style strings and want to switch to pure nickel, be aware that these strings sometimes feel soft enough to let you go up a gauge without too much effort. Experiment with whatever you can get your hands on; it’s a relatively affordable way to tweak your tone.