The market provides a healthy variety of musical instruments and accessories, including a vast range of guitar string styles. When choosing a new set of strings, you may be wondering whether to opt for coated or uncoated strings.
What are the differences between coated and uncoated strings? Coated strings are coated with a polymer layer covering (commonly Teflon PFT) that helps protect the strings from oxidization and corrosion from dirt, oil, debris, grime, moisture, or sweat. Coated strings are often softer, thicker, pricier, and more durable, given the same gauge.
In this article, we'll be discussing the differences between coated and uncoated strings, along with the pros and cons of each.
A Brief & Basic History Of Guitar Strings
Guitar strings have come a long way since they first came out from animal guts. Steel alloys offered far more returns in sound volume and endurance. Also, they were less expensive to produce.
They started to be developed in the early 20th century by American manufacturers such as C.F. Martin and Gibson and have been a staple in acoustic guitars ever since.
Still, steel strings had to deal with rust. Manufacturers, therefore, devised alternatives that lasted longer for a heftier price.
Stainless steel cores were a viable alternative, but this only worked for unwound strings (corresponding to the highest notes on the guitar). Most wound strings would still be left exposed to corrosion.
This led string makers, with the support of store owners affected by the high costs involved in string supply, to try to find methods to preserve their products for longer. In the mid-90s, coated strings started to be commercialized to address this issue.
Differences Between Coated And Uncoated Guitar Strings
Coated strings are normal strings with an added polymer layer covering. This polymer is commonly a Teflon PFT, and it's normally reserved for wound strings.
This covering is supposed to protect the string from the action and effects of corrosive agents such as dirt, oil, debris, grime, moisture, or sweat. The coating would absorb these agents and prevent them from getting in touch with the surface of the string.
The first difference between coated and uncoated strings (and the main advantage of coated strings) lies in the duration. Coated strings are supposed to last at least four times more than uncoated strings.
This duration would vary depending on environmental conditions such as humidity or heat. In principle, the string's extra protection from oxidation and wear and tear is one of its most lauded features.
The second difference is regarding texture. Coated strings typically feel softer to the touch and have a smoother surface, eliminating finger noise. This makes them perfect for recording sessions.
The third difference is the diameter, and this is where they may start showing their weaknesses.
Playability is compromised in coated strings since they have to account for the extra thickness by increasing tension over the same rig size. The tonal frequency is also affected by the increased string mass. This consequently means that players will struggle to render a pitch bend or vibrato on them.
Some coated strings are advertised as having the same performance as uncoated strings. This is mostly achieved by applying a very thin coating layer to the string to reduce thickness considerably. However, this coating naturally wears faster and compromises overall endurance, though not by much.
Finally, the additional process employed to coat the strings is more expensive than uncoated strings. Notwithstanding, they may yield more economic benefits in the long term when the price is calculated in correlation with their lifespan.
Advantages And Disadvantages Of Coated Strings
In this section, we'll also include other factors. You may notice that we have included pros and cons from the point of view of the consumer, as well as that of manufacturers and store owners.
Among other advantages of coated strings, we can include the following:
- They are less bright and tinny upon first stringing and hold their tone for longer.
- They are less likely to decrease fret wear due to the frictionless experience they offer.
- They detune less, in part due to their acquired resistance to environmental hazards.
- Their duration benefits music shop owners who need to have guitars exposed for a long time on their shelves or racks.
Meanwhile, additional disadvantages can be summarized as follows:
- Aside from the fact that their thickness affects a player's ability to maneuver the pitch of a note, the fact that they are glossier than uncoated strings only exacerbates the issue since any attempt at bending will often result in accidental slips that could have detrimental effects on individual performance.
- The manufacturing process can become cumbersome since most polymer resin producers are not experts in string making, and vice versa (owing to the fact that these are not their respective areas of expertise). This situation can evidently take a toll on the quality of the final result.
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How Are Coated Strings Made?
Guitar strings are usually comprised of three components:
- Core: consisting of a wire made of steel, which can be round or hexagonal (hex-core).
- Winding/wrapping: consisting of a metal wire that is wound or woven across the core. This wrapping is used on the low or “bass” notes of the guitar (on a six-string guitar, typically the low-E, A, and D strings, and sometimes the G strings). Its purpose is to increase the diameter of the string to achieve lower notes while retaining their flexibility.
- Coating: this is the layering that we have described throughout this article.
Coated strings require expensive equipment to build, as well as a very strenuous quality control process. The coating layer (usually Polytetrafluoroethylene) is sprayed evenly across the string, which is a difficult achievement in itself. The layer is microscopic and not visible to the naked eye.
The coating itself is generally applied after winding the cores. Experiments were made using pre-coated cores with a naked wrapping, but this technique reduced sustain considerably as the wrapping was uncoupled from the core.
When the coating is applied to the surface, it's particularly helpful, especially for wound strings, since it fills the windings with a protective barrier against multiple agents responsible for corrosion, including oxygen itself.
There is also a factor that plays a role in the quality of the coating, which is its capacity to adhere to the surface of the wound string. The coating material is just as important as the build quality of the naked uncoated string since a flawed wrapping may hinder adhesion, but the polymer used is also relevant.
The materials that benefit most from coating are bronze, phosphor bronze, and brass because of their susceptibility to corrode faster than most metals. This is partly the reason why coated strings are more popular with acoustic guitar strings, which are often wound with these metals.
Conversely, stainless steel (sometimes used for making electric guitar strings) would not have considerable gains from the coating since it's already made to resist oxidation. The same is true of nylon strings, which naturally do not rust.
However, the bass strings in stainless steel and nylon sets are typically wound with metal (including nickel and the alloys mentioned above), so proper coating can certainly improve these strings as well.