For guitarists, the tone of their playing and their instrument is paramount to their distinctive sound, encompassing playing technique, instrument physics and audio processing.
How do guitar strings affect tone? String gauge, material, age/wear and outer coating affect tone. Thicker strings yield darker, larger tone; thinner strings yield lighter, brighter tone. Steel and brass are brighter; nickel and bronze are warmer, and nylon is mellow. Strings lose brightness with age/wear, which coating prolongs.
In this article, we'll discuss tone in more detail and how strings affect the tone of electric guitar, acoustic guitar and bass guitar.
What Is Tone?
In technical terms, the tone of a guitar refers to its subjective and objective sound quality and timbre.
When we speak of guitar tone, several factors may affect how it's rendered: the build of the guitar (including tonewoods, neck, scale, and weight), the playing technique of the guitarist, the inline equipment (cables, pedals, amplifiers, hardware and software processors, etc.), and, finally, the strings.
Needless to say, and without attempting to undermine the relevance of construction quality, strings can make or break the sound made by an otherwise well-crafted and robust guitar. Furthermore, each type of guitar also has specific requirements in this field, which is the main topic we'll be covering in this article.
How Do Guitar Strings Affect Tone?
Before discussing the different string types and their influence on tone, it's useful to explain what guitar strings are usually made of and how their build influences the sound.
A guitar string consists of two or three parts:
- Core: the core wire is one thin piece of cylindrical steel wire that runs across the entirety of the string. Strings were commonly made with a round core construction, but, in more recent times, they have switched to hex-core construction due to the overall quality of the sound output they deliver, specifically when using a pick.
- Winding: winding material wraps the inner core of the string. There are 3 winding methods: round wound, flat wound, and ground (half) wound. We will not get into detail about each of these winding methods, but the general idea is that all of them have their benefits and disadvantages. For example, a flat-wound string may not produce a brighter tone compared to a round-wound string, but it's more comfortable to pluck. Most electric guitars use round-wound strings due to their sustain capabilities.
- Coating (optional): coating is intended to provide the string with resistance against corrosive agents. Some strings use polymer coating to enhance playability and durability, at the expense of tone.
These three elements combined have a significant impact on the string's sound since they will determine the vibration frequency that will be transmitted from the bridge to the input device or soundbox.
The core of most ordinary guitar strings is made of high carbon steel alloy. There is, however, a recent trend of marketing stainless steel strings that offer more durability and playing comfort. Still, they often take a toll in the sound delivery department, rendering a thinner note.
On the other hand, the material used for winding is also important, particularly for the low-E, A, and D strings (although some manufacturers also wind the G string). These materials come with different hardness and strength levels that will have a considerable impact on the interaction the string has with the rest of the components. The most common materials for acoustic, electric, or bass guitars are:
- Phosphor bronze
- Aluminum bronze
- Pure nickel
- 80/20 bronze
The gauge is analogous to the string's diameter or thickness. For example, a “0.010-gauge” string measures ten thousandths of an inch (often the smallest “e” string on an electric guitar), while a “0.105-gauge” string measures 105 thousandths of an inch (a common gauge for the E string of a bass guitar).
There is a myriad of different gauges available on the market for each guitar type. The gauge you choose will affect the tension but also the playability of the guitar as a whole.
Each gauge has its own set of difficulties and advantages. Lighter-gauge strings are easier to bend and add vibrato to notes, which is ideal for solos. Heavier-gauge strings provide more sustain and a fuller tone but with certain hindrances in playability.
Now that we've laid out the general idea about the string composition, we will delve into the tone of each guitar and the strings that are more suitable for them, depending on the playing style of your choice.
To learn more about string gauge, check out my article Should I Use Light, Medium Or Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings?
The Tone Of Electric Guitar Strings
Electric guitar strings are usually wound in nickel or nickel-plated steel, which are certainly conductive enough to interact with and drive the pickups. Nickel tends to warm up the tone by dampening the brightness of the string.
Stainless steel is also a great alternative while providing endurance and yields a brighter tone with extra energy in the strings' upper harmonics.
Pure nickel endows the sound with a warmer tone than nickel plating.
As far a core construction, hex-core strings sound louder, fitting for rock music. Meanwhile, jazz specialists may lean towards round core due to the sustain and warmth they deliver, although the differences are mostly negligible.
Perhaps the biggest factor to consider when choosing electric guitar strings is the gauge. Many manufacturers sell pre-packaged sets with standard gauges, but you may also opt for purchasing individual strings with the desired thickness so they mould to your playing style.
The average gauge for 6-string electric guitars ranges between .010 and .046 (from high-E to low-E). There are also thinner sets ranging from .009 to .042, which are great for lighter tone and expressive playing, although the tone may suffer in quality if you want to play lower metal-oriented power chords. Heavier gauges such as .012 to .056 may be of greater benefit if you need a heavier, more sustaining tone.
With regards to the winding method, jazz and country-styled musicians should feel more at home with flat-wound strings. These are better suited for mellow tones and slides without the disturbing finger noises that round-wound strings produce.
Note that not all guitar strings in a set will be wound. The first, second and, sometimes, third strings (e, B, and sometimes G) are typically unwound, either bare or plated. The sixth, fifth, fourth and, sometimes, third (E, A, D, and sometimes G) are wound.
To learn more about flatwound and roundwound guitar strings, check out my article Flatwound Guitar Strings Vs. Roundwound Guitar Strings.
The Tone Of Acoustic Guitar Strings
For acoustic guitars, the material plays a much more important role, since in most cases, you won't be able to rely on pickups, amplifiers to tweak the tone.
The most common materials available for acoustic guitars are:
- 80/20 bronze: They result from a combination of 80% copper with 20% zinc. They are praised for their bright sound delivery, but they're also dreaded due to their susceptibility to lose such brightness quickly due to corrosion, dirt build-up, and malleability.
- Phosphor bronze: It's basically 80/20 bronze with phosphor added to provide extra protection from oxidation. These strings are also bright, but hold this tonal quality for longer than the 80/20 counterparts.
- Silk and steel: These are known for their versatility and low tension, providing a softer tone and a smoother touch.
The pre-packaged sets come with different gauge settings. The most extreme values (from low-E to high-E) are as follows:
- Extra light: from .010 to .047
- Heavy: from .014 to .059
Of course, the choices you make depend heavily on several factors, such as the body of the guitar and the playing style. Lighter-gauge strings are more fitting for Parlour guitars (3/4 size), while the Dreadnought should have heavier gauges to account for the size of the fretboard and the tension produced.
You can, of course, play around with the gauges to suit your playing style. If you prefer fingerpicking over strumming, lighter gauges may bring more comfort to your fingers. Heavy gauges provide more fullness in tone for strummers, but the fretting may be a bit cumbersome during the first weeks.
Finally, acoustic guitars work best with round-wound strings, as flat-wound ones do not compensate for the body and the demands of the soundbox.
Nylon strings are the choice of classical guitars, which produce a more mellow tone with less sustain and overall volume. This delicate tone is suitable for Classical music but is generally not strong enough for bright, loud acoustic sound.
Furthermore, nylon is not conductive, making it useless for electric guitars and their electromagnetic pickups. That being said, piezoelectric “acoustic” pickups can pick up the vibrations of classical guitars and, in this way, help amplify the tone of classical guitars and their nylon strings.
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The Tone Of Bass Guitar Strings
The principles laid out for electric guitars also apply for bass guitars, with two major differences: the gauge ranges are much thicker, and the fact that all strings are wound (unlike the first, second and, sometimes third strings of a guitar set).
Bass guitar string tone is largely governed by the same principles as guitar strings, though the larger gauge produces a deeper, darker tone.
As for winding material, nickel/steel alloys offer a dampened, warm tone while pure stainless steel yields a brighter tone with excited overtones.
In theory, basses are designed to provide a “base” or lower support for the overall sound of a piece of music. Thus, their tone generally needs to be as full as possible to encompass the sound and provide balance.
However, a bass can occasionally take the lead or provide complex “licks” in various musical settings such as jazz or progressive rock. Thus, the gauge plays a relevant role on this subject.
Slap bass, for example, is much easier to do on lighter gauges and doesn't require fullness or sustain. Bass soloing can use the more trebled tone of light gauges to bring clarity to the notes and gain considerably in playability.
In the winding department, round-wound strings tend to work well for live performances, but in recordings, they can be very difficult to manage due to the friction they produce while fretting. Flat-wound strings bring much more clarity to the notes and allow you to bypass the fingering effects, but their sustain is not as rich.
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