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Choosing Guitar Strings: A Player's Guide to tension

Uncategorized Feb 18, 2024

Choosing Guitar Strings

Without strings, a guitar isn't much more than a shiny plank—better suited as a quirky clothes hanger than a music maker. The strings you select are pivotal, influencing your guitar's sound and how easy it is to play. In this Guitarticle, let's unravel the mysteries of guitar strings to help you make sound choices when it's time for a fresh set.

Before we dive in, a quick note: we're going to get up close and personal with electric and acoustic steel strings. Ready for a bit of string theory?


The Basics of Guitar Strings

Guitar strings come in various materials and gauges, with gauge playing the lead role in affecting your guitar. The gauge number, measured in thousandths of an inch, indicates a string's thickness. For a standard electric, you're likely looking at .9s, while acoustics usually sport .12s. Why does this matter? Well, the thickness dictates how tight the strings need to be for the right pitch, which is why bending an acoustic string feels like a gym session.

Time for some science!


The Science of String Tension

Strings make music by vibrating at precise frequencies. The pitch depends on three main factors:

  • Length: Fixed from nut to bridge.
  • Tension: Tighten for higher pitches via those tuning pegs (or "tuning wigglies," as my students like to call them).
  • Thickness: Skinny strings mean quicker vibrations.

Balancing tension across strings of different thicknesses is key to avoiding a guitar that feels like a mishmash of tension—a surefire way to fret buzz city.

String Fact - Each string has around120 newtons of tension. That's like having a chubby cherub sitting on each one!


Understanding String Construction

Ever wonder why your guitar neck doesn't warp under all that tension? Enter the truss rod. 

This nifty metal bar is the unsung hero keeping your guitar from morphing into a makeshift bow and arrow.

The truss rod can usually be accessed either at the headstock of an electric or from inside the body of an acoustic, and it runs inside the length of the neck. I don't recommend messing with it unless you know what you're doing. As long as you understand it's job - To counter act the tension created by the strings.

IMPORTANT - Switching to strings with a significantly different gauge? Your guitar will need a setup to readjust the truss rod for the new tension.


The Impact of Flexibility on Playability

Flexibility is non-negotiable for strings. That's why thicker ones have a winding design, so they can bend and vibrate properly under your fingertips. 

They're wire-wound to maintain flexibility, so you can actually fret notes and not just look at a stiff, unyielding metal rod.

Guitar String Fact - New strings can be temperamental, needing time to 'settle.' This is due to 'dislocations'— tiny inconsistencies that even out over time.


Special Considerations

Think about your playing style and physical attributes. Got dainty digits? Heavy strings might be your nemesis. Love playing slide guitar? Heavier strings could be your best friends.

Lighter, thinner strings are also a lot easier to bend and fret. If you're learning these techniques or struggling with barre chords, lighter gauge strings may help.

Heavier, thicker strings tend to hold their tuning better and there is also a difference in tone:

  • Lighter strings have a brighter tone.
  • Heavy gauge strings have a warmer tone.


Experimentation is Key

Don't be shy about mixing string gauges. Visit your local music shop, seek advice, and find your perfect string ensemble. But remember, stray too far from the tension your guitar is used to, and you're looking at a trip to the luthier for a setup.

I hope this has helped guide you when choosing guitar strings — Don't forget to check out our other Guitarticles for more tuneful insights!


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