If you’re a guitarist who doesn’t already own the instrument you’ve always dreamed of, knowledge of your guitar’s limitations can be frustrating. It might seem like the only solution is to wait until you can afford a high-quality replacement, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Even if you are lucky enough to own the guitar of your dreams, you can still improve the sound or adjust it more to your liking with several low-budget modifications. Fortunately, for most of us, simply changing to a different set of strings may be the easiest and most cost-effective way to improve the sound of your guitar.
There are more strings to choose from than ever before, and it’s important to note that not every guitar is suited to handle every type of wire. Acoustic strings typically come in gauges of extra light (.010-inch diameter) to heavy (.059 in.), and the nut of your guitar is designed to hold a specific gauge range. If the slots are made to accommodate medium- to heavy-gauge strings, using light strings can cause them to buzz; conversely, fitting a guitar suited for light strings with too heavy a gauge will cause the strings to stick in the slots and create tuning problems. Depending on the modification you’re after, you may choose to file the slots to widen the openings, or replace the nut entirely.
Similarly, significant changes in string gauge will affect your guitar’s action, string tension, and neck relief, and may call for a truss rod adjustment. If, for example, you put lighter strings on a guitar that was strung with heavier strings, the reduction in tension may cause the neck to go from a concave forward bow to a convex back bow, pushing the fretboard against the strings and lowering the action. Slightly loosening the truss rod will allow the neck to move forward and raise the action. For the reverse change, you may need to tighten the truss rod.
Caveats aside, choice of gauge can make a tremendous difference in the tone quality your guitar can achieve. Typically, a lighter-gauge string will give you more sustain and a brighter tone than a heavier gauge of the same string. Because of their supple feel, lighter gauges are often preferred for fingerpicking, and can be easier on beginning guitarists who are developing their calluses. However, the same quality that serves as an advantage can also be a disadvantage—as the lack of weight makes it harder to play loudly, and thinner strings can be more susceptible to breakage.
As the gauge increases to medium and heavy, sustain reduces, and the added weight of the strings makes for a more resonant low-end sound. Whereas light strings are perfect for fingerpicking and delicate melodies, heavier strings are best for heavy strumming and, because of their weight, are much louder.
Guitar size tends to correlate directly to the best string gauge for the instrument. Parlor and 3/4-scale guitars call for a light gauge, while dreadnoughts and jumbos are best strung with heavier ones. This is for both practical and tonal reasons: The lower tension of light gauge strings is perfectly suited to a parlor guitar’s smaller neck, but lighter strings also complement the guitar’s naturally bright body sound. In the same vein, medium to heavy gauges may bring out the naturally warm voice of a larger auditorium, dreadnought, or jumbo guitar.
After gauge, the next key factor is construction. Steel guitar strings have two main components: the steel core wire and the wire wrap. Differences in tone are determined by the material and shape of both.
Two of the most popular alloys, 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze, differ in the mixture of metals they contain. First used on guitar strings in the 1930s by D’Addario, the 80/20 bronze alloy contains 80 percent copper and 20 percent zinc. (Technically, 80/20 is actually brass; bronze is an alloy of copper and tin.) This alloy yields strong highs and lows with reduced mids—creating a vintage tone that’s both bright and warm—but due to its high ratio of copper, corrodes more readily.
In 1974, D’Addario released the first phosphor bronze strings in an attempt to solve this problem. Ironically containing a higher amount of copper (roughly 90 percent), phosphor bronze strings were made with tin and a small amount of phosphorous to combat copper’s corrosive qualities. Phosphor bronze strings don’t carry the same brightness as 80/20 bronze, producing a softer, darker, and fuller tone.
The metal core can be either round or hexagonal wire, while the wrap can be either round or flat (with a square cross-section). Because the total circumference of a round core comes into contact with the wrap, round core strings are denser and more flexible—which can make them easy to bend, but more susceptible to breakage and tuning issues. Today, many manufacturers opt for hexagonal core strings, whose shape creates miniscule gaps between the core and the wrap—making the string less dense and brighter—and adds stiffness that lessens the risk of breakage and tuning problems.
The shape of wire wraps, on the other hand, affects both tone and texture: Roundwound strings will be more resistant to sliding, but allow for better grip; flatwound are smoother to the touch, but harder to grip. Roundwounds are considered far brighter in tone than mellower flatwound wraps.
A Dazzling Array of Options
Aside from the common 80/20 and phosphor bronzes, wire wraps can also be made with other materials, including nickel, brass, silver, and a combination of silk and steel. Manufacturers also experiment with core materials, including Martin’s Titanium Core strings, which have a round titanium core wound in nickel, said to be more durable yet more flexible than the standard steel. Martin has also dipped into reviving vintage metal formulations from the ’30s for its Retro strings, which are made with a solid nickel/copper wrap called Monel.
Beyond the major brand names of Martin, D’Addario, Ernie Ball, and Elixir, a few smaller companies view themselves more as workshops than factories. In some cases, they will make custom strings so that you can introduce a more personalized touch to your sound.
The Los Angeles-based Gabriel Tenorio String Company is one of those workshops. It makes hand-wound strings for electric, acoustic, and bass guitars (as well as for cuatro, mandolin, and pedal steel) using round cores and custom phosphor bronze and brass alloys. Tenorio is a devotee of round cores, saying that a round core offers “greater punch, true pitch, vibrant and clear tone, and rich harmonics.”
Stringjoy, based in Nashville, Tennessee, creates its own strings with custom phosphor bronze and brass alloys. Using a winding machine reportedly built for the late luthier Jimmy D’Aquisto, Stringjoy offers custom orders and personalized customer service. The Santa Cruz Guitar Company also recently began crafting its own custom Parabolic Tension strings with particular attention to guitar string physics and sensitivity to tension and tonal balance.
Taking out-of-the-ordinary acoustic guitar strings to an entirely different level is Thomastik-Infeld. The Austrian company makes strings for a variety of instruments, but its unique approach is perhaps best represented by its hybrid strings for acoustic guitar, which feature a mixture of string materials and designs. Their Plectrum strings, for instance, mix roundwound and flatwound strings in a set designed to have a warm, almost classical-like tone and a low tension that makes them a favorite of people with very old guitars. Another hybrid option, their John Pearse Folk strings are a fingerstyle set with every string wound—the roundwound nylon-core E, A, and D strings and flatwound rope-core G, B, and high E produce a warm and bright nylon sound. And their Classic S rope-core sets feature nylon–tape wound treble strings and silver-plated flatwound bass strings, yielding a warm, soft, airy tone.
The more you expand your string vocabulary, the easier it will be to find the right set of strings to improve your guitar’s sound. Before you make a dramatic decision to replace your entire instrument, remember that sometimes a little focus on the fine details—like your strings—can bring new life to your guitar.
For more information on the string makers mentioned in this story, visit them online.