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Guitar Strings - A Beginners Guide

By: Ken Radwell

If you are just starting out learning to play guitar, the first time you have to change your strings can be a bit daunting. If you look at the number of different sets of strings available it can be really difficult to decide which set is best for your guitar. Changing you strings can also change the way your guitar sounds, so where do you start.

There are two basic types of string - plain and wound. A plain string is constructed of a single material such as steel, nylon or gut. A wound string is constructed by tightly winding one material around a core material.

The requirements of strings for acoustic and electric guitars differ, so strings are usually designed for a particular type of guitar. For acoustic guitars the strings have to provide a good amount of volume as well as sound good. Strings for electric guitars do not need to provide so much volume as the pick up will amplify the sound produced.

Classical guitars traditionally used gut strings but these have largely given way to nylon strings. Some guitarists prefer gut strings for there warmer sound, but they suffer with problems staying in tune an can break easily. Modern gut strings are usually wrapped in metal.

For Acoustic and electric guitars steel strings are used. These strings usually have a steel core with a winding of bronze, copper or nickel. The cross section of the winding material may be round, which gives a round wound string, or flat giving a flat wound string. Round wound strings are very popular and give the brightest and clearest sound with a good sustain. The flat wound string gives a smoother surface and reduces finger noise when playing.

More expensive steel strings are completed with a protective polymer or metal coating. This is to help avoid the problem of corrosion that occurs due to the build up of sweat and chemicals left on the strings after playing.

Strings are supplied in different sizes or gauges. The gauge is the diameter of the string. This is normally given in thousands of an inch but sometimes metric sizes are used. The six strings provided in a set will each have a different diameter. The set of strings will quote either the gauge of the first string, the first and the last string or sometimes the gauge of each string in the set.

Lighter gauge strings (typically in range .008 - .046) are easier to play as they require less pressure to hold them down. The downside is that they have less volume and the length of time a note sounds when played, known as the sustain, is shorter.

Heavier gauge strings (typically in range .012 - .056) require a lot more tension to get in tune, and so need more pressure to hold down a note or chord, making them harder to play. They do, however, produce a louder and clearer sound.

Be careful if changing the gauge of strings on your guitar. The new gauge strings may suffer from buzzing when played. This is due to the strings hitting the fret when vibrating. If this happens, the height of the strings above the fret will have to be adjusted. You may also have problems if the gauge of the string is too big for the string groove in the nut.

As well as the gauge of the string, the materials used in the construction of the strings also affect the type of sound obtained.

Strings constructed with bronze produce a bright crisp sound, but the bright quality soon fades. Many guitarists like the faded in sound though. Phosphor Bronze strings produce a warmer and darker sound, which does not fade like the bronze string. Nickel Plated strings are commonly used on modern electric guitars. They provide a bright sound with longer sustain. Pure Nickel strings have a smoother warmer sound than nickel plated strings, but not as much volume. These were popular in the 50's and are now enjoying a come back. Stainless Steel strings are very hard and resistant to corrosion. They produce a bright sound and the longest note sustain of any string material. However, due to their hardness, they do cause more rapid fret wear.

Take some time to study the different makes, gauges and materials of string sets available. Try to stick to the same gauge that is currently on your guitar to avoid any fitting problems. Then just have some fun trying out different brands and materials.

Guitar Strings - A Beginners Guide

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