So, you made the decision to buy that guitar you've been thinking about. You loaded up on all the essentials: guitar case - check, guitar picks - check, cables - check, amplifier - check, effects - check, guitar strings - wait a minute. Did you say guitar strings? Doesn't this guitar I just bought already have guitar strings?
The answer is yes. Hopefully, they are the kind that the manufacturer recommends for the kind of guitar you have just purchased. The first suggestion is to ask the music store where you purchased your prized possession what kind of strings your guitar has on it, if you can't tell by looking. Not all guitar strings are the same. But understanding the differences doesn't have to require a PHD in guitar string technology. Just keep in mind the sound and style you are looking for.
It simply requires a little bit of reading and a general understanding of the sound that each type of string design produces, and trying out a few and deciding on one that you like. We are going to take a look at some of the most popular types of guitar strings in a little more detail in order to help you make an educated decision on choosing the best guitar strings for you.
Some of the earliest produced guitar strings were made out of either wire or gut (called "cat gut, although usually made out of sheep intestine). Modern guitar strings are divided into two main types - nylon and steel. Classical and Flamenco guitars are likely to use nylon strings, while electric, flat-top and arch-top acoustics would use steel wire strings.
Guitars are usually strung with a set of six guitar strings, each a different thickness and tuned to a different pitch. The usual layout is the first and second are "plain", the fourth, fifth, and sixth are "wound", and the third can be either. Of course there are 12-string guitars, 7- string guitars, 8-string guitars, bass guitars (which usually have 4, but I have seen as many as 8). The basic premise remains the same, there are just more strings.
Understanding the Basics
Since it is not very practical to make thick strings, the only way to increase the mass of the bass strings is by wrapping them in extra wire around their central core. These would be called wound strings. The core would be either round or hexagonal. In steel guitar strings it is a steel core, and in nylon, yep, nylon.
The wire winding material can vary. They can be generally classified as "white" or "silver" metal (stainless steel, nickel, nickel alloy, silver-plated copper) or "gold" or "yellow" metal (bronze, brass, or some other alloy). Both types can be used on acoustic guitars, but most players typically prefer the yellow bronze or brass strings due to their bright, crisp sound. You can only use certain guitar strings on electrics with magnetic pickups though, the white metal ones because of their magnetic responsiveness. Yellow metal strings and nylon guitar strings will not work with a magnetic pick-up. If your guitar has a contact transducer or a microphone you can use any type of guitar strings.
Guitar strings can take on a variety of shapes based on the winding they are given.
In order to produce the bottom three or four strings (the wound ones), the nylon or steel core is wrapped with a long, continuous length of round wire. They are typically wound by a machine that spins the central core. The result is a string with a crisp tone and volume, and they give a clear ring that is fitting for either acoustic or electric guitars when the strings are new.
Flatwound or Tapewound
These strings have a much smoother surface than that of roundwound strings. The reason is because the winding is not made from a wire but rather from a flat metal tape or ribbon.
The problem of finger squeak (the noise produced by the left hand when moving up and down the fingerboard when making contact with the guitar strings) and trying to find a solution to overcome it, led to the design of the flatwound string. The flat surface of the flatwounds help reduce this noise.
Flatwound guitar strings are a more mellow sounding string than roundwound and are preferred by jazz guitar players because of it. Rock guitarists don't typically care for them, due to their lack of brightness, and not much percussive tone compared to the roundwounds. They also tend to not last as long.
Compound flatwounds are made with both a round and a flat winding. The are first wound round and then covered with a flat ribbon winding. Jazz players also tend to love these.
Guitar string makers were searching for a way to combine the advantages of roundwound and flatwound strings and created the groundwound guitar strings. Produced much the same way as the roundwound strings (by wrapping a round wire around a core, grinding down the winding and then polishing it to remove the protrusions. This produces a "flattened" surface), groundwounds provide some of the bright tone quality, projection and sustain as roundwounds and the smoother feel of flatwounds.
Silk and Steel Strings
Often called "compound strings", these are special because the inner core is made up of a combination of steel and silk. The treble strings are plain steel. The bass strings are a steel core wrapped with a fine layer of silk fiber and then a regular metal winding. Typically only used on acoustic guitars, the sound and feel falls somewhere between that of steel and nylon.
It's Your Choice
You now have the information you need to make an educated choice to choosing your guitar strings to develop your sound. The best advice I can give you is to try out different things. maybe as you start replacing guitar strings, try a new brand or new winding type until you have found the ones you like best. Guitar strings are as personal as your guitar. You have to play what you like.
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