Steel Strings

Unlike classical guitars, flat tops are working with steel strings, applying a far greater pressure on the top and creating a different sound.

Putting nylon strings on a flat top guitar will not have the same damaging effects as putting steel strings on a classical guitar, but it will cause a lot of trouble anyway. The nut will have to be reset to handle wider strings’ diameter, saddle will have to be replaced (no angle with nylon) and finally the top will not much respond to the lighter tension.

Steel is the core material use in strings’ manufacturing

A standard six steel string set stands as follows:

As for nylon, strings follow a simple rule: the higher the frequency, the thinner the string.

Gauge

Without any clear reason, we are talking of gauge for steel strings and not tension as we do for nylon. Such term refers to the diameter of the strings. It can be yet misleading as different materials can be used for strings and, with different density, same gauges do not apply the same pressure.

If you look a strings set, you will see figures: those are the diameter (in inch) of the different strings, starting from the 1st string.

There is a little more choice in strings set for steel string guitars than for classical, with up to 8 different sets in the same string family.

To have an idea, we give the following table for a standard bronze strings set:

Tension

1st string (e)

2nd string (B)

3rd string (G)

4th string (D)

5th string (A)

6th string (E)

Ultra Light

0.010

0.0135

0.020

0.026

0.036

0.046

Extra Light

0.011

0.014

0.022

0.030

0.038

0.050

Light

0.012

0.016

0.024

0.032

0.042

0.054

Medium

0.013

0.017

0.026

0.036

0.046

0.056

Heavy

0.014

0.018

0.028

0.038

0.048

0.060

Tension affects sound and playability. The lower the tension, the easiest it is for the fretboard hand (I do not use left hand in respect to left-handed players). The major drawback comes with the simple physical issue: lower tension means higher amplitude in the strings’ vibration, with a risk that the strings touch the frets while vibrating and make a buzz sound.

Buzzing issue comes also with your style: when you play bluegrass or strum hard, you may have unfriendly buzzing if you are not using medium to heavy hard strings.

It’s important to remember the pressure put on the guitar: if you play small instruments or old fragile ones, you should consider play with light strings. Many guitars will not hold medium or heavy tensions. Ask your dealer if you have any doubt .If you want to experiment anyway, have a close look at your top and bridge to see if they are not moving due to excessive pressure. Move back to lighter strings if they do so and bring your guitar to your repair specialist to have it checked.

As in all area, the best is always to try. You may find the sound of a normal string better for your style and for your ears. If you still experience some buzz, you may ask your guitar shop to work on the action. Yet, high action may prove to be difficult to play and one alternative is to adjust plucking strength on some notes.

Material

Treble strings are generally made of a single steel wire. They can be sometimes found plated with brass, which can extend the life of those strings. 

Middle and bass strings are wound strings and come in many different materials wrapped around a steel core.

  1. Brass
    Bronze stands for the copper/tin alloy . 80% copper generally but some bronze strings come with a 60/40 ratio. It is used in the coil wrapping middle and bass strings. The larger the proportion of copper, the brighter the strings will sound . The drawback is for strings to last less and many time players feel that the bright sound is vanishing too quickly. Some players will prefer the sound once this excessive brightness has disappeared anyway.

  2. Phosphor Bronze

    Phosphor bronze is a copper/tin alloy (90 to 95% of copper), coated with phosphor, which is used for wound strings. Due to a higher copper content, the phosphor bronze strings will sound brighter than regular 80/20 bronze.  Both Phosphor and 80/20 bronze strings will sound bright when played the first few times. After the strings break in, the 80/20 bronze wound strings will have a warmer tone, whereas the Phosphor bronze will remain brighter

    One may have the feeling that the 80/20 set sounds brighter and more metallic. It’s not really true for the wound strings. Yet, the plain strings will stand out a little more from the mix and gives the feeling of a more metallic sound. In contrary, a Phosphor Bronze set will give a more balanced tone all across the strings.

    The principal benefit from phosphor bronze strings is a longer lifetime with less variation in sound quality. Please note that such a material has a higher density than 80/20 bronze and generates more tension for the same gauge. If you move from bronze, you may try a smaller gauge to keep the same tension on your instrument.

  3. Copper
    Now you can find strings with almost pure copper wound (in fact 98/2 brass). They offer a very bright tone. As for phosphor bronze, the tension will be higher with a smaller gauge so you should be cautious when choosing such strings to avoid too much pressure on your guitar.

  4. Silk and steel
    Those strings are made with a core wire allying steel and plastic fiber which allows lighters strings, quite similar to nylon. Middle and bass strings are wrapped with silver platted copper.

  5. Coated strings
    Any of the different materials can be coated, with many brands offering their own coating technology. Coating is mainly intended to protect the strings from corrosion and normal wear and extending the useful life of the strings. It is certainly on those strings – also known to be expensive – that reviews are diverging. I would recommend them for those who feel their strings go dead too quickly.

  6. Silver plated strings
    Silver patted strings can be seen as an interesting choice for Jazz player, who can be unsatisfied with the brightness and sustain of bronze strings.
    Silver platted strings give a sweeter tone and a quicker response to attacks, with a little less sustain then bronze strings.

How to choose ?

Choosing strings largely depends on your own taste and playing style. The best way to choose is generally to try. You may find a 5$ set the best solution for you, but how to know it if marketing process lead you to a 20$ set on behalf of their promises?

First selection should go with the tension: you may try a standard set, no need to be pricey, for each gauge (but keep in mind that medium and heavy may not suit your guitar and can even damage it: don’t use them for small or fragile instruments). You’ll see what fits you better in terms of sound and playability. Once you are set a given tension, you may also set your action properly and set up your neck.

Once your tension is defined, you can try the different materials. Don’t hesitate to negotiate a testing package in your local store! One good way to keep your mind clear during the process is to record yourself. Strings are not sounding the same after a week. Your test should take some time.

Another solution is to check with your local store if they have different settings for their guitars. It won’t give you the sound of your guitar but will give some hints.

Quick tips

  1. Electro/acoustic: be aware that your choice may be different if you want to play amplified. In particular, if you play with a magnetic pick up, make sure you choose strings giving a good signal to your pick up when vibrating. Some brands offer strings specially designed for electro/acoustic. On the contrary, such strings as silk and steel will certainly not be a choice for some pick-ups.
    But remember that many electro/acoustic are working with transducers or piezzo pick-up, for which magnetic response will not be an issue. The best is certainly to try different set of strings with your usual gear.

  2. Woods: when you look at reviews and forums, you will see that users can have a different view on the same strings, depending on their guitars. Some players recommend phosphor bronze with rosewood back and side and 20/80 bronze with mahogany. The point is that the sound of your guitar is the result of a complex alchemy, so it can be that what works with a cedar top/ rosewood back and side guitar, may sound quite bad with a spruce/mahogany guitar.

  3. Sore fingers: the worst thing to happen would be for you to find your holy grail but stop playing because of sore fingers. To practice and improve your technique, I recommend starting with low-tension strings. You can then turn to higher tension when you get some callus on your fingers. A tip I have found on the Internet is to put some babies’ oral treatment on your fingertips to deal with sore fingers. I am not sure anyway that it will do any good to your fingerboard or to your strings, so do not forget to clean them up.

  4. Extended life: strings life is said to be between 15 and 30 hours of playing. One main reason for strings to get dull is corrosion coming from sweat and dirt. A first solution is to clean (and dry) your hands before playing (my daughters would love this one: Don’t forget to clean your hands!), it would be good for both strings and fingerboard. I am the first not to think about it and frankly, it is not very rock’n roll! So, if you want to play after a big fatty burger, remember to give a quick swipe to strings and fingerboard. You can find a lot of products to do so, but doing it with a piece of cotton cloth can be a good start.
    You will find a lot of advice on the Web to clean your strings: water, no water, alcohol, ammoniac…  I don’t do it. I don’t feel comfortable with dumping chemicals and I really don’t know what could be the final effect on my fretboard, which is not as easy to replace as strings.

  5. Playing style: If you don’t feel trying too many sets, here is a digest of some Web reviews on strings for different styles:
    Electric player: if you like bending, use thinner gauges (ultra or extra light);
    Jazz player: silver platted strings;
    Strummers: medium to heavy gauge (check whether your guitar can stand it!)
    Classical player: you may try silk and steel, if you want to stay with the same feeling;
    Finger players: phosphor bronze are said to squeak a little more, coated a little less…  squeaking can prove to be annoying (very annoying when you go amplified!) 80/20 coated bronze can be a catch.
  6. Alternate tuning: (if you don’t know about alternate tunings, check our instruction pages) Choosing your strings can be an issue when you play with alternate tuning as a large majority of strings are designed for standard eBGDAE tuning. Higher or lower tension on given strings may affect the sound and create some buzz. Some strings manufacturers are offering sets which are designed for specific tuning.
    If you are used to changing tuning a lot, you may consider strings that allows doing so. The more you change the tunings on your guitar, the more metal fatigue your strings will experience. The thinner the strings, the more you will break them. So. You can choose to play with higher gauge than usual or be prepared to break more strings. Anyway, if you change tunings often, you should have some spare strings in your gig bag.
    On top of it, some alternate tunings will ask to tune higher then standard tuning and only medium strings will stand it (remember to check if your guitar can stand them).

 

Why paying more?

As everybody, I do not like to pay an extra when the benefit is not very obvious. It is clear that some strings cost more because of brand notoriety. It is part of modern economy. Notoriety can come from strong marketing policy and you may pay indirectly for advertising costs. Some strings are very well know because of heavy advertising or simply because a majority of guitars are stringed with those brands when you buy them at first. I would say that the best thing is to find a low cost solution to try a maximum of strings and then pick the ones you prefer. Good news: those may be cheap.

If you don’t have time, let’s understand what can be valuable reason to pay extra:

Next question: does the improvement or variation in sound, extended life or playability deserve to spend an extra? It is you to answer.

Gauge and set up

All our guitars are set up for a given set of strings, mainly light gauge. If you want to move to a different gauge, or different material, you may experience different issues with your guitar that will affect both intonation and playability.

The slots at the nut may be too large or too small. What are the impacts? Too small slots will cause the strings to sit higher than needed and create a higher action on the higher part of the fretboard. Playability can become a nightmare. It may also buzz quite a bit. In some cases, the strings may move out from the slot (heavy strummer, you’re the one).  Slots too large will cause the strings to buzz.

Change in string gauge will most certainly change also the curve of the neck and impact the action. It may affect playability and tone in many ways. Improper curve may create some buzz and intonation problems. Action can go two ways. Changing to a lighter string tension may bring some buzz. We have even see cases where the strings were lying on the frets: unplayable! With a higher tension, you may also raise the action big ways and have no other option then to play slide.

What can you do?  If you just want to experiment, you may have to deal with some inconvenience and stick with the action and buzz as they are. If you feel that you found the strings of your dreams, the best way is to go with a full set up:

Intonation and playability will be affected in all those adjustments and you need to find the right balance to satisfy both needs. It takes a skilled professional, so choose you luthier wisely.

If you try to do it yourself, be very cautious when adjusting the trussrod. Nut and saddle adjustments, when wrongly done, can most certainly be recovered but a trussrod adjustement can cause damages that sometime can’t be undone.