Thursday, May 19, 2016

What Strings Do I Need? Part 1 - Acoustic Guitars

One of the products we are most asked for here at The Music Spot is strings. Our response is, “What sort?” which is often met with confusion or bewilderment. It's my hope this article will help you to choose the right strings for your acoustic guitar.

Acoustic guitars require no amplification to be heard and can be broken down into two basic groups – steel string acoustics traditionally used for folk, rock, blues and country music, and classical guitars with nylon strings traditionally used for flamenco or classical music styles.

Steel String Acoustic Guitars
Guitars such as the one pictured on the left require steel strings in order to produce their intended sound. These guitars typically have six die cast tuning pegs on the head stock used for tuning the instrument. Steel string acoustics also use end pins - the white or black plugs in the saddle - to lock each string into the bridge of the guitar. If your guitar has these components, it has been designed to use steel strings to produce its optimum sound.

There are a few things to consider when choosing the right strings for steel string acoustic guitar.

1. String Gauge
All guitar strings come in different sizes. These various sizes are referred to as the String Gauge and is a measurement of each string's diameter in the set from the thicker bass strings to the thinner treble strings.

Light gauge strings are easier to play and better suited for older instruments where its condition may necessitate using a lighter gauge of strings owing to the lower tension they exert upon the top and neck of the guitar. Smaller body guitars may also benefit from fitting lighter strings.

Light gauge strings help beginners in their development as notes and chords are easier to fret and bend. When considering a light gauge string check out a 10-47 (extra light) or 11-52 (custom light) set for your guitar.

Some cons for using lighter strings are decreased volume, tone, and sustain and can be prone to string breakage, especially the thin high E strings.

Medium gauge strings is what is generally fitted to the new guitars in the shop. This gauge is a good all-round choice suited for most most playing styles and is great for strumming chords. A medium string gauge set is 12-53.

Heavy strings are the most difficult to play and best suited for experienced players or bigger guitars such as a Jumbo. They are a great choice for slide players, or players who tune their instrument down to dropped D or other open tunings. Bigger, thicker strings provide big tones and more volume with an increase in tension on the neck and body. Heavy gauge sets start at 13-56.

2. String Types
All steel guitar strings are traditionally made from wire wrapped around a steel core. The most commonly used material is Phosphor Bronze (PB). It provides a warm, dark tone that is still articulate. It's perfectly suited for all styles and general playing. Bronze strings tend to sound brighter but wear out quicker than PB strings. Aluminium Bronze strings have improved clarity with better bass response and a crisper sounding treble than PB. Silk and Steel strings use a different material wrapped around a steel core that feels softer on the fingers. They are a good option for beginners, folk, or finger style players.

3. Coated or Uncoated
Being a metal, steel guitar strings will react with your skin and the atmosphere causing the string to corrode. Coated strings have a polymer coating that slows down the corrosion process. The result is strings that retain their tone, condition, and sound over a longer period than uncoated strings. Examples of brands that use this coating are Elixir and D'addario's EXP range.

Classical Guitars
Classical guitars are made very differently to their steel string counterparts. They typically have an open peg head stock arrangement with the winders facing backwards from the face. Strings for these instruments look like thick fishing line on the thinner top strings while the bass strings consist of a soft nylon core wound with silver coated copper.

Putting steel string guitars on a classical guitar will damage the instrument. The neck can be severely impacted by the increased tension exerted by steel strings. Furthermore, the top of the guitar can lift or bulge because of this pressure, and even pull the bridge off the guitar.

Classical guitars are not designed to withstand the stress and tension steel strings impart. Although they have a wider neck than their steel string cousins, classical guitars are a good choice for first time players owing mainly to the strings they are fitted with. They are softer and easier on the fingers.

1. Tension
Classical string sets come in different tensions. Low tension strings are easier to play and work well on instruments that have a high action but will not have the level of tone and volume of a normal tension set. Normal tension sets are a great all round option for most players and styles offering balance across the neck. High or Hard tension sets produce better tone, note projection, and volume but can be more difficult to play on guitars with higher actions.

2. Ball or Tie End
Ball-ended strings are much easier fit as the string is fed through the bridge and locates itself via a ball end behind the saddle. Tie-ends require the string to be tied on around the bridge. This is the traditional method for attaching strings to a classical guitar.

Choosing Your Strings
So here are some rules of thumb when considering strings for your acoustic guitar:
  1. What sort of guitar are you buying them for – Steel string acoustic or Nylon string classical?
  2. What style do you play? Strumming, Finger style or both?
  3. What string gauge is best suited for style and experience?
  4. Do you want a coated or uncoated set?
When Should I Change My Strings?
To keep your guitar sounding and feeling at its best, you should change your strings every 4-6 weeks of regular use. Old strings will develop tuning issues, sound dull, and lose sustain and volume. As they corrode, some strings will begin to feel rough when you run your finger along the strings. Older strings also increase the potential for breakage during play.

Keeping your strings clean by wiping them down with a clean soft cloth after every playing session with help prolong the life of your strings.

If you're still unsure of what strings to buy for your acoustic guitar, just bring your guitar into The Music Spot and one of our friendly staff will assist in getting the right strings fitted for your instrument.

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