Aside from being your little buddies that help you bring tears to eyes and smiles to faces, what are guitar strings? Today we will unwind the mysteries of this simple, yet vital component of your guitar. Hopefully, by pondering a few simple questions, the answers will increase your confidence and help you become more comfortable with your instrument.
As we are trying to stay basic, we won’t get too technical in this article. I will also refer to tone, pitch, timbre etc as sound for most instances in this article to keep things simple. Without further ado, let us begin.
A Basic Definition For All
Simply put guitar strings are the “wires” that you and I pluck, pick, strum or tap producing vibrations through the air which we humans perceive as sound. This sound is possible as each string is kept under a specific tension (a pulling force). This specific tension varies for each string and when achieved the string is said to be in tune and will sing the right sound.
Each string has a varying thickness known as a gauge. You may be familiar with the terms light gauge or heavy gauge, this respectively refers to thinner and thicker string thicknesses. These gauge variations coupled with precise tensions and material types produce the desired sounds from those strings.
Guitar strings can affect the mood of your music due to their properties. They can sound happy or sad, bright or dull. You can almost think of each string as having a different personality and when these personalities come together for a common goal or purpose, they can create something none of them could even dream of accomplishing on their own.
What is Standard tuning? I am glad that you asked! This is the most basic tuning (specific string tension) of each string which basically makes it easier to play the guitar. When starting out it is not uncommon to stick to standard tuning until you become more adventurous, however, you shouldn’t take standard tuning for granted just yet.
Although seemingly mundane, the discovery of standard tuning is no small thing for our strings. In order for comfort and versatility when playing the guitar these specific notes were selected. Without this arrangement of notes, it would be difficult if not impossible to play certain chord shapes or scales, thus making it much harder to enjoy your guitar.
To play a string open means that you are not pressing down (fretting) any notes on that string. From the thinnest to the thickest string the notes of the string when played open – are as follows.
6 String Guitars
- E (This is the thinnest string- High E)
- E (This is the thickest string -Low E)
4 String Bass
- G (This is the thinnest string)
- E (This is the thickest string)
12 String Guitar (Don’t be scared)
- G (Octave)
- D (Octave)
- A (Octave)
- E (Octave)
An octave is played by moving 8 notes or moving 12 frets up on a guitar string. On a guitar neck, there is a flat surface behind the strings known as the fretboard. The thin metal pieces that divide the fretboard into segments are called frets. Pressing a string down onto one of the spaces between the frets is called fretting or playing a note.
Each of these open notes above corresponds to a certain pitch (how high or low the sound is). There are variations to tuning, however standard tuning enable you to play a wide range of notes, chords, and scales that other configurations would not be able to provide.
It is a good idea to always make sure your instrument is in tune. Whether using a digital tuner, tuning fork, a pitch pipe or even another in tune instrument such as a piano. This will result in better ear training as you will become better at recognizing the individual notes as well as the overall sound of standard tuning.
What Are They Made Of?
Historically guitar strings were made of intestines from animals (usually cattle or sheep), and while still available these material types are rarer and more expensive when comparing them to their modern counterparts.
The newer alternatives offer a far more economical solution and wonderful sound quality. Aside from the basic strings – made from one type of material – there are also strings made from a combination of materials. These combinations usually have one material type in the centre (core) surrounded by a second material type (winding).
Examples of “plain strings”
- nylon strings
- Steel strings
Examples of “composite” strings
- Phosphor Bronze
- 80/20 Bronze (Actually brass)
- Nickel Plated Steel (usually identified on packs as nickel wound)
If you have access to old strings you can take a look at the end of the string and see the core and the surrounding winding.
On a guitar, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings (E, B, and G) are usually a plain metal (most likely steel). The 4th, 5th, and 6th strings (D, B, and E) are what I have referred to as composite strings. These composite strings are named after the winding or coating material. In my case for example. I use nickel wound strings, that is a carbon steel core surrounded by nickel plated steel.
What Strings Do I Have?
Depending on what instrument you have, your string set will vary. Bass guitars have visibly thicker strings compared to acoustic and electric guitars. Many acoustic guitars (usually classical guitars) make use of 3 nylon strings instead of metal strings.
One important thing to take note of is the structure of your guitar. Some guitars are not built to handle the tension that steel strings require in order to be correctly tuned. An example of this may be using steel strings on a classical guitar and ultimately this may cause your guitar to be damaged.
If in doubt, please ask someone who is able to help you avoid such disasters.
Why Are They Important To You?
Aside from the fact that you physically wouldn’t be able to play a single note without them, every single string is important in their own right and unique (like you). The specific tensions that they are set to produce a desired musical sound. This sound or combination of sounds is used by you to create music.
You may also be wondering when to change out your strings. When I started I used to wait for one of them to break before changing my set. Some places tell you to change as often as you play. You will find the right time for you. The frequency of your practice and how hard you are on your strings will also have an impact on when you will need to change them.
One surefire way to tell you that you need to change your strings is to listen. The more you practice, the more familiar you will be with the sound of your in tune guitar. Consistent practice with an in-tune guitar will cause your hearing to adjust to this “right” sound. All strings eventually deteriorate with use and you will most probably be able to hear this with time.
Where To From Here?
Hopefully digesting this information has given you some confidence moving forward as well as encourage you to keep up your musical pursuits. With this basic foundation of guitar strings, my hope is that you will continue to build up your knowledge and skill, and press on to become the best musician that you can be.
All the best and see you in the next article.