Here at TheToneKing.com, we’re always keeping up with the ever-evolving guitar string marketplace
You’ve got the custom-made guitar, the killer amp and the hottest pedals on the floor in front of you. You probably think you’re all set to go, right? Maybe, maybe not. Strings can be taken for granted, but let’s face it: without strings, that painstakingly assembled rig won’t make any music.
In the early days of the electric guitar, strings were mostly an afterthought. Most musicians were content to work with what was available. The story is much different today, however. Strings are just as discussed and debated as nearly any other piece of gear out there. To help you navigate today’s guitar string market and get the most tone out of your preferred set, TheToneKing.com has compiled the following guide to help you sort out the options and determine how these new features can help your tone quest.
For many years, electric guitarists had roughly three choices in wrapped string materials: nickel, nickel-plated steel and stainless steel. But today, musicians have more choices in what their strings are made of, and many of these have recently entered the market.
Most of the new materials that have hit the market have focused on magnetism. The magnetic properties of a string can differ depending on what materials it’s made out of and ultimately effect the tonal characteristics and overall strength of the signal being fed to the amp. For instance, pure nickel strings sound warmer and less aggressive than the more typical nickel-plated steel strings that have become the standard for electric guitar. Nickel strings are magnetic, but it’s magnetic properties aren’t as strong without a good bit of steel added to the recipe. By itself, it won’t “excite” the magnetic field created by the pickups in quite the same way as strings with higher steel content do.
Recently, many manufacturers began experimenting with different alloys to offer strings with increased volume, different tonal profiles and better resistance to aggressive playing and corrosion. Ernie Ball made a major splash among guitarists with it’s Cobalt and M-Steel guitar string sets, which are made from an alloy that, by way of a stronger magnetic relationship with the pickups, is meant to offer great clarity, volume and power while also offering enhanced string life.
D’Addario recently rolled out it’s NYXL series, built upon a “…newly engineered, break-resistant, high-carbon steel core and plain steel alloy..” and use a reformulated nickel-plating on the windings with improved magnetic response and strong mids, according to D’Addario’s website.
When some of these strings first came out, a music store employee told me that he had heard that the companies making strings like this would, within a couple of years, basically cease their production of traditional strings and solely focus on making strings from these new materials. I wouldn’t put any money on that prediction, but it will be interesting to see how much longevity these new materials have in the market.
One time during a guitar lesson, my guitar teacher played an elegant, jazzy line on his guitar and letting out a contented sigh. When I asked him what was going on, he just smiled and said, “New strings.”
We here at TheToneKing.com all know and love that new string feel, but sometimes it feels like only a handful of days before our strings already feel cruddy and worn out. String maintenance is generally pretty straightforward (even more so when you have the TTK-approved Roadie Rag), but for some of us it’s hard to consistently clean and maintain our strings. Fortunately, many players received a lifeline in 1995: the birth of the coated string.
Elixir’s famous coating was conceived during experiments using guitar strings as push-pull cables, when a couple of guitar players involved in the research realized they might be on to something. After some intensive experimentation, analysis and field testing, the grandaddy of coated guitar strings was born.
While Elixirs are still quite popular among coated string users, others have found the coating off-putting and prefer a more traditional feel to their strings. Everly’s Cleartone line of strings hit the street in 2005, becoming the first company to manufacture coated strings sets to retain an uncoated feel. A favorite here at TheToneKing.com is definitely the Cleartone Monster Heavy series, which you’ve no doubt read about here . Other makers weren’t far behind, with D’Addario, Ernie Ball and GHS all offering their own take on the coated string which, like Cleartone strings, don’t have any discernible coating at all.
Coated strings are great if you have trouble staying in the habit of keeping your strings clean or go ages between string changes. Just keep in mind that you’ll throw down a few extra bucks per set.
For the most part, there isn’t a whole lot of variation in the way a modern wound guitar string is constructed. Manufacturers may use core wires of different shapes and sizes and different types of wraps (flatwound, half-round, roundwound), but overall the process is the same. But one manufacturer recently put a slight twist (see what I did there?) on one aspect of the string winding process.
Dean Markley introduced it’s new Helix strings a couple of years back. Using what they described as a “hyper-elliptical winding technique”, the Helix string series purports to create tighter gaps between the windings, effectively adding more overall mass to the string with increasing size or using a denser material. The greater mass is supposed to result in a bigger, fuller tone. The tighter winds also give the wound strings a smoother feel and prevent premature build up of gunk and grime between the windings.
Online reviews seem to be a bit mixed, but strings are a very personal thing and the Helix sets are certainly gaining a following among players, particularly those looking for an alternative to coated strings.
When I was a younger lad, I read about Stevie Ray Vaughn and how he regularly used .013 GHS Nickel Rocker sets on his famous vintage Stratocaster. I then wondered two things: how in the heck does he bend those things, and where in the heck does he buy sets like that? My local music stores didn’t carry much beyond .009s or .010s, with the occasional .008 set available. Even electric .011 sets, which are commonplace now, were tough to find.
Today, players will find a huge variety of sets that cater to almost every need and style available. With many guitar players exploring new sonic ground through dropped and alternate tunings, string manufacturers now offer sets specifically tailored to deliver optimum performance for these new, aggressive styles. With more seven and eight-string guitars on the market, string makers are also ensuring that players have plenty of options to experiment with on extended range instruments. And for those of us with VERY specific string gauge needs, it’s easier than ever to construct your own custom set with brand name single strings at a number of places online.
D’Addario kicked off the new wave of string packaging several years ago when it did away with individual string envelopes in vinyl packaging and introduced it’s environmentally friendly Corrosion Intercept Technology packaging. Not only did the new packaging cut down on the amount of material used in string packages, it sealed the strings in protective envelope to keep them as fresh as the day they came off the winder. It wasn’t long before other manufacturers followed suit, and today some of the biggest string makers use packaging that keeps the strings as fresh as the day they came off of the winder, no matter how far they had to travel.
If you like to stockpile strings by buying them in bulk to save money, this innovation is an excellent step forward. It gives the string hoarder a little extra peace of mind that, if the strings have to sit for a little while, they’ll still be ready to go when you finally pop open the package months (years?) down the road. I’ve certainly had no trouble with strings in environment-proof packaging that have sat in my gear closet for a year or more.
With all the innovations that have taken place in guitar strings, it’s hard to imagine anything that’s been overlooked. Do you think there has been? Is there something new you wish string manufacturers would bring to the players? And, do you think any of the things we’ve talked about here are overhyped or haven’t delivered as promised? Coated strings not doing it for you? New alloys just a bunch of witchcraft? Let’s have a conversation!
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