Tone Starts With Your Strings


Tone Starts With Your Strings
By Tony Maguire

We can all appreciate the amount of investment, research, and experimentation required in honing a great guitar tone.  The guitar, pickups, amp, and effects all play a significant role.  However, with all of our preparation and care we often overlook probably the most important factor; the guitar strings.

While it is certainly important to select the right type and gauge of strings for you and your instrument, it is our neglect for strings that is the most rampant problem.  The difference in the sound, playability, and sustain between a set of fresh guitar strings and a dead corroded set of strings is night and day.  The degradation of guitar strings happens so gradually sometimes we don’t seem to notice this.  When we do notice it is often misdiagnosed and we find ourselves reaching for the treble which can only compound our tone problem.

Don’t take my word for it.  Pick up your most heavily played guitar and run your guitar pick underneath a string.  The buildup of grime that peels off has been sucking the tone right out of your strings.  Also notice the flat spots on the string above the most frequently used frets.  Not only is this affecting the tone and playability, but it can also lead to breakage.  Next take any handy recording device you have and record a strum of a single open chord held as long as it will sustain.  Repeat this with a set of fresh strings and compare.  The difference in sustain you will be able to measure in seconds, and if you can’t tell a remarkable difference in the brightness and clarity of the tone the buildup must be in your ears.

How often should I change strings?  There is no definitive answer for exactly when you should change strings other then when a string has broken.  It is really up to you.  You may have a higher tolerance for dead strings when practicing or even when rehearsing with your band, but you must be careful not to deceive yourself into settling for less when it really counts.  When performing, recording, working on your tone, or adjusting your guitar you should always be using a fresh set of strings.

I assume most guitar players know the basics to stringing the guitar, and if not you can find plenty of resources available online.  I would like to offer a couple additional, often overlooked, tips:

  • One string at a time:  Whenever possible, string your guitar one string at a time.  The neck and truss rod for your guitar is structurally loaded to compensate for the pressure of the guitar strings.  A set of 12-50’s for example exerts a force of about 140lbs of pressure on the neck of your guitar.  Imagine suspending your guitar face down between two chairs and your 140lb friend takes a seat on it.  You would be horrified right?  This is the stress you are putting on the neck of your guitar essentially when you remove all of the strings at once.  In the short term this can cause tuning and intonation problems.  In the long term it can cause permanent damage.
  • Stretch the strings:  Stretching new guitar strings is extremely important.  The fact of the matter is new strings will stretch a significant amount before they become stable and can reliably stay in tune.  You can either complete this process in advance to playing your guitar, or you will have to suffer through constantly going flat.  Practicing and/or rigorous strumming will not suffice.   You must systematically stretch every part of the string including above the nut and even below the bridge on a guitar such as a Les Paul.  Retune and repeat until stretching no longer affects the tuning of the string.   You can find a great tutorial of the process here.

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What kind of strings do you like using? GHS GBCL Boomers Custom Light Electric Guitar Strings

Any book you can recommend to other artists, music related or not. Tour Smart by Martin Atkins

What is your favorite piece of gear?  Bogner Shiva 80W 1×12 and Reverb Tube Guitar Combo Amp with EL34s Black

One thing you can’t live on the road without?  Ron Jaworski NFL Player’s Card

Who are you listening to now  Les Savy Fav – Root for Ruin

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