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Easiest Way to Improve Your Tone

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Change Your Strings!

Close up of guitar neckSounding your best is a constant struggle.  One of the easiest components to sounding your best involves your guitar strings.   Your strings are an often forgotten but nonetheless significant component of your overall sound.

Changing your strings is the most inexpensive way to achieve a noticeable and immediate improvement in your sound. Here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions regarding guitar strings.

Why should I change my strings?

Changing your strings regularly assures that your guitar is sounding the best it can.  The longer strings are played the more they begin to sound dull and lifeless.  As you play, the oils from your fingers gradually coats your strings prohibiting them from ringing out clearly.   When strings are new they sound bright with lots of presence.  This initial “great” sound lasts for a relatively short amount of time, a day or two.  Your strings will still sound “good” for up to a couple of weeks.  After that they settle into a sound that will generally stay consistent for quite a while.  Gradually, as the strings get more coated with the oil from your fingers, the overall sound will become duller.   You can minimize the oil on the strings and thus lengthen the life of your strings somewhat by washing your hands before you play.

How often should I change my strings?

For the average player, strings need to be changed around every 40 hours of playing.  If you play your instrument 30 minutes each day 5 days a week, then you should change your strings every four months or less.  If you play more then you should change your strings more often.  Or, if you just want to brighten up your sound, changing your strings will help.

How do I know if my strings need changing?

  • Time. If you can’t remember the last time you changed your strings, then it is a pretty safe bet that they are due to be changed.

  • Your strings don’t feel smooth. Grab the string between your fingers and gently pull it starting at the sound hole and going up the fingerboard.  If it feels “gunky” or the string doesn’t feel smooth as you are going up it, then it is time to change your strings.

  • Tuning is difficult. If your guitar is in tune when you play the strings open but when you play in different parts of the neck it is out of tune, then it is time to change your strings.

What kind of strings should I buy?

  • Acoustic Guitar Acoustic guitar strings come in basically three sizes or gauges. They are Extra Light, Light, and Medium.  Use extra light strings if your fingers hurt and it is very difficult to press down the strings hard enough to get good contact with the fingerboard.  The advantages of Extra Light strings are that they will be easier to play and press down.  The disadvantages are that they will be a bit softer in volume than a slightly heavier string and they will be more susceptible to breaking.  Light strings will be the best choice for the average player giving good volume and ease to play.  Medium strings will give the most projection in volume but will be slightly harder to play. 

  • Electric Guitar Electric guitar strings come in many variations of size and gauge.  Common gauges go from Extra Light, Light, Medium, and Heavy with various other combinations of string thicknesses.  The lighter the string gauge the easier they will be to play and bend notes.  But the down side is that the lighter the string gauge the more susceptible they will be to breaking.  Also, heavier strings will give you more volume and tone.  So you want to find the balance that fits your playing style.  Experiment with various sizes until you find the one that works for you.

Close up of guitar nut What brand of strings are the best?

Much to the dismay of the string manufacturers and their unending advertising, I have found that strings are all pretty much alike.   I am a professional guitarist and I play guitar everyday for a living.   I have not found any significant difference between different brands of strings in tone, breakability, or in how long they keep their sound.  Much more important than the brand is choosing the right gauge string for the style of guitar playing that you do.

What about coated guitar strings?

Certain strings, like Elixir Strings, have employed a slick coating on their strings to make them more comfortable to play.  Coated strings offer less resistance on your fingers and therefore feel smoother and quicker.  Coated strings are available for acoustic and electric guitars and are generally about twice as expensive as a regular set of strings.   Personally, I prefer having the coating and I will gladly pay a few extra dollars for it.  String manufactures advertise that they will keep their tone much longer than an average string.  I have not found this to be true but they do feel better for me and for that I will buy them.  My advice is try them out and see if you like them.  Some guitarists do not like the slick feel that coated strings give.

Where should I get strings?

  • Local Music Store.  Your local music store will have a wide variety of acoustic and electric guitar strings.  You can easily compare different brands and prices quickly and, if you need, they can usually change them for you for a price.

  • Mail Order. There are numerous mail order catalog music companies that offer a wide selection of strings at, usually, a significant discount.  A quick glance at the advertising section in any guitar magazine will yield several ads for these mail order companies.  Musicians Friend, American Musical Supply and Sweetwater Sound are some of the largest mail order companies.  Call them up and request to be put on their mailing list and you will be soon receiving catalogs to peruse every month or so.

  • Online. A quick search for “Guitar Strings” will yield numerous companies that specialize in selling guitar strings.  One of my favorites is Strings and Beyond. Often, you can find many more kinds of strings online than will be found at your local music store.  Your local music store may only stock 3 or 4 major brands.  It will take a day or two for the strings to be delivered to your door but the wait is made up for in the discounts that you might be able to save.

Changing your strings is the easiest way to make a noticeable change in your sound.  It is often one of the most forgotten ways to improve your sound.  Do yourself a favor.  Go down and get a new set of strings, put them on, and hear the difference.  And remember to wash your hands before you play to add as much life to your strings as possible.  Keep Playing!
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