how they're made, how they fit, why they last
Spare some time and thought for those fiddly pieces of wire stretched twixt nut and bridge, as Paul Colbert gets all wound up on your behalf
Funny to think there's an industry which scours valuable metals from the depths of the earth so they can be relocated on rehearsal room floors... in skinny lengths.
We speak, irreverently, of the guitar string business. Of course, to dismiss the whole game as a system of transport for select diners at the periodic table would be churlish. There's a lot of science in it. Strings do begin life on the end of one axe (the miner's pick) and complete it on another. The why, what, and how of their stuff in the intervening period are the subject of this feature.
Electric guitar strings — and it's those we're mostly concerned with here — must be of a material that will produce a strong output from the pickup magnets. They're made in the same way as acoustic strings — a central core with a winding wrapped around it — but the material is different. It's generally nickel or stainless steel for electrics; bronze or one of its alloys for acoustics.
The pitch a string produces relies on the position at which it is fretted, the tension it's under, and its mass. To make low strings of the correct mass, you could turn them out as solid lengths of the metal, but that presents practical production problems. So the accepted solution has been to start with a solid core of high grade plated steel and wrap a winding around it to increase the mass to the desired level.
Large scale producers of strings may opt for either machines to wrap the windings, or stick to skilled, craftsmanly, hand made methods. The former can be cheaper, but has drawbacks further on. For example, a hand-made string will have its core bent around the ball end (that bit which stops the string disappearing through the bridge — the knot in the cottoned needle). The core can then be twisted back around itself to keep the ball end in place. When it comes to the winding, the outer coating is wrapped round the whole thing, twist as well, making it nice and neat. But machine-produced strings are made in huge lengths later snipped to measure. Consequently the core and winding have to go round the ball end, and be twisted to make a thicker, stubby and sometimes jagged surface. That's why you'll sometimes find silk encasing the twisted part, to save our fingers from the spikey threat. But we digress.
There are three common styles of winding, all to do with the cross section of the wrapping. If it's circular, like the core, it's a roundwound, if it's square then it's flat- or tape-wound and if it was circular but has had the top curve shaved off, it's groundwound.
Roundwound strings are the brightest. This is thought, by James How Industries, makers of Superwound, etc, to be down to the direction in which they vibrate. The mellower flatwounds seem to prefer vibrating horizontally and vertically west and east or north and south. Round wounds go everywhere — south west, nor' nor' west, and so on. The smooth surfaced flatwounds are great for cutting down on finger noise, but are muted in tone and have a shorter lifespan.
Groundwounds are a compromise, maintaining some of the round clarity, but restricting the noise. However, their method of manufacture involves removing some of the metal in the grinding process. And the more of that you lose, the softer the tone becomes. Instead, a process of squeezing the finished strings between rollers is now catching on — it flattens the surface without removing any metal. Superwound began to make the technique popular in their Linear finished strings several years ago, and claim that it preserves much of the roundwound sound.
The metal also matters. Stainless steel windings are the brightest if you get the right stainless steel - there are more than 300 varieties. So a roundwound, stainless steel string is the best combination for ear piercing. But... and isn't there always? ...though stainless steel begins life brightly, it passes its treblish peak fairly quickly. Nickel, on the other hand, may start out slightly lower in 'zing' but loses its brightness more slowly. Lesson here. If you're a new-strings-every-gig merchant, stainless steel will give you the most bite. If you're a more occasional strummer, nickel could be a longer term bargain.
So far, however, nickel has proved too soft to be successfully squeezed in the Linea process, say Superwound, but they're working on it. And while we're on the subject, to get the best out of your materials, it's important that the winding is applied while the core is held under just the right tension. The craftsmen responsible for hand finishing strings know from experience how taut the wire should be. Scientifically, it seems to work best if the steel is just two or three pounds under its breaking strain. Much looser and the final results — the notes - will be duller and less sure.
And it's not unknown for the more choosey of musicians to write to Superwound requesting the work of one particular... er... builder??... winder??, well, you know what we mean.
So what happens to these lengths of wonderment once they are on your guitar and twanging? They wear out. Eventually. The constant vibration rearranges the molecules in the metal and the strings will lose their elasticity, and their tone. The other main attack is corrosion, prompted by sweat. Giving your strings a quick wipe down with a dry cloth after you've played will, genuinely, keep them alive longer and have other side effects benefiting the guitar itself.
When the undersides of the strings become corroded and pitted, they inflict far more damage on the frets, chiselling away at them with rusty teeth.
One way of cutting down sweat-induced corrosion would be to stop sweating, of course. So the adage about dusting your hands lightly with Johnson's Baby Powder or the like, before a gig, can help protect your strings as well as reducing embarrassing slips, slides and cock-ups. Speaking of which, the more nervous you become, then generally, the harder you twang, and the harder you bend, so the more likely you are to break a string. Of course, if you know you're more likely to break a string one minute into the set than at any other time, the more nervous you become, etc, etc. If you feel nervous immediately before going on, then is not the time to have one final run through on that really heavy bend bit plus tremolo on your favourite solo.
The baby powder ploy assists your playing and your strings but some techniques may not be so even-handedly helpful. Watch when greasing the nut for a smoother tremolo action. Spilling some of the grease over the strings can dull the tone.
If you're travelling, particularly flying, see if there's any mention of strings in the insurance. You might find you're only covered fully if the guitar is transported with the strings slackened off. Anything under tension is more aggrieved by the odd knock than when it's relaxed. Think about being drunk and falling over.
If you've had ultra light strings on your guitar for years but, due to a sudden onset of jazz you decide that heavyweight cables are now for you... be careful. Don't leap immediately from spider web to anchor chains. In response to popular playing styles, many instruments, especially budget priced Japanese guitars, are made with the intention of being lightly strung. With careful treatment and adjustment they may adapt to weightier gauges, but at least make the transition gradually, and keep an eye on your guitar and its neck throughout the changeover period.
Gauges will vary from 0.008in diameter (O.2O3mm) on Super or Ultra lights (the top E), to 0.060in (1.5mm) for Heavy (the bottom E). If you're a classical player you have tension to worry about, as well as gauge, for the type of nylon used will vary to produce a hard, medium or light action for various styles of playing. (Flamenco chaps like hard strings to suit their fast style and the low action of their instruments.)
Now, to the thankless task of fixing the creatures to your guitar. Many and confused are the ways. We have seen headstocks bowed by the weight of 36 turns round each post, and a macramé of the loose end that would not shame a cushion cover. After a poll around the office and a few handy guitar experts, the following was adopted as the swift, efficient, standard One Two Method.
For Les Paul type machine heads with a single hole through the post: pull the string through the saddle/bridge arrangement, up the neck and poke it through the hole. Bass strings should have some slack, but not be flopping too far beyond the neck. The top three strings should be right if you pull them straight with finger pressure, but do not put them under tension.
The machines on the bass side should turn anticlockwise (as the headstock faces you), and clockwise on the treble side (common practice). So when you're all finished, it will look as if the strings touch the posts on their right hand side for the E, A and D and the left for the G, B and E.
Take the loose end of the string which has come out the far side of the hole and (for the bass three) bend it clockwise around the post and underneath itself (beneath that length of string between the nut and the post). Now bend it upwards — it helps to put a kink in it — until the end is pointing directly at your face (mind those mince pies). Begin to take up the tension, turning the machine head anticlockwise as normal. The string, which is now winding around the post, will tighten against the upturned strip (which you can cut to a safe stubble later) locking it in place and preventing slippage.
Once you get to the top three strings, on the other side of the headstock, angle the loose end back in the anticlockwise direction and then — at least one expert advises — bend the end straight upward, back down under the nut-to-post bit again, then up once more so it forms a loop. Carry on with the tune-up as normal, and that double turn should make absolutely sure you don't slip about when true pitch is essential.
Don't lark around with this business of poking it back through the post-hole again. It doesn't do any good, and it only makes them a pig to get off again later. Two or three times around the posts should be adequate for the bass strings; the number of circlings for the top three will probably depend more on how much the strings stretch than your own cautious planning, but try not to build a platform of steel around the post.
For slotted machines, à la Strat, the bend-it-back-and-poke-it-under game may be more trouble than its worth if the string continually jumps out of the slot. If you do tire of the chase and just decide to wind on until the string grips, at least don't forget to put a right angle bend in the spare end of the string before cutting it off. It goes a small way towards preventing the winding slipping along the core and shortening the useful life of the string. And that, money-minders, is what it's all about.
One Two Training
Feature by Paul Colbert
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