Alright, we all know that there are a lot of things that go into creating a guitarist’s signature tone. There are the obvious ones such as the pickups along with everything that goes with them such as the type, materials used, size, winding and construction. Then there are of course the other big players such as amps, cabinets, cables, effects and the type of guitar you sling. But among all of these choices, no one single variable can alter the entire tone of your ax as drastically – and economically – as your choice in strings. Yeah, I know – nothing you didn’t realize already I’m sure as anyone who has bought a new set of strings can easily hear the difference between a new batch as opposed to a dead set. But there’s so much more that go into strings than just new versus old, plenty more, which brings me to today’s topic, that’s right, all about strings.
Let’s start off with their basic construction. The end of the string that mounts to the instrument's tuning machines is usually plain and depending on the instrument, the string's other fixed end may have either a plain, loop, or ball end (actually a short brass cylinder) that attaches the string at the end opposite the tuning mechanism. Strings for some instruments may be wrapped with silk at the ends to protect the string. The color and pattern of the silk often identifies attributes of the string, such as manufacturer, size, intended pitch and so on. Alright, now let’s take a look at the simplest form of electric guitar strings.
These are essentially the most common type of strings available and thus the most widely used. They are also the least expensive as far as cost of construction goes so that should have something to do with its overreaching popularity. They are essentially composed of a round core inside round-winding wire which is wound in a tight spiral around it. But as far as tone goes, roundwound strings are known for the bright sound and high mid harmonics – that’s if they’re new. Overtime, roundwound strings become dull, giving your tone a flat type of sound without any of that signature sparkle. I’m sure we all know how a dead set of strings sound like. Bassists who tend to play funk and use the slap bass, popping and tapping techniques for one tend to prefer roundwound strings because the signature bright tone offers the best compatibility for their style. But being the most overall economic option means that it comes with its fair share of drawbacks such as:
- Increased finger noise – due to the small “bumps” caused by the winding of the wire around the string’s core, squeaking sounds can be heard when a player slides his fingers across the strings. This sound is very well known and although there are several musicians who have used that very sound purposefully as an advantage, it is generally unwanted.
- Shorter lifespan – overall, roundwound strings tend to die out quicker than most other types of strings due to the ridges and crevices of the “bumps” and their knack for attracting dirt and oil. This can make roundwound strings start to lose their signature bright tone after only a few weeks which makes changing them a much more frequent occurrence.
- Increased fingerboard and fret wire wear – those same small bumps are at it again, this time causing a gradual wear down of your fingerboard and fret wires due to increased friction of the string’s ridges.
- Can impair general playability – the winding on these strings is not always secure and can freely rotate around its core, especially if the winding becomes damaged due to use, making it harder to push down on and hold with your fingers.
Notice the key differences between a roundwound string (top) and a flatwound (bottom) such as the smoothness of the ridges.
The next most common type of electric guitar string out there is the faltwound. Very similar to the roundwound string as far as general construction is concerned but with one huge and very important difference: the winding on these strings have a rounded square cross-section that makes for a flat, shallower profile – hence the name – as opposed to those “bumps” on the roundwound. While it might not sound like much, this makes for much more comfortable playing, especially when sliding. Not only that, many of the other drawbacks of the roundwound are also tamed with this string such as less fingerboard and fret wire wear (which makes them an especially popular choice for fretless instruments), decreased squeaking and longer lifespan due to the few and smaller grooves for dirt and oil to build up in. They also usually cost more than roundwounds because they are in less demand which in turn means less production along with the generally higher overhead cost required with flatwounds. This extra cost is caused by the more intricate manufacturing techniques needed to create a precise alignment of the flat sides as opposed to roundwounds in which some rotation in the winding is acceptable.
As far as tone goes, a popular description among several musicians is that a new set of faltwounds will sound like a worn set of roundwounds, meaning they sound much less bright and have a mellower feel to them with much more bottom end. This is why flatwounds tend to be much more popular with jazz bassists and not so much in rock, R&B and funk which tend to prefer the bright punch of the roundwounds (a popular exception being Paul McCartney’s Beatle bass tone which is much closer to the sound flatwound strings although I’m not positive whether it was because he actually used flatwounds or worn-in rounwounds).
Also known as ground wound or pressure wound, these strings are essentially a cross between the flats and the rounds. The name comes from the fact that that these strings are basically roundwounds that have been smoothed out through either pressure or grinding, hence the names. Anyways, if you don’t like the shallow, mellow sound of the flatwounds but don’t feel like giving up its extra comfort, less finger noise and longer lifespan, then halfwounds are probably the right type of strings for you. These pretty much give you the best of both worlds with more mid-level tones of the rounds and the comfort and smoothness of the flats.
And of course, there are other variations available. Hexwound strings for example are composed of a hexagonal core and a tight, usually round winding that closely fits a hexagonal shape. The main benefit of this construction is that it better prevents the winding from slipping around the core which is a common problem with the roundwounds.
Hexwound strings are named after the shape of their hexagonal core
Some musicians out there claim that hex-core strings improve on tone due to the closer bond between the core and the winding although that is not a general consensus. But it’s not all positives with the hexwounds; the relatively sharp hexagonal corners of these strings are less comfortable for fingers and can easily wear down the fingerboard and fret wire faster than even roundwounds. This type of string is more commonly found on low-range frequency minded instruments such as the bass.
Coated strings are among the newest type of string innovation around and have become pretty popular with many players. The main reason for coating guitar strings was to reduce the frequency of corrosion, especially in those strings made from metals highly susceptible to oxidation such as bronze which is very popular for acoustic guitars. Another benefit of coated strings is that they tend to keep their brand new bright tone much longer than uncoated strings and are also generally smoother on the fingers like flatwounds. But that’s not to say they don’t come without their fair share of drawbacks. Coating a string for one is a much more expensive process that in turn gets added to the cost of the strings. That coating also wears out over time, even as little as a month depending on the quality of the coating. Also, the thickness of the coating – which can vary from brand to brand – will have a drastic effect on the tone of the strings. It just comes down to simple physics: String mass is proportional to tonal frequency. Thinner coatings are more transparent to tonal changes than thicker coatings. However, there is a price to be paid – the thinner coating is more likely to wear away faster.
There you have it, hopefully there are plenty of you out there who learned a thing or two about how important strings can be to the overall tone of an instrument. Whether you’re the type of player who likes the classic bright sound of the roundwounds, the mellower feel of the flatwounds or maybe something in between – or even completely different – it’s good to know that there are plenty of choices out there to satisfy every last one of you tonephiles. Happy hunting with that signature tone!
*All images except for Ernie Ball Super Slinkys courtesy of Wikimedia Commons