Knowing which strings to buy for your guitar can sometimes be confusing. Some don't even pay that much attention to their string choices. They usually buy whatever is available and don't think twice about it. But if you're a bit savvy and know what you're doing, then the right strings might make all the difference for you.
The first thing I'd like to clarify is the misconception that strings don't make that much of a difference, or that they're pretty much all the same. It's just not true. Each set of strings will sound different pending on what they're used for. They will also feel different and respond differently to your playing style.
So how exactly can you figure out the strings you want and need? It all starts with...
This may seem like a redundant question. After all, they're classical guitar strings. But what seems simple on the surface becomes a rather complex issue once you break it down.
There are a lot of questions you can ask yourself in order to narrow things. For example: will you be using the strings for...
- Playing classical, flamenco or modern music? If classical then what period? Baroque, Romantic, Modern?
- Are the strings destined for practice or playing live?
- Will you be using the strings in a studio or home recording that's meant to go out to the public?
Questions like these will help you understand the kind of strings you need. For example a set of studio strings are a totally different beast than your regular practice strings.
You should also take into consideration your personal playing style, hand strength and personal personal sound preferences (this last one comes with experience and experimentation with different string sets).
When classical guitar started it was common to use sheep or cow intestines as treble strings. These were often plainly referred to as "gut" strings. The bass strings were made of a silk thread core wound with gut.
During the Second World War an instrument maker from New York, Albert Augustine, was unable to secure material for strings due to war restrictions. He decided to use nylon strings when he came across some nylon line in an army surplus store.
He later approached the DuPont company. While skeptical at first that classical guitarists would embrace the sound of nylon strings, DuPont quickly changed their opinion after a blindfolded test was conducted and players chose the nylon strings as sounding best.
When the great classical guitar master, Andres Segovia, came across the strings he became an instant convert, and the rest is, as they say, history.
The classical guitar string set is usually made up of 3 silver wound bass strings and 3 nylon or composite treble strings. Treble strings can also be made up of carbon fiber.
Some luthiers and players have really embraced the sound of fluorocarbon polymers treble strings, especially for the smooth transition between the G string and the bass wound strings.
There are also bass strings that are bronze wound instead of silver, although these are not as popular.
As you may already know, classical guitar strings come in different tensions. From light, to medium and hard tension.
The tension of the string will affect the way the string resonates and how easy it is to play. Obviously hard tension strings will require much more force to press down than light tension.
The amount of tension depends generally on how thick the string is. Let's we have 2 strings that are made up of the same material, and are of the same gauge, meaning that they have the same thickness or circumference. When we tune or tighten a string we are basically applying tension to them. You can imagine it like hanging weight off the string. 12 pounds of tension would be like hanging a 12 pound weight to the string. If the strings are the same, as discussed above, then applying the same tension to both would result in both string playing the same note. The more tension we add, the higher in pitch we go, while less tension lowers the pitch.
What happens when one string is slightly thicker than the other? Now in order to reach the same pitch, the thicker string needs MORE tension applied to it. This means that the thicker string would be in a higher tension state in order to play the same pitch that the thinner string plays.
Note: We are comparing strings made up of the same material. Changing the composition of the material (such as the difference between bass and treble strings) also changes the tension one needs in order to reach a specific pitch.
But why would we want to do this? Why have thicker strings that require more tension? There are a couple of reasons we might want to do that.
- Thicker strings tuned to the same pitch as the thinner strings will, in general, produce a bit more volume, although the attack, or plucking moment of the note will get amplified more than the sustain.
- Some would argue that the sound of a thick string vibrating is a bit more "round" and smoother.
- Thicker strings resonate a bit better with the body of the guitar because they have more mass, move more air and vibrate better with the resonance box of the instrument.
- Thicker strings are also great for forming and training your left and right hand fingers since they require more force to play them. It's like lifting weights on the instrument.
Those seem like some pretty strong arguments for wanting to stick only to hard tension strings. But before you rush out and stock up on them you should also be aware of the problems that they present.
- They tend to ring out for a shorter period of time than the medium or light tension strings. This is because A) they're harder to play therefore the same energy you use to pluck a light tension string will play a hard tension string for shorter time.. and B) because of their tension, they inherently tend to stop vibrating sooner.
- The cycle of the hard tension strings is much smaller. When a string vibrates it moves around in an almost oval type shape (it doesn't just move up and down, or left and right). A tight string will obviously move in a smaller oval pattern (cycle) than a string with more slack (or a thinner one). So that fact that it vibrates better with the body because it's under more tension is offset by the fact that it has a smaller cycle.
- Hard tension strings also have more attack. Because they are strung tighter, they tend to amplify the attack (when the nail picks the string). On an instrument that naturally has so much attack and not so much sustain this may not be what you want.
- Hard tension strings are harder to play. When rehearsing, "lifting weights" on the guitar may be just what "the doctor ordered" for building strength and agility. But when playing live or recording it's all about the music. Anything you can do to make your playing easier in such situations is welcome. People will appreciate a well played piece. Nobody will care that you can "bench-press" hard tension strings on your instrument.
Obviously the reverse is true for lighter tension strings. What you'll want to use will ultimately be based on your preferences as well as WHERE you'll be using the strings - rehearsals or live/studio.
In most cases you'll want one set for your practice routine (which can be cheaper since these will be used a lot and therefore get worn out much faster) and one for your live and recording playing. Of course you can make some compromises and get sets that work well in both circumstances, lasting a long time and sounding great (like these Savarez strings). There are also medium tension strings which combine the best of both worlds - see these examples: Savarez and D'addario.
Note that there are circumstances where certain strings that didn't sound great suddenly fit right in and bring new life to the material. It's easy to see an example of this if you try playing a flamenco piece on light tension and then hard tension strings.
Assuming that the question of tension has been settled, the next question students usually ask is "what brand should I get?" Again there isn't a "one size fits all" answer for this, but with a bit of persistence we can understand what would work best for us.
Experimentation is key here. Try all different brands and see what works best for you. As you put on a fresh set of strings, try to listen to the sound. Compare all the strings and how they react across the fretboard. Is there a string out of the bunch that really stands out? Mark it down in a notebook. Also note when you put them on and how long they lasted as compared to how often you played them.
People want to know what strings I use. I always tell them that just because I pick a set of strings and love them, doesn't mean they will too. Having said this though, I'm going to go over what I use with the hope that you'll find something useful:
For practice I use either D'addario EJ46's which I usually buy as a 3 pack or the Savarez 520R. Also I sometimes throw in an Augustine Red Label. I also like the D'Addario Classical EXP set just because they're coated with a polymer blend that helps keep them in good shape for a longer period. As you can see I don't stick to just one brand, especially when it comes to practicing. This is because practicing is where I spend the majority of my time so it gets boring sometimes to hear the same old string sound. Cycling among the sets I've just listed keeps me from getting burnt-out and makes old pieces sound different when I change sets.
For live I prefer the Thomastik-Infeld Classic N Series which have a nice smooth sound that projects well. They're a bit on the expensive side so I use them on my performance guitar. This is not the guitar I do my regular "chores" on. This may not be something you want to get into right away if you're not at the concert level, although if you can try them once you'll definitely be blown away. The Thomastik-Infeld team use a hand-made process for creating strings and it really shows (in the sound - but also in the price). LaBella 2001 Medium works wonders in some circumstances. While not as classy and great sounding as the Thomastiks, the LaBella concert strings can bring certain material to life better than just about any other string.
For the studio I prefer the D'Addario J51 Pro-Arte. These strings have lightly polished bass strings. This cuts down on string noise as you move your fingers across the bass strings.
Because the bass strings are wound, the ridges from the winding give you that scraping sound as you move your fingers up and down the strings. Polished bases give you some relief from this by flattening out these ridges somewhat, but it all comes at a cost. Polished bases strings don't last very long at all, and when they are worn out you really have to change them because the sound becomes much more noticeable than with regular non-polished strings.
Also, for some reason D'Addario seems to have a problem with G strings as they lack in volume when compared to the other strings. This problem is present in most of their sets. For practicing this isn't a big deal, but when it comes to recording, where all the little imperfections stand out and can be heard a mile away, then you want to deal with this by substituting a G string from another manufacturer like Augustine or Savarez.
Again, find your own favorites. Experiment and see what's out there. Don't be afraid to combine sets once you notice strings that sound great in one set, while the ones that don't sound all that good in that particular set, sound good in another.