It is my great hope that this series of articles will enhance your understanding of how important strings are to the creation of your sound, and how the string's role affects your personal technique or style.
Most people don't realize how many factors are involved in the string-design/manufacturing process, and imagine string production as a simple operation.
This article will begin in the modern era and gradually trace the art of string-making back to the 1900's (circa 1910). Strings are the very first part of your "signal path" ( e.g. string, pick, fingers, pickup, cable, amplifier and speakers). You may also assume that there might be a "stomp box" along the way too!
Once the string is picked or set in motion, or made to vibrate, sound will be created at the amp's speaker(s). This is where your personal sound via your own picking technique comes into being, and this is where all the magic begins!
You have probably noticed that different brands of strings (of the same gauge), don't feel or sound the same even if they are constructed of the same material. A good example would be nickel- plated steel. Why is this so? There are many different types of strings used for different purposes.
Some of these types include nickel-plated steel, stainless steel, various bronze and brass alloys, pure nickel roundwound, flat-wound, and semi-flat-wound. There are other alternative compounds available as well! We will analyze these various types at length as they are all vastly different from each other in sound, feel, flexibility and design.
We will discuss recorded musical examples thru-out our rich musical history so you can relate to a particular string type's own sound characteristics where and when they occurred in time. For example, modern strings don't sound anything like the strings that were made and used at the Dawn of Rock "N" Roll. String-making technology was different in those days.
The evolution of string design has changed due to availability of raw materials, advances in the design of string-winding machinery, and the techniques employed in their production. As well as improved process control in raw materials through final production stages.
Just as tube amplifiers were considered the norm in the early days of rock, the strings of that era were likewise viewed as the same.
As we were growing up as kids, our brains were imprinted forever with this sound, but we never psychologically analyzed what exactly it was because we didn't care.....we just dug it! I hope that you find this series of articles enjoyable as well as educational. I really plan to dig in and get our fingernails dirty, to say the least!
Among the subjects we will cover are:
- Why strings of various brands feel, sound, and play differently from each other and have their own personality.
- How a string's tension factor can affect your personal technique and sound.
- Core-to-wrap ratios and how they change the feel and tone of the string.
- Why modern strings don't sound remotely close to the older types of strings.
- How a guitar's weight and wood density affect the sound of any string type.
- How you can customize your sound based upon what guitar and amp rig you use versus what string type you choose, and what style of music you play.
- How a string can physically affect how your hand and forearm really react to different tensile-strengths and gauge sizes.
- Exposing the myth of "A plain string (unwound) is a plain string" and how different steel alloys affect their life, volume, sustain, and bendability.
As you can see, there are many factors involved in the design of a good guitar string, and the afore-mentioned subjects described above are really only the tip of the iceberg! So....with your open minds it is my hope that your playing and sound will become what you really hear in your head.
THE MODERN STRING ERA a.k.a. THE BRIGHT SIDE OF SOUND
Once upon a time...It was April of 1970 and I was a young kid of 15 years old with his newly acquired Fender Telecaster. You know the scene, blond, maple neck, real Jeff Beck-ish. Needless to say, I felt like god! That was until, I broke my left index finger the very next day while playing volley ball in P.E. class!!!
The splint really worked quite well for playing full barre chords, I must admit! After my non-dexterous digit healed, I was jamming full-tilt in many garage-based blues bands as at that particular point in musical time, we were heavily influenced by Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, and Ten Years After.
A few months later, in August, we were sadly informed by the local music store manager that our extra unwound B and high E strings were no longer available free of charge in our then favorite string sets. Jeez! This meant that we would have to go to the store every time we broke our plain .008 and .011 gauge strings unless we bought extra replacements from the all too in- famous "Gauge Box".
As I recall, I would change strings about every month and a half or so. Then, something very strange happened.
The string sets were not the same as before! They were considerably brighter, twangy, and more brittle-sounding then what I had remembered. What's more, they didn't last six weeks...they were as dead as a doornail in three days! With this sad anecdote, we begin our entrance into the modern era of string production and development.
1994 - Most likely a nickel-plated string is yours
In this first installment, we will concentrate on the nickel- plated steel type of electric string to begin with as it is the most common string available today. We will also get a bit into stainless steel strings as they are a major factor in the creation of the modern bass "sound".
Today's strings are typically composed of a steel cover wire coated with a pure nickel plating. This cover wire is wound around the core-wire of the lower three strings (e.g. E, A, and D strings). In total, nickel-plated strings have an eight percent content of pure nickel. The unwound or plain strings are actually tin-plated mandolin wire.
Most of today's manufacturers have their core-wire exposed out from the cover wire between two to five inches. The relationship between the size of the core and the cover wire is called the core-to-wrap ratio.
This ratio is crucial to the string's feel, bendability, sustain, and longevity. For instance, if the core- wire is too small in relation to the cover wire, the string will lose volume and also have a a vastly shorter life span. On the other side of the equation, a thick or heavy core wire will have the same life span problems as a string with a real small core size.
So, the real trick is the marriage of the right size of the core wire to the correct size of the outer wrap or cover wire. If these are properly calibrated, your tone, sustain, bendability, and long life will be greatly enhanced! Other problems which can occur with a heavier core string is that they will take longer to stretch out and reach their optimum stability, and their ability to stay in tune for any reasonable length of time. In addition to this, heavier core strings lack ease of bending due to the extra tension they put on your instrument!
When the core-to-wrap ratio is optimal, strings will stretch out and stay in perfect tune within seconds. Having too large of a core-wire makes a string's flexibility factor suffer. It must also be pointed out that how you maintain your guitar will affect your string's overall performance. For example, watch out for nuts that pinch the string and inhibit its ability to vibrate correctly.
As you try out the many brands of strings available today you will readily hear and feel the difference between them. Be sure to re-set the guitar's intonation when changing brands even if you don't change the gauge combination. Have your technician give your instrument a good going over beforehand so you can really tell the string's own characteristics.
String gauge sizes versus "The Big Tone" theory
Now, here's something to think about...I'm sure that many of you have thought that bigger string gauges will give you a more massive tone. Well, that really depends on quite a few factors! Among them are: what kind of pick you use, how hard you play, which kind of amp and speaker(s) you use, how loud you play, what type of tubes you employ, that is, if you use 'em! Of course, these are just a few components that are involved as string action (or height) can affect volume as well.
Here's a neat comparison: Stevie Ray Vaughan versus Trevor Rabin of the latter few YES albums. SRV in his final days used a pure nickel semi- flatwound string of the following sizes: .011,.015,.019,.028, .038,and.058 respectively. He got a really big sound as his reading of Jimi Hendrix' "Little Wing" on the album "The Sky is Crying" aptly points out. Stevie had a very hard touch with both hands most of the time. This, in conjunction with his amps, pick, and E flat tuning gave him a very dark, rich tone.
I wonder just how many players realize that Trevor Rabin used .008-.038 nickel-plated strings on "Owner of a Lonely Heart" from the "90125" album in 1983. His first three chords of that song definitely woke up a few people! Bear in mind that Trevor was in standard pitch and also used a Stratocaster just like Stevie Ray. What's the difference? Well, for one thing, Rabin has an extremely light touch with both hands, and he uses a really thin Swedish "sharkfin" pick!
When I saw YES live, his amp setup was ridiculously simple...An old Marshall half-stack with one microphone on it and that old MXR Pitch Transposer! I also remember his tech was installing some of Seymour Duncan's "Hot Stack" pickups in his '62 Strat (Hi, Seymour!). Trevor's live tone was just incredible. Even with all the variables, the heart of your sound is in your touch versus your tools.
Both players have really heavy sounds even though they are miles apart from each other musically. As this series expands, we will explore many other sonic examples.
Stainless steel versus nicklel-plated strings
As I mentioned earlier, I would touch upon the stainless steel type string as it is used quite frequently in today's music, especially in its application to bass guitars. But, before we explore its impact on bass instruments, let's look at its functional qualities. I can't help but wonder why they call it "stainless steel". It should really be called "rustless steel" as it's hard to imagine a dense metal having the capability of getting stained! I'm sure that stainless steel was used as an alternative for those players with Ph problems in their sweat. You all know that "You are what you eat!" and what you eat can affect the longevity of your strings! It is true for alot of musicians that this steel alloy does last longer because of its hardness.
It's hard alright, and if you've ever tried a set of these strings, the difference is very noticeable. From the moment you put your fingers on them, they feel incredibly abrasive on a standard electric guitar. They are extremely bright and snappy, and to me,they sound very weird as they produce a sound that can only be described as the difference between a tube and a transistor amplifier. In other words, a tube amp gives you a warm and even harmonic content where solid-state amplifiers sound "funny" to our ears because of the odd or uneven harmonic series they emphasize.
Now, this effect seems to occur in the guitar's natural frequency range as it is higher in frequency then the bass' lower frequency range. Therefore, stainless strings are much less harsh sounding on a bass as compared to the guitar. This is precisely why they are so good for that slap-style of bass playing. The real pitfall of stainless steel strings is that they can eat your frets alive in a New York minute, not to mention the fact that they are more difficult to bend.
THE FAB SIXTIES A.K.A. THE GLORY YEARS
What really happened in that summer of 1970? Well, the major change was in the material that was used to make guitar strings up to that approximate time period!
Remember when in the mid-sixties our metal coins had a new look to them? Specifically, there was a big chunk of copper in the middle of our quarters and half-dollars. I vividly recall this happening in about 1965, as my brother and I were avid collectors of the pure silver JFK quarters. We were getting a bad reputation for bilking every Foster's Freeze and 7-Eleven of every single JFK quarter they had on a daily basis! Between us, we had about 300 of these coins and they were proudly displayed in those nice coin folder type books.
My point is this: Due to the increasing cost of silver and other metals, it no longer made sense to manufacture coins that were actually more expensive than their face value. This is the reason why our mints substituted copper in their currency so they could compensate for their increasing costs of raw materials.
In our last installment, we saw that our guitar strings changed in their volume, tone and especially their short usable life span. The strings that were made before this time were made of pure nickel instead of the newly found nickel-plated steel formula, which was also much,much cheaper to produce than their pure nickel predecessors!
The most important aspect that was completely lost with the nickel- plated strings was the warmth and tone of the final sound that came from your amp. Another great advantage of the earlier nickel string, was that they actually felt and sounded better as time went on! One analogy might go like this: pure nickel strings are like a fine Cabernet Savignon wine that has sat in a controlled temperature wine cellar for five years to age. These strings have many differences to them as compared to the other forms of strings we will study.
Nickel-plated steel vs. pure nickel roundwound strings
Nickel-plated strings have more output to them because of their higher content of steel, which is much more magnetic than the earlier pure nickel style string. Steel is much more active with your pickup's magnetic field, so it interacts more with the pole-pieces to give you your increased output signal.
When you try a pure nickel string, output is reduced because the pole-pieces of your pickup are actually "listening" to the magnetism of the steel core- wire inside the lower three wound strings. Again, keep in mind that nickel is less magnetic as compared to steel.
Certain instruments respond extremely well with the pure nickel type and sound much more bell-like than if they are strung with the louder nickel-plated string types. Good examples are instruments that have single-coil pickups as original equipment (e.g. Strats, Teles, Les Paul Juniors with the p-90's, Rickenbackers of either six or twelve strings, or any other Fender-type guitars}.
They also sound quite nice on big, fat, jazz guitars such as Super 400's and L-5's, as well as ES-335 types of instruments. Personal taste will dictate which string style suits you best.
On the humbucking side of things, this can be a little harder to decipher. The main reason for this is because many favorite axes like the Les Paul Standards, vary a lot in their wood density and weight. If your guitar weighs a ton, chances are that the pure nickel string will darken the tonal specrum a tad too much.
My own Explorer sounds "tuddy" with the nickels on it, where it sounds just perfect with another louder compound used on the lower three strings! The type of string I prefer on the Explorer is of an alternative type which we will discuss in the near future. Interestingly enough, my PRS Standard sounds great with the pure nickels on it, because the mahogany body is much lighter with less mass as compared to the other guitar.
Another hint for you... if your pickups have ceramic magnets in them and they sound a little too edgy for you, installing pure nickel strings on your guitar will temper the high-end a bit, and add alot more depth to your midrange and bottom-end frequencies.
As you can see, every guitar will respond a little differently to the various types of strings that are currently available. The key is patience and the willingness to spend a fair amount of time to experiment, so you can really dial in your own sound.
String types and fret-wear
Different strings can affect the life of your frets in a very profound way. The rule of thumb is simple....the harder the metal, and the harder your left hand hammers the fingerboard, your frets will not last as long. I know players who have to re-fret their axes on an annual basis because their technique of their left hand beats the hell out of the frets.
Frets are usually 18% nickel-silver in content, so they are actually quite soft and prone to abuse from a harder metal compound sitting directly above them. I'm sure that most of you out there have seen things like divots, and the crown of the fret going a bit square-ish. This is also a great indicator of what positions and keys you like to play in! If you're like me, I play all over the neck, and don't favor any particular position. I guess this is due to my jazz background. I think this is a blessing in disquise, as I take about ten years to wear a set of frets.
This is also due to the fact that I use strings that are softer than most of the other strings that are out there. For the record, pure nickel is by far the most friendly to your frets, as nickel is a lot softer than nickel-plated steel or stainless steel.
One last reminder: Your string height plays an important role in relation to the life of your frets. My guitar tech, Stephen White, believes that players that have a higher action on their guitars also have a much harder left hand attack.
Modern sounds vs. vintage tones
I feel obligated to clear up a few misnomers about the "nickel- issue". When you are experimenting with various brands of the two types of strings that we have been analyzing, be sure to watch what you are buying!
Most strings brands today are made of nickel-plated steel compositions, even though they might state on the outer label of the string set that they are "Nickel Wound". This is simply a carry-over from the period when they switched to the new high-octane plated string. Your ears and skilled fingers will readily tell the difference, especially if you have really listened to the music from the 1960's.
Any record that Jimi Hendrix did up to around 1970 or before is definitely the real nickel tone as the open bass strings of his guitar had a shimmering, rich, vibrancy that is really hard to forget! Even though Jimi was known to tune to "E" flat most of the time, it is a hard fact that he also played in standard tuning on some of the earlier recordings such as "Axis: Bold as Love", and the first album.
Early Eric Clapton recordings, especially with John Mayall have that rich sound as well. We also can't leave out the a couple of Johnny Winter records, like "Progressive Blues Experiment" or "Second Winter" either! That's just way too obvious!
When purchasing real nickel strings, be sure they say something to the effect of "Pure Nickel", "Original Nickel", "100% Nickel" and so forth. It is also wise to look for a considerably higher retail price as solid nickel is far more expensive to make. I also should mention that the strings available today of the pure nickel type won't sound exactly the same from one brand to the other, due to the fact that the core-to-wrap ratios are going to be different in each case.
You recall our previous discussion from last month's column? Again, keep in mind that this will change the feel and sound of the string. Every string out in the market has it's own aura about it, so you be the judge. You'll really know it when you've struck the right combination for your own needs.
Sound perception between the would and plain strings
One interesting thing that happens in a guitar string set is that your ear can (and will) play tricks with you. If you have a set of strings that is composed of pure nickel on the lower three wound ones, this will alter the way your ear hears the plain or higher three strings. You can take yet another type of string, like stainless steel, for example, and have the exact same plain strings next to them and they will sound different! This is because your ears "tune in" to the lower three wound strings first, and then compare them to the plain strings last.
The way your ears perceive the plain strings is entirely dependent on how your ear listens to the bass frequencies. This is not my own opinion, as there is a interesting analogy which involved classical guitarists. There were many interviews in the past with famous classical guitarists who, when asked about what strings they used, would reply that they used one brand of strings for the wound ones, and a separate brand for the treble strings! Modern classical string sets for the most part, use a synthetic nylon material for the treble strings that is made by the DuPont company. I just thought I would add that in as food for your hungry brains! This concept is known as "Psycho- Acoustics".
THE FAB SIXTIES A.K.A. THE GLORY YEARS PART 2
Let's look at last month's musical examples and explore what the heck was really going on! Let's take a few cuts from Johnny Winter's "Second Winter" album to start with. The first song on that record was entitled "Memory Pain"...that song was Johnny's infamous Gibson Firebird on the front or "neck" pickup, running through Fender Black-face Twin Reverb amps.
As far as I can tell, from the recording, he was running his amps flat-out in the studio. Since I had seen J.W. and company play live many times at the Fillmore West during San Francisco's musical heyday, I can say that I saw him use Super Reverbs, too, in live situations as well. But, when you listen to the record, his sound wasn't nearly as distorted as it was live. I called amp-guru Ken Fischer for his opinion, as he can tell you what brand of pre-amp tubes are in your amp by listening to the type of background hiss the tube makes while it's running! He totally agreed with me that Johnny was using Twins instead of Supers.
Since you readers know that Ken had worked for Ampeg previously, it's a fact that Johnny Winter also used Ampegs during part of his career. Several years back, I had a brief discussion with Johnny's guitar tech, who when asked what gauge of string Johnny used, told me that he used .010,.013,.017,.026,.036, and .046.
Now, here's the surprize! Johnny uses a wound .017 instead of a plain string. On listening to "Memory Pain", you can actually hear the wound third, as it sounds stiffer and darker on the double-stop chord riffs especially when he adds a bit of vibrato to them. Not only that, but when he solos, you hear the top two strings as being much more glassy than his wound "G" string. Check it out!
I have another theory about why he uses a wound "G": Johnny, as everybody knows, is one hell of a slide player, too. Just listen to "Mean Town Blues", on the "Johnny Winter And/Live" album and I'll rest my case.
"Highway 61 Revisited" is yet another sonic gem (a pure nickel round-wound one at that!) I must say, that during this series, I will make every attempt to get the facts from the actually players themselves whenever possible. I am only interested in presenting you with just the real information or, otherwise this column would not full-fill its true intention.
Now, let's examine Eric Clapton's tone from the famous 1966" John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers" album. This is a fairly well-known sound, as it was a widely acclaimed breakthrough in the guitar's tone from a historical vantage point. That was a vintage Les Paul Standard being played at full volume through a Marshall 2-12 combo with 6L6 tubes as the output section complimented by a tube rectifier. The strings were again a pure nickel round-wound set, as they aided in that nice, round, burnished tone.
This was also around the period when Ernie Ball came into prominence here in the U.S.A. and began exported their custom- gauged "Slinkys" to the United Kingdom. Before this, players would take banjo strings and substitute the lighter gauges for adaptation to their guitars, so they could bend the strings without coming down with a case of lock-jaw!
I want to investigate another pioneer of the late-sixties, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tony probably uses the strangest set of gauges I have ever encountered in my career in the musical field. You might want to be in a sitting position when you read this...he uses .008, .008, .010, .016 wound, .024, and .032! It would be silly to remind you of the heavy sound he got on their first album, "Black Sabbath". Most of you probably know that Tony lost a couple of his fingertips in an industrial accident, and hand-made his own leather prostetics so he could continue playing.
He used an S.G. Special through the early Laney amplifiers, and was one of, if not the first player to de-tune his guitar to get that real dark tonality that made his sound instantly recognized by even the most deaf players! If I'm not mistaken, he had modified his guitar with some ridiculously over-wound custom pickups made by a guy in Britain who ended up in some ill-fated incident.
As I recall, this is what Tony told me in around 1988, and if Tony is reading this article, please correct me if I have gotten any of the above statements incorrect. Since we're on the subject of de-tuning, I thought it would be fun to talk a little about what de-tuning does to your sound and the effect it has on your guitar's scale-length.
The first thing that happens when you tune to a lower pitch is that you lose a lot of top end in your sound. This is because the strings are a bit looser than they are in standard pitch. You must add treble on your amplifier, or use a separate equalizer to make up for the loss of the higher frequencies. Let's take a Fender Stratocaster guitar as a model for the following concept: When you de-tune your Strat to "E" flat, for example, the guitar's scale-length of 25.5" is decreased to 24"!
This is the scale-length of a Fender Mustang or Jaguar. What is actually happening, is that the bendability of a heavier gauge on a Strat in "E" flat will feel the same as if you installed the exact gauges on a Mustang or Jaguar at standard pitch. In standard tuning, you will definitely feel the difference in bendability when you try the same gauge of strings on a Stratocaster versus a shorter Gibson- style scale-length, which is 24.75".
The scale-length has a big influence on how you choose what gauge of strings is right for each instrument. The rule is: the longer the length of the scale, the tighter the string will feel. The shorter the scale, the easier heavier gauges will bend...it's that simple. In future columns, I plan to have guest luthiers and top-notch guitar repairmen discuss these concepts in heavy detail to aid you in your quest for tone.
Causes for de-tuning
There are various different reasons why guitarists have lowered the pitch on their instruments. The first reason is for vocal purposes. Some singers just can't make it up to standard pitch if their life depended upon it, so what's the group to do? Secondly, how about if you're playing with brass instruments that are normally in flatted keys?
A great example of this is the Beatles' song, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away". What's in the background with John Lennon singing? Flutes! Third, the heavier "G" strings of the early days were wound instead of plain, so tuning down would make them easier to bend.
Another good reason is that it sounds big and thick, especially on acoustic guitars, when you are using heavier gauges of strings, like 13-56. I find this is really true on the smaller Martin guitars, like my 000-C16. These instruments are really quite punchy sounding as compared to the Dreadnought style guitars, and when you are recording, they really sound huge when an old tube microphone is used! My friends tell me that my little 000-16 sounds way better than their own D-18s.
Once again, scale-length is at work here as a D-18's scale is 25.4" versus a 000's scale-length of 24.9". My Martin is from 1990, so it has a shorter scale than a D-18 and the neck joins the body at the fourteenth fret. The funniest reason I've heard for de-tuning came from a luthier friend of mine in Stockholm, Sweden. He told me that he heard from reliable sources, that the real reason why Jimi Hendrix played in "E" flat, was because his roadies couldn't see the Conn Strobo-tuner very accurately when they were on acid! Now, that's funny.
Speaking of Jimi, I am doing some deep research on him at the current time, because I have many questions about his amp set- ups during the first two albums. I must be right on the money with Jimi, due to his vast array of tones and his impact on this era that we are investigating. It won't be long before I have the information to share with you.
PRECISION MUST BE THE DECISION OR "THE EAU d'STENCH"
I have decided to take a quick respite from the 'sixties' to address a situation which needs explanation as it is all too common in the string making community. We will concentrate our focus to defective strings and how they effect you, the end consumer.
Right now, I would like to introduce my friend and colleague, guitar technician extraordinaire Stephen White, of Berkeley, California, who will discuss the technical mysteries of how you can spot defective strings you will encounter along your aural trip into the "tone zone". Be forwarned...Stephen will definitely open your eyes to things to which you probably haven't given even the most remote thought!
"Hello, my name is Stephen White; I have been repairing and building guitars and electric basses in the Bay Area since 1979. Dean has invited me to submit a deranged, vitriolic critique of the current state of string manufacturing, so here goes: Defective strings are undoubtably the single most common product failure encountered by musicians today.
Basically, strings suck! Consider your own experience: how many times have you installed a new set of strings on your favorite saw, only to find that one or more of the new strings (probably the `G' string) didn't tune up well, or sounded `funny'? You probably thought to yourself `Gee, my ears aren't working right suddenly...' or, `Wow, what's wrong with my amp?' Well, Guess what, Holmes...It´s the damned strings!
Time after time customers call me on the phone, screeching and howling about `mysterious problems' with their guitars, which wind up being `just' defective strings. AAAARGH! Believe it or not, in my repair work, a string has about 30 seconds to perform correctly, or it's history! I find that between 5 and 15 percent (depending on brand) of all `G' strings (.016" and heavier plain strings) are defective. This is totally appalling. Can you imagine guitarists putting up with any other product failing one time in seven out of the box? Brand New? AAAAAAAAAARGH!!
The eau d'stench
The problem is, string failure can be subtle. Un-tunability, `double-tones' (hearing two pitches simultaneously), weird oscillations of pitch, `deadness' (poor high- frequency harmonic response) and bizarre `sitar' sounds are all symptoms of funky-butt defective strings. If you think that you might be trapped in this hellish labyrinth, here are some (relatively) easy tests that you can perform in the privacy of your own little God-fearing American home...the first test for spotting defective strings is actually performed right when you remove them from their individual paper envelopes.
By un-winding the string and letting it hang down from the ball-end, you can instantly spot the most common string problem: Bent new strings! Gentle `wave' curves are usually okay, but actual tight bends or kinks (say, a 45 degree bend in 3/4") mean that your nice, new string is totalled!
Don't even bother to put it on your bad saw; it won't ever, ever play in tune. Forget it! Now, for the second test. Some of you lucky souls out there have access to a micrometer. Using this tool, you can check the thickness of the string in question every inch or so. If you find a deviation in thickness of more than .0002" (two-tenths of a thousandth of an inch) on a plain string, you're smelling The eau d'stench!
Two or three `tenths' (tenths of a thousandth of an inch) are acceptable (barely) in a wound string, but any more that...You´re biting! Now, I realize that most of you probably don't have a micrometer at your disposal (you may be able to borrow one from one of your friends who works on cars; they almost always own one), so here's a way to check for deviations in plain string thickness by hand (this test won't work on wound strings).
Tools that you will need for this test:
- Your hands
- A basin of water as hot as you can stand in which to soak your hand
- A stable place to lay your guitar Completely slack (de-tune) the string in question, and lay the guitar on a very stable surface. Soak your hands in a basin of hot water, (bet you couldn't guess this part), this will sensitize the nerves in your finger-tips. Note: Guitarists will get better results using their right hand for this, since their left-hand finger-tips SHOULD be very calloused.
Gently pinch the string near one end and slowly slide your finger-tips along the string, feeling for any variation in thickness. This might sound crazy, but you can (with practice) actually feel the difference between, say, a .016 string and a .0165 `lump', IF the change in size happens pretty abruptly. Usually, at least in my experience, string gauge deviation is either consistant along the entire length of the string (a `.010'string that's actually .0095, for example) or the gauge deviation is more like a lump; these can be detected. Plating quality (or the total lack thereof) is also critical to the string's performance and life span, and it's just possible that the overall standards in the string `biz' for plating are even lower than they are for gauge accuracy. AAAAAAAAAAAAAARGHH!!! (if you don't believe me, examine your strings under a magnifying glass; then start building pipe bombs!)
Next we'll discuss wound strings, after my blood pressure medicine kicks in.
If you think plain strings are rank, just contemplate the hellish impossibility of taking a crummy, out-of-tolerance, lumpy, twisted (literally-the hexagonal cross-section of the core twists) hex-core wire and wrapping it with a miserable, bilious nickel-plated wire that you wouldn't dream of bringing home to mother (it's a very loose wire!) Seriously, though, the difficulties in producing top-notch wound strings are far greater than in doing plain strings.
The tension with which the outer layer is wrapped onto the core-wire (for example), is absolutely critical and only a very narrow range of tension will work. Typical symptoms of over-tightened windings are `scuffing'; shiny spots on the surface of the winds or areas where it looks as though the string has been flattened. Symptoms of loose winding are more obvious; The aforementioned bizarre `sitar' noises on fretted notes (`sitar' noises on the open note are usually caused by a mis-cut nut), insane fuzzbox-like sounds when playing with clean amp settings and sudden disintigration of the winding on one section of the string.
Double-tones on wound strings can be caused by mis-tensioned winding, lumpy core-wires, or by the other big problem with strings on electric guitars; the magnetic field of the pickups! Magnetism of pickups is a horrendous problem (if you're actually trying to play in tune) which has been largely ignored in previous discussions of guitar problems. Wound strings are more sensitive to magnetic interference than plain strings because they are normally stretched to lower tensile loads; i.e. they are tuned to lower pitches.
I realize that I've been ragging on these string-things pretty hard, but the point is--- it's almost impossible to make a guitar string well enough, and in my opinion, most of the current crop of string- winding companies are too concerned with the `unit cost' of their product, and not enough with basic quality. Cheapskate, bone-head guitarists are largely to blame for being too bloody `price sensitive'... in other words, You get what you pay for!
Bass strings... I haven't talked about about bass strings at all, yet...well, think about this - I mentioned previously about how wound strings have all the problems that plain strings have, plus the insane problems with trying to perfectly wind another wire around the core-wire? Did you realize that larger bass strings are mostly made by taking a wound string and putting a third layer onto it? 'Nuff said? (YEEEESCH!). Well, that's enough for one rant, I guess."
I sincerely hope that Stephen has shed a little light on the problem that plagues us all at one time or another; As stated earlier, education is the prime directive here, and we are not afraid of the truth.
Now, you readers will be spending less money in your local amp repair shop and less time sitting in the mobile hearing test bus! It is our desire to make you accutely aware of your musical environment so you can really enjoy playing like never before. I'm certain that you would rather be grooving on tone, than cursing at yourself because you're frustrated at creating what you truly want to hear.
THE FAB SIXTIES A.K.A. THE GLORY YEARS PART 3
I'm sure that by now, you have showered and removed the "Eau d' Stench", as it's smell is about as potent as a skunk's defensive (and offensive) spray. At least with the "Eau d' Stench", bathing yourself in a tub of tomato juice is not required! Hopefully, when the "Stench" sneaks upon your senses, you will notice it's haunting, aromatic, odor as it will be very familiar to you. You will be in that mental state of what is known as `deep knowing', in other terminology, let the buyer beware!
Now, we'll resume our trip back into the late `sixties' and discuss the equipment that the musicians of that era were using and how it affected their sound. A couple of days ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to Roger Mayer, who, as most of you know, was Jimi Hendrix' ace electronic wizard and guitar technician. In our relatively brief conversation, he really enlightened me about Jimi's equipment as far as what was actually employed in the studio sessions from the `Axis: Bold as Love' period forward.
Roger informed me that some of Jimi's arsenal of amps included `Sound City' 100 watt stacks for the cleaner sounds, and Marshall stacks for the heavier, distortion sounds. In some applications, Jimi would run directly into the console. According to Roger, there was a Fender Twin used as well during the `Electric- Ladyland' sessions. While we're on the subject of amps, it should be mentioned that there were two versions of the `Sound City' heads, one having a sextet of EL-34's with a 100 watt rating, and a 200 watt version with a quartet of KT-88's as the output section in that amp.
Everybody knows that Roger modified a lot of Jimi's effects, such as his wah pedal and his Fuzz-Face. It is very common knowledge that Hendrix used a Uni-vibe vibrato-chorus unit as well. Jimi was also known to fiddle with just about anything that was new on the scene, so he could find a way to incorporate them into his musical bag of tricks.
There is yet another player in this saga when it concerns Jimi's amplification. This person is Buck Munger; former head of artist relations at Sunn Musical Equipment, located outside of Portland, Oregon. Buck had signed a deal with Jimi Hendrix during the famous Monterey Pop Festival in 1967's "Summer of Love". His endorsement was based on special, custom-order amplifiers which were built to Jimi's own personal specifications.
These amps had very heavy-duty specially designed transformers which could handle a huge amount of volume. These heads had a quartet of KT-88's as the output tubes, and Jimi would use one head with two custom Sunn cabinets loaded with six twelve-inch JBL's in each one. From what I've researched, Jimi used five heads in his live gigs, and that would equal ten separate speaker enclosures! When you figure that the amps were putting out around 120 watts RMS each, while being cascaded in parallel with each other, that makes a whole lot of noise!
After his stint with Sunn, Buck went on to become the most notorious artist relations manager in Gibson and Moog's history during the seventies. Today, he is the publisher of Portland's own `Two Louies' magazine, which covers the regional scene as it pertains to what is happening in their area musically. The `Louies' got started in 1979, and continues to report on what's hip and exciting.
As far as Jimi's strings were concerned, he used the Fender `150' set which is gauged .010, .013, .015, .026, .032, .038, and composed of a pure-nickel outer jacket in a roundwound format. There is something that is very special about why this particular set worked for Jimi, where it wouldn't work as well for other players.
When you take into consideration the fact that Jimi's Stratocaster was played up-side down, you'll notice that the higher treble strings were closer to his tuning pegs, as his headstock was reversed like a Gibson Firebird, to use an example.
This will create more tension on the strings as they are closer to the nut in comparison to a regular, right-handed Strat. The lower three bass strings are yet another story, since they have more distance to reach their tuning pegs when compared againest a `normal' Strat.
When you have an excess length of string behind the nut, this really affects the way the string feels because there is less tension when tuned to standard pitch. Now, when you add into the equation that Jimi was tuned to `E-flat', you can just imagine how floppy and loose his lower strings felt! My guess is that Jimi Hendrix had a VERY light touch with his left picking hand, not to mention extreme control over his picking technique.
When it came to picks, he used Manny's mediums, in the standard Fender shape. Also, it was brought to my attention by Ken Fischer, that he had seen an old film of Jimi, doing a demo of "Angel" in his Greenwich Village apartment, using a Fender Deluxe amp and his trusty Stratocaster. This song was from his `Cry of Love' album.
Roger Mayer admitted to me that he wasn't at every session, so I'll try to get in touch with Eddie Kramer to get more details about the amp rigs that were used on the `Are You Experienced' sessions. I have heard from other sources that "Purple Haze" and "Hey, Joe" were cut on Noel Redding's old Telecaster where Jimi just turned it around and re-strung it! Just when we thought after all these years, that it was a Strat... NOT! That really turned my head around, that's for sure.
When you really think about it, Jimi's sound was very unique because everything was up-side down and reverse, right down to the angle of his bridge pick-up in conjunction with the pole-piece's staggered arrangement being ass-backwards too. Other interesting notes about Jimi include the `Gibson' stage of his career, in which he was seen using S.G. Customs, Les Paul Customs, and, of course his famous Flying `V'.
During this period, the Darco company had a set of strings out on the market which were called the `Hendrix set'. These strings were pure-nickel also, but, they were slightly different in their size.
Lo and behold, they were what is commonly referred to as the 'Regular Light' set of today, which is: 010 013 017 026 036 046.
Gee, I wonder why he would use this set all of a sudden? I'ts pretty obvious to me that maybe the shorter scale-length of his Gibson guitars could have something to do with this. Imagine how lousy his standard `150' gauge strings would feel on a 24.75" scale instrument, especially when it was tuned down a half-step...
It's also interesting to recall, that on the outer label of these Darco `Funkys', as they were known, that only the .010 gauge set was stamped the `Hendrix set'. Some of you might remember the ugly green package that these strings came in... in fact, they were really nice sounding because they were of a good quality nickel, and they had a real open, airy, sweet tone on the plain strings.
To me, these plain strings sounded a lot like the Martin bronze sets of that era. I believe that the Darco company, at the time, was indeed producing acoustic bronze sets for the Martin folks.
There are a myriad of great tones from this era, such as the Rolling Stone's intro riff to "Midnight Rambler" from their `Let it Bleed' LP. The sound that Keith Richards gets on that particular cut is amazing because of the amount of bass in the tone, and the fact that it isn't `mushy'. Let me tell ya, that's a real bear to duplicate! I believe that tone was created with either a Les Paul Standard or a Les Paul Custom with the three PAF's on the rhythm or neck pickup through a couple of Fender Super Reverbs of Black-face vintage. The 4x10 speaker configuration in those amps give you a really robust tone without the mud in the bottom end.
If you're interested in getting that sound, and you can't find a good Super Reverb or two, a Jim Kelley amp will nail that sound in about three seconds! I really like them, as I have quite a few in my personal collection. They were discontinued in around May of 1985, and they are becoming very sought after. I bought them for spare parts when nobody knew about how good these amps were. If you want to hear some recorded examples of this amp, you can refer to any good Bonnie Raitt record (she uses two single channel models), or you can even whip out Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" from their `Brothers in Arms' album. What a sound!! That's a double channel FACS combo running through a Marshall cabinet on that song.
Other great tones were produced from the first five Deep Purple albums. My personal favorites are the first record, `Shades of Deep Purple' and`Deep Purple: In Rock'. The tonal differences between, say, "Hush" off the first album, and "Child in Time" from `In Rock', are vast opposites. "Hush" was done on a Gibson ES-335 dot-neck, while the latter song was cut with a Stratocaster. Ritchie Blackmore had a real dark sound on the former song; which was again a pure-nickel roundwound string being played through 200 watt Marshall Major stacks which required two cabinets with 30 watt Celestion speakers in order to handle the power of the amplifier properly.
It should also be noted that Ritchie was the very first guitarist to use a factory-installed master volume control on his Marshall amp set-ups. His strings have always been the English-made Picato brand gauged 010 011 010 026 038 048. The tone on "Child in Time" was a little thinner, but not much, as he used the front neck pickup of his Strat for most of the lead tracks. The amps were the same as far as I can tell. If you go back and listen, you'll hear what I mean.
As players, it's always amazing to go back to a piece you haven't heard in 20 years, to find out how your ears have improved, while you're thinking about how difficult it was to get that sound when you were a kid.
Remember how you would sit in your room, dropping the phonogragh needle over and over onto that same, little part that drove you beserk, while wearing out your brand-new record in the process? Now, that was real high-technology, huh? Yeah, right! We were all very frustrated because it was such a time consuming method of learning the licks we wanted. With the introduction of portable cassette players, we saw some relief but not too much, as we would proceed to wear those out too! What I would of given for a simple four-track deck back then... Now, we really have it made due to the advances in the recording industry. Our children really have us over a barrel in this regard!
1993-1994 Dean Farley
Author is well-known string guru whose string brand "Snake Oil Brand Strings" is the crystallization of decades of research that he has put in them. These articles are reprinted from "Vintage Guitar Magazine" 1993-1994 issues.