LIVE WIRES - Choosing the right strings can make all the difference

STRINGS ARE a guitar's lifeblood. The primary source of a guitar's sound, strings significantly influence the instrument's tone and intonation. A good set of strings can make your guitar come alive with bright and vibrant tone, while old, worn-out strings can cause even the most finely crafted vintage ax to sound flat, lifeless, and out-of-tune.

Players who think only of price when buying a set of replacement strings may be selling themselves short. Putting a cheap set of Rusty's Super Skanky strings on your guitar can be like putting retreads on a Porsche 911. Your guitar may sound okay, but it won't deliver its full potential.

Over the years string manufacturers have introduced dozens of custom-gauge sets to meet the increasingly specialized needs of today's players. But for the uninitiated guitarist, more choices means more questions. Should you choose light, regular or heavy gauge? Nickelplated or stainless steel? Roundwound, half-round or flat-wound? What about coated strings?

According to D'Addario Brand Manager Brian Vance, D'Addario EXL110 strings are the best-selling electric guitar strings in the USA. "EXL110s are the most reliable workhorse and the best-sounding strings for most players," says Vance. "Over the years we've continued to expand our XL line, and we now offer 28 different gauges of XL strings for players."

"Regular"-gauge (.010 to .046 gauge) strings like D'Addario's EXL110s offer a good balance of tone and playability, and are a solid all-around starting choice for players who have yet to develop any particular preferences. Lighter gauge sets are easier to bend, but the tone, especially on the lower bass strings, can be significantly thinner. Players like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani tended to favor light strings during the Eighties and Nineties because they make it easier to execute extreme note bends. Heavier sets have heavier tone, but the increased tension can make the strings very difficult to bend and more of a struggle to play.

As guitarists began experimenting with alternate tunings and tuning their guitars down one or even two whole steps to D or C, heavier strings became more popular. When tuned down, regular and light gauge strings can become too floppy and difficult to play in tune. Sets like Ernie Ball's Beefy Slinky and D'Addario's EXL145s are designed to provide the proper playing tension and intonation when a guitar is tuned down.

"More and more players are experimenting with custom sets," says Vance. "They want to know what gauge is best to use when they tune a string down to a certain note to maintain balanced tension for a set. D'Addario has a PDF on our website (daddariostrings.com) that provides a tension guide. If you want to tune your low E down to C but want to keep everything else the same, this guide will tell you what gauge strings you should use."

The materials from which the strings are made also significantly influence a guitar's tone. Nickel-plated steel and stainless steel are the most common wrap materials for electric guitar strings. DR offers strings featuring pure nickel wrap, similar to strings made in the Fifties and Sixties. Dean Markley's innovations include SLP strings, which are made of nickel-iron alloy, and Blue Steel, which are treated with -320 degree liquid nitrogen to harden the strings for longer life and to provide brighter tone.

  • Nickel-plated steel strings are the most popular as they provide a good balance of lively tone, smooth feel and playability. Stainless-steel strings are more magnetic and offer hotter output in addition to brighter tone, but they tend to feel rougher under the fingers and can wear out a guitar's frets more quickly owing to the strings' increased hardness. Pure nickel-wrap strings are less
  • magnetic and tend to sound mellower. "The preferred standard today is nickel plated steel," says Vance. "The plating gives the smoothness and feel of nickel, but it has more brightness and volume than pure nickel."

Round-wound strings are vastly more popular than alternatives like half-round
and flat-wound strings, but half- and flat-wounds are worth consideration if you're looking for something different. With their warm, mellow tone, flat-wound
strings were long the preference of jazz guitarists, but they're also great for playing rockabilly, surf and other retro styles. Half-round strings start off as round-wounds, but the wrappings are ground to a smooth surface to provide a compromise between the smooth feel of a flat-wound string and the brighter tone of a round-wound. "Half-rounds are great for slide players who want less surface noise," says Vance. "They're also easier to bend than flat-wounds, so they're a nice hybrid for blues-jazz players."

Coated strings have enjoyed increased popularity over the last ten years. Elixir was the first company to offer polymer-coated strings, but now almost every major string company—D'Addario, Dean Markley, Black Diamond, DR—offers their own sets of coated strings. The polymer coating keeps strings from oxidizing and collecting residues, allowing them to retain their brightness and "fresh" sound three to four times longer than ordinay strings. Coated strings are more costly, but they're ideal for players who don't want to change strings frequently. "Coated strings are more of a lifestyle choice," says Vance. "They're for players who'd rather spend more time playing than changing strings. Players who were turned off by coated strings several years ago would be surprised how far the technology has come today. Most people have a hard time hearing or feeling the difference between coated and regular strings."

If you're not sure what strings are right for you, it may be time to start experimenting with the different choices available. Trying a new set of strings is the easiest way to change your guitar's tone, and with most strings costing between $4 to $12 a set, it's also inexpensive. Finding the properly matched strings for your sound and playing style can make your guitar seem like an entirely new instrument, and it's a lot cheaper than buying a new ax.