What Are The Best Guitar Strings?

Once, while chatting with someone about music in general, and guitar in particular, the subject of blues guitar playing – and players – came up. And along with this, the late electric blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan was mentioned.

This in itself wasn’t unusual: SRV was a giant amongst blues guitarists and more particularly those playing electric blues. The person I was talking to said he’d been learning a few riffs and patterns from one of Stevie’s songs, which I said was a great place to start, but the thing that caught my attention was the way the person admitted confidentially – almost apologetically – that he still wasn’t able to play the riffs and patterns with the thick, heavy-gauge strings SRV commonly used.

It took me a moment to nod and sort of commiserate with him, but…the one thing that came to mind – which I didn’t mention due to how earnest this fellow was – was the focus on duplicating one particular aspect of Stevie’s setup instead of going for all the rest; the actual feeling, the passion, the fluidity and absolute command of the instrument.

True, I never heard very much of this guy’s playing – just a few tidbits on an acoustic guitar – but still; it was putting up an extra barrier when none really was needed.

In the late 60s to early 70s, several string manufacturers began putting out lighter-gauge string packs due to players like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and others. Everyone was doing crazy string bends, wide vibratos and lighter strings made that possible. Common string sets before that time were based on what acoustic guitars were strung with: .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054 – thinnest to thickest, or 1st-2nd-3rd-4th-5th and 6th strings.

At first, electric sets were based on these or similar gauges as well, but then legend has it that a few players somewhere began substituting thinner, unwound banjo strings for the top two or three strings of their guitars and things evolved. And when light, extra-light and ultra-light sets became available commercially, the rush was on.

It may not seem there’s much difference between a .012 high E string and a .008 high E, but there is. Of course, they would break that much easier, but to be able to bend notes easily and with facility was the main object. There were, and are, enough things to fight against while playing the guitar, and removing one of them made all the difference in the world.

Of course, thinner strings sounded, well, thinner, when used on an acoustic guitar, and the volume would be a bit less, but it was the era of the solo electric guitarist and it was all about fast riffs and complex scales and feel.

I remember my first set of Ernie Ball Extra Slinky strings, gauged .008, .011, .014, .022, .030, .038. It was a revelation. I thought they were the best strings in the world. I’d been fighting with strings starting off in the .012 range, struggling with them and I only wished they’d made these strings sooner. It would’ve made being a beginning guitar player much easier on the fingers.

And…there was no problem with ‘tone’ as that fellow I was talking to mentioned,  because the tone in those days – and these days as well – come from the pickups, the effects pedal arrays, the type and power of the amp and the kind of speakers.

And of course, how loud you play. There’s just nothing like speaker distortion, I can tell you; different from overdrives and preamp stages, fuzz-boxes, distortion pedals and everything else. There’s a certain authority with pure speaker distortion that just gives you the chills.

But getting back to strings: I figured why torture myself struggling with thick gauge strings? As time went on, I eventually worked up to .009 sets, then .010 sets, and then went to .011s for a short while before returning to – and staying with – .010s.

Nice round number. I also settled on the D’Addario brand because at the time they were competitively priced and seemed not to break as often. And believe me you don’t want a string to break when you’re playing a Stratocaster with a standard vibrato bar; especially when you’re onstage, in the middle of a song.

And not only that, but they were, at least for me, a good crossover for my acoustic guitars as well.

It’s to the point now where you can get an acoustic starter guitar pack (or electric) for less than two hundred dollars US; complete with soft case, tuner, extra strings, guitar strap, etc. Usually the strings that come with these starter guitars are the medium-light .012 sets – standard for full scale acoustic guitars. But it’s also at a point now where you can buy .010 sets just about anywhere online or at a local music store for cheap, and give your fingertips a break. The strings that came on the guitar are most likely quite old by the time it ships, so a change would be good anyhow.

If you’re not familiar with changing strings and there’s a local music store nearby, you might take your newly-purchased starter guitar there (or buy one there to begin with) and have one of the employees change the strings out to lighter gauge. Just watch the store person doing it, ask questions – such as how much string you leave after you run it through the hole in the tuning head (pull it hand-taught, pinch it an inch beyond the peg and push it back that same inch to give slack enough to wind), and you’ll be set to go.

And while you’re at the store, ask the repairman to check the truss-rod adjustment. That’s a whole thing in itself, but if you mention it to the guy, he or she’ll know what you’re talking about and maybe let you see how it’s done.

Like I alluded to earlier, there are enough things to work through when first picking up the guitar (or any instrument where your fingers come in direct contact with the strings), and something as easy to fix as replacing stiffer strings with softer ones, shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

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