Wednesday, January 13, 2010

High Strung

Maestro Segovia

Changed my guitar strings last night whilst watching the old folks documentary.

Stringed instrument players have different views on how often this activity should happen. There are some who install new strings for every gig; some who are still playing on the set that came with the guitar when they got it five years ago.

A lot depends on how often you play, how toxic your skin oils and perspiration are, and how much maintenance you do -- wiping the strings before and after every playing session with a clean cloth, or using some of the string-cleaners made for that, all make a difference.

Even the best strings for guitars aren't that expensive, though in a pinch, you can boil the old ones, dry 'em off, and put them back on, if you are careful.

I tend to fall into the every six months or so category. The basses start to corrode, especially just above the frets. The trebles get stretched out, and they all go out of tune more often. The guitar seemed to lose its punch, has less resonance, seems kind of dead. When that happens, I have to change the strings.

New strings take a while to settle in. As they stretch and set, they will tend to go flat fairly quickly. Tune up, play a few chords, they are all out-of-tune. There are a couple ways to get around this: Play a long session and keep tuning until they start holding notes. When you are ready to quit, tune them all a bit sharp when you put the guitar away. And just accept that for the next few sessions, you'll spend more time turning the pegs.

Then, for a few months, the guitar sounds pretty good. Well. At least as good as I can manage.

The right strings, by the by, can make a so-so instrument sound much better. Of course, there are whole religions based around which strings are the best, but this tends to vary from instrument to instrument. One guitar will sound boffo with Brand-X, another instrument just like it from the same maker won't care for those at all. You have to find the ones your axe likes.

For the classical players out there, if you haven't tried them, you might want to risk a set of Aquila's Alabastro -- I use the normal tension -- and they give my guitar a warm, woody, gut-string tone. Their trebles are what they call Nylgut, and while they are a little spendy, they are way cheaper than real gut strings.


Dojo Rat said...

Aquila strings are fantastic. I use Aquila's with a LOW G on the Ukes, better for Blues and rock. We don't play Hawaiian.
But for the guitars, strings break so often I don't spend the big money.
I also have a bad habit of gleaning through my half-used open packages of strings to replace the broken ones.
- But I can't imagine replacing strings for every gig, I would spend half the time tuning up in a noisy room...

jks9199 said...

An acoustic guitar is a living thing; it's no surprise to me that the strings must "fit" with it just like you need the right woods and varnishes. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the musician figures into the mix, too. You may strum a little more forcefully (or less so) than another person...

steve-vh said...

Interesting tidbit I read the other day about Rory Gallagher, the Irish Guitarist. All the finish on his strat was gone "due to Gallagher's rare blood type which caused his sweat to be unusually acidic".

Steve Perry said...

Apparently is it well-known in musical circles that there are people whose skin oils or sweat are more acidic (or maybe basic) than normal and that they corrode strings much faster than most.

The natural of wound strings is that even wiping them after every session still leaves traces of finger oil and skin flakes in the grooves.

There are pre-coated strings, and goop you can get to wipe on that supposedly helps, but some players don't like the tone that results from using these.

If you pay ten bucks for a set of strings and they last five or six months, that's not real spendy.

Mike Byers said...

I've been pretty happy with Elixir Nanoweb coated steel strings. The first generation of their coated strings sounded a little mushy to me, but the "nanoweb" version sounds just as bright as uncoated strings. These strings do well in high humidity; I gave a couple sets to a buddy in Hanoi, Vietnam and he said they did much better with the 100% humidity, 100 degree summer weather than uncoated strings. I play with steel finger picks on both guitar and banjo, and while the string coating gets a little worn in the area where the picks contact them, they really do last much longer. I often find myself changing strings just because I feel guilty about having one set on so long, not because they're starting to sound bad. If you're a steel string player, you might want to give these a try. I use extra lights on both the guitar and banjo, but I know others who use the heavier ones with no problems.