Guitar strings are one of the most overlooked aspects of a guitar. Players seem to not take much notice to how lousy a guitar will sound in the shop, when it has low-quality .009 gauge strings placed on it. While strings are not the most important aspect to a player's performance, strings are what make the noise that either your pickups, or your sound hole, will produce.
The most important factor in strings is their gauge. The "standard" gauge for strings is .09-.45, which is what pretty much all electric guitars are strung with out of the factory. Acoustic guitars, however, are strung with heavier gauges, such as .12-.48, or .13-.49. The thicknesses of strings are measured in inches, with the thickness of the first string listed, and then the thickest string. The thickness of the individual string may vary from brand to brand. For example, on my D'addario .10-46 strings, the thickness for each individual string is: .010, .013, .017, .026, .036, and .046. However, on my new package of .011 to .049 strings, the thicknesses are .011, .014, .021, .028, .038 and .049, with the third string wound. This type of gauge is ideal for acoustic guitars, where the third string is traditionally wound.
Most rock guitarists use .011-.047 strings, without the third string wound. Many will attest the strings give off a nice, heavy sound. The sound difference will be brought out in tube amps the best, as the tubes interact with guitar playing. You will notice a difference in solid state amps, but it will not be as pronounced.
When buying strings, make sure you look over each individual string thickness, so you don't accidentally buy something you weren't intending to buy. Often, store clerks just look for the first number and hand it to you. Don't blame them; you have to be responsible for how you spend your money.
Normally, for shredding and fast playing and high string bends, .010 or .009 gauge strings are ideal, because they have less tension on them in standard tuning. However, for dropped tunings, use slightly thicker strings. If you are going to be using a dropped-D tuning, where the bottom string is dropped down an extra whole step, it would be ideal to have a gauge of strings where the bottom strings are a little extra thick.
If you are going to be doing a combination of soloing and rhythm playing, there are "hybrid" strings, such as Ernie Ball Slinky Top Heavy Bottom, where the bottom strings are thicker than usual. GHS makes a string gauge of .011 to .070.
Don't be afraid to try different string gauges or different brands. More importantly, don't buy a certain brand because you saw that Simple Plan uses D'addario strings in an issue of Guitar World. If I had paid attention to that, I would have simply refused to use D'addario strings anymore. Simply put, I like the strings, they're inexpensive, they last me a while, and they have environmentally friendly packaging. I have yet to break a string while playing.
Once you buy a new guitar, I would suggest taking off the strings and putting in your preferred brand of strings. If you have a 7 day return policy, use that to your advantage. I have played guitars in one store that sounded nice and had excellent action, but tried it in another store, with different strings, and the sound was horrible and I couldn't move my hands very fast because of the tarnished stock strings. Personally, I prefer nickel wound strings, but that's what I've become accustomed to. You need to decide for yourself.
For cleaning your strings, grab a piece of clean printer paper, and rip off a narrow and long piece. Loop it around a string of your choice for cleaning, and rub it up and down the whole length of the string, from bridge to nut. You may need more than one piece, because a lot of gunk can be caught under strings. I find myself that an unwound third string holds the most dirt. You probably won't get a lot of dirt out of a wound string using the paper only method. If you really want to take care of your strings, you can get a nice string maintenance kit for no more than 30 dollars. String lubricants, cleaners, cutters, and peg winders - all nice tools to have. When changing my strings, I just use a simple wire cutter, thread the strings out of my bridge, and throw on a new one. Be sure to stretch your strings out after placing them on, as new strings will go out of tune very fast. Thicker strings do not go out of tune as quickly as thinner strings, but that doesn't mean a thing if you're going to be using your tremolo bar generously, and really smacking the strings with your pick. Always change one string at a time on your guitar; never take them all off at once. You can twist or warp your guitar.
Some people will tell you to change your strings every month (like on a tutorial DVD I own). Other people do not change their strings in years. Some people put on a fresh pair of strings for every gig. I wouldn't suggest any of these. I change my strings roughly every 2 and a half months. Never change your strings unless you feel that you need to. Some string brands last a lot longer than others, such as Elixir or Dean Markley. However, those strings cost a lot more than my D'addarios. I could spend five bucks every two and a half months or 15 dollars much less often. It's all up to you which strings you want to use.
Many good string brands include: D'addario, Ernie Ball, Dean Markley, Elixir, Gibson, PRS, and Fender. Don't buy a brand of strings because they match the strings on your guitar, you have to like the sound from them. Personally, I'm much happier with a set of ten gauge D'addario strings to a nine gauge Fender stock set. Besides that, the envelopes that Fender strings come in can be switched around or lost. D'addario strings have a colour code right on the string end, which is convenient for me, so I can just reference which string goes in where another string came out.
All in all, a good string has to sound good to you. It doesn't hurt to try a lubricant on a brand of strings that you think is slow. Don't be afraid to buy different brands of strings every time you change. If you find a certain brand breaks on you a lot, and you do live gigs, don't keep buying that brand. Don't be afraid to go up a gauge or down a gauge. Stevie Ray Vaughn himself used .013 gauge strings, and still pulled off very high string bends. Your guitar should be able to fit a heavier gauge of strings, with only a slight intonation, or maybe a truss rod adjustment necessary.
Remember: strings are not all that important in creating your overall tone. Don't spend all your time searching for that perfect string set when you could easily be practicing on your ability to play. The tone that you want to get will come from the action of your fingers. Don't expect to get Jimi Hendrix's tone on a Stratocaster and a Marshall, because only Jimi could get his tone. It's all personal. Your tone comes from you. However, to get close to that tone, .009 gauge strings are excellent for playing blues-rock guitar. If you want to get nice and close to an Eric Clapton/Jimi Page tone, .009's are your best bet. In fact, Jimi Page used .009's exclusively. They're also useful for playing Clapton solos, with very high string bends and fast switching of scale positions.
Thanks for reading my article, I hope you enjoyed it and learned something.
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