Voicing Via the Strings (What’s In A String, Part 2)

Last time we discussed strings (What’s In A String?) the two big point to get were:

  1. That the string is your tone generator, so it all starts with the string, and the qualities of the sound that string generates, and
  2. That, if you like the sound of the guitar as it was when you bought it, you need to put the same strings on it to have it sound the same way.

Of course guitars change and age, break in, so it will never sound exactly the same, but that’s your best shot at nostalgia, recent or in the distant past.  This time, we’re looking at a different angle: What if you WANT your guitar to sound different?

I got a well made guitar recently, a Jumbo/Orchestra body, that I like a lot.  The only issue I have with it is that the low end (particularly the low E) seems to have inherited a bit of “thud”.  So I set out to use that same principle in reverse, to use the string choices to fix what I consider a deficiency in the guitar, without changing the guitar itself.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-4-40-32-amFirst I tried different brands (another article in the making).  I found I’d liked GHS Americana strings on a couple of guitars and they have graciously provided us with other models of their strings to sample and review.   First I tried their Infinity Mediums, their version of the Elixirs that this guitar came with.  Not bad, and they cost less, but there was a perceptible difference in the quality of sound and they weren’t as smooth playing.  Most importantly, the Thud remained.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-4-26-14-amOn to their Bright Bronze.  The first thing worth noting is that all the GHS strings come sealed in an oxygen-free (nitrogen-filled) pack, and at least some (most?) of their strings are Cryogenically treated, which works wonders in smoothing out the imperfections of steel and other metals.  In the case of these Bright Bronze mediums, the very next thing I noticed was that they were VERY eager to get out of the coil, and noticeably stiffer than expected.

Unfortunately, that stiffness remained even when installed and brought up to pitch.  So fretting becomes a much more fatiguing task, and bending isn’t easy.  So while these strings gave an interesting difference in the tonal qualities of the guitar, and they DID make the low E a bit more  punch, it wasn’t as clean as the Elixirs, and the inordinate stiffness of the string became a deal-killer.

The best use of these Bright Bronze Mediums is for a rhythm guitar.  It does a fine job of cutting through the mix, and the stiffness lends itself well to rhythmic right-hand movements.  Finger-picking is mostly fine, albeit a bit hindered by the stiffness. Acoustic rhythm is where they shine.  If you need a guitar for all styles though, the Brights aren’t the tool for the job.

Next I will try a less stiff type of string in the same gauge, and perhaps a set of Lights as well (hoping the body shape will feel “warm” even with the brighter strings.  Eventually I may run out of ideas, or patience and just go back to the Elixirs, but the point is that we can also intentionally change strings to improve or compliment a guitar.  I knew that the low strings needed more brightness to become punchy.  Perhaps the set I’ll settle on will be an amalgam of two or three different sets.  For example, the low E  and A from these Bright Bronze, and the rest from a phosphor bronze set.  As gauge is a factor too, one might even use thinner B and high-E strings, in order to be mindful of the desire for balanced tone.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-4-39-55-am
There are many variations available even from just one string manufacturer. Think of them as tools, or paint brushes by which to change your guitar’s sound, if you find it lacking in some way.  You may even end up mixing brands in your search for the perfect set of six.

Of course there is more to choosing strings than what sounds good.  Generally, though, it’s wiser to change the guitar to suit those needs.  If you have a hard time fretting a good guitar, make sure the setup is correct.  If that doesn’t solve the problem, you may want to acquire a 12th fret, or another shorter scale, and not to go to strings that are too thin to produce a quality sound.

That’s it for now.  Keep watching for more info and articles on ways to get the most out of your acoustic guitar.  In the meanwhile, try your hand at voicing via the strings and let us know what did and didn’t work for you!

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