Most guitar players settle on a brand of strings without even realizing why, usually only changing when they can’t get their favorite brand.
In this excerpt from The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook (written with my good buddy Rich Tozzoli), Jim D’Addario, the CEO and chairman of D’Addario & Company (the world’s largest maker of musical instrument strings), describes what makes a great string as well as some of the differences between the way manufacturers make their strings to help you make a choice next time it’s time to buy strings.
What do you think makes a great guitar string?
Certainly, that’s a matter of opinion. It comes down to what tone you are looking for, however there are some common denominators that are key ingredients for making a great string. The most important things are consistency in diameter, shape, and the mass of the string from one end of the vibrating length to the other. If there are fluctuations as you’re winding or making the string, and the mass of the string varies at any point along its length, the intonation is going to be horrible and the harmonics will not be true.
As we developed the expertise to design and build our own machinery in the 70s, we developed ways of controlling the variables that are involved with the manufacturing process. One of the most important variables is the tension that you put on the wire as you wrap it around the core. I would say it’s one of the most critical variables in string making. Because we use soft temper wires you can actually elongate the wire significantly during the process and end up with a completely different diameter finished string. Tension is a critical aspect of making a string!
What are some of the innovations you came up with in string manufacturing?
Twenty years ago we developed a closed loop system where we actually measure the tension on the wire just before it goes on the string. Utilizing a load cell and a digital control that adjusts the tension, we always maintain perfect tension specifications. You can’t do that when you wind a string by hand, and you can’t do that with a mechanical tension device. It has to be closed loop and digital. It’s really very similar to an autopilot in a plane. Our machines are constantly making minute corrections to hit the tension target.
The other breakthrough innovation we developed was a way of tracking the angle that the wire was being fed onto the core, which is also extremely critical. Many competitors are still using machinery with mechanical drives that feed the wire, but back in 1979 we developed a system that tracks the wire feed angle and makes adjustments on the fly to ensure the windings are perfectly spaced. It is one of the reasons why our strings are so consistent. We designed this in 1979. You can imagine how expensive the electronics for that was back then.
If you control the basics, core tension, wrap tension and feed angle, then it’s a question of designing the string properly. Here’s where we create your choices for string tone. A flat wound string is very mellow sounding, a half round string is a little brighter and a round wound string is even brighter. A nickel-plated steel round wound string is bright; a stainless steel string is a little brighter, etc., etc.
It’s like going to a restaurant and looking at the menu. What flavor would you like? You want the chef to do a great job at cooking all the things on the menu, but you want to be able to select the flavor that you’re looking for. Picking and designing the materials that should go into the strings is like picking what you like off the menu. Personally, I like very bright sounding strings. I like uncoated phosphor bronze strings on acoustic, but because I have so many guitars and can’t change strings often enough, I use coated EXP strings. I actually like our 80-20 coated strings better than coated phosphor bronze. I don’t know why, but I do. Over the last ten years we’ve gotten the coating process on our EXPs down to be so thin that I can’t even hear the difference between a coated and a uncoated string anymore.
EXP is a micro coating on the wrap wire that’s only 2/10,000ths of an inch in thickness. What it does is seal it from the environment so it doesn’t corrode and doesn’t get affected by your body chemistry. Those are the key elements that break a string down and make it lose its tone prematurely.
Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. For more information be sure to check out his website, and go here for more info and to acquire a copy of The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook.