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the truth about guitar strings

Most of what guitar players know about guitar strings are "facts" that are either partially true or not true at all.

Here are a few of them.

"All guitar strings are made by one company"

FALSE. There are several string manufacturers that exist, all with different manufacturing facilities in different parts of the world.

My preferred string, Dunlop in DEN0942 size, is made in Benecia, California.

D'Addario strings such as their 10-46 size are made in Queens, New York as far as I'm aware.

La Bella strings like the EL-L are made in Newburgh, New York (same US state as D'Addario, but a totally different town in a totally different factory that's almost 2 hours away). Side note: La Bella to this day does make one of the best super-thick "Jazz Medium" 13-56 sets with a wound G, the EL-JM.

Some companies do "farm out" strings to other manufacturers. If you don't want farmed out strings, stick to string companies that start with D. As in D'Addario, DR, Dunlop and Dean Markley. For whatever reason, "D" string companies make their own stuff. Usually.

"Thicker strings mean better tone"

FALSE. The best tone you will ever get out of a string is whatever your hands feel most comfortable playing. For some that means thin strings. For others it means thick.

The classic example of where guitar players get sucked into the thick-string thing for the wrong reason is believing that using super-thick strings like Stevie Ray Vaughan did will give them the "ultimate" Strat tone. Nope. Remember, Vaughan's largest influence was Hendrix. And Hendrix used super-light strings. SRV-style Strat tone is absolutely not just the strings and never has been.

Getting "that sound" out of a Strat or any other guitar isn't dependent on string thickness at all but rather on playing technique. If for example you install super-thick strings on a Strat but play lightly, you will never sound like SRV because he banged strings really, really hard.

In other words, use a string your fingers feel comfortable with and not because [insert famous guitar player here] does.

"Thicker strings stay in tune better"

FALSE. Properly stretched strings on a guitar that are played by someone who actually knows what he's doing do not go out of tune that often no matter what the thickness is.

"All strings sound the same when played"

TRUE, if you play nothing but metal.
FALSE, if you play anything else.

When you crank up distortion on a guitar, you will hear zero difference between thinner and thicker string sets.

Now of course, metalhead players will say "I can hear a difference!" Wrong. You can feel a difference because you're the one playing the guitar. But there will be no difference at all as to the sound heard coming out of the amp. You may say there's "more sustain", but that's never heard because nothing you play has any note or chord held longer than 5 seconds at the most.

Want to know why I can get Strats to "sound metal" so easily? It's because I know how to wield a distortion effect properly. I can make any electric guitar get big metal crunch. You could hand me a Gretsch G6120 hollow body and I'll make it sound like the most badass metal axe you've ever heard. How? By knowing how to shape a metal sound.

Could you do the same with any electric? Of course you could. All it takes is experimentation and finding the right effect and EQ settings.

For just about every other style of music, strings made by different manufacturers will sound very different from each other depending on the kind of string it is.

"Some strings 'break in' faster than others"

TRUE. It's a big reason I use Dunlop DEN0942 strings to begin with.

How quickly a string breaks in (meaning the time it takes before it's properly stretched) isn't so much dependent on the player as it is what the string is made out of, its core type and core-to-wrap ratio.

I can say with 100% certainty that Dunlop DEN series strings do break in faster. Much faster than D'Addario XL series.

In fact, just about anything breaks in faster than a D'Addario XL. I believe this is because the stiffness of the XL in combination with its specific core-to-wrap ratio works against it during the break-in period.

The main reason XL strings are so stiff is because D'Addario uses a hexagonal core, commonly known as just hex core. This results in a stiffer string, so if you've ever said to yourself "D'Addario XLs sure are harder to bend", that's not your imagination. XLs are stiffer when tuned to pitch compared to other string types. If you install one brand of string on your guitar, and then put on the next set as D'Addario XLs in the exact same size, those strings will be stiffer and have more tension.

What makes the Dunlop DEN different? A proprietary core and a proprietary core-to-wrap ratio that's different than an XL. What core type does Dunlop use? They don't say what it is on their web site. Could be hex or could be round. I don't know, nor do I care to examine it. All I know is that the strings Dunlop makes are damned good and work for me.

However, I also like DR with its round core. Works nicely and breaks in quick. Dean Markley 1972 reissues are great also but they wear out real quick, snap often and rust way too easily which is why I stopped using those.

The only string I truly can't stand to play are Ernie Ball Super Slinkys. I play 9-42 sets so I tried the 2223 EB set. In fact, I've tried them several times over the years. Hated 'em each time. The wraps on the wound strings slip off my fingers way to easily and I snap the unwound strings so easily that it's just ridiculous. As far as break-in time, they're just as bad as D'Addario XL, if not worse.

Yeah, I know, some guys swear by Ernie Ball strings. But they've never agreed with me.

Anyway, the point is yes, some strings made by certain companies do break in faster than others.

What's the best string for you?

The best string for you is whatever your hands feel most comfortable with.

Note that I didn't say "whatever sounds best to you". Sound is something you can shape using different guitars, different pickups, different effects, amplifier EQ settings and so on.

Feel is what counts first when it comes to strings first and always. If the string doesn't feel right, stop using them and try something else. Try everything until you find the one that your hands and fingers like best.

The next time you buy strings, try a different brand. Something you never would have thought of trying before. Maybe a pack of Rotosound Pure Nickels? Maybe a set of D'Addario Half Rounds, which is a winding type where you don't feel the string grooves as much which is easier on your fingers? Maybe a set of coated strings like Elixir Nanowebs (which are great strings no matter what you've heard otherwise)?

Eventually, you're going to come across the string that's "just right" for you. And yeah, that may mean you have to buy strings online to get them. Sometimes that's what it takes to get the stuff you really like.

Remember, no matter what the guitar is, how much you spent on it or how perfectly it's set up, if the strings don't agree with you, you'll hate playing it.

Discover the string you like best. Yeah, you may have to go through 5 different brands or more, and you may end up with a few sets that were a total waste of money. But that's fine. It's worth it to find "that string" that's perfect for your hands. Why? Because you'll enjoy playing a whole lot more.

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