Strings can be one of the most overlooked pieces of gear by many guitarists. In essence, strings are the input source of the energy that goes into your instrument. Many players will choose a string type based on the recommendation of a friend, teacher, or guitar shop salesman. As you develop your ear and become a more fluent player, you will begin to learn the subtle nuances that the strings alone bring to your particular style of play. Once that occurs, one will find that there are an infinite number of choices out there in the marketplace and one type does not fit all instruments and playing styles. This can be confusing so it is best to ask yourself some questions to help narrow down the choices. I outlined two specific questions you should ask yourself to get started.
What gauge strings should I put on my guitar? This question can be answered though an evaluation of the style of music you play, how much physical strength you have in your hands, and the type of instrument you play. The string gauge will impact the stiffness of the string. I typically recommend that beginner guitar players start with an extra light or custom light set because the strings are not as stiff and easier to press down to get a note. Once a player gets more experience and the strength increases in their hands, it is good to move up in gauge to produce a louder, fuller tone. However, you may find that a lighter gauge string works better for your style of playing. If you tend to bend notes often, you may find that a medium gauge strings does not work as well as a light or custom light gauge.
The gauge of the strings has a direct impact on the amount of tension that is exerted on the top and neck of the guitar. All modern Martin guitars can handle up to a medium gauge set of strings. However, some instruments may be a little more fragile due to the construction. Some may require a lighter gauge to reduce neck bow and keep the top from lifting. Both of which will have a negative impact on the action and playability. Also, some instruments just seem to respond better acoustically to certain string tensions than others. This requires a little experimenting to find the right fit for your particular instrument. You may find yourself using different gauge strings on different guitars if you own several.
Do I like a bright or mellow attack? String attack can be defined as the actual sound of the string at the time your pick of fingertips strike the string. This characteristic is often overlooked but it is what makes a plucked instrument such as a guitar sound plucked as opposed to bowed. Lead players will often prefer a harder or brighter attack so they can cut through a mix of several instruments. Solo players may prefer a slightly rolled off or mellow attack as it may better suite the style of music they play. Plus, they are not competing with other instruments for volume.
String materials can influence attack. Probably the best place to start is to compare phosphor bronze wrapped strings to 80/20 wrapped strings. 80/20 is often preferred by bluegrass pickers due to its bright attack. Phosphor Bronze sounds bright out of the box but mellows a little quicker than 80/20. This characteristic tends to be a plus when recording since you get a little less sizzle on the high end and can sound a little more pleasing.
The string construction can also influence the attack of the string. For instance, our “SP Flexible Core” line of strings has a thinner core than the SP and traditional counterparts. The difference in the density of the materials and mass distribution will have an effect on the initial pluck of the string. We also have silk and steel strings that utilize a silver-plated copper wrap wire on a round core wire with nylon strands sandwiched in between which make of a very soft attack favored by finger style and folk players.
What you will find in the long run is that your choice of strings is a product of your specific taste. Over time, you may find that your taste in sound or physical requirements may change or perhaps you may need a new sound to inspire you. Strings are a great place to start because they are relatively inexpensive and a temporary piece of gear that will not last as long as your favorite axe.
Albert Germick is a 23 year veteran at Martin Guitar who has worked in Guitar Manufacturing, Customer Service/Repair, and Quality Assurance. For the past 13 years he’s been working in the Research and Development department. When he is not developing new string products and sound test methods, he is writing music, recording, and performing with his original rock band Red Light Runners.