When looking at a guitar player, we tend to fetishize that persons ‘image’; their look; the way they convey an aspect of cool; which brand of guitar they are using; its finish and shape. However, there are many aspects of an electric guitar that are overlooked, the most frequent of which is the part that is physically being played: the string.
A guitar string is a delicate and intricately designed part of the instrument. Most modern electric guitar strings are made of steel and wound in nickel so that they are somewhat bearable to play, although without developed calluses, beginners will experience constant tearing of the outer layer of skin. This is especially true of the g, b and high e strings that have no outer winding wrapped around it, which means that the fingers are exposed to bare steel. Prior to the 20th century, guitars, which were all acoustic back then, were strung with gut strings made of the intestines of animals. Gut string is easier on the fingers and offers a softer sound—traits that are similar to modern day nylon strings found on classical and flamenco guitars. The adaptation of steel was done in an effort to produce a larger, more clear sound.
There are two basic constructions to an electric guitar string: round wound and flat wound. The latter was popular prior to the 1950s due to its softer tone, which lends itself to swing and jazz music that was popular during those eras. However, with the birth of rock and roll, round wound strings became popular for their bright tone. Visually, these two classifications can be differentiated by a rough and a smooth surface; round wound strings have slight notches, whereas flat wound strings are smooth. String class can then be even further divided into three categories: steel, nickel-plated steel and pure nickel. These classifications are just further divisions for bright and soft sounds, respectively. Aside from brand, the final major distinctions of strings are their gauge. Typically, they are referred to by the gauge of their smallest string, the high e. They usually range—lowest to highest in term of strength—from 0.09-0.12.
The most common combination of all the latter components is a round wound, 0.10 gauge, and nickel-plated steel. However, this does not necessarily mean that a uniform sound will be produced by this combination. Many other factors can contributed to the range of sounds that are produced from the string: the strength an individual player uses with both their strumming and playing hands; the amounts of vibrato used on the strings; whether or not the player uses a pick or strums with their hands; different tunings—open G or D for example. There are many variations of electric guitar strings and the sound they produce depend on many slight nuances, all of which contributes to an individual players own, recognizable sound.
Works Cited: Swiderski, Maxwell. How to Look at Guitar Strings. 12 Feb, 2018. Private Collection.
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