David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: influences, performance, physics, set-up, strings, style, technique, @musings info

Strings and finesse

It seems like there's this whole mystical post-SRV thing where many guitarists believe that to be a real player you have to string your guitar with heavy strings... at least 12s, preferably 13s. That's workable if you don't do a lot of string bending. In fact, heavier strings are useful for jazz guitar (helps to prevent pulling notes out of tune when you stretch for those big chords) and surf guitar (tremolo picking is easier on stiffer strings.) But repeatedly bending heavy strings can lead to repetitive stress injuries, as many guitarists have learned.

I grok a bit of the physics of a vibrating string in a magnetic field. A larger string cross section is going to induce more of a voltage. That's part of the reason my "standard" set of strings mixes the equivalent of 9s on the bass strings and 10s on the trebles: it helps to balance out the tone the way I prefer, giving a more piano-like sound to the bass and putting a bit of hair on the trebles. It's an adjunct to - not a replacement for - adjusting pole-piece heights and pickup angle.

There's also a relationship between tension and elasticity. A string at a higher tension has more overtones and the overtones are closer to the frequencies predicted by the theory we learned in high-school physics. But that simplified theory assumes a perfectly elastic string. A steel string is certainly not perfectly elastic; the thicker the string, the less elastic. This is why we have wound strings: a solid wire wouldn't vibrate worth a damn at the gauges we use for the lower strings. The typical G string seems to be right on the borderline. Personally, I don't like the sound of an unwound G - it always sounds a bit out of tune to me.

I'm assuming there's some kind of tradeoff between elasticity and tension. I don't have a clue as to what the tradeoff is in a mathematical sense. I'd be surprised if I was able to hear the difference once everything else had been equalized. Which brings us to: what do you really get from heavier strings? Certainly you get more output from the pickups. If you're playing a vintage-design tube amp, that extra output can make an important difference in the overall sound. But throw that same signal at any amp having a variable-gain preamp stage and I'd be surprised if you couldn't normalize the sound of the thick vs. thin strings just by tweaking the preamp gain. If you really have to have that vintage-design amp, just throw a clean booster into your signal path and leave it on all the time to compensate for the slightly lower output of lighter strings.

The other thing that heavy strings do provide is more resistance to the player. If you have a heavy picking-hand attack then heavier strings would be a good thing. That imperfect elasticity that I was talking about earlier causes a string to play sharp when it's vibrating at a higher amplitude (i.e. when you hit it hard). A thicker string at a higher tension is going to be more resistant to vibrating at a high amplitude, which tends to counteract the deleterious effects of playing with an intense picking attack. (In my youth my standard strings were Ernie Ball 8s. Hit those hard and they'd go sharp by up to a quarter tone - nothing subtle about it.)

There's a flip side to all of this, which I like to think of as finesse. You can play lighter-gauge strings with a less aggressive attack and turn up the amp (or preamp, or booster) a bit to compensate. Less picking-hand motion gives you better control and (I would think) lowers the probability of repetitive stress injuries by lowering muscle tension and movement. You can still get a big sound: let the amp do the work. Find the sweet spots for picking position and angle, and above all vary your attack so it doesn't all sound like you're bludgeoning the guitar (or listener) into submission.

I'm not saying there's a direct correspondence between use of heavy strings and lack of finesse. I can think of at least one very nuanced player who uses strings that would probably make SRV himself wince. I'm just saying that the SRV faithful might learn to cop his music without necessarily copying his rig.

April 07 2008 04:31:08 GMT