Thursday, April 28, 2011

Every Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter #8

It was a tough week for both John and me. My total playing time was only an hour and a half. I'm not progressing much, the lessons have become much more difficult, and I'm frustrated. Well, and busy as hell on top of that.

From John Harwood:
Just wasn't feeling it this week, and had plenty of other distractions, so not really much to say. Played random songs for a couple of hours, but not much really notable. Going to try to go back and work on chords on Justin's site this week. Guitar on easy bores me and guitar on medium is a wall due to not knowing the chords, so need to work on that.

Fortunately, tour guide David Gloier saves the week with an excellent discussion of strings:
So you thought it'd be a snap to graduate from five plastic buttons to six strings, eh? I mean, that's only one more, right? Suckers.

It all starts with the strings. Every musical instrument, has some sort of input device, something that moves to create the sound. The guitar has six strings of varying diameter and construction that create sound through vibration. Each of those strings is at a certain tension and that tension creates a specific vibration along the length of the string when you pluck it, which results in the note. So, unfretted, each string when played produces a specific note. Pushing the string down at a certain fret changes the pitch and produces a certain note by shortening the length of the vibrating string. The fret at which you are pressing the string down effectively becomes the nut, that little white piece the strings sit in at the top of the neck. As difficult as this may seem to those of you just beginning, (and even for those of us that have been playing for some time) it is much easier than reaching up and turning the tuning pegs between each note you play. At least I assume that to be the case. I don't want to try. Anyway, your strumming hands puts the string in motion so that the strings can produce the sound, and your fretting hand controls the pitches produced by the strings. That's pretty basic and there are many nuances to the techniques of both hands that decide what sound is ultimately coming out of the guitar or amp.

The strings also provide tension on the neck. That tension is very important to the guitar itself as it helps keep the neck true. You should never really leave a guitar unstrung as it will possibly cause problems with the neck. That tension is a good thing even when the guitar isn't being played. Different string gauges provide different tensions and when moving from lighter to heavier strings, you will likely need to make some adjustments in your set up to compensate for the change in tension. This usually involves adjusting the truss rod to compensate for the change in neck relief (the bow in the neck) caused by the increase or decrease in tension. You will also likely need to check and adjust the intonation of the guitar, as needed, when moving to a higher or lower gauge string.

Lots of choices when it comes to strings. Many manufacturers, many gauges, many compositions. Most guitars tend to come with 9 or 10's The higher the number, the heavier the strings. The heavier the strings, the more difficult bending becomes, but the tone tends to be fuller, particularly on the low end. Some use hybrid sets with a higher gauge on the low strings and lower gauge on the high strings, the ones you bend more often. Just starting out, you're probably better off with a lighter gauge and moving up higher as you develop some strength in the left hand.

Standard string types are nickel plated, pure nickel, and stainless steel. Some are coated with a substance that supposedly helps them last longer, most are not. I don't like the coated strings for a variety of reasons, but I won't go into those. Strings are a very personal choice. Nickel plated strings are strings that have nickel plated wraps around a steel core.The steel gives a good magnetic pull you need for the magnets in the pickups and the nickel helps against corrosion. Pure nickel strings have pure nickel wraps around a steel string. It produces a mellower tone due the the lower magnetism. You hear this tone referred to as "vintage". Finally, stainless steel strings produce a much brighter tone and may cause your frets to wear quicker as they are harder than the two nickel types. I personally use Ernie Ball Regular Slinkys. They are nickel wound (plated) and the gauge is .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046. They are a good compromise, in my opinion, as the .09's are like spaghetti to me and .11's would require more set-up adjustment, and I'm kinda lazy. I like Ernie Balls and out of all the strings I've used, since I seem to break them the most infrequently.

Strings have to maintained and changed regularly, although your mileage may vary, depending upon a number of factors, which includes anything that might be on your hands when you play and the amount of sweat on your fingers and the pH of that sweat. I recommend washing your hands with soap and water before playing and drying them thoroughly, and wiping the strings and fretboard down with a soft cloth when you finish. It should help extend the life of your strings. You should be able to hear when the strings are dead. They lack that pop of fresh strings. I change mine once a month, on average, although sometimes you'll get a set that seems to last forever and I have a few guitars that seem to love old strings. Tone is a funny thing and everybody has their own theories about it.

The strings interact with the guitar at several points and I'll go over all of that with you at some point, and some tips for stringing a guitar properly, which hopefully will minimize some of the breakage and help with the guitar holding tune.

Don't be afraid to try different strings and find what works for you. Strings are pretty cheap and it's good to keep sets around, as you never know when you'll need them. And remember to keep your hands clean and wipe those strings and fretboard down when you finish playing. Restringing can be tedious and I like to minimize the frequency with which I have to perform that task.

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