Are all guitar strings the same?
Whether you’re a seasoned professional or just starting out in your guitar playing career, we’ll be the first to admit that choosing a set of guitar strings can be quite baffling at times. There are so many brands out there… and a lot of the time, many sets look the exact same as one another. You’d be forgiven for asking the question “what’s the difference between all these sets?… surely they’re all the same!?!” Well, whilst many sets’ main attributes are the same, there’s plenty more that goes into making strings and it’s often what you don’t see (or aren’t told about!) that can make all the difference.
In this blog post, we’ll look at some areas where string brands can put their “own stamp” on their products and how, despite all things appearing equal, things aren’t always necessarily the same!!
If you take a look at some of the most popular sets on the market, many brands share the same specifications as one another… Same gauge, same core shape, same wrap material… the list goes on. So, if they all share the same attributes, why does one brand of strings feel different to another?
It’s certainly a good question. Let’s take the most popular electric guitar string set as an example…. the humble old 10-46. There are tonnes of brands out there whose 10-46 electric set will look like this;
Gauge – 10-46 (specifically 10, 13, 17p, 26, 36, 46)
Wrap Material – Nickel Plated Steel
Core Wire – Hex Core
In fact, many of the most popular brands share these exact same specifications… Ernie Ball, D’Addario, Rotosound, Jim Dunlop… we could go on! And the same goes for strings for all other instruments too.
So if a lot of strings are seemingly the same as one another, how do brands ensure their strings feel and sound unique. One of the biggest ways of achieving this is their choice of core-to-wrap wire ratio…..
Core-to-wrap wire ratio
Core to wrap wire ratio plays a massive role in determining the feel and tonality of a string. But what exactly is it!?
The gauge of each wound string in a set is made up of two constituent parts… it’s core wire and it’s outer wrap wire. It’s the combination of these two elements that when added together make up the overall gauge of the string. With this in mind, we can see that the same gauge string can be created in several ways simply by using different combinations of the size of the core and the size of the wrap wire… this is what meant when we refer to a strings core-to-wrap wire ratio.
For example, a .046 gauge string can be created using;
.016” core wire combined with a .015” wrap wire* or…..
.014 core wire combined with a bigger .016 wrap wire*
*Bear in mind that when you are calculating the overall gauge (diameter) of the string, you need to account for the wrap wire twice as you are measuring across the entire cross action of the string.
So even though both strings are exactly the same thickness overall, the differing core-to-wrap wire ratios will have a bearing on how the string performs in these key areas;
Playability – how flexible the string feels under your fingers
Durability – how long the string will last
Tone – How bright or dark the string sounds
This can be quite a “nerdy” topic and it’s for this reason that very few brands make reference to this stuff in their string marketing. After all, many of us just want a set of strings that do the job admirably without all the geeky spiel…. and we totally get that!
However, that being said, there are some manufacturers who certainly make light of this element in some of their strings. GHS are a great example of this. Their Big Core Nickel Rockers, Thin Core and Thick Core ranges all make a point of bringing this particular facet of their strings to the fore. The thicker core strings are said to give a “beefier” tone and more sustain, whereas the thinner core sets help to aid those players looking to focus on “speed and dexterity” in their playing.
Pyramid are also another brand that have a range of sets in their lineup that make light of a different core size. Their Maximum Performance sets are constructed on a thinner core wire with a thicker wrap. Much like GHS, Pyramid say that these strings have a lower tension which can appeal to those players looking to focus on the “feel” of their strings more than those striving for that bigger sound.
For acoustic players interested in exploring different core-to-wrap wire ratios, the Heritage range from British manufacturer Newtone are also well worth checking out. These strings are aimed at players looking for a lower tension set through the use of carefully selected core-to-wrap wire ratios. The smaller core wire means they’re more flexible with an aim towards players who suffer from hand and arm fatigue and tendonitis.
Martin’s Authentic Acoustic Flexible Core Range is also another acoustic option. Martin say that these strings are constructed on “a lighter gauge version of their Superior Performance core wire.” The gauges in the range are still very much the same as you’d see in a lot of their other sets, so on the face of it you’d be forgiven for thinking that they play and feel the same as ‘standard’ set of the same gauge. However, it’s the combination of the thinner core and heavier wrap wire that helps to give these strings the “increased flex and playability”.
Quality of the raw materials used
The quality of the raw materials that go into making the strings is another very important part of what can make a set of strings play, feel and sound different from one another. This may be a fairly obvious point to make, but like most products there are always options available made from higher and lower quality raw materials.
String manufacturers are continually looking to source the very best quality wire as they know that this plays a vital role in the quality of their final product. It goes without saying that if a string manufacturer is using sub-par materials, no amount of manufacturing magic will help to create a great string.
D’Addario are one particular manufacturer that have gone one step further and taken this matter into their own hands by making their own wire themselves. They don’t need to source the wire from anywhere else and are therefore in charge of the quality of their strings every step of the way. In this sense, you could argue that D’Addario have an advantage over other brands who are heavily reliant on sourcing quality wire from elsewhere and ultimately putting a big part of the quality of the strings in the hands of another company.
I was recently listening to an episode of the ToneMob podcast featuring Scott Marquart from Stringjoy, a string manufacturer based out of Nashville in the USA.
As a retailer of strings, we like to think we know a lot about strings, but when it comes to the manufacturing processes, brands like to keep certain things under wraps. As a result, we found the podcast really insightful as it revealed some nerdy nuggets of information on how changing specific elements in the winding process can really alter the outcome of the strings.
Here’s a few things that Scott pinpointed;
1) Tension on the wrap wire as it is wound around the core
There’s more science and precision to making strings than just wrapping one piece of wire around another. The amount of tension the wrap wire is under as it travels around the core wire has an effect on how tightly the outer wrap shrinks and grips the central core and ultimately determines the final tension of the string.
2) Tension of the core wire during winding
Likewise, changing the tension of the core wire as the wrap wire is applied to it is also another element string manufacturers can change. Scott from Stringjoy said that there is “an infinite amount of tensions you could use”… each having a bearing on the outcome of how the string feels and plays.
3) The angle at which the wrap wire hits the core wire as it is wound
This aspect of the winding process affects the spacing between the windings, no doubt determining the overall “feel” of the string under the fingers.
And this is just scratching the surface… there are so many other possible areas for change that can make a world of difference to how they feel and sound.
So what tension does Ernie Ball hold it’s core wire as the string is being wound? And at what angle do D’Addario wind their wound strings?
To be honest, these are questions that many guitar players couldn’t give a hoot about and brands are likely to never divulge such information. After all, it’s these unique production secrets that are able to set string brands apart from each other in a very crowded market.
We appreciate this information can all sound quite nerdy, but all the same, it’s interesting to hear this information from a manufacturer and it really helps to give a broader picture of why strings feel different between brands… even when they could easily appear to be exactly the same.
We hope that we’ve enlightened you with some new information here. When you dig a little deeper and realise that there’s more than meets the eye, you can start to understand why there are so many string brands out there and how they can all be different to one another (even if it’s just a little bit!).
We found the ToneMob podcast particularly fascinating and it helped to shed some new light on the manufacturing process and how it can really influence the playability, durability and tone of the string before it’s even made it’s way onto your guitar.
We also hope it’s given you some inspiration to start to explore some different brands. Now, when you scour our site, you may just look at those numerous pages of 10-46 electric sets and think a little differently!
See you next time!