What strings are best for Bigsby’s?

Guitars equipped with tremolo systems can offer so many creative and tonal opportunities, however, they can often suffer from issues such as tuning instability and string breakage.

A Bigsby style bridge is one particular vibrato system that poses numerous problems for many players. Unlike other tremolos/vibratos, Bigsbys aren’t designed for severe ‘dive-bomb’ style tremolo use instead they’re revered by many tone hounds for their subtle shimmering vibrato.

Having a Bigsby installed on your guitar can alter it’s playability quite considerably so a good setup for this style of vibrato is key to preventing the guitar from suffering from such headaches.

Another area of consideration that often gets overlooked is the strings that are used. If you’ve had a Bigsby recently fitted, you may have found that what previously worked on the guitar, won’t necessarily be suitable once a Bigsby is installed.

So what sort of things will you need to consider?

Below, we’ll take a look at a few different areas to be conscious of. To help give us some further insight into these vibrato systems, we’ve enlisted the help of Phil, one of the guys here at Strings Direct. Phil loves all things vintage and has long been a Bigsby enthusiast. If you’re into your vintage gear, you can follow Phil at @philbertsvintage on Instagram… he’s well worth a follow!

Right let’s dive in…..

String Length

Your overall string length is one of the most important factors to be aware of when it comes to selecting strings for your Bigsby equipped guitar.

An inherent part of a Bigsby’s construction, is that it replaces the standard tailpiece that would normally be mounted to your guitar.

In nearly all circumstances, this means that the strings are anchored a lot further back than they would do if a standard bridge was fitted. In the case of Phil’s 1960 ES-355 (pictured for this blog) the ball end of the string sits 5 inches further back than it normally would. Consequently, your strings need to be long enough to ensure that they not only reach the machineheads, but there’s enough string leftover to get a few wraps around the tuner’s post.

This is particularly significant for the D and G strings on a guitar that has 3 tuners on either side of the headstock. The reason for this is that these particular tuners are a few inches further away from the ball end of the string thus requiring more string in order to reach the machinehead.

If you would like more information on this opic, you can read our previous blog post on how many windings you need around your tunings.

Phil, our resident Bigsby consultant has been very experimental with his strings over the years…
“My Strings Direct account can attest that I’ve tried my fair share of different sets in the past for my Bigsbys, with varying levels of success.  At the moment, the standard Ernie Ball Slinkys work well for my ES-345 and ES-355. For a pretty standard off the shelf set, these do the job nicely leaving about 2” of string leftover… just enough length to get a couple of wraps around the D and G tuners”

In our experience, very few manufacturers actually publish the full length of their electric guitar sets so it’s not always easy to ascertain how long a specific set is. The Ernie Ball strings measure 100cm in length and many of the other bigger named brands including D’Addario, Elixir and Rotosound all have a similar total string length. Jim Dunlop are another brand of string that we’ve found to have a healthy string length.

Gauge and Tension

Gauge and string tension are two things that go hand in hand. As a rule of thumb, heavier gauge strings will have more tension than a thinner gauge string.

It’s recommended that when you’re stringing up a Bigsby, you should try to use a set of strings with less tension. Under normal circumstances, a set of strings with less tension will feel ‘looser’ and have a more slinky, buttery feel. However, when a Bigsby is introduced to the equation, the strings are anchored further back than normal. This causes the tension in the string to increase creating a much “stiffer” feel than if they were strung up with a normal tailpiece. So, whereas a standard 11-49 set may feel quite comfortable when strung up on a standard tailpiece, once they’re used with a Bigsby, the added length increases the overall tension in the string meaning they can feel very tense. Therefore, in order to counteract this effect, a set with less tension is usually recommended.

Our man Phil certainly found this was the case when he first started to use a Bigsby,
Regular Slinkys always felt far too ‘loose’ when I used them on a guitar with a standard tailpiece.  However, when I started to use a Bigsby, the extra tension they were under meant that the Regular Slinkys felt a lot more balanced than they had previously.”

Electric guitar sets aren’t usually classified by tension, instead they’re usually categorised by gauge. As we mentioned previously, lighter (thinner) gauge sets usually carry less tension, so going for a lighter gauge is one option of achieveing a set with less tension.

If you worry that a lighter gauge may mean sacrificing tone, there’s a few other options you may wish to explore;

Round Core strings

The central core wire found in the wound strings of electric guitar sets comes in two main shapes; hex shaped and round shaped. Many of the electric guitar sets on the market will be made using a hex shaped core wire. The outer wrap wire grips more tightly on to a hex core wire meaning these strings inherently tend to have a “stiffer” feel.

In comparison, round core strings have a slightly softer feel under the fingers and also have more flexibility to them. It’s these ‘lower tension’ characteristics which make round core strings another attractive string option to be used in conjunction with Bigsbys.

It is worth bearing in mind that round core strings have a warmer tone so by using these you don’t get the bright snappiness of a hex core string.

If you’d like more information on the topic of string cores, be sure to check out our previous blog post here.

Thin Core strings

Staying on the topic of cores, the size of the central core also has a bearing on the flexibility and tension of a string. Thinner core strings will have more flexibility and a ‘looser’ feel than a string with a thicker core so this may be something you’ll want to test with your Bigsby.

Unfortunately, not all string brands publish the core sizes in each of their strings, however, there are a few brands available that have strings specifically with a smaller central core.

The GHS Thin Core Boomers are available in all the popular gauges including 09-42 and 10-46. In addition, these sets are also wound over a round core which enhances their flexible properties even more.

Pyramid’s Pure Nickel Maximum Performance are another range that boast a thinner central core. The Pyramid strings are again available in all the popular gauges but unlike the GHS Boomers these are wound over a hex core.  Pyramid say “the result is lower tension with great feel, which have the brilliance and warmth of pure nickel.”

“I recently tried out the La Bella Hard Rockin’ Steel Strings as an alternative to the Ernie Ball Slinkys… if only because the packaging looked cool (ha)!! says Phil

“These have been on my guitar for about a week and I must say these feel great. The first thing that I noticed was the flexibility and how well they interacted with the Bigsby. They’ve got a well-balanced tone up and down the whole length of the neck with a full, open depth of tone. As the week has gone on, I’ve also been really impressed by their tuning performance. They needed very little stretching in when they were first put on and the tuning has been very stable since day one. Visually they look great; the packaging looks classy and the coloured ball ends are handy too… not bright, just nice subtle pastel colours… another classy touch! I hope they stay like this because they could well be my new favourite string!”

Currently we stock the La Bella Hard Rockin’ Steel sets in 09-42, 09-46, 10-46 and 11-50 with a larger range of gauges coming soon.  If you’re not familiar with La Bella strings, they’re well worth checking out.  La Bella strings are all made in their factory in New York, USA and the company has a rich history in making great quality strings for a wide range of instruments.

We hope that this blog has helped all you current (and potential) Bigsby players out there. If you have any questions or thoughts you’d like to share on this topic (or anything else for that matter), feel free to leave a comment in the comments section below, send us an e-mail or drop us a message on any of our social media pages.

If you own a guitar with a Bigsby yourself, we’d love to hear what strings you’ve used in the past, what worked well and which sets didn’t quite do the trick. We always love hearing from you and it would be great for you to share your experiences and help out any of the other readers of the blog.

As always, thanks for reading, we look forward to seeing you in the next blog entry!

 

16 Comments

  • Paul

    help.Amazing info. I’m just about to put a Bigsby on a barncaster. This info is a great help.

    • stringsdirect

      You’re welcome Paul, glad we could be of service!

  • Hi,an excellent blog.May even try the L Bella.John

    • stringsdirect

      Hi John, thanks for the comment. Yes we have the four gauges of La Bella in stock at the moment but looking to bring in the whole line of gauges very soon.
      You can see the whole range here… https://www.stringsdirect.co.uk/search/lb-hrs
      Thanks again

  • Gareth

    I don’t own a Bigsby equipped guitar, but this was a fascinating read and taught me a lot which I never knew.

    • stringsdirect

      Gareth, that’s very kind of you to say. Glad we could help 🙂

  • Lovely old 355, great patina. Bigsby original factory-fitted? It looks it. One thing maybe worth mentioning: does higher string tension pull the arm up or down? I’m trying to figure it out from the pics, but it’s doing me head in.

    • stringsdirect

      Hey Rod, thanks for your kind words about the guitar. Yes, the Bigsby is the original. In actual fact, the ES-355 models were Bigsby only guitars. There’s 1-3 stoptail examples that exist from 1959-1961 but these are exceedingly rare. If you see one, you may have to sell a kidney for it!!

      In reply to your question on how tension affects the arm, Higher Tension strings will lower the arm and Lower tension strings heightens the arm. For a quick visual reference, next time you bend a string, watch how the arm moves down as the tension in the string rises 🙂

      Hope that helps. Thanks again
      Phil

      • Anonymous

        Thanks Phil! If I were ever to come across an original stoptail 355, I’d probably choose to keep a full set of kidneys. The tip about string tension vs. arm height is useful as players (like me) who prefer heavier gauges will have less room to flatten the pitch by depressing the arm. Swings & roundabouts as usual.
        Cheers,
        Rod

  • Dave

    What flat wound strings would you recommend for an archtop with a Bigsby

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Dave,

      I’d recommend something along the lines of the Pyramid Gold Flatwound Sets. This is a link to the 10-46.5 gauge set but they make plenty of other gauges too.
      Hope this helps
      Thanks
      Phil

    • Anonymous

      Lots of great and real helpful information, however the most important thing about choosing strings for a Bigsby, is that the ball end of the guitar is the ring type i.e. Fender bullets won’t work on a Bigsby. Also some tips on how to string a Bigsby may have been helpful, as it’s really fiddly trying to keep the string on the the tailpiece when winding on machine heads.
      Regards Gary

  • Pete

    Learned a few things here guys, many thanks for the great article.

    • stringsdirect

      Thanks Pete, you’re very welcome

    • Gary Cee

      Lots of great and real helpful information, however the most important thing about choosing strings for a Bigsby, is that the ball end of the guitar is the ring type i.e. Fender bullets won’t work on a Bigsby. Also some tips on how to string a Bigsby may have been helpful, as it’s really fiddly trying to keep the string on the the tailpiece when winding on machine heads.
      Regards Gary

      • stringsdirect

        Hi Gary,

        Yes good point. You are certainly right, Bigsby’s will only take the standard ball end type string, not the bullet ends as found on a few of the Fender sets.
        Thanks also for the suggestion regarding stringing up a Bigsby, we’ll certainly follow that up with a separate blog and a video too 🙂
        Thanks again

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