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Choosing The Right Strings

Brandon-String-blogEvery morning, when I arrive at work, I follow a certain routine.  As my computer and emails are loading I make myself a cup of coffee, with the absolute certainty that, well, I'm gonna need it.  I then sit down at my desk and dutifully begin the daily task of sifting through my Inbox.  And every day without fail, in between an offer for rubberised components, mass-produced in China and a lucrative business offer from a Saudi prince (that I simply cannot refuse), there it is… the question.

The question comes in many forms, but is always a variation along the lines of this: 'What are the right strings to buy?'

A simple question, asked in perfect innocence and good faith, by someone, somewhere, who doesn't realise the complexity of what they are asking, or the rabbit-hole they must enter in order to catch even a glimpse of the truth that others have struggled for decades to unravel.  A simple question, yes, but with an answer that is anything but…

Now, the first thing that a lot of people fail to realise is that there is no 'right answer' to this question.  I am happy to recommend a standard, inexpensive set to a beginner as a starting point from which to build, but when intermediate to accomplished players are searching for that 'holy grail' of string tone, it simply is not a standard response.  Every string sounds different on every instrument.  In fact, changing strings can be a great way of changing and experimenting with your instruments tone without spending hundreds on upgrades.  Even when forgetting about tone completely, it also depends on many other factors, such as playing style, finger strength, and even wood type.

As in many other areas of music, string choice is a highly personal matter, and what appeals to one in terms of tone may not appeal to others, and discussion of such can often end with anything from polite disagreement to, well, impolite disagreement.  This has been the case since the dawn of time, or at least since the dawn of music.  In fact, I am willing to bet that thousands of years ago, when some hairy, ape-like, man-beast creature was inclined to take a big stick and hit things with it to make pretty noises for the first time, some other hairier ape-like, man-beast immediately showed up to recommend, via a series of grunts and gestures, maybe changing the striking point, or the surface that was being struck, or wrapping the stick with wet, mud-caked leaves, or maybe a nice Mammo-web coating, the latest in mammoth hide technology (brand-new, in fact, having only just been conceived).  But what tree is the stick from?  Have you tried a bigger stick?  And so on, and so on…

Having said all of this, there are a few things to take into consideration that are unchanging, and always a deciding factor when making a decision.

This should really go without saying, but unless you know what you are doing and are experimenting somehow (which is always to be encouraged, provided you know the limitations of the instrument and take care not to damage it) make sure you are ordering the right type of set.  If you go online half asleep at 3 in the morning and order a super long-scale bass set for your banjo, you have no-one to blame but yourself.  Do your research and make sure that if you have a banjo, you order a set of strings that are designed for banjo!  If you are genuinely unsure of the type of string you need, please do not hesitate to contact us, where we will offer what advice we can.

It is also worth mentioning gauge.  Due to a little thing I like to refer to as ‘science’, the thicker the gauge of the string, the more pull it has - this is referred to as tension.  Say it with me people. Tension.  As a general rule, if you are unsure of the gauge of the strings already on your instrument, and are not confident enough to make any alterations to the truss rod, it is best to start with a relatively light gauge and work your way up a gauge at a time, as too much tension on an instrument that is not set up for it can cause serious issues.  Seriously.

Price is an obvious one, which goes without saying, and can definitely be an issue, especially if you are planning to experiment with a few different high-end sets.  It really comes down to balancing out your requirements with your budget.  And more expensive isn't always better, but is generally either aimed at a more niche/specific type of tone or expensively coated to extend life.  If that doesn't interest you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a standard set.  If budget is an issue it may be worth purchasing one set at a time, say one a month (payday, obviously).  This will give you a chance to get comfortable with the tone and feel of the set, and also a chance to experience how quickly and how soon they deaden.

A useful tool can be to set up a project in the recording software or DAW of your choice (if you don't have recording software, stop hitting things with that big, leaf-wound stick and go download Reaper, which is a great, easy to use platform that offers a free, unlimited and unrestricted trial, and is well worth the very reasonable one-off payment for a license).  Record a few of your choicest licks as a reference point while your new set is still fresh - being sure to make a note of pick selection, striking point, pickup and tone/volume settings, amp settings/mic placements, and input volumes, so as to be easily replicated exactly at any point in the future.  This way you can extend your search indefinitely, making it that much easier to try not only some, but all of the worlds most premier brands, and quickly and easily reference them at any point.

Practicality is also another factor.  What tone do you require?  For how long and how often do you require it before you can afford to replace it?  If the only way you can achieve the sound that pleases you involves a solid-gold core, flat-wound with unicorn hair by a fair maiden under the watchful eye of some wizened old string-monk on a far off mountain top, can you afford to replace them as often as you need to?  At what point does uneconomical trump consistent, 'perfect' tone?  You better have a steady supply of unicorns and fair maidens, is all I'm saying…

So the next time you are looking to change strings, why not try something new?  There are plenty of sets out there, in many different qualities and price-ranges.  Just be sure to remember one thing: no-one but yourself can decide what strings are right for you.  Now get out there and find 'your' set.


Brandon Ruble Strings Direct Sales Team

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