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What's a wound 3rd and do I need one?

Throughout your guitar playing life, chances are you may never have considered whether your 3rd string should be plain or wound.  After all, the vast majority of electric guitar sets sold nowadays come with a plain 3rd.  These sets comprise of 3 plain strings and 3 wound strings (or more wound strings if you play 7, 8, 9-string etc). The inclusion of a wound G in electric sets is certainly not as popular today as it was many years ago.  In fact, before the 60’s, string gauges were pretty heavy and came with a heavier wound G string which often proved tough on the hands... even for players with ‘Stevie-Ray strength’ fingers. As playing styles changed, there became a growing trend for players wanting to use lighter gauge strings. When these weren't so readily available, in order to achieve a lighter set players would often discard the lowest 6th string from their heavy sets and replace it with a thin banjo string to use as their high E, thus creating a lighter overall gauge (which now included a plain 3rd). In fact, it was quite common for players to use a very light plain 3rd string, allowing them to now make big bends which were previously unachievable. Although the plain 3rd seems to be the popular choice of today, there is still demand for sets with a wound 3rd string. You’ll tend to find these are mostly found in heavy gauge sets. Jazz players tend to use heavier gauges, which is why you’ll often see many flatwound sets (a jazz player’s staple) accompanied by a wound 3rd string. So what is the difference between a wound 3rd string and a plain 3rd string? What are the tonal differences, what's available and how do they play? Below, we’ll offer up answers to all of these questions enabling you to make a more informed judgement on whether you want to take the plunge, roll back the years and try something a little bit different.

What’s the difference between a wound string and a plain string?

In short, a plain steel string is simply one piece of cylindrical steel wire. The thickness (diameter) of the steel is the string’s gauge.  In contrast, a wound string is made up of two parts; a central core wire and an outer wrap that travels around this core wire.  The combination of these two parts is what makes up the overall gauge of the wound string.

Why do sets contain a mix of wound strings and plain strings? Why are they not made up of solely one or the other?

If a set of strings was to be made solely of either wound strings or plain steel strings, in reality, they would neither sound great or play nicely either. Allow us to explain.... As we've previously mentioned, a wound string is made up of two components; its central core and its wrap wire and the combination of these parts when added together create the overall diameter of the string (or gauge as we refer to it) . So, if we were to take a standard .026” gauge D-string, this could be made up of a .010” central core with a wrap wire of .008” (see image below) Core Dimensions of a wound string Likewise, a .036” gauge string could be made up of a .014” core with a .011” gauge wrap wire and a .046” gauge string could be made from a .018” core with a .014” gauge wrap wire. As you can see, even the thicker gauge strings in our sets are made using pretty thin gauge cores and outer wires. With that in mind, if we were to have a wound .010 string (or lighter), this would require an extremely thin core wire!! Too thin in fact to withstand the tension required to get us anywhere near our desired pitch without breaking.  And if it did make it, chances are it wouldn’t cope with much playing before eventually giving up the ghost and snapping on us. So on the flip side of this, what about a full set of plain steel strings? Well, these wouldn’t be much better either we’re afraid. As string gauge goes up, the mass and tension in the string increases too. If we were to replace our wound strings with plain steel .026”, .036” and .046” the tension in these strings would be so high and the strings would be so stiff that they’d be pretty unplayable. They’d also sound pretty terrible too... these heavier plain strings would be so overpowering and the set would be completely out of balance tonally. In fact, to test this out I replaced the wound 4th string on my Telecaster (.026) for a plain 4th string of the same gauge. Straight out of the packet, I could immediately see and feel the difference in tension between the two. Held up next to each other, the plain string stood proud whereas the wound string just flopped over. And how did it sound? Well, played open with no fretting or playing big open chords sounded fine. However, where the difference became apparent was fretting further up the neck. In the higher registers of the fretboard, the string started to sound out of sync with the rest of the set and developed tuning issues.  Even played by itself higher up, the string sounded very odd, lacked sustain and when played as part of smaller 2-3 note chords, it sounded just plain strange (pun intended)! If we were to replace our wound strings with plain steel, the tension in these strings would be so high and the strings would be so stiff that they’d be pretty unplayable. They’d also sound pretty terrible too

So what about a wound 3rd? What do they sound and feel like? Are they right for me?

As a light gauge player, for me, wound 3rd strings had always been reserved for heavier gauged sets or strings specifically tailored towards Jazz players, but for the purposes of this blog I tested a variety of wound 3rd gauges on my telecaster (ranging from .017 up to .020). Upon first playing with the wound 3rd, I was pleasantly surprised. They delivered a nice warmth, rounding out the tone of the set very nicely indeed.  But, there was an issue when it came to bending the string which wasn’t a particularly easy task at times. Naturally, the .017 was the most forgiving, however, the heavier gauges (.019 and .020) were particularly tough going. It always felt like they were ‘fighting back’ and as a result there was always the danger of them slipping from under your fingers halfway through a bend. If you do like to bend your strings and be a bit more expressive with your vibrato, a plain G string definitely help you achieve this more easily. Playing a wound 3rd delivered a nice warmth that rounded out the tone nicely giving the set somewhat of a darker less ‘jangly’ character. For me, the wound 3rds certainly gave the set a darker character and a less ‘jangly’ tone as they didn’t have that ‘snappiness’* you usually get from plain strings. (*Granted, ‘snappiness’ is probably not the best adjective to describe a guitar string.. Gulp!). They delivered a nice warmth that would certainly be desirable for some players, particularly those solely playing rhythm guitar or those trying to tame a bright sounding instrument. Some guitarists often find plain 3rd strings to be a little harsh and the G stands out too much against the other strings. If you find yourself in this situation but don’t necessarily want to opt for a lighter plain string, it might be worth considering the use of a light gauge wound 3rd string. This would mellow out that shrilly (definitely a word…No seriously it is!!) tone whilst still retaining some flexibility to bend the string. If you’re a guitar player that mostly plays chordal work and seldom bends the strings, a wound 3rd would definitely be an interesting avenue to explore. Some guitarists often find plain 3rd strings to be a little harsh and the G stands out too much.  If you find yourself in this situation, it might be worth considering the use of a light gauge wound 3rd string.

Plain 3rd Gauges vs Wound 3rd Gauges

As explained earlier, if we were to take a plain steel string and a wound string that were both the same gauge, they would look and feel very different.  Wound strings have a smaller core wire and the ridges between the outer windings also help to give them more flexibility (and less tension) when compared to a plain steel string of the same gauge. That's why, when we are looking to replace a plain 3rd for a wound 3rd and get something that feels similar, we usually opt for for a slightly thicker wound string in comparison.  Below is a table of popular electric guitar set gauges... The middle column shows the typical plain 3rd string gauge you'll see and the final column displays the corresponding wound gauges we would usually recommend.  You'll notice that we've given a few options here as the lighter gauge will help aid you with bending if you do wish to do so. If you'd like to see all the sets we have available that come with a wound 3rd as standard, just click the link below. Link to electric guitar string sets with a wound 3rd on stringsdirect.co.uk

What about acoustic guitars?

Acoustic players will be well aware that most sets come with a wound 3rd as standard, however, some of the bigger string manufacturers such as Ernie Ball, D’Addario and Rotosound also make sets available with a plain 3rd. It’s worth noting that these sets typically come in a lighter gauge (10’s and sometimes 9’s) and the inclusion of the plain 3rd string means the top 3 treble strings (G, B and E strings) mirror the top 3 strings of a standard electric set. I personally tested the Earthwood 80/20 Bronze Rock ’n’ Blues 10-52 (with a plain .017) set by Ernie Ball on my Sigma Acoustic. Initially, simply strumming chords on these strings didn’t feel or sound too dissimilar to a standard set with a wound 3rd. The plain .017 had more of a snappier tone to it and playing single note lines and bends were noticeable easier in comparison to a wound G. If you like to play your acoustic guitar in a similar fashion to your electric, having a set with plain 3rd would certainly be advantageous. However, what the plain .017 did seem to lack was the oomph and punch that a wound 3rd delivers. After changing back to a wound 3rd, immediately, I noticed a marked difference and the guitar seemed to recapture a warmth and rich character. It gave a much fuller sound and (to my ear) a better tone. I was certainly surprised by the impact this seemingly minor change had. If you did fancy trying a plain 3rd on your acoustic guitar, click the banner below to see the sets that are available.  Alternatively, our recommendation would be to buy an additional plain 3rd string next time you buy a set of acoustic strings. Oh and a little tip for you, we’d also recommend putting the plain string on your guitar first, that way, if you really don’t like it, you always have your trusty wound 3rd ready to replace it if it’s not to your taste :-). Link to acoustic guitar sets with a plain 3rd on stringsdirect.co.uk

Chris’s Tips

Although this appears to be a fairly simple and innocuous change to make to a guitar, we consulted our guitar tech Chris Ward to see if there’s anything technical we need to be aware of when changing our G-string from a plain 3rd to a wound 3rd. Chris says; “Wound strings and plain strings intonate differently from one another. As a result, you’ll often find that you’ll need to make an intonation adjustment on the G to avoid any tuning issues. It’s also worth being mindful that if you have a fixed compensated bridge (like those found on a Gretsch or Les Paul Junior).  Most are purposely configured for a particular string layout (e.g. 3 plain & 3 wound strings, or, 2 plain & 4 wound strings). If you do have a bridge like this and you're thinking of changing from a plain 3rd to a wound 3rd (or vice-versa) be mindful that intonation issues can’t be easily changed as the saddles are fixed in position. As a result, if you do come across intonation issues, you may need to source an alternative bridge that accommodates this change in string set up, particularly if you plan on keeping your guitar this way going forward.


We hope that these couple of experiments have given you an insight into the variations between plain and wound 3rds. For today’s modern style of playing, it’s clear to see why plain strings are more widely used in most sets and why wound strings are preferred to help deliver that breadth of tone in the low end. Of course, as always if you did need any further guidance on this or any other topic, please feel free to leave a comment below or drop us an e-mail... we’re always happy to help out where we can. Thanks for reading, see you next time!
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