The Care and Feeding of Strings: A Primer for Steel Guitarists
by Steel Guitarist, Herb Steiner of Herb Steiner Music
Herb Steiner is a Steel Guitarist from Los Angeles. Herb made his debut in the SoCal bluegrass music scene in the early 60's and eventually started playing the steel guitar with Linda Ronstadt's Stone Poneys Band. Herb's albums include Texas Bandstand Favorites, Texas Dance Time, and Rancho Rhythm Roundup. Herb has been honored with several awards including his 2005 induction into the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Blitz is proud to present Herb's expert article on the care and feeding of strings featuring the Blitz String Care Cloth. There are two types of strings used for pedal steel guitar; nickel and stainless steel. This refers to the alloy of the wrapping used on the wound strings, not the plain strings. Plain strings are almost always steel music wire or piano wire. The differences we see in various brands of strings all concern themselves with the winding methods and materials used in the wound strings. I'm only going to discus electric guitar strings; what we use for our steel guitars. Electric guitar strings are all made from a core of piano wire wrapped with another type of string to provide a certain diameter, sound and feel. This wrapping is either nickel-coated steel, pure nickel, or stainless steel in composition. The core of the wound string is most frequently round in shape, but occasionally a hexagonal core is used. The hexagonal core is designed to hold the wrapping tighter to the core; though I've personally never had a problem with strings with a round core. More important to the sound of the string is the material used for the wrap and how the string is treated before and during the wrap. There are three types of wound string; round, half-round and flat-wound. Flat-wound strings, for bass and jazz guitar, are wound with a wrap that has a flat side to them, so they feel smoother to the touch. Half-round strings are wound with round wire and polished to a smoother finish. They are less bright than round-wound, but brighter than flat-wounds. What we use on our steel guitars is primarily round-wound strings, being round wire wrapped around a round or hexagonal core. These are the brightest sounding strings in the music store. Steel guitarists are equally divided as to nickel wound, stainless steel wound or an alloy thereof. If a string is not designated as "stainless steel", it's almost always nickel wrapped. An allow wrapped string would be like GHS "Boomers" or "Lashley "Long Life" strings by Emmons Company. GHS also makes a stainless string. GeorgeL steel guitar strings are stainless steel, which have the brightest sound and also have the highest tensile strength, so they feel somewhat "tighter" on the guitar when being tuned. Nickel strings have a softer, less "biting" tone. The alloy string falls somewhere between nickel and stainless steel in both feel and sound. Experiment with different brands to see which you prefer in terms of sound and string life. When should you change strings? That depends on how frequently you play, how often you clean your strings, and the composition of your body oils and perspiration. You should wipe your strings off before and after every gig or practice session. Clean strings are happy strings. If your strings start feeling rough, rusty or are discolored, it's time to change them. If your strings don't play in tune up the neck, it's a sign they are aging and should be changed. I try to change strings every couple of months. Some players do so more frequently, others less so. I do wipe my strings with a Blitz String Care Cloth to clean them, followed by a link free cloth to remove as much or as little of the cleaning chemical as desired. Learn more about the Blitz String Care Cloth and how it made its way into the music scene.
When you've found a brand of string that you like, try to stay with that brand. Here's why: different brands of strings have different tensile strengths, even if the string gauges are the same. For example, one brand's .036 string might be a .012 core with a .012 wrap, while another brand's .036 might be a .014 core with a .011 wrap, even within the same material being used (stainless, nickel, etc.). When a guitar's raises and lowers are tuned with a particular brand of string, and then different strings are put on the guitar, frequently the pedal settings have to be changed to allow for the new pressures put on the changer and pulling system. Emmons push-pull guitars are particularly sensitive to these types of changes. All-pull systems are less so, but still are more stable when the same brand of strings are used. Additionally, the sound balance of the guitar will change if some of the wound strings are nickel and some stainless. So experiment to find what you prefer, and then try to stay with that brand and composition. Article by Herb Steiner of Herb Steiner Music Copyright 2012 Herb Steiner