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Which strings?

“Which classical guitar strings should you use?” There’s certainly a myriad of guitar string brands and types available which can make it difficult to decide.

First the easy bit. Classical guitars are normally fitted with three treble nylon strings (they look much like fishing line of varying thicknesses) with three bass strings made with wound metal encasing nylon fibres (they slightly resemble violin strings.)  There are also nylon-composite materials (sometimes called carbon strings) that offer alternatives to the traditional nylon treble string. However, generally speaking they are all aiming for a similar type of sound that identifies with classical guitar music. Steel strings are not considered correct for classical guitars although some like to go against the grain with this!

Like many things relating to the classical guitar and music, there isn’t just one answer to the question of string choice. Offered here are one person’s opinion based on decades of experience and many string purchases. Brand names will be avoided as this is not intended to be an exercise in string manufacturer endorsement.

There are certainly standard ‘go to’ strings that will suit most guitarists’ needs and budgets.  Guitar teachers and music shop sales reps will be able to make reasonably safe recommendations. Often there is little to be gained from buying the most expensive strings especially when affordable options do just as good a job. However, it’s worth noting that strings do eventually wear out and some of the more expensive brands can be more durable, therefore lasting a bit longer.

Experienced guitarists naturally develop a preference for specific string types as a result of trial and error over many years. The strings they end up preferring depend on many factors including individual playing styles and characteristics of different guitars being played.

If you’re looking to improve the sound you are making, it’s important to realise that sound quality is not solely dependent on the guitar strings. The guitarist’s technique, fingernail condition and the guitar itself are all part of the equation. An improper technique won’t necessarily be dramatically improved by using an expensive set of strings but a guitarist with a perfect technique can make a great sound with low-cost strings.

Another factor worth considering is that the sound a guitarist hears is different from the sounds perceived by people listening. For example the guitarist might hear a bright or brittle sound whereas someone sitting a distance away might perceive it as warm and rounded. Some guitarists are quick to criticise the so-called carbon treble strings because they seem too brittle and bright while not realising the sound is better from the audience perspective.

Assuming there is a correct playing technique, good fingernails and a properly set up classical guitar (no matter how expensive a guitar it is) it should be possible to observe differences between string types.

Here are some points to consider when choosing strings:

1. String tension and loudness. Higher tension strings tend to produce a louder sound than the lower tensions. However guitarists often find they require more effort to play. Being less flexible it is more difficult to produce subtle effects such as vibrato. Guitarists working in ensembles may opt for high tension strings, sacrificing the more subtle effects, in favour of more sound to help compete with loud orchestral instruments especially when amplification is not an option. Low tension strings on the other hand make vibrato or string bending easier as well as having a softer sound overall. Normal tension strings offer a trade-off with reasonable volume and sufficient flexibility.

2. Intonation - stability and tuning reliability. Some will argue this is the most important aspect of string choice particularly when choosing strings for use in concerts attended by paying members of the public. The string tuning must be accurate and stable. New strings always take time to settle in and, once they are played in, they should be able to hold their pitch. Also when a string is retuned (for example the 6th string tuned from E down to D) it needs to remain at the chosen pitch without the need for regular adjustments. Some strings are quicker to settle in from new whereas some can take days. Likewise some are more stable when re-tuned.

3. Durability. An important consideration is how long it takes before the strings wear out and need to be replaced. Of course, this depends on how much playing you do. It’s tempting to keep the same strings for many years but often people don’t realise the strings and the sound production deteriorating. If you practice solidly for several hours daily you will find your bass strings wear out quickly and become dull. The wear also becomes visually obvious over time. Of course, how much value you put on the sound quality and how often you change the strings is up to you.

4. How the strings feel to the touch. This comes down to personal preference and to an extent playing experience. A common scenario is when a player prefers thicker treble strings rather than some which can be too sharp to the touch. Some might prefer bass strings with a smooth texture that don’t need to be played in so much whereas harder metal string windings tend to make more string noise until played in.

5. Specialised requirements - antique and replica guitars. There are strings that are designed specifically for antique or period instruments. This is an area where it is really important to be sure you have chosen the right strings. Antique instruments may be designed to be tuned to a lower pitch than standard concert instruments and for this they may require low tension strings. A similar situation can also apply to modern replicas of old instruments, although some are made to work with standard strings and modern tuning. If in doubt it pays to check with an instrument maker and preferably the person who made the guitar. It’s worth noting there are also strings specifically designed to simulate the sound and feel of gut strings, for those wanting a more faithful ‘old sound’ representation.

6. Specialised requirements - recording strings. There are strings specifically designed and marketed for use as recording strings. These are intended to offer reduced string noise from finger contact particularly with regard to left hand fingering. A similar effect can be achieved by using old, normal bass strings that have been worn in. Recording strings tend to be more expensive than standard strings and just how effective or necessary they are is open to debate. Again it comes down to individual preference and what particular problems need to be solved. Often skilful playing combined with carefully considered fingering choices can overcome string noise issues and save the need to invest in specialist strings.