String choice is one of the areas that most guitarists and bassists have a somewhat hidden passion about. Today there are many options to choose from with various different alloy recipes and coating options that enhance the life of the string. Stylistic differences also come into play and the overall brightness or darkness of the string has an impact on which strings are going to produce the desired effect. For instance, if you are a bassist who employs a lot of slap technique in your playing, you definitely wouldn’t want to put flat wound strings on your Jazz Bass because flats are naturally darker in tone and cut out much of the highs that slap requires in order to successfully produce the sounds. Flats also react differently under the fingers than round wound strings, providing a softer feel and a very mellow tone. This is just one of the many variants on strings that must be considered when choosing strings.
There are also considerations regarding pickup types that must be brought into play. Acoustic steel strings are typically wound with either a phosphor bronze alloyed wire or bronze. If you plan on using a magnetic pickup to amplify the instrument, this will result in a somewhat reduced output from the magnetic pickup. The strings that work best with magnetic pickups are typically steel and/or nickel, which provide excellent response from the pickups. If you’re using an under-saddle piezo or transducer, these respond very well to whatever strings you choose to use because they operate based upon the physical vibration that is being transferred through solid materials.
Different string companies often produce very similar products, with many different advertising methods and brand names that identify product lines under the over all brand. There will be a tonal difference between each type of string they manufacture, although some differences will be very subtle. Beginners generally won’t, most often due to a lack of the informational background required, notice a difference and rely on their instructors or recommendations from other players to make their choices. Often players become very brand and string type loyal for various reasons including knowing what they can expect from a certain string in terms of tone and reliability.
How long a string lasts makes huge difference to most players, and it’s not really about how long until it breaks. It’s about how long you can get the best tone from the string. Strings lose their brilliance and top end sonically over time, eventually producing a much duller tone, and some guitars appear to be more affected by this than others. I’ve had many Gibson guitars, which have a shorter scale length than their Fender cousins, that sounded like entirely different instruments as soon as the strings started to die. One day I’d have this nice beautiful full tone, and the next it sounded horrible and it was entirely due to the strings having checked out. Once I’d restring with a fresh set, bam! The tone was right back in the wonderful zone.
String life is determined by many factors and people are always trying to come up with new methods to make their strings last. String coatings generally due make a difference in how long they last because the coating prevents dirt and the chemicals in our sweat from degrading the strings. Some of the coatings are thicker than others ,which does have an effect on the tone of the string but it’s not unusual for the coated, thick or thin, to outlast tradition non-coated strings by a factor of three to one. Another factor that makes a huge difference in string life is simply washing and drying your hands before you pick up your instrument to play. This cuts down on the amount of grime that is coming in contact with the string from the start. The individual chemical composition of the player’s sweat is a major factor as well. Some folks have absolutely nuclear grad corrosive sweat, and I knew one player who would kill guitar strings in one playing due to the simple nature of his sweat. If you handed him your guitar, you were assured that a string change would be necessary after he played it.
Whatever you choose to use, it will always be a matter of what works best for your individual needs. Regardless of which star uses what, what works for that individual really holds no guarantees for anyone else for a myriad of reasons from those listed above to individual instrumental idiosyncrasies. Finding the right string type for you takes patience and experimentation until you find what works for the present. It might end up being a long relationship, but quality can shift over time within the company producing the string, or you might find that the qualities that you liked from the string in the past are not what you’re looking for in the present. Here’s to happy hunting in the string jungle!