Jazz Guitar Today reached out to Brian Vance, Director of Product Development for D’addario & Co., to discuss what are the best strings for jazz guitar.
With over 18 years in the ‘string business‘, Brian has accumulated a wealth of information on strings. In addition to his views and helpful advice for players, Brian provides some of the background and technology of guitar strings. We also included some perspective and tips from D’addario & Co.
What Strings Are Best for Jazz?
By Brian Vance
A reoccurring question I receive on a regular basis… what strings are best for jazz? Man, that’s a loaded question, so let me walk you through what is seemingly obvious and simple, but has a lot of complexity packed into it.
Instead of focusing on what strings are best for jazz, let’s start with what makes up a string and what factors go into how a string sounds, what makes them different from one another, etc.
First and foremost, you need to choose the right type of string for your type of guitar, meaning… electric, acoustic or nylon strings. We could spend a lot of time on the intricacies of both acoustic and particularly classical strings, so to keep things simple I’m going to focus on electric strings.
There are three key factors in string feel and tone, each of which has a particular effect on your sound and playing experience;
How the string is wound, primarily the construction or surface of the wrap wire, either round or flat, or various hybrids of these, including Half Rounds, rollerwound, polished, etc.
With electric guitars, Ferrous alloys (contains iron and are magnetic, so they interact well with your pickups) are generally used for both the core, wrap wire and plain steel strings. These would include common string alloys such as Nickelplated Steel and various types of High-carbon and Low-carbon Steel. At times, non-ferrous alloys such as Pure Nickel are used, but these strings have less output and tend to sound warmer with less overall volume (more on that later).
Generally, the lighter the gauge, the thinner the tone, but there are many famous guitar players who are known for great tone that use extremely light gauges. For example, Jimmy Page and Billy Gibbons both are reported to use 8s, whereas a big part of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s fat Strat tone was due to 13s tuned down a half step (can you imagine?). I think you can safely assume, however, that most jazz players do not use extremely light strings and tend to gravitate towards 11s through 13s, depending on musical and playing style.
So, now we have the basics, let’s get into each element in detail to help make sense of what strings are best for what application.
First, Let’s Take a Look at Guitar String Construction
There are three basic components to an electric and acoustic string. These three components can be pretty consistent from brand to brand, string to string, but of course, there are other factors involved.
The Ball End
Holds the guitar string in place at the bridge or tailpiece – depends on your guitar hardware design.
String manufacturers approach with different methods – but the goal is to allow the string to be brought to tension, bend and stay in tune consistently. For example, the core wire of all D’addario strings is twisted around the ball end and secured via a signature “lock twist” method. Seems simple but if you are having issues with tuning stability, the twist area is often the culprit. For improved performance, you can also explore strings with reinforced twists (example, D’addario NYXL strings).
High-carbon steel that is either hex-shaped or round on which the wrap wire is applied during the winding process.
In its round form, this is the same wire used for the plain steel strings (high E, B, etc.). A related topic that gets talked about a lot is round core vs. hex core. This is another example of there are no rules and there is a lot left to perception or preference.
With a hex core, the six sides of the harder core delicately bite into the softer wrap wire, creating a tight bond, resulting in strings that many believe sound brighter, vibrate more consistently, intonate better and last longer.
That said, there are others who believe in or adhere more to vintage specs of round cores. Again, not good or bad, right or wrong, but something you should try for yourself to see if you can tell a difference or like one better than the other.
D’addario Fun Fact: As an engineering and technology-based company, D’Addario determined a hex core makes a better string, so all of their strings are made with a hex core. D’addario actually manufactures their own core wire to ensure the highest quality hex specs. Better ingredients = better strings!
The outer “skin” of the string that is generally responsible for most of the string’s character and resulting tone and feel.
Let’s Take a Look at the Type of Wrap Wire
This is your standard electric and acoustic guitar string. You know, the type that leaves grooves in your finger and gives you a little squeak as you move up and down? Round wound strings are by far the most versatile and most popular for a variety of reasons, they are easy to bend (vs. a flatwound), provide fairly long string life and have the brightest tone, so you can easily EQ to taste.
The string made famous by many of the legends of the ‘50s and ‘60s, from Wes Montgomery to Kenny Burrell to Joe Pass, all of whom created an unmistakable warm, mellow tone from their archtops and flatwound strings. These strings, sometimes called “ribbon-wound” are literally made with a flattened outer wrap wire, generally made of stainless steel. This construction prevents the string from vibrating as much as a round wound string, creating a more damped, muted tone and increased tension and stiffness. The accompanying smooth feel just makes you want to play that style. If you listen to any Wes Montgomery song, you’ll get the picture. Rarely are flat wounds bent, although there are no rules and they can have a distinctive and pleasant twang when picked close to the bridge, a signature tone found in a lot of rockabilly and surf music. For the record, Flatwounds are experiencing a steady resurgence, growing in popularity. It’s great to see more players experimenting more and altering their tone with a simple change of strings.
“The Third Kind of String”
Another type of electric string construction could be called a “hybrid” of round wounds and flat wounds. There are varying methods to accomplish this effect, but it generally starts with a round outer wrap which is then partially flatted during the winding process or grinding/polishing process after the string is wound.
D’addario Tip: D’Addario created Half Rounds in the 70s as the “third kind of string”. They are designed made to sound like a round wound string, have the tension and playability of a round wound string, but feel smoother like a flatwound. Some players like them for the reduced finger noise, as well. Half Rounds are very popular with bass players. So if you know any, you might recommend they check them out. It’s changed the life of many a bass player.
Next, the String Materials
By far the most popular and what is considered the standard. It’s the alloy used in XLs, Slinkys, Boomers and most other popular electric strings. Not all Nickel plated steel is the same. Many prominent jazz artists use Nickel-plated steel strings including Wayne Krantz, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, and many more (including Jazz Guitar Today’s March Cover Artist Oz Noy!).
D’addario Tip: D’addario NYXL strings have an exclusive formulation, which provides increased volume in key mid-range frequencies that are pleasant to the ear and help your guitar stand out in the mix. The NYXL’s are very popular with a wide range of players, including many jazz players. Give them a try…
On the brighter side, or perhaps I could say the crunchier side is Stainless Steel. Stainless and other types of Low-carbon Steel are not more magnetic than nickel-plated steel but are bold-sounding, aggressive strings which definitely give you more presence and crunch. On the downside, it is a harder alloy with a grittier feel and is punishing on nickel frets, so be warned. In general, it’s not a common choice for jazz players and only a small percentage of all-electric strings sold, but those who love them, swear by them, Frank Gambale, as one example.
As a non-ferrous material, it’s placed at the bottom of the tone spectrum. These strings get most of their magnetic property from the core wire (made from highly magnetic high-carbon steel) underneath the outer wrap wire, so pickups draw less, therefore, less output. This was the alloy used for most electric strings in the 50s and early 60s, so if you’re looking for authentic vintage electric tone, give them a try. They definitely are not as loud, but there is a characteristic warmth about them that is increasing in popularity. If you’re accustomed to Nickel-plated steel, the difference can be pretty dramatic, particularly the balance between the wound strings and plain steel strings, so give your ears a little time to adjust and appreciate the clean, pure tone. Eric Johnson is a dedicated Pure Nickel lover.
There are other electric alloys out there, most are variations on a theme of one of the above, so you owe it to yourself to investigate all of the options out there.
Finally, Let’s Talk String Gauge
From a tone perspective, this is an area with less science and more qualitative perception. As mentioned earlier, you can get great tone out of a light set of strings, but generally, heavier gauges produce more resonance and a wider breadth of tone. More string mass generates more energy resulting in what some would say “better” sound. Again, this is highly personal, but it’s a commonly accepted belief.
Generally, most players start off on 9s or 10s and some never venture far from that. Hey, again, there are no rules and if it ain’t broke… but, often, players move up the gauge ladder as they build up strength. Personally, I started on 9s, then went to 10s and now play 11s on most guitars, but it took many years (decades actually) for me to work up to and settle on 11s. My advice, keeping trying things until it feels right. With all the string options out there, no reason to compromise.
D’addario Tip: D’Addario offers half gauges, such as 9.5s and 10.5s to help guitarists discover that perfect gauge. These are great to move up to a heavier gauge without feeling a drastic, immediate difference. Another secret with these half gauges – they are an effective way to balance the tension differential between different scale guitars. For example, if you use 10s on a Les Paul or 335 that has 24.75” scale length, but you also play a Strat or a Tele with 25.5” scale length, those 10s are going to feel stiffer on the 25.5” scale guitars. To help balance the feel between the two guitars, try putting a set of 9.5s on our Fender guitars and see how that works. It’s not exact, but it does a pretty good job offsetting the tension differences without having to go down a full gauge, which can change your playing style or even affect your intonation/setup.
Another interesting trick is to experiment with a wound 3rd. Originally, in the ‘50s through the mid-‘60s, electric strings came with a wound 3rd, which wasn’t ideal for bending and copping blues licks as most ‘60s rock players were looking to do. Apparently, we have Eric Clapton to thank for the plain 3rd, which is great, but at the same time, that thinner G-string delivers less overall set tension, resonance, and energy.
D’addario Tip: To compensate for that G-string, try a set of D’Addario EXL110Ws (10s), EXL115Ws (11s) or EJ21s (12s) and see what that does for your guitar tone and tuning stability. We think you will find chords ring out more, as well as improved clarity between the wound and plain strings. For jazz players, this is something we recommend experimenting with!
The Balancing Act
The last subject related to gauge is the concept of “balanced tension” strings. The standard, common light, medium, heavy gauge configurations out there were developed by guitar makers, artists, and string maker’s trial and error, feel preferences, etc. There was some logic to the gauges, but not much science. Today, you see many gauge variations between brands and within brand’s product portfolios, from 7s to 14s and everything in between, including hybrid gauges that mix light tops with medium bottoms and so on. Also, open tunings, drop tunings, 7-, 8-, and 9- string guitars require much heavier strings than ever before, so the options are vast. D’addario was the first company to publish string tension data on their packaging and they continue this today, as well as displaying every set on their website. This is something that is extremely informative and appealing to the technically minded, both players and luthiers/repair techs. By educating players on what’s going on with their strings on their instrument, we’ve grown the awareness that this is important stuff to understand if you want to.
D’addario Tip: From a more scientific approach, D’addario created Balanced Tension strings. They utilize mathematical formulas to create the set gauges that effectively balance the feel between each string, creating a more harmonious interaction and comfortable playing experience as you transition between strings, picking or strumming or bending. The effect is noticeable. Strings ring out clearer and you quickly realize how much muscle memory has created habits in how you bend differently or compensate in picking intensity between strings. More and more players are realizing the benefits of Balanced Tension strings and are beginning to migrate to these sets. D’addario makes them in a variety of electric gauges, 9s – 11s.
If you’re interested in experimenting with string gauges, check out their String Tension Pro tool at stringtensionpro.com. This is a handy tool that allows you to play around with different string types, instrument scale lengths and desired tunings in order to get recommended string gauges or options for any use.
‘Wrapping’ It Up
I hope this helps you figure some of the mystery of strings, but hopefully, get you thinking, too! Strings are something most of us take for granted, myself included until I started with D’Addario, but they are a critical part of every player’s day, performance and lifetime of playing experience. Without strings, there is no sound and not all strings are created equal.
One thing I’ve learned is that it’s amazing what you can do to change your guitar tone and feel for less than $10. All of these strings were developed for a reason and there is probably a string out there for any need or problem. I look at strings like food, it all tastes good, but there are different types, so you owe it to yourself to experiment and expand your palate. Plus, it can be as cheap as a fast food meal with nothing but good benefits for your playing health. Time to go, I’m getting hungry!
Brian Vance – Guitarist and Director of Product Development for D’addario & Co.
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