Electric Guitar Strings: Ferromagnets, Alloys, and Output:
I'm gonna level with you here, boys and girls: I'm a huge nerd. And there's nothing I loved more about high school chemistry class than when we got into the subject of ferromagnetism. That's your 5-dollar word for the day, and I challenge each and every one of you to a Wikipedia free-fall on the subject because ferromagnets are fascinating. And would you believe it: they actually have quite a bit to do with your music.
Most of you out there reading this (all...I dunno...five and a half of you) are probably familiar with how electric guitars work. But for those who aren't, the long and short of it is this: the pick-ups in a guitar are essentially magnets designed to pick up (see what I did there) electrical signals from the strings of the guitar. When a guitar string is plucked or strummed, it creates a disturbance in the magnetic field produced by the pick-up. That disturbance is then translated into an electrical signal that gets sent from the guitar to the amp and TA-DA! You have RAWK.
But what many may not understand is that your choice of strings can actually have a great deal of effect on your sound. Just like with acoustic guitar strings, electric guitar strings are made up of all kinds of differing materials and combinations of said materials, thus creating many different "flavors" of strings. But unlike the vast majority of acoustic guitars, electric guitar strings also have to answer to another factor: magnetism. Being that magnetism is essential to the functions of an electric guitar, different materials in the strings can contribute to change in the following three things: tone, frequency response, and output.
For the sake of this post, I've broken the world of electric guitar strings into four different types (nickel, stainless steel, chrome, and cobalt). So buckle up, kids, because we're about to jump into the wonderful world of FERROMAGNETIC ALLOYS! *applause all around*
Let's begin with Nickel:
With the exception of Nickelback, pretty much everything that Nickel is associated with is awesome and useful. In the world of guitar strings, nickel is particularly handy because of a couple reasons: 1) it is highly resistant to corrosion (which is why approximately 60% of the world's industrial projects involve nickel or nickel-alloys, such as stainless steel, in some form or another), and 2) because it is one of four metals that respond exceptionally well to spontaneous magnetism at room temperature (which is bad news for those of you who are looking for excellent output from your guitar while playing in the cold vacuum of space or inside the bowels of a volcano...I'm lookin' at you, Dave Mustaine). So it only makes sense that most electric guitar strings are compromised of mostly nickel or some sort of nickel-(insert whatever here) hybrid. Generally, you'll find two main types of nickel strings: "pure" nickel and nickel wound.
In terms of tone, "pure nickel" guitar strings are considered to be warmer and richer than nickel-wound strings, though both are considered to be quite bright and ideal for most classic rock and blues. "Pure nickel" tone is often characterized these days as "vintage tone", considering they were the staple strings of early rock 'n roll and blues music. They are generally more flexible, which is particularly advtangeous if you do a lot of bending or vibrato, and tend to be quite yielding and have a softer attack. They feel and sound a bit smoother and have that particular kind of harmonics that are unique to vintage rock and early blues. Here at Bigfoot, we offer the following kinds of pure nickel strings:
Fender Original Bullets ($10.99):
A popular and all around great string with pretty excellent sustain and that sweet, vintage, Fender-y sound.
DR "Pure Blues" ($9.99):
A great, handmade string with sweet low-end and vintage goodness.
Now, the other kind of nickel-based strings (and probably the most common and popular these days) are nickel-wound strings. They differ mainly in the fact that they have stainless-steel cores and are then wrapped with nickel or nickel-alloys to make a brighter, punchier sounding hybrid and are also a little less expensive to manufacture. As with all nickel strings, the key characteristic is brightness, and with the addition of steel, there's a considerable up-tilt in the brightness of the string. As far as playing dynamics go, there's an extra amount of tightness and ridigity when you introduce a steel core. It gives a crunchier, spankier feel to the sound, and can take a bit more of a beating if you want to play harder rock or heavier blues. At Bigfoot, we've got a bunch of these guys:
Ernie Ball Slinky's ($6.38):
Before all of us at the shop converted to Elixirs, Ernie Ball was kind of our String God at Bigfoot. They typically tend to be our "best-bang-for-your-buck" string, and are quite popular for a reason. I still mainly use them as my gigging strings and I've never been disappointed with them.
D'Addario XL's ($6.75):
If you're looking for a something just a step up from Ernie Ball's, D'addario's are a well-known string with a reputation that preceeds it. I recommend them especially for those who want great tone for studio work or recording purposes. They also tend to feel a bit nicer on the fingers, in my opinion.
Darco Electric Guitar Strings ($5.99):
Then again, if you're just looking for a basic, meat-and-potatos kind of string or you don't want to spend gobs and gobs of money that would lend themselves better to be spent on say...tea cozies?...Darco is a great budget string with excellent quality for the money!
DR "Tite-Fit" 's ($8.99):
Yet another quality contribution from the people of the handmade string. Great punch, great output, great tone!
Fender Super Bullets ($8.99):
The emphasis here is bringing the best out of the steel involved: higher output, brighter sound, something that will cut through and kick people in the face with sound. Figuratively. (Or is it?)
Moving on to stainless steel strings, and the creative things people have come up with to augment it's...augmentableness...
Stainless Steel and Fancy Manufacturing Techniques:
With nickel strings now in our rear-view mirrors, we enter into the world of stainless steel strings. With every difference, there is an advantage and a disadvantage. In this case, stainless steels advantages are in their reliability, durability, and magnetic output. One of the classic characteristics of stainless steel is that it doesn't rust or corrode under normal weathering circumstances (that includes your greasy, nasty finger oils, all the drooling you're doing from all the hot lixx you're playing, and the occasionally beer spill). This makes it a great string in the way of toughness and longevity. It is also the best alternative for those with nickel allergies who require shreddable sound all the same. Stainless steel's brightness and output is ideal for high gain stuff like metal and hard rock that includes meedley-meedley-type solos.
But there is a bit of a trade-off from typical nickel strings. Steel lasts longer and is obviously brighter, but can eventually wear your frets down being that you are playing with direct steel-on-steel. They are also not as flexible or smooth to the touch as nickel strings, which can make it difficult if you play with a softer touch anyway. There's also a slight increase in string-noise sometimes because of the rougher exterior of the wind. But than again, if you're a metal head, that just adds another level of screeching badassery to the sound.
Yet, there's more to the story. Many manufacturers have experimented with stainless steel strings in order to find out what they can get away with or what can add to an already face-melty sound. We've got two kinds of maniacal labratory experiments here at the shop:
Dean Markley's Blue Steels ($8.99):
It's not just stainless steel. Dean Markley's crazy scientists concocted this technology in their formiddable lairs of science and rawk. These strings are cryogenically frozen in -320 °F liquid nitrogen in order to...well...make them EVIL and AWESOME. The idea is that by freezing the strings, it changes the molecular structure of the steel and basically tightens everything up, resulting in something very brilliant, bright, and tight sounding. For a long time, these were my primary, go-to bass strings because they have a great, cutting sound that is cool for slap or giving your music that extra "thunk". Metal guys and hard rockers find them to be advantageous. Our own Ryan Laffin used these for a long time and still recommends them to anyone cold and heartless enough to play with frozen strings. Mwa hahaha...ha.
Elixir Nanoweb Electric Coated Strings ($10.99):
If you recall from last week, Elixir strings (acoustic and electric) are pretty nifty. And though Elixir purposely maintains some anonymity as to who exactly makes their strings (they themselves do not make the strings, but only coat them), it only takes a couple listens to know that these strings are primarily steel. And coated-steel strings are quite cool because not only do you get an extra long life, but the smoother texture as a result of the thinner, nanoweb coating takes away some of the discomfort involved in harder, rougher steel strings. You get nice, bright, punchy tone, longer life, and less bleeding all around. Huzzah!
Now, I'd like to talk about the latest addition to the electric gutair string gladiatorial arena! Cobalt!
Cobalt and Its Fancy-Schmancy Curie Temperature...
Here's a couple reasons why I think cobalt is one of the most badass chemical compounds in existence. Firstly, it's called "cobalt" because the original German word for it, "kobold" meant, literally, "goblin ore". Goblins! Heck yeah! Secondly, it gets poisonous as soon as you try to melt it. It's dangerous and it'll kill you. And it's black. Black as the soul of the hellish monstrosity that is hard rock. And finally, it has the single highest Curie temperature of all other ferromagnetic compounds (it can still be magnetic when it is really, really hot). So yeah, it's kind of a badass material. And you know what Ernie Ball did? They made guitar strings out of it.
I have to confess that when I first read the article in Guitar Player magazine that Ernie Ball was coming out with steel-core, cobalt-alloy strings, I was rolling my eyes. "They're just throwing a black, harder metal on strings so people will think it's more badass," I thought to myself, being the illustrious know-it-all, woman of the world that I am. Ernie Ball claimed that the string had a higher level of output because cobalt is more sensitive to magnets, and also that it had a higher frequency response. And I remained skeptical. That is, until I bought a pack and strung up my MIM strat with them. And then I ate my hat.
The difference, like most differences in guitar strings, is a subtle one. First thing I noticed was that the strings felt rougher, kind of grippier. Being that I am partial to Elixir's (and they're quite smooth), Slinky Cobalts ($9.99) were already losing points. But the thing that a lot of long-time players forget is that if you give yourself enough time (and it's not usually as much time as you think), you can get used to anything. Most of the time, you choose your particular brand of string because it's the thing you've always played. In the world of strings, there is no better or worse, there is only what you like. But I gave cobalts a chance and began to realize the considerable differences, and liked them. There is a noticeable difference in volume (due to cobalt's magnetism), and like they said about frequency response, there was extra definition in the highs and lows that aren't typical of most nickel or stainless strings (nickel being a little weak on the highs but richer in the lows, stainless often the opposite). So though they were different than what I was used to, I ended up really liking the cobalts. People who come into the shop and ask for them seem to like them, too, and we've gotten great feedback. So I'd recommend the experiment. These strings are great for pretty much everything except those of you who are looking specifically for the mellowest of tones. These are little bit extra money, but again, worth the try!
And now, for the big promotional ending to my crash course of strings: at Bigfoot Music, we do a buy-two-get-a-third-free deal for nearly all of our strings!* You can mix and match, too, if you're looking to try some new stuff! And now that I've pumped your brains full of string-info the last couple weeks, you can now make informative (if not, totally reckless) decisions on which strings to play with next! Go forth, my rockers, and melt some faces!
*The deal does not include bass strings, Elixir brand strings, or ukulele strings.