How to choose guitar strings
Credit: Lucas Moscardini
Whether you’re new to the world of guitar or you’re that person who has owned a guitar for 10 years but never changed the strings, then you’re in the right place!
This is your chance to better understand the world of strings. The lingo, the variations and the maintenance of strings can be confusing no matter what level you’re playing at, so we’re here to give you a full rundown.
Let’s start with why they are so important.
What’s the deal with strings?
First, the basics. Strings are fixed at the machine heads on the headstock and the bridge towards the bottom of the body of the guitar. Fret wires at key intervals along the length of the neck then allow you to play different notes. These fret wires are normally straight, but modern variations include fanned fret and True Temperament™.
It is said by many that strings don’t have an impact on tone, and while the sound of the likes of Guthrie Govan and Brian May is unmistakable, even these greats of guitar will have a string preference. Brands, types and gauges of strings all help to create a different tone.
Note attack, sustain and decay are all aspects of how we summarise a string’s tone. The initial note volume and dynamic response of a string can be looked at too. Finally, the EQ profile of a string is tightly linked to the harmonics and overtones it produces.
But what causes these tonal differences in the first place?
Material is likely the most influential as it vastly affects the tone of the notes. Electric and acoustic strings generally have steel cores with varying materials for the windings. Steel and nickel are common electric guitar string materials, brass and bronze are common windings for acoustics, and nylon (sometimes animal gut) is almost exclusively used for classical guitars.
String gauge is the thickness of a guitar string and is measured in thousandths of an inch. Common string gauges for a standard 6 string guitar are; light (10-46), medium (11-49) and heavy (10-52). You can also get fancier with skinny top, heavy bottoms and custom gauges.
The first factor in determining your string gauge is the application. If you’re keeping things in standard tuning you have the most options but there are certain situations where you may require thicker strings. The odd drop-D tuning would likely work fine but if you’re down tuning everything to Drop-f# then light strings are going to first get very flappy, very fast and the pitch will be all over the place when you pick hard. A more appropriately thicker gauge string will solve this.
Other needs requiring different string gauges would be extended range guitars (think 7 or 8 string guitars) or funky scale lengths. Lastly, your hand/forearm strength and fingertip calluses can also dictate string gauge preferences because thicker strings hold more tension at the same pitch, so thicker strings can make string bends and vibrato more difficult. If you’re new to string bending, we advise picking light strings until you get the technique down, and then you can get all sadistic and bend 13s all day long like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The strings are your direct connection to the instrument, so if you strongly dislike the feel of them you just won’t want to pick up that guitar again. Material, winding type and coating are the biggest contributors to how a string feels. Nylon strings feel slicker and smoother than heavy acoustic strings, while steel strings on an electric guitar might be considered a middle ground between the two.
Windings usually come in three main forms, round-wound, flat-wound and half-round, with round-wound being the most common. A typical downside to round-wounds is that they harbour dirt and grime. Companies such as Elixir Strings offer coated strings which improve the life of strings and ‘smooth’ out the feel a little. Flats generally feel smoother and have their own unique tone.
Elixir String coating to stop corrosion
Notes from the JTC team
JTC artists rave about the Elixir Optiweb coated series so I gave them a go and they’ve quickly become my favourite strings to date. First and foremost it was the feel that attracted me. I’m most at home on roundwounds but the coating the Optiwebs have gives them an elegance and slickness I prefer, that makes playing feel more natural than other brands I’ve tried. Second, but equally as important for me is that the strings have a great balanced feel and really nice attack/clarity to the tone, without sacrificing the full body sound of the notes. Comfort and great tone make for a deadly combination.
When playing I like to use 10-52s. I play a lot of classic rock/ blues and instrumental stuff so sound is everything to me. I don’t use too many effects and like to keep things pretty raw so my string choice plays a big part to getting the most tone sustain as possible. I like to go heavy without stringing them with fencing wire! The light tops heavy bottoms never let me down. Whether I’m ripping a solo or laying down some sweet riffs they’ve got that perfect balance, but each to their own!
I go with a skinny top/heavy bottom pack whenever I restring. I down tune a lot and play a lot of chuggy, riffy stuff, so I like a good grip on the low end, but on those rare occasions where I do venture to the higher strings, the lighter gauge gives me a bit of a hand. I’m quite often guilty of playing strings to death so when I do change them, I’m always surprised at the freshness of the tone. Maybe there is a lesson there!
What are fanned fret guitars?
Photo credit: Lucas Moscardini
Life is full of change. Some changes stick and some don’t.
Gimmicks like Gibson’s Reverse Flying V and Fender’s self turning amp knobs have come and gone. But with more and more players embracing fanned fret guitars, they're proving that they could be here to stay.
You’re probably wondering if you should try them, and are wanting to know more.
Let’s start with the basics.
What are fanned fret guitars?
In short, fanned fret guitars - also known as multi-scale - feature a fretboard with angled nuts as opposed to the perpendicular fret of a traditional guitar. Usually the one perpendicular fret is at the 9th, with the rest leaning towards the headstock or down to the bridge, depending on which direction along the fretboard you travel along.
It looks lovely, but why bother?
What’s in a scale?
To look at the benefits of fanned fret guitars, let’s start with your good old trusty traditional specimens. Every guitar has a scale length, which is the distance between the nut on the headstock to the bridge. Usually this means you’ll be playing on a 24 - 25.5″ scale guitar.
Bass guitars obviously have a longer scale allowing lower frequencies to ring more clearly. Baritone guitars have similar benefits due to a longer scale length. But this benefit is where we start to run into a few problems. While the baritone scale is great for low end, it can be a challenge on the higher frequencies, and bends can become muddy.
So downtune a standard scale right? No problem. But go anywhere below C and unless you have tree trunk strings, you may start to run into clarity and tuning issues. You might also find that most of your guitars are better suited to one thing or the other. High end or low end. Wouldn’t it be good to have one designed to do both?
The benefits of fanned fret guitars
Thanks to the angled nut of a fanned fret guitar, the string tension on the higher strings is reduced, which makes big bends a lot easier. It can also serve to give you a smoother sound.
At the other of this shredding, riffing, see-saw, you’ll find greater tension on the lower end. If you downtune or use thicker strings, there will be more clarity and a heavier tone.
One major spoken about benefit though, is better intonation and tuning accuracy across the whole fretboard. Which is somewhat counter intuitive when you think about the angles on show!
The drawbacks of fanned frets
Fanned fret guitars are relatively new so the market for them isn’t huge. The market is growing but you will be paying more for a multi-scale instrument than your regular models. Likewise, not all guitars are available with fanned frets, so you may have to enter the custom market which can get very pricey!
Money aside, it will take time to adjust to the frets on offer. This can make some chords more challenging and bar chords in particular can take some time to get used to.
There is also a thought that the angles frets wear away at strings quicker, but that can be remedied with a decent set. Our suggestion would be Elixir Strings due to their impressive durability which helps them to retain their tone.
Who uses fanned frets?
Metal guitarists are perhaps the main adopters of this innovation. Future JTC artists Lucas Moscardini and Manuel Gardner Fernandes both play with multi-scale guitars. While Misha Mansoor, the man behind Horizon Devices and guitarist of Periphery, is one of the most well known users of fanned frets.
What was good enough for Hendrix and is still good enough for our very own Guthrie Govan, is good enough for you. If you’re used to standard scale guitars and happy with them, stick with them.
But change can be good and often the best way to improve or learn new things is to try something new. So if you’ve ever played on a fanned fret, or want to give them a go, drop us a message on Facebook. We’d love to hear your thoughts!
How to use guitar jam tracks effectively
When it comes to practice sessions, not much else trumps guitar jam tracks. They’re fun, allow you to learn new skills and come in all “shapes and sizes”.
You no doubt want to get the most out of anything in life, and we’re here to help you do that with jam tracks.
What are guitar jam tracks?
In short, a jam track is a form of backing music, for you to play over to your heart’s content. Jamming with other musicians can be super fun, but also quite hard to come by for many.
So instead of trying to find a few like-minded individuals and a large space for you all to stand in, you can have yourself some backing musicians in the form of an MP3. Best of all, you not only get to take the lead, but you also get to improve your playing.
Pressing play and having some fun is the easiest way to enjoy a jam track on guitar, but it’s always a good idea to have a little think before you use one.
Before you use a jam track…
After years of playing, you might be able to hear a song, find the key, and have a twiddle on your guitar straight away. If that isn’t the case, then no problem, but either way, it’s always a good idea to familiarise yourself with the details of the track, even if you don’t plan your “session” down to the last note.
The main aspects you’ll want to know, is the key, the tempo and the style. Playing to the key (and chords) will help to avoid any unwanted dissonance in your phrases, but this shouldn’t limit you. Many of the best 'colour tones' can often be found lurking outside the diatonic notes. The tempo and style are then there as a guide to the kind of feel you might want to go for.
By getting as much of the technical information in your pocket as possible, you can free yourself up to jam. You also avoid any pant-down moments if there is a tempo or time signature change mid track!
The best ways to use a guitar jam track
Once you know what’s what with your jam track of choice, it’s time to play. Here are a few different approaches that you might find useful.
Practice a technique
Guitar masterclasses might be the number one tool for developing and pinning down your skills, but jam tracks allow you to use them in context. It is a lot easier to play a set tapping exercise in isolation then it is while playing other stuff too. So pick a technique, such as alternate picking, and use the track as a setting to nail that skill.
Try something new
Everyone has favourites, and it can be easy to keep playing the same things. But if you step out of your comfort zone, even a little bit, you can really add a new level to your playing. Pick a mode to play in that you normally ignore, or perhaps go for a genre that is way out there in terms of your tastes. You don’t then have to become a fully fledged fan of that music, but each style brings with it it’s own challenges, and the more you can conquer the better. For something really out there, you could even see how one of your favourite licks works in a different setting. By adapting that lick to “fit” you’ll invariably uncover something new, and that’s what jamming is all about.
Of course, sometimes it is just as fun and useful to plug in and jam away. Doing this every session is fine, but we’d always say to try and structure your time playing at least a little bit. This way you can see where your strengths and weaknesses are. Maybe leave the full-on jamming time to the end of your session as a little treat!
One last thing…
Jam tracks are in many ways the antithesis of the metronome. Instead of that click, click, click to rigidly stick to, you get to have some fun and develop an internal sense of timing. That doesn’t mean that metronomes don’t have a place in practice, and are often quite good when used in conjunction with a jam track, but to really develop fluidity in your playing, it has to be a jam track.
Top 10 Tips To Get The Most Out Of Your Guitar Licks Part 2
Written by Steven Martin (Steven Martin Guitar)
I hope you enjoyed part one of this series . This is the second part and the final 5 licks; enjoy!
Develop the lick - This can involve adding notes or removing notes. There are loads of ways of adding notes ('melodic ornamentation', if you prefer). Chromatic passing tones can be added between scale notes as melodic 'filler'. This is common in Jazz or Fusion where you'd play 'strong' notes on the beats with the added chromatic notes in between. Any notes (not just chromatic) can be used to 'fill gaps', including wider intervals to create a melodic jump.
You can also displace or develop the rhythm, increasing the rhythmic density and building momentum. Or try altering the articulation of a lick by sliding into or out of certain notes; adding bends or vibrato; playing staccato or legato; adding or changing accents.
Melodic Superimposition - This technique can be difficult to master because it requires either a knowledge of theory or a great ear. The basic concept is to take a lick that was orginally played over one chord and play it over a different chord. This means that all the notes in the lick have different functions and relationships to the chord. For example...
Your lick uses the notes C B G D E over a C major chord. This means we're using the root, major 7th, 5th, 2nd and major 3rd.
Now we'll play the same notes over an E minor chord. How do they relate to the new chord? The C is now the minor 6th, which is a whole different sound from the root! And then we have the 5th, minor 3rd, minor 7th and root; a completely different set of sounds. The best way to see how these types of devices work is to try them out for yourself and see how you get on!
Swing vs Straight - This can also be a fun way to excite old licks. Using both straight and swing rhythm with your licks will really help you to learn them and also give you a few more ways of using them. Also trying playing straight licks over a swing backing and swing licks over a straight backing for some cool variations.
Change the speed of the lick - This doesn't mean changing the tempo (like 120 bpm to 130 bpm). What we mean is moving up or down through 'rhythmic subdivisions'. If your lick is made up of 8th notes, play it as 16th notes or quarter notes. Or if it starts with one 8th note and two 16th notes, change that to one 16th and two 32nd notes... and so on. The idea is that sometimes there are great melodies hidden within blisteringly fast shred lines that you'd normally miss. Conversely some of the best melodies make very interesting shred lines when sped right up!
Use the licks in a new genre - Who says you can't use your best country licks in a metal song? Or your best jazz licks in a pop tune? Sometimes taking things out of context and viewing them in a new light can change your perceptions and get more from your music!
So that's the last 5 of the top 10 tips for getting the most out of a single lick! Why not try it with one of the 20 Licks packs? Pick any lick and really experiment with all the tips in this article... I GUARANTEE you will get so much more out of the licks. You'll also develop your own creativity, find fresh inspiration, expand your fretboard knowledge and improve your improvisation!
If you enjoyed this article, please do share it on Facebook and Twitter to let all your friends know how to get the most out of their licks!
Written by Steven Martin.
Top 10 Tips To Get The Most Out Of Your Guitar Licks Part 1
Written by Steven Martin (Steven Martin Guitar)
We all hear about them, 'Lick of the week', 'Lick of the day', 'here's this week's free lick', check out this 'rad Dorian lick'. Guitar licks are everywhere! Due to popular demand and great feedback we have recently been releasing some REALLY great 20 licks packs that are crammed with great content, but instead of just learning some awesome and obscure lick that you may never play again and moving on, have you ever considered trying to squeeze EVERY last bit of value you can from each and every lick? Below are our 'Top 10 Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Your Guitar Licks':
Learn the same lick all over the neck - This first one may seem basic, but that's because it needs to be! You should first aim to be able to play the lick in the SAME octave in as many different places as you can. The guitar fretboard is laid out in a wondrous fashion, making plenty of notes available in any position. This means you can play the same lick in the same octave in different places, but you can also start in the same place and then switch to a new position in the middle of the lick. Certain neck positions and variations in note positions will present different challenges to you; certain string sets will be more difficult to work with. There may also be times when a change of technique may be cool to try, such as string skipping a lick that previously used sweep picking. As you play the lick in various places, try to visualise the 'parent' scale or chord/arpeggio. This will both help you remember the lick, and help you to formulate similar licks when you come to use that position while improvising. The extension of this is to then transpose the lick up or down an octave and repeat the same method of playing it everywhere you can. It may seem like a dull approach but if you really work on this for EVERY lick, you'll open up a whole world of fretboard freedom.
Learn the lick in familiar AND unfamiliar keys - This is very important because you will probably not always use the same key for every track. Learning the lick in a familiar key makes perfect sense because you want the lick to be available to you while you are improvising and playing. If you love playing in that classic 5th fret A minor position then you need to find a logical fingering for your lick in this position. Moving to unfamiliar keys is usually an easy task on guitar... it's just a case of moving all the notes together up or down the frets to match the new key. Learning to play the lick in many different keys is going to help solidify the lick in your mind. The goal here is to aim to be able to play the lick at ANY given moment, regardless of which key you might be playing in.
Learn how the notes relate to the underlying chord - This is going to help you BIG TIME with improvising, for three reasons. Firstly, it will give you a more thorough understanding of exactly which notes you are playing and why. For example if you know which notes you are playing in relation to the chord (root, 3rd, 9th etc) you instantly have more control over your playing. You hear the sound of the notes, learn their names and how they relate to the chord, and you can then access those sounds when you want them. For example, take a lick that highlights the 9th over a minor 7 chord. Once you know what is happening to create this sound, you then know what to do when you wish to call upon that particular sound again. Secondly, this links with the first tip, increasing your fretboard/chord knowledge. Try not to just learn licks as patterns... if the first note is E, is it the root of the scale? Or the 5th... or the 3rd? Thirdly, if you know how a lick fits with one chord, you can figure out how to change it for other chords; which leads us to our next top tip!
Learn how to play Major/Minor/Dominant versions of the same lick - Using your knowledge of how the lick relates to a chord, you can now alter it to fit other chords. Let's say your lick works over a major chord and uses notes from the major scale. The major scale is built from the root, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th (in C, this is C D E F G A B). Now lets say that we want to play a minor version of the same lick. In the natural minor (Aeolian) scale the 3rd, 6th and 7th are lowered (flat), so if your lick contains the notes E, A or B, you need to change them to Eb, Ab and Bb. The same lick pattern will now work over a C minor chord. In some cases, you can leave the A notes... this creates a Dorian sound. Experiment!
For dominant, the only note you need to change is the 7th... shift the B to Bb, and your lick will now work over a C7 chord. With this basic principle you can change your lick to fit a wide range of scales and modes.
Reuse/Recycle the Lick - This can be quite a fun one to mess around with. Try focusing on the rhythm of the lick, using the same rhythm but adding your own choice of notes. Or focus on the melodic shape, looking at when the melody goes up or down. Effectively we did this when we changed/altered our licks to create major/minor versions. You can be as exact or vague as you like. For example if the original lick went 'down down down up' then you can take that same pattern but use different sized intervals. This can give you some very interesting results!
So that is the first 5 tips of our top 10 tips for trying to get the very most out of a single guitar lick. Be sure to stay tuned for part two where we'll go through the final 5 tips! You can subscribe to our mailing list at the very bottom of the page to be notified of our releases and future blog posts (including the second of this series).
P.S - Part two of our Top Ten Tips for Guitar now available!
If you enjoyed this article, please do share it on Facebook and Twitter to let all your friends know how to get the most out of their licks!
The Amazing Flat Fifth
In this lesson we're going to tell you about a note called the 'flat fifth'. That doesn't sound very exciting, but trust us... it's one of the most important features of music from the last 100 years!
Let's do the basic theory first. The flat 5th is also called the diminished 5th, and in proper music symbols it is shown as 'b5'. It lives six half-tones above the root note. So, if you were making a riff in E, the flat 5th would be Bb.
The flat 5th can be added to many different scales, but possibly the most common use is in the minor pentatonic...
This hybrid scale is what we often call the 'blues scale' (although that is not a precise term!)
Now, here's a slight complication. That EXACT same note can also be called the sharp 4th or augmented 4th. Huh? Well, it depends on the context and how the note is being used, just as the note Bb can also be called A#. Don't worry about this now... the most important thing is to try using the note and be aware that it has two names.
It's also important to learn the SOUND of the flat 5th. This note is often described as being 'dissonant', but it can also have a neutral or unsettled character. It certainly sounds quite uncomfortable if you let it ring for too long... try playing this E minor chord and then add the flat 5th...
But that's what's so great about it! Just as we like to use spices to make our food more exciting, we use dissonant notes to make our music more spicy! Without the flat 5th, you wouldn't have the classic riffs from 'Enter Sandman', 'Black Sabbath' (the title song) or 'Sunshine of Your Love'. It's not just rock and metal, either... in its other job as the sharp 4th, this amazing note has important roles in 'Maria' from West Side Story, and the Simpsons theme.
Here's a clip from our upcoming brand new Guthrie Govan package, West Coast Grooves (out this Friday). This is from the track 'Jelly Bean' and shows how Guthrie uses the flat 5th in a mostly E minor pentatonic context.