Bluegrass Guitar: How to Improve Your Acoustic Sound with Quality Strings
Never underestimate the importance of a good set of strings on your acoustic guitar (or any other bluegrass acoustic instrument). Having a bad set of strings on a reasonably good playing guitar is like winning an Olympic gold medal and being so proud of it you have it bronzed. If you find your strings are sounding like thumping baling wire then read on – it may not be your guitar.
We’ve come a long way from the ol’ cat gut strings – which incidentally, were for the most part made from sheep innards. As we know, bluegrass acoustic guitars are strung with six strings of varying thicknesses that are tuned to concert pitch. Concert pitch means they are design for a specific and limited range. From a practical perspective this means don’t over-tune them; they’ll break. The first two strings (E and B) on an acoustic guitar are usually solid steel strings; the rest are wound strings around steel cores.
The various metals used for wire winding is particularly noteworthy for bluegrass guitar pickers. In general, most bluegrass guitarists prefer gold or yellow strings constructed of bronze, brass, and other various alloys. This is in contrast to silver or white strings made of nickel, silver plating, stainless steel, and nickel alloys commonly found on our electric guitar brethren.
Equally noteworthy are the various string gauges and the relationship strings gauges have to string tension once tuned to concert pitch. This relationship significantly influences the sound and how the guitar plays. String manufacturers offer strings in “matched” sets of varying thicknesses. Bear in mind that lighter strings are easier to press down and bend on the fingerboard but are not as loud and do not sustain as well as heavier strings.
Special bluegrass guitar sets commonly hover around the medium gauge with the higher strings leaning toward the light side. You can purchase “Bluegrass” sets from several manufacturers. The bluegrass sets facilitate the hard driving percussive sound on the lower and thicker strings and emphasize the high flat-picking leads on the higher thinner strings. Popular sets would include the Martin Bluegrass Gauge SP PhosBronze Guitar Strings, D'Addario EJ19 Phosphor Bronze MedLght Bluegrass(12-56), and John Pearse 650LM Phosphor Bronze Bluegrass Strings (12-56).
Good strings can get a little pricey but are well worth the investment in sound quality, playability, and because of special protective coatings from sweat often last longer while maintaining audible integrity. Nevertheless, like most good things, they do not last forever. Eventually they break as they lose flexibility and deteriorate from perspiration and normal use. However, heavy rhythmic strumming, over tightening, weak spots from kinks, and sharp edges on guitar string support hardware can send even the best quality strings into early retirement.
One very important disclaimer is that you should refer to your instrument manufacturer’s recommendations and guidelines when it concerns replacing strings. This is particularly warranted when considering heavier gauge strings on vintage and expensive acoustic instruments. You may unknowing void your manufacturer’s warranty.
So, there you have it. Now get out there and pick a good set of strings.