Monday, June 20, 2016

Gauging Your Choices In Guitars and Strings and Life

This message came from someone who has participated in a number of my guitar classes:
Hi Gary Lee Joyner, guitar teacher extraordinaire,
What do you think of light-medium gauge steel strings for acoustic guitar?
An acquaintance of mine has this preference in strings.
Martin MSP4150 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Light-Medium

My response:
When artist Edward Gorey was asked one time for a list of his “most admired or adored” books he said, “I am almost never invited to tell the world at large what it ought to be reading.” I love that quote.

For similar reasons, it took me a couple days to respond to the string topic. I balk at the prospect of anyone thinking that any thoughts I come up with might imply a directive.

I first had to follow your link to find out what “light-medium” means. I think of strings in terms of specific gauges and never quite trust the consistency of general product names. And so I now know that Martin SP phosphor bronze light-mediums are .125-.55. Interesting.

In the days when I offered guitar lessons at various music stores and played four hours and more a night, many nights a week, in bars and coffeehouses filled with string-destroying smoke, I had the need and employee-discount-opportunity to change strings very often. Every four days or so. It gave me the chance to experiment. A lot. If I were to suggest one directive it would be to experiment as much as you can manage…and discover what works for you. Not only gauge (including creating your own sets), but also brand, composition, winding, etc.

After that halcyon period I tended to get into a specific set for 4-5 years at a time. I had to have the current choice. Then I would suddenly find myself totally dissatisfied with that choice and have to find a new one that I would then stick with for another 4-5 years.

Shortly before we were at Blue Bear School of Music I took a real left-hand turn. It had to do with my getting my first good quality magnetic pick-up for one of my acoustic guitars. (I had owned a DeArmond monstrosity in the early days…weak, unbalanced, noisy, clunky, and it chewed up the underside of my guitar’s soundhole. I wish I still had it!) I had mostly used phosphor bronze strings for a long time up until then. But it occurred to me that electric guitar strings might respond nicely to my new pick-up. I didn’t notice any real difference in terms of the pick-up. But!...I found out that I really liked the acoustic sound of the nickel strings. I loved getting away from the full warmth that is generally associated with phosphor bronze. The sound is…cold…in a way I like…a lot. And oddly enough, I never had as many positive responses regarding my sound before the switch as I have since. And people are surprised by my explanation. “That’s ‘wrong’! You’re not supposed to do that…”

At that point I was teaching in a music store in Petaluma. (Charlie Cowles’ great Tall Toad Music.) So I again was able to do a bunch of experimenting. Along the way I found myself drawn to “.13s” for the first time since my early years of playing. Which is how I found my way to D'Addario EJ22 Nickel Jazz Medium strings. It has caused problems on the road because a lot of music stores don’t carry that particular set. 20 years later I’m still using them on all my steel string guitars, electric and acoustic. For a while I even concocted my own set for a 12-string that I tuned down to C—starting with EJ22s. Lately I’ve gone back to “.11s” on that guitar in order to bring it up to standard tuning.
Some assorted recent circumstances have forced me to vary other things a bit, as well.

I bought a Yamaha Silent steel string guitar for travel. It came with a set of “.10” phosphor bronze, including an unwound G. I’ve never liked an unwound 3rd on any guitar. It’s gotta be wound for me. So after asking around about safety for the guitar I put EJ22s on it. The neck and structure could take it, but a series of perplexing problems occurred with the piezo pick-up. Bottom line—it seemed that the gauge was causing the problems. I searched around and found a D’Addario set of nickel “.11s” with a wound 3rd. It’s working out nicely and I’m enjoying the difference in gauge. It’s imposing some alterations in my playing approach on that guitar.

On another front, some physical issues made me try moving to EJ21 “.12s” on one of my acoustics. I do miss the string resistance on that guitar so I might go back.

Picks create another element that influences gauge choices. These days I am constantly switching my pick combinations. Thumbpick and bare fingers, thumbpick and four metal fingerpicks, flatpick and bare fingers, flatpick and three metal fingerpicks. Each combination makes a different demand on string gauge. And each brand and size of thumbpick, or each size and thickness and make-up of flatpick, strikes the strings differently. A large thin Fender flatpick hits the strings very differently than a Tusq, or a Dunlop Ultex, or a tiny “jazz” pick. And I like to try them all. Varying sounds. Varying feels. Varying demands on string gauge. It’s all so much fun.

Tunings also affect gauge choices. And playing slide guitar (bottleneck or bar). Some of us like heavier gauges for lowered altered tunings. On the other hand, guitars probably aren’t gonna like being tuned higher while they are wearing heavier gauges. Martin Simpson told me that he used a .15 (!!) for his 1st string because it supported his slide in a way that he liked. He also stipulated that he would never tune it up to standard tuning.

So you aren’t going to hear any rules or dogmatisms out of me. No surprise there, right?
Summation: There are no laws in my art world. It all depends on the needs of the player. Physical issues, sound objectives, style, strength of attack, etc.

I guess I didn’t actually answer your question about light-mediums. I’d try ‘em. Especially if I could find them in a nickel electric set.

Now…nylon strings…that’s were choices really get complicated for me...

By the way, Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises In Style”, Sylvia Waugh’s five “Mennyms” books, and Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” topped Gorey’s list. Great choices. We all OUGHTA read them.   :^)

1 comment:

  1. I notice after the fact that while many people might initially think in terms of fretting hand ease/difficulty/strength/weakness when considering string gauge I spontaneously think in term of string resistance for the strumming/picking hand.