Electric Guitar String History's Long Lost Secret to Wicked Tone

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 7 June 2020 |



Spending too much money on your electric guitar(s)? Going through pickups like there’s no tomorrow and finding you still can’t nail the perfect tone you wanted? Wondering how guitarists in the 1970s got that wicked tonal depth, with new guitars, often sporting some of the worst pickups the big manufacturers ever put into their premium instruments? Well fear not, for I have the answer. It wasn’t the pickups. It wasn’t the amp. Wasn’t even those ancient germanium pedal cicuits. The real difference lay in the artists’ understanding of guitar strings.

Okay Bob, you’re thinking... You’re normally quite good with your solutions and suggestions, but this is just stupid. I mean, a set of electric guitar strings is a set of electric guitar strings, right? They weren't suddenly reinvented in 1980. We’re using the same basic design of electric guitar string today that Jimi Hendrix used…

That’s true, but today we’re far less in touch with the impact each individual string has within the set, and how it interacts with the pickup. Much of that is down to the modern string market, which, due to our demand for comfort, prioritises feel above tone. Let me take you back over the salient history of electric guitar strings, and show you that you don’t have to sacrifice comfort to get a much, much better tone…

LEARNING THE LESSONS OF ELECTRIC GUITAR STRING HISTORY


Once upon a time, sets of electic guitar strings were referenced in a highly generalised manner. Most sets were sold simply as “Electric Guitar Strings”, with no reference to gauge whatsoever on the packaging. Not even Heavy or Medium. You got what the brand considered appropriate, and that was that. Some very select manufacturers did acknowledge gauge differences, but even then only verbally, with one descriptive word. There were no numerical, fraction-of-an-inch gauge references, and very light sets starting with .009 or .008 top Es didn’t exist at all. In other words, by today’s standards, all sets of electric guitar strings were heavy. Those heavier strings gave a better tone with more depth, but they were very difficult for lead players to bend.

This was still the case in the mid 1960s when the blues boom was exploding to prominence. In fact, just a few years earlier, even super-modern companies like Fender had been shipping electric guitars with a wound third. Judging by anecdotal evidence from guitarist interviews, it appears that Fender switched to a plain third in the very early 1960s. But the gauges were still nothing like what we’d consider light today.

So how did the guitarists of the early to mid 1960s bend their strings? Well, one option was to tune low. Drop the pitch of every string by a semitone (so the E strings produced E flat), or even a whole tone (E strings producing D). That would slacken the tension and make the strings more bendable. Jimi Hendrix would normally tune down by at least a semitone – and the sound that gives is very distinctive. Many Hendrix influenced guitarists, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, emulated that practice using heavier strings, even when lighter string sets were available.

But other 1960s guitarists preferred, or needed (because of the vocalist’s ‘sweet spot’), to tune to pitch. Did they simply develop super-human finger-strength? Well, some might have given it a shot, but the majority instead used a cunning workaround…



They’d buy a set of regular guitar strings with a wound third and throw away the bottom E. Then they’d put the A string where the E would go, the D where the A would go, and so on, until they ran out of strings with the top E replacing the B. They’d then use a single, super-light banjo string in place of the top E, completing what was now a much lighter gauge of strings. Very bendable.

In a 1970s interview for International Musician magazine, Wilko Johnson reminisced about doing this when he first started playing in the early to mid 1960s - citing Robin Trower as having taught him to do it. Wilko recalled getting the five electric guitar strings (1st to 5th) separately rather than getting a full set and binning one. And he even remembered the brand… Clifford Essex.

Once string manufacturers cottoned onto what guitarists were doing, they began producing lighter sets in what they originally called custom gauges. The specific gauge of each string, in factions of an inch, now started to make its way into the retail domain.

Particularly in technical rock music, the musicians were going for very light sets. In a genre known for using heavy distortion, the raw tone of the guitar was disguised somewhat, so light strings didn’t create too much of a tonal issue. But in styles that required cleaner or only mildly overdriven sounds, very light strings would noticeably rob the instrument of tonal substance.

So what do you do if you want to bend strings with a cleaner guitar sound? Sacrifice that fuller tone, or toughen up those fingers? Actually, there’s a pretty slick compromise you can use to get the best of both worlds…

If you can buy strings separately, you don’t have to be told by a string manufacturer which gauges of string do and don’t go together. You can handpick the gauge of each individual string, and this allows a really nice trick that provides excellent depth of tone as well as bendability where you need it. The strings most often bent are the third and second, in that order, so those are the strings to keep light. But the depth of tone is largely injected by the 6th, 5th and 4th strings – the wound strings. So you could go thicker on those.

You could use a fairly substantial bottom E – around 50. Then somewhere around 40 and 30 for the respective A and D. But then keep the G and B light at around 16 and 13 so they’re easy to bend. If you’re not prone to breaking your top E you could use a 9. But I do break top Es if they’re light, so I don’t go less than a 10.

The set might feel a bit weird at first if you’re used to the typical selections, and at the least you’ll have to adjust your intonation to keep the tuning accurate. But once you’re acclimatised to it, this type of role-focused stringing can be a really effective solution for rhythm players who need good tonal depth as a priority but also the scope to easily bend those blues lick and double-stopping strings.

In fact, this is only a minor adaptation of the set Wilko Johnson – one of the most influential UK rhythm guitarists ever – used on his Telecaster in the Doctor Feelgood era. His gauges were .011, .013, .016, .028, .038, .048 – Rotosound by that time. Note how there’s only .005 difference in gauge between the top string and the third. That creates high tension on the top E (as well as durability, protecting against breaks during aggressive upstrokes), but a very supple G for blues bends.

STRING TO PICKUP RELATIONSHIP


But an equally important string-related “science” that’s gone out of the window over the years is that of pickup and or polepiece height adjustment.

Almost invariably today, people set the pickups so that the treble side poles are closer to the strings than the bass side poles. Why? Because they want the output as loud as they can get it, but on the bass side, the strings – especially in lighter (and thus looser) gauges – are more prone to so-called “wolf tones”. “Wolf tones” are unnatural and disharmonic disturbances caused by the pickup magnet pulling the string out of its natural vibration cycle. And because they’re only really apparent on the bass strings, people set the pickup as close as they want it, then drop the bass side until it no longer wolfs.

The problem is that you then get the treble strings gaining more prominence in the overall output, and that literally makes the guitar more trebly and thin. You’re losing the substance and depth of your wound strings. And the lighter you go with your gauge, the worse the problem will be, because looser strings wolf more, and force the bass side of at least some pickups further from the strings.

Without going too far off topic, another thing that’s exacerbated this problem has been the quest for more output and/or cutting top end from pickups. This has seen manufacturers frequently using stronger magnets that pull harder on the strings. If you’ve got loose low strings and very strong magnets, it could well force you towards that classic pickup slant, where the treble side is much closer to the strings than the bass side. Like this…



But you’ll notice something else in that picture. Look at the old style staggered poles. Can you see how it’s not the bass side, but the treble side that Fender believed should be pulled away from the strings in the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s? Bear in mind that when those pickups were designed, the G string was still wound. So the lesson those old style Fender pickups are teaching us is that in fact, to get a good, balanced output and strong tone, the wound strings need to be closer to the magnets than the plains.

So the first resort is to forget about your guitar’s output volume and put its tone first. Start by setting the bass side of your pickups as close to the strings as you can get them before they start wolfing, and then slant them slightly so that the treble side is just a little further away – not closer. Obviously if you have staggered Strat pickups, just set them level. They don’t need any slant at all. You’ll be able to set the bridge pickup a lot closer to the bass strings than the neck pickup, whichever string gauge you use. That’s because it’s much harder for a magnet to pull a string out of its travel cycle near the bridge, where vibration is more restricted.

You can help yourself twofold by combining thicker wound strings with “slinkier” treble strings, as I discussed earlier. This not only firms up the guitar’s bass end in itself, but should also allow you to move the pickups closer to the wound strings, because they’ll be tighter, and thus less prone to wolfing.

And whilst I did bill this as a way to avoid buying new pickups… If you do decide to hop back onto that roundabout, try getting pickups (at least for the neck or neck/middle positions) with either aged magnets, or alnico IIs. Both are low strength and will allow you to push the bass side of a neck pickup closer to the strings before it wolfs.

If you find the treble strings struggle to come forth a little when you play lead, deal with it in the processing. Add a modest amount of compression to even up the output in single note lines. Not so much that you hear any “squeezing” or “sucking and blowing”. You only want to limit down the single notes on wound strings a little. That way, when you go back to chords, you still get the strong depth. If you’re playing loud through a tube amp, you should find the compression created by the amp itself is enough.

Oh, and finally, take the action UP as high as you can get it without causing yourself undue playing discomfort. Even a small rise in the action can add a bit more tonal depth to your output. Once again, you're letting the strings do their job with a little more passion, by deepening the angle at which they're fretted.

TRANSFORM YOUR GUITAR


So there you have it. The real secret to how the musicians of the 1960s and 1970s got more substantial guitar tones, without a single purchase from DiMarzio, Duncan or Fralin. The great thing about this is that it can usually transform a brand new guitar and instantly remove that characteristic lightweight personality. And best of all, if you avoid changing the pickups you don’t have to worry about damaging the “all original” resale value.

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