If you’ve ever bent a guitar string and given it a shake, send a silent thank you to guitarist James Burton. His solos on “Suzy Q” and “Hello, Mary Lou” – a pair of rockabilly hits by singers Dale Hawkins and Ricky Nelson – changed the course of guitar fretting technique.
Sometime in the late 1950s, Burton put banjo strings on his Telecaster to facilitate bending and, in short order, young pickers from Jimmy Page to Albert Lee and many more were trying to figure out how the devil he did it.
The trick to Burton’s genius was to dispose of all but two strings in a standard set, using banjo strings for the high E, B, G, and D slots, with a guitar’s D string as the A and the A as the low E. Voila! Even if he wasn’t the first player to actually de-tune or experiment with thinner, non-guitar strings, his banjo-string concept kicked off a revolution in guitar strings and guitar style. In Burton’s wake came armies of rock and roll, blues, and country players who began bending strings like mad. If you listen to the evolution of the electric guitar from 1960 to 1970, you hear guitarists increasingly moving toward lighter-gauge strings, using them to hold sustained bends, conjure feedback, deploy chicken pickin’, and imbue notes with varying degrees of wrist vibrato.
Before this pitch-bending revolution, strings in the ’50s only came in a few basic flavors – nylon for classical guitars (and before that, actual animal gut and silk) or, beefy metal (often with a wound G) for flat-top acoustic and electric instruments that played jazz, blues, and country. To be fair, we should assume that certain electric-blues players in the ’50s de-tuned and/or swapped strings to allow for bending. For example, check out Pat Hare’s “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” from 1954 for his forceful bends and wickedly dirty tone. Also, dig Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” from 1956.
In stark contrast, jazz players of the day – Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, and George Benson, among them – remained loyal to heavier-gauge strings, particularly “flatwound” types (which have a flat outer wrapping a metal core). Boppers generally felt bigger strings gave a fat, warm tone, though in the ’70s, jazz-rock fusion guitarists like Tommy Bolin and Jeff Beck challenged those norms. Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughan also made cases for heavy strings in rock and roll, as it gave them a meatier, more-resonant tone.
The Slinky Phenomenon
By the early ’60s, the electric guitar was already entrenched in the youth psyche when a California music entrepreneur latched onto one of its major shortcomings – the strings. Ernie Ball (1930-2004), a musician and guitar retailer, heard young customers complain about the strings on the market at the time and saw an opportunity. So, he had a custom set created with an unwound .024″ G string instead of the typical wound .029″. This launched Ernie Ball Slinky strings and had a ripple effect across the universe of guitarists.
“Slinky strings redefined the way a string set felt and sounded,” said Brian Ball, Ernie’s son and vice president of Ernie Ball/Music Man. “More importantly, it gave guitarists greater ability to use the guitar as a lead voice, as opposed to a rhythm instrument in jazz and big-band settings. Slinky inspired the gauges that virtually all string manufacturers use today, and set the standard for the industry for more than a half-century.”
And then there were the Slinky guitarists. Once it slipped out that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page used Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings, an army of aspiring guitarists jumped onboard – “slinky” became synonymous with light-gauge electric sets that made bending fun and easy.
“We’re fortunate that our strings have been played on so many hits, including ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ‘Hotel California,’ ‘Back in Black,’ and ‘Enter Sandman,’ to name a few,” added Ball. “We were lucky to have the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Angus Young, and Keith Richards support us.”
Page, speaking on the 50th anniversary of the company, said, “I came to L.A. in ’65, when I was in bands and embedded in the session scene. At the time, I was using a banjo string as my top E and that was as good as a guitarist could get. I visited a guitar store and saw Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings. I bought a few packs and brought them back to England – and that was it. After that, they were my standard strings.”
Acoustic/electric virtuoso Adrian Legg also knows a bit about good strings, given that he pioneered a method of tuning and de-tuning to imitate a pedal-steel during live performances. Recalling the early days of string shopping in Great Britain, he recalls, “Back then, you’d get a set of Cathedral strings, which felt like brake cables. If you were lucky, you could get a banjo string for the high E then drop the other horrors down a slot, which left us all with a collection of sixths. Now, I can buy any gauge in a variety of wraps and center wires, sometimes the top strings engineered down to the half-thousandth of an inch. We’ve come a long way with strings since I started playing, thank heavens.”
In the 1980s, another leap was triggered by the arrival of vibrato systems with a locking nut, such as those offered by Floyd Rose and Kahler. Given the rigorous whammy dives deployed by guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, conventional strings began breaking with increasing – and irritating – frequency. As a solution, some players dabbed the ball ends with super glue to create more tensile strength at the bridge end, though breakage at the nut remained an issue. Eventually, the industry began making strings with reinforced ball ends and wrappings, as well as improved nuts and string slots. Clearly, the advent of locking vibratos forced every guitarist and manufacturer to learn more about strings and their physical properties.
For a few Floyd models, rockers even cut off the ball ends entirely and clamped them to the bridge (via a cumbersome process requiring Allen wrenches), while their later Floyd Rose Speedloader bridges used special-length strings with bulleted ends – you just dropped each string into the appropriate slot and tuned them up. Another variation was the double ball-end string used for new headless guitars and basses, such as those made by Steinberger. In time, the industry again responded with strings for these instruments.
Put Your Coat On
Another innovation was the coated string, particularly for acoustic players. Conventional “bronze” acoustic strings (which are really varying combinations of copper with nickel, phosphorus, zinc, tin, and steel) would begin sounding dull/lacking high-end frequencies after a few weeks or even days. Pro guitarists, especially, often felt obligated to change strings every day to achieve peak tone. While the first strings coated with a polymer (to shield them from oxidization) sounded a little dull, manufacturers improved their coatings to produce increasingly impressive results. A further breakthrough wasn’t with the string itself, but with its packaging – vacuum-sealing individual strings in plastic appeared to produce a fresher string, since oxidization was reduced.
Curt Mangan, of Curt Mangan Strings, is particularly proud of his company’s contribution to the category, as well as a “custom” twist.
“We created a tarnish/corrosion-resistant coated string that sounds exactly like our standard non-coated strings,” he said. “We also created the Custom-Signature Set, which gives players desired gauges and alloys with their name on the label. In my opinion, the greatest achievement over the past 50 years is the vast amount of choices today’s player has to fine-tune strings for their hands and ears.”
“Coated strings were clearly a major innovation, and gave companies the opportunity to manufacture different types of coatings,” added DR Strings president Mark Dronge, son of Guild Guitars founder Alfred Dronge. “For us, coated/colored strings like those in our Neon line offer players a chance to experiment while having more fun onstage.”
Manufacturers also think about the string core, not just the windings. “The difference between round cores and hex cores is significant,” noted Dronge. “In a guitar string, round cores feel more flexible and have a fatter, more balanced tonal character. Hexagonal cores are a bit stiffer and brighter on guitar, while for electric bass, they produce a deeper sound than round cores. At DR, we use both types in a range of strings.”
Many new ideas have come from the spheres of chemistry and physics. One was cryogenic processes – freezing metal strings to about -320 degrees Fahrenheit for a number of hours in order to extend the life of alloys. Some manufacturers taken the opposite course, heating metal for better longevity and tuning reliability.
“We patented a core wire material known as Maraging Steel, or M-Steel,” said Brian Ball. “It not only gives stronger fatigue strength over time, but substantially boosts low-end response. M-Steel has proven to give better tuning stability due to the fatigue-strength benefits. Once you tune up, rarely would you worry about them slipping or going out of tune.”
As more proof that players shape technology, heavy-rock guitarists discovered the low-end of the sonic spectrum, first with simple drop-D styles (tuning the low E string to D), but also deploying bass strings to get that vaunted “chunk.” Players learned to make drop-C sets, as well as going all the way down to low B and A strings – clearly in bass territory. Finally, manufacturers came up with dedicated sets for these heavy chunkin’ players.
“DR Strings was first with a construction specifically designed for drop-down tuning, notably our DDT string which locks right into tune,” noted Dronge. “It turns out even jazz and jam-band players love them – it’s Jeff Berlin’s string of choice for example, as well as Trey Anastasio.”
As you can see, string making is often a result of intense research, as every company is searching for the next string revolution. “We’ve been on a quest over the last 10 years or so to develop string technologies, and have made significant developments, such as Cobalt Slinkys,” noted Ball. “Cobalt created a new voice – a string that attracts the magnets in a pickup more than any other material. Not only does it give more output, but significantly more frequency response across all tonal spectrums.”
DR Strings is particularly excited about its K3 Dragon Skin coatings. “It’s the first coating that not only helps prevent corrosion, it adds to – rather than takes away from – the sound of a vibrating string,” said Dronge. “It’s named for its inventor, factory manager Tom Klukosky, and his three children.”
Only time will tell what the future holds for guitar strings, as the instruments evolves to use seven, eight, and nine strings, while electric basses go from nearly de rigeur five- and six-string configurations to as many as 12. There are also continual improvements to string-less digital guitars, with strings and frets replaced by keys and touchpads. Still, the traditional guitar and bass retain millions of followers who crave the feel of real strings being pressed onto the fretboard to make sound.
“We can’t possibly think we have reached the apex,” noted Dronge. “There are new metals, new coatings, and we are constantly tinkering with construction and winding techniques.”
Mangan’s take on the future of the guitar string focuses on players. “There are many so called ‘improvements’ offered every year lately that supposedly make the string louder, stronger, or more colorful, but that doesn’t mean a string will feel or sound good. There’s no right or wrong – it comes down to what the player likes.”
This article originally appeared in VG September 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.