Monday, February 13, 2006

How To: Effectively Double the Life of Your Guitar Strings

Well, I'm addicted to the fretted Glissentar - as I'm sure you've guessed - so theory/comp blogging is on hiatus while I learn how to play my new axe. The first time through my rep was excruciatingly rough: It took me four days to play through two hours worth of music. After about twenty minutes the muscles on the inside of my left forearm started burning, and a half hour was all I could play before crying uncle. Being a runner and having a Bowflex, I know about training and over-training, so after a half hour I'd just switch to one of my six-stringers to keep from potentially injuring myself.

By spacing this introduction to the instrument out over four days, not overworking myself, and allowing for some recovery time, I am actually shortening the time it will take to adapt. Muscles build in response to new workloads during rest periods, so you've just got to give them time. And getting plenty of sleep helps tremendously (I love afternoon naps). The "no pain, no gain" thing is a truism, but if you take it too far, you risk tendon injury: Muscles build up much faster than connective tissue - and that leads to damage regularly when too fast a progression is attempted - and so I'm also going to pick up some Glucosamine/Condroitin/MSM suppliments to help that along.

As expected, this current second time through the repertoire is going better, but the "guitar" is making me feel foolish, and like a beginner. Some of the recent preludes I've composed - which I call Hard Chord Guitar (Get it?) - are simply impossible at this point. Harmonic structures which require wide spans and for three or four notes to be fretted simultaneously are actually physically painful (And are still filled with buzzes and thuds!). My various two-part counterpiont pieces are not as bad physically, but when an arpeggio skips quickly up the neck, I often land on the wrong fret due to the 22 versus 19 thing and the body/neck joint difference, just as I suspected would be the case.

Amazingly, my right hand is not having much trouble adapting to the courses, but they don't like rest strokes very much, so I'm having to modify a few right hand parts, but it seems pretty intuitive and is proceeding smoothly. One thing I'm having to deal with is the fact that stringed instruments with courses - Baroque guitars, lutes, theorbos &c. - are almost always played without nails: Just the pads of the right hand fingers are used. Since I play electric and acoustic six-stringers as well, this is not an option for me. Well, unless I wanted to learn the Emilio Pujol no-nails technique, which I in no way am interested in (Not that I don't love the late maestro Pujol's music, as I most certainly do, his approach is just not for me).

I use nylon nails on my p, a, and c fingers: The p wears faster than it grows, and the others are always getting broken.

I've made some progress with the sound: I'm running the fretted Glissentar through the same Lexicon MPX-G2/Bryston setup that I use for the Multiac, but I am having to modify every single virtual acoustic environment I've programed to have less of each effect overall, except for reverb. The reason for that is with the courses, the instrument already has some natural phase and chorus effects built into it, and too much of those in the patch muddies up the sound. As a result, there are now two programs for each of the twelve suites in my set: One for the Multiac, and one for the fretted Glissentar.

The EQ settings are also radically different between the two instruments: The Multiac likes a flat treble and mid setting with quite a bit of boost for the bass - and sounds like a gargantuan guitar as a result - but the fretted Glissentar wants almost all of the midrange to be scooped out, and much less bass boost (So it sounds much smaller and more delicate, which I really like as a contrast to the ¡mui macho! Multiac).

I was dreaming of a electric Baroque guitar or electric lute kind of sound when I started this project, but since I play with nails, it doesn't really sound like that. Just as the Multiac with the Polydrive doesn't sound like an acoustic classical guitar, this instrument also sounds unique and unlike anything else I've ever heard. I like that too. In fact, the L.R. Baggs ribbon transducer is turning out to be a better ally than I at first thought it would.


Strings. This post is supposed to be about strings.

This is one of those things that makes perfect sense when you think about it, but I'm always amazed by how few guitarists actually think about it. In the spirit of full disclosure, I had been playing umteen years before I figured this out.

With the D'Addario EXP basses I use, I can get three to four weeks out of a bass set, and I use three bass sets before I change the trebles. I gig at least three nights per week, and practice and compose a lot on the same guitar during the week as well, so this is pretty amazing. One of the reasons is D'Addario's EXP (EXtended Play) coating that is on those basses: I don't know exactly what it is, but it's a miracle of modern science as far as I'm concerned.

Being a caucasian, I am genetically predisposed to perspire easily and have sticky earwax (Hey, it's a problem, and you white chicks sweat too, so nya, nya). Asians and african peoples are genetically predisposed to sweat less and have flaky earwax (I read some weird studies in scientific journals). As a result, my hands are murder on guitar strings. Before the EXP coating came out, I used to clean the strings assiduously, but it was really no use, because the damage was done while I was playing. The EXP coating (Some teflon-like material, I'm guessing) protects the metal of the strings from the corrosive effects of my hand's hyper-active sweat glands. This has been a major boon for me, and that's one factor that allows me to have the brightness in the basses that I like for such a long time. But there's another trick to it, and it is indeed a trick (Albeit a simple one).

If long string life is important to you (And given what a chore changing strings is - waiting for them to settle into tune, &c. - and how expensive good strings are, who doesn't think it's important?) you simply must take a LOT of time doing the job!

If you look at it logically, what makes a bass string bright is a combination of lack of corrosion on the surface of the silver plating, and the integrity of the wrap-to-core interface. The patina can be kept from forming on the silver by the EXP coating, but the wrap-to-core integrity depends solely on you, and how much time you are willing to invest in bringing the basses (especially) up to pitch.

Since it takes so long for a classical set to even become playable, the natural inclination is toward impatience in this area. As one of the greatest teachers I ever had used to say to me - all the freaking time - whenever I used to whine about this, that, and the other, "Well, what you have to do is change." I have changed. I have become patient in my string changing, and I plan it out so that while a new set is settling in, I have another guitar to practice on, and no gigs for a couple of days for the guitar being refreshed at least.


When ever I see someone doing that, I wnat to walk up to them and say, "Hi! My name is George, and I just wanted you to know that you just took at least a week off of that string's life! Have a nice day!" It's positively idiotic to stretch a string - especially a wound string - because you are just ripping the winding from the core when you do that.

What you are supposed to do is tie the string off and bring it up to pitch by hand (NO peg winders!) very slowly. When you have brought the low E up to pitch, forget all about it; you're done with it for now. Then repeat the process with the A and D strings. Do not go back and bring the other strings back up to pitch in between working on the "new" ones. When you have brought the trebles up to pitch, you may go back and readjust the trebles again, but leave the basses a...lone.

Then, put the guitar down and back away slowly! Leave it alone for at least forty-five minutes to an hour, and whatever you do, don't try to play anything on it!

Pick up a different guitar or otherwise distract yourself for the alotted time, and then repeat exactly the same process. It will take you all day to get the guitar playable if you start in the morning, but your basses will live long and beautiful lives. Just remember: Think of the basses. They give their lives for you and your music; the least you can do is insure that their lives are long and happy ones.

I could take about forty-five minutes to an hour with her ice cream "problem." (I scream, you scream, baby).


Blogger Bud said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. How very true about not stretching your strings. Many manufacturers tell you to however. That should be the tip off right there, huh? I don't know about nylon strings but I have used nothing but Elixers for about six years. My teacher, Helen Avakian, up in NY is an accomplished clsassical guitarist as is her husband. They put me onto Elixers for the steel strings. I notice most of the Woodstock area musicians of note use them as well. Helen also put me on to acrylic nails.

I agree that certain guitars want certain strings but my ear is nowhere near as fine as yours. I'm not into classical at all although I love to listen. I play Taylors because the neck feels perfect in my hands. They build them for Elixers. I've tried the light gauge and found I couldn't keep them in tune up the neck and went back to custom lights which are light at the nut and medium up the neck. They stay tuned very well.

I have a lot of back reading to do here!

3:25 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Hi Bud,

Yeah. Pretty hard to figure out, isn't it? String manufacturers tell you to stretch the strings... because they want to sell you more strings.

6:15 PM  
Blogger solitudex said...

Woah, that's sure quite some important wisdom on strings which you've gathered. =) I don't exactly have much money to test out strings, but my current favourite is actually D'Addario composites. I find the EXP series too unbalanced, with the basses overpowering the trebles, though I have to agree that they certainly last really long. =)

8:20 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home