SMG Tips: Ain’t Nothin’ But a String Thing!

Guest post by G.D. Truckbucket

Speaking as someone who has bought a lot of guitars on ebay, I notice with a mixture of concern and disgust that nearly all the sellers of all types of electric guitars routinely slap and set of 9’s or 10’s on a guitar and then crow about how low the action is and how fast the neck is, etc.

I also note, on various blogs and such, that some players (or are they in fact merely “equipment owners”?) brag about how they use “medium” gauge strings, i.e. 10’s, and that they occasionally play an acoustic guitar that is set-up with “extra-heavy” gauge strings, i.e. 12’s.

First of all: 12’s are not heavy gauge, they are light gauge (10’s are slinky & 9’s are extra slinky, 8’s are absurd, err… I mean Ultra Slinky). 13’s are medium, 14’s are heavy gauge and 15’s are extra heavy (and so it has been since the mid ’60’s when only Fender made a factory produced set with a plain G, pre-Ernie Ball).

So here, in a nutshell, is my purview on the world of music that prominently relies of the use of guitars: we need to keep a perspective on the standards, terminology and understanding of where things stood at that moment in time when guitar music exploded all over everything, that is, the way things were in 1966.

There was a time, probably around 1958-’59, when it became common practice in certain parts of the American South, for some working guitarists (those who regularly played country-western, and rock & roll and rhythm & blues music) to buy their strings from their local mom & pop music store as follows:

a set of either Black Diamond, LaBella or Gibson medium gauge electric guitar strings (13’s), plus one one set of banjo strings. They then strung their guitar with the 1st string from the banjo set (a .010), followed by strings 1 through 5 from the set of guitar strings, using the guitar set 1st string (a .013) as their 2nd or B string, the guitar set 2nd string as their 3rd string (a .017), the guitar set 3rd string as their 4th string (a .026), the guitar set 4th string as their 5th string (a .036) and lastly, the guitar set 5th string as their 6th string (a .046). What happened to the guitar set’s 6th string (a .056)? It was discarded. The other 3 or 4 banjo strings were kept as spares for when one of the strings on the guitar broke.

This practice was spread by word of mouth for a number of years until eventually Fender came out with their “Rock N’ Roll” set in the mid 1960’s. However, for whatever reason, that Fender set had much lighter bass strings than the string replacement method described above would dictate. The original Fender set had a low E string that was a .038. It was not until Ernie Ball Slinky strings appeared around 1968 that the modern set of 10’s was widely marketed (.010 through .046).

Speaking for myself as a player, I always struggled trying to get a consistence sound using 10’s. As soon a Ernie Ball started providing individual strings in bulk to music stores, I started making my own custom set of 11’s (.011 – .015. – .018 – .028 – .040 – .052). At that point, I started getting noticed as a player.

I currently use GHS True Light White Bronze (not actually bronze, they’re a special nickel wrap for acoustic-electric), which are .012 – .016 – .022 – .034 – .042 – .050 (notice that the gauges are in proportion to the differences in pitch – what a concept!).

2 exceptional things about this set: The G is a .022. I can bend it a whole step, but not a minor 3rd. All the other strings I can bend as much as I like. The other good thing about these is that they are the most rust resistant strings I have found. I’ve been playing for 44+ years and I have very corrosive perspiration. No other set that I know of has a .022 for a G, so I use these on most of the electrics, except for a couple that I use 11’s on (the G is an 18 on these).

And yes, my hands are pretty strong. I generally play like Jeff Beck on an acoustic (using 12’s) when I can’t think of anything better to do, but I also play some Merle Travis/Jerry Reed style too. Pretenders guitarist Adam Seymour inspired me to go for this when he said in an interview in the early 90’s, when asked how he bends on 12’s: “If you have to bend them, then YOU-HAVE-TO-BEND-THEM!”. It’s true, just do it.

Now, getting back to the way things were in 1966: Did guys know to re-intonate the bridge on their guitars when putting a set or Fender “Rock N’ Roll” 10’s on their guitar that was set-up at the factory to use 13’s. No, they did not. Did all guitars even have the capability to intonate for use of a plain G string? Again, no, they did not. Certainly, stock Telecasters and Gretsch guitars (both widely in use at this time) did not. The result: That ever elusive “’60’s sound”.

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