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understanding string gauge and tension

Discussion in 'Luthier's Guitar & Bass Technical Discussion' started by Onioner, May 21, 2011.

  1. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    I've been fooling around w/ different strings and gauges for a while trying to come up with something I like. For the most part, I've settled on sets of 11s, tuned up a half step. I'm not fully settled, but that's where I'm at. I like extra tension in strings, and I like them on the thicker side (though not extreme). I also like having everything tuned up a half step (though down a half would work too) just cause it makes it easier to play w/ other instruments (mainly, my cello, which gets tuned oddly), in keys I use more regularly.

    The trouble I'm having is I'm trying to set up a LP for open G tuning (or, right now, open A flat) and I'm trying to figure out what string gauges I need to do this properly. Right now it's tuned to (low to high) Eb Ab Eb Ab C Eb w/ gauges of 56, 46, 28, 18, 14, and 13, with the intention of having it feel like 12s when tuned to open Ab. It aint workin' though. The top and bottom Eb, and the lower Ab (the gauges from a set of 13s) feel too loose. I also may drop a gauge (to shoot to feel like 11s) though I haven't fully made up my mind there.

    From what I've been told, tuning up a half step will make a string 'feel' like one gauge higher. I'm not sure I find this to be true. The strings feel plenty thick, but still loose. Should I maybe be taking a yet fatter string for the bottom two, and top string? That would mean starting w/ 14s, which sounds awfully thick...

    Fwiw, I haven't worked out if it's possibly the brand strings themselves. These are Ernie Balls, and they're the only ones I've tried with this setup. This is the only set of Ernies that I've tried, so perhaps I just don't like their strings.

    Anyhoo, if anyone could shed some light on what I'm trying to do, it would be appreciated. This is my favorite guitar (or, at least, arguably so (a Gibson 50's Tribute)), and I'm really trying to get it set up right, as I'm at the point where every little tweak makes a great thing feel greater. Eventually I'd also like to set up a guitar for open D (or, Db) tuning as well, and I'll have the same issues, except more extreme.
     
  2. chervokas

    chervokas Member

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    You can try raising the TOM bridge to increase the break angle over the saddles. That will usually give you a stiffer feel.
     
  3. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    I do already have the action set a bit higher than average, though nothing extreme. I can't abide fret buzz, and with a background in other stringed instruments, a bit higher action doesn't really bother me. That said, i'd rather not really jack it up. Maybe i'll give it a shot anyways. Perhaps the pros outweigh the cons.
     
  4. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    I also recently swapped out the nashville bridge for an abr, though I plan to get a compton compensated to replace the abr. Point is, I now have the tailpiece all the way down, as opposed to what I thought was absurdly high w/ the nashville, so that break angle should already be pretty decently sharp.
     
  5. Lolaviola

    Lolaviola Supporting Member

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    When you are brand-shopping for strings, look for 'round core' strings. Most of the brands nowadays use the hex-core, which have less tension. Thomasstik-Innfeld are good. You may find you can keep your present guage, but get a better feel.
    Different brands will feel different, even with the same core-construction. I think that the EB Slinkys are so named because they have that low-tension feel compared to another brand in the same guage.
     
  6. chervokas

    chervokas Member

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    Actually for a given gauge round cores tend to have a less stiff feel than hex core.

    There aren't too many round core strings out there--the Pyramid Nickel Classics, some of the TIs, there's a Newtone set. But if the OP is looking for a stiffer feel, round cores are the wrong way to go--not that the difference is that extreme in my experience. With hex core strings the wraps only contact the strings at the edges of the hexagonal core and they grip firmer on those points increasing tension vs. round core where the pressure from the wrap is evenly distributed across the whole surface area of the core.

    But there are other differences that matter too--and matter perhaps even more, like the size of the core wire vs the side of the wrap wire, etc. Still all other things being equal, round core will be slinkier and less stiff than hex core.
     
  7. Tone_Terrific

    Tone_Terrific Supporting Member

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    You are not that far off of standard Eb tuning and already running heavy strings.
    Bigger than a 56 bottom string is getting pretty heavy, but try a thou or two more all round and check the feel.
    http://store.daddario.com/category/339134/EXL148_Extra_Heavy_12-60
    For C tuning.... and you want more stiffness from higher tuning. You are outside the norm.
     
  8. kimock

    kimock Member

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    I think you might be a little on the low side tuning-wise and a little heavy on the string gauge for the scale length you're at.
    If you're normally playing 11's, stay with that gauge and tune up to Bb and see what that feels like.
    That would be more like "tuning up=feels one gauge heavier" probably, although I don't really buy that line of reasoning either usually.
    In any case, 56 on a Les Paul scale length at Eb is going to start showing some inharmonicity with most brands, so going to a larger gauge is just going to aggravate the tuning and intonation.
    F major tunes up nice on that scale length, F C F A C F, low to high with a regular set of 12's or 13's.
    I know that's not what you're looking for, but that Ab tuning might not sit on that guitar regardless of gauge.
    I tend to keep the 5 R 5 R 3 5 tunings on the longer scale guitars, never had too much success with those on the shorter scale.
    Anyway, good luck with the string gauge routine, but check the higher tuning at some point too.
     
  9. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    Great. Lots of stuff to try out. Bb is a key that can work well for me, so I think I'll try taking the whole thing up first. Just feeling wise, over-tightening a string has been much more effective than using a thicker gauged string. I've got lots of 11s lying around, so I think I'll start with that. Maybe 11s on the bottom two, and top string (which will be just like my other guitars), and 10s on the other three? Doesn't actually follow the rules, but like I say, I'm not sure I buy that rule.

    Also, fwiw, as you might be able to guess, I can't stand EB slinkys. Years ago, for a little while, I lived in a spot where they were all I could get. It drove me mad. I just don't need to be able to bend a string across the whole fingerboard...
     
  10. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    Oh yes, and a note on the higher tuning. I presently have it set fairly close. I'm not a stickler for perfectly intoned strings. Guitars can't be perfectly in tune anyways. There's definitely a 'close enough' in my book. Indeed, the bridge I'm looking at getting can't be tuned. I have my TOM set up to basically mimic where the strings will rest, and it really is damned close. Ok, the B (or, C, as I have it) is a bit off, but seeing as that's the third (and it's off by being flat), that might even be a good thing.

    Just sayin'. A small give or take with the high end tuning is fine with me, especially when I can keep it less significant than the natural lack of perfect intonation inherent with a fretted instrument.
     
  11. kimock

    kimock Member

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    Depends what you're going for, if you were trying to maintain the existing standard tuning tension in the new Bb major tuning, the gauges would be going in this direction:

    11

    12

    15

    22w

    34

    44

    Ish, anyway. Ballpark.

    If you were trying to even the tension out string to string, that tuning would look more like:

    11

    13

    15

    24w

    34/36

    49

    Again, ballparkish, but that's where I'd start if I was starting blind and without a ton of strings.

    Funny gauges, huh?
     
  12. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    Funny indeed. I guess the best thing to do is start from there and tweak as needed. Just means I won't slot the nut until I've made up my mind. I need to get a bridge cut, but I'll probably just have it cut for 11s or 12s and call it a day. Can't see that it would matter much.
     
  13. kimock

    kimock Member

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    It's more likely the appropriate bridge compensation for the 11's would serve both sets than the other way around.
    It's more likely nut slotted for 12's would serve both sets than the other way around.
    Y'know, from a tuning/intonation perspective?
    I agree with you re: intonation generally, and have lots of "ballpark compensated" one-piece non-adjustable bridges on my guitars, but no reason to invite trouble either, which is what you'll get if you decide to change sets and the nut and bridge are opposite of what I've described above.
    That's the only part that might matter assuming you're past the plain vs. wound third issue.

    Hey, good luck again with that, sounds like a cool direction.
     
  14. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    Because all the slot has to do is keep the string where it's supposed to across the guitar, and let it slightly stretch along the length of the string.

    Because the string really has to move freely across the length, and given the tension on the string, is unlikely to significantly wobble across the width in any appreciable manner with that small of a difference.

    That sound right?

    This is gonna take some experimentation to get right, so I'm gonna wait on cutting a nut. I don't want to wait for the bridge, and I'm really not so worried about it being slightly off, but I do want to get the nut right. That said, cutting a new nut if I change my mind about string gauges wouldn't be the end of the world.

    Which is an interesting issue. The bridge I'm getting is specifically set up for an unwound third. That said, I (and many others) have used the same bridge with a wound third. I prefer the wound, for several reasons, which is good, as I'm not sure you can even get an unwound in a set of 12s or larger. I'll definitely start with a wound with this instrument. It just feels better to me. I think of the guitar as the four bottom strings, then the top two. That's always been where the break is for me. Top two sound and feel significantly different. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I've spent the majority of my life playing four stringed instruments, but I'm inclined to think that others might agree. Then again, I can see how someone might think of the top three belonging together. I've often wondered if there's something about the wound/unwound that I'm not getting, but I've tried both, and definitely prefer the wound.

    Yah. I'm really likin' how this thing is playing, and it's taken very little to get used to the tuning (helps that I've played other variably tuned instruments...). I've got a hand-built Fender BF style amp in the works that I think is going to go really well with it. I do want to get it fine tuned though. I definitely notice the little things, and I like working on my stuff anyways.

    One last question. At times I'm sure I'll put it back into regular tuning (or, half step up tuning). I don't foresee any real issues doing this (aside from the imperfetions of an off setup, of course). I'll only be doing so to mess around, so it doesn't need to be perfect (and obviously won't be). I'm just sure that at some point I'll want to play p90s in standard tuning, and until such time as I can get another thick-necked LP w/ p90s, that's the best I'll be able to do.

    One other thing I've learned from all this is how easy it is to convince yourself you need lots of guitars. Before I started messin' about w/ different tunings I thought I was in pretty good shape w/ four guitars. Now I can easily see how I could want to have far more. I need LP HBs set up in +1 tuning, in -1 tuning, open G(ish), open D(ish), then a telecaster for each, and of course, gotta have more p90 options... I may need to get into a more lucrative career. That said, could be worse. In a perfect world, I'd have a cellos set up in different tunings as well, and when a real decent cello starts at forty grand... Well, I'm just gonna have to live with what I got.
     
  15. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    I'm back, with relevant observations, and a pressing question that could solve all my problems.

    How high can one safely tune a guitar string? There must be an average point that a string breaks, depending on brand. More importantly, might I hurt the guitar by tuning strings up, say, a major third?

    I tried the simplest thing first. I tuned up to Bb. Whole steps all around. Felt better. Some string gauges need tweaking, but the tension felt right. I'm starting to think that string gauge has a lot less to do with the feeling I'm looking for than I at first suspected. I'm thinkin' my only way to get that tension is to tune up.

    Which presents problems. I can't play a cello in Bb. Well, I can, but not how I want to (be Bb, F, D, Bb, which doesn't work too well). Ab worked fine. C works too, but truth be told, Db is ideal.

    Inclination tells me that a major third is way too much. Bad things are bound to happen. I don't know if the strings or the neck will break first, but that's kinda the point... not takin' that risk.

    At the end of the day, I'm thinkin' the real solution is to set up a different guitar for dropped D tuning (except, of course, Droped Db), but once again, that's tuning down.

    So, I'm back to the original. Can I get more tension tuning down? Give up? Learn to live with the laws of physics, as I poorly understand them?
     
  16. kimock

    kimock Member

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    I don't know how much 'brand' has to do with it, all that wire is pretty much the same alloy as I understand it, and as I understand it, it all fails between G and A.
    So if average point means frequency range, yeah, G, G#, A, boom, there goes your string.
    Low E @ 52 will tune up to C on a Strat, but the 12 on top won't get past G, etc.

    Think of all the acoustic 12 string guitars in the world with the same 11 strings on them. . .

    If you tune high enough and leave it long enough you'll screw something up eventually, but you won't know if it's 30 days or 30 years for any one guitar until you commit to it.
    Some guitars will just fold up, some won't.
     
  17. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    Huh. Had another idea for playin' in Db. Moved every string down a slot, doubled up on the top string, for Ab (or Gb), Db, Ab, Db, F, F. Still have the same tension issue with the strings tuned down, and it's a bit awkward to double up on top. I'd love to have a high Ab, but I've actually found I can do some pretty nifty things w/ that setup. Definitely different...

    I'm gonna have to settle into somethin', or at least a few somethin's. Always takes a bit of time to get used to a tuning, and I'm not so cool that I can instantly go from one to another. I'm gonna play with this for a while though.

    Of course, my nut is all wrong for this setup. I'd have to cut one if I decide to leave an instrument like this.
     
  18. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    I'm still confused. I thought that strings weren't necessarily 'tuned' to any pitch, that it was just size and tension that determined pitch.

    In other words, I thought that the B string out of a set of 10's was the same string as the E from a set of 13's. They're both a size .013 string, one is just tuned higher. That string as an E is tuned higher, and hence has more tension, and is also thicker.

    Is this accurate?
     
  19. kimock

    kimock Member

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    Almost. The "is also thicker" bit at the end doesn't make sense.
    The part about a .013 being the exact same string regardless of the pitch it's tuned to is correct tho.

    Don't worry about the string gauge numbers bro, there's no magic formula for what feels or works or sounds best for you.
    Just throw some strings on there and see what works.
    If knowing the individual string tension thing at a specific pitch is important to you, they have a calculator for that on the D'Addario website.
    I don't think it's critical, but look it up if you need it, it might clear up a little confusion.

    peace!
     
  20. Onioner

    Onioner Member

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    Yah, I mean, a .013 tuned to an E is tighter and thicker than a .010 tuned to an E.

    Cool, that's all I need to run with.


    That sounds useful. I agree that at the end of the day, whatever feels right, and sounds right, is what matters, but anything that can help me narrow things down from pure trial and error is helpful. Thanks a lot.
     

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