Before selecting strings for guitar, lute, or ukulele.
As I wrote at the beginning of this section, a proper matching of "structure and material of an instrument", "string selection", and "how you play it" is the most important factor that determines sound of any stringed instrument, in my opinion. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and these elements often become unbalanced. The main gaol of opening this corner I hoped is at least to show how to select proper strings, thus to make it easier to balance the other two and to make more people happy with their instruments.
You can get strings for a variety of instruments in music shops
these days. But, once you deviate from the norm, like being conscious
about the sound or playability, playing a little unusual instrument
that not so many other are playing, trying an
instrument, or interesting in a "maniac" instrument, it
becomes much harder to find strings or the selection becomes
extremely limited even if you could find them in a certain music
shop. If you searched wisely and followed proper suggestions, you
would be able to find strings (or information for a particular
instrument). You certainly know how to use the Internet, which is
encyclopedia, yellow pages, and catalogs all combined, so search
You may have seen "6 course renaissance lute set", "5
course baroque guitar set", or "13 course baroque lute set" sold
through the net. Considering scale length and tension appropriate to
your instrument, however, it's extremely helpful to have a string
slide rule (see Chapter 4 on how to use one). Other possibilities
are to inquire the specialty instrument shop you've acquired your
instrument or to ask your teacher to provide strings. It's a good
idea to note gauge of the strings when you get them. You can even
purchase an individual string at some web sites. Regarding the string
slide rule, you can check string makers listed in this site. Or, you
can try a gauge calculation software for Windows ("StringCalc"
developed by a British luthier
Mr. Oliver Wadsworth ). You also can use the
"link" and "shop information" section of this site as a reference. As
far as I know, Pyramid and Kuerschner are selling string slide rules.
NRI also sells a string calculation chart with an instruction manual
for 1 pound. You may be able to use some unusual strings, by using
one of these.
Uke: A variety of ukulele strings are available at music shops in Japan. They are usually sold as a set of strings. Recently, it becomes popular to use a low G tuning, namely tuning the 4th string in G one octave lower than usual. In this case, 4th string for guitars can substitutes 4th uku string, but it's better to choose a proper tension one to get better sound and less stress on the instrument. Ideally, the string slide rule should be used to choose a optimum tension string even for your uku. You may say that's too tedious. I know that's an understandable complaint. But, some instruments change their sound depending on strings used and it's always interesting to know exactly how much tension your instrument is under. I happened to see an old ukulele made in late 1800 in a shop lately. If you have string slide rule, it's possible to think about using gut strings on it. It's a waste of time and money to keep changing string randomly without knowing what you are changing.
Modern Guitar: There is a plenty of strings for modern classical guitars to choose from and they are widely available including those from ProArte and Augustine. Considering scale length, string angle at the bridge, action, and sound to select strings.... well, you may get confused on too many choices. Even some professional guitarists do not know how much tension their instruments are under. It is important how the string feel when they are played, but it's equally important to know the string material and tension while comparing strings. To find strings which are good in sound and playability, and comfortably tensioned for an instrument at the same time seems to be a difficult task, if not impossible. The string tension on the modern guitars sometimes exceeds 8 kg (50 kg in the total tension) and it seems to be increasing in recent years. Even using a "low tension" string set, the total tension exceeds 40 kg. Also, the definition of high and low (sometimes called light) tension varies among string makers. It's quite common to see a difference in tension among "low tension" strings.
19th C.-Guitar: 19th century guitars, which this site is promoting, also require a careful string selection. If modern classical guitar strings are used on these instrument, total tension would be too much in most case. It's better on sound and for the instrument, to look for strings with a proper tension (though, I'm not saying "lower the better"). When a 19th century guitar is purchased, it is often strung with modern guitar strings, regardless of whether it is from a shop or a private owner. These strings may sound powerful, but will cause a permanent damage to the instrument if used continuously. In principle, a 19th century guitar should be able to generate enough volume and projection by gentle touches. For the sake of conserving the instrument alone, using strings for lutes or baroque guitars should be a viable alternative. Make sure to calculate tension for the scale length beforehand. Another alternative would be using low tension (or light tension) version of modern classical guitar strings. If these alternatives are not readily available, try to use regular classical guitar strings by shifting one, namely using the 1st string on 2nd, etc. In this case, fishing line could be used for the 1st string. Nylon string had first been used as guitar strings in 20th century, therefore an explanation on gut strings originally used on these instruments can be found in a separate section. Gut strings can be purchased at the early instrument shops or mail ordered. Or, you can acquire these strings directly from the manufacturers in Germany, Italy, or the US.
By the way, not all the 19th century guitars used lower tension than the modern ones. There remains some that seemed to have used tension comparable to the modern instruments or even higher. Some said that Shelly guitar (see NRI web site) used tension of about 10kg per string. There were some unusual cases, including rare one mentioned above.
The picture shown below is a French 19th century guitar which
suffered cracks on its top, probably due to the use of steel strings
on it. You can see the damage at each side of the top and around the
joint with the finger board, 4 cracks in all. A bridge of this
instrument had been severely damaged, too.
Steel-String Guitar: Selecting strings for steel string or electric guitar is no exception for their own problems. You may think that there is not much a problem on adjustment of the mechanical bridge and locking mechanism, but there is many problems like choking and strings with not enough tension. Some ethnic instruments used steel strings of the same gauge?? Tension of steel strings tend to be higher than nylon and thicker gauge ones of these make me clinch my tooth just to play some codes. Grunt at each code changes... As early as 1903, Gibson adopted steel strings to their arch-top guitar, like L-O model. Thick gauge string seemed to be often used on these earlier steel string guitars and I have seen some period instruments that have a surprisingly thick neck to accommodate extreme tension of these.
Martin also started to make steel string guitars as custom order in early 1900 and made these as regular model in 1922. Steel string guitars (we called them pick guitars in the past and fork guitars from 70's in Japan) gained its popularity in 1920's and 30's.
Brass wire had been available before steel one, but the popularity of metal wire as strings for musical instruments really started with an invention of piano wire at the industrial revolution. While there was not much interest in 19th century guitars in mid 1900, those made by Lacote and Stauffer were often mistaken as a steel string guitar and strung with steel strings. Thereby, the higher tension of steel strings have damaged many of them. Even now, I often see early 19th century Martin guitars strung with high tension steel strings (some steel wound strings exert as much as 15kg per string of tension). For mandolins, Maxima's seems to be popular for classical ones with bowl back. But, you must be careful to use them on Style-A of Martin or Gibson's, because their scale length and bridge structure is different from bowl backed ones. I saw a professional using completely inappropriate strings on a surviving baroque mandolin. Some players, even pro's, do not pay much attention to strings they use.
Higher tension of steel strings demands changes in structure of an instrument, like installing a rod into its neck and adopting an X bracing. As can be seen on D-28, Martin tried different points for this X bracing as time to find the best position. By the way, I tried to play friend's D-28 long time ago and I couldn't deal with its tension. Well, I must have been optimized for nylon or gut strings!? Even before the use of steel strings on guitars became popular, some metal strings had been used for chemballos and some chitarrones. Are metal strings actually used for guitar before 19th century along with gut ones? In the past, there were instruments quite similar to guitar, like Chitarra battente, and it's interesting to know whether metal strings were used one of these or not. I need to investigate further on metal strings.