String Theory

As every musician quickly discovers upon embarking on their respective melodic journey, music is quite a mysterious thing. When waxing lyrical, many commentators have likened music to a form of magic and indeed after exposure to legends such as Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, that analogy appears to ring true. Listening to Voodoo Chile or watching The Song Remains the Same, few would dismiss the notion that the musician is akin to magician. the magic from within the musician out into the wider world and its listening public is a process that is equally mysterious, involving all manner of strange factors. One of the key ingredients to successfully achieving this communication is the enigmatic factor called tone. As Billy Corgan – renowned singer and guitarist with The Smashing Pumpkins – explains, “Your tone has a lot to do with how people react to your playing and to your music as a whole. It is as important as the quality of a singer's voice or the accent with which he or she delivers a particular lyric.”

Finding the right tone is like finding a map or pathway that allows the musician to clearly and eloquently express what is inside to the audience outside. Once this is established, effective expression of feel and groove is made so much more fluid and enjoyable. This mystifying quality we call tone can involve a myriad of factors and combinations thereof. These can include the instrument itself, the materials used in the instrument’s crafting, the choice of pickup (in the case of electric instruments), the preamp and speakers used, the proper equalisation of frequencies and also the effects applied such as reverb and gain.
However one of the most important and indeed inexpensive factors in obtaining the right tone is the choice of strings (obviously this applies only to stringed instruments!). As Corgan explains, “Most people seem to be unaware of how much their strings affect their sound. I find that the guitar sounds much better when it has relatively new strings.”

Strings are indeed one of the most important tonal factors, but also one of the most overlooked. As with most things musical, the importance can best be gauged by experience and experimentation. Play a guitar with cheap strings for a week and then play the same guitar with good quality, carefully chosen strings and judge for yourself the difference in tone, playability and ease of expression. Play a fiddle or cello with cheap strings and then with quality strings and experience the jump in tone.

Choosing the right strings and string gauge for your instrument is crucial to a good tone and thus musical expression. Also important is the lifespan of the string. “Old strings lose all of their clarity and brightness,” warns Billy Corgan “and worse, will not intonate correctly, so your guitar will be out of tune on different parts of the neck. When this occurs, the strings must be changed--don't just wait until they break!”

Thankfully the magicians of the string manufacturing world have developed various methods of extending a string’s tonal life including Elixir’s coated stringsD’Addario’s EXP's and Martin’s SP range. Even more fortunate is the fact that we live in a world where musicians now have ready access to all manner of strings and gauge types and do not even have to leave the comfort of their own home studio to obtain them. Like magic, our new strings can arrive promptly and inexpensively at our doorstep with only a few clicks of a mouse. Thanks to the magicians at, we can all perform our musical magic with perfect tone!

Finn O' Connor is a musician and writer, currently playing with the Ronan Gallagher Band out of Leitrim along with various other projects. His first novel Katabasis is available from Amazon now.

9th Sep 2014 Finn O’ Connor

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